With Christmas on the horizon, I thought I’d talk about something else humanity shares besides holidays celebrating the winter solstice or otherwise occurring around that time. It’s not our religious impulse (which I’ll admit we have in part) so much as our ethical impulse. Of course there are those that are unethical in their behavior by psychological compulsion and mental illness, but many times, these people realize the damage that their actions do to others. The rarest group of people do not realize even somewhat that they affect others in any way and focus only on their own advancement. But no person with any relative mental capacity needs religious devotions, rituals or belief in any supernatural agent to conceptualize and hold ethical and moral principles. A secular ethics, based purely in the everyday experiences and apart from any feelings of the sacred or holy, should be something that even deeply religious people can understand, however much they regard ethical merit as unimportant, as is the case with Christianity at its core, even if it also advocates many of the same things you would find with nontheistic traditions, the eupraxophy that Paul Kurtz spoke of in relation to Confucianism, for example.
The first key point that we can agree on to one degree or another is concern for the other, better expressed as compassion. Even etymologically, it has similar ideas to words like sympathy and empathy in the roots of the word we partly derive passion from, the Greek “pathos,” meaning experience or suffering in the emotional and existential sort of sense. A starting definition I’d propose is “willingness to understand the suffering of others and take it into account in your own life”. The Dalai Lama in his new book, Beyond Religion, defines it in a very altruistic sense as “a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being,” People arguing that ethics and morals are rooted in religion would say this is too idealistic and presumes people will all behave this way naturally. I don’t think that’s what’s implied here. Both ethics and morals are nuances of the same study of good/bad or right/wrong behavior with our fellow humans. Ethics is understood from its Greek root “ethos” as a principle for people as a whole to live by, while morals, derived from Latin “mores,” is more social and cultural in its construction, though it could be reversed just as easily with particular interpretations of the terms’ uses. Ethics and morals are both products of education, but not necessarily from the same source. Ethics come from experience and reasoned philosophical consideration, while morals are usually indoctrinated, strictly or otherwise, from a particular community you’re raised in. I, being raised Christian, had certain norms instilled in my mind that I still retain, but probably would’ve gotten elsewhere, such as an ethic of reciprocity and virtue ethics in some form, emphasizing that I should act based on principles instead of purely based on perceived benefits or losses. I would probably prefer to call myself ethical as opposed to moral, since morals suggest your behavior is not determined by principles that have experience behind them, but are conformed to because of submission to an authority. Ethics could be formulated as changing principles for behavior, but this does not mean they are purely relative to cultures. Ethics can be understood pragmatically as something that you put into practice and adjust by recognizing that different situations demand different actions. But one can incorporate both virtue ethics and situational ethics into this as well by valuing compassion above all else as the basis for your principles. But as I said in “Heart and Mind, Love andWisdom” this should not be purely about helping others. Neglecting a principle of egoism, contrasted with egotism that only values the self; would only hurt your ability to help others. To balance ethical conduct and the core values it represents is as important as understand what the values are and should be, descriptively and normatively respectively.
Another especially important thing to recognize in terms of our ethical behavior is the implementation on a larger scale. It’s one thing to govern your own behavior consistently, but when contexts increase in scope and vary much more, then there is need for collaboration and boiling ethics down to basics that can be agreed upon in a secular context without recourse to revelation of any sort. If we fail to consider that our own ethics may not be so different from each other, but also that there will be particular prohibitions with morals that come out of various cultures and faiths, then we cannot advance the discussion that much more. Compassion as a virtue applies very well here as well, emphasizing its primacy in considering ethics. Another formulation in more technical terms may be reciprocity, which is the idea behind the rule commonly formulated by Jesus as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” but existed in earlier forms as far back as Confucius, Buddha and Hindu writings. While opponents of the idea of what I insist on calling relative or situational ethics would claim that this creates potential for abuse in the form of claims that “might makes right”, this is primarily the case when you do not implement compassion or you implement compassion superficially to benefit yourself instead of others. When you try to benefit others, but cause them harm that is excessive and/or unnecessary, even practical concerns would not be justification. If the economy has to take a small dip or shock to adjust prices, for instance, in a more free market economy than we have today with corporations controlling prices and inflation in some form or fashion, then the suffering is permissible. But when you do such things as the state communist regimes in China or Russia did, instilling the power in a small group of people and impoverishing the vast majority, then this is neither economically feasible nor ethically acceptable. The very concept of business ethics reflects this concern and in a much more secular area of life than, say, abortion ethics, which becomes more religiously charged in talking about what constitutes a person. Secular ethics can still apply there as well if we apply the principles similarly While abortion is questionable after the point Roe v. Wade decided, 25 weeks of gestation, there are extenuating, but rare, circumstances, where it is a necessity to perform an abortion to save the life of the mother, who could conceivably bring forth more children in the future if there are no serious complications with the partial birth abortion procedure. As painful as it may be for people to admit such a thing in the context of abortion, those same people may ironically permit such “acceptable losses” in a military situation where even more lives are at stake, many of them as innocent in their involvement with the war as a fetus is in terms of its alleged right to live or be treated humanely when considering developmental stages of said fetus. Applying principles consistently but also considering when those codes are inflexible and should be less rigid and considerate of situations outside of our control is yet another reflection of the benefits of utilizing the Buddhist middle path in ethics.
Shared ethics, like shared holidays (Xmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, etc), are things we can all find in secular life and observe to be true even if we disagree on why we should behave in those ways. Ethics can be agreed upon with basic principles, such as the golden rule, compassion for others, being mindful of extenuating circumstances, etc. By no means am I saying that these are unquestionable absolutes. One can look at these issues from various circumstances and perspectives and get radically opposed positions. Understanding where we come from in developing our personal ethics, many times from morals acquired by cultural or religious education, is, like many things, a seemingly tedious, but necessary step in improving relationships with our fellow humans, whether we agree on the source of morals. What’s more important is behaving well towards others without neglect of self or others entirely in the process. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.