The Sticky Dilemma of Moral Relativism

One of the most challenging concepts of eastern philosophies is the idea that our physical reality is an illusion. Our lives, our bodies, everyone we’ve ever known and loved, are not actually real, but just a shared delusion. True reality is some kind of cosmic oneness, in which we are all interconnected parts of the one eternity existing in eternal bliss.

This notion is challenging, because to most of us, this reality sure does feel real. Knock on a table, it feels real; snub out a cigarette in your eye, it feels real. It’s exceedingly difficult to grasp the concept that these sensations are only real inside our minds, created by our brains in response to stimuli received by our sense organs. 

But let’s say we manage to accept, on an intellectual level, that everything is an illusion. This raises another issue. If everything is an illusion, it’s easy to slip down the slope into abject Nihilism: If none of this is real, then why does anything matter? How do we define right and wrong?

I’ve struggled with this idea since first reading the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most famous books of Hindu thought. It was assigned by my mediation teacher, some fifteen years ago now. The Gita tells the story of Arjuna, a skilled warrior lined up for battle against an army of noble warriors from another family he knows well. This battle has come about because his brother lost all the family’s possessions in a game of dice, and now the situation has devolved into a massive conflict with thousands of soldiers on each side ready to kill each other. (This actually sounds like something that could happen in these times…)

I can understand Arjuna’s reluctance to join in this battle. But as Arjuna is struggling with this dilemma, God comes to talk to him, in the form of Krishna, his charioteer. 

Essentially Krishna tells Arjuna not to worry about killing all these people, because it’s just an illusion, he’s not really killing them, just their bodies. The Atman, or Self, does not die with the physical body. 

These bodies come to an end;
But that vast embodied Self
Is ageless, fathomless, eternal.
Therefore you must fight, Arjuna.
If you think that this Self can kill
Or think that it can be killed,
You do not well understand
Reality’s subtle ways.
It never was born; coming
To be, it will never not be.
Birthless, primordial, it does not
die when the body dies.
Just as you throw out used clothes
And put on other clothes, new ones,
The Self discard it’s used bodies
And puts on others that are new.

Essentially God tells Arjuna killing is not wrong, because he’s not really killing the Self, just the body.

I’m sure you can see the problem here, dear Reader. If we take this idea to its logical extreme, then we lose all basis for morality, right and wrong become meaningless.

If these physical bodies are not really us, but just a set of clothing, one in a long string of outfits we have worn and will continue to wear. They why does it matter what we do to anyone, or to ourselves? 

If this is just a meaningless physical shell, why not lie in bed watching Parks & Rec and eating Cheetos 24/7? If it’s all just an illusion, why bother doing anything in this world? Why is it wrong to hurt others? This line of thought makes me want to just hide in a cave and meditate until I realize the cosmic oneness.

I remember myself and others asking my teacher this question, but I can’t remember what the answer was, either it didn’t make sense at the time or I wasn’t ready to hear it.

It wasn’t until years later, after leaving my meditation group, that I finally found a satisfactory answer – while listening to Just So, a recording of lectures by Alan Watts.

The key to this dilemma lies in recognizing the distinction between absolute and relative reality. 

If we fully believe in this tenet of eastern philosophy, that physical reality is all an illusion. Then yes, in an absolute sense, nothing we do matters, there is no right and wrong. 

But, at the same time, we’re all living in this shared physical reality, and relative to this reality, what we do matters. 

Watts used an example of space. Relative to interstellar space, right now we’re zipping around our sun at 67,000 miles per hour, and our solar system is careening around a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy at a speed of 514,496 miles per hour, and our galaxy is probably spiraling around something else – on an on, spirals within spirals. In an absolute sense we are in constant motion. 

Yet relative to the Earth, which dominates our perception of space, we’re not moving. Right now I’m sitting in this chair, and I feel motionless. 

Do you see the parallel? In an absolute sense, I’m zipping through the universe at the unfathomable speed of 514,496 miles per hour. But in the relative sense, relative to the Earth, I’m motionless. Both are simultaneously correct, the difference lies in my perception, relative to my frame of reference. 

Similarly, in an absolute sense, there is no right and wrong, it’s all just one big cosmic oneness. But in a relative sense, relative to this shared reality in which I’m writing this blog and you’re reading it, right and wrong feel very real to us, there are consequences to our actions. Just like the Earth dominates our perception of motion, this shared reality of ours dominates our perception of existence. 

With special ‘tools’ we can sense the absolute reality. With a telescope we can study the stars and learn of our constant motion relative to the universe; we can realize that our apparent motionless is an illusion.

With meditation, we can study reality and learn of our underlying oneness with everyone and everything; we can realize that our apparent separateness is an illusion. 

All perceptions are true. On the cosmic scale, it is all an illusion, nothing matters, there is no right and wrong. 

But in the relative scale of this life I’m living, morality is very real. If I do nothing but watch Netflix and eat Cheetos, I’m going to feel gross and unhealthy pretty quickly. When I watched George Floyd murdered on TV, it clearly felt wrong. All of the numerous injustices in this world make we weep in despair. 

So that’s how I continue to function in this world while still believing it’s all an illusion. That’s how I care about this world without giving into hopeless despair, because beneath the inequality, beneath the injustice, beneath the rampant consumerism and changing climate, we’re all cosmic bliss. (Everything is ok)

Right cannot exist without wrong. We only know what is right in relation to what is wrong. Without wrong, right would not be right, it would just be. Right and wrong, good and evil – they are two halves of the One.

And yes, it doesn’t fully make sense and there’s some of circular reasoning here – but that’s kinda how reality is. Spirals within spirals….

Next up: How do we decide what’s right and what’s wrong. 

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