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A New Buddhist Ethics – Sample

From Chapter 1: What is Buddhist Ethics?

The need for ethics

Ethics, or morality, is the way in which we judge our actions. If we consider any action “right” or “wrong” we are making a moral judgement. If I make a decision to buy fairtrade coffee, or if I disapprove of President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, in either case my judgement is a moral one. If I think it is “good” to meditate regularly, or “unskilful” (when married) to have sex with someone other than my wife, I am making moral judgements. I do not have to think of these as moral judgements for them to be so, and whether I recognise it or not I am making moral judgements constantly.

We live in an age of great confusion about ethics. The modern philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre[1] has suggested that this confusion is rather as if we once knew what ethics really were about, but now we have been handed down bits of moral language which we continue to use, but do not really understand. At one and the same time we think of morality as being absolute, telling us what is right or wrong in some final way applicable to everyone, but also as relative, only reflecting our own opinions. People regularly seem to say things like “I don’t want to make a moral judgement” (as though to do so would be offensive in some way) but then proceed to make one. We have moral instincts, perhaps, but, if we can’t just appeal to God to back them up any more, we can’t see how to back up those instincts with any kind of rational justification which would be more than a personal “belief” or opinion.

This confusion seems to be a result of a loss of faith in traditional sources of ethics in the Western world. We cannot merely accept what our parents and grandparents tell us is right, nor accept that God’s absolute word has been revealed in the Bible or the Qur’an. Those who do continue to follow the traditional instructions often seem to do so in a blinkered, narrowed way that tries to block out awareness of anything that might threaten their certainty.

The attempts made by philosophers to address this situation may have helped to clarify it a little, but they have not provided us with an alternative source of ethics. They seem to end up either trying to provide new reasons to support the old ethics, or reinforcing our sense of having lost the ground beneath our feet. So ethics continue to haunt us, like a ghost from another age that will not go away. But what a ghost! One that has an influence over every area of our lives, and one that is vital to the whole direction of the human race.

Into this situation steps Buddhism, newly arrived in the Western world. In my view Buddhism brings with it one key idea that can help to resolve this problematic situation: the Buddha’s Middle Way. Perhaps the Middle Way could have been found in other ways (and perhaps it has), since it is a universal principle available anywhere at any time, but the Buddha and the Buddhist tradition give a particularly clear expression to this principle, even if they have also confused it or forgotten it at times. In this Middle Way, we are certainly offered an ethics, but not one based on old certainties of any kind. Rather we are challenged by the ideal of human enlightenment to shape our lives positively, whilst constantly remaining aware of the doubts, which lead us to pursue this ideal with humility. If we can hold the positive and the negative, the constructive and the sceptical, in creative tension like this, a wholly new view of ethics emerges. In this view of ethics the justification for “right” is gradually found in our own experience through the unification of our constructive and sceptical energies, giving us a capacity for judgement increasingly adequate to the conditions we encounter.

In this book I want to put forward the idea that Buddhism offers a completely new view of ethics which has the potential to creatively transform ethics in the West. I want to show this primarily in a very practical way, by applying central Buddhist insights to moral issues. However, before I get onto this, I will need to give some more general explanation of my overall approach.

What is “Buddhist” ethics?

We live in a time when there is great debate in the West over the meaning of “Buddhism”. A variety of traditional Buddhist schools that have been imported into the West each tend to see their own form of Buddhism as the true form. This does not mean that they deny that other Buddhist groups are Buddhists, but they are likely to understand what “Buddhist” means in their own terms. So, for example, for a Zen practitioner, “Buddhist ethics” primarily means how we should behave according to traditional Zen teachings. These ethics are normative, that is, they offer a way of judging good and bad, right and wrong. However, the teachings of different schools also conflict with each other at least to some extent. An example of a modern book that takes this approach is Hammalawa Saddhatissa’s book Buddhist Ethics[2]. This actually offers a Theravadin view of Buddhist ethics, based on the particular interpretation of Buddhist tradition found in that school.

From another point of view, academic scholars of Buddhism tend to think of “Buddhist ethics” as what Buddhists in fact believe and do. If you suggest that such and such an approach is “right” in Buddhism, they will challenge you to provide evidence that Buddhists in general actually tend to see it that way, or that their authorities (scriptures and teachers) tend to see it that way. This is descriptive ethics, because the scholars concerned are attempting to merely describe, with a scientific detachment, what people believe in Buddhism. They do not necessarily believe themselves that the ethics they describe actually are right or wrong. An example of this approach is found in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics by Peter Harvey[3], the only real textbook for students available so far on the subject of Buddhist ethics. The ethics he offers are entirely descriptive. One could characterise this as the “What people do in Thailand” approach to Buddhist Ethics.

Both of these approaches to Buddhist Ethics seem unsatisfactorily narrow to me. In the search for right and wrong, good and bad we are unavoidably seeking the universal, what is right or wrong, good or bad for everybody. We are most unlikely to succeed in coming up with a specific set of rules that define what is good for everybody, but we should at least try to identify broad principles and approaches that lead us in the direction of universal right. The Middle Way taught by the Buddha demands that on the one hand we recognise our ignorance, our limitations, and the fact that we will never get it quite right, but on the other that we should never abandon the quest for universal truth.

