Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Dalai Lama, secular ethics and Religious Education

Remarkable coming from a religious leader, the Dalai Lama has made a global appeal in which he seeks to promote engagement with philosophy and ethics rather than religion, acknowledges the suffering caused by, or done in the name of, religion and admits that religions have sometimes been misused for social or political ends. Based on the fundamental Buddhist view that all people seek happiness and hope to avoid suffering, its key theme is that, in this 21st century and in the light of the global issues we face, ‘ethics are more important than religion.’

But before those of a superficially atheist disposition grasp the one-line summary and start celebrating the vindication of their anti-religious arguments, it is worth reflecting on the implications of what he has actually said.

He points out the obvious fact that religions are culturally conditioned – they arise within a particular culture, and are therefore open to be used as vehicles to express difference rather than commonality.  This he contrasts with the innate and universal nature of secular ethics in developing personal spirituality and a more open, compassionate approach to life. He is particularly concerned about the narrowness of fundamentalism:

‘Fundamentalism is always harmful. Yesterday’s concepts won’t help us anymore. Especially for children, who are the adults of tomorrow, ethics are more important than religion.’

The Dalai Lama also appears to argue – as did David Hume – that we have a natural moral sense, expressed in compassion for those who suffer, and this can form the bedrock of human spirituality and morality. It is his view that this natural moral sense can and should be developed through the application of philosophy and that morality should be an important feature of education.

By ‘philosophy’, however, he means something quite different from the discipline practiced by professional philosophers of the analytic tradition. His approach remains profoundly Buddhist. Philosophy involves a careful observation of and reflecting on experience, with a view to cultivating positive emotions. It is a matter of shaping the mind.  If analytic philosophy has difficulty with the broader and more intuitive dimensions its Continental sister, it is even less likely to appreciate this approach.  Here, with backing from those neuroscientists who examine the plasticity of the brain and the way in which it responds to experience and training, he is proposing a philosophy that examines and shapes human responses – an intellectual and engaged spirituality that underpins the universal religious tendency, without being associated with any one of the culturally conditioned religious traditions. It is more a matter of developing wisdom than picking apart arguments.

‘Our brain is an organ of learning. Neuropsychology teaches us that we can exercise our brains like muscles. So by deliberately absorbing goodness and beauty, we can positively influence our brains and overcome negativity. Using the power of our minds, we can change our brains for the better.’

Of course, he is not entirely negative about religion. He regards religion as potentially beneficial, even if it is also open to misuse. His aim is to get beyond the superficial differences between religious cultures and traditions, in order to explore human spirituality as a universal phenomenon.

But notice here the presupposition about religion; it is a culturally defined phenomenon, which expresses and sometimes distorts essential human spirituality.  It is not imposed with the authority of some external deity, but arises as an attempt to express what is profoundly natural. Now it seems to me that some aspects of religion tend to reflect an authoritative supernatural order (divine reward or punishment, in life or beyond death; miracles; specific intervention by God in the workings of the world; magical answers to prayer; the idea that certain people or races are specially chosen) and it is these that – by placing an emphasis on a feeling of difference or specialness – have within them the potential for promoting confrontation. ‘God with us!’ may too easily move from being a celebration of the positive to imply the negative ‘God cannot be with them!’  If true spirituality and morality is an essential and universal human potential, what is needed is not conversion to any specific religion but an openness to explore the reality within which we all live, move and have our being.

Predictably, being the Dalai Lama, there is nothing in what he says that cannot be applauded by everyone who seeks a happier and more harmonious world. What he proposes would, if it could be put into practice, promote a kinder, more compassionate way of life. But…

The world we live in is far from ready to commit to the sort of spiritual change for which the Dalai Lama is appealing. There are indeed huge reserves of compassion, tolerance and good will, but there is also gross selfishness, intolerance and brutal confrontation between those whose tribal loyalties enforce divisions that may be religious, political, social or economic.  There is also, if we are honest, the less public but equally damaging personal selfishness that habitually taints our decisions and relationships, and that will only be overcome by a commitment to intellectual and spiritual discipline.

I have no doubt that the world for which the Dalai Lama is appealing is our only long-term hope – considering the damage caused to the earth by factional disputes and war, the squandering of resources, the instability of society as capitalism increases inequality, and the destruction of the environment upon which we depend.  All these problems are solvable, but only if people were very different from the way they are now.  The immediate problem, however, is how we might start to make the move from where we are now to where we need to be.

As highlighted by the well-known ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ thought experiment, we know that, in the long term, cooperation is going to achieve a better result than selfishness, but being the person to take a risk of opting to cooperate when others might thereby take advantage, is always presented as a dangerous option.  To go as an innocent into a fully armed world, knowing that one’s own openness is likely to prove costly, takes courage and is not necessary the option of choice for those who simply weigh possible consequences.

Most of us, I am ashamed to say, may admire and agree with what the Dalai Lama has to say, but are likely to continue to live with a more limited perspective.

There is one area, however, in which the Dalai Lama’s approach can be applied positively and immediately – Religious Education.  As far as A-levels in the UK are concerned, there has been a general shift in candidate numbers, over the last thirty years, away from papers on specific religions and texts and towards Philosophy of Religion and Ethics.  This reflects students’ natural interest in these subjects and the number of students taking Religious Studies has increased remarkably.  It has always been emphasized that one does not have to be committed to a religion in order to benefit from RS, and this is both academically appropriate and positive in promoting RS as a subject that offers freedom of thought alongside a seriousness in studying topics that are of universal relevance.

Looking at RS specifications, it is clear that the Dalai Lama’s approach is directly applicable.  Religions are culturally conditioned and change through time. Students need to recognize this – beliefs do not just appear out of thin air, but in a context, and using a language that reflect their origin.  But the issues dealt with in philosophy of religion and ethics reflect the natural, innate sense of morality and human spirituality.  Hopefully, by engaging intellectually and personally with the big issues, students will develop an open and sensitive approach which takes in religious traditions and differences, but sees them for what they are, limited, temporary and potentially divisive expressions of the quest for developing human potential and spirituality. The universal questions provide a framework within which religion may be appreciated, whether or not one agrees with the answers given by any particular religion.

This, of course, is what happens already when RS is functioning at its best.  But, in my view, we need to constantly keep in mind that Philosophy of Religion and Ethics are not a secular alternative to religion, but explore the basic human questions that may be examined by those of any religion or none. I am therefore concerned that Humanism should not be treated simply an alternative life-stance to be presented alongside those of the world religions, but that a secular humanist approach should be seen as the norm of spiritual development, to which the religions add their particular flavours. The Dalai Lama likens the relationship between secular ethics and religion to that between water and tea. The latter, offering a variety of flavours, may make the drink more attractive, so that one wants to enjoy it regularly, but what is really essential is the water with which it is made. As he points out, we can survive without tea, but we cannot survive without water.

Hence, I would hesitate to endorse any approach to Religious Education that saw secular philosophy and ethics as an alternative to religion. To do so suggests an element of choice – ‘Do you opt for Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh or Humanist ethics? – whereas Humanist, secular ethics (here taken in the broad sense that the Dalai Lama refers to, not the narrow, anti-religious ghetto into which Humanism sometimes so sadly descends) should be the framework and context, universally shared, for the understanding human issues. Some will choose to add tea, coffee or some other flavour to their essential, life-giving water, and good luck to them if they find them helpful, but the water of secular ethics, remains the common ground.


I recommend that you read the Dalai Lama’s appeal, if you have not already done so.  The brief appeal itself is followed by the interviews from which it has been condensed. It is available as a free download.