Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama 
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. xv + 188 pages, hardcover, $24.

If you were to ask most religious leaders for the key to universal harmony, each would probably say that it would be the universal adoption of his own religion. That this is not a viable solution has long since become obvious, but very few religious authorities have offered any decent alternatives.

The Dalai Lama is one exception. In 2001, he published Ethics for a New Millennium, which offered an explicitly secular approach to moral principles. His latest book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, expands upon that vision. (TS members who attended the Dalai Lama’s presentation in Chicago in July 2011 will, incidentally, find much that is familiar in this work.) Beyond Religion offers a form of ethics that transcends religion as such, and does not even require belief in God or any other supernatural agency. “In today’s secular world,” he contends, “religion alone is no longer adequate as a basic for ethics. One reason for this is that many people in the world no longer follow any particular religion. Another reason is that, as the peoples of the world become ever more closely interconnected . . . , ethics based on any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all.”

Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama sees no contradiction between his position as a religious leader and his offering the option of a purely secular ethics: “My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.”

The approach that he sets out is simple. Certain values, such as “love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness” are, he contends, universal among the world religions. Moreover, he believes, they are intrinsic to human nature. If we nurture these qualities in ourselves, it will go far toward relieving the world’s suffering. The pillars for his new “secular ethics” are “the recognition of our shared humanity and our shared aspiration to happiness and the avoidance of suffering” and “the understanding of interdependence as a key feature of human reality” (emphasis in the original).

Confronting the age-old question of morality versus self-interest, the Dalai Lama says, “Many people . . . assume that feeling compassion for others is only good for the others and not for oneself. This is . . . incorrect . . . The first beneficiary of compassion is always oneself. When compassion, or warmheartedness, arises in us and shifts our focus away from our own narrow self-interest, it is as if we open an inner door. Compassion reduces our fear, boosts our confidence, and brings us inner strength. By reducing distrust, it opens us to others and brings us a sense of connection with them and a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Compassion also gives us a respite from our own difficulties.”

The Dalai Lama is thus arguing that morality and self-interest are not, as is commonly supposed, in conflict but are inextricably interwoven. Our natural tendencies toward love and compassion, combined with our interconnection with others, mean that we do not have to choose between our own interest and another’s; as the great world religions have frequently taught, they are the same.

The book does not stop with the cultivation of these values in a purely interpersonal context. It also stresses that we need to cultivate these virtues internally in order to benefit fully. The Dalai Lama gives advice for uprooting destructive emotions and maintaining ethical awareness in everyday life. In the final section of the book, he recommends various meditative practices as methods of self-cultivation.

Will this book, with its eminently reasonable arguments based both on simple logic and on the findings of science, convince those who don’t already agree with its perspective? Probably not. While the author is very likely right in saying that the great religious tradition espouse love and compassion, it is also the case that at many junctures they have both preached and practiced the opposite. If the bigots and fanatics of the world’s faiths don’t bother to listen to the central teachings of their own traditions, why would we expect them to listen to the leader of another?

Furthermore, moral development is not a matter of convincing someone rationally to follow good and eschew evil; that comes far too late in life. Ultimately it is a question of upbringing, which is why practically all the world’s religions try to inculcate their principles in young children. (Even Aristotle said that moral philosophy should be studied only by people whose morals were good to begin with.) By the time one is grown, one’s values, good or bad, are set, and are only modified at the cost of great discipline and, frequently, upheavals.

Hence for those who view moral decisions as a zero-sum game, in which gains for you inevitably mean losses for me, the arguments set forth in this book will probably not prove persuasive. But those who are already disposed toward love and compassion will find help and inspiration in this book. Although the Dalai Lama sometimes seems overoptimistic in his assessment of human nature, Beyond Religion remains a noble and admirable effort toward fostering some of the central human virtues without an appeal either to God or to the policeman.

Richard Smoley