There is a theme concerning ethics going around in the modern personal development circles involving Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, correct and incorrect. The modern idea states there is no such thing as Right or Wrong in human behavior, that the universe is subjective and that no one has the liberty to judge another person whatsoever.
In this view, the word vice must be used in quotations, “vice”, simply because it is a subjective term. Even more, the word virtue must equally become “virtue”, because even this has no intrinsic merits. Who knows what these words mean anymore? Apart from those “silly outdated religions”, human conduct has no direction, only values one personally chooses at will. I call this the “modern view”.
We’ve gone a long way from the ancient Greeks whose greatest minds gathered to share oratory on the virtues of love, wisdom, temperance, courage and justice.
In fact, morality and ethics have had the rug pulled out from under them in the name of value systems, while no one value system can be placed above another. “They’re just different”, the modernist says. The only ethical system I see is: “If it feels good, do it… as long as you don’t harm others.” This model can work for a while, but there’s no internal compass, no thought of consequence, no sense of an overarching order.
I understand the stance that the universe has no ethical rules. Indeed, when viewing the universe as a vast array of vibrational atoms swirling about, there’s no room for ethics. However, this conviction of no ethics simply follows as retaliation to the condemning view of an oppressive society founded on Judeo-Christian dogma. The same reaction occurred during the European Enlightenment era of the 18th Century. When a domineering societal construct is broken through insight and testing the envelope (much like our generation has done), the logical next thought is rebellion in the opposite direction. That is to say “Ok, society’s rigid and unconstructive views are outdated. There is another way to live life! I’m going to think for myself!” And amazingly, with technology and entrepreneurial vigor, our generation has experimented and created new ways of living.
Of course, innovation and progress are staples of a healthy humanity. It is when ethics are forgotten in light of progress that we as humans transgress our bounds and ignore the subtleties.
There is solid truth to this view, however. If people today hustle about, worrying themselves with what other people do or say, then we will live in a very divisive world – indeed we do. People disrupt themselves by calling another person wrong for their race, profession, status, religion, gender etc. Conversely, people deceive themselves by calling some people right according to their profession, fame or status etc. This is all meaningless and the idea of “right and wrong” can correctly be eradicated! This is a huge step forward for humanity if we can learn to not judge others for their superficial traits!
If a woman chooses chocolate over vanilla ice cream, it is asinine to make her wrong for it. If a celebrity does her hair a certain way, it is asinine to make her right for it! It is what it is. These trifles are meaningless and you can create what you will with your reality. Our world is slowly starting to understand this especially through the work of modern personal development circles. So, thank you.
The issue stems, I think, from well-intentioned people wanting a tolerant world, while altogether ignoring a critical distinction.
The chasm spawns from two very different outcomes from one interaction: 1) discerning an erroneous act and 2) blaming with emotional weight of wrongdoing. An erroneous act can be unknowingly doing harm to one’s self or others, which can be identified and remedied through education. The blame of wrongdoing leads to guilt, self-doubt, and sadness and when repressed can lead to loss of self-esteem, depression, anger and chronic neuroses. The two couldn’t be more distinct, and yet it is so common to lump them together as “judgment”. The latter is undoubtably unpreferred and any work to prevent it is beneficial. The former, however, is a more subtle and willful act that though beneficial for the world, goes dismissed.
Let me use an anecdote to explain:
A math student puts effort into solving a difficult equation and comes up with a solution. The student turns it into the teacher who skims it over, hands it back, and says, “It’s incorrect, try again.” At this point, the student has the choice (usually unknowingly) to take this personally, taking on the emotional baggage of being wrong, and fostering disdain for his teacher; OR to discern what the teacher has told him, gather his thoughts, and try again without emotion. Likewise, the teacher in saying “It’s incorrect” had the choice to place emotional charge behind his voice hinting at frustration with the student; OR simply to check the numbers, and encourage the student to try again. Two different interpersonal energies; two different results; one interaction. Indeed, in this case, the student was incorrect, but the teacher doesn’t need to make him wrong for being wrong.
I think it’s gotten out of proportion when the modern view says there’s no such thing as good and bad, right or wrong. This view is simply wrapping up discernment with condemnation into one word: “judgment”. Originally the word “judgment” didn’t have negative connotations. Nowhere in the dictionary definition of judgment does it link to negativity. The connotation comes from when judgment refers to sin in a Biblical sense. However, sin in it’s original Greek is written as “hamartia” which is an archer’s term for “missing the mark”. So again, there’s not even a negative connotation with sin! You miss the mark, you get to shoot again! Judgment simply refers to cause and effect. The Christian view of judgment is identical to the Buddhist view of karma. In fact, this isn’t a view at all, it’s an observable happening. We see causes and their effects all the time; an action and a result. The math student acted, and the result was wrong.
Allow me to re-introduce the concept of Right and Wrong apart from the ethical bigotry associated with the dying Abrahamic religions.
Right refers to a human being acting in accordance with a healthy body, a sharp mind, a deliberate will, a loving heart, working relationships, a commitment to community and an ever-increasing closeness to Divine understanding. Right pertains to mankind’s physiological birthright for optimal function. This can look many different ways, but it always has similar traits.
Wrong refers to a human being acting in discord with a toxic body, a distracted mind, a flimsy will, a closed heart, dysfunctional relationships, an aversion to community and an ever-depleting grasp of Divine understanding. Typically, people have an innate intuitive feeling of what is Wrong, unless the internal compass is worn down through continuous override.
[I am purposely skirting around the issue of life after death, reincarnation, purgatory, angels and demons etc. That’s another discussion altogether.]
The human body and mind are built in a certain way. Sure, there are variances from person to person, but overall, there is a uniform order. If there wasn’t an order, we wouldn’t have the medical or psychological fields of study. You may be skinny or obese, but your body still craves a balanced diet. You may be introverted or extroverted, but your psyche still needs both quiet time and social time.
As a logical extension, this line of reasoning can be brought to human behavior or “ethics”. Let’s use science to explain. If you love someone or express love in general, chemicals such as serotonin, norepinephrine and oxytocin are excreted, arteries dilate to allow blood to move more freely, and a feeling of excitement and ease are felt by released neuropeptides. If you hate someone or express hatred in general, adrenaline is excreted causing hypertension and cardiac stress, which can lead to depression or stroke.
So, love isn’t right, it just has beneficial effects. Likewise, hate isn’t wrong, it just has detrimental results.
Say you are in the middle of a tense situation at work, people are upset, money is on the line, and you’re the one to make a decision. If you are patient, you can use nonviolent communication, allowing each person to feel understood, calm them down to see the situation objectively, and make a decision that everyone agrees on. OR, if you are impatient, you can be swept away with emotions, retaliate to your coworker’s criticisms, and blow the whole thing out of proportion with your own frustration so everyone’s angry.
So, patience isn’t right, it just has beneficial effects. Likewise, impatience isn’t wrong, it just has detrimental results.
It seems as though “virtues” are aligned with certain beneficial effects, and “vices” are correlated with their respective consequences. This isn’t a truth that was decreed by God to cage humanity in dogmatic tyranny. No, the ancient idea of Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, Virtues and Vices were formulated in response to observing what works and what doesn’t work. Thus the 7 Virtues of Humility, Kindness, Abstinence, Chastity, Patience, Liberality, and Diligence are not right, but they are aligned to optimum human potential. And the 7 Vices of Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, and Sloth are not wrong, but they are counterintuitive to human physiology. There are no morals with this, only experimentation. It doesn’t mean anything if you do Right or Wrong; it just is and results will follow.
This isn’t about obeying the law, or compliance to decree, or fear of God’s judgment, or submission to commandments. This is about each and every person discovering for themselves the inner mechanics of how the human being optimally functions physically, mentally, socially, sexually, and spiritually. This must be scientifically and experientially deduced by each of us. It just so happens, however, that when each of us does this, we come up with similar results. Why? Because effects that work come from similar causes. Effective results come from similar behavior. The human organism has remained unchanged for 100,000 years and will not change anytime soon. Mankind shares 99% of genes with each other, so the majority of behavior that works, works for all.
Without using the diction of “God and his commandments”, I must clarify the paths of Right and Wrong by describing what they are founded upon. In this fantastic interconnected universe with layer upon layer of subtle vibrations emanating to and from our bodies and minds, there is a natural order. There is a Cosmic Consciousness which has been for so long called “God” in the West and seen in a personified character with decisions and actions. Even the mystics of Abrahamic religions knew God has no personified traits. This luckily has been replaced by the understanding when Western Science is merged with Eastern Philosophy. Now we have the knowing that the unnameable, ineffable, and indescribable life force sits at the root of all Being. It is an undercurrent of all Creation. It did not create the world like “God” is mythologized as doing, instead, Creation arose from the Being in the mystical sense.
“The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The Name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.”
[Tao Te Ching, 1]
It is this mysterious Tao that human beings can connect with at the core of their being. It is the status of this connection that indicates if one is “on the Path or off the Path,” if one is “Wrong” or “Right”.
This is what the Abrahamic religions mean by their ethical system of Right and Wrong. In the words of the Jewish mystic, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto:
“The main point of creation was that God wanted to create man, who would then have the task of attaching himself to God, thus to enjoy His true good. This is accomplished through the fact that man has two ways before him, one being good and the other being evil; and man has the power to choose whichever he desires. When through his own free will and knowledge he chooses good and rejects evil, then this true everlasting good is given him. “
The vital part for our understanding on this topic is that there is a Right and Wrong AND, it is not right or wrong to choose either. In other words, it is not right to choose Right; it is not wrong to choose Wrong. Either choice simply has effects. You can discern if a man is on the Wrong path if he puts toxins in his body, harms others, is in a downward spiral of depression and has no grasp of Divine understanding. You can discern this man is Wrong without making him wrong. Taking the negative judgment out of it, you can deduce his harmful behavior, see that it is Wrong, and have compassion for his strife. Perhaps, you can even show him through experiential evidence the healthy results of the Right path.
Conversely, you see a very pious man praying and meditating. You see he has a successful business, a happy family; he eats well and treats people kindly. He draws increasingly closer to Divine understanding and he lives a loving life. This man is on the Right path, but we cannot make him right for it!
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”
The universe doesn’t care if you’re right or wrong. The Universe isn’t disappointed when you choose to do wrong. However, there are consequences when you choose Wrong since this behavior is not workable. It’s out of integrity. It creates tendrils and offshoots of harm in subtle and obvious ways. The Universe doesn’t care if you’re right compared to others. However, certain effects do appear from the cause of being Right. Being Right aligns with how humans are built, so this behavior results in happy relationships, a sense of fulfillment, wisdom and a connection to a meaningful life.
This is my rebuttal to those who have tried to teach me there is no right or wrong. I’m open to counter-arguments, and I say they’re missing the overall scope and the intricate subtleties. In the trivial world of human interactions, sure, I can buy that there is no right or wrong. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, sense of style, eating habits, sexuality, way of being, and interests. No one can possibly be wrong for their race, religion, gender, age, or sexual preference. Trying to make people right or wrong is futile. No one must choose to live optimally, they have free choice.
For the person living an optimal life full of health, vitality, connection and Divine understanding, a keen sense of discernment is necessary. Tolerance for other’s right and wrong, while maintaining your own strong sense of Right and Wrong is crucial to keeping a clear conscience and a clear vision of Truth.
The difficulty lies in choosing what is Right or Wrong. There are only two ways of knowing the Truth: studying the authoritative works of the Sages, and personal experience. Indeed, the works of the Sages came from their own personal experience, so really the only way to know Truth is through experience alone. Faith has no place in Truth seeking, no matter how spiritual or abstract. However, experience can be slippery and deceitful to the one not observing closely. A person can follow a line of behavior thinking it is Right, while just under his nose is the detrimental aspect of his activity unnoticed. Effects can be so subtle they’re not noticed for years afterward, like bad posture. Again, it’s not right to have good posture, but it is Right because it’s conducive to a well-functioning organism; and you’re not wrong for slouching.
Let’s observe the Buddhist monk who studies the Eightfold Path (e.g. Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Mindfulness etc.) He then leaves the monastery and walks among the townspeople with all their vices. The monk buys some bread, thanks the vendor, exchanges smiles, greets the men and women on the streets and with a wide-open heart loves each and every one of them. The monk doesn’t judge the townspeople for their ignorance of the Eightfold Path. Instead, he discerns their activities are not for him, loves them unconditionally, while ever strongly following the Right Path.
This is the way of the Sage.
Explore, my friends