On 9 March 2022 Stephen Batchelor gave an online talk on an ethics of uncertainty. The talk was sponsored by Mind and Life Europe as part of their ‘Mind Matters’ series, which offers talks by internationally renowned speakers in the field of Buddhism and mindfulness, such as Roshi Joan Halifax, Richard J. Davidson, Matthieu Ricard, and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.
Stephen began the talk with an issue that is of vital concern for us today: the ongoing, brutal invasion of the Ukraine. In response to this deeply troubling situation, we are compelled to ask: What shall I do? What shall we do? But like many situations that we experience, the answer is not so easy to discover as there is considerable uncertainty about which choice we should make. And yet, as Stephen pointed out, as ethical beings, we must choose some course of action; we must act.
All ethical choices, in fact, have this element of uncertainty, not only because we can never gain full knowledge of all the factors in a situation, but also because we can’t predict the results of our actions. Even with the best of intentions, what we do may not lead to positive results.
How then can we develop the ability to act ethically when uncertainty is always present? How do we develop the capacity to find an ‘appropriate response’, as the Zen master Yunmen put it, in each situation?
Stephen argued that the foundational elements for an ethics of uncertainty can be found in Early Buddhism and certain Socratic philosophical dialogues. Both Gotama and Socrates articulate an ethics that is grounded in compassion and unknowing rather than a priori moral convictions and metaphysical certainties. By returning to the early discourses of the Buddha and the dialogues of his Greek contemporary Socrates, he identified common philosophical and ethical themes which can allow us to best respond to the crises we face today – climate change, war, poverty, and social injustice.
Below is the video from the talk: