The Inherent Dignity of Empty Persons

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In 2011 I received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to spearhead the first academic conference solely devoted to Buddhist ethics. The essays from that event were compiled and edited by Dr. Jake H. Davis in this lovely volume by Oxford University Press entitled, A Mirror Is for Reflection: Understanding Buddhist Ethics (2017).  I contributed Chapter 16: "The Inherent Dignity of Empty Persons."

In my essay I argue that—despite the 14th Dalai Lama’s (Tenzin Gyatso) public support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights— the metaphysics behind the western conception of human rights is incompatible with Tibetan Buddhism. I do not doubt that the UDHR is consistent with his outspoken promotion of basic human values and universal responsibility. Nevertheless, there is an unresolved metaphysical conflict between his endorsement of the UDHR and concomitant ideas like inherent dignity and inalienable rights, on the one hand, and, on the other, his espousal of the Buddhist Middle Way or “centrist” (Madhyamaka) thesis that all phenomena (i.e., persons, things, and ideas like human rights) lack “intrinsic existence” (svabhava). I explore the possibility of an “unforced consensus” on rights between Tibetan Buddhism and the Western human rights tradition through a novel application of Madhyamaka Buddhism that can help us make sense of the metaphysics of rights in the 21st century, as well as combat the fundamentalist mind-set that contributes to human rights violations.