However, this kind of perception arises from confusion of the factors involved. It stems from:
From this we get three points for consideration: reality, ethics and convention. We must understand the difference and the relationship between these three levels. The chain of factors involved has connections throughout, ranging from the qualities of good and evil, which are true conditions in reality, and spreading outwards to become good and evil actions and speech, which are ethics, and from there connecting outwards once more to become the laws and conventions of society, these being conventions.
Reality can be compared to Pure Science.
Ethics can be compared to Applied Science and technology. Regulations or conventions can be compared to the forms that technology takes.
Societies determine conventions or regulations to regulate themselves. This is convention, which can be determined according to preference. For example, in Thailand the regulation is that cars drive on the left hand side of the road, while in America cars drive on the right hand side. Different countries have determined different regulations. Now, which is good and which is evil? Can Thailand say that the Americans are bad because they drive on the right hand side of the road, or can America say the opposite? Of course not. These regulations are the standard for each country, and each country is free to make its own standards. This is convention.
Now the problem arises, which regulation gives better results? This is the crucial point. It may be asked which is the more conducive to order and harmony between the regulations of keeping to the right in America and keeping to the left in Thailand. There may be some difference of opinion in regard to the regulations themselves, but this does not mean that societies merely determine these regulations out of preference.
This is the relationship between ethics and convention, or Regulation. Regulations are made to provide an ethical result. In Buddhist monastic terms, the monks put it very simply by saying vinaya is for developing sla'' ... Vinaya refers to the rules and regulations of society, but the objective of these is sla, which is ethics.
There is an exception in cases where regulations have indeed been made out of partiality, for the benefit or advantage of a select few. For example, there are times when we suspect that certain laws have been made to protect the interests of a select group. In this case we say that corruption has arisen within the regulating process, which will in turn cause a degeneration of ethics. When the root of the legal structure is rotten, it will be very unlikely to produce a good result. Even so, societies do determine many rules and regulations out of a pure intention to create an ethical result.
Because there is this common objective, ethics, but the forms of the regulations which result differ, we must learn how to distinguish clearly between ethics and conventions. We can see a lot of these differences in the conventions, customs and traditions of different societies - family customs, for example. In one society, a woman is allowed so many husbands, a man is allowed so many wives, while in other societies, the customs will differ. Nevertheless, overall, what is the objective here? The objective is order and harmony within the family. This is their objective, and this is ethics.
However, in the determining of regulations for society, people have varying levels of intelligence and wisdom, and different intentions, sometimes honest, sometimes not. Societies have different environments, different histories. With so many varying factors, the result in terms of ethics also differs, being more or less efficacious as the case may be. From time to time these regulations must be re-evaluated. Conventions are thus tied to specific situations and considerations of time and place. The consideration of time and place is a concern of conventions, but the ethical objectives are universal.
Therefore, by looking at the situation in the right manner, even though there may be some discrepancies in the form regulations take, we can see that they are in fact the results of humanity's efforts to create a harmonious society. That is, conventions are not the end result, but rather the means devised by mankind to attain an ethical standard, more or less effective, depending on the intelligence and honesty of the people determining them.
Bearing this in mind, we can avoid the mistaken belief that good and evil are merely social conventions, or are determined by preference. We must look on these regulations as mankind's attempts to find ethics, to attain true goodness. No matter how useful or ineffective regulations may be, our objective remains an ethical one.
The success of regulations is very much tied to the presence of an ethical standard within the people who are determining them, and whether or not they have made their decisions intelligently.
Now for the problem of whether ethics is a real condition or not, we must refer to the principle that ethics is based on reality or truth. That is, ethics must be in conformity with the process of cause and effect, or causes and conditions. In the field of convention, whenever a regulation is created which brings about an ethically satisfactory result, we say that it has been useful. For example, if we regulate that cars must run on the left- or right-hand side of the road, and this regulation is conducive to order and harmony, then we say that that regulation has fulfilled its purpose.
Reality (saccadhamma), ethics (cariyadhamma) and convention (paattidhamma) are abstract qualities. Because ethics is tied to reality, it follows that it is one factor in the whole stream of causes and conditions. The causes and conditions involved in human behaviour are so complex, much harder to predict than the weather!
If we do not understand or see the relationship and connection between reality, ethics and convention, we will not be able to enter into a thorough consideration of values, which are mental properties, and see their proper place within the laws of nature, functioning according to causes and conditions.
Copyright © 2002 Mahidol
University All rights reserved.