Excerpts from Ethics

TO KICK ON THE NEW YEAR (pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps?) I read the book Ethics for the New Millennium by the 14th Dalai Lama, published in 1999. It’s a book I didn’t consciously seek out, as months ago I found it (or it found me?) being given away for free on someone’s drought-stricken front lawn. Since it was published, the current Dalai Lama–who has been in exile in India from his homeland Tibet for the past 60 years (since the 1959 Tibetan uprising), and who officially “retired” from politics in 2011–has published a followup book, Beyond Religion, Ethics for a Whole World (2012), which I haven’t read, and I’m sure is in some respects more up-to-date than the 1999 book. Even so, the content of this book written 20 years ago reads as if it were written yesterday–or even tomorrow. After all, the Millennium is still new, and this year, 2019, newer still.

Below are 10 excerpts lifted from the end of the book discussing issues which continue to grow even more pressing as time continues into the future. It is hard to deny at this point in history that the issues humanity has been creating for itself are continuing to worsen, and will continue to do so unless a “spiritual revolution“, as the Dalai Lama puts it, takes hold.

“If education constitutes one of our most powerful weapons in our quest to bring about a more peaceful world, the mass media is another. As every political figure knows, they are no longer the only ones with authority in society. In addition to that of newspapers and books, radio, film, and television together have an influence over individuals unimagined a hundred years ago. The power confers a great responsibility on all who work in the media. But it also confers great responsibility on each of us who, as individuals, listen and read and watch. We, too, have a role to play. We are not powerless before the media. The control switch is in our own hand, after all” (p. 185).

“We need to know when this or that renowned individual hides a very different aspect behind a pleasant exterior. There should be no discrepancy between external appearances and the individual’s inner life. It is the same person, after all. Such discrepancies suggest them to be untrustworthy” (185).

“When the media focuses too closely on the negative aspects of human nature, there is a danger that we become persuaded that violence and aggression are its principle characteristics. This is a mistake, I believe” (186).

“But only recently have the size of our population and the power of science and technology grown to the point that they can have a direct impact on nature. To put it another way, until now, Mother Earth has been able to tolerate our sloppy house habits. The stage has been reached where she can no longer accept our behavior in silence. The problems caused by environmental degradation can be seen as her response to our irresponsible behavior. She is warning us that there are limits even to her tolerance” (188).

“The only clear thing is that we humans are the only species with the power to destroy the earth as we know it. The birds have no such power, nor do the insects, not does any mammal. Yet if we have the capacity to destroy the earth, so, too, so we have the capacity to protect it” (191).

“This does not mean that I believe we can rely on technology to overcome all our problems. Nor do I believe we can afford to continue destructive practices in anticipation of technical fixes being developed. Besides, the environment does not need fixing. It is our behavior in relation to it that needs to change” (192).

“This means that it is time for all those living in the industrially developed nations to give serious thought to changing their lifestyle” (194).

“Of course, I don’t know much about economics. But I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the wealth of the rich is maintained through neglect of the poor, especially by means of international debt. Saying this, I do not mean to suggest that the underdeveloped countries have no share of responsibility for their problems. Nor can we put all social and economic ills down to politicians and public officials. I do not deny that even in the world’s most established democracies it is quite usual to hear politicians making unrealistic promises and boasting about what they are going to do when elected. But these people do not drop out of the sky. So if it is true that a given country’s politicians are corrupt, we tend to find that the society is itself lacking in morality and that the individuals who make up the population do not lead ethical lives. In such cases, it is not entirely fair for the electorate to criticize its politicians” (195).

“If we look at the evolution of human society, we see the necessity of having a vision in order to bring about positive change. Ideals are the engine of progress. To ignore this and say merely that we need to be “realistic” in politics is severely mistaken” (197).

“Because of the reality of this destructive capacity, we need to admit that, whether they are intended for offensive or for defensive purposes, weapons exist solely to destroy human beings. But lest we suppose that peace is purely dependent on disarmament, we must also acknowledge that weapons cannot act by themselves. Although designed to kill, so long as they remain in storage, they can do no physical harm. Someone has to push a button to launch a missile strike, or pull a trigger to fire a bullet. No “evil” power can do this. Only humans can. Therefore, genuine world peace requires that we also begin to dismantle the military establishments that we have built. We cannot hope to enjoy true peace as long as there are authoritarian regimes propped up by armed forces which do not hesitate to carry out injustice at their bidding. Injustice undermines truth, and without truth there can be no lasting peace” (206).