Frame of Reference - Index

Vicesimus Alter Stele

Ethical Decisions

1) "Life is governed by a multitude of forces. It would be smooth sailing, if one could determine the course of one's actions only by one general principle whose application at a given moment was too obvious to need even a moment's reflection. But I cannot recall a single act which could be so easily determined." (M. K. Gandhi, All Men are Brothers, 1960)

2) The scholar Mencius, writing a century after Confucius' death wrote: "The tendency of man's nature to good is like the tendency of water to flow downwards. There are none but have this tendency to good, just as all water flows downward... If men become evil, that is not the fault of their original endowment. The sense of mercy is found in all men; the sense of shame is found in all men; the sense of respect is found in all men; the sense of right and wrong is found in all men... Charity, righteousness, propriety and moral consciousness are not something that is drilled into us; we have got them originally..." The trick is to create a society that brings out the best in its members.

3) Confucianism: "Do not unto others that you would not they should do unto you."

Jainism: "In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self."

Zoroastrianism: "That nature only is good when it shall not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self."

Taoism: "Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain and regard your neighbor's loss as your own loss."

Islam: "No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself."

Hinduism: "Do not to others, which if done to thee, would cause thee pain."

Sikhism: "As thou deemest thyself so deem others. Then shalt thou become a partner in heaven."

Judaism: "What is hurtful to yourself, do not to your fellow man."

4) "...If certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don't mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value 'is just a fact like other facts' and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions... I see clearly... not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence.

"For all I wanted to do with them [absolute expressions of value] was to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Lecture on Ethics," 1930) (See verse 16 below.)

5) The Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems. He considered them as a "wilderness of opinions." Of course he did not have access to most of the information that is contained in Frame of Reference either. Possibly his life would have been easier.

6) Kant distinguished objects and events as they appear in our experience from the reality, calling the sensory data "phenomena" and the reality "noumena." What we know is the phenomena. Thus the study of the senses, the mind and moral consciousness fell into the philosophical study called phenomenology. "It was the task of phenomenology to develop a list of categories embracing whatever can be included in the widest possible meaning of 'to be' ...since Husserl employed the term in the early 1900's, it has become the name of a way of doing philosophy..." The most interesting phenomena to study seem to be those perceptions of abstract concepts such as: adoration, abhorrence, belief, anger, curiosity, comfort, possessiveness, disgust, confusion, angst (as in existential angst), irritation, drowsiness, hallucination, learning, jealousy, hate, greed, grief, relaxation, pride, powerfulness, hunger, spirituality, impotency, numinous, respect, symbol recognition, worship, humility and the list can continue. Most of these are internal perceptions associated possibly with an object but most often a result of an event or happening. Consider the love one feels for a spouse or a child offspring, compared to how one might feel toward a random person off the street or to someone else's child. These are the food of poetry, and both the physical and the emotional situation in which we find ourselves is the essential context for ethical decisions. (see verse 10)

7) "John Stuart Mill in England and Christoph Sigwart in Germany, sought to show that statements in logic and mathematics are no less empirical than statements in the sciences... the relation of logic to psychology is comparable to that of learning theory or abnormal psychology [as a sub-set] to psychology as a whole. [or ]...logic is related to psychology as surveying is to geometry or accounting to arithmetic [a user discipline] ...Phenomenological statements are to be nonempirical. (Not derived from scientific induction.)" (Richard Schmitt, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967) The distinction of the kind of mental process going on when one is using logic or mathematics compared to feeling the abstract concepts (verse 6), seems obvious. Logic and mathematics involve following rules and definitions, using prescribed symbols in a certain way, some of which may correspond to physical objects, such as numbering verses ordering. This kind of activity is in a sense trivial, subject to following well known rules that can be duplicated by others. But when we solve the problem, or complete the proof, we feel a sense of triumph which is not trivial. Having a sensation of joy, for example, has to do with an entirely different set of issues, such as early childhood training, education, freedom, safety and many other interrelated mental associations. Imagine having a sense of joy listening to a stand-up comedian telling jokes. How much data is necessary to appreciate any one joke, and what goes into spontaneously laughing and enjoying the joke? And imagine the confusion, even embarrassment for someone who doesn't get the joke. Phenomenological statements are in this case personal, if honest these are objective and often consistent from one person to the next, but not necessarily. Explaining the joke to someone is essentially an activity of phenomenology.

