We are NOT our actions alone

Dali: Woman at the window

I have had enough of silly clichés that everyone takes for granted. For example, the other day I saw someone on MSN Messenger with the subtitle “It is what you DO that is important”. Frankly, I do not think that is accurate at all, neither in reality nor in the evolution of the psyche.

Just as there has been physical evolution of the species, there has also been psychological evolution that can be reflected linguistically, socially, and even in religion. In terms of psychological evolution, as I understand it, there was a time in history, probably about 500 years before the birth of Christ and around the advent of Guatama Buddha, when humans began to understand themselves as being responsible for more than just their actions. Prior to this point, humans were generally only accountable to God or to themselves for their actions alone. Thereafter, as especially prevalent in Christianity, man is directly accountable for the sins of desire or the sins of the mind. Permit me to continue:

Although the concept of sinful desire does exist in the last two of the Ten Commandments (“you shall not covet”). But in general, sin was an act. In the tradition of Judaism, man is responsible for sin because he has been given the gift of free will. This concept of free will, the ability to decide whether to engage in an action and the subsequent action was what determined whether an action was sinful. Then, historically, there is a major shift in morality, more in line with the latter two Commandments. As seen in the Gospels, we become responsible even for the thought process that may or may not produce a sinful act. This is kind of ironic actually. Imagine, we are given the gift of God that we shall have free will. Free will gives us the ability to decide between sinning or not sinning. But, even the process of deciding not to sin, inherently is sinful because we have to elect not to sin through our own volition. Confusing?

Take the Gospel of Matthew 5:29, “If your right eyes causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to throw it away than to have your whole body be thrown into Hell.” Christ is not rewarding us for not acting upon our urges, but threatening us with damnation for having those urges themselves. It seems like a Catch-22. So, it is actually what we are thinking rather than what we are doing that is sinful. If you are going to have a sinful desire, you mind as well act upon it because you are going to get punished anyways. Or you can get rid of both your eyes. Then only your memory and imagination can cause you to sin . . .

As mentioned, 500 years before Christ, Buddhism had already confronted these issues. The difference is that cognition itself is a form of action. You cannot necessarily separate the mind from actions. Thus, sinful thought is an action. Words are action. The solution was to cultivate the mind in such a way to ensure that one ceases to desire altogether. According to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, all desire creates suffering in this world. Thus, it is desire itself that would be analogous to the Western concept of sin. In the Noble Eightfold Path, Buddhism sets forth the process for transcending desire. This process entails mental cultivation, generally through the practice of meditation. For in Buddhism, action itself is irrelevant, for it is nothing more than another manifestation of the unskilled mind. Laziness, for example, is a form of unskilled behaviour. Unlike Christianity, where we are accountable to God to atone for our sins, in Buddhism we are only accountable to ourselves, for it is us who will have to endure suffering and reincarnation and only us who can save ourselves.

Finally to make this point even more clear, even if “actions speak louder than words”, it was precisely the Word of God (or Logos) that created the World in the Bible. Similarly the Dharma (or Buddhist teachings), has so much inherent value in and of itself that its simple recitation can produce positive results. For example, in Vajrayan Buddhism, the mere spinning of objects engraved with the Dharma or the chanting of the “om mani padme hum” may shorten one’s path to nirvana.

Yogacara Buddhism (some 1200 years before Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy of Subjective Idealism) rejected the existence of material objects in the world outside of cognition altogether. According to Idealism, the external world exists merely as a mental construct and not as a material reality. Thus, matter comes into being as we create it with our minds. Being is tied to perception. We can therefore be creative without actually doing anything other than thinking. Perception itself is the most power, if not the only, action of creation. Do you remember Plato’s cave?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not promoting any of these religions at all. But, I do believe that we can see an evolution in time where the concept of our desires, be them fulfilled or not, did begin to carry moral weight. Furthermore, because of the social importance of religion, people have incredibly strong psychological feelings of guilt for their desires. Imagine the self-guilt of Catholic teenagers, for example, who are required to confess their sins to a priest, even those that are new and embarrassing to them like masturbation (which ironically is the unfulfilled desire to sin and the sin of masturbation itself). Consequently, we have been conditioned by religion and society to feel accountable for much more than our actions alone.

Outside of religion, criminal law treats an individual as culpable at common law (not the case for statutory crimes) if that individual has both engaged in a culpable action (actus reus) and has had a culpable intention (mens reas). Thus, in order for a person to be guilty of a crime, the person must have the desire to commit the crime and have actually committed it. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, an individual who is inebriated will be guilty of certain crimes, while may not be guilty of others. And inchoate crimes, such as attempt (attempted murder, attempted robbery, etc) may find an individual guilty of a crime before they have actually committed the crime. In law, though, it is much too burdensome on the rights of defendants to judge them by their intentions alone. Nevertheless, the law also understands that neither is it just to hold individuals guilty for their actions alone without first seeking to identify a culpable intention.

In torts, we hold individuals civilly liable for their intentional torts and negligence. With intentional torts (and in strict liability), the law only holds tortfeasors liable if an injury has been sustained. The law needs not look at the tortfeasor’s intentions, only whether there has been an injured party. On the other hand, in negligence the law analyzes whether the actor had a (i) duty to act or omit from acting, (ii) breached that duty, and (iii) that breach was the proximate cause (iv) of an injury. Generally the standard for judging whether one has a duty and has breached the duty is whether a reasonable or prudent person would have acted similarly under similar circumstances. And although it appears here that we are looking at an action or inaction, what we are really measuring is whether someone was “reasonable”. In other words, whether the individual contemplated the foreseeable outcome of her action or inaction. This sounds a lot like the aforementioned concept of the unskilled mind in Buddhism where someone acts without thinking. Thus, even in negligence cases, the law is essentially judging one’s action, not on the action itself, but on whether one anticipated reasonably the ramifications of her action. Thus, the question is not whether one meant to do harm, but rather whether one took the time to contemplate the reasonably foreseeable harm.

So, how do you judge yourself? Are you what you eat? Are you what you do at work? If you had a nightmare, does it affect you when you wake up? Well, it wasn’t an action? What about your desires (sinful or hopeful or both)? Do you define yourself by what you wish you were doing? We are as much what are not as what we are.

I often think of Jorge Luis Borges’ Yogacara idealism in the “Circular Ruins” where the main character is much happier and more productive while dreaming than while wake. How should this character have defined himself? Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote, “I am myself and my circumstances”. I would say that I am myself and my circumstances, and my circumstances include all of my actions. But, my actions include everything I do and do not do, and every point of cognition in my mind. When I may seem at rest, I just may be engrossed in some intense contemplation.

So please, I beg you to spare me your action-centric clichés. Let me go home in the evenings to the darkness of the night’s solitude where I may act not but thrive in the bright shining light of my own imagination and cosmologically and ontologically creative and fascinating non fare niente.


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Filed under Digressions, Essays

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