‘Morality’ is such a loaded word. Morality. Immorality. In the Judeo-Christian model, these words are inextricably connected to religious sin and sinfulness, and the immediate connotation is guilt, ungodliness, and inadequacy. In that model, morality is ascribed to a higher being, a godhead, and living up to that idea of perfection is very challenging.
Yet the term itself is highly subjective – the majority of people behave morally, but the results depend on your socio-cultural understanding of that word. Some cultures condone polygamy, for example, and a polygamist in their own country would not be judged as immoral. However, put into another context, that same person might be misunderstood or judged.
Is there another way to view morality? There is a Buddhist framework that I often reflect on known as the Six Perfections. The second of these is morality, and the way it is spoken about is, I think, beautifully considered.
A key concept is the definition: “the practice of attention to the needs and happiness of others” (Wright, 2011). It’s so far from the Western model, which is essentially the projection of one’s own morality onto others in order to judge them as inferior and make them feel bad. In the Six Perfections, selfishness and self-centredness are immature and unattractive states, while the ability to empathise with and assist others to be happy is considered the foundation of morality.
Interestingly, the word ‘morality’ comes to English from Latin via Middle French – its root means ‘manner, characteristic, and character’. So by developing our morals we are in fact developing our identity as individuals. It makes sense: in paying attention to the needs of others and helping them to be happy, we create the world we want to see – we are defined by the meaningful connections and relationships we make and have.
Our joys are social joys; our sorrows are social sorrows; our identity is a social identity; the bounds of our society are indefinite. We either suffer and rejoice together in the recognition of our bonds to one another, or we languish in self-imposed solitary confinement, afflicted both by the cell we construct, and by the ignorance that motivates its construction (Garfield, 2015, p.269).
Morality is driven by the individual’s quest to be a better person and the interdependent nature of all things. As such, it is not a tool for division or judgement, but acts as an internal compass to help us navigate our journey as we develop our character in the pursuit of ethical self-cultivation. It’s a very different model from the one we’re familiar with as Westerners, but it’s helped me to be more aware of my judge-y moral moments – hard-wired into us from a very young age – to try to be more compassionate to the suffering of people. That in turn helps me to be more gentle to myself, think more of others, and try my best to help them be what I want to be – happy and fulfilled.
Please get in touch if the above article resonates for you in light of your own situation.
Garfield, J. L. (2015). Engaging Buddhism : Why It Matters to Philosophy.New York: Oxford University Press.
Wright, D. S. (2011). The Six Perfections – Buddhism & The Cultivation of Character. New York: Oxford University Press.