Universal Morals

Article on the precepts in Buddhism:

To what extent are the 5 precepts universal, and to what extent are they just cultural judgements?

Most Thai teachers will claim that the precepts – not to kill, steal, commit sexual misconduct, wrong speech or take drink/drugs are in fact universal laws. If you break precepts you are morally wrong no matter what culture you belong to. If you are habitually breaking them your behaviour will lead to a lower rebirth next time around – no matter what your culture tells you is right or wrong.

Take for example the killing of animals for food. Would our ancestors have been committing blameworthy acts for hunting food? The Christian teaching holds that animals are put on earth for the use of humans, and it is never suggested that it is in anyway immoral or leading to future woe (or gnashing of teeth) to kill them. Is someone who is brought up with such beliefs, still committing an act that will lead to lower rebirth? What about poor people who hunt for squirrels or rabbits for food?

Thai teachers hold their precepts are in fact universal no matter if you have heard of them or not – they are essentially true and real. Scriptures also support this idea, though not explicitly. The precepts seem to have been a common Indian teaching of the time, since before Buddhism – so could the Buddha have been simply adopting local values rather than pointing out universal truths that have the same effect whether you believe in them or not?

In Britain right now there is a government backed scheme to cull grey squirrels. These animals are imports from the Americas, and have spread widely across Britain. The smaller timid Red squirrel is native to Britain, but has been dying out for many years. The common understanding is that the larger and bolder Grey has pushed its weaker cousin out of existence across most of the country. In fact the evidence does not support this – the Red has been dying out due to loss of habitat and through disease, rather than because of the Grey. Besides, the Grey has a different diet.

Nonetheless, Britain has a fondness for the pretty Red Squirrel; a fascination taken to the extreme on the Isle of Wight, where only Reds exist.

[Greys] are bigger, stronger and carry a pox that is deadly to their smaller cousins. Their raids on bird tables have made them a public enemy to some, but the grey squirrel’s apparently relentless conquest of Britain may now be over.

Naturalists and landowners are joining forces today in a drive to effectively wipe out the grey squirrel from northern Scotland. It is believed to be the largest cull of a mammal yet seen in the UK, with many tens of thousands of grey squirrels expected to be trapped and killed under the government-sponsored project and shot on sight, legally, by landowners.

The project’s aim, say conservationists at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is to protect the UK’s largest population of red squirrels from eventual extinction by preserving their last major stronghold – the southern and central Highlands of Scotland.

To achieve this, a “killing line” has been drawn across Scotland, stretching south-east from Montrose on the North Sea to Inveraray on the west coast. All grey squirrels caught north of this line will be culled.

So is this going to have moral consequences? Do the Scottish authorities ‘know not what they do’ ? It seems as ill considered and futile as the New Zealand possum hunting drives. And if you consider the kind of mind set required to join in the gleeful slaughter of squirrels, it must have a negative impact on the participants. How else to solve the problem of excessive Greys? No easy answer springs to mind, but encouraging this kind of nationwide hunt does not seem likely to bring good results.