Buddhadhamma and Ethics

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Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby clw_uk » Wed Sep 04, 2013 9:41 pm

Leading on from the "mercy killing and Kamma" thread

We would all probably benefit from a thread discussing ethical imperatives and whether or not they need to be housed in metaphysics (rebirth, in this case, though a similar Xian example would be the claim that being ethical requires God). The Great Ethical Substrate Thread?



I would like to lead on from this and pose a question. Does Buddhadhamma teach ultimate moral imperatives "All killing is unwholesome" or relative moral imperatives "Killing is sometimes wholesome"


That's is to say is an action wholesome or unwholesome kamma depending on the intention and circumstance?

What does the Buddhas ethics base itself upon, Metaphysical, Situational, Deontological?
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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby Arali » Wed Sep 04, 2013 10:31 pm

I'll be brave and go first then... :soap:

From my understanding, all killing is unwholesome. There will always be negative kamma from killing.

If this is so, it then follows the question: Is all killing equally unwholesome, is the resultant kamma the same for all acts of killing?

To that, I'd say no, that is where intention and circumstance comes into play. The extent of the kammic effects dependent on intention.

As for the basis for Buddhist ethics, I always found them to be practical; based on cause and effect.

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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby Jason » Thu Sep 05, 2013 2:59 am

clw_uk wrote:Leading on from the "mercy killing and Kamma" thread

We would all probably benefit from a thread discussing ethical imperatives and whether or not they need to be housed in metaphysics (rebirth, in this case, though a similar Xian example would be the claim that being ethical requires God). The Great Ethical Substrate Thread?



I would like to lead on from this and pose a question. Does Buddhadhamma teach ultimate moral imperatives "All killing is unwholesome" or relative moral imperatives "Killing is sometimes wholesome"


That's is to say is an action wholesome or unwholesome kamma depending on the intention and circumstance?

What does the Buddhas ethics base itself upon, Metaphysical, Situational, Deontological?


Well, the commentarial tradition of Theravada posits that the intention to kill itself is inherently unskillful as it's always rooted in an unskillful state of mind such as ill-will or delusion, and ultimately leads to unpleasant results in the form of mental suffering (e.g., as a result of remorse, legal punishment, a bad destination after death for those who believe in such things, etc.). The Abhidhammattha-Sangaha, for example, states that:

    According to Abhidhamma killing is invariably done with ill-will or aversion. Prompted by whatever motive, one, as a rule, kills with a thought of ill-will. Where there is ill-will (patigha) there is displeasure (domanassa). Where there is displeasure there is ill-will in a subtle or gross way.

I don't necessarily agree with this point of view, however, and accept that, in certain situations, it's possible that a person can kill, steal, lie, etc. out of compassion or other skillful (read 'morally blameless) mental states (e.g., helping a sick and dying loved one who wants to end their life, stealing food to help feed a starving child, lying to protect someone from harm, etc.). Whether or not someone agrees with those specific actions, I think they can be motivated by things like compassion, etc. That doesn't mean it's morally right (or even wrong for that matter) in any objective sense, but then, I'm not much of a moral absolutist. What I do think, however, is that the intentions behind our actions can influence how we experience the results of those actions.

Pragmatically speaking, actions are deemed 'unskillful' if they lead to to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both. Actions that don't lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both are deemed 'skillful' (MN 61). Therefore, the distinction between skillful and unskillful actions is based upon how their results are experienced—not only by ourselves, but by others as well. This emphasis on the consequential aspect of actions is similar to Jeremy Bentham's teleological utilitarianism, with John Stuart Mill's idea of higher and lower happiness being similar to the Buddha's distinction between long-term and short-term welfare and happiness.

Psychologically speaking, however, the quality of the intentions behind the actions is what ultimately determines whether they're unskillful or skillful. This aspect is closer to Kant's deontological categorical imperative when combined with the Buddhist principle of ahimsa or harmlessness. Intentional actions rooted in greed, hatred or delusion are said to produce painful mental feelings "like those of the beings in hell," while intentional actions rooted in non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion are said to produce the opposite ("like those of the Beautiful Black Devas"). Then there are acts rooted in both that bring mixed results "like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms" (AN 4.235).

So from the Buddhist point of view, it's not simply the utility of an action that must be taken into consideration, but the motives behind the action as well. Hence I believe that even though sometimes what we think are skillful intentions when breaking the precepts are really selfish and/or unskillful ones, that's not always the case, which I suppose means I agree more with the Mahayanin stance on this issue (e.g., see the Upayakausalya Sutra) than that of the Theravadin Adhidhamma.

