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The Impossibility of Ethics

Note: This post is part of my "philosophy bites" series that expands my social media posts about philosophical topics into blog form. These are not academic essays with a plethora of footnotes and agonizingly constructed arguments, but I do hope they spark conversation. Please remember to share, like, and comment! The original instagram post can be found here.


In order to act morally, you must be free. And in order to be free, you cannot shun anything, nor feel inordinate guilt for making another choice. This is not a moral relativism that claims all choices are equally moral (or that everything is amoral), refusing absolutes. Rather, it's the acknowledgement that absolutes swim over a sea of relativity. There always could have been an otherwise. This knowledge is the essence of freedom. But we choose the good because we know our oneness with all others. This is the essence of morality.


In fact, an absolute can only be transformative when it roots in such relativity. The path of moral exclusion will always leave destruction in its wake rather than transformation. To claim an absolute by rejecting all other ways of being casts a shadow that haunts both separate lives and the broad sweep of history.


This is why I advocate a pattern of integration rather than rejection. Where does this behavior fit into the larger human story? Why would someone feel compelled to engage in such a behavior?


If you judge a behavior, you become attached to that behavior by your judgment. As long as you are attached to a behavior— good or bad— you will not be able to positively help people who engage in those behaviors, and paradoxically, you will be more likely to engage in that behavior yourself (the forbidden always tantalizes).


We must melt our attachments to rigid mandates in order to act freely, bound by the simple reality of interbeing (usually translated as love). Salvation is integration. World-saving begins with the big breath of "YES," and only then begins to carve a particular path, letting other paths be.


What do you think about this tension between freedom and acting for the good of all?


Footnote: It's worth noting that morality was invented with the invention of the self. Before we were self-conscious— i.e. separate— morality was unnecessary, given that all were one and any good was inherently good for all.

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Unknown member
Aug 15, 2022

This is the key: "Salvation is integration." But I don't think the solution is in returning to "before self." It's the whole Zen thing (before Zen mountains were mountains and people were people; during zen it all gets a bit confused; AFTER zen mountains are mountains and people are people." It's the after zen that counts. Beyond ethics and morality but not our instinctive nature's "I can do anything I want" (which of course still implies a separate self." In tune with the infinite, the infinite acts freely through us. Or as St. Augustine put it, "Love and do what you will." I find many conservatives misunderstand this as some sort of liberal/libertine licentiousness. Then, there was the person who asked Zen expert …

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Sondra Charbadze
Sondra Charbadze
Aug 16, 2022
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Yes! I love these thoughts. I was thinking of the Augustine quote while I wrote this. I have written before about how all ethical mandates are abstractions, which can be problematic as they must incarnate in the particular person and situation (situational ethics gets closer to this idea), so the guiding principle must be the very basic reality of love. And love is not fully love unless freedom is present.


In a more radical sense, I believe only the enlightened are fully free. But we can all catch glimpses of enlightenment and share in our limited freedoms.


“In tune with the infinite, the infinite acts freely through us.” Beautiful description! And this tension that you hint at, the before zen,…


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