Rigorous even-handedness seems to me a central skill involved in practising the Middle Way, and I’ve been thinking about it especially after recent discussions on the site with Richard Flanagan and Mark Vernon. I thought I’d share a bit more about what I think even-handedness means, how we might practise it and why it is important.
The central metaphor involved in the Middle Way is balance – trying not to lean too far either to one side or to the other, because both sides offer rigidities of view that stop us making provisional judgments that address the changing conditions around us. Of course, the way we each find a point of balance as individuals depends on our background, and our approximation to balance may seem like a series of corrective lurches from one side to the other. But we can only maintain even corrective lurches if we have a clear idea of what we are avoiding. If we’re avoiding both positive and negative metaphysical claims, we need a clear view of each so that we can spot them before we hit them. Even a drunken steersman with a rather blurry idea of the strait ahead of him still has to have a sense of both sets of rocks to be avoided.
That lays some conceptual demands on us, as the way people are accustomed to talk about views does not necessarily make it very clear what the positive and negative metaphysical poles are. We’re probably all fairly clear that the Taliban on one side, or an addict trying to fill a meaningless life with drugs, on the other, represent extremes of both belief and practice to be avoided. However, in between such obvious extremes there are lot of positions that lay claim to the middle ground. The sheer amount of jostling for the middle ground itself provides evidence that in some sense people intuit the Middle Way to be right. Labels that we may have thought were extreme may be re-presented as the Middle Way, or at least a middle way. To some extent they often are, but to some extent also mingled with metaphysical commitments.
The first name that springs to mind to illustrate this is Tony Blair with his ‘Third Way’. The Third Way was quite a specific policy, and was about combining a goal of increasing social equality with the pragmatic effectiveness of market economics. Blair’s Third Way was a re-labelling of a once Socialist British Labour Party, a re-orientation of its economic policy. Although he made little impact on rising levels of inequality in Britain, Blair did manage to change the agenda. Since then British politicians (in marked contrast to the polarisation of the US) have been jostling for the centre ground, all claiming to offer the middle way between extremes. Many of them may be sincere about this. But I’ve yet to find a politician that I found convincingly rigorous, consistent or even-handed in developing a genuinely Middle Way position. The middle was appropriated mainly because Blair showed how politically advantageous it was, not because it was perceived as the morally objective option. It was a partial achievement, but Blair’s Third Way has also become a bit of a hazard for a practitioner of the Middle Way – a narrow interpretation of it that might be mistaken for the whole thing.
As with the Third Way, there are a number of other positions that I continue to argue are at least partially inspired by metaphysical assumptions, but that various people have suggested (some on this website) are compatible with the Middle Way. These include Scientific Naturalism (particularly of the ‘methodological’ variety), various types of liberal Christianity, Stoicism, Utilitarianism, Kant, Natural Law, Deep Ecology, the ‘Radical Middle Way’ in Islam, Social Democracy, Conservatism, Atheism, Humanism, and of course, Buddhism. Now, I don’t want to be mistaken for a purist simply rejecting all these positions because they’re not perfectly right. The Middle Way Society isn’t perfectly right either. All these positions address some conditions to some extent, whilst neglecting others. But we will only be in a position to assess them critically if we maintain some conceptual distinctions between the Middle Way and any one of them, not allowing any of them to appropriate the Middle Way as we understand it. I would then expect lots of quite reasonable disagreement on the extent to which any of these ideologies fall short of the Middle Way, but you won’t be able to assess that extent unless you have an idea of the Middle Way that is distinct from any of them, to start with.
That’s where the practice of even-handedness comes in. I’d suggest the following method, whenever you’re in doubt as to whether a particular belief is part of, or is compatible with the Middle Way:
- Identify the extremes of view in the area you’re thinking about – i.e. a pair of polarised beliefs that lie beyond experience. See About Metaphysics page for examples.
- Clarify the vocabulary, checking that you’re not just using the same word for a position that might or might not be interpreted metaphysically. If necessary, stipulate two meanings for yourself, e.g. atheism 1 & atheism 2 (this might be a temporary measure just to avoid confusion).
- Reflect on the need to avoid both extremes. Most likely your background will steer you in one direction or the other. But both extremes offer equal dangers.
- Imagine that you come from the opposite background (e.g. Conservative instead of left-wing, or theist instead of atheist) and see if what you thought was the Middle Way still looks like that from the other angle.
- Try to define the Middle Way for yourself in rigorous avoidance of both the extremes.
- Think about the practical implications of the Middle Way in this area.
I hope this kind of method might help you to avoid confusions merely arising from terminology. I have developed my own uses of terminology in Middle Way Philosophy in accordance with this method, but I think it’s the method that determines the use of terminology that is more important than the terminology itself. If you can use this method, I hope I will accept your corrections if you can show me that I haven’t used it rigorously myself.
I think this is important for individual practice of the Middle Way, but it’s also vital for the society whilst it is still in its early phase of development. It would be very easy for the Middle Way as a concept to be appropriated and eclipsed by one of the ‘false friends’ mentioned above. The consequences of this would be disastrous, because the whole purpose and central originality of the society would disappear. It would also cease to have the reconciliatory role it could potentially have in entrenched conflicts, because it would start to be seen as a cover for ‘the other side’. Theists would assume it was really atheistic, scientistic types that it was a cover for woolly new-ageism, Conservatives that it was really Socialist, etc. Even-handedness is just a vital part of what I conceive the society to be about, but it would be all too easy to let it slip.