Monday, October 23, 2006

Interfaith Blog Event #2: Ethics, Intrinsic or Relative?

Here is the next installment of the monthly interfaith event! Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective, and Mike from Unknowing Mind, will be writing from a Mahayana Buddhist perspective. Our question this month was presented by Jon of Jesusfollowers Journal. The question is:

Is there anything you consider to be intrinsically right or wrong? What grounds do you have for that conclusion? How does the concept of morality impact your everyday life?

Here are the links to the other perspectives:

[Jon's Essay] [Mike's Essay]
Direct links will be provided when available

This is a difficult question to answer from the Pagan perspective as each person that you talk to will have a different idea on how to present it. As I am always curious about how people use the definitions of words, I will start with just that – definitions:

Intrinsicbelonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing

Rightbeing in accordance with what is just, good, or proper

Wrongsomething immoral or unethical

Morality - conformity to ideals of right human conduct

When I first look at the question, my first impression is that this question is asking whether I believe that the concept of good and evil exists and whether it is a part of our core being. Based on the above definitions, I would have to say no. Yes, there can be things that can be considered “bad” and there are things that can be considered “good,” but not because it is part of our essential nature. Our concept of good and evil comes from our system of culture. What determines what is good or bad is due to the environment that we were raised in and our actions and reactions within it.

When I think about it, this perspective has more to do with my education in psychology rather than my religious outlook. Through behavioristic psychology, we learn that behavior is learned by way of reinforcement and punishment. John Locke’s concept of tabula rasa comes to mind when I write this. If we are ‘blank slates’ at birth, then how can we be intrinsically right or wrong (or good or evil)?

Some people disagree that our minds are blank at birth, with no ‘rules’ of how to interact with the world. My recent class in psycholinguistics has shown me that there are things that we are born with, at least in regards to language. One thing that we recently talked about in my class is that, at birth, babies have the ability to distinguish between all language sounds, not just those of their parent’s language. This ability continues until about 8 months of age. The fact that we are born with certain knowledge, as shown by this example of language, still doesn’t suggest to me that we are born with the intrinsic knowledge of good and evil.

The concept of morality is something that is taught to us (abstractly) from an early age and therefore it does seem like it would be considered an intrinsic part of us, but I don’t believe it is. I still think that has more to do to one’s behavioristic training through out life rather being something that we are born with. And religious training is definitely part of learning about the concept of morality as religions have used the concept to regulate behavior throughout history.

Due to my own ‘training’ from my parents, family, friends, teachers, and various others, I would say that the concept of morality impacts my daily life in the way that I am worried about how my actions will effect the lives of those around me. I am well aware that what I find to be ‘good’ someone else may see as having a negative effect and consider it ‘wrong’ with the reverse being true as well. While there are certain things that many cultures would agree that are wrong, I don’t think that there will ever be a total consensus of what is to be considered right and wrong.


Hrafnkell said...

Thoughtful post, Sojourner. It's one of those questions I've thought about a great deal over the years, both as a Christian and then a Pagan/Heathen, and my interest in it was only heightened while working towards my philosophy degree. I look forward to reading the two essays, but for now, I agree with you that morality is taught us, but I believe that people are intrinsically good, that it is in our physiological makeup to be "social animals". I'll try to read the essays later and will probably post on my blog and point people here to follow the thread.

Mike said...

Hi Sojourner,

I like your approach from a psychological perspective. This is a big reason why I see claims to Absolute Truth -- and therefore claims to Absolute Wrongness for all differing opinions -- to be such an intractable position. My education as an electrical engineer and my training in Aikido are two obvious examples of personal experiences that have thoroughly shaped the way I see the world, physically and spiritually. But very few people will have had my exact same experiences, and hence their lives will evolve much differently, as will their beliefs.

In terms of ethics, it's as you pointed out--we develop our ethical nature through our cultural experiences and the way we are raised. I really see it as quite clear: when one comes upon a situation in which the ethical choice is questionable, one can either resort to a pat answer from a book (choose any book you want - who's to say a religious text is any more qualified to make such distinctions) or word-of-mouth decrees, or one can assess the situation on its merits and make the best decision possible to effect the least harm on those involved. Nice essay!

Pastor Jon said...

Nice to be back in dialogue again. Thanks for such thoughtful responses to my question.

Perhaps "intrinsic" was not quite the word I was searching for. My question is not intended to be "are people naturally good, evil, or neutral" though that would be an intersting topic sometime. Instead, I wonder if there are some things even from your perspectives that are basically wrong (or right) all on their own. I can think of a list of wrongs that I would find to be in that category (see my blog article), though they could be summarized to a couple of basic things that are right (also in my blog article). Are concepts of "justice" or "human rights" merely social constructs, or do they carry (to borrow some terminolgy) self-evident weight of their own?

Mike, you come close to that in your maxim of Buddhist morality... but my question would be for you: are there any objective grounds for your maxim or is it purely experiencial? And if so do you actually mean that it could be "right" for some people not to follow that maxim? Is it truly OK for some people to harm others' experience or expectation of happiness? Anyway, that would make an interesting dialogue to continue. Thanks guys

Bernulf said...

I've had to think about this for a while, and even still I'm not quite sure how best to commit my thoughts and reactions to words.

I agree that we are taught morality and ethics as we grow, and that the expressed structure of morality and ethic is socially-engineered and socially-regulated. However this in itself does not mean or guarantee that wrong and right do not exist on their own, and that our moral and ethical structures aren't reactions to those concepts.

I would posit that any offense against nature is wrong. There are ethical structures in place that might make us feel better about such offenses; but as I suggested, I do not think these structures affect rightness or wrongness, only our perception of them. If we use the first definition of nature offered by Webster's OnLine, then an offense against the inherent character or constitution of something or someone would be to go against the core, against the foundation or essence...this would be the very definition of intrisically wrong.

The devil is in the details, though, because this leaves us to determine what nature actually is and isn't.