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Does the Dhamma allow the philosophical establishment of an objective and/or universal morality without God?

If yes, how?

Do all beings intuitively know what is right and what is wrong deep within their consciousness? Even the worst psychopaths?

Resources:

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  • I think the title should be changed to "Is morality objective?" Dhamma refers to the teachings, and not to morality or virtue, unlike how Hinduism uses the term dharma. Or you can ask "Is virtue objective?"
    – ruben2020
    Apr 16 '20 at 13:14
  • buddha-vacana.org/gloss.html#dhamma apparently dhamma also refers to natural law in pali, which includes morality through kamma law. No?
    – Kalapa
    Apr 16 '20 at 17:16
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This is an interesting question. Is morality objective?

I recently watched a video where Tovia Singer, an orthodox Jewish rabbi, claimed that he once debated with an atheist. The atheist apparently stated that he did not need God and he is aware by himself that murder, theft and other immoral actions are wrong. To this, the rabbi responded that humans were made in God's image, and that's why he has intrinsic awareness of morality - because God put it in him.

How would Buddhism respond?

OP: Does the Dhamma allow the philosophical establishment of an objective and/or universal morality without God?

Yes, of course.

According to the Kimattha Sutta:

"Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, Ananda, and freedom from remorse as their reward."

You can read the whole sutta to see how skillful virtues lead to enlightenment. It starts from freedom from remorse, which leads to joy and so on.

So, if skillful virtues result in freedom from remorse, then immoral behavior lead to remorse. So, this means that virtue is universal or objective in Buddhism.

Well, some things are not universal or objective. For example, should you try to beat the lights when the traffic light is red? Now with the pandemic, many governments enforce social distancing rules - should you follow them? These are not universal or objective. These are learned.

But some things like taking a life, taking what belongs to others, speaking untruth and adultery are definitely universal or objective.

OP: If yes, how?

Where is this source of objective morality?

According to Udana 5.1:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Sāvatthī at Jeta's Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika's monastery. And on that occasion King Pasenadi Kosala had gone with Queen Mallikā to the upper palace. Then he said to her, "Mallikā, is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?"

"No, great king. There is no one dearer to me than myself. And what about you, great king? Is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?"

"No, Mallikā. There is no one dearer to me than myself."

Then the king, descending from the palace, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, "Just now, when I had gone with Queen Mallikā to the upper palace, I said to her, 'Mallikā, is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?'

"When this was said, she said to me, 'No, great king. There is no one dearer to me than myself. And what about you, great king? Is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?'

"When this was said, I said to her, 'No, Mallikā. There is no one dearer to me than myself.'"

Then, on realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:

Searching all directions
with your awareness,
you find no one dearer
than yourself.
In the same way, others
are thickly dear to themselves.
So you shouldn't hurt others
if you love yourself.

Also found in the Dhammapada 10:

  1. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

  2. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

  3. One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

  4. One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.

What does this show?

Morality is objective, not because it has a source like God.

Rather, it's because we know that nobody is dearer to us than ourselves (if we still have self view and conceit), and we recognize that this is also the case for other unenlightened sentient beings.

So, you would feel remorse when hurting others, because you know that if others did that to you, you would feel pain. The basis of morality is compassion towards the suffering of others, because we can relate to it due to our own suffering.

How do I know this to be true?

Simply list out every possible way you can hurt another person, and most likely, you would have derived the basic code of morality found in most religions by negating every item in your list.

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  • Isn't it strange for a Buddhist to place the basis of morality in the self? Does this mean that the Realized have no moral sense anymore, having seen and understood the non-self?
    – Kalapa
    Apr 16 '20 at 17:14
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    I've updated my answer to say that the basis of morality is compassion towards the suffering of others, because we can relate to it due to our own suffering.
    – ruben2020
    Apr 16 '20 at 17:57
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The law of kamma-vipaka is objective, in the sense that it is entirely consistent. It is Newton's third law of motion, for intentional action.

As all things are empty from their own frame of reference - not-self, there is no thing made or no thing destroyed through it, just a linear wobble around emptiness for some subjectively delineated self. Good actions get good results, bad actions get bad results linearly, when summed through all time (rebirths (an impermanent object (human) cannot have a permanent property (death)) for that delineated self.

But then the Buddha didn't say 'this=this and that=that' (which are 0 information tautologies anyways), but 'treat this as this, and that as that, not this as that and that as this'. It's not an objective thing earning an objective action, but a subjective thing existing within a linear correlation between action and result of action.

So the law of action is objective, but it only describes how it affects subjective things.

Nibbana however, and the end goal is not objective, not not objective, not both, not neither - it is 'no thing'.

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  • " (an impermanent object (human) cannot have a permanent property (death)) " -> And the awakening? They say that a person is awake, it's a permanent property, right? If you answer me that the awakening is a lack (emptiness) and therefore cannot be a property, death also is the lack of life...
    – Kalapa
    Apr 15 '20 at 8:01
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    Awakening, as in the experience of nibbana? It is just beyond the limit of language! aeon.co/essays/… .. Nibbana is not impermanent, and same for experience of it. It may sound cheeky, but nibbana is beyond concepts, and being not-impermanent and not-permanent allows it to lie in that middle! Apr 15 '20 at 19:31
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In theory, some people could argue all day instead of agreeing, and at the best of times it might be difficult to explain (and need explaining "step by step", need to be "individually ascertained by the wise" and so on).

