Is There a Universal Morality?


From our upcoming book Wisdom in Buddhism. A brief selection from the chapter on morality, ethics and values.

... 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, as it relates to the individual.

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. When it comes to a matter of personal rights and wrongs, we say these are moral choices - they involve the choices of the individual.

Ethics, on the other hand, are rules and habits imposed upon individuals from outside. For example, rules about how to behave within an organization such an office in which many others work, might include; no sexual harassment, no wearing of strong perfumes, no swearing, no eating at your desk, no open-toed shoes, shirt and tie at all times other than the last Friday of the month, etc. These are rules that tend to be specific to the organization or group and are often codified in a manual, video or some indoctrination procedure.

Often the terms ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ are used interchangeably. Sometimes that’s accurate enough, but other times it’s important to remember that the two are very different things. From a wisdom point of view, it’s important to understand the differences, for wisdom cannot easily progress without this understanding, since so much of wisdom is trying to address the stated common good. Where the common good is obtained and maintained by the ethics of a community, one cannot simply ignore those ethics. From a morality point of view, wisdom cannot easily proceed when the morality of the individual is not understood or taken into account.

Occasionally ethics and morality will overlap. For example, whether or not to eat meat is a moral choice. The choice to eat meat or not eat meat is rarely imposed upon an individual from an outside source. One might be a member of a religious organization that imposes a ‘no meat’ edict, but that would be rare. These types of questions are usually left to the individual but can run into conflict with organizations. For example, the ethics of a religion might say homosexuality is forbidden, but individuals within the religion may have a different moral conclusion. The individuals might suppress or hide their moral convictions so they can be part of the greater group, or they might decide that accepting the ethics of the religion is morally wrong and leave.

Historically, exhibiting ‘right’ behaviour and accepting the group ethics, 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 both ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ for your tribe.

Our earliest communities existed in, and of, themselves. They would rarely, if ever, come into contact with other communities, tribes or families. Selection of moral principles and codification of ethical behaviour, 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. 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 clearly recognize that words and actions by others can hurt us, so there is wisdom in not using words or taking actions that would hurt them. 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. Have we forgotten 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.

When we look at the table above, we might come to the conclusion that morality transcends ethics. We might applaud for the morality of the individual over the ethical codification of the tribe. We have after all, given considerable prestige to the individual in western society and seem to value individual actions. Let’s examine that for a moment. If the individual decides for themselves what is right and wrong and if it were to run contrary to the ethics of their tribe, how, then do they fit in? With tribal ethics, the ethics have been garnered over time, from the experiences of many individuals and codified to be made clear so that each member of the tribe knows exactly what is expected and the common good can be obtained or maintained. This cannot be said of morality, which is based upon the direct experiences of one individual and could only be considered subjective at best and wildly biased at worse.

In reality, the vast majority of us live a life that is balanced and bound by tribal ethics and personal morality. For a paycheque we might weaken our moral stance on selling fur coats at our little retail job or we might eat a turkey sandwich at the company Christmas party even though we might be a vegetarian. On the other hand, we might jump to the defence of a fellow employee where an injustice is done based on our moral principles that may or may not align with company ethics. We may “stick our neck out” fully understanding that doing so might result in our dismissal. We might ‘blow the whistle’ when we learn that our company has been polluting a local body of water or colluding to fix prices within an industry, etc. The newspapers are awash with stories of employees who have been fired for ratting out their employers, church leaders and local government officials. While it might be tough on the individual to be the pariah, it rarely goes well for the entity being outed.

The question of which beliefs and behaviours that any given society should put forward as ethical is the big question. What the community ought to value or accept as a norm varies widely from place to place and over time. What we might have valued and accepted as the norm 100 years ago, may not be that which we value today. But, are there some values that transcend place and time? Are there some behaviours and beliefs that, year after year, across cultures and community after community are immutable? Are there some universal (or at lease universally human) principles of morality to which all can agree? If so, what might they be?

Peace and peaceful co-existence

I’d be willing to wager that if you asked a thousand people if they preferred living a life of peace or a life of war, constant threat of death or dismemberment, destruction and uncertainty, each and every one of them would select peace. Still, can one live with peace under any circumstances? Can a prisoner enjoy his freedom from war and pestilence from behind bars? Can Israel make an enduring peace with Palestine? There will always be costs for a lasting peace, the question usually becomes what are we willing to give up to enjoy that peace.

Don’t Lie

Again, if asked, “Would you prefer people told you the truth?” literally everyone would respond in the affirmative. No one wants to be lied to. When difficult truths need to be told, we’d rather have it given easy, of course, but we’d still prefer to be told the truth, based on verifiable facts. The vast majority of religions, cultures, business and educational centres promote truth, over mis-information. That being said, we are almost all guilty of telling “little white lies” over the course of any given day. How do you not compliment your wife or husband on their new outfit? Where the truth may hurt, divide or demean we sometimes choose that, “little white lie.”

Honour obligations

When people tell us they’re going to do something for us, we’d all prefer that those things get done within the time frame and in the manner promised. Of course things change and sometimes situations get beyond our control, but we must act in good faith and with good intention to fulfil our obligations.

Act with good intention

No one wants to be treated to someone else’s hidden agenda. We’d all prefer to know, up front, what people are up to.

Be true to your word

Access to equal rights for all

This is a tough one, for while are people are created equal, they rarely develop as so within their tribe. We all want to know that our work is equally valued and equally rewarded. We all want to know that when a crime is committed the courts will act the same way for everyone. We all know this is rarely the case, but in an ideal world, this would be our preference.

Relief from suffering

All sentient creatures suffer in one way or another. Simply being human means that we will suffer from hunger, want, pain, disease and ultimately death. Relief from suffering is as universal a desire as we can imagine.

Avoid taking life

Does it not seems logical that no one wants to be killed by another? Tribal ethics almost universally condemn the taking of life with the tribal community, except where allowed by the laws of the tribe and after due process. Can this be extended to not taking the life of other sentient creatures? Most assuredly, but it’s rarely the case. One of the great miseries of the human experience is that to live, we must take the life of other entities, both plant and animal.

Avoid sexual misconduct

Can any of us honestly conclude that being raped, groped, touched or in some way exposed to unwanted sexual attention, is good?

Reverence for place - protect the environment

For the common good, having a clean environment in which to live would seem preferable to having one which is polluted. Ask any individual if they'd prefer clean air, clean water and protected wilderness environments and almost everyone would respond in the affirmative.

Leave a positive legacy

What we leave behind for our children, family and tribe matters. It sets things up for the next generation. Leaving them a clean environment, a good name, a solid education and a good upbringing all matter to the next generation. No child wants to inherit a bad name or bad circumstances.

Build trust

All communities must operate within some rules and regulations laid down by the community at large. Trusting in those rules and what they mean allows for all members of a community to trust all other members of the community.

Willful compliance with the law

When we all obey the laws of our community, the community, as a whole, benefits. This is the common good. Of course there will be times when laws and rules need to be rewritten or deleted altogether and then peaceful civil action may be required. People rarely want to obey laws simply because they are threatened with reprisal, rather, they’d prefer laws that make sense for the times and manner in which they live.

Throughout human history, rules for proper behaviour seem to have often come down from some divine source, some sort of god or divine deity. It’s as if we can’t determine, for ourselves, what is good and what is poor behaviour. It seems that we need some sort of divine punishment if we don’t behave or we will not be rewarded after our death with a “heavenly” experience - whatever that may look like. Some god seems to be constantly telling us to behave or we will end up in hell.

In the second part of this chapter, we will discuss the Five Precepts of Buddhism and how they relate to wisdom.

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