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From Self-Interest to Collective Enlightenment: Alternative Ethics for Unprecedented Times

Law is often an attempt to respond to the questions posed by philosophy, such as, what should justice look like? How far should public and private life be allowed to diverge? How should we respond to collective challenges? Behind each of these questions is a set of normative underpinnings. For example, the belief that justice in itself is desirable, that people are entitled to privacy, and that community living entails responsibility. In short, behind each legal system is a set of ethics.

The law practiced in the United States is based on a philosophy of liberal individualism, of ideals borrowed from Enlightenment-era Europe. Ask any American high school student the classic question, “Where do my rights end?” and they will respond with, “Where they start to infringe on mine”. In this model, everyone goes through life with a bubble of rights surrounding them, impeded only when the bubbles bump into one another; when they pop, the law is broken. The sovereignty of an individual is so fundamental to US structures that it can be easy to forget that 18th-century views on liberty are not the inevitable foundation for all laws. How might the American national experience differ if the US’ legal systems were based on a non-European set of ethics?

It is no secret that people in the Western world are becoming increasingly interested in Buddhism. Celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Benedict Cumberbatch have expressed their belief in the benefits of meditation practice, and apps like Calm, Insight Timer, and Headspace have helped to make mindfulness mainstream. But what can we learn from the ethics of Buddhism that has brought us meditation and mindfulness? Does Buddhist philosophy present an alternate way of approaching legal issues?

Buddhist philosophy effectively dismisses individual sovereignty as an impossibility. Buddhists believe that the way a person lives affects everyone around them, whether or not they are aware of it. By taking care of themselves, a person takes care of their fellow beings. Buddhist philosophy is not simply religious; teachings are less about the divine and more about how people live their everyday lives. Fundamentally, Buddhism is concerned with many of the same questions that European philosophy addresses — it simply draws different conclusions.

Consider the notion of the “American Dream” and the ethical-legal system that protects it. America’s vast socioeconomic inequality demonstrates that the country’s laws encourage capital accumulation. In 2018, for example, Congress voted to roll back financial regulation which had been enacted in the wake of the 2008 crisis. This state of affairs is tolerated because of the national myth that if a person is wealthy, they have necessarily worked hard, and therefore deserve their material success. This image of the individual as a lone genius is deeply problematic: it erases everyone else involved in the success story along with the privilege which allowed the person to achieve success, often to the detriment of their less-privileged peers. How might this myth of individual success be transformed into something more equitable — and more realistic?

Buddhist ethics recognize that no one is an island. In a historical moment when systemic inequities and injustices are increasingly scrutinised, an ethic of individual power can offer us only limited insight. By contrast, an ethic of interconnectivity might bring fresh understanding to the ways in which we influence others and vice versa. Laws built on that ethic — laws which address the power of systems — might better enable us to mindfully build structures which acknowledge injustices and support security for all.

The current global pandemic provides us with perfect timing to contemplate our interconnectedness. Never has our need to protect one another been so great. This pivotal time forces the question: if this kind of ethic is necessary to protect ourselves from a virus, what else might it be able to save us from? Climate change is accelerating faster than we anticipated, with record high temperatures in the north and more destructive storms in the south. Global inequality is on the rise, proving that the world is feeling the effects of unregulated capitalism like never before. Throughout these crises and tragedies, we are connected through our technology, our resources, and our politics. The Enlightenment-inspired every-man-for-himself ethic is simply no longer fit for purpose; it is clear that we need a more equitable legal system which holds the powerful accountable while addressing systemic injustice. Could Buddhist ethics, based on a philosophy of connectivity and long-term solutions, be the answer? At the very least, this shift in focus might yield better questions, more sustainable responses, and greater insight into our collective responsibilities toward one another.


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