Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 6: Emotions and Ethics > Chapter 7: Miscellaneous Ethical Issues

Miscellaneous Ethical Issues

The moral precepts which philosophy imparts to its votaries are based not only on the familiar laws of goodness being coincident with happiness and of suffering being a reaction of evil, but also on the lesser-known facts of psychic sensibility.

If you have renounced the world outwardly and wear the monk's cowl or the nun's robe, you would be right in regarding ambition as a sin. But if you still live in the world and have renounced it inwardly, it would not be wrong to work like those who are ambitious and so fill a more useful and more powerful role in society.

Capital punishment is unethical because it commits a second murder to punish the first one.

Ideals are good and needed, but impracticable ones are not. Their failure tests and shows them up for the mere theories that they are. The balanced, practical idealist does more for humanity than the hazy, muddling theorist.

So far as advertising uses its powers of suggestion and repetition to increase the desires for food, clothes, and things which are basically harmful, it becomes a means of debasing or perverting people.

Today they are legalizing abortion in several countries and making it easier for the act to be committed than it ever was before. Nevertheless it remains what it is. On its own level it is an act of murder, even though that level is an early one in the life of the human being in the foetus. There is, there must be, a bad karma connected with such an act.

To abort a foetus is to destroy a child, to take its life. This is an act which must carry its own karmic penalty. And for a woman, whose very function in Nature is to bring a child into the world, such an act is doubly strange. How sad that, through ignorance of higher laws, such mistakes made in judgement and conduct have to be paid for--sometimes with many years of unhappiness or suffering, sometimes with recurring regrets over opportunity missed and gone.

It is not enough to try to secure peace between the nations. We must also try to secure it between men and animals by ceasing to slaughter them.

To take advantage of the helplessness of so many animals when confronted by man's deadly weapons, cruel snares, or powerful contrivances is a sin. The karmic scales of life will read off an appropriate penalty for it. Ordinary human brutality to these creatures is bad enough but scientific brutality by vivisection is worse.

I would not go out of my way to destroy a mosquito but if it insists on attacking me, disturbing my daily activity or nightly sleep, then my killing of it in self-defense is ethically justified, if harmless precautions like screening windows and netcurtaining the bed have been taken but fail to keep it away.

In this matter we must distinguish between creatures that live on the distress of others, that represent the principle of evil in the universe, from those that do not. The ethics of nonkilling need not be applied to parasites, vermin, vampires, and maggots. In destroying them to take a higher nonverminous form, we do no wrong.

Sassoon story. The poor monkey-chieftain gave out a loud cry of distress, a last scream of despair before it fell dead to the earth. But in that moment his eyes met the hunter's; there was an immense heart-broken reproach in the monkey's, and in the man's heart a feeling like that which would follow had he slaughtered a human being.

Whether shooting animals is cruel is arguable when they are instantly slain but it is unquestionably cruel when they are impaled on spikes or hooked in a trap.

To take a beast from the hot tropics to the cold north, to confine it in a cage or cell for the remainder of its life is not compensated by guaranteeing all its meals.

I lament the cutting of flowers and the caging of animals: the one because it condemns living things to swift decay and early death, the other because it condemns living creatures to the utter hopelessness of lifelong imprisonment.

Why should the last dying days of cut flowers bring joy, happiness, uplift, and inspiration to anyone?

If we are not to slaughter mosquitoes, because they are living creatures, then we ought logically not to slaughter the germs of syphilis with Salvarsan or penicillin. We ought to let them destroy a man's flesh and poison his descendants, for these germs too are living creatures. Let us not anthropomorphize the mosquitoes' sufferings. When we kill them they do not feel anything like that pain that creatures with more developed nervous systems feel.

He takes care not to hurt the body of any living creature, however tiny it be, nor to harm its well-being. The only exceptions to this benevolent vigilance will be those cases where still greater evil will result by failure to defend himself against wild animals or verminous parasites.

Those who can only find their fun by the wanton killing of harmless animals, show no mercy and, at the appropriate time, will receive none.

Dr. John C. Lilly in Man and Dolphin: "Animal training is effected by isolation and contact with humans, withholding food until the starving animal has to approach a human being or die. This is the usual training maneuver in circuses." E. Westacott in Spotlights on Performing Animals shows every kind of cruelty is forced on the unfortunate creatures.

