Ethics 3: Deep Background


Excerpted from a 2010 talk by Stephen Batchelor in Australia

“But I think also that when the dharma comes through our age, when we conceive of ourselves in this age, we also have to bring into play ideas about evolution. How we understand this universe to have come about from the big bang up until now and particularly how life evolved on the planet and how ever more complex organisms have emerged in the course of time. This will then throw into question certain assumptions that may have been central to Buddhism since its inception, assumptions about where do greed, hate and delusion come from. I think a more compelling explanation for that lies in seeing them as forces, as impulses, as drives, as instincts, that have served in the interests of our survival. They’ve been valuable, they’ve been useful. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here. We, in a sense, are the inheritors of the past that created us. Unfortunately some of these impulses, for example the ones the Buddha singles out: greed, hatred, delusion about self and so on, have outlived their usefulness. They’ve past their sell-by date. But since biological time moves so slowly, since biological adaptation is something that occurs over eons, or not eons but let’s say millennia, then we are in a sense ahead of biology in our culture.

Cultural forces have come to play, religious forces have come to play, where people have become self conscious, in fact the very emergence of consciousness itself I think is what has enabled us to become aware as individuals, self aware as communities, to have then reflected on our positions and said, “Look. If we continue to be self-centered, greedy, hateful, fearful, this is not going to advance us either personally or collectively. We need to put into place certain constraints. We might call this morality or ethics. Thou shalt not kill. We find this in Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism — these moral precepts that in many ways are there because we still harbor within ourselves the instinct to kill. The instinct to steal. The instinct to lie. The instinct to rape. These things are within us. So much of culture, of morality as a system of rules and precepts, have come about as a result of humans trying to come to terms with their biological past, the vestiges that are still active within us, that we seek to curb and control. All religions and all cultures put in place these constraints.”