Last year I saw a film that got me thinking about the role of universal principles in ethics and how they fit (or not) with the need to respond to concrete communicative situations. The same kind of contrast or conundrum that I developed in my earlier post on integrity came up here as well. Here's what I wrote...
After a few days of brain-storming and bickering, they met with the Dalai Lama and proposed one of their ideas, to seek an economic boycott of China in order to pressure the Chinese government to withdraw from Tibet and return it to the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama responded by saying that this was a very complicated question, but that it was necessary to consider that such sanctions would hurt ordinary Chinese, many of whom are already living in dire poverty, so ethically, it would be wrong to pursue this idea. He then softened this judgment a little by saying that he believed the intention behind the idea was good, but as a monk he couldn't endorse the idea itself.
One of the organisers then asked if they could take that response as a "tentative yes." The Dalai Lama hesitated, and asked an interpreter something in Tibetan - perhaps checking on the meaning of "tentative," or just verifying that he had heard correctly, and this man was really interpreting him as saying, well, you know as a monk I'm obliged to say this isn't a good idea, but nudge, nudge, wink, wink, that doesn't mean that I wouldn't mind if you lay people took a different view...
Having taken this in, he ran with it, chuckled and said, "Well, you know, as a monk I can't say yes to this, but let's put it to the vote. Who thinks it's a good idea?" At this, most of the people in the group raised their hands. The Dalai Lama was enjoying himself, laughing and gesturing with his hands as if to say, yes, why not, vote for it! He seemed to be playing with these Americans and at the same time possibly poking fun at the Western practice of deciding ethical questions by resorting to opinion polls. No one present showed any sign of seeing the joke, though.
It was interesting to see how the Dalai Lama handled the situation, so playfully, taking it all very lightly, improvising in response to his audience, and doing it with such good humour that they felt he was right there with them, appreciating their energy and enthusiasm. And he was - he wasn't laughing at them, so much as just taking delight in the little culture clash that seemed to have just taken place, having fun taking it a bit further. (Later on he did make it clear to them, however, that he didn’t want them to pursue economic sanctions against the Chinese.)
While I was impressed and intrigued by the Dalai Lama’s way of handling the situation, I was left feeling perturbed that this group of seemingly well-educated, supposedly intelligent adults did not respond to his first, almost sharp judgment that the plan they had proposed was unethical, or his reasoned explanation of why he made that judgment. To most of them, unethical seemed to mean no more than "bad for my image" - or perhaps, to be a bit less cynical about their views, "what the kind of person I am is expected to do." As a monk, the Dalai Lama couldn't endorse pushing Chinese people further into poverty to further the cause of Tibet, but that didn't mean that someone who wasn't a monk couldn't do so without any problems. They seemed to have no sense that ethical judgment connotes a universal standard. God really is dead for these people. And rational argument about ethics seems to have gone to the grave with him.
Here's Nietzsche on the death of God:
In the main, however, one may say that the event itself is far too great, too remote, too much beyond most people’s power of apprehension, for one to suppose that so much as the report of it could have reached them; not to speak of many who already knew what had taken place, and what must all collapse now that this belief had been undermined, because so much was built upon it, so much rested on it, and had become one with it: for example, our entire European morality. (Gay Science 343)It did appear that for this group of Americans, the old European morality based in Christian values has collapsed and with it any sense of a binding ethics that can't be decided by popular vote. It's easy to feel superior to such a group, and laugh at (or feel horrified by) their unshakeable attachment to their well-intentioned plan, but perhaps they are more representative of our own culture than we would like to think. Do we know any more where ethical values come from, or in what they are based, if it isn't just in expectations attached to roles, and the instrumental benefits of meeting such expectations, on the whole, at least when you're being watched (which is most of the time in the surveillance culture of modern life)?
At the same time, perhaps there is more in the Dalai Lama's response than just a display of good humour. He didn't insist on the ethical reasons he'd just given for rejecting the plan - didn't thump his fist on any equivalent of a pulpit and demand respect for the universal ethical truth. He seemed willing to acknowledge that yes, as a monk (and a teacher), he is playing a role, you can usefully look at it that way. He also seemed spontaneously to realise that in giving an argument based on Buddhist values of equanimity and compassion for all humans (not to mention other sentient beings) as fundamentally interconnected, he was - as the response showed - relying on cultural assumptions that simply didn't have any valency for his audience.
They didn't get it - and reiterating reasoning that was already perfectly clear probably wouldn't have helped them to get it. It would have been more likely to set off an argument, destroying the friendly atmosphere that was allowing a good connection to be established. Instead he switched immediately to a process that was culturally familiar to his audience, and gave him a quick insight into where they were at in terms of their ability to understand what he’d just said to them. This was the knowledge that counted in this concrete ethical situation, and it wasn't universal or based on abstract reasoning. Instead, it was based on a remarkable ability to hold the truth lightly, and let go of any fixed assumptions about how to approach the challenge of communicating it.