Redefining secular ethics…or not

LAMP Symposium

Last month, I attended the Fourth Annual LAMP Symposium, “Religious and Scientific Perspectives on the Future of Life” at Emory University (LAMP is the Georgia Tech/Emory Leadership and Multifaith Program). The talks were an interesting mix, including some straight-up science, some thoughtful discussions of the interactions between science and religion, and a bit of absolute pseudo-profound bullshit.

The keynote speaker, Arri Eisen, talked about his experience interacting with Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns living in India. During the Q&A, he brought up the Dalai Lama’s advocacy of secular ethics.

One of the things that happened as the Dalai Lama was developing these ideas, what he calls secular ethics, so some of his recent books, is to develop K through 12 strategies that integrate ideas of secular ethics and his kind of philosophy without being religious at all; that’s why he calls it secular ethics.

This is around 1:00:00 (I can’t seem to set a start time for Vimeo).

LAMP 2018 Arri Eisen’s Keynote – “What Happens When You Mix Monks, Nuns, and Scientists? The Emory Tibet Science Initiat from Candler School of Theology on Vimeo.

Strangely, he immediately makes a U-turn and says the dead opposite:

So, when the Dalai Lama says secular, he doesn’t mean non-religious, he means all religions. It’s an Indian version of the word.

I’m sure this latter definition resonated with much of the audience, since the meeting was largely about commonalities among religions, and in fact it’s the one that seems to have stuck. Some of the later speakers referred back to it, for example Michael Karlin:

So the first thing, as Dr. Eisen said, is that this term ‘secular ethics’ was coined originally by the Dalai Lama and what he says when he means secular is this is not about being anti-religion or separate from religion, as they do, as we talk about it often times in the west, but actually it’s inclusive of all religions.

It didn’t resonate with me, because redefining ‘secular’ this way seems to me to skip an important question. It subtly reframes discussions of ethics from ‘should we base our ethics on religious or nonreligious values’ to ‘should we base our ethics on one sort of religious values or another sort of religious values.’ Shifting to the second question seems to presume a particular answer to the first.

Furthermore, as a representation of what the Dalai Lama thinks, it is, as best I can tell, false.

When I asked Dr. Eisen where the Dalai Lama’s alternative conception of ‘secular’ could be found, he referred me to his (the Dalai Lama’s) 1999 book, Ethics for the New Millennium. So I checked it out.

I didn’t have to look far. From page XIII (in the Preface):

Being a firm believer in religious pluralism, I have also studied the principal works of other Buddhist traditions. But I have had comparatively little exposure to modern, secular thought. Yet this is not a religious book. Still less is it a book about Buddhism. My aim has been to appeal for an approach to ethics based on universal rather than religious principles.

I have included more than I needed to out of an abundance of caution; I don’t want to be guilty of taking his words out of context. Although His Holiness does advocate religious pluralism, his conclusion is completely clear: “universal rather than religious principles.”

In Ethics for the New Millennium, the Dalai Lama regards religion as “capable of facilitating” the overarching goal of “helping human beings achieve lasting happiness” (p. 20), but nowhere does he suggest that religion is the only way of achieving this goal. If there were any doubt, he clears them up on page 19:

In calling for a spiritual revolution, am I advocating a religious solution to our problems after all? No.

So Ethics for the New Millennium does not redefine ‘secular’ in the way Dr. Eisen suggests. Maybe it is in the Dalai Lama’s later writings. I can’t answer that definitively; lists 113 books by His Holiness, and I’m certainly not going to read them all (maybe some of these are translations, but still…). In his 2011 book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, though, he couldn’t be clearer (p. xiii):

But for all its benefits in offering moral guidance and meaning in life, in today’s secular world religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis 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 in an age of globalization and in multicultural societies, ethics based in any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all. In the past, when peoples lived in relative isolation from one another — as we Tibetans lived quite happily for many centuries behind our wall of mountains — the fact that groups pursued their own religiously based approaches to ethics posed no difficulties. Today, however, any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.

The Dalai Lama seems to define ‘secular ethics’ pretty much the same way everyone else does (outside of this symposium): “ethics which makes no recourse to religion.” This is, in fact, a major theme of the book (not to mention that it appears in the title):

I do not agree that ethics requires grounding in religious concepts or faith. Instead, I firmly believe that ethics can also emerge simply as a natural and rational response to our very humanity and our common human condition. [p. 13]

There is nothing subtle about this; Beyond Religion is a book-length argument against the idea that ethics should be based in religion. To be fair, I didn’t take Dr. Eisen’s point as an argument from authority. He wasn’t saying “this is what secular ethics is, and it’s right because the Dalai Lama said so,” but rather something more like “this is what I think secular ethics is, and I credit the Dalai Lama with this idea.” And since Dr. Eisen has actually met His Holiness, and I haven’t, he may have insight I lack. What I can say, though, is that the Dalai Lama’s writings explicitly and unambiguously argue for an ethics not based on religion: “any religion-based answer…will be inadequate.”

On this point (and a surprising number of others, I’m finding), His Holiness and I are in complete agreement.


  1. SpaceGhoti says

    It seems that Dr. Eisen and Mr. Karlin are both attempting to equate “secular” with “ecumenical.”


Leave a Reply