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The Ethics of Interdependence

An interview with H.H. the Dalai Lama

H.H. Dalai Lama

WIE: Because many of us in the West have left the religious traditions behind, we've also lost the moral and ethical foundation they provided for us. Where can we turn today for a new morality that will be relevant to our contemporary scientific age?

H.H. THE DALAI LAMA: Once I had a conversation with a German politician whose opinion was that morality and ethics have to be grounded in a religious faith tradition. Without that grounding, he felt, it is impossible to have an ethical system. But I disagree. My own understanding of an ethical system is that it provides us with a way of conduct, or a way of thinking, that takes long-term welfare and happiness into account. And I believe we must find a secular, or nonreligious, ethics.

I often say to people that right from birth, we learn to appreciate the affection of our mother. And our mother freely and naturally gives her affection to us. There is a reason for this: that affection is crucial for the survival of the child. And many other animals have a similar sort of experience—the children are also entirely dependent on the mother fotr survival. But in some species, such as turtles, the children are not dependent on the mother, once the eggs are laid. So if someone tried to bring a mother turtle and her offspring together, would they feel affection? Would there be a bond? Probably not. Her children are independent from birth, so they would never develop that kind of feeling of closeness.

Now, if we extend this logic of dependence further—from the family out to the community and society, to the national and international levels, and even to the economy and environment—then we can see how interconnected we are, how interdependent the world is. Given this reality, we cannot escape the necessity for care toward each other. This has nothing to do with religion. I'm not talking about God or Buddha. I'm talking about understanding and appreciating this highly complex and interdependent world. Then, even from the point of view of one's own personal survival and well-being, one can argue for an ethical system based on affection.

A young child's affection does not come through faith; it is naturally very strong. I think the mistake we make is that when we're grown up, we start to think we're independent. We think that in order to be successful we don't need others—except maybe to exploit them! This is the source of all sorts of problems, scandals, and corruption. But if we had more respect for other people's lives—a greater sense of concern and awareness—it would be a very different world. We have to introduce the reality of interdependence. Then people would discover that, according to that reality, affection and compassion are essential if anything is ever going to change.


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This article is from
Our Morality Issue


February–April 2004