Buddhism and ethical signaling

Buddhism is very much a system of ethics. Buddhist practice is founded on the Five Precepts of refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and the irresponsible use of alcohol.

In most Buddhist traditions, these precepts are taught as if they are fundamental to the workings of the universe. But how can morality be fundamental to the workings of the universe? How does it really even matter to human beings?

If we think of a human being as a signaling system, we may be able to show that ethical thoughts and behavior are of fundamental importance to the system itself.

Human signaling systems signal internally, within themselves, and externally, toward other people. Our most important signaling system is the one we share with that person who is most important to us, our mate or best friend. Let’s confine our discussion to this sort of primary signaling system.

If I lie to my partner or cheat her, I may gain something outside of our shared signaling system, but that signaling system will suffer. And when that shared system suffers, my own internal signaling system will also suffer because it will contain errors. It will no longer be in its optimal state. Similarly, if she lies to me or cheats me, our mutual signaling system will become less than optimal as will both of our individual, or internal, signaling systems.

My own signaling system cannot grow or become optimal without my partner treating me with the best ethical behavior she can muster. And the same is true for her with respect to me. And we both know this.

We would be good to each other anyway, but it is helpful to see that our being good to each other has a very practical foundation—it assures us optimal performance of our mutual and internal signaling systems.

FIML practice is designed to provide partners with a clear and reasonably objective means to communicate honestly with each other. FIML practice will gradually optimize communication between partners by making it much clearer and more honest. In doing this, it will also optimize the operations of their mutual and individual signaling systems.

To my knowledge, there is nothing like FIML in any Buddhist tradition. But if I try to read FIML into the tradition, I may be able to find something similar in the way monks traveled together in pairs for much of the year. I don’t know what instructions the Buddha may have given them or how they spoke to each other, but it may be that they did a practice with each other similar to FIML practice.

In any case, if we view human being as a signaling system, we may be able to claim that clear signaling—that is, ethical signaling—is fundamental to the optimization of that system.

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first posted FEBRUARY 3, 2013

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