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You are here: Index location Character Improvement location Toward a Theory of Perfect Ethical Information

Toward a Theory of Perfect Ethical Information

by Don Fox

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said “The secret of creativity is knowing how to hide your sources”[1]. I hope the great man was trying to be facetious, but if not i disagree. If we stand “on the shoulders of giants” as Newton said, i believe we should always be ready to recognize it. To put this into action, i acknowledge my dependency for the ideas presented here on Buddhist theory and practice, as well as other universalist and mathematical sources. To the extent that i can i will indicate them in footnotes, but many i have simply forgotten. It is widely recognized that Buddhism assumes the perfectibility of all sentient beings (not just rational beings).[2] This is intimately related to the concept of a bodhisattva.[3]

The first principle or axiom i shall state is the following.

PEI1: Perfect ethical information implies the knowledge that harm to one is or becomes harm to all, in the same way that harm to all is harm to any member of the set of all.

This reminds me a little of the version of the Hippocratic Oath which is often misquoted as “At first do no harm”[4]. The negative phraseology also reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s oft quoted remark that one should never treat others as we would be treated since their tastes might not be the same.[5]

Harm is of course defined as any damage to individuals or groups, both mental and physical, such as killing, maiming, torture, abuse, etc. A problem arises when two or more people disagree on whether harm is or will be occurring. Here we must take the standard of the one in danger of being harmed, however unrealistic that may seem to the harmer, since that will be the only way of satisfying all parties involved. Another, perhaps better, approach would be to arrive at consensus about what constitutes harm, but that could be an endless process.

Nevertheless this modest axiom may be considered minimal in the sense that only absence of harm is addressed, rather than the full embodiment of the good. This indicates the need for a second axiom as follows.

PEI2: Perfect ethical information implies the knowledge that good to one is or becomes good to all, just as good to all is good to any member of the set of all.

Here again good is defined as anything that benefits individuals or groups, whether mental or physical, such as education, health care, high quality food, clean water, etc.

Now for some examples to illustrate the truth of these axioms, which don’t seem quite self evident.

Example 1. A society, e.g. South Africa under apartheid, systematically persecutes, degrades and otherwise mistreats a portion of the population, such as blacks. Sensitive persons recognize this as wrong and eventually the society buckles to pressure and reverses this destructive policy. Note that there is no minimum size of the set of persons being abused which sensitive beings recognize as acceptable when they or he/she receives such treatment, except zero. Also a certain amount of restraining of individuals is probably recognized as justified in some cases, e.g. violent criminals. The main point is that harm to a black is closely associated with harm to any black, and indeed coarsens the entire society, so that other societies disapprove.

Example 2. A soldier is trained and kills enemy troops. The troops killed experience a period of fear of loss of life, hopefully brief. The soldier is frequently, perhaps always, brutalized or otherwise adversely affected by the experience of killing. One may object that soldiers’ activities may be necessary in a just war, if there is widespread agreement that the conflict in question is just. Personally i find the concept of a just war unconvincing as all war is ultimately destructive. The other aspect to this example is to consider the well-known statements in Buddhist tradition: “Not by violence is violence ended. Violence is ended by nonviolence.”[6]Just as in the last example, all society is affected.

Example 3. Food is given to refugees keeping them from starving. No one can reasonably deny that keeping even one person alive is better than letting her starve. Also it seems clear that the survival of one person will give the hope of survivors to others who observe or even hear about it. Of course, hope is insufficient, and the others should also receive food. In the end what is done for the starving elevates us all.

These examples may suggest a further axiom, as follows.

PEI3: Perfect ethical information implies the need for fairness, such as that defined by Rawls,[7] albeit with greater specificity than Rawls gives. Nevertheless his recognition of the need for incentives in a just society reflects experience gained in countries such as China and the Soviet Union. His assumption that one may be ready to forgo envy for someone deemed more fortunate, if one is happy with one’s lot seems realistic. Not so his concept of “a veil of ignorance” as an essential ingredient, since it credits people with too little rationality. It may be considered somewhat ironic that Rawls, who advocates fairness, is somewhat unfair to the rational beings who would carry out his ideas. Most persons can grasp the idea of racial, political, religious and cultural bias, with only a little introduction to ethical ideas. Admittedly it may be more difficult to see the “beam in our own eye”, i.e. biases which each of us may have. In the final analysis history shows that such biases have been destructive in the past (see examples 4, 5 and 6 below). The belief that one must eliminate personal and group bias is embodied in the Buddhist teachings on selflessness and equanimity,[8] and is essential, so we will embody it in another axiom as follows.

PEI4: Perfect ethical information implies that the one is not valued more than the many, nor the many more than the one. A corollary is that no group of any size is valued more than another group.

Example 4. The Nazi persecution of the Jews, as well as Gypsies, mentally disabled etc. This was done on the assumption that the so-called Aryan race was superior to any other, and some were so inferior that they must be eliminated. That meant that one Aryan was superior to any number of the so-called inferior races/groups.

Another aspect to this last example is that “mentally challenged” people, regardless of their number, are not valued less or more than those with greater learning abilities. This is a difficult concept in our world of Francis Bacon’s rule “Knowledge is power,” but certainly those with learning disabilities know more about that phenomenon through their experience than we can learn by studying them externally. Who can say how valuable that information is?

Example 5. Devaluation of American blacks compared with whites, especially in the southern United States. This again assumes that one white person is worth more than any number of blacks. An example of the foolishness of this idea is the existence of Professor S. James Gates, Jr. at the University of Maryland, an excellent teacher and a black man, who under such a regime would never have been allowed to do what he does so well. As part of the series of lectures called “The Great Courses" produced by the Teaching Company,[9]Dr. Gates gives a series of lectures on “String Theory: the DNA of reality”, which is a marvel of lucidity and simplicity.

Example 6. Bias in religious thought. This is very common as implied above. For example i might feel that a certain form of Buddhism is the best religion. This could lead to quarrels with other religious beings. It usually does not, however, because Buddhists are taught to examine the mind (including the “heart”), and rationality indicates that there are excellent values in most religions, if one can only eliminate the destructive elements. The best plan is to examine one’s religious beliefs to get rid of whatever is harmful, or just plain doesn’t work (i.e. does not fulfill rational aims). This purposeful universalism is to be preferred to rigidly conforming to meaningless or outmoded forms of behaviour, not to say cruel and destructive ones. Another aspect is that it is difficult to be objective about one’s emotions, and that they should be approached carefully in as clear a mental state as possible; don’t expect quick answers.

Example 7. Gender bias. A man or woman is discriminated against because of gender. Besides being against most PEIi’s, it is also illogical, since there exists no proof that one gender is superior to another. The same would naturally apply to homosexuals of both sexes, as well as other groups despised by some segment of the population.

Example 8. Political power. One of the greatest faults in democracy is that minorities may be ignored. If a government perceives that they can carry a vote based on majority interest, they may proceed with a policy harmful to a minority. Most of the PEIi’s indicate that this action is wrong.

While these four axioms may be insufficient to ensure total ethical behaviour, their elucidation is helpful in establishing progress toward an ideal state, which is probably only realizable in the situation where a large part of the population is spiritually enlightened. Enlightenment may be defined as the state in which all artificial boundaries leading to the separation of sentient beings are recognized as illusory. Some may object that the attainment of such a state is difficult, but the Buddhist answer to this would be that the difficult simply takes more time and work, and that it is achievable. We shall continue, however, with another maxim.

PEI5a: One of the highest values is a pursuit of greater awareness. As the Buddha is reputed to have taught: “O monks, there is but one path to liberation and that is the path of awareness.” The meaning is that awareness is necessary: the greatest good is the cultivation of awareness. One is reminded of a story which links this idea to Confucius: Woman who keep on toes stay away from heels. While this is doubtless apocryphal, it holds much truth. When we are aware of reality, both inner and outer, we avoid much difficulty and also can be more compassionate, which leads to the next principle.

PEI5b: Compassion is the mother of all goodness. This axiom is equal to PEI5a. The basic idea is that if one is aware, one is more likely to be compassionate, and if one is compassionate, one is truly aware.

Example 9. A politician attempts to promote happiness in the community, but through wrongheadedness promotes misery instead. This is an all too familiar occurrence, due to the lack of awareness. Note that this is an objection to (hedonistic) utilitarianism, because it is all too easy to be mistaken about what will result in happiness. In fact all types of utilitarianism and likewise consequentialism are open to this objection, since as someone has said, life is lived forwards but understood backwards (a posteriori). Sometimes history can come to the rescue but it seems to be part of the human condition to invent new circumstances, so most learning comes with experience. Nevertheless if by means of whatever source one becomes aware that a certain set of actions will result in good (improvement of conditions), that awareness has the desired results.

In his teaching on compassion the Buddha came closest to Christ, who taught that one should love one’s enemy. The Dalai Lama teaches this also, widening the definition of enemy to include one’s own internal hatred, which damages oneself more than ones external enemy in most cases.

