Moral Complexity and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Buddhism – Part 2 of 5

This is the second 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.

The Dalai Lama’s Moral System (based on Tibetan Buddhism)

We can categorize the Dalai Lama’s moral system as one that is deontological in nature. Deontological ethics, recall, has two key interpretations. One interpretation defines deontological ethics as a method that helps us to understand what is morally required, forbidden, and permissible in a particular situation or event. Morally required actions, insofar as they are completed, are morally good; these are often referred to as obligations or duties. Morally forbidden actions, however, ought to be avoided and are morally bad. Morally permissible actions, then, are neither morally good nor morally bad; they are either morally void or morally neutral actions.

A second interpretation defines deontological ethics as a method that focuses on whether or not specific and explicit moral rules or principles were followed in completing a particular action or set of actions. Deontological ethics then uses these specific and explicit moral rules and principles to determine the moral worth of an action or set of actions (henceforth referred to as ‘set’). If the specific moral rule or principle is observed during the action or ‘set,’ then the action or ‘set’ can be said to be morally good. If the specific moral rule or principle is not observed during the action or ‘set,’ however, then the action or ‘set’ is morally bad.

The Dalai Lama’s moral system incorporates both types of deontological understanding. With regard to the first, the Dalai Lama lists out 10 Nonvirtues that ought to be avoided. These include: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisiveness, harshness, senselessness, covetousness, harmful intent, and wrong view. Each of these Nonvirtues falls under the category of morally forbidden actions and their inverse constitutes morally required actions.

Further evidence of the Dalai Lama’s deontology, especially with regard to the second interpretation, comes from his discussion of karma: “Positive and negative actions are determined by one’s own motivation. If the motivation is good, all actions become positive; if the motivation is wrong, all actions become negative” (60). Based on what the Dalai Lama says elsewhere in his book, proper motivation is defined by the presence of a “universal altruism,” in which an action or ‘set’ is ultimately concerned with the well-being of all other sentient beings (11). So for the Dalai Lama’s moral system, then, the moral principle/rule to be followed when making ethical decisions is to consider the well-being (avoidance of pain/suffering and generation of pleasure/happiness) of other sentient beings.

Exploring an example will be illustrative. Let’s say, for instance, that you help a neighbor to repave his driveway. If you helped your neighbor because you knew he needed assistance (perhaps because he is elderly or perhaps because he is recovering from a recent injury or perhaps you just felt like being a genuinely upright citizen and neighbor), then it would be a morally good action. But if you helped him just to get access to his garage so you could steal some of his high quality power tools or to try to entice his wife into having an affair with you, then it would be a morally bad action – even if you didn’t end up stealing the power tools or enticing his wife into having that affair with you. You would be committing at least two Nonvirtues: covetousness and wrong intent.

Thus we come to a final observation of deontological ethics, as it pertains to the Dalai Lama’s espoused moral system: the consequences of a moral action receive limited consideration. This is not to say that consequences do not matter at all, just that they are not the utmost priority for his particular moral system. Rule-following during the course of action or the intention/motivation that caused the action are most often given ultimate emphasis for the Dalai Lama.

This emphasis on motivation/intention is due to the conceptual structures and underlying philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism which states that the ultimate goal of an individual’s life is to achieve nirvana (liberation) from samsara (a continuous cycle of rebirth) that depends on karma (the positive or negative value that a person’s actions, thoughts, desires, and feelings have). Nirvana cannot occur while a person is hampered by delusions and enemies, especially those of anger and hatred, which are powerfully negative emotions that can cause one to misunderstand and misperceive any situation or event in our lives. As a result, epistemically speaking, the Dalai Lama’s moral system is enshrouded in a kind of dark metaphysical mist that forces one to be skeptical about the consequences of one’s actions and their moral value. This skepticism, then, is the cause for devaluing moral consequences.

In addition to being a deontological ethical system, we can further categorize the Dalai Lama’s moral system as one that has a very narrow take on (in the sense that it does not pay much attention to) the moral value of non-human beings. As he explains, “[t]he result of negative karmic actions is rebirth in the lower realms” meaning that samsara includes a hierarchical grouping of  all living beings, organized according to their desirable proximity to nirvana or liberation from samsara (57). The Dalai Lama goes on to say that “Neglecting the welfare of sentient beings” can result in the “miseries of eating and being eaten by others, hunger and thirst, and overwhelming and unrelenting pain” (120). He thus recommends that “[i]n order to discourage ourselves from negative actions, we should try to imagine whether we would be able to bear the suffering of the lower realms” (57). From these descriptions, despite the fact that one of the Nonvirtues is killing a living being of any kind, it seems as though the Dalai Lama’s moral system views the existence of non-conscious beings as a troubled one.

