Ethics in Flux. Heracliteanism in Greece and India
To Heraclitus is attributed the adage, ‘You can never step in the same stream twice.’ This is a point not just about rivers, but about the whole of reality: there is constant change, nothing remains stably the same. Experience is never of the same, but always of something different. This may seem a quaint view – a plausible, or a fantastic, or a fascinating claim; but like all metaphysical views, its truth seems far removed from real life, and remoter still from ethical concerns. Plato, however, saw things differently. He saw that flux mattered, and mattered morally. If all is in flux, then morality – perhaps all evaluative thinking and action – is impossible. It is morally necessary that there be some real stability, that somewhere among all the real things are entities not liable to change.
Subsequent thinkers in the European philosophical tradition, impressed by Plato’s arguments, question whether Plato located stability in the right place when he dreamt up ‘Forms’ or Ideas. Might there not be a better way of accommodating the requirements of morality for stability? Others have doubted the purported connection between metaphysics and ethics altogether – morality survives in tact regardless of whether all is in flux. But from the Buddhist philosophers of India we can learn a challenge to Platonism of an altogether different order. For the Buddhist philosophers took metaphysics equally seriously: how the world is, what is real, and coming to a correct understanding of what is real matters, and matters morally. But, they insist, the truth of the nature of the world is more like Heraclitus’ epigram suggests: there is no true stability, nothing real is unchanging. More importantly, recognizing this instability and understanding it fully is the gateway to the ethically sound life. It is flux that is the precondition for morality.
These diametrically opposed views about the moral implications of metaphysical flux are striking. But arising as they do within independent philosophical contexts, can we be sure we have real disagreement here? Perhaps in this apparent opposition the two parties are, on closer examination, simply talking past each other. Perhaps these two views can even be made compatible, when properly understood – indeed, such syncretism has been tried. On the other hand, we may find, in bringing these philosophers into conversation, real and substantial disagreement. Have the Indian Buddhist philosophers simply missed the Platonic sorts of objections? Or have they rather offered a plausible perspective from which Plato’s demand for stability is itself the crucial impediment to morality?
Eine Gemeinschaftsveranstaltung mit der ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius