Category Archives: Ethics

Are you too busy to read this blog?

Recently I attended two job interviews in the course of the same week, but was shocked to discover subsequently that neither informed me of the outcome – so,  of course, I just have to assume that I was unsuccessful. Of course, I don’t really know why they failed to do so, but I can easily imagine the excuses: either it’s “not policy”, or the individuals expected to perform that role for the institution are “too busy”. There seems to be such a huge gap between my experience of applying for a job, with my personal dignity being given such low priority once I was no longer likely to be of any use, and the attitudes of modern institutional culture, that this episode has encouraged me to think further about the whole business of people “being busy”, their perceptions of time, and our expectations of communicative courtesy.

The idea of “being too busy” seems to be dependent on the idea of time as a commodity that we can have lots of or little of. If we’re busy we “don’t have enough” time, as if we’d taken out our time wallet to pay cash for the transaction and found only odd bits of small change in it. The idea of time as a commodity is a metaphor – one that has become an ingrained part of the operation of capitalist culture – but it’s not the only possible way of looking at our relationship to time. Indeed, it’s quite possible to absolutise that metaphor if we don’t consider alternatives (which is where the Middle Way applies in relation to this issue).

So, when someone claims to be “too busy”, it could be an indication that they’re absolutizing an idea of time in support of an over-dominant and obsessive idea of their priorities. Perhaps they’re just “pulling rank” – reminding you of the higher social status that is often bestowed on supposedly “busy” people because they already have so much social capital that they can afford to squander your goodwill. Or perhaps they are obsessed with certain priorities that you are not instrumental to, so being “too busy” just means that you are outside their limited view of their goals.

But there are also many cases for which this would be an uncharitable interpretation, because the metaphor of time as a commodity does not have to be absolute or obsessive – it could be merely used helpfully to provide a reasonable degree of structure to someone’s life, and help them cope with their limitations. If we try to recognise people as embodied humans with limitations, then it is obvious that there are many things competing for their attention, and they have to prioritise that attention according to values that they find in their experience. So, them “being busy” may just be a way of maintaining a sense of integrity in the way they use their attention. For example, I know several writers who are bad at answering emails, and I suspect that this is because they give priority to maintaining a creative space in which they can focus on their work. I can respect that because it is a prioritisation made with awareness and a sense of integrity. More basically, people may just be busy meeting their everyday needs, doing a full-time job that is required to support their family. However, we also have to bear in mind in such cases that people are still making voluntary prioritisations when they choose, for example, to give over a large amount of their time and attention to a demanding full-time job in order to service an unnecessarily large mortgage or car payments.

The idea of “having time” for something also seems to be a substitution for other things we value. If we “give” something time out of a sense of duty, when we have a repressed desire to do something else instead, then it becomes increasingly stressful because we’re having to use energy to hold down those conflicting desires. Giving time to something we don’t feel we want to do then becomes “emotional work”, whether or not it is actually “work” in the conventional sense.  So you could be too busy, not only to inform a candidate for a job at your workplace that they have been unsuccessful, but also to read that blog recommended by a friend because it seems a bit abstract, or to phone your mother because she goes on so much about details you don’t want to have to listen to. A need for “emotional relaxation” or “emotional space” could just be a helpful re-balancing, and we could be “too busy” just to look after ourselves and avoid undue stress. On the other hand, though, it is also possible to absolutise that need, making the avoidance of stress an end in itself.

The way that we choose to prioritise our time is central to the ongoing development of our lives. What we spend time doing, we become. If you spend lots of time reading, you become more literate and informed. If you spend time exercising, you become fitter, and so on. But at the same time we need to cope with social conventions about how we give our attention to people, and often those social conventions are important both for social harmony and long-term psychological balance. That’s why I think I have some justification for feeling slightly offended that I was not contacted to be told that I was unsuccessful in a job interview. We need to maintain a basic respect for others by recognising them and their most important needs when we come into contact with them – and totally ignoring those needs and expectations creates a sense of hurt. “Being busy” is not really an adequate excuse for ignoring those healthy conventions in most circumstances.

If you’re too busy to read this blog (which you’re obviously not, given that you’ve got this far), then I’d suggest just an examination of the reasons why. Is it because any alternative to the things you give priority to instead is unthinkable? Is there no room at all for serendipity, for just responding to what comes up, in your life? Or, on the other hand, is it because you have a balanced awareness of the priorities in your life, and reading random blogs doesn’t accord with that awareness? If the latter, fair enough. I hope you’re benefitting from whatever it is you’re doing that is not reading this blog. 🙂


Picture: Clock by Mossbourne01 (CC – Wikimedia Commons)



The MWS Podcast 119: Hári Sewell, Arno Michaelis and Robert M Ellis on Prejudice

In our latest round table discussion we welcome back to the podcast Hári Sewell who is a trainer and consultant in equality and social justice and author of Working with Ethnicity, Race and Culture in Mental Health , ex-white supremacist and now peace activist Arno Michaelis, author of My Life After Hate and the chair of the Middle Way Society, the philosopher Robert M Ellis, author of many books including the Middle Way Philosophy series. The topic today will be prejudice, what it is, how it affects us and what we might do about it.

MWS Podcast 119: Prejudice as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_119_Prejudice
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Yielding to Buddhist torturers

The latest film from Martin Scorsese, now in cinemas, is entitled ‘Silence’, and concerns the struggles of Jesuit missionaries in a nascent Christian community in seventeenth century Japan. It’s a harrowing film to watch, because it contains a great many scenes of gruesome torture inflicted by the Buddhist Inquisitor on Japanese Christians and missionaries to get them to apostasize their beliefs, but it’s also a film that I felt raised troubling questions about how we should treat our identities and commitments. Should we be prepared to renounce them to save our lives? For someone of Christian identity, is stepping on an image of Christ just a formal gesture of no great significance, as the wily inquisitor urged? Or is it, simply by yielding to power and surrendering the individual conscience, a deeply undermining act, compared to which martyrdom might even be preferable? silence_2016_film

This film depicts a world that is a long way from any obvious application of the Middle Way – a deeply polarised world of clashing absolute beliefs. After initially tolerating limited European influence, at this stage the Japanese government had entered a phase of isolationism during which they were determined to limit foreign religious influence as well as other kinds of political influence, by any means necessary. Christian villagers are depicted as being crucified, ‘baptised’ with boiling water, summarily decapitated, drowned, or hung upside down in a pit with their neck veins opened, to induce renunciation either from them or from equally unfortunate missionary spectators. Ironically, of course, the Buddhist torture being inflicted on religious minorities in Japan mirrors the equally gruesome and better-known torture inflicted by the Catholic Inquisition on any type of heresy in Europe, at the very same time.

[The remainder of this review contains plot spoilers.]

But many people have lived in such a desperately polarised world, and indeed still do so. The Middle Way should still be practicable in such a world, as it should be in any conditions, but what does it imply? On the whole I found my sympathies with the character of Father Ferreira, an earlier Jesuit missionary who is depicted as having renounced his faith under earlier torture and to be living in Japan and studying Japanese thought. Ferreira urges the younger Jesuit who has come to find him (Rodriguez) to renounce similarly, rather than waiting for Japanese Christians to be tortured to death one by one in front of him. Ferreira recognises that the religious meaning of Christ and of Christian commitment to him is not just a matter of tribal identity, and insists that the loving action in the circumstances is to yield. After a great deal of resistance, Rodriguez finally convinces himself that Christ would understand his action, and apostasizes. In effect, Ferreira recognises the unhelpfulness of absolutizing religious commitment and confusing it with tribal identity. He seems to have made a step in the direction of the Middle Way, by allowing new information from outside to soften his previously rigid beliefs.

However, this also didn’t seem to me to be such an obviously right judgement, because of its political effects. If the state or a religious authority uses absolute power in this way, yielding to it could also be seen as encouraging that type of policy. Defying it, on the other hand, could possibly have the effect of encouraging tolerance. In the circumstances, though, the prospects of changing Japanese policy through defiance would seem to have been pretty remote. Much longer-term social and political change was required to eventually open up Japan. So I continue to see Ferreira as more justified on the whole, though with a full acceptance of the limitations of any judgement I can make from my comfortable armchair in relatively tolerant 21st century Britain.

However, I doubt if this is Scorsese’s own view. In the very final scene, we see Rodriguez’s burial according to Buddhist rites, with any indications of the deceased’s Christian origins strictly forbidden: but Rodriguez is clutching a hidden cross which his wife has presumably planted in his cupped hands. At the beginning of the final credits, there is also a dedication to the martyred Japanese Christians, ‘ad majoram dei gloriam’. Scorsese, as a Catholic, seems to want this in the end to be a triumphalist film about Christian heroism in the face of Buddhist oppression, despite the deep ambiguity of most of the film. I felt this was an artistic betrayal of the more creative ambiguity that the film would have done better to stick with.