Some Objections to the Dalai Lama’s Moral System

The first objection that can be raised against the Dalai Lama’s moral system is that it does not resonate with our common sense experience of morality. This is because it does not properly or appropriately weigh the consequences of moral actions when determining whether they are good or bad, right or wrong. Though consequences are not and should not be the only consideration when judging the moral worth of an action or ‘set,’ the Dalai Lama’s moral system does not include a sufficient assessment of them. There are plenty of situations or events in which, despite the individual having an altruistic or morally required motivation, the consequences are negative enough that they can override the moral value of the motivation.

We can think of an example to help illustrate. Imagine a child who is eager to help his/her parents prepare the family dinner. The child’s parents appreciate the attempts to help but warn the child to be careful because they are using utensils that can be dangerous when improperly handled. The parents mention this more than once to reiterate the message’s importance. Yet the warnings go unheeded and the child accidentally spills a pot of boiling water on his/her sibling’s foot, causing severe third degree burns and immense pain.

Though the child may have genuinely only wanted to help his/her parents, thus having an altruistic motivation, the child ended up harming his/her sibling with an injury serious enough that it required professional medical care. Thus, this scenario demonstrates to us that there are situations/events and types of situations/events in which proper motivation/intention is not sufficient in determining the moral worth of a particular action or ‘set’ and that extremely bad consequences can undermine even the most morally praiseworthy motivations and intentions.

The next objection to be raised is that we can utilize the 10 Nonvirtues and their inverse to determine how well the Dalai Lama’s moral system will handle moral complexity: not well. We can describe any number of morally complex situations (based on real, daily life) in which committing one or more of the Nonvirtues can actually be a morally permissible or morally required action; that is to say, the action or ‘set’ would be morally good (or at least morally permissible), not morally bad as the Dalai Lama would likely claim.

Given the limited space I have here, I will resort to taking one Nonvirtue and showing how a morally complex situation paralyzes it to the point of ineffectuality. But I believe it is entirely possible to come up with similar hypothetical examples for each of the remaining 9 Nonvirtues. This criticism applies to each Nonvirtue individually as well as the collective set.

For a physical Nonvirtue, let us take ‘stealing.’ Let’s imagine that an employee where you work, Stephen, was recently put on suspension pending a formal investigation because he supposedly stole some industrial machinery from your company’s warehouse. You confess to your best friend, coworker, and soon-to-be roommate, Frank, that Stephen wasn’t the responsible party. Rather, you tell Frank how you carefully crafted a plan to steal the machinery and frame Stephen. What should you do?

To make matters more complex, remember that Frank is your soon-to-be roommate. The two of you are going to rent a small house together. More than that, though, your collective finances are already balanced on a razor’s edge. You’ll both be able to pay exactly your half of the rent, utilities, and various other shared bills…assuming that you keep making the salary that you both do now. The worst part, though, is that everything is in his name. The credit check, the leasing agreement, and the contact information. So if you can’t pay your half of the bills, the negative consequences would affect his personal finances more than it would you, though you could still face homelessness if he backs out of the leasing agreement.

Furthermore, Stephen is, quite literally, your worst enemy. Ever since middle school, he has bullied you, insulted you, and, on several occasions, threatened you with violence. Seeing him fired would rid you of an antagonist in your own life. Plus, there have recently been upper management talks about letting some of the employees go since the economy is going through a downturn. Through the grapevine, you’ve heard that Stephen’s work performance has been downright terrible lately (supplying him with a possible motive for stealing the industrial machinery). If he gets fired, according to the rumors, it could very well save some of the other employees’ jobs (since Stephen’s salary is larger than most of the newer employees). What should you do?

If you are honest, then you will be fired. And if you are fired, then Frank will have to either pay the bills on his own until you land another job at an indeterminate time in the future or he will have to back out of the leasing agreement on the house. This would leave him with bad credit and you without a place to live.

If you are dishonest, then Stephen will be fired. It may be likely that he is well on his way to being fired on account of his poor work performance, but that is yet to be seen. If you allow him to be framed and then fired, you will be harming an innocent person. Yet it could very well be that him being fired could be a cumulative consequence for all of his mistreatment towards you over the years and you are to be the agent responsible for bringing it about.

From his condemnation of stealing in its various forms and consequences, the Dalai Lama’s own moral system would not help us to navigate this morally complex situation. His own moral system, of which the 10 Nonvirtues is a key component, absolutizes moral rules and principles. As a result, the moral rule or principle in question is meant to be followed unconditionally – all potentially relevant moral details of any given situation or event are rendered trivial. For this reason, among the other objections listed above, the Dalai Lama’s moral system is not adequate or capable of handling moral complexity. And it is for all of those reasons that his moral system should not be universalized.

Works Cited

“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.

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