Saturday, March 31, 2012

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part One)

It is said that the buddha taught that all beings are without blame. Of course, such a radical – perhaps even nonsensical sounding (to our ears) – statement is completely in keeping with his central teachings of dependent–origination and not-self. It’s time for buddhists to come to full understanding of the implications of this teaching and begin to work for the realization of a culture that has gone beyond the illusion of “moral responsibility.” This is the first of a series where I will offer a zen naturalist perspective on the problem of moral responsibility and the necessity to create a more compassionate and wise society.

Arguing against moral responsibility and for the abolition of it is an uphill slog indeed, with many philosophers such as Peter Strawson insisting that “we cannot take seriously” (1962, 74) the rejection of moral responsibility. Indeed, commitment to moral responsibility is rooted in deep, visceral emotional reactivity perhaps evolutionarily evolved, and then seemingly locked in place by an (often) unconscious and very rarely questioned theoretical system – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say “systems” as there are several theories designed to make sense of moral responsibility.

What is meant by “moral responsibility?” This question is not without contention, so I want to be clear what I mean for the purpose of this and subsequent postings. What I mean to be “moral responsibility” is that which justifies special reward and punishment. It is the issue of “praise and blame,” two of the “eight worldly concerns” that the buddha warned against getting caught within. Moral responsibility is what offers the moral justification for singling out an individual for praise or blame, reward or punishment.

Of course, a naturalist understanding of not-self and dependent origination denies that there are any ‘self-created’ individuals. While I am uniquely me and you are uniquely you, we are both caused and conditioned by a long history (much of which predates our birth) that we did not choose! So, how can we be morally responsible for what we are and how we act if what we are and how we act are determined by history?

To be sure, rejecting moral responsibility does not entail rejecting all moral evaluations: John may have done something that is morally wrong, and we can agree that his immoral behavior reflects his deeply flawed character, and facing both the wrongful behavior and the flawed character remains necessary, but John does not deserve blame or punishment. It is inherently unfair to blame or punish John for a character flaw he did not choose or self-create! Yes he has a character with major flaws that have led to some immoral behavior, but that does not change the fact that he is not morally responsible. When we critically look at the society we have created, we have to accept that the practice of moral responsibility is unjust, and that it is not an effective way to produce a safer society or better behaved individuals. In fact, the system of moral responsibility impedes progress toward creating a more peaceful and wholesome society.


One leading argument used to bolster moral responsibility is the perception that moral responsibility is about accountability. This means that if we hold someone morally responsible for an act, then she must be able to give an account of why she acted as she did.

The problem should be obvious: people very often give a sincere and honest account of why they did something that is completely mistaken! There have been many social psychology experiments that show that people act under the influence of factors outside their awareness, and that they are often blind to external factors completely. We are now in the midst of a long, drawn-out primary race for the Republican Presidential candidate. Repeatedly, a large majority of voters say they do not like the “negative ads” that are being run on television and radio, and that they have no effect on their choice for who they decide to vote. And yet, poll after poll show that the ads do affect voting patterns.

In one interesting experiment, people who found a dime (a mere 10 cents!) in a phone booth almost all stopped to help a stranger (actually an experimenter) who had “dropped” a set of papers, and those who had not found a dime did not stop to help. Yet, those who did stop after finding the dime were both unaware and in fervent denial that finding a dime could – and did – influence their behavior!

Brain studies show that when an action – such as moving an arm – is caused by stimulating a part of the brain, subjects make up a “reasonable” explanation for why they moved their arm. All this shows that the capacity to give an account for our actions is not the same as being morally responsible for those actions.

Those who believe in a supernatural soul argue that the soul is independent of all external influences and that rationality transcends the histories, the environmental influence and biology that buddhists, and all naturalists see as conditioning reason. If we reject the kind of supernatural reason full-out libertarians posit, then we have to accept that reason is conditioned and limited; we cannot know all the influences on our behavior, so we can never give a full and accurate account of our behavior. And, if accountability is one’s argument for moral responsibility, then it becomes clear that accountability fails to justify moral responsibility.

The Emotional Commitment to Moral Responsibility

Those philosophers who argue for moral responsibility often have a difficult time arguing why. They will admit to weaknesses in any reasoned defense of moral responsibility, and yet remain unshaken in their certainty of its reality which points to some emotional source for their commitment independent of rational argument. Some even argue that the strong emotional “intuition” and commitment to moral responsibility is positive and defensible. After all, such deeply held emotional commitments as the love of our children are valuable. Yet, many strongly held emotional commitments are much less than positive – emotional commitments such as to racism, sexism, xenophobia and religious fundamentalism are irrational and harmful.

The point is, if we can acknowledge the great extent emotion and “intuition” play in the commitment to moral responsibility, then it should be at least a bit less difficult to investigate more clearly and with greater integrity the possibility that we can challenge moral responsibility and perhaps even reject it for something else; something more fair and in alignment with natural reality.