Nonviolence, nonresistance, pacificism

The doctrine of nonresistance, as taught by Tolstoy and practised by Gandhi, seems noble and lofty but is actually founded on misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the true doctrine. What its modern exponents have done is to make it mean nonresistance to human evil; what its ancient advocates meant was nonresistance of the human ego to the divine Self. Its most philosophical advocates always taught that we should put aside our personal will and our personal desires and sacrifice them to the higher being, the higher Self, unresistingly. They taught a wise passivity, not a foolish one, a self-surrender to the divine power not to the diabolic power.

"Ahimsa," described as the highest ethical duty by the Mahabharata, and so often translated as "nonviolence" would be more correctly translated for the Western mind by "non-harmfulness." It does not necessarily mean that its practiser must abjure the use of physical violence when defending himself against aggression.

Philosophy is as opposed to violence and bloodshed as a method of ending conflicts as is pacifism but it stops where the latter walks obstinately on. It makes a clear distinction between aggression and self-defense, and justifies the use of force in the second instance.

He will defend himself and others against evil aggression, but he will not retaliate against it.

Justice often demands that force be used in order to implement its decisions. Philosophy sets up justice as one of the guiding principles of personal and national conduct. Therefore philosophy has no use for pacifism or nonviolence.

The resistance of evil is a social duty. Its strongest expression heretofore has been defensive war against a criminally aggressive offending nation. If resistance is itself an evil, war is the most evil form of that evil. The appearance of the atomic bomb is a sign that a new approach must be found today, that the old way of defensive war will not meet the new problems which have arisen. If man is to end war once and for all and find peace, he must do so both internally and externally. He can do the one by ending the rule of the animal aggressive emotions within himself such as greed, anger, revenge, and hatred, and he can do the other by abandoning the slaying of his fellow creatures, whether human or animal. He may take whatever defensive preparations he pleases, but he must stop short at the point of killing other men. The refusal to slaughter would then evoke powerful spiritual forces, and if enough persons evoke them the end of war would be assured. However it is unlikely that such an idealistic course would appeal to more than a small minority of mankind, so that if the end of war is to be brought about in another way it can only be by the political method of an international policing army operated by a world federation of peoples. Since such a federation does not exist today, its only possibility of coming into existence is through the hard lessons learnt out of the appalling destructiveness of an atomic war. There is no other alternative to such a war than the renunciation of the right to kill.

Philosophy is essentially realizable hence practical. It uses the idea of nonviolence only under the governance of wisdom. If violent punishment or causing pain will be better in the end than refraining, it will not hesitate. They have their place. But because philosophy combines and balances its wisdom with compassion, with mercy and, if advisable, forgiveness, its violence operates side by side with nonviolence.

To meet the assaults of vicious human beasts with sympathetic nonviolence in the optimistic belief that this attitude is not only morally correct but may also change the attacker's character, is to deceive oneself.

Such passivity invites the continuance of attack and promotes further crime. It persuades the criminal individual to turn potential victims into actual ones. It actually contributes to the other man's delinquency by encouraging him to adventure farther into wrong-doing.

The materialist resists evil from a selfish standpoint and with angry or hateful feeling, the mystic practises nonresistance to the point of martyrdom, the philosopher resists evil but from the standpoint of common welfare and in a spirit of calm, impersonal duty.

Sir Arthur Bryant: "Christ's injunction to the angry and revengeful to turn the other cheek was addressed to the individual, seeking by forbearance to render unto God, for his soul's sake, the things that are God's, and not to the rulers of society. Christ never . . . bade his followers to turn someone else's cheek to the lawless and aggressor."

He who would trust to the goodness of human nature at its present stage of evolution may meet with justification in some instances but with disappointment in many more.

The primary and justifiable use of destructive weapons should be for self-defense. When however, through greed or fondness for fighting, they are turned to offensive and aggressive uses, he who thus violates ethical laws, will, sooner or later, have to pay the karmic penalty. This is equally true of individual gangsters as of imperialistic militarists.

When the bloodshed and horrors of fighting have to be experienced by one on the Quest, let him steel his nerves and toughen his feelings by sheer effort of willpower. Let him console himself in the knowledge that it is only a temporary affair and will have to come to an end, at which time he can then live the kind of life he wants to live. Such a state of affairs, although a terrible business, underlines Buddha's teaching about the ever-presence of suffering and the consequent necessity of finding an inner refuge from it. Whatever happens, he must try to keep his moral outlook undegraded by outside pressures. Good character is the foundation of a worthwhile life, spiritually and materially.

