The Western intellectual tradition comes from Christianity. Christianity comes from Judaism. Judaism comes from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism has many ideas recognizable within Christianity.

  • Zoroastrianism has a dualistic cosmology of good and evil.
  • Zoroastrianism has an eschatology where good overcomes evil. (Zoroastrian cosmology is a precursor to the Book of Revelation.)
  • Zoroastrianism has heaven and hell.

Zoroastrianism is fundamentally future-oriented. There is no way to separate "doing good now" from "getting into heaven after you die". Asking a Christian "Would you do the right thing even caused you to go to Hell?" is a contradiction of terms. It is like asking a Utilitarian "Should you do the right thing even if it violates your inclusive utilitarian calculus?"

Zoroastrianism and Utilitarianism are similar ways of thinking because they treat value as a single quantifiable metric. Every reality has a good/evil/utility value (or vector) you can optimize. In this sense, Zoroastrianism and Utilitarianism are fundamentally extrinsic moral frameworks because moral value is downstream of the choices you make.

There are moral frameworks where moral value is upstream of the choices you make.

Intrinsic Moral Frameworks

An intrinsic moral framework is a moral framework where the value of an action is judged by how the action was committed, irrespective of its consequences. Two popular intrinsic moral frameworks are Buddhism and Daoism.

Buddhism

Non-attachment is the core value of Buddhism. Non-attachment is to Buddhism what love is to Christianity or what submission is to Islam[1]. There are a many varieties of Buddhism but all of them are based around a core of non-attachment.

This isn't to say lovingkindness and submission aren't important to Buddhism. They are—just as submission is important to Christians and lovingkindness is important to Muslims. But submission isn't central to Christianity and lovingkindness isn't central to Islam.

If you attend a zendō you might not hear anyone speaking overtly about non-attachment. You're more likely to hear a chant about saving all living beings from suffering. But the reason compassion is valuable is because it's what remains after you let go of your kleishas. Non-attachment is asymmetric. It uproots anger and hatred while leaving love and compassion unharmed.

In Buddhism, the fundamental measure of an action's value is how close it comes to acting without ignorance, attachment and aversion (which, metaphysically, are all manifestations of the singular samsaric curse). Compassion just tends to be a good measure of how buddha-like someone is acting. It's simple, concrete and universally-understood.

Acting with non-attachment frequently means acting with compassion which frequently results in utility maximization. Utility maximization is strictly a consequence of moral behavior. Utilitary maximization is ancillary to whether behavior is moral.

Good behavior helps a person relinquish attachment. It you're trying to become a buddha then good behavior is just a means to less attachment. If you already are a buddha then good behaviors (and, even more so, good outcomes) are a mere consequence of non-attachment. Theologically-speaking, good is not the core value to Buddhism the way good is the core value of Zoroastrianism. Buddhism is even more theologically-distant from Utilitarian consequentialism than it is from Zoroastrianism.

Daoism

Daoism is hard to explain because Daoism is the love child of a Lovecraftian horror and an ideatic SCP.

Daoism morality is even more intrinsic than Buddhist morality. Daoism is what morality turns into when you use intrinsic morality itself as your terminal value. Except that doesn't work because the entire concept of terminal values implies some sort of external morality, which is a contradiction.

Daoist pedagogy uses contradictions to explain important philosophical concepts. The multiverse has no contradictions. The contradictions are all in your head.


  1. The word "Islam", in Arabic, literally means "submission [to God]". ↩︎

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Some branches of Christianity (I think Calvinism) believe in predestination: long before you are born, God decides whether you ultimately end up in Heaven or Hell, and nothing you do can have any impact on it.

How to make this compatible with the idea that generally people doing good/right things end up in Heaven, and people doing bad/wrong things end up in Hell? You turn the causality the other way round, and say that doing good/right things is a consequence of being predestined for Heaven. Your predestined fate pushes you irresistibly towards some kinds of behavior; the saints just cannot resist doing good, and the damned cannot resist doing bad.

So in practice you end up doing some kind of "acausal trade", where you try doing the good/right things, despite believing that there is absolutely no reward for doing so, because the fact that you are doing so is evidence that you were predestined for Heaven.

(I wonder whether Calvinists do better than other Christians at Newcomb's problem...)

Theologically-speaking, good is not the core value to Buddhism the way good is the core value of Zoroastrianism.

According to some Zen Buddhists, the proverbial Nazi excuse "I was just following orders" is actually quite enlightened. If you are literally just following orders, without any attachment (you neither enjoy nor abhor guarding the concentration camp, for example), then you don't collect any karma for your actions. Being horrified would be a sign of spiritual immaturity, and probably would get you reincarnated as an animal. You might be allowed to write a short poem about wilting sakura flowers after your shift ends, though.

Orders are just an abstraction though, we refer to some nexus of intent, information, compulsion, etc., when we use the word. It’s impossible to ’literally follow orders’ and nothing else.

For example, our hearts still need to beat roughly 60 times a minute, even if ordered to stay still. We can only figuratively, superficially ‘stay still’.