We all implicitly accept some idea of right & wrong. Siddattha Gotama’s teachings harmonize with emerging understandings of evolution that explain why we feel these ideas are correct in ways that are hard to articulate.
Here is a transcendent irony: Morality seems to have arisen from the most basic kind of “self-ish-ness.” (Talking about Gotama’s teaching involves subtle uses of the loaded English word “self,” so I have broken it down here in an attempt to unload it.) As Robert Wright and others have written about the evolutionary origins of morality note, our sense of how to treat other humans comes from the development of unconscious patterns of feeling and thinking about our relatives, those who carry our DNA. We don’t decide to favor our relatives; we have been conditioned to favor them by evolution, as certain ways of thinking & feeling toward relatives caused our DNA to be passed along. As we grew from family groups to tribes to cities to nation states, our moral programming (conditioning, if you prefer) evolved as well. So have the cultural expressions—moral codes, ethnic truths, dietary laws, irrational beliefs—that have arisen on top of it. While this matrix of ideas may be hard to swallow without knowing more, the arguments are very persuasive. (Read Wright’s The Moral Animal; it is a mind-expanding book.)
The ironies here are many-faceted. From the individual and immediate family, unconscious (in the sense of not knowing their true origins) moral feelings spread to the tribal group, since those who fit smoothly into such group life were more likely to survive in a hostile primitive landscape. From there they expanded through cultural habits to include larger collections of people, outside the family group, such as city-sized cultural groups, nation states, & so on. With each expansion, there is some lessening of the strength of feelings, & other changes perhaps; we still feel differently about our family than those who aren’t family. But to some extent, this matrix of feeling-thought extends to include all human beings, although the hierarchy that starts with family still remains. Imagine you stumble into a situation where you and a fellow human—a stranger—are both threatened by a threatening wild animal. Unless you know the other person to be a dire enemy, you probably have some instinctual feeling to work together so that you both survive—as opposed to siding with the animal.
Many people assume—because our cultures encourage us to assume—that morality comes from religion, or has been given to us by some deity, or is simply “the way we do it” in our culture. It comes to be seen as something that exists as an ideal floating in space, a unquestionable given. But it seems certain that this is simply the way cultures create a language game that explains the feelings and thoughts we already have. Cultures compete to survive by strenghtening these mental habits, & the cycle of survival goes on.
How ironic! Our tenderest feelings—even our occasional feelings of compassion & mercy for people we may find detestable in many ways—have their origins in a kind of self-preservation, from our genes’ point of view.
As the philosopher David Hume understood, that morality first involves feelings—“passions,” to use his word—not thoughts, per se. Making rules & systems out of our moral feelings is a rational habit that comes after the origins of morality. So the common understanding that some god creates rules, which inspire humans to act in certain ways, with the promise of eternal reward, is simply a language game that seeks to explain why we feel & act the way we do.
But the evolutionary origin also explains why we don’t always act according to moral rules. Morality is a deep, mostly unconscious set of motivations, & our emotions, & the more basic habits of mind beneath them—greed, hatred, not understanding what we really are—can overwhelm our moral sentiments in the moment. Then, as the unconscious moral inclinations flood back into consciousness, we feel guilty. In the evolutionary sense, we feel as if we have harmed a family member, even if we have harmed someone we don’t know, even an enemy. These feelings are so strong that when cultures want people to fight in armies, they must systematically overcome the natural feelings through brute psychological training &/or propaganda that dehumanizes the enemy.
I note all of this as a way of clearing the table, if you will, of all the usual thought patterns about why we might want to “do the right thing.” It is one more irony that even understanding all of what I have presented here, we might want to act in certain ways that seem purely for the benefit of others, when what we actually seek is benefit for ourselves (our DNA). This, too, is encoded in many cultures & wisdom traditions—“Do unto others…”. But I believe Gotama’s understanding, his language game, if you will, captures it in a way that harmonizes most closely with the evolutionary origins & subconscious realities of how morality affects our experience in the moment, & our capacity for true happiness.
In a final irony, Gotama’s way of understanding benefits everyone in the larger social matrix as well, in ways that are uniquely fitted to our new, unavoidably global, cultural matrix. To avoid destroying ourselves, we need to find ways to strengthen that global matrix, rather than retreating to older, smaller cultural groups & their inflexible moral codes. To conquer the terror of our death-fears, whose unconscious energy tightens those old codes until they are dangerously rigid, we need a new language game that can embrace the entire history of human morality, from its evolutionary origins to its current cultural forms. Gotama provides us with the tools we need to do this.
Most hopefully, he does this by helping us to see for ourselves that behaving unselfishly is the best way to create true happiness for our-selves. He uses the energy of our unconscious moral passions to help us break out of the hedonic cycle & move toward deeper happiness.
How does it work?
