Dharma and Natural Law

Law of nature: buddha eat too much, buddha get fat.

In the usual broad strokes, and with unforgivable brevity stemming from a bad mood that is, let’s face it, probably intrinsic, let me kill two birds with one stone and reply to Dtcwee’s comment on the is-ought problem under the guise of presenting an esoteric observation from religious philosophy:

Dharma and Natural Law are basically the same thing.

But only basically, of course. If they were entirely the same thing it would be obvious to everyone. On the other hand, Natural Law alone is not obvious to many people, as evidenced by how people usually respond to my efforts to convey it.

[Either I’m really bad at communicating, or other people are really bad at understanding. Obviously I prefer the latter option, but there’s a third possibility: that the things I’m trying to communicate simply cannot be communicated easily.]

First let’s try to find some examples to cover the is-ought problem as requested.

Let’s say a friend says you ought to buy gold right now. You ask why. He replies “because the price is about to go up”. You reply “so what?” He explains that if you buy gold now, and the price then goes up, you’ll have made money easily.

So what?

Your friend, despite his misgivings, explains that money is not always easy to make, but in this case it will be quite easy to make quite a lot of money.

So what?

Your friend, now thinking you’re trolling him, nonetheless resolves himself to crush your whimsical spirit and proceeds thus: everyone – including you – needs money to live. Without money, you will waste away in poverty and deprivation.

So what?

Oh, so that’s how this is gonna go, is it? Okay, well, poverty and deprivation are horrible and humiliating and painful.

So what?

Well, your former friend says through gritted teeth, you should do whatever you can to avoid horrible, humiliating and painful circumstances.


Because they’re bad!


Well…nobody likes them!

So what?

So you should avoid things you don’t like.


Because….if you don’t, further bad things will happen to you.

So what?

So…eventually you’ll die and everyone will spit on your grave?

So what?

So, that’s a really bad thing to happen to you!


Because…everyone views it as a bad thing.

So what?

So you should too!


Because it’s normal.

So what?

Don’t you want to be normal?

Should I?

Look, we both know that you know all this. You do understand the value of money, and you will follow my advice to buy gold once this tedious argument is over, because you do want to avoid pain, suffering, and humiliation, don’t you?

Yes. But ought I?

Okay, I hope that wasn’t too painful to read, but if you look at it carefully (or maybe it’s obvious) you’ll see that every time the friend makes an ‘is’ statement – a statement about the way the world is – the other guy replies ‘so what?’. Every time the friend makes an ‘ought’ statement – should, ought, or ‘bad’ which implies ought – the reply is ‘why?’

The friend keeps trying to use ‘is’ statements to justify ‘ought’ statements, but he can never really convince the annoying moral skeptic that he ought to do anything.

The discourse does manage to trace the specific ‘ought’ of “you ought to invest in gold right at this moment” back to the more general underlying ‘ought’ of “you ought to act in a way that avoids future pain, suffering, humiliation, etc.”

But that’s as good as it gets for the friend. No matter what he says, he can’t explain to the skeptic why he ought to accept an ought. The skeptic isn’t even convinced by his own desires. He knows he wants to avoid pain, suffering, humiliation etc., but he also knows that he can turn his skepticism against his own wants and desires.

Just because I desire something doesn’t mean i ‘ought’ to do it. Why ought I follow my desires anyway?

There’s no real answer to this question. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good or telling question. All it really shows is that if you choose pure skepticism as a starting point there’s nothing within the limits of skepticism that can take you out of it.

The rules of the game only work if you accept them. The rules do not countenance convincing unwilling people to play the game. Monopoly doesn’t have penalty cards for sullen turds who don’t want to play.  Sure you won’t win the game if you don’t care, but the whole point is that I don’t care, right?

This is actually a pretty good analogy for Natural Law and, while we’re at it, Divine Law and its Eastern counterpart of Dharma.

Dharma is prominent in all Indian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Its meaning varies in different contexts, but broadly accumulates around the concept of “cosmic law and order”.

What makes Dharma especially interesting is that in a Buddhist context the word takes on multiple meanings, from the aforementioned “law/order” to the teachings of the Buddha, to a philosophical term for phenomena generally.

This gives it allusions that are analogous to those implicit in Natural Law, once you understand that Nature really refers to essence, the metaphysical principle by which blank existence is informed in the creation of all things.

In other words, both Dharma and Natural Law take on the highest significance when they are viewed as reflections of ‘the way things are’ on the deepest level.

Better still, Dharma in a Buddhist context retains its significance despite the Buddhist emphasis on Sunyata or ’emptiness’ as the ultimate level of reality.  So the impression that Buddhism transcends rules and laws and phenomenal reality is belied not only by the continued recognition of Dharma as having some kind of relevance on a mundane level, but moreso on the depiction of the Buddha’s teaching itself as the Dharma.

Dharma dharma everywhere, nor anything permanent to cling to.

To my mind, this perspective of Dharma keeps morality in the right tone as a part of, firstly, the order of reality, and secondly the path to Enlightenment laid out by the Buddha and his followers.

In other words, it maintains a good balance between morality and metaphysics, a balance that is sometimes lost when we recognise the divine implications of the moral order, and (sometimes) ditch natural law in favour of the easier-to-grasp divine command theory.

I’m sure the same problem occurs in practice in Buddhism: perhaps people become fatalistic or moralistic with regard to Dharma and karmic bonds. In this case, the remedy to both is to remember the ‘order’ of which the law is only one aspect.

Natural law is, after all, the law implicit in the created order, where law is etymologically “something laid down and fixed”, without necessarily conveying the juridical or punitive aspects of law.

Natural law is, as NL theorists never tire of saying, more analogous to “the laws of physics” than to the justice system.

But as with the monopoly example, Natural Law and Dharma are really both the rules of the game. The difference is that you can’t help but play, like it or not.

Some people like to gloat that religious morality or religion itself is a self-interested prospect: that people only follow it because they want to avoid suffering or pursue happiness. That is, of course, the underlying mechanism of the whole game.

And while that might leave religion incapable of convincing the utter skeptic, don’t forget that skepticism itself is a choice, one that cannot be compelled on its own terms either.


One thought on “Dharma and Natural Law

  1. Hi Zac,

    Good to see that your blogging continues. I haven’t had much time to keep up with your entries but it was a pleasant surprise for me to see your recent discussions about the is/ought problem. For me it raises interesting questions about our moral psychology and an interesting dilemma, which is that if “there is no rational way to convince me that I ‘ought’ to do anything” then the result is that either I am not compelled to do that thing (adhering strictly to rationality as the basis for action) or I still do that thing independently of what reasons/rationality compels me to do (perhaps out of desire or inclination or external influence). This points to the question of “what is the role of reason?” when it comes to our actions or judgments.

    So I wonder in what sense are reasons (or rational justification) relevant to natural law. I haven’t given this much thought but perhaps there might be something to be said about whether or not natural law fits into the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy which is typically to provide reasons or rational justifications for our judgments about what we ought to do (i.e. moral precepts), from which the is/ought problem arises.

    If it is not necessary to provide a rational justification for why we ought to for example, “fulfill our essential nature”, or if somehow this whole enterprise or rational justification is based on a misconception about morality, then it would seem that reason/rationality is not essential to moral knowledge (or moral understanding) according to natural law theory and therefore natural law theory fits outside of the “orthodoxy” of moral philosophy.

    Do you think this distinction between natural law theory and “orthodox” moral philosophy exists?

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