Ethics Center director shares insight on secular ethics, theme of Dalai Lama's visit

By Elaine Justice | Spirited Thinking | Oct. 1, 2013

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His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama will visit Emory Oct. 8-10.

In anticipation of the visit of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama to Emory University Oct. 8-10, Spirited Thinking asked Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics and moderator for two sessions during the visit, to weigh in on the concept of "secular ethics," its role in education and its broader applications in our lives.

Wolpe is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics and Raymond F. Schinazi Distinguished Research Chair in Jewish Bioethics.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, how would you define "secular ethics"?

Well, the important thing is how His Holiness defines it. By "secular ethics" he means an ethical system that appeals to all, the religious and the non-religious alike, not tied to any one religious system or tradition. The secular ethics he wants to promote is based on the cultivation of genuine compassion, which is moderated by discernment, or use of our critical aptitude leading to a compassionate but realistic ethical system. Such a system would transcend religious barriers, and form a basis for all people to share a common basic ethical sensibility.

Why do you think the Dalai Lama is viewed as inherently ethical by many in the world?

I think there is a recognition that the position of the Dalai Lama is dedicated in part to the spreading of a Buddhist perspective that has as its base a compassionate ethical outlook on the world.

In addition, however, Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, is particularly gifted in promoting conversation across not only religious groups, but also deep into the scientific and academic communities. He has championed teaching modern science to Tibetan monks through the Emory Tibet Science Initiative. His Holiness has a curious and engaging mind, and can apply Western research findings and information he has gleaned from meeting some of the great minds of our day into a sophisticated, coherent and yet completely accessible approach to ethics.

What do you see as the role of universities in teaching/upholding secular ethics?

I do not think the role of the university is to embrace one ethical system over another. The Dalai Lama's secular ethics proposal should not have a special status simply because it was proposed by the Dalai Lama; it needs to be studied, analyzed, critiqued, and stand the test of time in a debate on ethics that goes back thousands of years. The Dalai Lama himself would want it no other way; he welcomes critical analysis of his proposal. Secular ethics is a form of what we call virtue ethics, and is an important contribution to that strand of ethical argument. So it is equally important that the academy not exclude secular ethics simply because it came from a religious leader.

How can secular ethics be used as a guide for communities facing tumultuous events (such as acts of terror or environmental crises) or complex bioethical issues?

The key to secular ethics as I understand it, is detachment and compassion. The idea of detachment is often misunderstood; it does not mean indifference. Detachment means removing the emotional reactivity that leads to mistaken judgments, and then allowing compassion (for the individual, not the act), and discernment (critical analysis and understanding) to guide our responses.

The Dalai Lama is at pains to point out that compassion does not mean meekness or capitulation; leaders such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel demonstrated the compassionate outlook, and yet all displayed great courage, resolve and resistance. The Dalai Lama also stresses our interdependence, our shared humanity. When you take such a perspective— which is not easy, by the way—you can have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa instead of the ongoing civil war we have elsewhere.

If much of a society's decision-making and politics is driven by money (if not greed), how can secular ethics and education bring balance to that?

Cultivating an ethic of compassion and detachment is antithetical to greed. In his book "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World," the Dalai Lama points out that studies have shown definitively that, after our basic needs are provided for, increasing material possessions only bring transient happiness, and that the general level of contentment in society is higher when wealth is more evenly distributed among the population than when there are great disparities between rich and poor.

While it is true that such a perspective seems to be swimming against the tide in our materialistic society, there are also increasing signs of a countertrend, such as our increasing ecological consciousness, or simplicity movements. Secular ethics may be able to make a contribution to that way of being in the world.

What does it mean to you, on a personal level, to lead an ethical life?

In our society, too often, we conform our ethics to preexisting models of belief that predetermine our ethical positions. On both the right and the left, dogma often replaces critical thinking as we confront complex and controversial ethical challenges. Such positions are easier than truly grappling with ethical ambiguities, data that does not fit our preconceptions, challenging voices that we too often dismiss as biased or wrong or evil rather than engaging them

To be ethically courageous means to engage all sides, to risk the wrath of your natural allies by seriously considering the arguments of the other side. This can make one unpopular, and I have encountered that in my career and even at Emory over stands I have taken. "Ethical courage" is easier when arguing against the people who disagree with you anyway; it really raises its head when you are arguing against your friends.

Can institutions have ethical safeguards in place that protect against ethical "breaches," and if so, what would that look like?

Yes, and organization ethics is its own field with its own literature and set of principles. Ethics in organizations really must pervade the entire organization, and this is a case where leadership becomes crucial. If the leaders of an organization do not foster and promote—actively, explicitly, vocally and in action—an ethical sensibility for the organization, respond quickly and decisively to ethical breaches, and never wink at those who stretch ethical standards even if it is to the economic advantage of the organization, then breaches will occur.

It is why ethical teaching at Emory needs to pervade the university—not only our undergraduates, but our business students, our professional schools, and our faculty and staff. I think it is fortunate that we have an administration that understands the importance of ethical modeling and conversation, and one that supports an Ethics Center like ours so Emory can engage ethics throughout the university.