Now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: there follows a maxim on Karma; i like this one because it has a mathematical form, and hope that you, dear reader, will not be too uncomfortable with this, but it does seem appropriate for an axiom which might be called the law of action or the law of consequences (cause and effect).

PEI6. G + GK = BK + H,[10] where G is Grace, GK is Good Karma, BK is Bad Karma and H is happiness.

Those of you skilled in algebra will know that this equation can be rewritten as G + GK – BK = H which may seem more intuitively obvious. The Grace term allows for the adjustments made for “outside effects,[11]” including the Grace of God or the Lama, depending on your religious beliefs/convictions. A fatalist may set G = 0. G may be regarded as a basic or natural happiness, which we all have, although it may be well hidden. Another aspect of the Grace term is that, if both GK and BK vanish, or they become equal, the PEI6 equation reduces to H = G, i.e. all happiness comes from Grace. This reflects the belief that true happiness comes from God, however you wish to express this idea. Buddhadharma teaches that emptiness is the perception of Grace which means, among other things, that one must empty oneself of wrong concepts in order to see the truth (dharma). And that is Grace. In this state one’s actions may be deemed irrelevant, since in such a state, religiously termed oneness with Godhead, one cannot do any bad action, and hence the result of all actions are absorbed in the G term. It is interesting that in English, Grace, God and Godhead all begin with G, which is a sacred letter in Freemasonry. I hasten to add that i am not a Freemason, though i have great respect for many Freemason ideas. Another aspect of the G term is that, since it is an external concept, i.e. not discoverable by questioning the subject person or group, it must be estimated empirically. In other words, reforming the karmic equation once again, G = H – BK + GK, and determining values of G from this equation, after estimating the other parameters using methods suggested by Von Neumann and Morgenstern (see footnote 8).

It may be noted that i have had little to say about karma. While this concept may seem intuitively obvious, it is not quite, at least to some people. The idea that good actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished is very old, and may be regarded by some as wishful thinking, but most religions teach a variation of this idea. Buddhism regards it as a law of the universe, no less than gravitation or motion. Indeed not only is the action important, but also the intention. Both of these are included in BK and GK, so they may be expressed as BK = ba + bi (bad action + bad intention) while GK = ga + gi (good action + good intention).

The units of this equation are utils, beloved of (hedonistic) utilitarians.[12] While this unit is controversial we may see more use of it in future, and more agreement on how it may be estimated. Economists use the definition that the value (utility) of something is the maximum price a person will pay for it. This is open to two objections: (1) each person has her/his own utility function for any given thing (of course in our case this is desirable for estimates of happiness), and (2) in our case, one may be willing to pay all one has for happiness. One problem i foresee in light of the last paragraph, is that many will feel that the H = G situation is the one of maximum happiness. This would, of course, imply that BK > GK, assuming both BK and GK are > 0, and that may well be the case in all states other than oneness (see PEI1-2). For me it is a little too negative a view, and may result in unnecessary suffering. Atheists may find this conclusion unacceptable. Buddhists may think of this as the enlightened state, or possibly just a highly blissful one. The state H = G may also be seen as salvation through grace. I take no particular stand on this issue, feeling that more data is needed.

Another aspect of PEI6 is that BK may increase to the point where H becomes negligible or even negative. Such an increase is observable in people who become so immersed in bad action that they are extremely unhappy. Indeed the balance between H and BK is of crucial importance to one’s quality of life. As well it is noticeable that time plays no role in this equation, so that the effects of both GK and BK can accumulate at any rate over time. Indeed there is nothing to prevent them from surviving the death of the individual. Also population size is not represented so that the idea of group karma is feasible, i.e. any size group may be assumed to follow the equation. Once the units become agreed upon, quantitative research may follow, to confirm or reject this and many other hypotheses.

It has been suggested to me[13] that a time dependent version of this equation might be useful. It would be: PEI6’. H(t) = G + K(t), where K = GK – BK + dGK/dt – dBK/dt. As indicated above, the time dependency of G, or lack thereof, remains to be determined. We also assume continuity of GK and BK, at least in the neighbourhood of the point in H-t space we are examining.

In words this indicates that happiness is not only dependent on momentary karma, but on the perception of increasing good karma and decreasing bad karma, which is in turn dependent on awareness (PEI5a). On some level it is likely we are all aware of changes in karma.

One may also remark that this formulation (i.e. PEI6 or PEI6’) gives new objective importance to the study and practice of ethical behaviour. This is good news to those of us who make it our life’s work to pursue the goals of moral philosophy.

