The expression « global ethics » is today preferred to « secular ethics » which indicated the same thing.
The Dalai Lama speaks not only about universal responsibility but also about secular ethics. Of course, ethical teachings belonging to the various religious traditions are still very much in existence. Each one of them is extremely important. Whether we are able to abide by these ethical systems or practise them in our lives or not, each religion teaches a very high standard of morality and ethics. On the other hand, there are many people in this world who do not belong to any spiritual tradition, and do not have faith in or reverence for any religious teaching. They represent a huge proportion of the earth’s population. They too need some kind of morality, a code of conduct and an understanding of ethics. Many aspects of ethical behaviour are not necessarily confined to religious teachings or tradition ; they apply to non-believers and to the whole of society. It is often said these days that “man is a social animal”.
We have to live together in society, and whether you are a believer or a non-believer, you still have to be sociable. You need a certain code of behaviour so as not to forsake your responsibility towards the rest of the people in society, with whom you are constantly dealing. Of course the word ‘secular’ in secular ethics is a loaded term and the concept of secular, or secularism, has many different connotations. I believe you can find more than fifty different meanings in the dictionaries. Broadly speaking, however, secular can be interpreted in three ways : anti-religious, non-religious, and indifferent to religion or believing in the equality of all religion. Mahatma Gandhi’s interpretation of secularism is that of equal respect for all religious traditions. That is the easiest option. It means that you do not have to believe in a religion, and yet you have no right to disrespect religions : you treat them all with equal respect.
When we use the word secular here in relation to secular ethics, we are referring to all those who do not believe in a religion, but who are willing to lead the life of a civilized person. Civilized human beings must adhere to certain ethical principles. I believe that those of us who consider ourselves religious practitioners have a responsibility : to inspire an interest in secular ethics among those who don’t have faith in a religion, but who are educated and civilized and will respect these kinds of moral values. This vision of secular ethics can be implemented in many different dimensions—as ethics for business people, ethics for politicians, ethics for professionals and ethics for people from any walk of life. Without even touching on religious teachings or scriptures, we can talk about ethical values for everyone. So the concept of universal responsibility and the concept of secular ethics are equally of tremendous importance for us all.
Professor Samdhong Rinpoche
(a speech at Lerab Ling, 23 July 2006, France)