Is Western Civilization Based on Pious Hope?

“Irrespective of whether we are believers or agnostics, whether we believe in God or karma, moral ethics is a code which everyone is able to pursue.” – Dalai Lama

This quotation from 1400 Lessons of the 14th Dalai Lama is the great hope on which modern civilization is based. But I wonder whether it is true. What precisely is meant by “able?”

The classic philosophical argument for the view expressed by the Dalai Lama is that adult human beings are autonomous, rational agents capable of independently assessing circumstances in which moral judgment is required and then acting in accordance with their best judgment. We have the freedom to resist acting on instinct and reflect on and reason about how to act from a moral point of view. This requires that concepts such as “obligation, “harm,” “rights,” and “justice” can be readily understood and the impetus to act on them part of the motivational structure of any competent human being.

The claim is not that people always satisfy these conditions. That is obviously not true. The claim is that, as autonomous, rational agents, human beings have the capacity to do so.

But this appeal to basic human capacities is a very abstract formulation of “able.” Are the concepts of “obligation,” “harm,” “rights,” and “justice” so well understood that they are accessible to someone poorly educated and raised in an environment where racism is encouraged? The fact that someone is rational enough to understand their interests and act to advance them by deliberating and responding to incentives tells us little about their moral capacities, which go well beyond the capacity for autonomy or the ability to draw inferences. Moral sensibility requires a deep and persistent understanding of the vulnerability of others, a felt desire to alleviate it, and an intellectual grasp of how the vulnerability of others influences our own vulnerability. I doubt these capacities are well distributed throughout humanity.

There are too many people walking around who understand harm as “harm to me,” rights as “my rights,” and justice as “justice for me.”

As the foundations of Western Civilization crumble, the words of the Dalai Lama increasingly look like a pious hope rather than a statement of fact.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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