How important to our ethical lives are these issues? Clearly being able to explain how we feel, and why in the simplest possible way, does have to do with moral conduct. First choosing which issues have moral weight and then applying acceptable rules, is the essence of ethical decision making. The obscure analysis of Mill above shows (Yawn!) why intellectual effort has less influence on action than emotional motivation.

8) "The transition from external conformity to life of inner realities (Tariqat, the way or inner path of spiritual advancement) involves two steps: 1) freeing the mind from the inertia of uncritical acceptance based upon blind imitation and stirring it to critical thinking; [Frame of Reference is to aid in this process.] and, 2) bringing the results... into practical life. In order to be spiritually fruitful, thinking must be not only critical but creative. [Create life as Art.]

Critical and creative thinking leads to spiritual preparation by cultivating those qualities that contribute toward the perfection and balancing of the mind and the heart -- and the release of unfettered Divine Life." (Meher Baba, Discourses, 1967)

9) Alcoholism has been recognized as a scourge since the earliest recorded history. Greeks were familiar with the destructive force of drinking, but did not describe this in terms of pathology, choosing to admonish heavy drinkers to more temperate ways. The Romans, in the writings of Seneca and Pliny, describe the psychological and physical effects of chronic intoxication. The deterioration they observed is similar to modern problems: memory loss, identity confusion, narcissistic self-indulgence, antisocial behavior, [inability to make ethical decisions] impaired speech and vision, distended stomach, halitosis, quivering, vertigo, insomnia and early death. The alcoholic beverage of choice for both the ancient Greeks and Romans was wine, customarily diluted with water. Beer was looked upon as a swinish potation better left to barbarians. Certainly other hallucinatory drugs have similar, more long lasting, and often unintended consequences.

10) During the progress of Frame of Reference, the reader may have noticed more than one referral to this verse. Those sources describe the 'criteria' of how to make ethical decisions. Not so many years ago I developed "The Cubed Rubric." This device in the shape of a square cube with six sides, is intended as a puzzle, with the outcome or solution being an ethical decision, named Virtue. The six sides are the six criteria that may have drawn the reader to this verse:
- Freewill: is described as a 'pre-condition' of virtue.
- Language: in several 'possible' ways relates to discussions of virtue and ethics.
- Character: is 'necessary,' as in politics, to introduce and sustain moral conduct.
- Context: "noumena" are the physical circumstances, and the things other people do, that mitigate for or against virtue for us.
- Moral Codes: The habits, culture, etiquette and laws that give us the rules to follow.
- Teleology: a god's command may be 'sufficient,' or we might accept life as art.

Suffice it to say, that when we make judgments about the virtue of any action or pass a judgment in a court of law, we have to consider the above. These are all considered in our decision making process, even though often we take one or more aspects of virtue for granted. The puzzle was also designed to stimulate discussions about virtue between parents and children. Each day of the year a child could pick a topic to discuss by following the instructions on "The Cubed Rubric."

11) "Does perception of a god, as infinity, based on intuition, make it reality? ...Jack couldn't accept that... it was just as likely the inspiration that sprang from intuition could be childhood conditioning or worse, arbitrary or capricious. There had to be a rational explanation for any event [or ethical decision] or how could you say it was not arbitrary, capricious, or invented? The highest form of insult to an idea would be to call it arbitrary or random, without reason or sense, senseless, nonsense. So how would you show that God exists? Especially if He were connected to infinity in a way that human mortals are not? That 'existence' is not the same as ours, so the word 'exist' in that question doesn't make sense in that very different context of infinity. We are in that instance using, forcing, the same word [existence] to stand for two different concepts in [our one] the same context. This is a simple but too common mistake [a fallacy of logic]. To ask such a question and to make an explanation is to speak nonsense.

