Moral duty, discipline, happiness: the Buddhist paradigm shift
Having dinner with friends one evening, someone commented on how well Taiwanese vegan cuisine is able to imitate meat. ‘Kind of defeats the point, doesn’t it?’ someone scoffed. My initial feeling was to agree: it did seem like a cheat, if you’re serious about veganism, to be trying to simulate meat products with vegan ingredients. But as I reflected on the implications of this view, I began to see that they shed light on some fundamental assumptions about morality, duty, and happiness, and the relations between them.
My skeptical friend and I had both assumed that the value of veganism inheres in the self-abnegation it involves. A veganism that doesn’t involve privation can only ‘defeat the point’ if the point itself is privation. Of course, to many vegans, the point is not privation, but care for the planet and for other beings. A change to a vegan diet will usually involve having to give up some things one enjoys, but this is an incidental loss — it’s not the loss itself that is the point. One accepts a degree of privation for the sake of a greater good. To see the privation as the moral component is therefore to confuse the means for the end.
This kind of confusion of ends and means happens quite often in morality, like an ethical version of the finger pointing at the moon. It’s partly a consequence of the structure of moral reasoning. As with the example of veganism discussed above, moral activity involves the adoption of specific, practical actions for the sake of a general, abstract goal. My general goal is to care for the planet; the specific actions I can take to this end are to stop eating meat, use public transport more often, and make other practical changes to my lifestyle. It’s inefficient to refer every single decision about practical courses of action to some abstract agenda. So, on a day-to-day basis, I increasingly associate ‘moral good’ with these practical actions, which come to serve as handy rubrics of ‘the right thing to do’. In the midst of a busy life, it’s easy to forget that these are just the means, and to lapse into the assumption that they themselves constitute the goal.
It’s a short step from here to the confusion previously mentioned, that of seeing the sacrifices entailed by such actions as their moral essence. This step is made via the concept of duty. Any moral scheme will involve something like this. In Aristotle’s view, it’s the firmness of resolve that enables you to do what leads to the greatest good, regardless what temptations might be distracting you in the moment. In Kant’s view, it’s the ability to align your actions with what you know, on the basis of reason, to be the right option. Buddhist schemes emphasize the discipline required to shape one’s mind and emotions in such a way that one begins to desire the good itself. In all such views, duty and discipline are again instrumental, means to an end that is good in itself. But habit and absent-mindedness make it very easy to make the same slippage described above, and come to see the discipline itself as the goal.
This tendency is compounded by the psychology of moral development. In cases where one’s earliest moral instruction came bound up with guilt and conflict, these emotions are likely to persist in one’s moral worldview. If, in being taught about practical morality as a kid, your teachers treated you as if you were inherently immoral and resistant to moral instruction, these beliefs are likely to have shaped your beliefs and perceptions. Even the best-meaning, most mindful parents occasionally say things like, ‘Why are you always so lazy when it comes to your homework?’ or ‘Why are you so unkind to your brother?’ Such influences lead an individual to associated morality with a punitive, disciplinary orientation to the self.
One can discern something like this in the psychology of Christianity, another huge influence on the moral frameworks of many individuals. The Christian doctrine of original sin makes the self an obstacle to be overcome in the pursuit of morality. The self itself is the problem, and the solution is to restrain it in dutiful adherence to moral principles, service to others, and a persistent attempt to overcome some fundamental selfishness. In this view, the association of privation and morality is explicit: the self is the locus of immorality, so the good is by definition that which runs counter to the self’s desires and inclinations. The dictum of St John of the Cross sums this up well: always do the thing you don’t want to do. But such fear and distrust of the self appears in all traditions, cultures and religions, and is no more exclusively a Christian phenomenon than is a harsh superego.
There is a strand of Buddhist moral teaching that appears intended to overturn precisely these tendencies. I have found this expressed most clearly, and elaborated most extensively, in the Theravada tradition, but it is implicit in the basic premises of all Buddhist thought. It is articulated, for example, in the idea that service to others can represent a temptation to diverge from the true path to the highest good. Or the idea that even intentionally moral action is likely to have negative effects, if the agent remains unliberated, and therefore subject to ego-oriented compulsions. Or any other of the myriad precepts in Buddhist thought emphasizing the need to do the deep work on the self before attempting to achieve morally dutiful selflessness. As Richard H. Jones puts it,
The course of action leading to enlightenment is considered supreme and justifiable solely because of this: what is good is what leads to nibbana … and what is bad is what hinders the quest. No other criterion is deemed relevant — there are no crimes against humanity nor sins against God, but only errors that are unproductive or harmful for oneself.
Underpinning all such views is the insight that, ultimately, our duty and our happiness coincide: our highest duty is to achieve our highest happiness, and our highest happiness is directly continuous with the happiness and wellbeing of all other beings. The dialectic of duty and happiness, discipline and desire, collapses into a single, undifferentiated goal. The only way we can achieve our highest moral good is by achieving the state that represents our greatest possible happiness.
Such a view overturns not only the prioritization of means at the cost of ends that I discussed at the beginning of this article, but also the more fundamental confusion of morality as consisting in duty and discipline. Rather than the temptation to simplify abstract, transcendental ideals into rote rules, and to reduce morality to the ability to withstand the privations required to adhere to them, we are exhorted to think first and foremost of our own joy and liberation, and to see how our duties to others are not in fact duties at all, but the simple recognition of our deep, inescapable investment in their happiness. One opens oneself to greater and greater joy, and in doing so comes to see that happiness and duty are one and the same thing, and that the true self is continuous with all that is good. This represents a genuine revolution in moral reasoning, and the psychology underpinning it, on the part of Buddhist thought.