I’ll talk here about one major theme that has begun to creep up on me and it is the question about whether or not it is ethical to kill microorganisms, even if it is for the greater good, as this still represents the ending of life, a transgression all religions and moral codes agree is unethical. Why is it that when the life form is so small and insignificant as to be invisible, we humans can rest our consciences about the intentional killing of said organisms? If the rule states that life must never be intentionally ended, well then it is quite clear that even these microorganisms, whom we are sure to be killing unintentionally even as we walk, should not be intentionally killed. The difference between a bacterium and a human being is merely one of scale as if we look closer at the human body itself, we will find that it itself is composed of trillions upon trillions of similar microorganisms. So firstly, the most obvious question is: why is it unethical to intentionally end life? It will undoubtedly be within the explanation of the answer to that question that the issue will gain in clarity and the conundrum may be resolved. If my intuitive understanding of the precept is correct, I would begin by implicating the intention of the agent and not necessarily the act itself, although the act itself is just a causal result of the intention. However, the intention is what is morally culpable, much more so than the action. From here, we proceed to reiterate the rule as follows: an agent must never encourage those intentions which lead to the ending of life. However this is clearly flawed, for what of the intention to eat? Does that intention not also lead to the ending of life? Life must end in order for life to continue. Some people say that eating meat is a transgression on the first precept of not killing. However, what is the alternative to eating meat: eating plants. And are plants not living as well? Mayhap the first precept should state: an agent must never encourage those intentions which lead to the ending of sentient life. But why this specification, and the exemption of all insentient life.
There is matter, which is split into organic matter and inorganic matter. Organic matter can be further divided into living and dead organic matter. And finally, living organic matter can be divided into sentient and insentient life. Sentient life is clearly a category only filled by animals and humans. So, if our rule is to be applied only to sentient matter, we would be morally right in eating a vegetarian diet (not being culpable even though we are encouraging the killing of plants) and by manipulating microscopic life for the betterment of other more complex life. So, this distinction between sentient and insentient life seems to be a very important one if it is in fact true that one can make such a distinction. The question now is, why is this distinction important and what is it really that makes killing sentient life wrong and not so for insentient life? Well, this is where consciousness and the problem of consciousness rears its head once more and shows how most problems and most dilemmas really stem from one major issue and it is the truth about consciousness and its role in the world (as emergent phenomenon, as conditioning will, etc…) Here we seem to be implying that only life with the higher levels of consciousness similar in kind, but not in degree, to our own consciousness is valuable and worth preserving, while all other forms of life may be deliberately ended with no consequence on the moral agent.
By reason alone, is it possible to determine what is morally right and what is wrong?
This is an interesting question and I now feel empowered to answer it. Well not really to answer that particular question but a bigger one, about the potential of reasoning itself. Since beginning to read Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Representation” I have started to gain stronger conviction in the ability of pure reasoning at arriving at some form of truth or at least as a means of acquiring true knowledge. As I have previously asserted, it is only the deluded and scattered mind which is troubled by reasoning and for whom this is a dangerous enterprise. Reasoning correctly requires clarity of thought and also frankness of thought, for it is a very unfortunate condition of the world that most minds struggle with frankness and spend much time in self-delusion. By calming and quieting the mind, so much begins to appear and so much previous error begins to be corrected. So, the process of philosophy and the process of spirituality seem to be mutually reinforcing.