This is the first part of a five-part essay comparing and contrasting the moral systems of the Dalai Lama, Andre Comte-Sponville, and Viktor Frankl with regard to how well (or poorly) their respective moral systems fare against morally complex situations.
Moral complexity is both a fact of reality and an obstacle that persistently bedevils the formation and function of our moral systems. By moral systems, I mean the totality of methods, assumptions, principles, rules, and obligations that are meant to guide, regulate, and formalize our interactions with other living beings as well as with our environments. Moral systems come in a variety of different forms and can be either secular (natural, material) or sacred (religious, supernatural) in composition. They also have varying degrees or levels of comprehensiveness in content and scope. That is to say, some are more developed or nuanced than others. Examples of some moral systems include Divine Command Theory, the Golden Rule, Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, the 10 Nonvirtues of Tibetan Buddhism, and so on.
Given that at least one purpose of moral systems is to guide, regulate, and formalize our interactions with other living beings as well as with our environments, we can assess the worth and utility of a moral system insofar as it is relatively more adept at handling complex moral situations than its competitors.
If a particular moral system cannot help us to make decisions or carry out a particular action (or set of actions) with regard to morally complex situations, it is not worthy of our endorsement or usage. We cannot in good conscience recommend it to others for emulation or support it explicitly through our actions or implicitly through our moral thought processes.
By complex moral situations, I mean situations or events in which general or absolute principles, rules, or assumptions fail to progress our moral decision making process. This lack of progress could be caused by the rigidity or narrowness of the moral principles/rules that comprise our moral system or by the comprehensiveness of our moral obligations or by any number of moral considerations.
To give an example of a morally complex situation, imagine that you and your father are both being held hostage in a bank, along with 12 other people, by a terrorist group. The leader of the terrorist group demands that you shoot your father or else he will immediately execute the other 12 hostages. He gives you a gun and waits for you to make a decision. It is clear at this point that ‘Thou shalt not murder’ and ‘Respect thy mother and father’ are not going to help you navigate this morally complex situation as they are absolute, unconditional commandments from God and either way there will be negative consequences for you. As a result, this is a serious blow to the moral worth and utility of Divine Command Theory, the Bible’s moral system.
With these considerations in mind, I turn my attention to the works of three distinct authors: In My Own Words: An Introduction to My Teachings and Philosophy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Before beginning, it must be noted that such an undertaking of their respective works requires recognition that (i.) two of these works (Sponville’s and Frankl’s) were originally written in another language and later translated into English, (ii.) none of the authors’ first language was English and are thus all non-native speakers, and (iii.) these works were not intended to be extensive moral treatises.
As a result, one cannot be overly critical of semantics as the connotations of a particular word or concept in one language may not necessarily be understood in another upon translation. Moreover, given that the authors did not intend for their works to be fully developed moral treatises, a seeming lack of an answer with regard to a particular moral detail or moral question cannot and should not be interpreted unfairly against them.
Yet, as a final qualification, one cannot deny that the portion which the Dalai Lama, Comte-Sponville, and Frankl do write about morality and moral systems is seemingly indispensable for many other sections and purposes of their respective works. Insofar as one divorces the Dalai Lama, Comte-Sponville, and Frankl’s individual views of morality from their individual worldviews, the key aspects of their respective works collapse.
In what follows, I will construct a basic outline of each of these figure’s moral systems based on direct excerpts of their respective works. Following the outline, I will point out some general objections to the respective moral system and analyze each based on how well it can handle moral complexity. Out of the Dalai Lama, Sponville, and Frankl, I shall argue, only Frankl presents a moral system that seems capable of handling moral complexity. For a variety of reasons to be explored, the Dalai Lama and Sponville’s respective moral systems fail to do the job.
“Animal Ethics: The Ethics of Speciesism.” BBC Ethics, BBC, 2014.
Comte-Sponville, Andre. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Penguin Books, 2008.
Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Gowans, Chris. “Moral Relativism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 19 Feb. 2004.
Lama, Dalai, and Rajiv Mehrotra. In My Own Words: An Introduction to My Teachings and Philosophy. Hay House Inc., 2011.