It is the duty of pioneer thinkers to help mankind move up towards a higher life. This duty will be made clearer when the implications of the destructive period through which the world is passing are made plain. The ideals of pacifism are for those who have renounced the world. For all others the full discharge of responsibilities is necessary. The truth is that the present crisis has no parallel in history except that which preceded the destruction of Atlantis. For present-day circumstances are the material objectifications of the struggle between unseen powers representing good and evil, light and darkness. In the last war, the Nazis and the Japanese were the focal points for an attack upon the highest ideals of mankind, were the human instruments for a vile eruption of evil and lying spirits. It is the duty of those who care for these ideals to protect them. This can only be done by fighting and defeating the instruments of the forces of darkness. This battle must be waged in an impersonal spirit without hatred and with deep recognition that mankind without exception forms one great spiritual family and with the consciousness that this must constitute the ultimate ethical ideal for every nation. Thus mankind must first be purged by suffering and later healed by love.

Pacifism and conscientious objection to war are unworthy of a student of philosophy. They are ideals which are correct only for monks, hermits, and those who have renounced the worldly life, but quite incorrect for those who remain in the world to serve mankind. During the last war, when we were fighting such devils as the Nazi gangsters, who would destroy all spirituality, all truth, and all religion, pacifism was sheer idiocy. The Bhagavad Gita explains that selfless action is much higher than self-centered renunciation. So philosophy supported the war as a sacred duty but it was done without hatred and simply to teach the Germans and the Japanese that crime does not pay. If they have learned this lesson, we have helped them spiritually.

We take from those we associate with some of their characteristics. We may take only a little, and that unconsciously, but the result is unavoidable even if the association is only one of hate and war. This truth would provide the advocates of nonresistance and nonviolence with a good argument for their cause but other factors need to be taken into consideration. What is the benefit of slightly uplifting the character of some men at the terrible price of degrading the character of an entire culture for generations? For when a nation is handed over to an invader, its culture is handed over at the same time. All expressions of the arts, the intellect, religion, mysticism, and philosophy are then at the mercy of, and will be reshaped by, inferior minds and brutal characters.

Nonviolence is, and always has been, desperately needed by the world. But it must be applied sensibly and understood wisely. For, ill-placed or false, it will encourage crime, condoning it rather than deterring men from it.

The pursuit of nonviolence in the international field is like the pursuit of politico-economic utopia--a dream. It is laudably idealistic but, unfortunately, it is also ill-founded. The pacifism which preaches a total and absolute nonviolence, applicable all the time and in all situations, fails to recognize what is written all over the universe--the law of opposites. It is their balance which holds all things in the world, all creatures in Nature, together. In human life their conflict breeds violence, and their recession, peace. War can change its form, can lose its brutality, can be lifted to a higher level altogether where words displace weapons, and this will certainly happen. But war at worst, friction at best, will not disappear so long as the ego in man with its negative emotions is his ruler.

The common attitude which thoughtlessly proclaims that everything on one side of a case is good and everything on the other is bad, cannot be adopted by a philosopher. For it is dictated by the unconscious complexes of egoism. It brushes aside what is unpleasing or unselfish. It is not honestly concerned, as he is, with truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A wise student, therefore, will not accept the demand to choose between two extremes. He will take something from each but tie himself to neither. The part of a fanatic who forces all questions into an "either-or" steel frame is not for him. These sharp divisions into two opposite camps are uncalled for. There is a third alternative which not only combines their own best features but also rises superior to them both. Philosophy seeks this higher view as the outcome of its refusal to take a partisan one, for partisan views contain truth but, because they are too prejudiced or too exaggerated or too one-sided, they also contain untruth.

Thus he will never make the common and harmful error of confusing sentimentality with spirituality. The propagation of the doctrine of pacifist nonviolence as a universal ethic arises out of such an error. Pacifism is a dream. The only practical rule is to meet force with force, to deal firmly when you are dealing with ruthless men, and to renounce the use of violence only when you are dealing with nonviolent men. So it is that while mystical ethics lend themselves to conscientious objections to war, such an attitude is defective from the philosophic standpoint. The philosophic student must be guided by the ideal of service and should not hesitate about the form of service whether it be soldiering or otherwise. Nevertheless, it is necessary to be tolerant and respect the inner voice of others.

