Monday, October 02, 2017

Toward a Secular Spiritual Ethics for All of Us

The section that immediately follows is excerpted from Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso [Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso] born Lhamo Thondup).
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. [….]
I am confident that it is both possible and worthwhile to attempt a new secular approach to universal ethics. My confidence comes from my conviction that all of us, all human beings, are basically inclined or disposed toward what we perceive to be good. Whatever we do, we do because we think it will be of some benefit. At the same time, we all appreciate the kindness of others. We are all, by nature, oriented toward the basic human values of love and compassion. We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others’ generosity to their meanness. And who among us does not prefer tolerance, respect and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect and resentment?
In view of this, I am of the firm opinion that we have within our grasp a way, and a means, to ground inner values without contradicting any religion and yet, crucially, without depending on religion. [….] It is my hope that doing so will help to promote understanding of the need for ethical awareness and inner values in this age of excessive materialism.
At the outset I should make it clear that my intention is not to dictate moral values. Doing that would be of no benefit. To try to impose moral principles from outside, to impose them, as it were, by command, can never be effective. Instead, I call for each of us to come to our own understanding of the importance of inner values. For it is these inner values which are the source of both an ethically harmonious world and the individual peace of mind, confidence and happiness we all seek. Of course, 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 believe the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion. [emphasis added]
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In the book from which this was taken, the Dalai Lama proceeds to outline a model containing what he terms “key elements” of such a secular ethics, one that involves, among other things, the promotion of “basic human values.” This project for a (‘spiritual’) secular ethics began with an earlier work, Ethics for the New Millennium (Riverhead Books, 1999). In an interview with the editors of the journal, Rethinking Marxism, the Dalai Lama says: “I wish to develop a moral philosophy that appeals to all, even nonbelievers. Secular spirituality could be the ground for that.”* At the end of our post, I proffer some works by philosophers I think are invaluable for the development of a secular and even spiritual ethics, in other words, an ethics or morality for all of us, religious and non-religious alike, an ethics that by definition is not hostile to either religion or spirituality (its inspiration is in part provided by what the Dalai Lama describes as ‘Indian secularism,’ which entails ‘mutual tolerance and respect for all faiths as well as those of no faith’), indeed, such an ethics might even learn from or draw upon techniques and practices for “ethical living” (e.g., a ‘therapy of desire’ and ‘spiritual exercises’ like self-examination, prosoche, and mind-training or meditation) long cultivated in religious traditions.  
Toward a spiritual secular ethics for all of us
The list of titles in contemporary moral philosophy and ethics—generously construed—that I’ve assembled below is no doubt idiosyncratic and partial (I’ve left out some excellent material devoted to particular or more ‘specialized’ moral topics), its generation owing to works that have shaped my views and lifeworld. I’ve not included the many recent books on virtue ethics or “virtue theory” proper (‘currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics’), which may seem odd, given that virtue ethics is quite compatible with our most enduring religious ethical traditions, as well as classical Greek and Chinese philosophies. The reason for this exclusion does not suggest the irrelevance or comparative insignificance of virtue ethics but is owing simply to the fact that I’ve found this body of literature rather predictable and, more importantly, lacking in a robust social or political dimension, which is not to claim these studies necessarily lack implications for same, only that (at least as far as I can ascertain) their focus has not been systematically and dialectically tied to the powers, structures, and processes of the wider world affecting the terms and conditions of daily life in the intimate realm, the realm in which the various virtues of character are first learned, exemplified, and developed.
