On Consciousness

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A reflection on the Mandukya Upanishad

I have previously argued (see on the Good) that virtue cannot come from external powers, but is the intentional conduct of good deeds. Without taking into account the intention that initiated an action, we would have to assign virtue and vice to inanimate objects – a rock which falls down a mountain slope and crushes a house is evil, and a much-needed deluge of rain breaking a drought is virtuous. With this in mind, we should examine intention and its relationship with ethics, primarily through the concept of consciousness.

What is consciousness? Consciousness, in this very specific definition, is the deliberate psychological mechanism by which decisions are made – imparting to our physical actions their ethical value. This definition delineates between the automatic and intentional actions of the body; between digestion, circulation and respiration, and good or bad deeds. However, I think that this definition does not cut through the confusion of ethical or unethical action, for the deeds of the body are only partly under the sway of the conscious mind.

As I have previously examined (see on Common Human), a large section of our action is motivated by the instinctive core. Although we are driven to eat, to drink and to procreate, I would argue that these desires are largely ethically neutral – that is it is not the drive to conduct these actions which imparts their ethical value, but how we conduct these actions. But how does this base instinct interact with the rest of our mind and ethics?

The next level of the mind is the conditioning, the cultural tapestry which wraps our mind. I like to borrow the concept of samskara from Indian philosophy to describe this acculturation, a term which captures the vast interwoven tapestry of influence, ritual and environment which has shaped our mind. As the instinctive drivers create base desires within our minds, it is this conditioning which defines the way that we react to our sensory inputs. It is the association of certain words, foods, smells and sights with respective emotions – happiness, sadness, disgust and rage – that typifies our samskara. However, whether or not an input created a certain emotional output in our mind lends no ethical weight to action: the fundamentally internal framework of our mind does not excuse bad behaviour. If you are angry, an ethically bad decision is still an ethically bad decision – so what is left to consciousness?

I would posit that beneath and within the samskara and instinct of our mind lies what could be described as the will, the faculty which initiates action. By this I am suggesting that it is not desire which acts, but the will acting on the desire; it is not emotion which acts, but the will acting under the influence of that emotion. As such, it is the intentionality of our actions – defined by our will – which imparts ethical value to an individual deed. With this in mind whether or not we act virtuously, as opposed to whether or not the outcome of the action is good, exists within our grasp as long as we control our own will.

Original text

the Mandukya Upanishad


S. H. Raza, La Terre, 1998


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