Jake Davis | Insight Journal | Barre Center for Buddhist Studies: What Feels Right about Right Action?

Is there a right way to live? What is it? And how could we know? Questions about how we should live are central for all of us, and central as well to the teachings of the Buddha in the early Pali dialogues. The cultivation of mindfulness is described in these texts as a means of developing wisdom. By drawing on research into the role of attention and emotion, we can see how the practice of mindfulness can also give us an embodied and experiential way of knowing which ways of acting feel right.

In the West, we inherit from the Greeks a long history of rational inquiry into the question of how one ought to live. This intellectual heritage has framed empirical investigations into the psychology of morality as well as practical decisions about law and public policy. In this context, the Buddha’s approach is radical. Training one’s attention so as to become carefully and continuously aware of one’s own present moment experience brings wisdom, he tells us throughout the dialogues. The bodily, verbal, and mental actions of those who make themselves wise in this way will naturally be virtuous. Thus the meditative factors of the Eightfold Noble Path, namely effort, mindfulness, and concentration, support and are supported by the refinement of one’s view and resolve, as well as one’s speech, action, and livelihood.

It is clear that concerns about virtuous conduct are central to the Buddhist teachings. What is less clear is how we are meant to discern which types of speech, action, and livelihood are ‘Right’ (samma). But we can make a start on answering this question by noticing the experiential quality of the emotional states that motivate us to act in certain ways. Benevolence feels good, when one pays attention, and ill-will feels bad. The presence of attention is important: through the cultivation of mindfulness we can become more conscious of how our own emotions and intentions affect us. In the absence of attention, we don’t know what is going on: unconscious emotional reactions are, well, unconscious. This is why recent empirical work from a third-person perspective can help further inform our understanding of the nature of these unconscious reactions and the effect of directing attention to them. Bringing together the strengths of third-person scientific investigations with the strengths of first-personal experiential exploration can help us to understand more fully what it is to develop an embodied and experiential sense of which actions are right.

Knowing for Oneself

Of the factors of the Eightfold Noble Path, the Buddha tells us in the Majjhima Nikāya (M.117), Right View is the forerunner. It is with Right View that “one discerns wrong action as wrong action, and right action as right action.” “And what is wrong action?” he continues, “Killing, taking what is not given, illicit sex. This is wrong action.” There are many lists given in the Buddhist texts dividing actions of body, speech, and mind into those that are wholesome and those that are not. But there is also a central suggestion that the Dhamma taught by the Buddha is a come-and-see kind of thing (ehipassiko). This aspect of the Buddha’s teachings has proven especially appealing to those of us raised not in Buddhist cultures, but in a cosmopolitan context. Faced with a diversity of religious views and moral values, we are unlikely to fully convince even ourselves of which actions are Right is just by appealing to what the historical Buddha said—we would still need to know whether his claims are true.

In a dialogue recorded in the Aguttara Nikāya, the Kalama townspeople face a  similar problem. With various spiritual teachers passing through, each declaring their own ethical system to be superior, the townspeople are uncertain and in doubt. Asked how to tell whose views are correct, the Buddha tells the Kalamas

When you know for yourselves ‘these qualities are skillful… blameless… praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’, then you should enter and remain in them. (A.III.65)

The words of the Buddha here are powerful and liberating: ‘when you know for yourselves’, attanāva jāneyyātha… And in encouraging the Kalamas to adopt this non-dogmatic approach, the Buddha explicitly tells them not to go on faith in a canon of texts, a tradition, or a teacher. This has led interpreters such as Soma Thera to characterize the dialogue with the Kalamas as “The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry”[1]. But as Bhikkhu Bodhi right points out,[2] in precisely the same terms as the discourse rules out blind faith, it also discounts the authority of appeals to logic (takkahetu), appeals to inference (nayahetu), considering appearances (ākāraparivitakka), sympathies towards a considered view (diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā), and the appearance of probability (bhabbarūpatāya). The suggestion here is not just to ‘figure out’ for oneself what is right, in the sense of reasoning to a conclusion. Moreover, the Buddha does not repeat in other contexts the sort of suggestion he makes to the Kalamas. He does not give this advice, namely to cultivate the actions that one knows for oneself to be good, to just anyone who asks. Much more often, when raising the question of which actions are right, the texts respond with lists. As Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it, the Buddha could not responsibly give the advice he does here unless he took his audience already to be “people of refined moral sensitivity”.

