This is a topic explored by many philosophers through the ages.  In an anonymous article, the author explores whether it is possible to teach virtue.  I proposes that virtue can be taught, but the person being so taught must want to be taught, and must then act virtuously.  Virtue is the quality of being able to discern right from wrong.  But “right” from “wrong” is influenced and shaped, indeed, defined, by societal standards, as well as the times in which one lives.  In the West, issues of right and wrong are rooted in the Ten Commandments. However, Buddhism is not a monotheistic religion; it does not teach that there is one almighty God who has handed down rules for living; but rather teaches the Five Precepts: Anger (or violence, or more specifically, avoiding killing or harming other living things), Greed (or more specifically, avoiding stealing), Lust (or more specifically, avoiding sexual misconduct), Delusion (or more specifically, to avoid lying, and avoiding consuming intoxicating items.  Any thought, speech or action that is rooted in these precepts leads us away from Nirvana (bliss, enlightenment), and any thought, speech or action that involves love, giving and wisdom leads us closer to Nirvana.  In god-centered religions, to know right from wrong, one has only to do what he is told; but in human-centered religions, like Buddhism, one has to develop a deep sense of self-awareness.  Morality that is based on self-understanding is much more powerful than that which is based on command.  For example, being the target of mockery is an unpleasant and painful experience.  Knowing that, one would guard against inflicting that type of pain on another; making fun and ridiculing another would be considered doing “wrong” to another, because it would cause pain and embarrassment.  To know right from wrong in Buddhism, one would look at the intention of the act, the effect it might have on another person, and the effect it would have on oneself.  Cheating in marriage, for example, might very well lead to a dissolution of the marriage.  However, taken within this premise, what is the intention of the cheating spouse? Even if he or she claims “it just happened,” being a conscious human being precludes any such excuse.  What is the effect on the other person?  Even if the other person at first does not realize the situation, clearly, such behavior on the part of the cheating partner creates a duplicitous behavior at home, and such duplicity cannot be avoided.  The effect on the cheating spouse is also grave: It takes great energy to lie, maintain the lie, support it with various alibis, try to maintain a neutral face at home, while giving generously of one’s love and devotion to two lovers.  In other words, if my intentions are good (rooted in love, giving and wisdom), then my deeds and actions are wholesome and moral.

Still, it might be worth asking whether there are some universal standards of right and wrong.  Consider that during the Crusades, it was right to smite so-called nonbelievers in the one true church.  And smite they did, with what we now consider horrible methods, including torture, to induce suspected heretics to confess their sins.  We no longer subscribe to these methods — or do we?  Have we not resorted to torture at Abu Ghraib, Iraq?  Do we not resort to torture when we water-board a suspect?

Advertisements