A brief excerpt from our upcoming book Wisdom in Buddhism.
The term, ’morality’ it would seem, is easily defined as that which concerns good vs bad behaviour or right vs wrong and to what extent. For any given society, community, tribe or family, this is relatively straightforward.
The Oxford Living English Dictionary defines morality as principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour. The OLED goes on to suggest The extent to which an action is right or wrong. It becomes quite clear, early in this discussion that ‘right’ for one person may not be ‘right’ for another. Clearly, right or wrong is a matter not easily settled among all people or communities, yet the idea of morality persists.
In the past, many communities existed in, and of, themselves. They would rarely, if ever, come into contact with other communities, tribes or families. Selection of moral principles, then, was a matter for the community, tribe or family. So long as everyone more or less agreed, there was no problem. But today, we live in a vastly more complicated world. Every action my tribe undertakes can have reaching effects for other tribes around the world. Every choice my tribe makes may well have an impact on others. The CO2 my tribe releases into the atmosphere travels around the world to affect every other tribe. When there is a stock market crash on one side of the Atlantic, it’s felt within hours on the other side.
Often the actions we take to benefit our tribe will benefit others as well. There is a recognition today that we are more intertwined than we have ever been in our past and that some sense of universal responsibility or common code of behaviour is good for everyone, indeed maybe even necessary if we are to survive.
I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on anyone. It’s beyond the average New Yorker to do much about the wildfires in California or the flooding in Mexico or the fighting in Syria. Sure, we do what we can but we can’t feel too guilty about it. However, when we re-orient ourselves and recognize that everything is interconnected, we might start making better choices about how we speak and how we behave and we may have a more positive impact on the world.
When we recognize and admit to ourselves that our words and actions (or the words and actions of our tribe) may well cause suffering among others, then we begin to cultivate a sensitivity to others who are not necessarily close to us. We may want to avoid language that is divisive, mean spirited or hateful. We may want to behave in a manner that inspires and develops trust.
Were we to ignore the plight of others and act as if our words and actions don’t matter, then we begin to see ourselves as separate from others and can no longer recognize their situation. The world becomes more harsh. We begin to distinguish small differences in others and make them seem important, but we’re all going to suffer from sickness, accidents, ageing and death. You’d think knowing this, we’d be more tolerant of others and not make such a big deal of our differences, but rather, work to ease their suffering in the same way we’d hope they’d ease ours.
Historically, exhibiting ‘right’ behaviour, within one’s tribe was a sure way to gain acceptance, while not doing so was a sure way to get ostracized, exiled and almost certainly left for dead. It may be no surprise that behaving in a certain, ‘moral’ way, as defined by the community or society in which you lived, was, quite literally, a matter of survival. Being tossed out of your hunting group or family unit was essentially a death sentence for our earliest ancestors since living alone, hunting, foraging for food, defending oneself against animals, accident, disease and other tribes would have required a super human effort and would all too often end in death. For that reason alone there was plenty motivation to think, speak and act in a way that was acceptable or considered ‘moral’ for your tribe.