Liquid morality

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, protagonist Raskolnikov commits the perfect crime.

Raskolnikov is a proud young man. He thinks he’s smart but feels misunderstood and belittled by others, alienated from society. To break out of the poverty he finds himself in, he decides to kill a lonely old loan shark and take her cash.

He needs the money, but the actual reason goes deeper: because he thinks he can.

The morale of the story is, of course, that he can’t.

The crime is perfect in the sense that he gets away without facing legal consequences. But he can’t get away from his conscience. Slowly but surely, his pride decays into paranoia and guilt. While he thought he had just killed a random loan shark, what he had really killed was a part of himself. The crime had irreversibly corrupted his soul.

Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg
Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg

What is morality?

The (masterfully written) tension between crime and punishment hints that morality is about the relationship between the self and the other. It concerns the question to what degree one should pursue one’s own self-interest relative to that of another person — be it a friend or stranger.

Schools of thought

Western philosophical traditions answer this question in different ways:

  • Virtue ethics is about your values and character. Virtue ethicists ground their sense of self in a set of values. To be moral is to habitually act in accordance with those values.

  • Deontology is about rules and duties. You recognise some doctrine or constitution as moral law and act in obedience. To violate that law is evil or wrong, or both.

  • Consequentialism or utilitarianism is about the consequences of your actions. You don’t much care about the actions or means, it’s the ends that matter. Do the actions maximise the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of individuals?

Virtue ethics is the most individualistic and most relativistic because different people identify with different virtues. In that sense, it is also inevitably more about your self than the other: you do things to feel good about your self rather than for how it affects the other.

Deontology and consequentialism suffer from the same flaw: they assume a rigidity that doesn’t exist in real life.

  • To deontologically act according to absolute rules negates that life is bound by often contradictory contexts.

  • Similarly, consequentialism assumes we already know what is good for everyone based on our limited knowledge in the here and now.


Reality is messier than philosophy.

There is no right approach that would work always and everywhere. If we apply the lens of complexity, it quickly becomes clear that different contexts and scales require different approaches. And so, societies typically mix these schools of thought.

But what about the personal level?

In every moment shared with others, we have to contend with the question of the other and the self. And it is never as easy as blindly acting from a list of values, laws or consequences.

On the other hand: what’s left if we don’t have such a list? Do we become like Raskolnikov, purely making choices from our impulses?

Good decisions are made recognising that life isn’t black-and-white, yet still having the courage to act — weighing inevitable trade-offs between values, laws and consequences to make a call.

A better way

The question then becomes: if virtue ethics is too subjective and both deontology and consequentialism are too objective, is there a better way to practise morality?

I think there is.

To see the other person

Let’s start from a quote by Alan Watts. In The Wisdom Of Insecurity, he writes:

“Nothing is really more inhuman than human relations based on morals. When a man gives bread in order to be charitable, lives with a woman in order to be faithful, eats with a Negro [the book was written in 1951] in order to be unprejudiced, and refuses to kill in order to be peaceful, he is as cold as a clam. He does not actually see the other person.” — Alan Watts

Alan Watts was a self-styled philosophical thinker who popularised a lot of Buddhist ideas for western audiences. Buddhist ethics start from the idea that the core unit of human experience is suffering.

The core unit of human experience

We suffer because we fear an uncertain future, and because we always desire more, i.e. there is no closure to the road of desire.

Fear and desire are the two sides of the inherent impermanence of life. In defiance of death, we create a sense of self — an illusion of permanence. It's in trying to uphold that illusion that we suffer.

“The basis of the self is not thought but suffering — the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and un-interchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.” — Milan Kundera

The point of mindfulness, for example, is to let go of the self-illusion. To simply be in a moment of stillness and peace, right in the middle of fear and desire, so we cease to suffer.

Still, we spend most of our lives somewhere in the complex dance between fear and desire. From there, everyone’s self can be thought of as founded from their unique causal chain of suffering.

To live is to suffer, and to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Whether rich or poor, looking this or that way, coming from here or there: we all get moulded by what we go through in life — good and bad — and develop character as a function of how we deal with that — grow through it.

“Suffering and disappointment are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity, but to mature and transfigure us.” — Hermann Hesse

Meaningful suffering

Humans bear their suffering by sharing it with other humans. Intimately with friends, family and partners; epically with strangers through books, movies, art, tweets and posts. In so doing, their individual selves become part of a greater, common story we call culture.

"Suffering is an ineradicable part of life. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering." — Viktor Frankl

Suffering becomes meaningful through recognition by others.
Suffering becomes meaningful through recognition by others.

Whatever the scale, in culture my suffering is recognised and therein becomes meaningful. It extends beyond my self to live on in the minds of others, even after I die.

“A man is not really dead until the last man who knew him has also died.” — Jorge Luis Borges

Suffering connects to morality not because all suffering is necessarily bad (it’s not) and should be eliminated — that would merely be pity.

No, suffering connects to morality through the deep-seated human need for recognition. It’s through recognition that suffering can be overcome and becomes meaningful.

While virtue ethics is subjective, and deontology and consequentialism objective, recognition of suffering is inter-subjective: the human connection between you and the other.

In that sense, “good” or “bad” aren’t as much about how much someone suffers, but the degree to which their suffering is recognised. The degree to which their very being is meaningful.

The kindest thing

Watts talks about the folly of being charitable for the sake of being charitable, the folly of eating someone for the sake of being unprejudiced. These actions, beneficial in result as they might be, don’t actually see the other human. They are about your self and don’t create meaning for the other.

