But the existence of this negative potential does not give us grounds to suppose that human nature is inherently violent, or even necessarily disposed toward violence. Perhaps one of the reasons for the popularity of the belief that human nature is aggressive lies in our continual exposure to bad news through the media. Yet the very cause of this is surely that good news is not news.
To say that basic human nature is not only non-violent but actually disposed toward love and compassion, kindness, gentleness, affection, creation, and so on does, of course, imply a general principle which must, by definition, be applicable to each individual human being. What, then, are we to say about those individuals whose lives seem to be given over wholly to violence and aggression? During the past century alone there are several obvious examples to consider. What of Hitler and his plan to exterminate the entire Jewish race? What of Stalin and his pogroms? What of Chairman Mao, the man I once knew and admired, and the barbarous insanity of the Cultural Revolution? What of Pol Pot, architect of the Killing Fields? And what about those who torture and kill for pleasure?
Here I must admit that I can think of no single explanation to account for the monstrous acts of these people. However, we must recognize two things. Firstly, such people do not come from nowhere but from within a particular society at a particular time and in a particular place. Their actions need to be considered in relation to these circumstances. Secondly, we need to recognize the role of the imaginative faculty in their actions. Their schemes were and are carried out in accordance with a vision, albeit a perverted one. Notwithstanding the fact that nothing could justify the suffering they instigated, whatever their explanation might be and whatever positive intentions they could point to, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot each had goals toward which they were working. If we examine those actions which are uniquely human, which animals cannot perform, we find that this imaginative faculty plays a vital role. The faculty itself is a unique asset. But the use to which it is put determines whether the actions it conceives are positive or negative, ethical or unethical. The individual's motivation (kun long) is thus the governing factor. And whereas a vision properly motivated-which recognizes others' desire for and equal right to happiness and to be free of suffering-can lead to wonders, when divorced from basic human feeling the potential for destruction cannot be overestimated.
As for those who kill for pleasure or, worse, for no reason at all, we can only conjecture a deep submergence of the basic impulse toward care and affection for others. Still this need not mean that it is entirely extinguished. As I pointed out earlier, except perhaps in the most extreme cases, it is possible to imagine even these people appreciating being shown affection. The disposition remains.
Actually, the reader does not need to accept my proposition that human nature is basically disposed toward love and compassion to see that the capacity for empathy which underlies it is of crucial importance when it comes to ethics. We saw earlier how an ethical act is a non-harming act. But how are we to determine whether an act is genuinely non-harming? We find that in practice, if we are not able to connect with others to some extent, if we cannot at least imagine the potential impact of our actions on others, then we have no means to discriminate between right and wrong, between what is appropriate and what is not, between harming and non-harming. It follows, therefore, that if we could enhance the capacity-that is to say, our sensitivity toward others' suffering-the more we did so, the less we could tolerate seeing others' pain and the more we would be concerned to ensure that no action of ours caused harm to others.
The fact that we can indeed enhance our capacity for empathy becomes obvious when we consider its nature. We experience it mainly as a feeling. And, as we all know, to a greater or lesser extent we can not only restrain our feelings through reasoning, but we can enhance them in the same way. Our desire for objects-perhaps a new car-is enhanced by our turning it over and over in our imagination. Similarly, when, as it were, we direct our mental faculties onto our feelings of empathy, we find that not only can we enhance them, but we can transform them into love and compassion itself.
Reprinted from Ethics For The New Millennium by His Holiness The Dalai Lama by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by His Holiness The Dalai Lama. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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