"You can most certainly talk about such questions [and make ethical decisions] that connect inevitably to infinity with rational language. But, you have to be particularly careful that you don't simply end making up nonsense. It was therefore best to be quiet and say nothing and just try to feel. Just try to calmly appreciate the mystery... That's what the best religions did, celebrate the mystery in life and nature in many different ways." (IJ, Jack and Lucky, 1993)

Some religions teach enlightened ethical concepts based on many years of effort to improve the human condition. As long as they do not base their teachings on the convoluted, self-serving motivation of some charismatic cult leader, they may be a positive influence for society.

12) In 1992, December 6th to be precise, a notable historical monument dating to the 16th-century was destroyed by an angry mob of religious, Hindu, zealots. This 'ethical decision' was both a revenge for the presumed destruction of 11th-century temple built on the same site, and as part of the regional religious and political strife of the 20th-century. The important Islamic mosque, the Babri Masjid, at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, northern India, constructed by the Moghul prince Babur, was torn down by Hindu fundamentalists. This location in Ayodhya is considered the location in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, where the deity/hero Rama was presumed to have been born.

Excavations in 1975-76 did not report medieval finds, but in June of 1992 stone carvings were allegedly uncovered 3.6 m. (12 ft.) underground at the site and these were calimed to have been from the earlier destroyed temple. "Encouraged by politicians of the influential Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindu fundamentalists proceeded to raze the mosque to the ground... This act naturally angered the Muslim population of India... much of the argument has centered less on the morality of destroying a major monument of the 16th-century, [belonging to the minority] than on the quality of the archaeological evidence -- apparently weak -- for the alleged 11th-century temple to Rama... the argument became centered on the claims that the 'Aryans' depicted in the Hymns of the Rigveda, the earliest texts at the root of the Hindu tradition, were indigenous to India. The contrary and indeed conventional view, [is] that an Aryan invasion took place at the end of the Indus Valley civilization around 1800 BC..." (Renfrew and Bahn, The World of Archaeology, 1991) Too often our ethnic biases and ethical discussions resonate on the dome of religion to become destructive action.

13) The Judaic admonition to be righteous, compassionate and, above all, help one's fellow man is called tsedakah, righteousness. This is the closest word for 'charity' in Hebrew or Yiddish; for Jews never separated charity from duty -- that is, from moral and religious obligation. Deuteronomy 15:11 says, "There will always be some Israelites who are poor and in need, and so I command you to be generous to them." Maimonides analyzed and rated the different forms of tsedakah. The highest form, he said, is to help someone to help himself; after that, to help a man anonymously and secretly. Poverty doesn't go away in developed societies, we simply keep shifting the definition.

14)

(Nineteen)

Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.
Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will rediscover filial piety and love.
Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And bandits and thieves will disappear.
These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in themselves.
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one's true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire. (Lao Tzu)

15) According to the Buddha, there are four ways of treating questions:

(1) Some should be answered directly;

(2) others should be answered by way of analyzing them;

(3) yet others should be answered by counter-questions;

(4) and lastly, there are questions which should be put aside.

16) In several locations in Frame of Reference there are references to Wittgenstein and the suggestion that Ethics is an impossible subject. This conclusion is a popular notion, but short sighted, and was repudiated by Wittgenstein as his later philosophical thinking progressed. There are three fundamental errors in his 1930 lecture.

The key to understanding the error, or at least the narrowness of this conclusion, is first: Wittgenstein's acceptance of Ethics being, as he quoted Moore: "...the general inquiry into what is good." To put it otherwise: goodology. It is simply more correct to give Ethics a much broader scope than this.

The second error is to suggest that the composition of ethical discussions have "typical features they all had in common." Instead Wittgenstein subsequently would suggest that it is better to describe ethical discussions as if they had "family resemblances" which in itself is a useful perspective that can clarify many philosophical disagreements.

