The principle of non-harming and ethical dilemmas

While reading “Ethics for the New Millennium”, written by The Dalai Lama, I got to a section in chapter ten, speaking about how we apply the principle of non-harming when we are confronted with an ethical dilemma.

As it’s not always black or white, isn’t it?

One of the things that differentiate humans from animals is the capacity to analyze and discern on the implications of our actions and also to understand the short or long term consequences.
As humans we are gifted with the power of reflecting over the course of actions we take and the possible outcomes.
Based on this we decide to do something that is considered “more” ethical than some other “less” ethical.

So this is why, when we have an ethical dilemma we have to judge depending of the circumstances and the factors involved, to the extend where “we adjust the ideal of non-harming to the context of the situation”.

There are situations where the decision is not straight forward and none of the options sounds like the right thing to do and in alignment with the “moral legislation”. The Dalai Lama encourages in this case, to “keep others’ interests at heart and in the forefront of out mind”.
To better explain this he shares an easy example:

“We witness someone running away from a group of people armed with knives and clearly intent on doing him harm. We see the fugitive disappear into a doorway. Moments later, one of the pursuers comes up to us and asks which way he went”

In this scenario, we of course have two options:
– tell the truth (which usually is the right thing to do so not to harm someone’s trust)
– lie, to protect another human being (which is obviously against the moral principle of being honest)

I tend to believe the majority of us would choose to protect that person by lying and redirecting the group to another place or just pretending that we don’t know.

There are many situations when we are not given the time to reflect a lot when confronted with an ethical dilemma, and we need to take a decision fast and mostly based on instinct.
This is why we always need to “train” our “ethical muscle” so whenever we have to decide something we are in alignment with a set of principles.

The closing remark of this chapter The Dalai Lama states:

“It is essential that we do not allow ourselves to be carried away by our sense of injustice so that we ignore others’ rights. We need to ensure that we are wisely discerning in pursuit of our ideals”

For the past years my ongoing ethical dilemma is, if using animals for the human benefit is good or bad in the sense described above, where there is no clear framing of good or bad.
As a person, I tend to idealize a lot of my reality so I’m easily disappointed when I discover the contrary. So, the same way for some time, I idealized the concept of a “vegan world”, but not in the naive way, really believing that this is going to happen (at least not in my lifetime…).
But I did think for some time that people will become vegan if you show them what is right.

When thinking about the vegan lifestyle, the principle of non-harming looks pretty straight forward to me, as using animals in our interest (food or clothing by killing or exploiting them) it sounds like the opposite, since the practices around animal exploitation involves different levels of harming.

During my vegan becoming I felt like a child that is fist educated by his parents about life principles and how life should be and taking things as they were given to me (what I mean here, is that I initially adhered to the common concepts defined by the vegan community).
It feels now that I’m heading to my vegan adulthood and I don’t think anymore that the world should go vegan.
I came to a point where I sometimes see different shades of gray depending of the circumstances.

Let me give you an example from a recent personal experience, when I went on a day trip to the Danube Delta. During the day, as part of the experience, we had included a meal in a fisherman’s village. (Don’t you worry! They prepared a vegan meal for me as I asked for it in advance 🙂 ). Both dishes were based on fish and it was one of the “benefits” of the trip – to experience a “traditional meal”.

During the trip I was thinking how I feel about the overall fish culture as many discussions and jokes were made about fish and the wild ducks and how good they would taste in different dishes. And this is when I realized that I don’t mind people eating fish… but I mind the attitude!
And when I say I don’t mind people eating fish, I’m referring to the fisherman and their family if this is their means of living.
I do mind tourists and restaurants exploiting something that has become a brand and a source of income, not a means of living. I was also a bit disturbed by the dissonance of my fellow travelers who were partly in awe about what they were seeing and strongly amused about any joke related on the taste of the duck they just saw.

Not everyone has the means to be vegan. But the majority of us have the luck and the circumstances to do the right thing and to choose the non-harming path as much as possible.
Every time when I think that people should go vegan or I share my experience with the intent to influence people, I’m trying to be mindful and understand the circumstances of that specific case.

So, the isolated lifestyle of the communities in the Danube Delta, or in the parts of the world where plant based food is not easy to obtain, are cases where I tend to see things in a gray perspective and I feel like those people do take the best choice in their ethical dilemma when eating fish.

But in the world I’m living in, it’s discouraging and it saddens me that we are not choosing to exert the principle of non-harming when it’s so easy.

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