When we investigate the reasons for holding to moral responsibility, what we find is that they are all basically justifications of a visceral, universal, deeply felt emotional reaction: the evolutionarily evolved retributive impulse; the deep desire to strike back when we are harmed. It is related to the aversive reactivity the buddha said is one of the three major causes of duhkha.

Some examples:
“Sometimes vengeance is wholly called for, even obligatory, and revenge is both legitimate and justified. Sometimes it is not, notably when one is mistaken about the offender or the offense. But to seek vengeance for a grievous wrong, to revenge oneself against evil – that seems to lie at the very foundation of our sense of justice, indeed, of our very sense of ourselves, our dignity, and our sense of right and wrong.” (Robert C. Solomon, 2004, 37)

“We ought to admit, up front, that one of our strongest unspoken motivations for upholding something close to the traditional concept of free will is our desire to see the world’s villains ‘get what they deserve.’ And sure they do deserve our condemnation, our criticism, and – when we have a sound system of laws in place – punishment. A world without punishment is not a world any of us would want to live in.” (Daniel Dennet, 2008, 258)

“Personal and vicarious moral anger can be and ought to be placated by hostile responsive action taken against its cause. Wrongful actions require hostile retribution. That, despite its seeming lack of fit with the body of moral principles upheld in our culture, is actually one of the primary foundations of morality. It is a foundation that is settled in passions, attitudes, emotions, and sentiments, not in reason.” (Peter French, 2001, 97)

These intelligent, “reasonable” men, philosophers all, clearly – even somewhat brutally – base the source of the fervent belief in moral responsibility upon a feeling; the powerful, undeniable feeling that those who do wrong and cause harm should suffer. That feeling itself is rooted in another deeply held feeling: when we are harmed, we should strike back.

The issue becomes: the almost universal belief in moral responsibility, based upon this deeply felt emotion cannot be used to justify moral responsibility any more than the almost universal belief in the existence of god, or the justice of subjugating women, for instance, can be used to justify those beliefs.

The “strike-back impulse” is a deeply rooted one we share with all animals. Rats in a cage who are given an electrical shock will attack one another. Just like with humans, it doesn’t really matter who receives the brunt of retaliation; the retaliation is for our own sakes. Interestingly, those rats that are shocked but able to vent their rage against another rat – or a gnawing post – have less increase in adrenal hormone and blood pressure levels. It seems striking back is “good for us.” But we have higher-order brain mechanisms that can be trained to restrain the impulse without causing any physical problems. This is the nirodha taught by the buddha and Patanjali.

What happens when we simply give in to this strike-back impulse? It is common knowledge that when economic stresses increase we will find a corresponding increase in spousal and child abuse. When the US was attacked on September 11, 2001, and with the assailants either dead or in hiding, Iraq, which had nothing to do with the attack, bore the brunt of US strike-back aggression. It’s also common knowledge that – especially in dramatic crimes that receive major media coverage – getting someone – anyone – declared “guilty” in order to punish them often takes precedence over getting the actual perpetrator, and leads to many miscarriages of (so-called) justice.

There is one other major foundational source for the deeply entrenched belief in moral responsibility, besides the strength of our retributive emotions and the strike-back impulse, and that is the generally unquestioned (by anyone other than philosophers) belief in “free will.” This of course ends up making belief in moral responsibility an article of faith, and a faith in the supernatural at that, and one that flies in the face of dependent origination. Buddhism has always denied any “absolute” or “a-causal” free will since buddhism denies a supernatural soul and affirms the contingent nature of all phenomena. If a “person” is actually a conditioned aggregation of causes and conditions, it is irrational to exempt will from conditioning and causality.

Bruce Waller pointedly notes: “The rich variety of arguments in favor of moral responsibility may remind us of the rich variety of arguments for the existence of god and may prompt the same response to that large collection: if there were really a good argument for god or for moral responsibility, would there be so many? In contrast to the multitude of arguments in support of moral responsibility, there is one basic argument against moral responsibility – though it is available in a number of different styles and colors.”

The series of postings, of which this is the first, will be very much influenced by the work of Bruce Waller and others like George Lakoff, but with a ‘buddhist’ style and a zen naturalist color. I realize some of what I have already written – and what I will be writing – will cause reactivity in those who either haven’t given this topic much thought or who have a strong investment in the belief in moral responsibility (which is truly most of us). I hope you will be able to put your reactivity aside at least just enough to be open to hearing why the buddha said, “All beings are without blame.”

Dennet, Daniel. 2008. Some Observations on the psychology of thinking about free will. In Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will, ed. John Baer, James C. Kaufman, and Roy F. Baumeister. New York: Oxford University Press.

French, Peter. 2001. The Virtues of Vengeance. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.

Solomon, Robert C. 2004. In Defense of Sentimentality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Strawson, P.F. 1962. Freedom and Resentment. Proceedings of the British Academy 36. Page reference as reprinted in Free Will, ed. Gary Watson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982