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by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Riverhead Books, 2001
Review by Eric Weislogel, Ph.D. on Jan 30th 2002

Ethics for the New Millennium

If the reader comes to Ethics for the New Millennium looking for The Big Tibetan Buddhist Secret, the reader can forget it. The Dalai Lama of Tibet, who has become something of a publishing whirlwind over the past several years, is crystal-clear in this New York Times bestseller: He intends to offer us a post-religious, post-modern ethics that purportedly will not require any particular metaphysical commitments on the part of the reader.

In fact, he claims no particular originality or special insight, and he maintains that there "is nothing in these pages which has not been said before." I take this claim as a key for reading and evaluating the book. If what is said in the book has been said before, who said it and when? Why has the Dalai Lama seen a need to say it again? And has he said it any better? He calls his views "common sense," but we all no that what is common is not always sensible and what is sensible is not always common. Is there, protestations of the author notwithstanding, uncommon wisdom in this book?

And there is this twist, too. The book was written in 1999. This review is being written post September 11, 2001. What does this book have to teach us-if anything-in our "New World Disorder"?

Let's set the context: The Dalai Lama asserts that, no matter what a person's religion or cultural background, a person desires most of all to be happy. His Holiness notes the fact that there is much unhappiness in the world, much of which is avoidable. The question is how to avoid unhappiness and increase happiness. The solution is through "positive ethical conduct": people who act ethically tend to be happier than those who don't.

Isn't "positive ethical conduct" the sole province of religion (and, so, is the Dalai Lama going to give us the Tibetan Buddhist path to happiness)? No. His Holiness proffers the view that religion-formal religion as opposed to "spirituality"-no longer has much relevance in the (post-)modern world. Now, after September 11 this is clearly an arguable point; it was arguable before, too. But let's grant this premise for the sake of the Dalai Lama's argument. He posits that although there are millions who claim religious motivations for their actions, in actual fact people tend to act from 'secular' reasons [20]. This is no obstacle, however, to our improving our ethical conduct and thus becoming happier. The tenets of "positive ethical conduct" stem from human nature, and are religion-independent. Still, the quest to become more ethical, and so happier, should be seen as a "spiritual" quest. In fact, the Dalai Lama is calling for no less than a "spiritual revolution." [17]

Although he separates ethics and religion, the Dalai Lama does believe that religious discipline can be a very powerful means to develop right ethical conduct. However the "spiritual revolution" he is arguing for does not require religious conversion. The Dalai Lama never has been much of a proselytizer. When I heard him give a dharma talk in Pittsburgh, PA, a few years back, he summed up all his teaching by saying, "Be a good human being." Ethics for the New Millennium tries to point us in the right direction.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first part lays the foundation of ethics, as we have seen, not in religious tradition but in the natural human desire (and right) to be happy. In the second part, His Holiness outlines the main ingredients of positive ethical conduct for an individual. The social and political ramifications are discussed in the final section.

As I noted earlier, the Dalai Lama insists that there is nothing new in his analysis, and in fact the parallels to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (NE) are striking. Both His Holiness and Aristotle think happiness is the highest goal for human beings [see 148]. Both stress the enduring quality of happiness, distinguishing it from the passing nature of pleasure. Both develop an ethics of virtue as a means to attain happiness. Both warn that the intellectual exercise of analyzing happiness and virtue is, in itself, not their goal; rather, the goal is to actually be good. Both define virtue as a habit of action. Both stress the need to control the emotions without denying them their due. Both insist on the idea of the "golden mean"-Aristotle puts it this way:

I mean moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate. [NE Bk. II, Ch. 6; emph. added]

The Dalai Lama says this:

In other words, there are, of course, thoughts and emotions which it is appropriate, even important, to express openly-including negative ones-albeit there are more or less appropriate ways to do so. It is far better to confront a person or situation than to hide our anger away, brood on it, and nurture resentment in our hearts. Yet if we indiscriminately express negative thoughts and emotions simply on the grounds that they must be articulated, there is a strong possibility…that we will lose control and overreact. Thus the important thing is to be discriminating, both in terms of the feelings we express and in how we express them. [99; see also 140 and 178]

