The MWS Podcast: Episode 26, Martine Batchelor on Ethics from a Buddhist perspective

In this episode Martine Batchelor, a Buddhist teacher and author talks about ethics from a Buddhist perspective and to what extent it differs from more rule based ethical positions. We also explore topics such as absolutism versus relativism, karma, ‘engaged’ Buddhism, the precept of non-harming, laying people off, prisons and her understanding of the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 26: Martine Batchelor as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

3 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 26, Martine Batchelor on Ethics from a Buddhist perspective

  1. As I was listening to this, the image of a patched jacket sprang to mind. Supposing one had a jacket that kept getting worn out in various places, and one kept applying new patches or darning it up in various places. Such a jacket would continue to have a lot of practical value, and you could make an argument that for a good while, continuing to patch it was a better use of resources than buying a new one. However, there comes a point when the jacket is just falling apart to such a degree that you really need to buy a new one: the problems are too structural. That’s how Buddhist ethics (in the liberal, reformed version Martine articulates) often seems to me. You can carry on patching and revising the tradition for only so long, and then at some point you really have to admit that you need a new jacket. I’ve no doubt that the patched jacket suits Martine well and fulfils her practical needs and those of many others, but I think that in the bigger picture we definitely need a new jacket. That doesn’t mean that the new jacket can’t adopt some of the helpful design features of the old one, but it needs new structure and fabric.

    The kinds of ‘patches’ I’m talking about were, for example, the reformed view of karma that reduces it to actions having consequences (so why talk about karma?); the concept of engaged Buddhism; the limited concept of the Middle Way as a moral balancing between asceticism and self-indulgence; the views of justice and consequences that Martine discussed here. These all make sense as patching responses – i.e. practical improvements adding some degree of flexibility and openness to a more rigid tradition, and thus making it more adequate to conditions in various ways. However, for me they lack clarity, comprehensiveness and clear justification in experience. These are practical concerns about it, not abstract quibbles.

    The problems also seemed clear from the beginning of the discussion, in Martine’s totally contradictory attitude to theory. “I’m not interested in ethical theory”, she said, then proceeded to recommend a book of ethical theory by a philosopher, Michael Sandel. The whole of the rest of the discussion was then about what she claimed to be not interested in – i.e. ethical theory. If her point was that she wasn’t interested in ethical theory for its own sake, without a connection to practical goals, then I’d be much more sympathetic. But it’s hard not to link this kind of theoretical refusal of theory with the tendency I find in both the Batchelors’ work, of avoiding the need to think through the implications of their ‘patches’ a little more clearly and rigorously. What is it based on if not just Buddhist tradition? How can it avoid relativism if it doesn’t base itself more clearly on the Middle Way? These are practical problems, not just academic ones – especially as the academics are not generally addressing them either!

  2. Hi Robert,

    I am not sure that the analogy of the patchwork coat works here. Yes, Buddhism can be said to be like a patchwork coat in that it changes and adapts as new ideas are conceived and old ones rejected, but it does not necessarily follow that this change is similar to the physical deterioration of cloth or nylon. Rather it might be more similar to the changing design of a coat. Coats have changed over the ages to suit differing climates, societies and fashions – however it is still a coat with a clear evolution. It is not as if my coat physically existed since the 1700’s and had been altered over the centuries, which would make it messy, but the idea behind my coat has existed since the 1700’s and probably before.

    Buddhism, and other concepts, like the Rule of Law do change and evolve, but often for the better. This is not to say that Buddhism has reached a final form and like the coat it will evolve further. I would not say that the idea of the Rule of Law should be abandoned because it has often been altered, the capacity to evolve is a strength not a weakness.

    I would suggest that the Middle Way Philosophy is itself a patchwork coat – tailored from Jung, Buddhism, Christianity among other things – and that, like Buddhism, will also evolve over time.

    I would agree with you that the term Karma is unhelpful and there is little point in redefining, which seems to happen in a lot of contemporary Buddhist literature it. I would rather not use it at all.

    It is no surprise to you that I find much that is useful in both Stephen and Martine’s presentation of Buddhism. And if it does not explicitly base itself on the Middle Way, it is still a product of it – although not expressed in the same terms as the Middle Way Philosophy. When not treated dogmatically then the Four (noble) Truths, the (noble) Eightfold Path and the precepts can be useful, accessible and immediately actionable expressions of the Middle Way (or part of it at least).

    It did seem to me that Martine was stating that she was not interested in ethical theory for it’s own sake, not that she wasn’t interested in the theory at all. It seems more likely that she is only concerned with how such theory can be applied. I don’t know much about ethical theory, but I feel that there must be good and bad (or useful and not useful) in all of it – with the proportions differing from one theory to the next.


  3. Hi Rich,
    What I intended to symbolise in the deterioration of the jacket (so that it needed patching) was new conditions and new recognitions. For example, if you think of Christianity in this way, then it has been patched in various ways to respond to Darwin, Biblical Scholarship, and closer encounters with other religions. Each time a criticism is made of a tradition, the revisionist approach is to try to add a new patch that will keep the jacket together despite the erosion created by that new criticism.

    I did not mean to imply that we can avoid traditions or that we should even try to do so. Elsewhere I have often argued for the need to treat religions as multifaceted things like people, rather than treating them as essentially one thing or another. I can fully understand why anyone might want to keep patching a tradition, and the practical advantages of doing so.

    What I wanted to say here was more specific to the Buddhist tradition and its relationship to the Middle Way, and reflects the process of patching and then ‘buying a new jacket’ that I have been through myself. I’m suggesting that there is a point where the best way of supporting the Middle Way comes from taking the leap of buying a new jacket. It’s not a clear-cut point, and my own judgement that that point had been reached is debatable. Nevertheless, there comes a point where the energy put into patching the old jacket, and the frustrations of needing to make it fit when it doesn’t fit well, are no longer worth it.

    Middle Way Philosophy has been pulled together from a variety of sources, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a patchwork jacket in the same way. That’s just because it hasn’t existed long enough to become threadbare and be patched in the same kind of way. Also, the younger of tradition is, the more flexible it is, and the more it can actually still be modified in its basic design, rather than needing patching. Middle Way Philosophy is not just young, but hardly past the zygote stage – far too young for its character to have become firmly formed yet, let alone age and need patching up.

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