There is nothing reprehensible about holding conscientious objections to the draft for military service at a certain stage of his growth for it grows out of his fine ideals. It is not a matter where anyone should attempt to dictate what he should do, for such a view is to be respected and the practice of tolerance is advisable in such an instance. Nevertheless, he should also realize that it is nothing more than a milestone from which he will one day move on. There is a higher possible view but if he cannot see its rightness or hasn't the inner strength to take it, he should not worry but do whatever he thinks is right. And this higher view is to sink his personal feelings, to realize that having been born among the people of his country and shared its life, he has incurred a karmic responsibility to share its protection too. If their ideals are different, that does not absolve him of responsibility. Only a deliberate renunciation of citizenship and transfer of residence to another country would absolve him--and once war has been declared, it is too late. As to taking up arms and killing an enemy, if need be, here again if it is done in defense of one's country against an aggressive nation, it is not a sin but a virtue. For he is not doing it merely to protect himself alone but others also. To that extent it is quite unselfish. Much depends on his motive. If a soldier fights selflessly as in a spirit of righteous service against a ruthless aggressor, he is acting egolessly. Again, the mere killing of a physical body is not a sin but the motive which brought about that killing can alone turn it into a sin or not.

He will not love men merely because they happen to have been born within a few miles of where he was born nor hate them solely because they happen to live a few hundred miles from it. His sympathies are too broad for that. Let the world not judge such a man by its own standards. Although he will externally comply with all that the State may legally demand and all that society may rightfully demand, he will internally be beyond all nationalistic or class favouritism, bias, and prepossessions. In its thought it may believe that he regards himself as, for instance, a Frenchman and a Catholic. But in his own thought he will really regard himself as a citizen of the world and a servant of God. There will be no room in his heart for narrowness and creedalism. Consequently, he will be completely tolerant and friendly towards all, including the members of different races and religions who approach him. But will they be so towards him?

India's much-vaunted contribution of nonviolence to the world's ethics was in fact, taken from the West, for Gandhi took it directly from Tolstoy.

The practice of nonviolence is prescribed in two different forms, one for laymen and the other for monks. No founder of any religion who has himself understood the Truth demands from laymen that extreme form which only the monks should give.

If it would be wrong for the monk, who has renounced worldly life, to resist evil, it would be foolish for the householder not to do so.

Pacifism is a natural and inevitable consequence of the monkish and mystic view of life. Monks may rightly submit to martyrdom, but philosophers must resist the evil forces and even fight them to the end.

The whole of the Bhagavad Gita is a warning against the folly of nonresistance to evil.

The problem of conscientious objection to war is an extremely difficult one. Arjuna was taught in the Bhagavad Gita to fight and to do his duty in the defense of his people, but he was warned to fight impersonally, without anger and without hatred. Yet how few can be caught up in the passions of war or the dangers of war without feeling some antagonism towards those on the other side? It is an almost impossible ideal for most persons.

Those who follow spiritual ideals will have to take their stand. Unless they recant those ideals, they must oppose the evil.

There are savage creatures, moral monsters and insane animals who look like men but have only partially risen into the human species in their passage up from the lower ones. Having human faces and limbs, digestive and sense organs, is not enough to render them worthy of human classification.

Nonviolence is a good. Violence is an evil. But in the compulsory choice between violent defense against violent aggression or passive submission to such aggression, it is often the lesser of two evils. For the first may bring the aggressor to suffer the consequences of his crime whereas the second may condone it. The first may re-educate him to abandon his evil ways whereas the second may encourage him in them.

With a wise mercy, which need not be stretched too far but must not be stretched too little, we must temper natural desire to punish the violent criminal adequately.

The pacifist who believes that his attitude will affect the war-makers and alter their attitude is as irrational as the sparrow who appeals to the hawk for his life to be spared. But pacifism has a far sounder basis than this weak one.

The adherence to nonviolence is not a sign of ignoble weakness but rather of noble wisdom. The folly of war cannot be reconciled with the dictates of reason.

To use violent means for the defense of nonviolent ideals can only lead to the loss of those ideals.

What is conquered by violence must be maintained by violence.

Nonviolence is not a doctrine of practical defeatism and emotional surrender. On the contrary, it is, in these atomic days, the only sure road to a real victory rather than to the illusory one which modern warfare brings. Nor is it a doctrine of escapism.

Whether it be right or wrong, this refusal to take human life under any circumstances is noble and magnificent. It must be admired even by those of us who cannot agree.

The decision to accept nonviolence will be made, not necessarily on an exalted plane of moral values but on a practical plane of superior effectiveness. It will be not because we have been spiritually transformed that we choose the pacifist way but because we have reached an impasse and have no other way out from world-wide suicide than this one. We are in no position any longer to make any choice at all.

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