MWP 1.3.i: The Middle Way as Moral Good

Full text level

Now we come to the crucial point of the ethical aspects of Middle Way Philosophy, which is a point that I can only put bluntly, even if it requires you to cast aside everything you thought you knew about ethics: the Middle Way is good. The flip side of this, however foolish it may sound at first, is also metaphysics is evil.

To put this in more precise philosophical language: The Middle Way provides the best available account of objective moral good, so that all objective moral good can be understood in terms of the Middle Way, and progress in the Middle Way can be understood as objective moral good. Similarly, Metaphysics provides the best available account of evil, so that objective evil can be understood in terms of metaphysics and metaphysics in terms of objective evil.

Interpreting these claims, it is important to remember that the point at which the Middle Way and metaphysics operate is judgement, and that ‘objective’ in Middle Way Philosophy does not mean ‘absolutely objective’ but ‘incrementally objective’. The objective goodness of the Middle Way, then, means that people make judgements that are good to the extent that they practise the Middle Way so as to make maximally adequate judgements in their context, given their starting conditions. The objective evil of metaphysics means that people make evil judgements where those judgements are derived from metaphysical assumptions, and thus do not address conditions in their context but rather impose dogmatic assumptions on it. It is thus not people, or events, or even beliefs, which are capable of being incrementally good or evil, but criteria of judgement.

As noted above in 3.g, such criteria do not consist purely in philosophical beliefs, but also in the psychological states that lead one to apply them in a given set of circumstances. One can focus on beliefs as being good or evil only when psychological conditions lead to them being applied as criteria in practice. Then the metaphysical nature of a belief provides a fixed point of evil influence in what is otherwise a fluid process of motives adapting themselves to conditions, even though the dogmatism of the psychological state in which the metaphysics is applied is incremental and thus the negative impact of the metaphysics mitigated by the need to respond to conditions that we constantly experience. Similarly, the Middle Way as a principle provides a good counterpoint to the fixed influence of metaphysical belief, even though the extent to which that counterpoint prevents metaphysical belief through provisionality in practice is variable because it also depends on the psychological states in which we address conditions.

By way of analogy to help to clarify this model, let’s imagine a film projector that is projecting a film onto a screen, though not a screen in a purpose-built, darkened cinema but an unsatisfactory ordinary room with no blackout and sunlight streaming through the window, making the film hard to see. The film also consists of a series of code words that can be put together to create a key idea. However, the people in the room only have half their minds on the film, and one of the people in the room is urging them not to pay any attention to the film and talking to them of important practical matters. Only some of the viewers understand the code in the film, and for them it is not the only influence, for they have also been half-listening to the person talking. Others don’t understand it because of the light conditions, and others don’t even look at it because they are too intent on listening to the practical person. Later some of those who understood it follow the instructions of the evil code, but not completely or whole-heartedly. Others have only vaguely heard of the code and just try to react positively to the circumstances, though the code still exerts an influence to some extent.

This analogy, like any other, will have limitations, but it is intended to dramatise the way that evil is found in metaphysics even though its application is complex. The code here represents evil and the practical talker represents the Middle Way. Unlike in classic religious accounts of the struggle of good and evil, what is going on here is not a straight contest between two codes or two talkers, but rather a contest between two influences, one of which is rigidly defined even though its application is far from definite, and the other of which is primarily practical whilst rejecting the rigid definition. Our perceptions, understanding, attention, other psychological states and social relationships all complicate the ways in which these two influences are actually applied. However, we would not be justified, just because of this complexity, in rejecting the idea of evil altogether.

Once we accept a concept of evil, a concept of good follows (not the other way round) from any decisive rejection of such evil. Evil must be defined first because evil is rigid and self-defining, whereas good can be rigid only in decisively rejecting the rigidity of evil so as to avoid its influence, and its positive activity is much less definable because it consists in a pragmatic response to conditions.

Having clarified this theory of good and evil, then, why should anyone accept it?  As usual, the justification interconnects with almost everything else in this book. However, I will list some major reasons below. More details will be found in section 7, where the whole basis of Middle Way ethics is explained in more depth.