The Role of Attention

What is it that endows someone with a refined moral sensitivity? I suggested above that awareness of the experiential quality of one’s own emotional reactions might be an important factor. We are not always aware of the emotional reactions we have. But attention training can help. In a recent study, Sze and collaborators compared mindfulness meditators who had at least two years of training with control groups.[3] All were monitored for a broad range of physiological responses such as heart rate, during and after watching a series of films designed to produce emotional response. Subjects were also asked to rate their emotional state using a dial, from “very negative” to “very positive”. Meditators showed significantly more coherence between physiological changes and subjective awareness of emotional response. They were more aware of their bodies.

Buddhist psychological models distinguish a number of components involved in emotional and other psychological reactions. In addition to the somatic or bodily changes involved in emotion, the texts describe affective, cognitive, volitional, and conscious components. In the terms of the Pāli, these are rūpavedanā, sañña, sakhāra, and viññaya, respectively. The doctrine of dependent co-arising (paicca-samuppāda), describes how these factors interact dynamically. Perceptions give rise to affective reactions of pleasure or displeasure. When we perceive a threat, for instance hearing a critical comment, a negative affective reaction might arise. When we don’t see clearly how this process is unfolding, an unpleasant affective tone gives rise to aversion. We want to get rid of the object we perceive as the source of the unpleasant affect.

On this model we might think of emotional episodes as involving a process of initial perception, with associated affect, triggering bodily responses, and their associated affect, triggering thoughts, which in turn trigger further affective reactions, and so on. This is the cycle of proliferation (papañca) that is sustained by craving and ignorance. Careful attention allows us to discern in our own experience the separate aspects involved in this cycle. Thus the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta differentiates kāyanupassanā, paying attention to the body, from vedanānupassanā, paying attention to the affective tone of experience. Interestingly, recent research has shown outside the meditative context that subjects can activate very different neural networks by switching their attention between the physical intensity of a touch or taste, and the pleasantness of it.[4]

The central point of the early Buddhist psychological model is that craving and aversion arise in response to the affective tone that is associated with perceptual representations, rather than directly in response to the perceived object. This provides a critical entry point for therapeutic interventions: through paying careful attention to one’s own experience, the Buddhist account claims, we can see that perceptions and affective reactions are separate from—and indeed separable from—craving and aversion, as well as the elaborate thought processes these can motivate. As Nyanaponika Thera puts it, through paying mindful attention to affective reactions, “one distinctly realizes that a pleasant feeling is not identical with lust and need not be followed by it…[5]

By cutting off obsessive proliferation in thought, mindfulness thereby functions to calm the mind. Being less distracted we can see even more clearly our own reactions, but also those of others. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta itself describes mindfulness as operating both internally (ajjhatta) and externally (bahiddhā). Practicing attentive awareness of one’s own body, affective reactions, mind, and sensory states produces unification and clarity of mind, as the Janavasabha Sutta (D.18.8) puts it, which is in turn conducive to awareness of others’ bodily, affective, mental, and sensory states.

So mindfulness can make us more aware of our own emotional reactions and also those of others. And it allows us the clarity to distinguish in our own experience pleasant or unpleasant affective reactions, within the larger process of perceptions, bodily changes and thoughts involved in an emotional reaction. But how would such increased emotional awareness help in knowing which sorts of actions are right and which are wrong? What can our emotions tell us about what right action is, anyway?

