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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Ethics - subjective or objective?

Ethics as is practiced today is based on objective principles. Ethical principles must be verifiable or measurable. Ethics is based on values. Values can be experienced and described.  I agree that, if we base our decisions on everyone’s inner “values”, there will be chaos since each one has a different view of life. Everything becomes relative and acceptable. However, we know that some values are universal by their consistency over the centuries and by their presence as the core values of all cultures and religious traditions.

As pointed out by Tilak in his book on Gita Rahasya, for the past two centuries, ethical decisions have been defined by:         1. the effects on observable external things and events. This includes respect for autonomy, beneficence (bring about good), non-beneficence (do no harm) and justice.

                                                2. knowing the reasons behind the decisions.

The second has two components according to the Indian concepts. What is the practical reason? Even more important, what is the pure reason? Is the pure reason noble? If it is, you cannot judge the action alone as good or bad. It is difficult to know what the pure motivation of anyone is. That is why modern ethics places more emphasis on the visible effects, rather than on invisible motives.  It does try, though. That is why the law tries to establish the motive behind criminal offenses. We also know that the offender can hide behind “insanity” or some such defense.

This emphasis on pure reason is the focus of the entire Bhagavat Gita. Lord Krishna says that if your motives are noble and within the province of your duty and you perform your action without attachment to the results, you are forgiven even if it is a cruel act, such as going to war.

Take this one step farther. Both the practical reason and pure reason must be based on the foundations of humanity and collective consciousness of humanity. You can call it a Divine Principle, if you want. This is Dharma of the Vedas. This is based on the premise that the “force” that activated all animate and inanimate, moving and non-moving things is present in all of them. It connects the individual with the collective and the universal. That is why the basic common teachings of all religious traditions consist of non-killing, truthfulness, love for all life-forms, compassion, and non-stealing.

Modern ethics puts emphasis on the primacy of the individual and on objectivity. Autonomy (? Self-interest) and maximum good for the maximum numbers are the guideposts. These are reactions to the past excesses over centuries of rulers and religious fanatics who punished innocent “common” people without any proof of wrong-doing (except questioning authority), purely on personal whims and fancy.

The Vedic system puts emphasis on the equability of Reason based on the following facts: 1. The Spirit (Atman) in you is the same as the Spirit in the others. Treat others as you would like to be treated. 2. Disinterested performance of one’s duty based on one’s position in the family and the society without discrimination and without expecting favors is of importance, because it is pure reason. 3. Ethical principles cannot be rigid. They have to be contextual. 4. Realities of worldly affairs tell us that certain conflicts cannot be reconciled, as pointed out at several episodes in the Maha Bharata and more recently by Joseph Campbell in his book on Oriental Mythology (page 123-124, Penguin 1976). For example, justice and mercy; destiny and free-will; harm and no-harm; truth and lie. That is why exceptions to rules are part of the mythological stories of India. 5. By nature, self-interest is often the motive behind individual actions. But we have to make sure it does not harm others. Universal welfare should be the primary focus of ethical principles.

Epics from India often end discussions on ethical judgments by saying: “just watch the conduct of a few noble souls who act for the welfare of all people and lives, without expecting any rewards, with a pure mind and sacrifice their lives”. That is the basis of Dharma.

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