The Meaning of Universal Ethics
Why do we have this term “universal ethics?” Universal has the connotation of something that everybody, believer or non-believer, can accept. Whether one is a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jew or Jain or whatever, the values can be accepted. Whether scientist or non-scientist, educated or non-educated, everybody can accept these values and see that it’s crucial to follow them for their own happiness. That is the universal part. Ethics is a way of conduct that, by engaging in, makes you a happy person and supports the happiness of others. The community becomes happy and you become happy. These two combined together are universal ethics.
A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. – Albert Einstein
Einstein is saying that all the problems we experience are due to our very narrow-minded thoughts imprisoned by the self, from thinking about oneself and only a small inner circle and forgetting about the rest of the universe. He says that this attachment to just a small inner circle is just an illusion. Why? It’s because we are all interconnected. How can we get out of this prison? He says we must expand the circle of compassion to include others and, if others were to expand their circle of compassion toward us, then all of us would be happy. This is what he is encouraging.
Why Practice Ethics?
Ethics are human actions done with conscience and which lead to greater harmony, peace and happiness within the individual and within society at large. Whether one undergoes happiness or misery, we can see it as the result of our actions, which are concomitant in nature with what we seek. All actions are driven by our thoughts and emotions. Unethical thoughts give rise to actions which, in turn, result in the undesirable results that we see in this world today. This is due to our failure to understand the proper causal relationship among these three:
- Thoughts and emotions
- Our actions
- The resulting consequences in the form of happiness or pain.
We might have the aspiration to seek happiness, but driven by a set of thoughts, we dive into actions that only give rise to pain and misery. Therefore, we need proper knowledge of what consciousness is, what thoughts and emotions are, and finally what the mechanisms are by which these thoughts and types of consciousness govern our actions to give rise to a specific result. We would then be wise to nurture those mindsets that facilitate the actions that give rise to the desired results and abandon the class of minds that degrade our actions. This is ethics; and what underscores all principles of ethics is compassion.
What gives rise to happiness and unhappiness, then, is our minds. It’s also dependent upon the driving emotions and emotional factors. Emotions drive our thoughts, and our thoughts drive our actions. Emotions that cause our happiness are “positive emotions.” In a universal sense, we cannot speak about “cardinal sin” or cardinal this or that. We have to speak in a very universal way. Universally, we can say that what gives rise to genuine happiness are positive emotions and what gives rise to misery are destructive emotions. We need to study and learn these as part of the map of the mind; we need to train people with such a map.
Teaching Universal Ethics in the School System
How can we make people passionate about teaching what is meaningful for individuals and the community? There are those whose ethics are based on a sense of God-fearing. There are those who don’t believe in God, but have a belief in karma, thinking that, based on karma, they should be careful to behave nicely. But there are also those who believe in neither God nor karma. Without the concept of God and karma, how can we convince people that ethics are something to be embraced? For this, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has come up with these three points:
- Common experience
- Common sense
- Scientific findings.
Based on these, His Holiness has proposed three steps to teach universal ethics in the modern educational system.
An example of teaching based on common experience, whether for believers or non-believers, is being breast-fed by our mothers as young children. This is a common experience that doesn’t have any religiosity or philosophy – it is pure love and affection that we are getting from our mothers. This love and affection gives the mother and child such trust and confidence toward each other and from there everything else dissolves. Destructive emotions dissolve and all the chaos of the world dissolves as well. Only love and affection remain. Terrorism, gender discrimination, and the gap between rich and poor all exist because of a lack of love and affection toward others.
Common sense is when we see that if a person is more loving, they have more friends around, they feel at home, and they feel that the people around them are like their brothers and sisters. When we don’t feel this love and affection toward others, then even in our own home we won’t feel at home. Even our own siblings come to be seen as enemies. From the perspective of common sense, we need to be convinced that love and affection is the anchor of universal ethics.
Lastly, scientific findings, for example, refer to experiments being conducted where baby monkeys are separated from their mothers and don’t experience this time being cared for by their mothers. Then, as they grow up, they are so aggressive. They don’t know how to play with others, but only defend themselves and fight with others. Those left with mothers, on the other hand, are happy and playful.
On the basis of these three concepts, His Holiness argues that genuine love and affection – the anchor of universal ethics – are what are to be cultivated in the minds of all.
Holding the Universal Identity as a Human Being
One challenge facing the introduction of universal ethics is our identities. When we feel, “I’m Tibetan, I’m Chinese, I’m Buddhist, I’m Hindu” – the moment such attachments to our own identities appear, an aversion toward others is bound to happen. This is a huge challenge and a very serious matter.
One single individual can have hundreds of different identities. For example, I can say that I am a man and, on this basis, male chauvinism arises. On the basis of male chauvinism, feminism comes. If I think I am a Buddhist, then you are a non-Buddhist. If I am a Hindu or a Muslim, then you are a non-Hindu or non-Muslim. Unless a person is highly evolved, there is a danger or tendency to hold onto a less significant identity as the most significant identity. Fundamentalism and radicalism all come into being because of holding onto a less significant identity as supreme.
Why don’t we all just identify as human beings? If aliens came and started shooting at us, saying it’s because we’re from planet Earth, then we would all have the identity that we are from planet Earth and we would all be united. Why should we have to wait for a third factor to create our identity? Why don’t we create our own identity now? Which identity makes us happier and the world happier? Holding the identity as a human being, we see that we are happier and we come to see everyone as our brothers and sisters.