Conventional morality vs. Natural morality

According to FWBO teaching, 'conventional morality' is based on guilt and fear, and is therefore only a pseudo-morality. True morality, or 'natural morality', is not based on external authority or on commonly agreed standards, but on an individual's own appraisal of what is 'skilful' or 'unskilfull'. As Subhuti explains:

'What we do affects those around us and it is a mark of the individual that he accepts responsibility for the consequences of his own actions. No longer does he blame outside forces for his own fortunes and misfortunes, no longer does he blindly and wilfully try to impose himself, childlike, upon the world: he has developed an ethical sense, an awareness that actions have consequences.

'This ethical sense is inner and natural, in complete contrast to morality imposed by convention or by authority. Conventional morality is a matter of local custom and differs, often drastically, from area to area and from age to age. The enormous variations worldwide in what is acceptable behaviour in sexual matters are sufficient illustration of this. Conformity with conventional morality is guaranteed by fear of social ostracism. Though anyone who has developed real individuality may find it prudent at times to conform to conventional morality, for it is often enforced by law, fear of social disapproval cannot be among his ethical determinants.

'Moralities which depend on the commandments of a God also cannot guide the individual. Here the moral code is cast as 'Thou shalt not'. The main reason for obeying is fear of the consequences of disobedience. Western morality has, until quite recently, been almost entirely based on fear, in the first place of God's judgment and consequent damnation, and secondly of the temporal judgments of Church courts, godly magistrates, and even Inquisition. The characteristic moral emotion here is guilt and irrational fear of divine disapproval. Such guilt and fear linger on even in the minds of those who have never been even nominal Christians.

'A morality which relies upon external sanction is not real morality. Such pseudo-morality relieves the individual of responsibility. 'Not my will, but thine' can lead to the most extreme inhumanity and cruelty. The blood which stains the hands of many followers of the world's theistic religions is evidence of the ease with which they can shrug off all human feeling.

'Natural morality does not try to impose moral absolutes onto all behaviour. The words 'good' and 'bad' have no place in the vocabulary of real ethics. More suitable terms of ethical evaluation are morally 'skilful' and 'unskilful'. A skilful action requires an intelligent and practical awareness. No moral rulebook can lay down how to be skilful. Skilfulness depends on an appraisal of the particular situation and the likely outcome of any action for oneself as well as for those whom it will affect. Moral action is, then, a craft, a skill which is learnt by practice and persistence. Mistakes, perhaps many of them, will be made but each one provides its lessons in how best to act.

'Awareness is not a cold and abstract quality, and skill implies not only clarity but warmth. Skilful actions proceed from positive healthy mental states - states of generosity, of friendliness, and of clear mindedness. Unskilful actions have at their root negative unwholesome mental states - neurotic craving, ill will, and blind stupidity. It is the mental state which determines the ethical character of an action.

'Every situation is new and every person is unique. It may well be that what is skilful for one person is not for another. '

'Buddhism for Today', by Subhuti, pub FWBO/Windhorse 1983 rev. 1988, P 73-74
ISBN 0-904766-34-9.

'We have already seen that Buddhist ethics is entirely cast in terms of skill. There are no absolute moral values, and each person must learn by his own experience how best to act.' ibid. p 180


The upshot of this natural morality idea is that that the FWBO leadership (the Preceptors and senior order members) see themselves as morally unaccountable to any outside authority. Following their own self-defined and self-serving 'natural morality', they see themselves as acting skilfully, and are contemptuous of their critics:

'We are revolutionary in many aspects. We are critical of the nuclear family, of [hetero or long term]sexual relationships, of theistic religions, of conventional morality. ... The Guardian was only the first mild attack on us. More and nastier attacks will follow by those who cherish the rotten institutions we criticize.'
Ratnotarra, Shabda Feb 1998

At times, FWBO members seem to see themselves as morally above the law:

'Do you think the general public understands the first thing about Buddhist values and ethics? Generally in England the morals are protestant. There's no way that any Buddhist should be called to account for themselves on anything other than Buddhist terms.

'What would a court of English law know about Buddhist ethics. How can any Buddhist allow themselves to be judged on judeo-xtian based standards?'

Posted by FWBO member Angelo on Tues 31 Oct 2000 in article <8tnkbf$l0e$1@nnrpl.deja.com> in thread 'The fear of homosexuality double bind' in newsgroup talk.religion.buddhism