The Dalai Lama is wildly popular, and by all accounts a good and holy man. So who would want to disagree with him? I wouldn’t want to. But I do disagree– regarding the value of a secular ethics for today’s world.
The secular ethics that His Holiness outlines in the excerpt below, is itself an excerpt from his latest book “Beyond Religion”– and– full disclosure– I have not read the book. So it is possible that the Dalai Lama addresses my criticism– or some semblance of it– in his book. I hope he does.
To sum up the basic argument: His Holiness rightly points to the need for the development of “basic inner human values” in today’s contentious and violent world. He rejects science and– perhaps surprisingly– he rejects religion, too, as potential sources for these inner values. Religion, he says, fails on two counts in today’s world: first, many people do not adhere to a religion (so, a fortiori, religion cannot be a source of inner values for those people); second, different religions exist in close proximity, so a particular religion can not serve as the source of a universal ethic.
The Dalai Lama’s answer: a compassion for all, that transcends religion.
I’m not against a compassion that strives “for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings.” It’s not even the difficulty of cultivating such a compassion that brings me up short. No, what is missing here is an account of what author William Barrett (in an earlier age, before inclusive language) called “Irrational Man.” For all the hope we have put into the enlightened reason of humankind– a reason that was to free us from vengeance and bloodthirst– we are still creatures whose moral thinking must always account for the tribalism, fear of otherness, and anxiety-in-search-of-a-scapegoat, that remain strong motivators toward violence in today’s world.
The Dalai Lama’s secular ethic is highly rational– it reads to me like the optimistic view of Western Enlightenment thinkers, who were all for leaving benighted religion behind, and who envisioned the perfectibility of humanity– and the achievement of human goodness– through the use of reason. I think we are beyond such optimism.
Here is the Dalai Lama in his own words:
So what are we to do? Where are we to turn for help? Science, for all the benefits it has brought to our external world, has not yet provided scientific grounding for the development of the foundations of personal integrity — the basic inner human values that we appreciate in others and would do well to promote in ourselves. Perhaps we should seek inner values from religion, as people have done for millennia? Certainly religion has helped millions of people in the past, helps millions today and will continue to help millions in the future. But for all its benefits in offering moral guidance and meaning in life, in today’s secular world religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics. One reason for this is that many people in the world no longer follow any particular religion. Another reason is that, as the peoples of the world become ever more closely interconnected in an age of globalization and in multicultural societies, ethics based in any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all. In the past, when peoples lived in relative isolation from one another — as we Tibetans lived quite happily for many centuries behind our wall of mountains — the fact that groups pursued their own religiously based approaches to ethics posed no difficulties. Today, however, any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.
This statement may seem strange coming from someone who from a very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.