Toward a metaphysics of decency

Kenneth Clark once said that good manners were the agreeable by-product of civilization, but not its defining moment. My sense of the matter is that this is probably mistaken, based on a misinterpretation of how good manners – or what I have been calling decency – really ought to be formed and taught. True, as imposed behavior, decency is as oppressive as any other behavioral imposition, and as such says very little about the people who are forced, or who otherwise feel externally impelled, to enact the behavior.

But decency, just as such, arose when a handful of intelligent men and women came to the awareness that treating each other with respect is preferable to treating each other in a rude or even violent manner; that the collective of their living, which we call society, became a way of life worthy of handing down to the next generation; and while that originally occurred in a primitive culture, it is more readily available in a culture with literacy, where the good manners that are the outward show of decency can be codified, depicted verbally in transcribed dialogue or description, explained theoretically, questioned philosophically.

The metaphysical underpinnings of any aggressive violence, the defining moment of indecency, are actually quite clear – utter disregard for the possibility that other humans are other selves, not things; disregard even for the one’s own children who can be used as victims, or as tools for the continuance of violence unto the next generation. To the indecent, the universe is simply a collection of things to consume and destroy, otherwise meaningless.

The metaphysics of decency are a somewhat different matter, very difficult to discern and articulate briefly. For the sake of brevity I am only suggesting that one possible firm foundation might be discoverable in the Buddhist tradition.

I do need to elaborate that a bit more. Decency occurs in many different civilized cultures, obviously, some of which never adopted Buddhism as a solution to the most basic problems of coping with the natural and inevitable disappointments and sufferings of human existence. In fact, most decency as we find it is known to those who consider it well to be little more than a collection of individual theories concerning separate moments or possible events within the human experience – for instance, one theory concerning the shaking of hands in greeting strangers could be that the offer of a hand indicates the openness to the meeting with the other, and possibly even an offer of assistance if it should be needed or asked. There are metaphysical issues implicit in such a theory, but for most civilized people, the theory in and of itself is enough to explain the behavior and justify teaching it to the next generation. It was on this basis, by the way, that Kant claimed that ethics as a general ideology emerged as a set of axioms dependent on the possibility of universal application. But there is another approach to the matter.

Even if not all cultures are Buddhist, is it possible that the Buddhist approach to these issues represents a distillation of the primary concerns of all ethical theories? That is what I am suggesting here. I do not suggest that we should all become Buddhists (although the world would be a much better place in which to live if we did). I am saying that in their dogged effort to discover the true origin of human consciousness, in order to deconstruct it for greater liberation into the possibility of enlightenment, Buddhist philosophers did discover a fundamental truth of all ethical theory and practice – that ethics begins in the effort to remove the self from consciousness, to reject the principle of self-interest, to acknowledge the needs of other human beings as somehow primary to those of the self, to the extent that the needs of the other become the needs of the self.

Here of course we need to make a distinction which is frequently made casually in the East, but which is hardly made at all in the West, and not without tortuous analysis of economics. But we will try to avoid this. Briefly the distinction is between “need” and “want”. In the West, we have long held (since at least Aristotle) that needs and wants arise in consciousness from a single source, “desire” – the vaguely discernible engine that motivates us to get up out of bed and do something – anything – rather than nothing, whether urinating or building a bridge, copulating or painting a work of art.

Although Western philosophy and religion have a considerable amount of thought it shares with Hinduism, this is one of the important issues concerning which West does not meet East, not even in India. Eastern thought has long made a major distinction between the needs of the animal (a “clinging to life”) and the wants of the individual (a “clinging to self”).

Although Eastern ascetics reject both, Buddhism is (contrary to some Western presumptions) not an ascetic cult. The paradigmatic moment, for our purposes here, is in the enlightenment of the Buddha himself.