MN 26 says,

Having seen this, I answered Brahma Sahampati in verse:

'Open are the doors to the Deathless
to those with ears.
Let them show their conviction.
Perceiving trouble, O Brahma,
I did not tell people
the refined,
sublime Dhamma.'

"Then Brahma Sahampati, thinking, 'The Blessed One has given his consent to teach the Dhamma,' bowed down to me and, circling me on the right, disappeared right there.

"Then the thought occurred to me, 'To whom should I teach the Dhamma first? Who will quickly understand this Dhamma?' Then the thought occurred to me, 'This Alara Kalama is wise, competent, intelligent. He has long had little dust in his eyes. What if I were to teach him the Dhamma first? He will quickly understand this Dhamma.

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  • This answer doesn't seem to answer the question. Or perhaps not clearly.
    – ruben2020
    Feb 15 at 4:05
  • I'm not sure I understand what the OP means by "objective". Perhaps the answer is that "it" (i.e. "whether a person is able to establish an objective or morality") is subjective or varies from person to person, in that the ability to see/hear depends on whether someone "has ears" and "has little dust in their eyes".
    – ChrisW
    Feb 15 at 9:57
  • See also Thomas Aquinas -- "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." -- with a difference being that Buddhism can be or has been explained (gradually or step by step).
    – ChrisW
    Feb 15 at 9:59
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    Lastly, questions like this one are often a false dichotomy, and so not directly answerable to that extent. In that case I like to answer by quoting what the Dhamma actually says.
    – ChrisW
    Feb 15 at 10:17
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Buddhism has nothing to do with morality. It's aim is enlightenment. Not holiness, great emptiness. Head in the direction of emptiness and you will begin to see past the subjective and the objective. Without emptiness, there is no right action.

Emptiness, no holiness --
      Empty -- nothing holy:
the questioner's far off.
      The approach is far off.

-- Hongzhi's comment on Case 1 of the Hekiganroku

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  • Hi! Do you have any evidence for this claim? How would you translate the pāli term 'sila'? And what relation do you see between that concept and the idea of morality? Kind regards! Apr 13 '20 at 12:50
  • Sure thing! The suttas are quite clear on that. In AN 10.1, the Buddha tells Anada that the whole purpose of sila is non-remorse and concentration of mind. It has nothing to do with affecting "good deeds" in the world or establishing a code of ethics in the Western sense of the word. The aim of sila is strictly soteriological. Buddhaghosa further underscores that in Visuddhimagga. The first several chapters are dedicated to that sentiment. Bodhidharma (who the above koan refers to) takes this a step further...
    – user17190
    Apr 13 '20 at 15:25
  • I agree on the Dhammic purpose of sila. But how should we understand the 5 precepts? Or how should we interpret the compasive impulse felt by the Buddha to teach the Dhamma to the world? Couldn't that be intepreted as deeds move by a desire to increase wellbeing on others, which in time can be understood as a ethical choice? Apr 13 '20 at 15:29
  • Here, he states that holy, ethical deeds (e.g. the kind that Emperor Wu had engaged in) were ultimately worthless and did not lead to enlightenment. The direct knowledge of emptiness was requisite, not moral behavior or holy acts. That said, the Zen tradition holds to the Theravadan idea that sila can help prepare the mind for perceiving emptiness. These action, however, are not ends in and of themselves and lose their teleological basis if they are divorced from the pursuit of liberation.
    – user17190
    Apr 13 '20 at 15:30
  • It's not morality when you feel compelled to do it. A Buddha acts compassionately like someone reaches for a pillow in the night (to steal a line from Dogen), It's automatic. Sila requires effort. That effort is what is transformative, not the acts themselves.
    – user17190
    Apr 13 '20 at 15:32
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Does the Dhamma allow the philosophical establishment of an objective and/or universal morality without God?

I'm not entirely sure what "philosophical establishment of an objective and/or universal morality" means, but short answer is yes.

If yes, how?

Through the idea of dependent origination, which can be likened to a combination of consequentialism and pragmatic ethics.

Do all beings intuitively know what is right and what is wrong deep within their consciousness? Even the worst psychopaths?

No. Everyone except those fully enlightened suffers from some degree of ignorance (avijja).

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  • Hmm. I wonder whether the last answer is correct. Perhaps it depends on what 'deep within their consciousness' means.
    – user14119
    Apr 12 '20 at 11:40
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My teacher through logic established the existence of some elements and classed these as to their pŕoperties.

On account of their properties these were established as more or less pleasant & favorable.

As to their favorability he pointed out the highest favorable.

The highest pleasure became the highest good and therefore a good in a definitive sense, everything else he categorically classed as unwanted/unfavorable/bad/evil in a definitive sense.

Thus he explained good & bad in a definitive sense and he explained good & bad in a qualified sense as this being better than that but falling short of the definitive.

The path to attainment of the highest good serves as the basis for morality.

Seeking pleasure & avoiding pain is the basis of the morality taught by my teacher and it is his definition of pleasure & pain that sets his teaching apart as the teaching leading to the foremost discernable happiness principle.

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The sutta SN 55.7 most thoroughly answers this question (similar to Dhp X already posted).

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