[Buddha-l] Ethical Dilemmas

Barnaby Thieme bathieme at hotmail.com
Fri Jun 11 16:35:07 MDT 2010

Funny you should mention that just last weekend I was in Los Angeles and saw an extensive exhibit of Aztec art and artifacts at the Getty Villa. I was deeply confronted by their religious vision, which is intense and ruthless, and I was deeply shaken by seeing sacrificial implements and a large, engraved stone on which sacrificial victims would be bound and ritually murdered. 

I hope that anyone who has a real encounter with things of this sort is shaken. I gather that the experience of being profoundly shaken is part of what these guys were trying to evoke -- something of the mysterium tremendum. 

Still, it seems to me that one can distinguish between two similar positions. The first is: I have moral judgments which I apply across cultures, and from my reference frame they supersede local beliefs. We could find many examples of this -- I don't accept that a man has the right to beat his wife, no matter what Sharia law says. 

The second is: there is an objectively-established framework for right and wrong which in some way transcends the actual aggregate of individual judgments and beliefs of all the individual people out there. 

As a matter of strict reasoning we can't derive the existence of such a framework from the experience of deeply-held judgments. In fact, the existence of cultures where perfectly "moral" people go about their lives beating their wives and cutting hearts out suggests to me that such a framework probably doesn't exist, unless vast numbers of the people out there are "evil" in some objective sense. It's hard for me to accept that for a variety of reasons. 

Another way of saying that is: pointing out the weaknesses of a relativist position (e.g., it can't readily deal with the problem of human sacrifice or wife beating) doesn't eo ipso provide evidence for a specific alternative. 

Still, this is a very interesting problem to consider. It seems to me that a categorical rejection of something like arbitrary human sacrifice has to ultimately depend on something like an axiom like "Human life has intrinsic value." I'll have to chew on that.

Thanks again for your thoughts. 


> From: vasubandhu at earthlink.net
> To: buddha-l at mailman.swcp.com
> Date: Fri, 11 Jun 2010 16:55:43 -0400
> Subject: Re: [Buddha-l] Ethical Dilemmas
> Dear Barnaby,
> > I don't readily recall an effort to articulate a universal framework for 
> > ethics that withstood much scrutiny or felt persuasive -- are you arguing 
> > on behalf of the existence of such frameworks?
> Perhaps. A turning point for me away from the cultural relativism that would 
> oppose such an effort ("when in Rome...") came many years ago in the 
> American Museum of Natural History, when they opened a new exhibit on the 
> Aztecs that neither minimized nor glossed over the human sacrifice that was 
> the daily core of the culture. Every day a victim was led up the stairs of 
> the pyramid, laid on a table, and a priest would slash open the chest and 
> pull out the still-beating heart and hold it up to the cheering crowd. All 
> salubriously enveloped in holiness and prayers. The more details I learned, 
> the more disgusted I became, and the more I decided there is a transcultural 
> right and wrong, and one would be obligated to try to stop this sort of 
> thing, regardless of what the Aztecs themselves thought they were doing. 
> They were deluded, harmful sentient beings inflicting harm -- systematically 
> and institutionally -- on other sentient beings, and it was simply wrong. 
> Mutatis mutandi same would go for Nazis, Pol Pot, etc.
> If you are more comfortable with "transcultural" instead of "universal", 
> that's ok.
> Dan
> _______________________________________________
> buddha-l mailing list
> buddha-l at mailman.swcp.com
> http://mailman.swcp.com/mailman/listinfo/buddha-l
The New Busy is not the too busy. Combine all your e-mail accounts with Hotmail.

More information about the buddha-l mailing list