Member Rara Avis
I think religion can be a way for people to elevate themselves in that way.
I think ANY divisiveness can be a way for people to elevate themselves over others. Nationality, politics, age, even gender, too often become ways of saying "I'm better than them."
Um, doesn't Buddhism teach the ideal of a non-self?
There are many different schools of Buddhism, just as there are many denominations of Christianity, which makes it very difficult to speak in generalities. Brad has much more depth of experience with Eastern religion and philosophy, so I hope he'll jump in to correct any missteps I make.
There are four "Truths" generally recognized in Buddhism. (1) Suffering exists. (2) Suffering arises from attachment to desires. (3) Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. (4) Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path.
It's very easy to see, then, that the promise of Buddhism is an end to suffering. Not human suffering, but individual suffering. That's pure self-interest, no matter how you define it. The Eightfold Path, to my way of thinking, is a way to help us set those values I talked about that we place on short- and long-term self-interest. Buddhism, like every morality system, promises something of great value to the self in return for following certain predefined rules.
I'm fine with the idea that collective self-interest and individual self-interest are inherently interconnected, especially in today's day and age- after all, how many self-sufficient farms has anyone seen lately?
I don't think we should confuse morality with cooperation. The popular reality show, Survival, is an insightful demonstration of human cooperation at work. The winner is inevitably someone who cooperates right up until he stabs everyone in the back. Cooperation, in other words, is situational. I know Brad will jump in and say that everything is situational, and he's probably right, but I think we're really talking about a continuum rather than two ends of a spectrum. Some things, like cooperation for self-interest, are more situational than other things. Morality, I think, is much less so. Indeed, the strength of our moral conviction is measured by our reluctance to let it be dictated by situations.
I believe that morality is so often intermixed with faith and trust for that very reason. From an objective, intellectual standpoint of pure self-interest, it's not difficult to justify helping others. If all of my neighbors are hungry and I have food sitting on the front porch, my sense of security is seriously jeopardized. On a macro scale it's much more complicated, but not greatly different. My own self-interest will always depend on avoiding large disparities between myself and others. That's simple logic, directed at long-term self-interest. The problem with this logic is that it tells me WHAT I should do, only vaguely hinting at WHEN I should do it. How hungry should I let my neighbors become before I start passing out food from the front porch? In trying to maximize my self-interest, I necessarily risk survival.
Morality reaches the same conclusions as logic, but avoids the risky decisions by maintaining it is ALWAYS in my best interest to help others if I'm able. It doesn't try to maximize self-interest so much as it insures that self-interest is preserved. That's where faith and trust come into play. If I try to rely on my own reasoning and judgement, the immense complexity of human intercourse guarantees I will make mistakes. You could sooner predict the weather a month from now than predict human behavior with unerring accuracy. And "unerring accuracy" is the only thing that will work. Instead of doing the impossible, I place my faith in the thousands of years of experience that generated my rules of morality. I play the odds.
Lest I make morality sound entirely cold-blooded, let me add that I think it is much more than simply a safer bet than our own judgement. I very much believe that the consequences of Life are a reflection of individual attitude. If you think you'll fail, you probably will. If you think you are unworthy of love, you will find only people who hate you. What you think becomes who you are. Morality, when coupled with faith and trust, becomes a tool for shaping thought and attitude. When you see yourself as a better person, you become that person. Interestingly, I often think that the tenets of morality are less important to that process than our adherence to the tenets. "Sticking to your guns." regardless of the circumstances, builds character in ways impossible for situational cooperation to do. That kind of unwavering adherence to morality is only possible, I think, with faith and trust in the foundation for your morality. Each success brings greater strength, and doing what is right BECAUSE it is right becomes easier.
Morality isn't just someone telling you what to do. It's someone telling you what works.