Sunday, August 14, 2011
I've been thinking about right action lately a good deal. The stuff that's usually filed under 'ethics' or 'morality.' When I was somewhat younger, I did a bit of study of systems of ethics; conceptual constructs that can be used to determine whether an action is 'right' or not. Intentionalism and consequentialism. Absolutism and relativism. Imperatives and intuition. That sort of thing. At one point, I defined my ethical stance as that of policy utilitarianism.
Lately, though, I've come to think that none of that really works all that well. One underlying assumption with all these systems of ethics is that people know what they're doing. That they're working with enough information about the situation to be able to draw meaningful ethical conclusions from them. This is very similar to the fundamental assumptions underlying free market economics—that there are no information asymmetries, that all economic actors are rational utility-maximizers, and so on.
This just isn't true. Most of the time, we have no idea what we're dealing with, or entirely the wrong idea, or at most, a very superficial, partial picture of the situation. Here's where any systematic system of ethics falls down, no matter how rational or well grounded it is—by definition, any such system is a construct of imperatives, and if you feed it bad data, bad conclusions come out. And in ethics, these conclusions can have awful implications. Genocides wouldn't happen if the people perpetrating them wouldn't be really, deeply convinced that despite all the horror what they're doing is right.
Buddhism—especially Zen, I think—takes a completely different approach to the morality of action. The notion of Right Action isn't bound to any set of imperatives to be followed. Instead, it sidesteps the whole question, stating that Right Action springs from wisdom—prajña—moment by moment. The 'rules' you find in Buddhist teachings aren't ethical imperatives at all; they're forms of practice intended to help you discover this wisdom. Vinaya monks aren't supposed to sit on high chairs not because it's 'wrong,' but because not sitting on high chairs is helpful for their practice.
Needless to say, this is deeply unsatisfying, philosophically speaking. There are no answers to be found to ethical dilemmas there. Buddhism has nothing to say about the Trolley Problem or the Survival Lottery or any of the other thought experiments fiendish ethicists have concocted to acid test various systems of ethics.
Instead, Buddhist lore has reams of stories of buddhas and bodhisattvas, Zen masters and monks resolving thorny situations in unconventional ways. Of bodhisattva action in the moment; paramitas in action. Those aren't intended to be models to be emulated either, but rather as fingers pointing the way. Somewhere.
Corto Maltese is a fictional character. He was created by one Hugo Pratt.
Corto is an adventurer, sailor, soldier of fortune, smoker of thin Brazilian cigars, ever searching for the Great Treasure that ever evades him. Towards the end of his life, Hugo Pratt got pretty deep into all kinds of esoterica, about Atlantis and the Lost Continent of Mu, and his drawing got a bit sloppy too. Corto's adventures got weirder and weirder, spinning into psychedelic dream sequences and conversations with long-lost priests of Atlantis. I much prefer his earlier works, which are, on the surface of it, straightforward adventure tales in exotic locations. Only, they have no beginning and no end. Corto is introduced to the reader floating bound to a raft, to encounter and old enemy, or friend, in the middle of a story. At the end of that story, he sails off again. There is no real story arc, no dénouement, no satisfying conclusion. Just an endless wandering from place to place, story to story.
Through it, the character of Corto himself is a constant. Or, rather, it's almost as if he doesn't exist. His actions make no sense from the point of view of conventional motives. The question of why Corto does what he does in a given situation just doesn't arise. Why does Corto take the Armenian girl under his protection? Raspoutine variously suggests he wants to rape her, or seduce her, or is just an old sentimental. Yet Corto's actions suggest none of that. He barely even speaks to the girl, barely pays any attention to her at all, gives her no reassurance, makes no promises, creates no connection. He just has her tag along through the civil war of Turkey, to the one of Russia, and drops her off when she no longer needs him. When he plays cards for the life of a villain—and cheats: "Five aces in a deck with no jokers. Never in my life of gambling have I seen such a wonder," he says of his hand, and hands over the villain to his worst enemy, a convicted killer whom he has abused—he does it with a similar equanimity.
There's a familiar note there, the same one that rings in the Sayings of the Layman P'ang, or those stories of Nansen and Joshu, Rinzai, or Bodhidharma. In the situations they find themselves in, none of these characters have any special concern for themselves. It's as if they've removed their ego from the ethical equation altogether. The actor is at exactly the same level as every other character in the situation. He does what has to be done there. Yet there is no notion of self-sacrifice, self-abasement, or self-negation either. And no calculation, reflection, ethical hand-wringing. Only action. Sometimes things go wrong, but if so, there are no regrets either.
Could this be a hallmark of Right Action: the disappearance of the notion of motive? Should Sensei Corto be admitted among the Ancestors?