The Dalai Lama has brought himself into the spotlight yet again with a Facebook and Twitter post 2 weeks ago stating, in brief, that “grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate.” He’s brought praise from atheists and humanists, to say nothing of preaching from Christians and others who insist that you can’t have ethics without a spiritual or a religious basis. I spoke in part about Gyatso’s text “Beyond Religion: Ethics For A Whole World” which he referenced in a Facebook post I spoke about in “An Ethics For Everyone” These claims are controversial, but a remotely objective look at them, without presuppositions on either the sacred or secular, we can see there are commonly held values that we can utilize in a shared ethics and morality. The distinction between ethics and morality is difficult, but I have one perspective I’ve read on that is both concise and accessible. It is also pertinent to lay out these shared ideals about right and wrong, of good and evil, and elaborate how they make sense in a secular worldview, with no recourse to divine revelations. And finally, the supposed inconsistency of absolutist and relativist ethics can be resolved by a moderate point of realism, or even pragmatism if we want to be more philosophical. Ethics and morality are complex areas of life, but we shouldn’t needlessly complicate them with unnecessary or otherwise irrational factors that aren’t pertinent to our basic determination of what is right and wrong.
Ethics can be explained as an individual’s code of what is right and wrong, developed through experimentation in a sort of practical fashion. Morality, on the other hand, is a shared societal or cultural code which people are expected to conform to. The former is more individualist, but not so opposed to collaborative efforts, while morality creates a sense of collectivism that is concerning, but doesn’t deny individuals to a certain extent. In short, ethics are personal tenets and more experiential in nature, developed by an almost scientific methodology, while morality is a cultural set of beliefs concerning what is good and bad, almost to the effect of mores and norms, which are closer to taboos; related to acceptability instead of culpability. The distinction of individual and group values could potentially create a polar dichotomy, where each opposes the other. But instead I would suggest a prioritizing of the individual without eschewing the collective, more specifically, the community of which we are inevitably a part of in one way or another. Any community is composed of individuals to begin with, so the nuance is recognizing that there will be some disagreements, but there will also be common ground that exists by necessity of the average human being functioning remotely normally (i.e. not a sociopath). In that way, you have coexistence without conformity to the letter of the law. The spirit would still be recognized, so that’s not gone either. A society where one can have ethics that don’t necessarily conflict with morality, but morality doesn’t override ethics is an ideal and possible existence we can work out.
The values that are essential to ethics, according to Tenzin Gyatso, are: love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness: and can be found and discerned outside of religious authority. Objectors will claim that in scientific and secular reasoning, since ideals and values are non material things, they can’t be verified or demonstrated in the way we demonstrate gravity or other things with clearly physical properties. The problem with that argument is that it applies to numbers, yet they are believed to be extant in their own sense, just like concepts of truth, justice, even logic, which are immaterial and abstract in their nature. The verifiability and falsifiability of something isn’t strictly limited to the physical, especially when, by its very premise, it is admitted to be non physical. It’s more important in some cases whether it has practical value or relevance to human affairs. Love, compassion, forgiveness, patience and tolerance all have some basis in neuroscience, no doubt. But our experience and practice of them is more important in considering their universal value to everyone. When you love, you can understand compassion; when you are compassionate, you can practice forgiveness; when you practice forgiveness, you gain patience; when you gain patience, you develop tolerance. The interrelation of these values is complex, no doubt, but I would say the basis is compassion, which is a form of love that is nuanced, not granting it without some degree of reciprocity, but nonetheless understanding and not becoming either selfish or abusive. With compassion, you understand love, forgiveness, patience and tolerance, since they all have their connections to compassion, the core value and the one commonly misunderstood as passivity, but should be an active practice.
Ethics can be objective, true regardless of our opinions one way or the other, without being absolutely and ultimately true, which would suggest no critical thought on our part. And they can be subjective, dependent on the individual’s perspective, without being hard relativist, where there is no underlying ground for making claims of truth and fact to begin with. This is a hard position to convey with people tending to have fairly simplistic ideas of how right and wrong or good and evil work, thinking many times in black and white, but ironically admitting of grey areas when it comes to their own gain or loss. That entails we acknowledge in some way the relativity of ethics, but only when it applies to self interests. If it involves much more people, we try to sound more consistent and morally upright, but our hypocrisy cannot be pushed away. To accept the relativity of morality and ethics is not to abandon them as binding on us in any sense. It’s a basic necessity of human life to have rules that restrain us or otherwise guide our actions. But we shouldn’t take them as unquestionable or not subject to alteration or even abandonment if they merit it. Cultural influence on the acceptability of something should not be the primary voice. Popularity is not an acceptable standard, especially if it’s just based on conformity instead of critical thinking. Our voice of reason, even a sort of innate common sense or conscience, should guide us, especially when the practice being judged as condonable is, in fact, damaging in one form or another. Dehumanizing people through slavery or even trying to appear equal through such a thing as civil unions contrasted with marriage is not ethical and should not be painted as such for the sake of social expediency. We should work hard at always improving our ethics and not letting them remain easy for us to follow. As the proverb goes “Familiarity breeds contempt”. Skepticism about ethics shouldn’t go to the level of nihilism, but it shouldn’t be abandoned because it might breed insecurity or fear. It’s how we face the fear and insecurity that further tempers our future principles.
Of course it will be difficult for many people, who tend to only be philosophers when it comes to things that have already passed, mulling over them. Or we fixate on religion and spirituality as something of more philosophical import than the fundamentals: logic, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics and epistemology. Speculating on the mysterious and awe inspiring can be done right or it can be wasted contemplation without underpinning it with sound thinking. Understanding things and also recognizing the limits of our knowledge of them are both essential to having a well thought out and realistic worldview. We shouldn’t live seeking to merely go through every day in security, especially if it ruins any possibility of change, innovation or progress. Of course, not all progress is good, not all innovation is beneficial and not all change will make things right. It is our response to these things is reflective of our character. Patience is a virtue and compassion is the ideal from which we develop that. And we don’t need any supernatural underpinning to discover compassion’s importance. Until next time, Namaste and aloha