Blood on the Tracks

There is “blood on the tracks” of yesterday’s Bahrain grand prix, according to George Galloway. With characteristic moral clarity he has declared that those who raced “will never be forgiven.” The Sunni government are accused and probably guilty of serious human rights abuses against protesters, mainly from the Shi’ite majority, who want them out. People have been locked up and worse since last year’s event was cancelled following similar protests. Its serious stuff and life has been lost.

The news media often revels in debates about the morality of this and that, should we or shouldn’t we, expressing views that reflect narrow self-interests, commercial concerns or just plain old hatred and ignorance, as well as telling us stories of real human suffering and dignity. The news can be wearisomely moralistic and moving at the same time.

It feels rather peculiar to imagine what the Buddhist response might be to the Bahrain grand prix. If I were revving up my Lambuddhagini on the start line what might I have been feeling? Would the little Buddha dangling from my rear view mirror be distracting me from the race at hand?

What is missing from debates is often a sense of the basis for ethics. Ethics seems to cover what we do in collective situations which are bigger than us personally but which test our sympathies and motivations (like in Bahrain) and those which seem more purely personal (like how I declare my income or speak to the stranger at the telephone call centre).

Buddhist ethics draws together these two areas, the collective and the seemingly personal, by focussing on our motivation and our mental state. An action is ethical to the degree that it comes from an aware, empathetic and loving state of mind, unethical if it comes from a self-serving, mean spirited or other unhelpful state of mind.

Mental states are the key determinant of happiness and suffering for ourselves and others. and they build our world. Even phenomena like grand prix, oppressive regimes and shopping arcades are built out of states of mind over periods of time. When you see New York you are looking at the history of the millions of minds which made it, for good or ill.

In any situation, be it deciding whether to declare our income or more complex dilemmas such as whether to drive in a grand prix which has become emblematic of a struggle for rights and freedoms, the key concern is with our inner motivation.

If I don’t declare income the motivation is usually greed. If I get mad at a call centre operative, the mental state is normally aversion. Greed and aversion are not skillful ethical states of mind. They cause suffering to me and others because they generate that kind of world (greedy and hateful) which in turn produces more suffering, even if I do get away with paying less tax! However it is possible, even in simple cases, to note more than one motivation.

Reflecting on whether to take part in a grand prix is hard for the racers because their total motivation is being called into question. If you have built a whole life as a race driver it’s going to take something pretty significant to stop you racing around that track. You’re being paid, you want to win, you love racing, you’re being pressured by sponsors to get on with it.

Did the drivers then have the negative motivations proposed above as the basis for ethics or are they just racing around a track? What kind of motivation would cause them to ignore (or take account of) the wider politics going on outside the track?

I don’t think the drivers have blood on their tyres as Mr Galloway says they do. We should never be too quick to judge another’s motivation as we don’t stand in their shoes. Unless we know them very well we are likely to be wrong or partial. I’m glad if a racing driver has any room in his heart for the suffering of the marginalised people of a country who don’t appreciate the grand prix or its sponsors, whether they race or not. Buddhist ethics encourages us to notice that sort of sympathy and sensitivity, to cherish it and let it affect our lives more and more.

How this plays out in any given situation is for us each to decide. Would you have raced? Should it have been called off? That’s the kind of speculation the media enjoy getting into. The only thing I know is that if just a few drivers, or even a key one, had been strongly enough motivated to pull out, the whole thing may have collapsed like it did last year. And if they had pulled out on ethical grounds (rather than, say, commercial grounds or just fear) then that action would carry a lot further.

This is what Buddhist ethics amounts to – increasing our sympathy for life, for others, for the whole living world, until wholesome motivations predominate. Out of that, collectively, a different world emerges. If we feel uncomfortable in the drivers seat that may just be the healthy sign of a beating heart.  Share

2 Responses to “Blood on the Tracks”

  1. Geoff Sheridan says:

    The article does seem to imply that moral responsibility should be confined to those with an interest in it. The drivers – with ethical myopia rather than malice – don’t know enough about the situation to realise how wrong it is. And that’s fine because (according to the author) their motivation is not ill-will.
    If this argument does anything, it demonstrates the inadequacy of the criteria of ‘inner motivation’.

    • Satyadasa says:

      Hi Goeff. Good point about ethical myopia. Of course one could set the bar higher than an absence of ill-will. Knowledge is important and I don’t think there is no ethical issue if you bury your head in the sand. And while Buddhists see motivation (however high the bar is set) as the criterion for ethics, this is not separate from wise understanding of suffering’s true causes, so in a way the whole Buddhist project comes into the picture when you discuss ethics.

      I don’t wish to argue that ethics is a mere state of mind cut off from the world either. Mind (in the Buddhist scheme) is not a thing apart from the real world. Its, er, all we know and its not separate from what we refer to as matter. Hmmm. I’ll dig myself in a hole if I carry on with that one!

      I suppose the ideal (if you took a mind-based perspective) is a mind suffused with compassion and wisdom, but even then someone could come along and criticise an action on the basis of an effect that it had, rather than the intention from which it emanated. Ultimately its rather hard to know for certain the effects of one’s actions isn’t it? I’m not even sure what the effects of not racing would have been. Would it for certain have lead to less suffering? Could it actually have lead to more suffering and how would we ever know and what would be the cut off point for deciding and who would be the judge? I’m not asking you these questions – more just musing them to myself.

      Some people say its always unethical to use air travel because of the earth warming gases etc. That argument is convincing if you include all the data we know about climate change, species extinction, nightmare scenarios etc and use that as the criterion. Is it that simple though? It seems a little inhuman, black and white. A bit like Mr Galloway’s remarks. Sometimes ethical debate can get wrapped up in politics, puritanism, guilt….

      Ps – I don’t really like the grand prix and I never watch it!

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