It’s more human to see someone’s pain even if you choose to not act charitably than it is to act charitably for the sake of looking charitable. It’s more human to recognise someone’s being even if you choose not to interact with them than it is to be unprejudiced for the sake of being unprejudiced.

When you really see the other person you’ll often end up doing those things anyway — because you feel their suffering as your own and take action out of a deeper sense of love rather than to affirm your self.

Recognition is upstream of other forms of morality. The kindest thing to do for someone is to truly see them. Anything more is bonus, anything less leaves something to be desired.

Beyond status

The asterisk is that our need for recognition generally correlates with status.

Most people don’t care for a homeless person to see them as they do for their boss or someone with more cultural attention. Even the most powerful people want to be seen by history; what they think of as legacy.

True morality is then perhaps just to see any and all suffering that is in your immediacy before you act, regardless of who or what. That simple, that hard.

Morality as a skill

Buddhist ethics is far less philosophical than its Western counterpart. For Buddhists, morality is not about concepts but about practices that individuals need to test and iterate for themselves. It’s a skill.

In many ways, the Buddha was the first scientist. Rather than a scientist of nature however, he was a scientist of consciousness.

By teaching methods to purify the consciousness through deconstruction of the self, he gave people a path to walk themselves. Practising morality as a skill creates a direct feedback loop of attention and awareness with reality through which you can evolve intuitively over time. In this sense, morality starts from a sense of responsibility to purify the personal consciousness and, from there, extends outwardly as a skill in dealing with other people.


The Buddha’s core teaching is the Four Noble Truths:

  1. The first is the reality of suffering or dukkha.

  2. The second is samudaya; which says that desire is at the root of suffering.

  3. The third is nirodha; which says mastering those desires ceases suffering.

  4. The fourth is the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path makes up the practices on the journey. It too can be divided into three parts:

  • Sila (morality) — Speech, Action, Livelihood.

  • Samadhi (meditation) — Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration.

  • Prajna (wisdom) — View, Intention.

The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path

Speech, action, livelihood

The three practices for morality are right speech, right action and right livelihood.


Speech matters because speech create cultures. Humans are the only animals with capacity for abstract language and thought. It's this that enables us to cooperate with large groups of strangers at scale.

One reason Raskolnikov feels alienated after his crime is because some part of society lives in his brain. His act distanced his connection to other nodes (minds) around him.

Speech creates invisible webs of meaning we embody in ways hard to see. And so all begins with the intent of the words we speak to people around us — and the culture we create with them.


While the effects of speech manifest indirectly, what we do with our bodies (action) is the most direct expression of our ethics.

Most doctrines ask not to kill, injure or steal. In reality, our actions set off interdependent chains of second-, third-effects and beyond that are hard to foresee. Only after a while does the precise degree of good or bad emerge. Within such complexity, there are ways for some actions to be more skilful than others, and thus to do better next time.


Livelihood brings speech and action together. It means to make our living in a nourishing way. On a fundamental level, this is about giving more than you take from other people and our surroundings.

The laws of thermodynamics say we can reduce every interaction to an energy exchange. This is obvious on the level of work and trade, but energy exchanges happen at every moment in connection with others.


The bigger point is not to say these things, but to walk the path in day-to-day life and improve one’s way through trial-and-error.

Most Western traditions embed a notion of perfection in them. Be it as absolute, static virtues, laws or consequences: they ignore the dynamism of life. To practise morality as a skill is to humbly acknowledge and honour that intrinsic imperfection.

In that sense, morality is courage. Courage born not from the judgement to absolutely and abstractly discern right from wrong, but the judgement gained from seeing someone's pain and making the right call, iteratively.

Why should we care?

The main question Dostoevsky asks through Raskolnikov is: if laws are arbitrary and faith is not more than a delusion, why should you be moral at all? Who is the judge?

The Buddha answered this question the same way Dostoevsky did: the psyche.

It's not arbitrary that sila (morality) comes before samadhi (meditation) and prajna (wisdom) on the Buddhist path. The implication is that liberation, enlightenment and freedom can only be gained from a foundation of morality.

Only when the body and the livelihood it creates with others through speech and action are cleansed, can the mind itself be cleansed with concentration and wisdom. You can't be in harmony with your self when you're not with the other: they're the same peace.

As the skill of morality improves, so does your relationship with the world and yourself. As that happens, the three components come together as a dynamic morality that evolves with what happens, rather than rigidly impose outwardly what should happen.

As such, your well-being and that of the world become one. In the words of Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa:

“Well-being of body is like a majestically solid mountain with no mist and no rain. Well-being of mind is like a great lake with no ripples, no waves, and no wind. Well-being is simple, majestic, and uninterrupted.” — Chögyam Trungpa

Intuitive morality

At the end of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov confesses to his crime and wonders whether he was weak to do so. The Buddha would have likely told him he was only weak to not clean his mind of the impulse to begin with.

To know what is right has nothing to do with some predetermined concept, action, or result. It comes from doing the work to unstain one’s psyche to the point where, from seeing someone’s suffering and through trial-and-error, the skill of morality becomes intuition — deeply embedded in mind, body, speech and every movement.

It’s not that values, laws and consequences don’t matter or that one matters more than the other. It’s that life isn’t black-and-white and reducing it to one variable always leaves something to be desired.

Good decisions are made acknowledging there is no absolute right and wrong, yet still mustering the courage to weigh inevitable trade-offs and act, iteratively — to hone the skill as you go by holding yourself accountable. Rather than some philosophy you feel good about, a good place to start is the felt recognition of someone else’s pain.

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