We need values based on common sense, experience and scientific findings, what I refer to as secular ethics. – Dalai Lama
What does that mean?
This is an interesting quote, coming from a person considered very spiritual. It is the practical side of ethics. No theory, no belief, just rock solid ethics.
Many religious based ethics have some basis in an unprovable belief. This quote allows for that in the ‘experience’ section, but our experiences also include our interactions with the real world.
The quote also adds common sense to the list, as some forms of ethics seem to be devoid of such. Exceptions can be an excuse, but they can also be the only path to sanity when the rules are too complex.
Scientific findings are interesting, as what we can do and what we should do are often in conflict. And science isn’t resting, so our ethics have to adapt to the latest findings. Consider Human Cloning as an example where ethics lags science.
Why is having well defined ethics important?
Again, this quote is about having what he calls ‘secular ethics’ which may be different from the ethics of a religion. At thefreedictionary.com, ethics is defined as “the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person” and “a set of principles of right conduct.”
Those rules, standards, or principles can be based on anything, from a set traditions to religious beliefs to secular values. This quote does not disparage the other methods, but asks us to consider the possibility of a set of rules which might be more broadly adopted and more evenly applied.
Often the problem with traditional or religious based ethics is that they differ from group to group, and area to area. These differences divide us at a time when the world is shrinking to the point where we cannot afford such division any longer.
Please understand that you can still have your own ethics and values, and most people I know have more stringent personal ethics than this broader set would have. So long as we understand the fundamental fact that we only control ourselves and that trying to control others is doomed to failure, we can all get along.
Where can I apply this in my life?
Again, this isn’t about dumping everything you knew before, nor is it about abandoning your religion or personal beliefs. It is first about understanding that you do not and cannot control what others do. This is about you having your rules within a larger framework, just as we all live within the laws of our countries.
I gave the example of cloning of humans as an example earlier. What are we to do? Many countries have laws against it, but not all do. If we lived in a country where it was legal, our ethics would help guide us, and our behavior. At what point does your experiment become stop being an experiment and become a person?
For something grown in a lab, the concept of birth does not exist, so we cannot fall back on that as a delineation point. Some believe it becomes a human at conception, others when it stops looking like a lizard and looks more like a human being. I’m not here to argue the merits, but to get you to think about how science and ethics interact.
Note that Human Cloning also has implications for the rest of us. If it is illegal because it becomes a human at conception, wouldn’t that also apply to humans created the traditional way? Again, I’m not taking a position, but trying to show how secular and other ethics can interact.
The common sense part of the quote, as mentioned above, is in my mind mostly about the proper time and place for exceptions to rules. Most would agree that speed limits have reasons and are for the general management of traffic and safety of those on the roads. Common sense says in an emergency, you might stretch the limit to get someone to the hospital, right?
The experience part of the quote allows us to bring in our own life experiences and our own beliefs. Here there will be more variance than in the other parts, but it is still important to have the discussion. This is also where there will be the least agreement, and where we must respect the rights of others to behave differently than we believe to be proper.
We are all unique, and no one set of rules will fit all people in all situations. Not today, not ever. What we can do is come up with guidelines which help us make decisions which do the least harm. Not everyone will follow them all the time, and some will not follow them at all. Such is life.
But we can have the discussion, and begin to find common ground, and it won’t be easy. It will require the emotional and intellectual maturity to recognize that we all are individuals with our own rights, which include the right to do what you think is wrong. Once we get past that, it will be a lot easier.
On what do you base your ethics? What do you consider proper, and how does it differ from your friends, neighbors, co-workers, and people around the world? On what is your set of rules based?
Do your rules stay within the common practice around you, or do you hold yourself to a different standard? Do you allow others to have their own ethics, or must your ethics rule them all?
Hopefully this has given you something to think about, and I hope you will consider discussing this with some of your friends. The discussion has to start somewhere. Will you be part of the solution?