Ethics beyond right and wrong

Conscience is the comprehension of right being different than wrong, but morality begins when the differences between right and wrong are understood to be illusionary.

Right and wrong are abstract constructs used to describe how closely actions achieve goals for behavior: the ending of suffering is the primary goal for all living beings capable of experiencing pain, pleasure, strength, weakness, birth and death. Actions which result in the ending of suffering are “right,” actions which result in suffering are “wrong.”

But there are times when what is right is unclear. If a house were burning down, and the children would not come out to safety because their father told them to remain inside, would it be permissible to lie and tell them their father told them to come out – even though Gotama said lies are unconscionable? Here, the ideal of goodness expressed in truthfulness guides a person to lie.

Would you promise those children toys, inspiring desire for the toys, and do so with no intention of actually delivering the toys to them if it saved their lives? Would you comfort someone who is sick and tell them they will get better when you know otherwise? Lies and sympathy are just as poisonous as truth and compassion are wholesome – yet we must understand them in the philosophical constructs of pragmatism as the practice of goodness.

It is the poison arsenic in the copper which makes bronze tools not only harmless but useful, it is the impurity in gold which permits its coinage; it is the hole in a wheel that permits it to spin freely on an axle; it is the windows and doors that make a room usable.

Conscience is the logical application of ethics. Through logic, a person knows that all beings experience distress when in pain, or when pleasure ceases, all beings experience distress when they are sick, old or dying. And such suffering is shared - logic requires that a person must do what can be done to help alleviate the distress of other beings if they will not share in that distress. Consequently, conscience requires a person direct their action toward alleviating distress and comforting harm – both their own suffering, and the suffering of others.

But both “good” and “bad” actions ultimately result in harm: satisfaction and pleasure cannot be sustained, and ultimately results in harm. Causing harm is also not right. And non-action would also be inappropriate when there is a clear directive to alleviate suffering. This paradox is resolved through a theory of counterfeit goodness and counterfeit evil through conscience.

Counterfeit goodness is loving action which causes harm: a surgeon removing an arrowhead must cause considerable suffering or death, a lie may need to be told to provide refuge to a person hunted by their enemies. Counterfeit evil is hateful action which alleviates harm: administering an antibiotic kills numerous beings but ultimately alleviates harm, self-defense is an act of violence which ultimately can result in harmony. It is unconscionable to act wrongly – yet we must sometimes do unconscionable things when it is impossible to do something right. Choosing the lesser of evils is logical when the ultimate goal of pure goodness is unattainable.

Accepting that we must sometimes act unconscionably does not mean that morality is itself illogical, only that perfect morality may not be possible.

But when is it right or wrong to lie? When must we do all those kinds of things we know we ought not to?

Gold was at the time a widely used means of commerce, in the form of coins. However, pure gold was fragile, and so gold alloys were usually employed for the purpose of coinage. But it was difficult to say the actual value of the gold coin when the gold element of the alloy might be itself impure, and counterfeiting – whether intentionally diluting the amount of gold in an imposter coin or unintentionally using gold of poor quality – was wide spread.

But it was seen that it was not the purity of the gold which makes a coin valuable, only the belief in that purity. A counterfeit coin spends just as well as an authentic one – as long as it is believed to be authentic.

Gotama said he counterfeited the Dharma into hard and fast training rules, inflexible descriptions of facts, to make it more useful. Like adding the poison arsenic into copper made a tool better, or impurities to gold coins to permit their currency, these counterfeit Dharmas are partially toxic. But when absolute truth is undiscernible, they are necessary to make the Dharma hard enough to grab hold of, and serve a purpose.

This is what is referred to as "restoring the Dharma." The Dharma had become too purified for use. All logicians want pure truth, like they would want pure gold. But neither pure truth nor pure gold is useful. Pure gold is too soft for use, and a conscience which is too flexible is inferior for its purpose. An ideal can serve only to direct necessary action.

If we would be ethical, we cannot afford to be idealistic.