And third, and probably most important, he asserts: "Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water even if I were to pour out a gallon over it." Thanks largely to Wittgenstein we now understand that making such an accusation about language and the use of words is simply wrong. It is not wrong because what it says is false, because language can be used that way, it is wrong because it doesn't acknowledge that language can be used in other ways, and as he teaches later, a discussion of language outside its context, without understanding what language-game is involved, is simply a narrow, short-sighted theory.

17) Thus Ethics in our society is more complex than just the study of "good." Not all these discussions need to have anything specific in common, but they can have a 'family resemblance.' And when we use words, even in a scientific context, our language is much more elastic than he suggests. It is possible to see how these errors have led Wittgenstein to an inappropriate conclusion, as in verse 4 above: "...nonsensicality was their very essence." It is better to think of Ethics as a field of study or art form -- the way we think of painting. There is painting with water colors, encaustic, oil, etc. Each of these forms benefits by using different tools and can produce strikingly different effects which cannot be duplicated entirely by any combination of the others. And when you paint, you might choose vastly different surfaces which again gives rise to limitations and advantages: think of how a clay pot might influence the work compared to the flexibility of painting on a well prepared canvas. So if Ethics can be viewed in this quite different light, it doesn't have to be essentially nonsensical; nonsense becomes simply a possible outcome of discussions that are not guided by a broad frame of reference.

18) Thinking is something that Man is compelled to do, something we do without choice; it has always been that way. "I think, therefore I am." is only half of the tautology, "I am, so I think." is just as fundamental to Man. Therefore, there is a reasonably compelling logic to making this thinking process as useful as possible, certainly being accurate and truthful, and sometimes thinking quickly, is a good survival technique. Beyond that, training ourselves how to think creatively and critically are useful skills to increase our enjoyment of life, and probably increase our quality of life in economic terms.

19) Most people accumulate biases as they proceed through life, some of these, such as racism, might be handed to us from parents. In other cases, sloppy thinking can result in what is called the fallacy of the neglected aspect. When we fail to consider important circumstances, facts or evidence relating to a decision, possibly because such information is too painful to consider, such as the criminal guilt of a loved one. This is opposite of the fallacy of irrelevance, where we might cloud a decision by considering information that is not pertinent, such as the prestige of the person who gives us certain facts.

Thus there is an art to making decisions as with thinking, and this art is facilitated by expanding our frame of reference every day as a valuable member of society. If we think our vote doesn't count, or that we are incapable of making important decisions, then we are probably right. But that is no excuse to fail to make decisions when we are required to do so, voting is certainly a good example, and that is part of the art of living accessible to both Atheists and believers in equal proportions.

20) "You will wish to know what the marks of a man are who wants to realize truth which is God. He must be completely free from anger and lust, greed and attachment, pride and fear. He must reduce himself to zero and have perfect control over all his senses -- Beginning with the palate or tongue. Tongue is the organ of speech as well as of taste.

It is with the tongue that we indulge in exaggeration, untruth and speech that hurts. The craving for taste makes us slaves to the palate so that like animals we live to eat. But with proper discipline, we can make ourselves into beings only a 'little below the angels'. He who has mastered his senses is first and foremost among men. All virtues reside in him. God manifests Himself through him. Such is the power of self-discipline.

"...Many have deceived me and many have been found wanting. But I do not repent of my association with them. For I know how to non-co-operate, as I know how to co-operate. The most practical, the most dignified way of going on in the world is to take people at their word, when you have no positive reason to the contrary.

"...In every great cause it is not the number of fighters that counts but it is the quality of which they are made that becomes the deciding factor. The greatest men of the world have always stood alone. Take the great prophets Zoraster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad... But they had living faith in themselves and their God, and believing as they did that God was on their side, they never felt lonely." (M. K. Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers, 1960)

These guidelines for making ethical decisions can be taken seriously, having come from one of the world's great practitioners, Gandhiji. 1) Control speech 2) and appetites. 3) Think for yourself 4) and trust others. 5) Be willing to stand alone for truth.