Critics have been lambasting the film for being too long – the trademark criticism of an impatient age. I didn’t find it too long, but I did sometimes feel that the torture scenes were overdone. Despite these limitations, it is still a film well worth seeing for anyone interested in confronting the full anguish of our religious past. Although Scorsese’s artistic instincts seem to be in conflict with his dogmatism, most of the time the artistic instincts win out.

I’d especially recommend this film for any Buddhists who are inclined to idealise their religion by considering it intrinsically different from any other in the mix of its historical attitudes to violence and oppression. For example, Sangharakshita wrote:

Not a single page of Buddhist history has ever been lurid with the light of inquisitorial fires, or darkened with the smoke of heretic and heathen cities ablaze, or red with the blood of the guiltless victims of religious hatred. Like the Bodhisattva Manjushri, Buddhism wields only one sword, the Sword of Wisdom, and recognises only one enemy – Ignorance. That is the testimony of history, and is not to be gainsaid[1].

Such completely inaccurate idealisations are unfortunately still found amongst Western Buddhists, together with the assumption that the conceptual content of your metaphysical beliefs somehow makes a difference as to how rigid they are and how much conflict and oppression they create. But it’s not whether you call your ideal ‘God’ or ‘Enlightenment’ that makes the difference here, but whether you absolutise it. Scorsese’s film has the merit of making this point abundantly clear.  


[1] Sangharakshita, Buddhism in the Modern World

Picture: film poster copyright to the film-maker/distributor but copied from Wikipedia under fair use criterion. Please see this link for fair use justification.


Confession: a vital practice, but not as Catholics know it

How can we possibly engage with our moral mistakes without being prepared to confess them? Confession can be a crucial integrative practice, but when I was brought up in a Protestant household, confession was simply never discussed. The sacrament of confession, still practised by Catholics, had been rejected by Protestants at an early stage of the Reformation: and no wonder, when you look at what Catholicism has turned it into. By imposing absolute beliefs on it and ignoring the complexity of moral experience, Catholicism has turned confession into a by-word for out-of-touch and authoritarian rules, alienated obedience, irrational guilt, and formalistic penitence. Only in Buddhist practice have I encountered a more helpful approach to confession, with Sangharakshita especially developing some realistic and balanced approaches to it. But recently, in the process of writing a book on the Middle Way in Christianity, I have been thinking anew about the role of confession. What follows is an adapted version of the chapter that has resulted.the_confession-pietro-longhi

The practice of confession is one of the seven sacraments in Roman Catholicism, and has a central place in regular Catholic practice, due to the requirement for Catholics to attend confession and gain absolution before attending mass. Confession has been rejected in the Protestant tradition because of the belief in salvation by faith, which took away the motivation for confessing and absolving sin as a way of re-accepting Christ’s atonement and thus gaining ‘salvation by works’. This is a great shame, because confession, if not freighted with absolutism, can be a very useful practice. Protestants are missing a possibly important tool of moral practice, because of an irrelevant debate about absolutisations concerning salvation.

Let us first review what the basic process of confession is, or might be if shorn of the unnecessary superstructure it has acquired in Catholicism. An individual recognises that they have committed an action (or perhaps even maintained an intention) of which they are ashamed and that they recognise as morally negative. They may recognise their action as morally negative because they have previously committed themselves to maintaining a certain moral standard, or because they recognise others as upholding a moral standard to which they aspire and that they have fallen short of. In recognition of their fault, they confess it to another person who shares (and preferably exemplifies) the moral ideals they are seeking to follow. By doing this, they are able to reinforce their commitment to improving their moral practice by having it socially reflected, so the action may well help the person to avoid committing the same negative action again, thus developing greater integration as they remove a source of conflict within themselves, and bringing them closer to the archetype of God within themselves.

This picture of how confession might be effective contrasts with all the unhelpful elements that have been incorporated into the Catholic practice of confession. Firstly, there are rigid and absolutised moral rules that are often at some remove from people’s moral experience: notoriously including the prohibition of masturbation and of the use of artificial contraception. To begin with, these distort and undermine confession, as well as ethical practice in general, by associating morality itself with stupid and out-of-touch rules rather than with the development of moral experience. If people are asked to confess breaches of rules they do not perceive as genuine moral rules, but only as impositions of authority, they will rapidly become either alienated from the whole process or unhelpfully guilty.

