Dalai Lama: We need ethics beyond religion

Ian Cooley

Global ethics

We’ve all experienced that haunting sensation of dismay in the middle of the grocery store. Do you reach for the bottle of mustard now, or is that elderly woman near enough to notice that the bottle is not…gasp…organic!? Perplexed by a seemingly intractable moral dilemma, to whom do you turn? The philosophers are no help, of course (remember, we’re seeking clarity); the scientists, too cold and mechanical. Before reaching for the trusty assurances of your religion in such matters, however, a recent proposal made by the Dalai Lama may give you reason to reconsider.

Either exclusively or predominately, the domain of morality has long been considered the purview of religion. Besides assuredly possessing many other features and purposes, religious traditions around the world have been thought to represent one of the most important repositories for cultural values and the fundamental guidelines of ethical living. All the same, this claim is certainly open to dispute, and many actually do argue for an alternative approach to such things. Perhaps the clearest present examples of discord are found among such singularly vocal atheists as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, no doubt largely a result of their outspoken presence amidst global dialogue. But a new, far more startling voice of dissension has emerged of late, this time from one of the world’s most widely known religious leaders.

Indeed, the Dalai Lama recently created quite a stir on the social networking site Facebook by using his status update to advocate for our need to move beyond religion alone in attending to the ethical issues currently confronting contemporary society. He writes:

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

As the Huffington Post reports, the Dalai Lama’s status update is actually a quote taken from his book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.

Taking stock of the many instances of inequality, injustice, and suffering that plague the world, irrespective of social class or economic development, the Dalai Lama finds a plausible culprit in our contemporary overemphasis upon the more external, material aspects of existence. Facing a consequent devaluation of moral awareness and inner values, humanity urgently requires the rehabilitation of its sense of internal integrity grounded in each individual’s proper appreciation for these values. Traditionally, of course, one’s first instinct would probably be to reach towards religion for guidance, and while the Dalai Lama openly acknowledges the tremendous service our world traditions have historically provided and will continue to provide for a great many individuals in this respect, he no longer believes that such a response is alone adequate in contemporary society. Instead, he believes that ethics must ultimately be founded upon a more secular basis, and the reasoning behind his position is twofold.

First, the growth of secular society has rendered the religious option for guidance in moral matters largely irrelevant for a huge percentage of today’s global population. Any solution to the problematic state of our value system that relies upon religion, therefore, simply falls far short of the universality required for a shift in norms to move humanity forward cohesively. Second, the cosmopolitan nature of contemporary society demands such universality for the efficacy of its values even in the absence of a trend towards secularization. At a point in history when group inclusion remained relatively isolated and stable over time, adherence to the ethical system espoused by one particular tradition or another may have offered sufficient guidance to societies. The constant flux and ever-changing face of a globalized world, however, necessitates a far more comprehensive system capable of simultaneously catering to a great diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. Simply put, this system of values must be found applicable to both the religious and the non-religious alike.

Of course, the Dalai Lama is no stranger to forays outside the conventionally perceived boundary of religion. Well known for both his promotion of science and his deference to scientific discoveries, he is frequently found in attendance at conferences in neuroscience. Indeed, the Dalai Lama regularly denies any outright incompatibility between science and religion. But his appeal for ethical rehabilitation decries the limitations of what science might accomplish in this regard, as well. Rather, any refurbished appreciation of values must be truly universal to maximize its chances for success across humanity; it must deny allegiance to any one framework and encompass all frameworks. In an age that too often feels like a two-horse race between science and religion, the Dalai Lama’s position represents a refreshing proposal.

To clarify, the Dalai Lama is not advocating for an end, or even diminishment, of religion. Any system of values ultimately must strive to harmonize as completely as possible with the many extant perspectives and frameworks already helping humanity to perceive the world in diverse ways. His confidence in the feasibility of generating a universal ethic, external to but compatible with religion, stems from the belief that an awareness of these values is intrinsic to the very nature of humanity, part of our biological constitution as intensely social organisms. A cultivation of these values is the separate responsibility of each individual, but is made possible for all individuals through its germination in the soil of secularity.


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