 

Both see the person of virtue as self-controlled. Both warn that being virtuous is difficult. Thus, the Dalai Lama:

We have a saying in Tibet that engaging in the practice of virtue is as hard as driving a donkey uphill, whereas engaging in destructive activities is as easy as rolling boulders downhill. [117]

And Aristotle:

Again, it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the class of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, and good to that of the limited), while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult- to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue;
For men are good in but one way, but bad in many. [NE Bk. II, Ch. 6]

Both say we have to develop the means to hit the mark of virtue through practice and discernment. His Holiness might be defining phronesis, Aristotle's practical wisdom, in what he calls "the union of skillful means and insight":
'Skillful means' can be understood in terms of the efforts we make to ensure that our deeds are motivated by compassion. 'Insight' refers to our critical faculties and how, in response to the different factors involved, we adjust the ideal of non-harming [a key facet of virtue, for the Dalai Lama] to the context of the situation. We could call it the faculty of wise discernment. [149]

These parallel passages could be multiplied. An important difference of emphasis, though, in the Dalai Lama's ethic centers on the virtue of compassion, of always taking others into account in discerning right action, of allowing oneself to be open to the suffering of others as a means of seeing that, as His Holiness puts it, "basically we are all the same." [164-an un-postmodern thought!]

The question, then, is whether this age-old virtue ethics is really the ethics for this millennium. One point to keep in mind when answering this question is that when Aristotle wrote, the question of ethics was how to be good. In modernity-and we can debate when this really began-ethics became more a matter justifying moral propositions, of answering the question of why be good. That's a long story, and we can't go into it here. But neither Aristotle nor the Dalai Lama are very interested in a theoretical understanding of morality for its own sake. Instead, both recognize good and bad, and both offer practical wisdom, based mainly on mimesis, on following the example of virtuous, happy people, in order to be happy oneself.

I generally think that if you stop people on a street corner and strike up a discussion about ethical issues, you would find that most people tend to be Aristotelians without knowing it. Most think moderation a virtue, most think that society points to the behavior that leads to praise or blame (one of the alleged shortcomings of virtue ethics). Most are "situational relativists"-remember that Aristotle's mean is not an absolute mean. Certainly, all want to be happy, and take happiness into account when making moral judgments.

The Dalai Lama frequently pauses to ask if he is being too simplistic, and after September 11 we must all be on guard against over-simplified answers to big questions. For instance, His Holiness states that "the degree to which suffering affects us is largely up to us," and that, "it is very rare, if not impossible, to find a situation which is negative no matter how we look at it." [138] That seems hard to swallow in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

However, we could-if we dared-ask: Is the United States worse off for having been attacked? Is concern for others less now than before 9/11? Have more people become more mindful of the interconnections, the "intercommunity" [199], the "Interbeing" (in the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh's wonderful term), of all there is? Are more people discussing issues of peace and non-violence than before (despite the general approval of military action)?

Although the Dalai Lama does offer social and political counsel, the focus here is on the individual person. As a final evaluation of his program, one could simply ask: If I were to do as he says, would I likely be better off? Is this good advice? I think it is.

All that I hope is that if what is written here makes sense to you, the reader, you will strive to be compassionate in your daily life, and that out of a sense of responsibility toward all others you will do what you can to help them. (…) Apart from this, I am not calling for any commitment as such. And if on some days your actions are more compassionate than on others-well, that is normal. Likewise, if what I say does not seem helpful, then no matter. The important thing is that whatever we do for others, whatever sacrifices we make, it should be voluntary and arise from understanding the benefits of such actions. [175]

In these trying times this modest plea would have to count as uncommon wisdom.

 

© 2002 Eric Weislogel

 

Eric Weislogel, Ph.D., is Associate Director of the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science, based in Philadelphia. He taught philosophy at Penn State and the Indiana University of PA, prior to a stint as Manager of Business Process Consulting for a steel industry technology company. He has written for industry trade publications and philosophical journals, and has published music reviews, book reviews, and feature articles. In his spare time, he is pursuing a degree in theology and trying to be "a good human being." He and his family reside in Pittsburgh, PA.