The fact that this list has, as it were, a philosophical bias, does not rule out the need for works that help translate their insights into a more accessible rhetoric or discourse (including works of fiction) for those not conversant in professional philosophy. Of course professional philosophy, especially its Anglophone variant, has been by either design or default more or less “secular,” although often that secularism has not been respectful or even tolerant of religious worldviews (cf. the ‘New Atheists’), the typical metaphysical presupposition, assumption or presumption being this or that pugnacious variation on the theme of materialism, physicalism, or naturalism, a fact that may account for the failure of moral philosophy and ethics to consider the wider “humanistic” or “spiritual” value of the techniques or practices of ethical living found within religious worldviews as well as the (‘inner’) values the Dalai Lama cites above: love, compassion, and forgiveness, for example, or, say, nonviolence, at least as that has found a prominent place in Indic religio-philosophical traditions like Jainism and Buddhism. Perhaps this is why the Dalai Lama speaks of a “new” secular approach to ethics, of “find[ing] a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.” Such an ethics, while broadly and necessarily in the main rational and reasonable, may also evidence an ability to appreciate that which is not, strictly speaking, within the province of Reason, that which is non-rational or somehow para-rational, be it the emotions (which often have a cognitive component) or assiduously acquired non-conceptual mental states (that appear to have significant psychological and physiological benefits) or aesthetic experience, all of which can be compatible with or supportive of the powers and products of reason and rationality. I’ve found three formulations or conceptions of this non-religious spirituality that are secular in the “Indian” intended by the Dalai Lama while not being dependent on any one metaphysical system or picture:
(i) “[A]t the richer end of the spectrum [of spirituality], we find the term used in connection with activities and attitudes which command widespread appeal, irrespective of metaphysical commitment or doctrinal allegiance. Even the most convinced atheist may be prepared to avow an interest in the ‘spiritual’ dimension of human existence, if that dimension is taken to cover forms of life that put a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our relationship to others and to the natural world.”—John Cottingham in The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy, and Human Value (2005)
(ii) In Mad and Divine: Spirit and Psyche in the Modern World (2009) the Indian psychoanalyst and writer Sudhir Kakar, reminds us that
“Spirituality, like culture, has many definitions and yet manages to give a sense of familiarity to most of us. For me, the spiritual occupies a continuum from moments of self-transcendence marked by loving connection to an object—nature, art, visions of philosophy or science, the beloved in sexual embrace—to the mystical union of saints where the sense of the self completely disappears. The spiritual, then, incorporates the transformative possibilities of the human psyche: total love without a trace of hate, selflessness carved out of the psyche’s normal self-centeredness, a fearlessness that is not a counter-phobic reaction to the fear that is an innate part of the human psyche.”
Finally, from the neurosurgeon, and philosopher Grant Gillett:
(iii) “Spirituality lifts our eyes from the possibilities defined by the everyday and economic. The divine wind recalls the breath that gives us life and the cleansing water that allows healing and refreshment in the arid wastes of suffering is a figure with meaning that goes beyond the material. In the most unlikely places we find loving and transformative touches, that are the things of the spirit in that they are ways not only of understanding but also beatifying what we do, however bloody, messy and unromantic it is. We are beset by directives and discourses that reduce, demean, and obscure our humanity, that are not noble, uplifting, inspiring, and fulfilling. We can render life in operational (or narrowly functional) terms and make it tolerable through escapism and pleasure but there is another way. We live and love in a world where real tragedies happen, real joy is found, and real connections are forged through time and across barriers of culture and position. In those things we discover the resonance in ourselves of inscriptions, utterances, and works that deepen our understanding.” — Grant Gillett, Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics (2008)
Indeed, now we might better understand why the Dalai Lama, whose own worldview is avowedly part Marxist, calls for a non-religious yet “spiritual ethics.” In a discussion of the birth of Marxist ideas, the Dalai Lama highlights “the sensibility and concern for the well-being of the majority, of the needy, of the poor, of the suffering people,” one finds in Marx’s writings and among at least some Marxists, going so far as to state that there is “some kind of spirituality in Marxism.” He proceeds to distinguish two conceptions of spirituality; the first is tied to a conventional portrait of faith and belief as critical to specific religious worldviews and to “certain mysterious things of life,” a picture familiar to both adherents and students of religion. The second sort of spirituality is secular in the “Indian” sense above and is markedly “practical” or, in his words, “spirituality as everyday practice,” expressing a profound sense of “concern over the other’s well-being.”
In brief, our individual and collective quest for a reliable moral compass and ethical ways of living is one that can (and should) be both secular and spiritual in the sense briefly sketched above without making any exclusive commitment to a particular religious worldview or metaphysical picture that claims a monopoly on truth (hence it is metaphysically agnostic or relativist, pluralist, and tolerant in the Jain sense, which remains truth-apt). At the same time, our ethical outlook, while articulated within the framework of reason and rationality and thus beholden to the European Enlightenment, has been sufficiently humbled if not duly chastised following a century of world wars, holocausts, colonialism, genocide, ruthless dictatorships, post-imperialism, indiscriminate and terrorist violence, environmental degradation, conspicuous consumption alongside disadvantage and poverty, and so forth and so on. And yet
“[i]t is … implausible to imagine the ascendancy of Western philosophy as the result of nothing more than naked power. Ideas themselves possess power. Darwin’s theory of evolution, Locke’s concept of liberty, Kant’s categorical imperative, Marx’s critique of capitalism—such ideas caught the global imagination not simply because they could hitch a ride on the back empire but also because they provided a persuasive explanation about how the natural world might work, or because they addressed urgent or political needs. Consider the concept of universalism. This was not the product of Western imperialism [as one might infer from Postcolonial Theory and Subaltern Studies]. Its origins lie in the ancient world, elements to be found in Stoicism, Buddhism, and Mohism. Greek notions of universalism and cosmopolitanism became filtered through Christianity and Islam before becoming secularized in the Enlightenment. What made Enlightenment universalism different was not simply the intellectual content … but also the social context. In the ancient world universalism could be nothing more than a dream or a desire because social constraints precluded the possibility of realizing it. Modernity brought with it the possibility of breaking such constraints.
