Saturday, October 8, 2016

Reclaiming Morality

- in my meditation garden -

The latest round of onerous rhetoric in this presidential election has provoked a “moral outrage” that has set the social media on fire. Over the past months citizens of this country have heard “non-stop” proposals about building walls to keep out foreigners and disenfranchise immigrants. There have been warnings against embracing religious differences,  and most recently attacks on the dignity of women have come to the surface of our national consciousness. Some of us have accepted these positions as “good for the country,” many others are appalled.

In light of all that has transpired recently, it seems to me that now more than ever we need to have a much more candid and intentional public dialogue about about what it means to be “moral” in a free society at this point in time in the early part of this 21st century.  As I see it, this is a time for us all to to reclaim a moral compass for our common life as citizens.

People often tend to avoid talking about morality because they associate moral conversation with religious belief. “Morals” are rules handed down by religious institutions who claim that these are the laws of God, and for the most part “morality” is associated with sexual behavior and often focuses on hot button topics like abortion or same-sex marriage. So of course, if you think no one should be telling you what to do in your bedroom, or if you are a social liberal, or if you aren’t religious, you probably want nothing to do with conversations about morality.

Even apart from all the religious baggage associated with “morality,” the idea of publicly applied universal moral standards is also somewhat anathema to the sensibilities of contemporary people in this “postmodern era.” Today, many people believe that we all have our own personal truth and we all set our own personal standards about what is right and what is wrong.

As I see it, in these days when so many “moral” issues seem to be surfacing in our national discourse, I think we need to re-engage one another in vigorous moral dialogue, expanding our definition of “morality” beyond religious teachings and sexual ethics,  and I also believe there are some universal standards of “right and wrong” that apply to all of us.  

I very much agree with what the Dalai Lama had to say a few years back in his very insightful book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.  He makes a compelling argument for removing moral conversations beyond “religious institutions” and suggests that there are some pretty clear standards of universal “human” morality - upholding these standards has more to do with our survival as a species than with following religious dictates:

Fortunately there is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence
in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and other fields suggesting that,
even from the most rigorous scientific perspective,
unselfishness and concern for others are innate to our biological nature.
Interdependence is a key feature of human reality.

As human beings we can survive and thrive only in an environment of
concern, affection and warm-heartedness – or in a single word, compassion.

As I see it, we need to find more and more ways to ask those bigger “meaning of life” questions, searching together for direction about what is right and what is wrong. We need to be raising issues about human dignity, gun control, immigration, interreligious dialogue or climate change, not only as a topics confined to a political campaign but as issues that are essentially “moral questions.”

A while back an op-ed piece in the New York Times made the point:

Because there is less moral conversation in the public square
we are less articulate about our inner life,
There are fewer and fewer places nowadays
where people are able to talk to one another about the things that matter most,
as a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed.
They feel a hunger to live meaningfully 
but they don’t know the right questions to ask,
the right places to look or even if there are any ultimate answers at all.

While I believe that you can certainly have these bigger “meaning of life” kinds of conversations in a church, a temple or a mosque, I also think we need to be having “moral conversations” on Facebook, or in coffee houses, or standing around the water cooler at work. We need to re-examine our common life by looking at it through the lens of concern, affection, and warm-heartedness - in a word compassion.

Without this kind of morality, we will be unable to survive as a nation or even as a species.

1 comment:

  1. I do not think anything can be considered moral unless it involves being a positive influence to those around you. In that case acting moral may run contrary to religious ideals if dogma is involved and some cultic law forbids a given action.

    Christian religions(at least the fundamentalist sector of the Church)have lost the ability to talk convincingly about morality because of the intolerance and discord and division created between people.

    The Dalai Lama and Jesus were kindred spirits. Each saw the suffering of those living on earth and being filled with compassion left as their legacy among us the information necessary to end our suffering.