21) Everyone has a value system which is the basis for their own perception of virtue, whether they know about it, or can explain it, or not. The values an individual holds consist of standards and principles by which life choices are made and provide each person with a basis for the way they respond and act throughout life.

Every person is dependent on this value system that is gained by socialization during formative years of growing up, but values can change and evolve as we get older. At some point a young adult must make decisions and take charge of their value system, take responsibility for choosing their own values. Also, life crises or 'landmark experiences' such as the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, financial failure, involvement with substance abuse and so on... can set the wheels of evaluating 'values' in motion. It is thus when one begins to question deeply what is right or wrong for themselves, good or bad or what is more or less important in their lives, that is when an ethical crisis may be confronted. The purpose of "The Cubed Rubric" was to turn that crisis into a rational process. A teachable moment. (see verse 10)

Values are 'the ligament which holds civilized beings and civilizations together.' (Daniel Webster, 1845) The role of values is not fully understood by the average person who might accept the values of a peer community. But for those who wish to rise above their native circumstances, exercise their ethical judgment, they could do worse than studying and understanding the criteria of "The Cubed Rubric."

22) "The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." (Thomas Jefferson, 3rd US President, 1743-1826) Is there an ethical argument, in addition to this pragmatic argument, that compels us to educate our population in the ways of democracy? There is scant biblical justification for manumission or universal suffrage let alone public literacy. We can do better.

23)

My message to the World:

Please listen to me. (Echo)
Listen with your heart and mind.
If you're with someone, take their hand.
If alone, touch your cheek just so.
What you feel is warmth.
That warmth is the energy of life.
We all have it we have an abundance of it.
You are rich no matter how simple your life
Rich with the warmth of life.
"So what." you ask?
"I know that!" (Echo)
Please listen again as I explain this simple plan.

This plan is a way for each of you to be rich.
I offer you extravagant wealth.
The hand you hold, the face you touch
can share the wealth of Earth.
You can share the joy of living as
easily as you feel the warmth of your body.
Do I have your attention? (Echo)
This is how it works:
It is a tradition among native American people to gain status and respect by giving what they make and treasure most to their families and neighbors (the Potlatch).

We can learn from that. Don't just give things, money or tools. Be ready to give some time. Listen when your neighbor wants to speak. Use your art to make someone smile, tell someone you don't know that you care, sing a song with a friend, dance soberly and with joy. In all the ways you find to give, the more times you help someone else not surprisingly every time you do this your wealth is enlarged.

Find a way today to stretch out your hand and you will bring it back full of a new gift you did not expect. When you give, your needs will be met like the work of an invisible hand. When you give your warmth of spirit, your craft, it's never diminished you are more full. You will be made rich by giving in every possible way.

You don't need to give away your savings or money, give away your extra time and talent and smiles and love because, of these you have an endless supply so does everyone but unless these are given they never exist. They don't happen. You have to give love so it can exist.

This may sound trite or obvious, but it is too little practiced.
Listen to the voice of your heart that agrees. (Echo)
You have to give a smile so it can come into being and be added to the wealth of others. You have to give your craft at bargain prices or freely so it comes into being.

The more you give, the wealthier you become. It's not magic. The warmth you have, as long as you live, cannot be diminished. This is not a trick, business venture or pyramid scheme for anyone. This is a sure way to create so much wealth in the world that there will be an abundance for everyone who reaches out to give.

If you stand back and watch, hoping to receive only, you diminish the total of this wealth. If you put out your hand to help someone with warmth, you create and receive wealth. In less than one month you will be well on your way to riches. Someone will show you how to find the money you need I guarantee - if you give as much of your talent as you have to give.

This is a truth of nature.
This is the meaning of the supreme ethical principle of Charity that never faileth.
This is a law of economics and a law of life.

Your warmth is contagious, it gives life and earns rewards for you.
Listen to me. (Echo)
Reach out every day in 10 ways to give your love and talent and you will be so rich you can afford to give even more.
This is a law of love and hope and peace! (IJ, July 2003)

On to Vicesimus Tres Stele