One of the great things about Buddhist philosophy is its distinction between cause and intention. By cause, I mean the chain of events that leads to the present, and on to the future; and by intention I mean the attitude that we are encouraged to lend to life.
Philosophers have debated, for centuries, the issues around these two things. Depending on how you put cause and intention together, you get different religious and ethical approaches. It’s like successful cooking: put ingredients together one way, and you might get a mess; put them together another way, and you can get an edible dish!
This article is a discussion of a few ways in which we COULD put cause and intention together, and some possible consequences.
Some people are craftily selfish. When they are talking about their own actions, they talk about cause and effect. ‘I had to do it,’ they say, ‘because I was made to; I had no choice.’ Equally, when they are talking about the actions of others, they apply intention. ‘They MEANT to do it,’ they say, ‘because they are nasty.’
This approach I have called blame ethics, because the world of these people is a world is in which they are never wrong; but others are highly likely to be wrong. They believe themselves to be a victim of cause, and therefore exempt from responsibility; but others to be agents with intent, and therefore accountable for causing the problems of the world.
Choose this philosophy if you want to make no effort, but want to feel saintly. The only trouble is, you are unlikely to develop very much as a person, because you are permanently on moral holiday, requiring others to work for you, never saying ‘how can I help?’; always saying ‘look how YOU didn’t help’.
Other people are overly self-damaging. When they are talking about others’ actions, they talk about cause and effect. ‘They had to do it,’ they say, ‘because they were made to; they had no choice.’ Equally, when they are talking about their own actions, they apply intention. ‘I have been so silly,’ they say, ‘and I now feel bad about myself.’
This approach I have called self-blame ethics, because the world of these people is a world in which others are never wrong, but they thenselves are always wrong. They believe others to be victims of cause, and therefore exempt from responsibility; but themselves to be agents with intent, and therefore accountable for causing the problems of the world.
Choose this philosophy if you want to make constant effort, but want to feel wrong all the time. In particular, choose it if you want to harbour abusive people without holding them to account. You will develop huge amounts of discipline as a person, because you are permanently on moral duty, requiring yourself to work for others, never saying ‘how could others help me?’; always saying ‘look how I didn’t help others’.
A Buddhist approach starts by assuming that everything is cause and effect. This applies both to ourselves and others. Because cause and effect is applied fairly, those who follow this philosophy have an opportunity to be neither craftily selfish, nor overly self-damaging. According to this philosophy, ALL beings are stuck in a world of cause and effect as a first principle, so we had better get used to it. In that sense, no one is to blame, and we are all on an even playing field.
But, interestingly, a Buddhist approach then applies intention. In theoretical terms, Buddhism considers intention applicable to everyone – in other words, we all, if we want to, can accept responsibility for our next action. In practical terms, though, Buddhism suggests that it is wise always to start with ourselves – it speculates that we are happiest, not trying to force others to do good, but disciplining ourselves to do good.
In this way, Buddhism avoids the bias of either blaming others, or blaming ourselves. No one is to blame. Once we have accepted that, then we can begin taking responsibility for alleviating suffering.
ADVANTAGES OF BUDDHIST ETHICS
The advantages of Buddhist ethics are:
You can develop as a person, as you don’t slide out of personal responsibility
You can have better relationships, as you don’t need to blame others
You can act confidently, without having to feel wrong all the time
You don’t have to harbour abusive people without holding them to account. If it is good to hold them to account, you will, but without blaming them
Secondly, and only after you have accepted that we are all subject to cause and effect, apply the intention first to be happy, and then to help everyone else to be happy. In particular, consider that happiness consists in losing your selfish outlook. If you first accept the equality of cause and effect, this should not be so hard.
You can test out the idea that losing selfishness makes you happy. Catch yourself when you are unhappy, and ask yourself: ‘Am I prioritising my own perspective? It that what is causing my frustration?’ Then try to remind yourself of the equality of cause and effect. It is what it is. See whether this reflection (which amounts to a sense of humour about yourself!) alleviates your personal suffering.
A GOOD RECIPE
Essentially, placing cause and intention in a wrong relationship is a misunderstanding, and likely to cause you pain. If you fudge it so that you are never to blame, then expect difficult relationships. If you fudge it so that you are always to blame, then expect low self-esteem.
By placing cause-and-effect first and applying it to everybody, you will see everyone is equal. Then, by using this knowledge to relieve your own suffering, and then applying your intention more widely to relieve others’ suffering, you can be happy.
The right relationship between cause and intention has been the subject of much philosophical debate. Some see themselves as the victim of cause and effect, but see others as worthy of blame. They are unhappy, because their relationships often go sour. Some see others as the victims of cause and effect, but see themselves as worthy of blame. They are unhappy, because their relationship with themselves is troubled.
A Buddhist ethic first applies cause and effect universally, and sees everyone as equal. Secondly, it focuses personal intention on alleviating others’ suffering. A psychological benefit seems to be that we are happier that way; we have better relationships, greater confidence, and the ability to hold others to account, without blaming them, where necessary.