1. The metaphysical model has failed us, because it has only left us with a choice between dogmatically asserted moral absolutism or equally dogmatic relativism. Neither of these provides us with any justification for ethics, meaning that we are unable to provide convincing rational justifications for asserting a moral position beyond convention or individual choice. We need an alternative model.

2. The failure to provide convincing rational justification for metaphysical ethics means that the left hemisphere is not on board when it needs to be, and even if we have moral intuitions in the right hemisphere, they are ineffective in persuading the power-centre in the left to change its approach.

3. The metaphysical model of moral justification has thus failed us in practical terms, because it has not succeeded very well in getting people to do good rather than evil. If we start to see good as consisting in addressing as many conditions as possible, we at least stand the maximum possible chance of making good happen. A moral vision that neglects some key conditions (those of motivation) as a basic part of its operation was never going to be very successful.

4. We already implicitly practice the Middle Way as a practical basis of good whenever we do address conditions – to the extent that we do. It is a new conceptual model, but not a completely new departure in practical terms.

5. At the same time, changing our philosophical view of morality does make a practical difference. Even if much of our moral behaviour is unreflective, we introduce a new influence on our reflective behaviour and on others, and the way we address the underlying conditions of our lives will also slowly come to have an impact on our unreflective behaviour.

6. All the main existing theories of normativity (i.e. utilitarian appeal to hedonism, Kantian appeal to rational consistency, virtue ethics) appear to imply the value of experiential adequacy when taken to their logical conclusion. If we bring about the best consequences, it is because we have addressed conditions, and if we use principles consistently, it is because we are integrated. See 7.c for details of this argument.

7. We badly need an incremental model of ethics to confront every over-simplifying labelling of a complex person or movement as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. We can call metaphysics evil only because metaphysics, on its own account, is absolute, but all the places where metaphysics actually operates involve a complex mixture. Denying evil does not help to channel this tendency to label ‘good’ and ‘evil’ helpfully.

8. Ethics needs to integrate with and make use of the insights offered by psychology and any other helpful sciences, rather than the sciences having to be limited by a therapeutic model only. There is no reason why medical and psychological skills should not contribute to making us ‘better’ in a moral as well as a health sense, as long as this can be reconciled with issues of responsibility (see 7.b).

9. Breaking down the barriers created by the fact-value distinction is also important for integrating ethics more effectively into science. Science and technology are now crossing into increasingly dangerous territory – for example, genetic engineering or climate change reversal engineering – where balanced moral judgement needs to be applied integrated with scientific judgement about the facts.

Defining the Middle Way as good and metaphysics as evil is not itself a metaphysical move, because of the provisional and incremental model that the Middle Way consists in. Although it is a highly generalised theory, it is nevertheless a theory that we could provisionally accept, try out in practice and see how it works. I do not accept that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are themselves metaphysical terms by definition, because we encounter so much in our experience which we find good or evil to some degree. It is only the abstracted turn and the fact-value distinction that has made this experience seem somehow more suspicious or ‘subjective’ than other experiences, and deprived us of provisional ways of representing it. Just as the meaning of ‘God’ can be interpreted metaphysically or in terms of experience (see 3.c), likewise good and evil. What makes a belief about good or evil metaphysical is not the concept itself but the justification we give for it.

Similarly, it is important to distinguish between metaphysics being evil and people who believe in it (or religious or other groups who believe in it) being evil. Whilst metaphysics itself is absolute in its own terms, a given person’s belief in it is not and cannot be absolute. It is quite possible to have a nominal metaphysical commitment and yet hardly ever make judgements on the basis of metaphysics. Great Christian saints, for example, can be seen as good despite their belief in the existence of God rather than because of it, but also perhaps good because of the non-metaphysical role that God as a symbol and as an experience plays in their lives. It can also be argued that evil as metaphysics closely fits many aspects of the archetypal evil we experience, because characters that symbolise evil tend to be heavily dominated by the left brain and obsessively concerned with narrow objectives. The archetype of evil is explored in III.4.c and the links between this archetype and dogmatic states in IV.3.n.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *