Fundamentals of Contemporary 20th Century, Post-World War II, Christian/Methodist, Cold War Moral Reasoning.
Once upon a time in a long ago and far away classroom, I took a college course entitled something like “Fundamentals of Moral Reasoning.” We called it “Ethics 101.” To put the content of the course in a context, this was at a Methodist college in the mid-1960s. The class was run like a seminar and there was a good deal of discussion of Nazi and Japanese atrocities, and the Godless Communists of Russian and China. And a good deal of discussion of whether war could ever be justified. Remember this was just one generation away from World War II, that many of our fathers and/or older siblings had fought in Korea, that lots of us were being sent to Germany to guard America from the Soviets, and thousands of us were stationed in Japan to keep an eye on the shenanigans of Comrade Mao. And there was this crazy thing developing in a little county in French Indochina that looked like it could become problematic. We had one fellow in the class, just out of the Marines, who had been there, and he thought we should “nuke ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.” Which led to a discussion of the morality of the use of nuclear weapons.
There were also discussions of the moral aspects of a number of other social issues. Racial discrimination was a big one, the equality of women was another. One of the hot topics was The Pill. Was artificial birth control moral or not. No good could come of something that allowed sex without the threat of a shotgun wedding or the disgrace of childbirth out of wedlock. Besides the “sex” thing, there was the moral issue of living together “without benefit of marriage.”
A lot of folks in the US were concerned about the influences of the foreign cultures our military men were being exposed to in Europe and Asia. Europe, in pulling itself back together from the ravages of war was becoming way to “liberal,” was becoming a cauldron of competing ideas about how the world should be. And perhaps most disturbing, Europe had become a hotbed of socialistic thinking. And it was not just the American military men stationed there; Americans of college age were flocking to Europe; to all parts of the world, and were beginning to question the socio-political structure they found when they got back home.
And there was a new, and ostensibly dangerous, “fad” called meditation. A goodly number of soldiers, sailors and airmen were coming back from Japan touting “Zen meditation,” and there were a bunch of dark-skinned, small in stature men who spoke in funny accents coming from India touting other forms of meditation. Significant numbers of American youth were going to places like Thailand, and hooking up with Buddhist temples and teachers. Back in the US, the question was being asked, “Could one practice meditation, and still be moral?”
And of course, we can’t forget the beatniks, who advocated the questioning of authority, followed by the hippies and their advocacy of the use of marijuana, peyote, LSD and other consciousness expanding substances. Oh yeah: Free love. Lots of discussion of sex. Could sex be morally justified? Well, yes, but only in the context of Marriage.
It was a course of lively debate over a range of contemporary social, political, and religio-philosophical issues, and one of the more popular courses to take. Perhaps a more descriptive title would have been, “Fundamentals of Contemporary 20th Century, Post-World War II, Christian/Methodist, Cold War Moral Reasoning,” but that wouldn’t have fit in the catalog very well.
What I took away from that class some 50 years ago, was that foundational to all modern moral reasoning were the moral principles embodied in the Ten Commandments combined with Jesus’s commandment to “love they neighbor as thyself.” One either argued from a stance informed by a belief that morality was dictated by a god (or in the case of some traditions by a number of gods, or a universal “isness”), or one argued from a stance of informed reason. But in any case, the basics were, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t commit adultery, be honorable in all of your doings, and respect others, even when they are wrong.
About that same time I was taking a course entitled something like, “The Faith of Other Men,” which was an attempt to educate us about the major religions of the world. While there were some misbegotten assumptions, e.g., that we were all Christians, that the conduct of religious enterprise was primarily a male endeavor, and that the study of religious paths other than Christianity was primarily to help us help others come to the truth of Christianity, we were exposed to some, for most of us in the class, rather foreign ideas. Most of the doctrines and rituals of these other faiths were interpreted for us through the lens of Christianity. For example, I remember the professor trying to help us understand the concept of “dukkhā” by comparing it to original sin. Being a Buddhist, and having done some independent study of Buddhism, I had a different take on dukkhā. But this class got me to rethinking the whole concept.
And one day I realized that killing, stealing, lying, committing adultery, behaving dishonorably and disrespectfully are all things that engender dukkhā. It was an epiphany! One of those “Aha” moments of profound insight. A “peak experience” in which something of import becomes startlingly clear. The cornerstone of moral reasoning has to be the fact of dukkhā. The process of moral reasoning has to begin with an assessment of dukkhā. The “rightness” or “wrongness” of a thought, word or deed, is directly proportional to the frequency, intensity and duration of the dukkhā which results. Simple. Profound. Really practical.
Moral justification of an act, or a thought or deed is equally simple, direct, and profound. An act is morally justifiable when the dukkha resulting from that act is less than the dukkhā resulting from any other possible act in the same circumstances. Conversely, an act, thought or deed is not justifiable to the extent that the resulting dukkhā is more than the dukkhā resulting from other possible acts in the same circumstances. Moral justification, I realized some two score and ten years ago, has an objective, reliable, measureable, verifiable standard by which to assess morality. Dukkhā.
While simple, profound and directly practical, realizing dukkhā is the starting point for morality doesn’t guarantee that one behaves morally. One needs to be mindful of oneself and one’s social and physical environment. One needs to have knowledge of people and the world in which we live. Have has to think, speak and act with right intentions. One has to shape a lifestyle that supports the minimization of dukkhā. One has to make the effort.
So, I offer you this for consideration. Take a look at our earlier postings on dukkhā (June 12, 2016; May 23, 2016 and January 11, 2016). Then for the next week, be aware of the dukkhā in your life. And ask yourself if morality isn’t just what we should do, how we should conduct our lives, with the ambition of minimizing dukkhā.
And let us know how that works.