In advance of his October online seminar series on ethics, How to live, what to do? Buddhism and Five Ethical Dilemmas, John Peacock reflects on some of the key questions of the course:

Is there a big current ethical issue that particularly occupies your attention?

I think there is one overwhelming ethical issue that not only concerns myself but everyone on this planet. That is, to find a way to live that doesn’t readily subscribe to the factors that are destroying the precious Earth upon which we live. This wonderful planet sustains not only us but myriad other life forms. Corporate and individual greed is putting the continuance of life on this planet in severe jeopardy. This greed collectively and individually, I would contend, stems from a fundamental existential insecurity that paradoxically leads us to destroy that which sustains all life.

We have gotten so used to comfortable ways of living, particularly in the developed countries, that we live in a deliberate forgetfulness of the costs of that lifestyle. To really tackle the climate problem, and protect not only us, but all the creatures without a voice, will involve an immense amount of renunciation – to give up a reliance upon that which is literally ‘costing the earth’ – this is a truly monumental ethical issue and concerns all of us, because we are all implicated in the preservation or destruction of this planet.

On a personal level this leads me into an intense questioning of the kinds of things I do on a day-to-day basis – what kind of things do I purchase, eat, support, and engage in. Not only that, but how do I actively interact with organizations that are questioning the norms of our societies and looking towards some form of radical change in our systems. These are some of the questions that I have, and I certainly make no pretense of having the answers. But I think awakening the questions and keeping them alive is essential to ethical ways of living.

Do you think that we are faced with more ethical decisions to make nowadays, than ever before, or has this always been the case?

In many ways we are faced with many more ethical questions than ever before because we live in an age in which we have access to greater amounts of information than hitherto. Not only that, but some of the ethical issues, such as the environmental crisis, are unique to our era. When you examine early Buddhist texts, for example, you see that the environment was not a major issue for those living at that period – if anything, the environment was a rather frightening phenomenon as it posed so many existential dangers. With increased access to information there is a greater awareness of the interdependence of all aspects of life – this makes life considerably more complicated and difficult.

Awareness of interdependence, if we take heed, is truly a ‘wake-up’ call. Because, if we continue to live our lives solely from the individual perspective, rather than from a sense of interdependence and collectivity, then we will continue engage in practices and forms of life that are actively contributing to the destruction of this interdependent world. Individualism and its consequences are an ethical issue and we cannot simply ignore this.

The statement that I just made brings me to something which is a perennial ethical question – how egoistic and individualistic thinking contributes, not only to the kinds of issues I have already alluded to, but to how we interrelate. If we relate to ourselves as solitary individuals, isolated from others and the world – an isolated consciousness – then we tend to view the world and others as for us, as objects to be manipulated in whatever way for our benefit and security. This, of course, inevitably skews all our relationships. How we conceive of and view ourselves becomes an ethical issue because it has ethical consequences in the world both for ourselves and others. The Buddhist tradition recognized at its inception that how we saw ourselves in the world was a pressing ethical question as the consequences of who we thought we were played out in our daily lives.

How do you think this course will help people in navigating daily life?

The aim of this course is to introduce participants to the complexity of the ethical questions that call for our attention on a daily basis. There are no easy answers to these questions but raising them as questions will help us to examine some of the consequences of our actions and hopefully to see the world with an ethical attention, not solely derived from meditational practices. When we couple what is derived from meditational practice with an ethical awareness then we have an extremely powerful way of engaging with the world in a more meaningful and skillful way.