What is Secular Ethics?


His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has said that “in today’s secular world, religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics… any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.”i


If we broaden our consideration of “secular ethics” beyond its characterization by the Dalai Lama, we can consider it a part of moral philosophy. A secular ethicist views ethical systems as distinct from and at times opposed to ethics that are shaped by religious guidance or supernatural revelation. Despite the wide variety of philosophical views adopted by secular ethicists, most will generally share one or more of the following principles: that human beings, through the innate human capacities for empathy and compassion, are capable of determining ethical conduct in life; that through the use of logic and reason, humans are capable of deriving normative principles of behavior; that humans have a moral responsibility to ensure that societies and individuals act in accordance with these ethical principles; and that societies should “advance” from less ethical and just to more ethical and just forms.ii


Of course, many sorts of moral philosophers would immediately object by saying that all ethics are secular ethics, in the sense that moral reasoning is understood to be based solely on the human capacities for logic, reason, and moral intuition, and that ethical behavior can be cultivated and promoted in ways where religion has no bearing. In other words, we habitually make moral judgments about the soundness and validity of religiously-based ethical prescriptions. For most academic moral philosophers, the distinction between ethics and secular ethics is redundant.


But these kinds of objections, perfectly valid as they are, distract from the essence of what the Dalai Lama is pointing towards, nor does his quote necessarily imply that an approach to the development of “inner values” is only adequate insofar as it can be universalized. His claim is much humbler, simpler, and has to do with the innate human capacity for receiving, experiencing, and imparting compassion. Because of this innate capacity, there is at least one sense in which we may draw certain conclusions about the relationship between compassion and a universal (or at the very least, broad) understanding of ethical behavior.


The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader actually advances a fairly Aristotelian view of morality when he says that “ethics consists less of rules to be obeyed than of principles for inner self-regulation to promote those aspects of our nature which we recognize as conducive to our own well-being and that of others.”iii This is an example of old (but still good) wine in new bottles. More than 2,000 years ago, recorded in the work on moral philosophy for which he is most well known – the Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle expands upon the theme of moral goodness, and especially on the idea of moral virtues which, “like crafts, are acquired by practice and habituation.”iv


Aristotle claims that moral virtues are acquired only by exercising them, and so infuses the image of morality as being irreducibly active, contextualized within the carefully calibrated practice of human relations within a specific social and political community, as opposed solely to the product of independent moral reasoning or critical analysis. We become, in his words, “just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones.”v


Certainly there is deep disagreement about how to proceed with the task of singling out “those aspects of our nature which we recognize as conducive to our own well-being and that of others.” Aristotle would have a different name for these aspects: virtues. In his mind, the good citizen proceeds through life in a state of continual performance of virtue. Which ones? He seems to focus especially, among a few others, on generosity, justice, temperance, patience, and friendliness. His Holiness, on the other hand, has settled comfortably on compassion as the basis for a secular ethics.


The Dalai Lama also happens to distinguish between two levels of compassion.vi The first is the “biological level”, by which he refers to the sorts of instinctual nurturing behaviors that mammals tend to demonstrate towards their offspring, close kin, and social groups. The second is “an extended level, which has to be deliberately cultivated.” This second level of compassion is acquired like a craft, through practice and habituation.


In last week’s blog post, Mind and Life’s Senior Scientific Officer, Wendy Hasenkamp, discussed some empirical evidence indicating that certain kinds of contemplative practices may increase compassionate behavior. Yes, there is still fundamental philosophical disagreement about what exactly constitutes “compassion” and “behavior”. But these studies are nonetheless promising: they show us how engaging in relatively simple practices leads to concrete, measurable changes in kindness and warm-heartedness – something that Aristotle, and even most moral philosophers, could probably get behind.


-Tom Rocha
Program and Research Associate



i His Holiness the Dalai Lama. (2011). Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. xiii
ii Kidder, R.M. (2009). How Good People Make Tough Choices. New York City, NY: HarperCollins
iii Beyond Religion, p. 18
iv Aristotle. (1955). The Nicomachean Ethics. London: Penguin Books (original work translated by J.A.K. Thomson, 1953), p. 91
v Ibid
vi Beyond Religion, p. 50