The Role of Emotion

Some emotional reactions have a very negative effect on us and on those whose lives we touch. So there is an important grain of truth in the idea that we must use rational thinking to guard against our judgment being swayed by emotional biases. This approach is evident in Plato’s thought and still informs much psychological work on morality. The philosopher-turned-neuroscientist Joshua Greene, for instance, suggests that better kinds of moral judgment result when people use cognitive resources to override their initial emotional reactions.[6] But in the past twenty-five years, scientific research programs highlighting the positive role of emotion in decision-making have gained ground. In a series of well-known studies, Antonio Damasio and colleagues found evidence to suggest that emotions serve as a crucial guide for navigating complex situations.[7] They suggest that through a kind of unconscious emotional learning process, when we perceive a type of situation that led in the past to bad outcomes, a negative emotional reaction arises. Even when unconscious, this affect functions to guide us toward better decisions.

Indeed, in the realm of morality, we may have no choice but to make our decisions based on one sentiment or another. Recent research in moral psychology lends support to a view championed by the 18th-century Scotch philosopher David Hume, that emotion, not reason, grounds our moral judgements.[8] The basic idea is that we judge a type of action to be wrong because we have negative emotional reactions toward it. We might reason about whether a certain type of punishment counts as cruel, for instance. But reason can never tell us that cruelty is wrong. No amount of information about the psychological effects of pain or causing pain can tell us that these effects are bad. This role is reserved for the passions. One finds what is morally wrong about an action, the vice, as Hume put it, only when “you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.”[9] Likewise, our sense that certain qualities of character are virtuous derives from positive emotions, according to Hume. “The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration. We do not infer a character to be virtuous, because it pleases: But in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner, we in effect feel that it is virtuous.”[10]

As it happens, Hume wrote these words and the rest of his monumental Treatise (at the age of 6!) while living and interacting with Jesuit missionaries in France, some of whom had travelled and made careful studies of Buddhist religion and philosophy in Tibet and Siam.[11] And many of Hume’s most prominent ideas find striking parallels within Buddhist thought. One idea that does not find any evident parallel in the Buddhist texts is Hume’s explicit account of morality as grounded in emotion. Nonetheless, I think Hume’s notion that our emotions can function as a moral sense is not only compatible with the Buddhist account, but moreover can help us understand what the Buddha might have been getting at in encouraging us to know for ourselves what is right and wrong. Mindfulness can be seen as a particularly powerful and precise means of turning attention ‘into your own breast’, as Hume put it.

Hume focuses on emotions as grounding moral judgment. The Buddhist approach brings emotion into morality in an additional way. The moral judgments made in Buddhist texts regarding which actions are right and wrong are fundamentally judgments about the unwholesome mental states motivating such actions. Killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct are wrong because of the emotions that give rise to such behavior. After encouraging the Kalamas to know for themselves what is right and wrong, for instance, the Buddha goes on to focus on the painful effects of the unwholesome psychological roots. “When craving (lobha)… aversion (dosa)… delusion (moha) arises in a person,” the Buddha asks, “does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

Feeling Right

Emotions play at least three roles in morality, if what I have said is true. First, emotions such as craving or benevolence are one of the things that most profoundly affect our well-being. It only takes a little self-awareness to notice that intense craving or aversion churns us up, and that in one’s body, in the moment, benevolence feels like a much better mental state to dwell in. But given that when we pay attention we can feel the agitation and unpleasantness of certain mental states themselves, and the ease associated with others, what does this tell us about which mental states we ought to cultivate, and which we ought to give up?

Our emotional systems learn what leads to good outcomes, and they tell us, by associating certain perceptions with pleasurable and painful affective reactions. The is the second way that emotions relate to Right Action. Emotional reactions can function to guide us toward our own long-term benefit. By paying careful attention to our emotional responses, we can let our conscious decision making process be informed by what our emotions are telling us. Even where we might not be able to foresee the bad consequences of sexual misconduct, or of cultivating lust more generally, our own emotional responses can help to tell us whether these are choices that “when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness,” as the Buddha puts it in his advice to the Kalamas.