The intellectual, economic, social and political revolutions that swept through Europe from the seventeenth century onwards laid the foundations for the soaring power of a handful of European nations. They made possible a new kind of empire with unprecedented global reach. They created also the intellectual and social mechanism for challenging that power and that empire, conjuring up new kinds of collectives, new forms of collective action, and new moral and political ideals, such as those of liberty, equality, democracy and rights. Or, to put it another way, what made Enlightenment ideas truly universal was that they became weapons in the hands of those who fought Western imperialism, as Toussaint L’Ouverture and many others recognized. The ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy and rights are not specific to the West. They were applicable to Haitians, to Indians and to South Africans. They are, today, applicable to the Chinese. [….]
[With modernity] … new possibilities of social transformation were opened up, as people rejected the idea of a society as a given, so ought became a political, as much as a moral, demand. People asked themselves not simply ‘What moral claims are rational given the social structure?,’ but also, ‘What social structures are rational?’ What kind of society, what types of social institutions, what forms of social relations, will best allow human beings to flourish?
The capacity to ask and to answer such questions has been nourished by two kinds of development. The first has been the creation of new forms of social conversation [including what Gerald Gaus terms, after Rawls and others, the ‘order of public reason’]. Political and moral debate moved out from the confines of a small elite and became central to the very functioning of societies. From the printing press to the mass media, from political parties to social networking, a range of mechanisms has helped transform the constituency that is able to engage in such debates and the kinds of debate in which it can engage. At the same time, new tools have been fashioned, from the democratic process to revolutionary movements, from labour strikes to national liberation struggles, to enable people to act upon those social conversations to remake social conditions, to try to lever the world from the way it was to the way it should be.
These two developments helped take moral claims beyond the subjective and the relative. The new kinds of social conversations flourished not just within societies but between societies too. They became more universal, detached from specific social structures. At the same time, the mechanisms of social transformation enhanced the universalist possibilities inherent in new social conversations, Social change had meaning beyond the boundaries of a particular community or society. The idea of democracy had universal significance. The reverberations of the French Revolution were felt throughout Europe and, indeed, well beyond Europe. A protest movement in Tunisia helped provoke the ‘Arab Spring’ throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
Questions of morality do not have objective answers in the way that scientific questions do, but neither are they merely expressions of subjective desire or taste. To say that torture is wrong or truthfulness is good is qualitatively different from saying that light travels at 299,792,458 metres per second or that DNA is a double helix. It is also different from saying that ice cream is good or Barry Manilow execrable. [….] Moral questions may not have objective answers but they do have rational ones, answers rooted in a rationality that emerges out of social need. To bring reason to bear upon social relations, to define a rational answer to a moral question, requires social engagement and collective action. It is the breakdown over the past century of such engagement and such action that has proved so devastating for moral thinking.”—Kenan Malik, The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics (Atlantic Books, 2014).
* Please see Anup Dhar, Anjan Chakrabarti, and Serap Kayatekin, “Crossing Materialism and Religion: An Interview on Marxism and Spiritual with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama,” Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 28, Nos 3-4: 584-598. All further quotations from the Dalai Lama are from this interview.
Recommended Reading:
  • Audi, Robert. The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value (Princeton University Press, 2004).
  • Baier, Annette C. Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics (Harvard University Press, 1994).
  • Baier, Annette C. Reflections on How We Live (Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Coady, C.A.J. Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics (Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Cooper, John M. Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus (Princeton University Press, 2012).
  • Darwall, Stephen L. The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect and Accountability (Harvard University Press, 2006).
  • Elster, John. Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  • Ganeri, Jonardon and Clare Carlisle, eds. Philosophy as Therapeia (Royal Institute of Philosophy: 66) (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  • Gaus, Gerald. The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics (Imprint Academic, 2008).
  • Goodin, Robert E. Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities (Chicago University Press, 1985).
  • Goodin, Robert E. Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  • Haybron, Daniel M. The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Heath, Joseph. Following the Rules: Practical Reasoning and Deontic Constraint (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • Jamieson, Dale. Morality’s Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature (Oxford University Press, 2002).
  • Lloyd, S. A. Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  • Malik, Kenan. The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics (Atlantic Books, 2014).
  • Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Nature (Chatto and Windus, 1992/Penguin Books, 1993).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971; revised ed., 1999)
  • Roberts, Robert C. Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • Taylor, Paul W. Ethics Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1986).
  • Teichmann, Roger. Nature, Reason, and the Good Life: Ethics for Human Beings (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • Wiggins, David. Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality (Harvard University Press, 2006).
  • Wong, David B. Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism (Oxford University Press, 2006).


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