And just for reference, here's an interesting talk dealing with the biological basis for morality: 'Morality: From the Heavens or From Nature?' I agree Dr. Thomas that morality is natural in the sense that it comes from the "evolved architecture" of our minds, which is why I believe that, psychologically speaking, the quality of the intentions behind our actions can determine how the results, whether positive or negative, are experienced.
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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby Kim OHara » Thu Sep 05, 2013 4:17 am

Jason wrote:And just for reference, here's an interesting talk dealing with the biological basis for morality: 'Morality: From the Heavens or From Nature?' I agree Dr. Thomas that morality is natural in the sense that it comes from the "evolved architecture" of our minds, which is why I believe that, psychologically speaking, the quality of the intentions behind our actions can determine how the results, whether positive or negative, are experienced.

That connects somewhat with http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=18492 on the biological basis of altruism.

:reading:
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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby daverupa » Thu Sep 05, 2013 11:26 am

Jason wrote:Well, the commentarial tradition of Theravada posits that the intention to kill itself is inherently unskillful as it's always rooted in an unskillful state of mind...

I don't necessarily agree with this point of view, however, and accept that, in certain situations, it's possible that a person can kill, steal, lie, etc. out of compassion or other skillful (read 'morally blameless) mental states (e.g., helping a sick and dying loved one who wants to end their life, stealing food to help feed a starving child, lying to protect someone from harm, etc.).


A comprehensive post.

I also disagree with the commentaries on this; however, I see the case of an ethical breach with a wholesome motive as simply mixed kamma. The precise workings out would be vexing, though the general statement would hold. In this, one can take comfort in the simile of the lump of salt (100 (9) A Lump of Salt).

Many years ago I was quite taken by a comment in some Mahayana literature that the only precept the Buddha never broke, in all the Jatakas, was that against lying. Perhaps this is the only preceptual breach that is exclusively unwholesome? After all, the combination "untrue + useful" is never even entertained in the Nikayas.

(Which, by the way, goes against a Mahayana example of lying to a child in a burning house about there being candy outside - that was the gist of the example, at any rate.)

But I am struck by this passage as well:

Bhikkhus, that one can engage in sensual pleasures without sensual desires, without perceptions of sensual desire, without thoughts of sensual desire—that is impossible.


This seems to be quite categorical, suggesting that some things are at best mixed kamma, if not strictly unwholesome. (What would be strictly wholesome?)

Are there any nuances here which can be brought to light?
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby santa100 » Thu Sep 05, 2013 3:50 pm

daverupa wrote:Many years ago I was quite taken by a comment in some Mahayana literature that the only precept the Buddha never broke, in all the Jatakas, was that against lying. Perhaps this is the only preceptual breach that is exclusively unwholesome? After all, the combination "untrue + useful" is never even entertained in the Nikayas.

(Which, by the way, goes against a Mahayana example of lying to a child in a burning house about there being candy outside - that was the gist of the example, at any rate.)


To be fair to Mahayana, the Lotus Sutra's "children in the burning house" simile didn't encourage lying as an expedient device at all. Notice that the elder mentioned in Chapter 3 was described as of "limitless wealth" and so he could provide not only the sheep carts, deer carts, and ox carts, but many many more cool toys for his children as they wish. So, it can't be lying.. Anyway this starts to divert toward Mahayana realm so I'll stop here. More info. on the simile could be found here for those interested: http://cttbusa.org/lotus/lotus3.asp

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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby Jason » Thu Sep 05, 2013 3:53 pm

daverupa wrote:
Jason wrote:Well, the commentarial tradition of Theravada posits that the intention to kill itself is inherently unskillful as it's always rooted in an unskillful state of mind...

I don't necessarily agree with this point of view, however, and accept that, in certain situations, it's possible that a person can kill, steal, lie, etc. out of compassion or other skillful (read 'morally blameless) mental states (e.g., helping a sick and dying loved one who wants to end their life, stealing food to help feed a starving child, lying to protect someone from harm, etc.).


A comprehensive post.

I also disagree with the commentaries on this; however, I see the case of an ethical breach with a wholesome motive as simply mixed kamma. The precise workings out would be vexing, though the general statement would hold. In this, one can take comfort in the simile of the lump of salt (100 (9) A Lump of Salt).

Many years ago I was quite taken by a comment in some Mahayana literature that the only precept the Buddha never broke, in all the Jatakas, was that against lying. Perhaps this is the only preceptual breach that is exclusively unwholesome? After all, the combination "untrue + useful" is never even entertained in the Nikayas.

(Which, by the way, goes against a Mahayana example of lying to a child in a burning house about there being candy outside - that was the gist of the example, at any rate.)

But I am struck by this passage as well:

Bhikkhus, that one can engage in sensual pleasures without sensual desires, without perceptions of sensual desire, without thoughts of sensual desire—that is impossible.