So if we listen to them, our emotional reactions might be able to tell us that sexual misconduct is painful in the present and the future. But what makes such actions immoral? This is where Hume’s suggestion comes in. The third role that emotions play is in telling us what is right and wrong. On this account, when the Buddha praises mindfulness (as at M.10) or gratitude (A.II.), he is expressing his own positive feelings toward such habits of heart. When he lists killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct as Wrong Action (M.117), he is expressing an emotional reaction against such acts.

Two clarifications are in order. First, we have to be careful about what sort of emotions we attribute to the Buddha. The Buddhist texts emphasize hiri and ottappa, often translated ‘moral shame’ and ‘moral fear’, as the grounds for moral motivation. These are the “guardians of the world” (lokapāla) (A.II.9), and according to the Abhiddhamma analysis they are present in every beautiful type of consciousness, including that of arahants.[12] So we might see some parallel here to the Humean idea that sentiments of guilt and anger underwrite our judgments of certain actions as wrong. But the sorts of negative emotional reaction that Hume thinks of as being involved when we judge an action to be wrong “is nothing but a fainter and more imperceptible… hatred”.[13] This won’t work as an account of what the Buddha of the Pali texts means by Wrong Action, because whatever wisdom he has to offer on the subject is supposed to derive from the fact that the Buddha is free from such aversive states.

Happily, the Buddhist psychological model has something to offer the Humean project on this point. We discussed above the textual claim, and some recent empirical support for it, that one can train  attention so as to separate the pleasant or unpleasant affective component of an experience from the craving-fueled proliferation that can result. We discussed above the textual claim, and some recent empirical support for it, that one can focus attention on the pleasant or unpleasant component of experience. This is the practice of vedanānupassanā that Nyanaponika Thera suggested above can be used to separate the pleasant or unpleasant affective component of an experience from the craving-fueled proliferation that can result. It is unlikely that Hume had the benefit of this level of theoretical or experiential precision. So although he took the whole aversive reaction as grounding moral judgments of wrongdoing, a better approach might be to isolate just the affective component, vedanā. Then we could say that when the Buddha praises gratitude, he is expressing the positive feelings—but not attachment—he has when he sees this trait in people. Likewise, when the Buddha calls killing wrong, he is expressing the negative affective tone he feels—even though no hatred results—when he sees someone callously taking life. This allows us to see the Buddha, and thus our best vision for ourselves, as very human. On this approach, one purified of craving and aversion is not aloof but rather affected intimately and emotionally by the world. Neither does such an enlightened one reserve all judgment, but instead expresses what she feels, praising actions that are praiseworthy and fearlessly calling wrong what she feels to be wrong.

This raises a second point of clarification. The Buddhist texts list killing under Wrong Action. But not everyone feels this way. Making right and wrong dependent on the way we feel seems to imply that killing in war or in hunting is right for those who are socialized to feel good about it, and wrong for those who are socialized to feel bad about it. Some modern heirs of Hume’s emotion-based account of morality do embrace this type of moral relativism.[14] Interestingly, Hume did not. And it is clear that Hume is in agreement with both early and later Buddhist texts in rejecting moral relativism. Buddhist psychology is founded on the notion that certain mental states are wholesome, and others unwholesome, universally. Even if someone felt good about hatred, this would not make hatred good.

The precision of the Buddhist analysis can help here with the project that Hume shares, of showing how we can feel for ourselves which ways of being are truly right, for all of us, and which are wrong. The crucial point is that we are not always aware of how our own emotions are affecting us. Certainly, the brutal revenge of a people on their brutal dictator might feel good to them. But such reactions are complex, we can now see, and while there might be instances of wholesome joy involved, there might also be instances of ill-will. To find out more precisely which mind states are present, and which ones really feel good, would require careful investigation. The Buddhist suggestion is that the nature of the psychological components at this fine-grained level is common to all human beings, indeed all conscious beings. Mental states such as benevolence, concentration, and gratitude feel good to all who are mindfully aware of them. In contrast, craving and ill-will feel bad; they agitate the mind in a way that is unpleasant in itself, and the painful quality of these states will be clear to anyone who attends carefully and precisely to them.

