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‘Distance’ and the relative nature of morality
April 28th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

'Distance' and the relative nature of morality

Moral considerations may often be 'absolute' or overly 'relative'… One either makes (or relies on) some grand claim of Truth and Right(eous)ness, or considers that many views are equivalent (e.g. by postulating a Human Rights' perspective of the equal dignity of each and every human being).

Buddhism does not support the idea of a grand View which would be context-independent.
Some consider that the Eightfold Path or the precepts (5, 8, 10, or the much extended list for monastics) are absolute and not negotiable, but that's missing that they are all tailored to address and respond to our specific weaknesses, i.e. that the Dharma is itself dependent by definition on the suffering it tries to cease, the causes of this suffering it tries to root out, the means that are identified as being practical to do so (rather than impractical / impossible / unrealistic) and that what's 'practical' is dependent on context, conditions and circumstances…

But Buddhism doesn't really take the perspective that all views are equivalent, just because all beings have the potential for buddhahood. The dignity and potential of each sentient being do not magically give dignity to his/her erroneous views. Buddhism does consider "right views", which are context-dependent (as explained above) but are nonetheless distinguishable from erroneous views, delusions, illusions, ignorance…

So, how can we possibly understand the relative nature of "right views" without going through some dubious equivalence between various possibly-contradictory views?

Let's consider distance.

If you're extremely far from a solid, you might not see it over its 'background', lost that it is among the larger picture…
But if you're extremely close to a solid, your electronic microscope might also not show it as a solid in nature: the solid is 'filled' with empty space at the microscopic level but it also is extremely difficult to assess at the quantum level whether linked atoms might constitute a soft twistable structure like a molecule or a DNA chain or a solid structure…
The 'solid' thus manifests only in some circumstances, under some conditions, i.e. its appearance is context-dependent.

Similarly, if you look at e.g. a generous act lost in the stream of much many acts, you might not see it, regardless of its reality and actuality, simply because the distance doesn't allow you to distinguish it.
But if you look at an act from too close, it becomes impossibly hard to distinguish whether e.g. reaching to one's wallet is out of generosity, or out of greed (e.g. exploiting another human being forced to sell something at a ridiculously low price just to survive a bit longer).
The 'generosity' of one act manifests only in some circumstances, under some conditions, i.e. its appearance is context-dependent.

That the appearance of the wholesome / unwholesome nature of an act is relative to different conditions than just to the intention behind the act has important consequences.

First, that a generous act might not be 'perceived' as such doesn't change the nature of generous intention behind it, and so we should be careful when judging… We might not see e.g. the wholesomeness in the acts of others, even when it is present…

Second, that proximity is a hindrance to see properly should warn us against judging our own acts too positively! It is easy not to see greed when looking from too close! And there's no act we're closer to than our own… Our apparently-generous act at a level might well be part of e.g. "spiritual materialism" in the larger picture, trying to buy one's way into religious 'reward'. 
We need to pay attention (and make the effort of regularly "taking a step back") to try and see what subconscious / unconscious intentions might have manifested than we didn't see thanks to some delusion at the microscopic level. The world might call for our response, but contemplation and reflection are important. We don't have the luxury to contemplate indefinitely our intentions and motivations, action is required; but that should not be an excuse to constantly run head first, never stepping back from, nor enquiring into, the stream of consciousness we're engaged in.

The "Middle Way" is often presented as between nihilism and essentialism, but it also is between action and contemplation… Not all acts are equivalent and our ability to distinguish phenomena is just as much the source of delusive separateness as it is the source of wisdom… The moral dimension of acts is not intrinsically obvious (acts are always entangled with a complex web of reality). Distance matters.
Pay attention, keep looking (from multiple distances: step back, or dig in…), "don't know" (even in relation to your own acts… how will you 'cultivate' your qualities if you don't monitor what works, what doesn't, what's helpful, what acts as distraction, not in general but specifically for you and your circumstances?).

#Buddhism   #buddhistcircle  
(photo: coastline in the USA (unattributed)… an example of natural 'fractals' —for which even the 'fractal' nature is indeed distance-dependent, because the repetition stops at both ends of scale)