Practical ethics

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

A recent study on the relationship between positive emotions, social connectedness and a measure of heart health has been getting a lot of attention in the popular media. 1 It's an interesting addition to the emerging scientific literature on the uses and effects of meditative practices and on the mechanism of the placebo effect (which seems to be shorthand for a wide variety of fascinating and under-studied phenomena)2. These are both compelling topics, and perhaps good subjects for a future blog post, but the study was also interesting because it's one of a growing minority of studies that look at compassion meditations rather than concentration or mindfulness meditations.

Compassion meditations, roughly, are a family of exercises where you try to practice compassion by cultivating love and good wishes towards other people3. One way of doing this is to picture a series of people and wish them well in turn (taking your time over each and, typically, moving from yourself to people you like, then to people you are indifferent to and then to people you dislike). Another practice is to look at people as you make your way in the world and, for each person, say to yourself, “Like me, this person wants to be happy and avoid suffering”. Yet another is, in the midst of encountering another person, to every so often ask yourself “What is preventing me from being present with this person?”

Over the last few years, there's been a gradual increase in the number of scientific studies looking at compassion meditations. This is promising, not because these practices should be entirely understood by their effects on physiology, nor because the scientific lens is necessarily the best way to see them, but because it points to greater visibility and more general interest.

It's easy to see why scientists would be reluctant to study these practices; despite their age, they can seem like fluffy New Age exhortations, akin to telling someone, “Now let's all love each other.” When I was first introduced to these techniques, about a decade ago, I remember thinking they were silly. Mindfulness meditation, where you attempt to become aware of your thoughts and feelings as they happen, seemed like an intriguing way of probing at the structure of subjective experience; it could be criticized methodologically for being unverifiable, ungeneralizable and so on, but it seemed to have intellectually sound goals. Similarly, concentration meditation, where you train one-pointed focus, seemed like a useful training regimen: everyone wishes they could concentrate better. But compassion meditations seemed like an exercise in unfounded benevolence for people who couldn't be bothered to think carefully about ethics.

In the intervening years, though, my views on ethics have changed, and I've come to believe that these practices are very valuable and potentially quite radical. It seems more and more that ethics is less a matter of reasoning from detached principles but, crucially, a matter of practice. It isn't that ethical principles don't exist, or that reason shouldn't be a guide to action, but there seem to be a number of principles, with overlapping spheres of validity, and deciding which ones to apply and how is inextricably bound up with context, habit and lived performance (which suggests a view closer to virtue ethics than, say, deontology). At least on an everyday level, it seems that when I'm frustrated with myself for not being kinder or more empathetic it's not because I don't know what I should be doing but because I find myself unable to, or insufficiently perceptive or distracted or lazy. All the impediments seem to be impediments of practice.

I've also become increasingly sympathetic to a certain form of behaviorism: to the view that thinking and feeling should be thought of as behaviors (or clusters of behavior), and that rather than thinking of actions as expressions of a separate internal state, we should think of actions and intentions as part of what we mean when we talk about particular internal states.

This suggests a shift of focus to practice and performance, and it's here where compassion meditation seems most useful. To me, it's best understood as a way of carving out and formalizing a space in which to practice being compassionate or empathetic or loving, rather than simply exhorting yourself to, or believing that if you're really truly convinced of a certain ethical orientation then you'll naturally live according to it. It inverts the usual relationship between thought and behavior and acknowledges that thought is often founded on behavior4. And it embraces process. Rather than measuring up to a detached ethical standard, or simply expressing an ethical thought that lies within the self, you're encouraged to think in terms of cultivating a self, with all the setbacks and slow improvement that entails.

This view of self-cultivation seems like it can be valuably applied to the ways we think of love and relationships (both romantic and not). We're often told that a relationship (especially romantic) requires work and compromise, which makes it sound like an uninspiring combination of Sisyphus and treaty negotiations. But this does contain a good deal of wisdom, which is that it is misleading to think of love or friendship just as the welling up of an already established, internal state that you simply stumble upon in yourself, and that instead it should be thought of as a set of performances and practices that can be fruitfully cultivated.

In many ways, none of this should be surprising. We think of children as developing empathy by being taught to practice it, and we don't think of them as irretrievably wicked if they find it difficult. It's liberating to apply the same standards to the adult. Viewed from another angle, though, these practices do smuggle in a certain view of the self, as contingent and created, and subdue notions of authenticity and self-discovery to those of self-cultivation. I imagine most people are not willing to give up the idea of a self to be discovered, but perhaps this is a contradiction we should embrace. It's almost reassuring that we get to jump back and forth between contradictory views of the self, alternately creating and uncovering.

1Kok, B. E. et al. How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science (in press).

3The ones I'm thinking of (and the ones that seem to be studied) come from Buddhist traditions. There are others, but I'm not very familiar with them.

4These sorts of inversions seem to pop up a lot. For example, you're supposedly more likely to feel positively towards someone if you do them a favor. This can be understood as the need to rationalize your behavior after the fact, but to me it seems more compelling to just collapse the state and the action and to say that doing someone a favor is part of what it means to like them.