Appendix A

Various questions arise as a result of the above formulation of the theory of perfect ethical information. One which touches the author closely is that of irrationality, confusion, mental pathology, call it what you will. I spent nine years doing research in a psychiatric facility, specifically the Royal Ottawa Hospital. There i learned compassion for patients and medical staff who were working with inadequate models of these phenomena. I came to the rather Buddhist conclusion that all of us suffer from mental obscurations, resulting from a wide variety of causes, and that sometimes these problems become so acute as to prevent us from pursuing ordinary life, let alone advanced productivity in the service of mankind. Naturally i don’t (yet) have a solution to these problems, but there is at least a glimmer in the equations PEI6 and PEI6’. Suppose an additional term called D for Darkness is included (Fortunately for most of us this term is negligible relative to H. It may be seen as the sum of ignorance, clinging and craving, in traditional Buddhist terms.). This term can also be considered to be a function of time, so let us use PEI6’:

PEI7. H + D = G + K

Now if D increases dramatically, it may overcome H and lead to great suffering. Since we know little of G at this point in time, we may assume that K must increase dramatically as well, to return H to its former value. This would indicate that helping the patient increase her/his ability to help others would lead to an improvement. It is my personal hope that this simple analysis may help to alleviate a large and growing problem. As well, one of the chief problems of social effects of mental illness, the stigma attached to it, may be alleviated in two ways: 1) people may come to regard at least some of the ill as benefactors, and 2) there will be less tendency to regard the mentally ill as subhuman and different in kind from the rest of us. From the Buddha’s perspective we are all deluded to some extent. Nevertheless, to end on a note of optimism, it is said that the Buddha looks out and sees only Buddhas, which is our human potential.

Appendix B

Jessica Main[14] has suggested that i explore the idea of “moral luck”[15] as a sort of test of my ideas, perhaps. This concept, as i understand it, assumes that many actions which are classified as good or bad can be the result of conditions beyond the control of the persons or groups involved. For this reason such actions and presumably the intentions which lead to them, cannot be considered moral or immoral. While that may be so, it points to a certain artificiality in the ideas of morality and immorality. An analogy might be that if someone slip on the ice and fall down, causing at least pain and possibly more serious damage, that the person involved must be considered blameless of the injury because s/he didn’t have control of his body on ice. While this is probably true, in does not affect the truth of the law of gravity. Similarly karmic law is not affected by our control or lack thereof. Although it may seem “heartless” there is a sense in which such experiences are teachers which lead us, if we survive them, to change our future actions. Otherwise there is a future life, in which karmic improvement can occur, though admittedly not for the previous personality.

Appendix C

I now wish to address conflict and violence. I have written another (unpublished) essay on this theme, but it is rather historical and perhaps controversial, though i believe not untrue. Conflict can occur in two basic instances: 1) when a supposedly stronger party wishes to compel a weaker to do their bidding by force. 2) when one party is attacked by another and retaliates, or tries violently to defend themselves. Both these cases are well known to most people, so i will try to keep my comments brief. Violence should only be reverted to when all else fails, or in the case of 2, when the onslaught is sudden. In the latter case if restraint of the attacker is an option, that is clearly the better course. Otherwise appropriate violence may be used. This principle of restraint before violence also applies in cases where one is defending a weaker person from aggression by a stronger one.


End Notes

(1) http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins109782.html
(2) http//:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/bodhisattva
(3) Arahant Upatissa. The path of freedom (Vimuttimagga). Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society, 1977.
(4) http//:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocratic_Oath
(5) http//:en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special%3Asearch&search=”Do+not+do+unto+other”&button
(6) http://www.aaronshep.com/stories/040.html
(7) Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.
(8) Blumenthal, James. Toward a Buddhist theory of justice. Journal of Global Buddhism 10 (2009): 321-349. Also published in electronic form on http://www.buddhistdoor.com
(9) Blumenthal, James. Toward a Buddhist theory of justice. Journal of Global Buddhism 10 (2009): 321-349. Also published in electronic form on http://www.TEACH12.com
(10) Those who wish to probe deeper into the logical and mathematical justification of using real numbers to represent utilities will find an interesting discussion in the following: Von Neumann, John and Morgenstern, Oskar. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Sixtieth-anniversary edition. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1944. Chapter 1, section 3.
(11) This should not be taken too literally. A Buddhist would say all these concepts are “in the mind.”
(12) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utils
(13) Savitt, Professor Steven. Department of Philosophy, University of British Columbia. Personal communication. June 2010.
(14) An instructor and facilitator of Buddhist studies in the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia
(15) See for example Statman, Daniel. Moral luck. Albany, New York, State University of New York Press, 1993.

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