On Ethics

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A reflection on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Previously, I have sought to find a solid basis for ethics to provide some framework for the decisions that we make in our lives. Having established some of the key concepts that I think are integral to this discussion, I will attempt to discuss my ethical framework, basis and outline before attempting to establish a logic behind ethical behaviour.

To begin with, we should examine ethics as a concept. Ethics deals with the relationships between different beings – specifically with what course of action is right between entities. An object which cannot make a decision cannot, by definition, make an ethical choice. I would exclude from the list physical phenomena – time, space and forces – which rather act as the chessboard upon which the complex latticework of ethics is laid out rather than being ethical actors. Furthermore, I would exclude objects devoid of biological life because, as I have stated previously (see on Consciousness), ethics must be based upon intention – as without intentionality an action is merely an event as opposed to something imbued with virtue or vice.

The point which becomes more difficult is where we draw the line for ethical interaction and biological beings – at what point can we be held responsible for our action towards other biological life. This becomes particularly tricky when we talk about ethics and the death and destruction of other living things. When we take medication to destroy microscopic parasites and bacteria infecting our body, are we culpable for the deaths of these microscopic entities? Is the value of biological life measured in individual biological specimens – thus suggesting that the life of two bacteria outweighs that of a human? Is it by weight of biomass – suggesting that flora is infinitely more ethical than the numerous fauna that feeds upon it, and upon each other by extension.

If we obsess over these definitions, I think it is easy to fall into ascetic paralysis – to think that the only way out of the ethics trap is to cease your existence to avoid causing suffering and death. In my opinion, this is a mistake – for it confuses death and destruction with evil, and life and reproduction with goodness. I still am at an impasse with a definition for either good or evil (see on the Good) but I would recommend that in the absence of perfect knowledge we should focus on dealing ethically first and foremost with our kin. After determining our liability towards other humans, we work our way through the catalogue of other fellow travellers in the zoological index as we develop.

So, if ethics is first and foremost the art of good interaction between human beings, we should ask: what should we do to others? To answer this question, I must defer to the golden rule: do to others as you would have done to yourself. This aphorism is multifaceted: it demands the provision of love, in the sense of selfless care of another (see on Love), to all other humans. It also demands that we must be strong, wise and energetic enough to act in the interests of others – only the ascetic would want to be left alone in utter isolation.

But why must we be compassionate, strong and wise for other’s sake and not for our own? Why should we care about the needs of others? To this I would draw attention to one of the insights I have gained from my reappraisal of monism (see Monism Redux): you are not fundamentally different from others at either a biological or social level. Your body is not your own, guarded by the soldier, fed by the farmer and treated by the doctor. Neither is your mind an island, shaped by parents, educated by teachers and inspired by authors. Thus, if you are a product of the broader world, every act of evil you commit is a black mark against all of humanity – and as such a black mark against yourself. Those who think committing a misdeed gains them some advantage are sorely mistaken – with each savage blow against your kin you diminish yourself by equal measure. If a person is lucky, then they will attempt to repair the damage wrought through good deeds. The second luckiest will be driven to madness or intoxicants by the guilt of their actions. The least lucky will live out their lives unaware of the wound they inflict upon themselves – and in their ignorance continue to hack and slash their way through the world, the doubled edged blade tearing away at their own essence. If you don’t believe me, then consider my previous reflection on Despots.

Original Text

the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad


S. H. Raza, Pakriti, 2005


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