This seems to be quite categorical, suggesting that some things are at best mixed kamma, if not strictly unwholesome. (What would be strictly wholesome?)


You may be right. I think you make a good case, at any rate. I think it's practically impossible to make a case from the Pali Canon alone that one can kill out of compassion or other skillful states of mind, which is why I said I suppose I agree more with the Mahayanin stance.

I came to this realization after a number of discussions about moral dilemmas and hearing that even if you lied in order to save the lives of Jews hiding from Nazi soldiers going door to door it was unskillful, which I had difficulty fathoming. And when it comes specifically to killing, I began to question the impossibility after having a discussion with my mom about euthanasia, and I could see how someone could potentially do something like that out of compassion and not just anger or or delusion or selfishness.

Perhaps that just means I'm deluded, about myself as well as the workings of kamma, but it's not due to a lack of trying to comprehend the issue at least.
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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby ancientbuddhism » Thu Sep 05, 2013 7:43 pm

Jason wrote:And when it comes specifically to killing, I began to question the impossibility after having a discussion with my mom about euthanasia, and I could see how someone could potentially do something like that out of compassion and not just anger or or delusion or selfishness.


Euthanasia is a more nuanced issue than ‘Kevorkian’ assisted suicide. With reference to intention, there is also the intention to do nothing, which is what many LTF health-care nurses will do when there is a patient that is full-code and they are circumspect enough to consider the needless added trauma of life support or rib-breaking CPR intervention for the actively dying. I think the polite euphemism is ‘to walk slower’ when the code is called. I'm doubtful that this is within the reach Vinaya jurisprudence.
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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby clw_uk » Thu Sep 05, 2013 7:53 pm

This thread has made me think about ethics more deeply.


The Buddha aimed at letting go, hence why some things are skilful in letting go (not stealing) because they reduce the ego, while others (killing out of anger) are unskilful because they increase ego.


That's seems to be the core message. Yet some actions, such as killing Hitler, can be motivated by compassion... Yet increase the ego.


Would you say this is a fair assessment?


Leading on, how should someone, with nibanna as their aim, react to euthanasia or the killing of a hitler?
“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised." Verses on the Faith Mind, Sengcan

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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby Jason » Thu Sep 05, 2013 9:09 pm

ancientbuddhism wrote:
Jason wrote:And when it comes specifically to killing, I began to question the impossibility after having a discussion with my mom about euthanasia, and I could see how someone could potentially do something like that out of compassion and not just anger or or delusion or selfishness.


Euthanasia is a more nuanced issue than ‘Kevorkian’ assisted suicide. With reference to intention, there is also the intention to do nothing, which is what many LTF health-care nurses will do when there is a patient that is full-code and they are circumspect enough to consider the needless added trauma of life support or rib-breaking CPR intervention for the actively dying. I think the polite euphemism is ‘to walk slower’ when the code is called. I'm doubtful that this is within the reach Vinaya jurisprudence.


Well, technically speaking, euthanasia is a fairly broad term that includes both assisted suicide (i.e., helping a fatally ill person end their own life) and pro-actively ending the life of another (e.g., taking someone off of life support). But I think you bring up a good point about non-intervention, which is another alternative to euthanasia and trying to actively extend the life of a sick and already dying person.

In terms of Vinaya jurisprudence (which technically only applies to monastics and not lay-followers, although I understand many lay-followers find it beneficial to apply such guidelines to their own lives), actively helping someone to die seems to be expressly forbidden (e.g., see BMC 1.4). Non-intervention, however, doesn't seem to fall under this and is very well likely not considered an offense (perhaps Ven. Dhammanando or Bhikkhu Pesala can correct me if I'm wrong about that).

Interestingly enough, though, there does seem to be leeway for those in the Sangha who end their own lives for certain reasons, which points back to the importance of intention. According to Ajahn Brahmavamso, the Samantapasadika, Buddhaghosa's commentary on the Vinaya, states that there's no offense for a bhikkhu who commits suicide themselves when done for the 'appropriate reasons,' of which two are given:

    A bhikkhu is chronically sick with little sign of recovery and he wishes to end his own life so that he will no longer be a burden on the bhikkhus who are nursing him – in this case suicide is appropriate.

    A bhikkhu who is enlightened already becomes gravely ill with a painful disease from which he suspects he will not recover. As the disease is burdensome to him and he has nothing further to do, he thinks to end his life – in this case also suicide is appropriate.