This experiential approach to morality is as demanding as it is liberating. To know for ourselves what is right to do requires a careful, continuous, and courageously honest awareness of the quality of our emotional motivations in each moment. It is not likely that all of us, all the time, will maintain this level of moral sensitivity. This is why adhering to precepts can be useful in protecting us from acting on unwholesome intentions that we are not aware of, or do not want to acknowledge. Many traditional conceptions of ethics have aimed to discover rules governing which actions are good and which are bad, for everyone, everywhere. And the Buddha of the Pali does apparently take certain types of actions to be wrong, universally. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out, for instance, the Buddha does not condone killing under any circumstances.

But the radical suggestion of the Buddhist approach is that morality is fundamentally about the mental states that motivate our actions. The claim that killing is always wrong rests on a further claim that the motivation to kill does not arise in the absence of unwholesome emotions such as covetousness and ill-will. And that is a claim we can test in our own experience, with enough precision of awareness.

This brings us full circle. We began with the question of how we ought to live. But this landed us in the predicament in which the Kalamas found themselves, wondering how we could tell whose moral values are the right ones to hold. The Buddha’s suggestion was that we could know for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. Even on his own terms, neither the force of reason nor faith in a teacher will suffice to establish Buddha’s claim that killing, stealing, and illicit sex are Wrong Action. We can and we ought to find out for ourselves whether this is true. The establishment of mindfulness can serve as the means for this kind of personal moral discovery. With dedication and care we can make ourselves aware of the components involved in the emotional reactions that motivate our behavior. In benevolence as in ill-will, we can discern the bodily changes involved, the pleasant or unpleasant affective tone, the perceptions, urges, and experiences that result. By turning our attention ‘into our breasts’ in this careful way, we can discover for ourselves precisely which sorts of motivations really feel wrong, and which feel right.

Source: Barre Center for Buddhist Studies


[1] The Wheel, no. 8 (1987)”Soma Thera, “Kalama Sutta: The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry,” The Wheel, no. 8 (1987).
[2] Bhikkhu Bodhi, “A Look at the Kalama Sutta,” BPS Newsletter, no. 9 (Spring 1988).
[3] Jocelyn A. Sze et al., “Coherence between emotional experience and physiology: Does body awareness training have an impact?,” Emotion 10 (010): 80-81.
[4] Fabian Grabenhorst and Edmund T. Rolls, “Attentional Modulation of Affective Versus Sensory Processing: Functional Connectivity and a Top-Down Biased Activation Theory of Selective Attention,” Journal of Neurophysiology 10, no.  (010): 169 -1660; Fabian Grabenhorst and Edmund T. Rolls, “Value, pleasure and choice in the ventral prefrontal cortex,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15, no.  (February 011): 56-67.
[5] Nyanaponika Thera, The Vision of Dhamma: Buddhist Writings of Nyanaponika Thera, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi, nd ed. (Pariyatti Publishing, 000).
[6] J. D. Greene, “The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad truth about morality and what to do about it,” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University (00); J. D. Greene, “The secret joke of Kant’s soul,” Moral Psychology: Historical and Contemporary Readings (010): 59.
[7] A. Bechara et al., “Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex,” Cognition 50, no. 1- (199): 7–15; A. Bechara et al., “Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy,” Science 75, no. 50 (1997): 19.
[8] For reviews see S. Nichols, Sentimental Rules: On the natural foundations of moral judgment (Oxford University Press, USA, 00); J. J. Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals (New York: Oxford University Press, 007). For an opposing account of the evidence, see B. Huebner, S. Dwyer, and M. Hauser, “The role of emotion in moral psychology,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 1, no. 1 (009): 1–6.
[9] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, USA, 000): III.1.1.
[10] Ibid.: III.1..
[11] A. Gopnik, “Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism?: Charles François Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network,” Hume Studies 5, no. 1- (009): 5–8.
[12]Sobhanasadhara?a,” Bhikkhu Bodhi, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, 1st ed. (Pariyatti Publishing, 00): II.5.
[13] Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature: III..5.
[14] See e.g. Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Getting the Message,” Access to Insight, June 5, 010

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