Secondly, in Catholicism the process has become associated with a formalised penance and absolution, in which the priest represents the supposed power to forgive sins that is authorised by Christ’s atonement. This involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of atonement, seeing it as a supernatural process rather than an integrative one gone through by an individual themselves. A penitential act may be helpful to us when we are trying to integrate the conflicts created by guilt and shame and try to develop a more helpful state of mind in which we can start again with a new commitment to moral practice. However, formalising that penitential act so rigidly reduces and trivialises it. When we have completed the formal act we may not be genuinely penitent, or we may still have much further to go over a period of time to integrate our guilt and shame. The formal act of penitence may also allow us to dismiss the offence from our minds from that point, even though its effects on ourselves or others may continue for a long time. The Catholic church has failed to adapt its practices to anything like an adequate psychological understanding of the process of repentance, and thus made them increasingly irrelevant at best, or alienating at worst.

If confession is to be more helpful to Christians and others, it needs to be separated from absolute assumptions. Our moral commitment is not made to a supernatural authority, but rather to a more integrated self. To help us become more integrated, we can give ourselves rules, structures and institutions that may make demands on us, and remind us of our commitments. But the purpose of these is instrumental, not absolute. It is thus ourselves as individuals who need to be responsible for deciding when we have committed a sin that we want to confess. The church and other institutions may offer us guidelines, but they can hardly be more than that, and their provisionality needs to be constantly born in mind without loss of moral urgency or moral purpose.

The question of whom we choose to confess to also needs to be much more flexibly understood. The church does not have a magical ability to forgive sins, but leaders in the church may (contingently) be the people we trust to receive our confessions and respond to them appropriately in confidence. On the other hand, for many people, a friend, spouse, counsellor or psychotherapist may be a better recipient for confession. It is the relationship of trust that matters far more than the formal role.

It’s crucial that the confessor, whoever he or she may be, is able to hear and accept the confession, because the sharing of it is the crucial part of the psychological effectiveness of confession. By recognising that someone else knows about your fault, the conflict it creates is eased and it is seen in a slightly bigger perspective. It’s also crucial that the confessor’s response to the disclosure is balanced: neither disproportionately horrified, nor denying that a fault has occurred. The confessor simply needs to make it clear that the confession has been fully understood, perhaps by reflecting it back and perhaps by asking questions to get further details. It may also be helpful to put the offence in a broader perspective without belittling it, for example by giving information about how common the offence is (if the offender is inclined to exaggerate their uniqueness) or what effects it is likely to have (if the offender is inclined either to exaggerate or dismiss those effects). But the confessor should not exhort or advise from a morally absolute position beyond the actual moral commitments the person has arrived at for themselves.

The confessor as someone who offers context and awareness becomes a crucial figure if you consider the kinds of unjustified guilt people can get into. For example, one can say something that someone else found hurtful, but the fault may lie overwhelmingly in the interpretation by the hearer rather than in the words used by the speaker. Or feelings of guilt may be a result of manipulation by someone in a dominant position who induces distorted and unnecessary feelings of guilt in the subservient person for their own ends. The BBC radio soap ‘The Archers’ has recently included a case where a dominant and manipulative husband (Rob) cows his wife (Helen) into confusion and guilt, culminating in an incident where she stabs him with a kitchen knife. The ensuing fictional trial has been widely discussed, raising awareness of the variety of forms that domestic bullying can take, but also of the ways that feelings of guilt can be manipulated, and of the importance of friends in providing perspective when someone is in such a situation. At the other extreme, of course, people can lack feelings of guilt when they would be highly appropriate, as was the case with the manipulative character Rob.

Much the same points as those about confession can be made about penance. Formalistic penances such as saying ten Hail Mary’s appear to make a laughing-stock of Catholicism the world over, and are probably best dispensed with entirely. It is the person who makes the confession who should decide, in discussion with the confessor, what the penance should be, if any, depending on what would have the most integrative effect for the person concerned. In many cases it may involve apologising and making amends to the victim of the offence, if there is one.

Approached in such a way, that respects the experienced variations between individuals both in moral commitment and justified guilt, confession could become a sacrament of great moral value and worth: one that I would also urge Protestants and others to embrace. Confession is still an acknowledgement of fault before God (if you want to give that name to the archetype of integration), or alternatively before your own ideals, whatever they are. It need lose none of its power in that respect by being treated less absolutely and formalistically, but might actually become morally efficacious instead of an institutionalised moral failure.

Picture: ‘The Confession’ by Pietro Longhi