According to the legend: Having become an ascetic out of disappointment with the tribulations of being a husband and a father, the Buddha seemed determined to starve himself to death, and he very nearly accomplished this. But one day, he was staggering down a road, when a street vendor handed him a honey-cake, which, without thought, he took and ate. What surprised him was the thoughtlessness of the moment. He did not stop himself with a thought, nor did he initiate the eating with a thought. His body essentially enacted its own survival, quite independent of his consciousness.

Buddhism begins as a radical reduction of the human-animal experience of life to its essentials of needs, which the Buddha apparently determined were simply unavoidable; It is true that we can consciously kill our bodies, but it is not the case that we can somehow train the body to kill itself. It is ingrained in every living cell to continue living until the effort becomes greater than the cell can accomplish. Now, that is need.

Desire, on the contrary, is mere surplus, and it arises from the mind. It seems to arise at the moment when the mind recognizes that it is capable of a great deal more pleasure than the body just in and of itself. After all, most animals take but a few brief moments in which to mate, and they do so only once a year; humans spend a great deal of time preparing for it, selecting appropriate partners, “setting the mood”, enjoying it, basking in the afterglow – all are mental enjoyments, moments when the mind relishes its own ability to satisfy apparently animal need in a rational manner. We in the West, holding that need and want arise from the same source, would say that these mental enjoyments effectively constitute need; or we would deny the necessity of procreation all together. Both of these positions deny either our rational or our animal nature.

Need is simply that, something necessary for the survival of the individual organism and for the perpetuation of the species. There are a myriad of animals that easily satisfy their needs, having neither mind nor, for some, even brain. The impulse is felt, they move toward the needed satisfaction, they satisfy the need.

But for the human animal, with its over-sized, overly complex brain, every other impulse of attraction arises from want – which means the satisfaction of want is a function of psychology, intellection, even reason (‘x will get me what I want; if I do y, I get x;’ etc.) However, this means we have an advantage over other animals – we get to change our minds.

The Buddha, having dedicated his life to the extinction of both need and want, discovered that his body was going to go ahead and need without him, so to speak. This discovery sparks the great enlightenment that at last delivers the Buddha to history. Any want we have, any impulse to some surplus pleasure, can be denied; and, perhaps, ought to be: since the satisfaction of want generally conflicts with the wants of others, we soon find ourselves in a “community” that is little more than a collective of adversaries who happen to be dependent on each other as sources of want-satisfaction. (One may not actually like one’s spouse, but after all, marriage assures one of readily available sexual pleasure.)

But there is no reason, and it may even be impossible, to deny completely our needs – that is, the needs of the body.

And in like manner, if we are to know peace with others like ourselves, there is no reason to make effort simply to satisfy the wants of others. But it may be very likely that the most peaceful, harmonious communal living can be generated by satisfying the needs of others – to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to nurse the sick. All of these behaviors efface the self; in the nursing of the sick, neither the nurse nor the ailing have discernible personalities. The human existential presence is that of health and recovery. Personality – the beloved sacred “self” of Western epistemology and psychology – is nowhere to be found. If one truly lives for others, the self vanishes; if the self vanishes, the otherness of the other vanishes as well. No self, no other – who is there to enact violence? and to whom can violence be done?

This is an ideal, and may be only imperfectly realized, but there seems no doubt that any real decency seems targetted at effacement of the self.

My suggestion is that this is the distillation of all decency, of all ethics, which, teleologically, can thus be discovered as the ground of all ethics and decency. That is, the goal defines the origin of the project, however well realized. The respect for the other that decency demands is really a willingness to efface self and otherness. This does not require a recognition of the similitude between self and other, since its telos is eradication of any prior distinction that would make such similitude meaningful enough to be recognized.

Decency arises from the understanding that we humans are all rational and we are all animal. Beyond that admission, there is very little we can claim as certain knowledge of what it really means to be human. Civilized decency is enacted as the continual discovery of that, which thus, almost paradoxically, opens the door to all human freedom we might desire for the realization of our potentials as human beings within a community of others like ourselves.


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