Personally, I think it's reasonable to assume that all Buddhists should refrain from such actions like killing or assisting another to die as much as possible, especially since the weight of such kamma is so heavy. That said, I'm not entirely convinced that every breach of the first precept (or any of the five for that matter) is unethical in the sense that I think skillful mental states like compassion can be a motivating factor, and not just unskillful ones like anger or delusion.
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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby ancientbuddhism » Fri Sep 06, 2013 12:26 am

Jason wrote:Well, technically speaking, euthanasia is a fairly broad term that includes both assisted suicide (i.e., helping a fatally ill person end their own life) and pro-actively ending the life of another (e.g., taking someone off of life support). But I think you bring up a good point about non-intervention, which is another alternative to euthanasia and trying to actively extend the life of a sick and already dying person.

In terms of Vinaya jurisprudence (which technically only applies to monastics and not lay-followers, although I understand many lay-followers find it beneficial to apply such guidelines to their own lives), actively helping someone to die seems to be expressly forbidden (e.g., see BMC 1.4). Non-intervention, however, doesn't seem to fall under this and is very well likely not considered an offense (perhaps Ven. Dhammanando or Bhikkhu Pesala can correct me if I'm wrong about that).

Interestingly enough, though, there does seem to be leeway for those in the Sangha who end their own lives for certain reasons, which points back to the importance of intention. According to Ajahn Brahmavamso, the Samantapasadika, Buddhaghosa's commentary on the Vinaya, states that there's no offense for a bhikkhu who commits suicide themselves when done for the 'appropriate reasons,' of which two are given:

    A bhikkhu is chronically sick with little sign of recovery and he wishes to end his own life so that he will no longer be a burden on the bhikkhus who are nursing him – in this case suicide is appropriate.

    A bhikkhu who is enlightened already becomes gravely ill with a painful disease from which he suspects he will not recover. As the disease is burdensome to him and he has nothing further to do, he thinks to end his life – in this case also suicide is appropriate.

Personally, I think it's reasonable to assume that all Buddhists should refrain from such actions like killing or assisting another to die as much as possible, especially since the weight of such kamma is so heavy. That said, I'm not entirely convinced that every breach of the first precept (or any of the five for that matter) is unethical in the sense that I think skillful mental states like compassion can be a motivating factor, and not just unskillful ones like anger or delusion.


Generally ‘non intervention’ is part of what defines palliative-care, where the patient has agreed to a DNR and is simply made comfortable, including with pain management, during the dying process. What can become a Buddhist (and secular for that matter) ethical issue with this discussion is the use of pain management to ‘ease the dying processes’. I think this is what retro was alluding to in this post with reference to administering “oops... too much morphine”.

What makes a discussion of ethics about this troublesome is that the use of pain management to ease dying does require an intention to the distinct possibility that a quicker death may result from the dose. So we have intention + action = the possibility that that action = death. I say ‘the possibility’ because there is some post hoc doubt here as to what really caused death. In any case, there is still strong 1st precept doubt here as well.

And then consider the scenario where food and water is denied to hasten the dying process (this used to be done but is unethical for the most part now). Here there is intention + inaction = the distinct possibility that a quicker death will result. There is little 1st precept doubt here, but the same result based, in part, on intention?
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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby Spiny Norman » Fri Sep 06, 2013 10:39 am

clw_uk wrote:I would like to lead on from this and pose a question. Does Buddhadhamma teach ultimate moral imperatives "All killing is unwholesome" or relative moral imperatives "Killing is sometimes wholesome"


For me it raises a question: does Right Intention guarantee Right Action?
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Re: Buddhadhamma and Ethics

Postby dagon » Fri Sep 06, 2013 12:23 pm

Palliative care often extends the life of a person simply because they have quality of life/relief from symptoms that they may not have had in aggressive treatments of their medical condition. Some people maybe surprised just how many people have a final cause of death that can be directly attribute to treatments they have received for their disease rather than their disease. The complication is that many would have not lasted that long without the treatment that caused their death.

Do not underestimate the involvement of the person in the timing of their death. I have seen so many times where a person has hung on until a family member or other special person has seen them. Equally i have seen many times where they wait until they have the peace to go quietly. When you know some one very well you can sense things that medical tests can not - i usually can predict death well before the doctors are willing to do so.

As for withholding of food it is normally a decision made jointly by families and the patients doctors. the two situations that i aware of that happening is where the person is at a very high risk of aspirating or where the person is in the process of a multi-system failure. My experience is that the decision to stop eating or drinking is usually that of the person. A friend who i looked after at work for 3 years was told that there was only a few weeks of life left - it would have been physically and emotionally uncomfortable for them and would have caused the love ones to suffer. That person decided not to eat know that the diabetes would trigger a hypo and end life in a few hours.

I spend considerable amounts of my time "encouraging" people to eat and drink - stopping just short of force feeding them. I can think of one occasion where the family overrode all advice and feed the person - the cause of death was aspiration from the food that entered their lungs. Some times it is just better to let go of loved ones.

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