Quick recap. Ethics are good, it’s hard to express ethics strictly as themes and complicated algorithms. A short list of rules can be instructive. Traditional rules are good starting point, but the have mixed into them repugnant rules, silly rules and so on. (For example rules about touching flowers, plain misogynist rules from ancient times, rules condoning slavery, rules to support some alien power structure, such as an ancient abbot or an ancient Emperor)
Also, there are may ways for ethics to go wrong, much in the same way that there are many ways for secular legal systems to go wrong.
- Power. Subscribing to an ethical system not so much for one’s own goals, but as a means of controlling others. (I.e. not only do I follow the rules, but you need to follow the rules, too. What a fine coincidence that when you follow the rules, I accrue benefits!)
- Rank. Rejecting ethical systems because you think someone is trying to re-arrange the social hierarchy. For example, I practice virtue & accrue merit. For anyone to recognize that merit, would be to raise that person in rank. If it is important to maintain the social order as-is, then it is important to go on the offensive and attack the do-gooder and the ethical system they subscribe to.
- Complacency. Your desire for inertia encourages your mind to do everything possible to fight any ethical system that requires actually changing anything.
- Antinomianism. The rules prohibit doing what you want to do, but with great mental gymnastics, you’re able to come up with a reason to break any rule, sort of making ethics either unnecessary or at least a sham. These mental gymnastics can be sophisticate or primitive– the brain tolerates cognitive dissonance (thinking contradictory thoughts) better than it tolerates not getting what it wants.
- Rules as magic. You follow the rules because… they’re rules. And why? Because. And why? Because someone made the rules. And why? Because they did. And so on. This sort of reasoning would made anyone get fed up with ethical systems altogether. Where the rules are unmotivated, unexplained, detached from any benefit, then they’re magic rules.
Not addressing the ways that ethical systems can fail is the heart of antinomian thinking. For example, lets take two ethical rules, one controversial and one less so.
“You can’t force me to change my diet! You think you are better than me for being a vegetarian? I’ve always eaten turkey, it’s history and I can’t give up history. Kill animals? No, you vegans are the real violent ones that kill animals and your ethical rules are the way you show your true evil face.”(phew, cognitive dissonance solved!) Reasoning away an uncomfortable ethical rule doesn’t even require an airtight logical thought, it just has to be strongly emotionally felt.
“You can’t force me to stop microwaving babies! You think you are better than me for never having microwaved a baby? I’ve always eaten microwaved live babies, it’s history and I can’t give up history. Kill babies? No, you baby coddlers are the real violent killers and your ethical rules are the way you show your true evil face (phew, cognitive dissonance solved!).”
If you substitute in something neutral like “water drinking”, the example doesn’t work– because there is no cognitive dissonance, no part of you that thinks that drinking water is problematic for anyone (oddities like dypsomania excluded).
So here is an idea. Make your own set of rules, use the traditional set of rules as a starting point. We follow other peoples rules that way anyhow, accepting or discarding rules that are unpleasant or simply wrong. Each rule also has at least two forms in Buddhism, householder style and “professional” Personal rules can be more like guidelines- if you break them, it’s your conscious that suffers and that’s it. If you are a professional, ie. a monk or a nun, when you break the rules the institution gets to deal with it– so those rules are going to be nit picky precise and influenced by the fact the act happened in an institution that has goals of its own.
“Get your house in order rules”
Metarule—> Keep it simple, simplify your life until it is easy to practice
Metarule—> Try to work within existing secular law.
> Economics, aka, don’t steal/be generous.
> Family, aka, no sex/no sex (ha!). Buddhism has little to offer in this area if we are to look at the traditional rules. You’ll have to generate specific rules from themes, such as compassion.
> Mental Health. Drinking, smoking, over (under)eating, and other health activities that mess with your mind.
> Skillful Communication, aka no lying/be honest. The Buddhist tradition is sort of conflicted about this. Per the Lotus Suttra white lies are okay, variances among sects is “skillful means” (different versions of the Dharma for different folks, not lies for you and truth for me) and everyone older than a child knows that managing information in a socially acceptable way is more difficult that just a policy to always tell the painful truth.
> Death and Suffering. Don’t exacerbate the situation, minimize death and suffering of all sentient beings.
“Take care of others rules”
> Boddhichitta – Sincerely wish that others can find peace.
> Engagement – Actually do something about helping others find peace. In the Buddhist informed view, this isn’t just enabling people to be more materially successful. This is enabling people to achieve Buddhist goals, regardless to if they follow through. If someone is sick, impoverished to the point where they are time starved (or rich in a way that makes them time starved), or wandering and uninformed, then we ought to be obliged to do something about it.