The key to doing this involves approaching the issue from the right point of view, which means the right scale of experience. This allows us to see directly in our experience how moral feelings arise. We can directly experience precisely how our moral passions are feelings, & not the conscious acting through of the moral code of a particular culture. Such externally given moral codes would be one aspect of what Gotama would call “views,” diṭṭhi: discursive thoughts that say “this is true; everything else is false.” These views are problematic even if they were created with the best of intentions. Cultures change. The specific context of a situation will have factors that could not be anticipated. Languages have limits & require reinterpretation in new circumstances. Untamed, our moral passions can be like a live grenade.
But above all, doing all the ratiocination of moral codes & cultural habits means that we have pulled the mind away from the details of immediate experience into the airy realm of discursive thought, removed from the direct experience of our moral instincts. We are now operating at the relatively massive scale of complex ideas, with layers of abstraction between the mind & present-moment awareness. At this remove, for example, we cannot clearly see how a matrix of bodily sensations, reactions to random pleasant or unpleasant thoughts, or fixed perceptions of people or past events, has captured the mind & already pushed it toward anger, revenge, & so on. Our equilibrium quickly loses out as soon as the scale of our experience moves from the exact semi-conscious conditioning that is actually arising now, into dramas half-remembered from the past or imagined for the future.
This is not a recommendation to ignore obvious needs for protecting one’s physical well-being from threats or otherwise ignoring common sense. It is recognizing that we are best equipped to do this if we remain grounded & balanced so that we can take action that will be compassionate toward the current & future happiness of everyone involved, including us. While that sounds complex, it is actually achievable through sharp focus on the precise scale of moment-to-moment awareness. This is equivalent to the flow achieved by athletes & musicians in performance, for example. The key is not to become distracted by mental activity & anything in the environment that is not critical to correct action. As martial artist Bruce Lee would say, “be like water.” It does not mean to be without passion; it means not to be robotically, unconsciously controlled by it.
The fact that even in Gotama’s teaching we find higher-level descriptions of moral guidelines (“undertake the training not to harm living beings”) should be understood from a different perspective. This is training: to be able to instinctively act correctly in the moment, you must move your body & mind in imitation of ideal behaviour, so that you begin to know what it feels like in the body & mind. (As Mr. Miyagi would say, “Wax on, wax off.”) This preliminary training allows you, along with training the attention, to correctly understand (sampajaññā, “clearly seeing”) experience in the moment. By gaining the ability to react precisely to rapid mental activity, we can operate at the time-scale of real experience in everyday life. To “do the right thing,” we must be able to act at the speed of mental experience it the instant moral feeling emerges from the evolutionary subconscious. There is no time for discursive thought; the second baseman does not have time to think about the ground ball coming at him at 100 miles per hour; the guitar player must move the fingers of both her hands with exquisite precision over the run of sixteenth notes; if she were to stop to think, all would be lost. How can they do this? Practice.
Some might worry that this leads to “mere” moral relativism. But this misses the point. The results in terms of behaviour don’t look obviously different from moral codes in other wisdom traditions. The training precepts recommended by Gotama could be summarized as “dont’ kill, don’t steal, don’t rape, don’t lie, don’t get drunk because you’ll probably do something you’ll regret.” The difference is how this works in the larger context of the teachings. Without understanding the true nature of what we are, for example, we are liable to get stuck in mental calculations, ethical arithmetic, & so on. We will remain trapped in Wittgenstein’s “fly bottle” of philosophical abstraction. We will also lose touch with the moral feelings in the moment which wordlessly inform us of what tends toward our true happiness in the future, “for a long time to come,” as Gotama puts it. This is the viseral truth beneath the often cynically dismissed admonition, “do the right thing.” It is simple to describe, if hard to do: But hard in the same way any as any human skill: watching the second-baseman’s seemingly effortless skill at snaring the ground ball, or the breathless admiration we feel when hearing the magical sounds as the musician’s fingers blur across the fretboard. Both seem nearly impossible to the untrained; the actions seem transcendent. But it is just the logical result of practice.
These ways of skillfully reacting to our experience of the world in the moment have many rewards. There is less psychological suffering here & now. There is more flexibility in resolving social issues, both in small groups & in larger political contexts. Ethical conduct becomes, ironically, rewarding to us as individuals for its own sake, as well as benefitting others, rather than feeling like the lead weight of “should” that we carry in hope of some divine future reward. Rigid cultural habits & unreliable mythologies are seen as artifacts from history.
Gotama is the “unexcelled trainer of those fit to be trained.” If you want to develop the skill of deep happiness, if you want to play the music of freedom from stress & suffering, he has the method. Is it easy? No. But why would you expect something this valuable would be easy? You want to escape from the terror of death. You want to live each moment fully, to leave regret behind, to find true peace. If someone told you that was easy, why would you believe them? But difficult & impossible are not the same thing, either. There are rewards all along the way. The key to getting past the imposing size of the problem is once again scale, because there is nothing in Gotama’s teaching that we do not do in this very moment. It is always just this unfolding, here & now. Wherever we are, the next step is always right in front of us.