The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Dalai Lama on the Three Important Questions in Ethics

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
October 31, 2018
Wed, 10/31/2018 - 13:35 -- His Holiness th...

 Ethics, as we understand it, seems to be more directly related to human intelligence, our experiences of pleasure and pain, and our long-term future interests.

CLARE PALMER: In closing, I’d like to offer three questions for consideration. I would be honored to hear views from the perspective of the Buddhist tradition to help us in environmental ethics think through these problems in new ways we may not have previously considered.


  1. How do we think about and value future people? How should we factor future people into our ethical decision making?
  2. Can species or ecosystems be ethically significant in themselves, above and beyond the individuals that compose them?
  3. What kind of environmental should hums be trying to create, if they should be trying to create environments at all?


HIS HOLINESS THE DALAI LAMA: Broadly speaking, ethics seems to relate directly to organisms that can experience pain and pleasure, that want pleasure and happiness, that do not want suffering. It’s interesting to consider animals that don’t have the same kind of intelligence as us. However, most animals take care of their offspring. They have some sense of responsibility to look after their young. Perhaps even if it is only on a biological level, they also have instincts about the cycles of life, the seasons, where and when to find food. So, to some extent, they are thinking about the future as well, not just the present. They also remember past experiences to some extent. Perhaps not past generations, but they recall their own lifetimes. But even so, I do not think the animal world has its own sense of ethics. Ethics, as we understand it, seems to be more directly related to human intelligence, our experiences of pleasure and pain, and our long-term future interests.

            To that point, referring to those who emphasize that only present beings have rights, what do they consider the present? A year, a month, an hour, one second before or after, a decade, a century? The very basis of that view is challenging because we cannot find the collective definition of “present.”

            Further, this ethics seems to be socially dependent. When you look at early communism, the Marxists sought a classless society in which everyone was equal and had equal access to the things they needed. In that case, maybe ethics wouldn’t apply the same way. That system may have worked for a smaller population, but as the population grew, injustices and unhealthy balances occurred, and they needed to appoint a leader to manage society. Then ethics entered the conversation in order to prevent injustice and protect the weaker members of society.

            In today’s societies, nobody denies they have feelings of pain or pleasure, and we have to have concern for their well-being, so ethics apply. This is my overall view of the evolution of ethics.

            So how should we factor in future people? We need to first acknowledge that our present experience is very much related to the past, and we need to think about what we can learn from the past. Then it follows that out present behavior will affect the future.

            For example, the twentieth century was filled with violence, and even in the beginning of this century there is continuing violence despite the fact that people everywhere are calling for peace. This is, in part, a result of our behavior in the past century. It’s quite logical that many future problems will be largely dependent on how we act today.

            Another issue is that specialists and philosophers often pick a focused area of study and go very deep without paying much attention to the holistic system, to the big picture. They may only look at the small details and may lack understanding of relativity and interdependence. From this pointed perspective, things are often considered absolute and taken for reality. This usually leads to the problem of trying to uphold a position that is not really a position, because it is not taking into account all the factors.

            The reality is that all things are relative. From one angle, an event could seem to be a good thing; from another angle it’s a horrible event. My essential view is that everything is relative. Perhaps my view is influenced by Buddhist Maghyamaka philosophical thinking. And, at the same time, there is a demarcation between what is true and what is untrue. At least at the level of everyday experience, we have to make distinctions between what is true and what is untrue.

An excerpt from Ecology, Ethics and Interdependence, by the Dalai Lama

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