In these circumstances we cannot possibly simply adopt the teachings of one Buddhist school or tradition, which is most unlikely to have discovered the complete truth, even if it is rich in glimpses of it. Traditional schools also all compete with each other, with no reason to choose between them other than the traditional authority each claims in its own region. So, although we need a normative ethics, we cannot just adopt a traditional form of normative ethics. We also cannot adopt a descriptive ethics, which just gives up on the question of what is actually right. A Westerner will get about as much guidance on how to live from academic books on Buddhist ethics as from reading a randomly-selected train timetable: in either case you just get facts, which in certain circumstances may be relevant to your life, but in most cases are not. What people do in Thailand is actually quite interesting, but there is no particular reason why I should act as they do.

However, there is a third way of approaching Buddhist ethics which has been developed to some extent in the West, even though it is still in its infancy and suffers the hostility of both the traditional Buddhists and the academics. This is to attempt to identify basic principles of Buddhism that are universal, and to apply these in all the circumstances of modern life. Any attempt to identify the universal must also be provisional and arguable, so it should also invite argument. Sangharakshita (the founder of the Western Buddhist Order, now called the Triratna Buddhist Order) has pioneered this approach in the West, and his Ten Pillars of Buddhism[4] is the best book I know on Buddhist ethics: but it is an interpretation of the Ten Root Precepts and a discussion of their value rather than of the still more basic principles which these precepts give practical training in applying.

In this book I wish to follow in the footsteps of Sangharakshita in the sense of clarifying, developing and applying some of the important work he started, but also give a rather different emphasis in discussing ethics. I would like to offer an account of how Buddhists can go about ethical thinking in a way which is true to the most basic principles of the Buddha’s dharma, without being bogged down by the many different subsequent interpretations of that teaching which have occurred in other times and places. These principles should be so universal that they do not depend on the appeal to any authorities in the Buddhist tradition, and they become self-ratifying when tested through practice and experience. I would like to explain these principles in a relatively brief and accessible way, and then apply them to the issues that we actually find in our lives today.

So, I make no apology for writing a book on Buddhist ethics that has little to say about what some will consider the fundamentals of the subject. I will have very little to say on karma and rebirth, very little about the monastic rules, and relatively little to say (compared to what might be expected) even on the precepts. None of these necessarily always capture the distinctive and universal basis of balanced moral judgement in Buddhism, because they have grown up as expressions of ethics in particular contexts, not as universal principles of moral justification. Karma and rebirth is a large issue which I will not attempt to do justice to in this book[5], but it will suffice to say here that I think it a product of the Buddha’s specific cultural background, and irrelevant to resolving moral issues. The Monastic Rules were developed for the very specific circumstances of monastic life, and were never intended to be universal. The precepts, whilst universal in scope, are training principles, useful tools to help one practise Buddhist Ethics, but they are a summarised reminder of that ethics, not themselves a justification for one moral course being right or another wrong. To simply say that, for example, violence is wrong in Buddhism because the first precept forbids it, tells us nothing either about why it is forbidden, nor how the precept should be interpreted.

Nor will the quotations or references from the Pali Canon or other scriptures, which litter most books on Buddhism, be found here. This is not because inspiring and helpful approaches to ethics cannot be found in these scriptures: they can. However, I do not believe that the reasons we should follow Buddhist ethics are demonstrated by appealing to the authority of scriptures. Rather they are shown practically through interpreting and applying central principles and seeing their effects on our lives. The interpretation of scriptures in their remote historical and cultural context and their application to modern life can also be a massive distraction, a distraction that takes us away from the more urgent and important task of interpreting and applying core Buddhist principles.

Instead of relying on these old crutches of Buddhist Ethics, I have attempted to think through each issue from the beginning using the Middle Way as a guide, since the purpose of Buddhism is to address the conditions in our lives, not to satisfy traditional expectations. I will be explaining later in this chapter how the Middle Way can fulfil this purpose when other more traditional Buddhist categories do not.

Whenever anyone writes about normative ethics, it is no more than theory: but some theories are more convincing and more potentially useful than others. I do not claim to have got it all right, but I do believe that I am asking the right questions in the rest of this book, and am at least not saddled with many of the dogmatic assumptions with which many other writers seem to approach this subject. In particular, I believe it is important to recognise the distinctive nature of Buddhist ethics and not just (either consciously or unwittingly) think of it in a framework derived from other approaches to ethics, whether these are Christian, utilitarian, Aristotelian, Kantian, postmodernist or whatever. This does not mean that comparisons with these other ways of thinking are not valuable, but it does mean that Buddhist ethics should be understood in its own terms and not either consciously or unwittingly subsumed into other categories. Curiously enough, in my experience it is those writers on Buddhism who rely most on constant scholarly appeals to the Buddhist tradition, and do not examine their basic assumptions, which tend to have more of such non-Buddhist assumptions lurking in the background, and tend to miss the important practical insights that Buddhism has to offer. The reasons for this should become clearer as we go on.

Ethics in the broad and narrow senses

So, what is Buddhist ethics, more positively? Well, there are really two levels at which one can think about ethics in a Buddhist way. Here I will introduce a useful pair of terms coined by Sangharakshita. He talked about “ethics in the broad sense” and “ethics in the narrow sense”[6]. Ethics in the broad sense is nothing other than the whole Buddhist Path: how we should live according to Buddhist ethics is following the path of morality, meditation and wisdom. This covers every aspect of our lives, including our ways of thinking, our beliefs, and our habitual mental states as well as our behaviour. Ethics in the narrow sense focuses only on our behaviour and ways in which we should control it directly. So, to take a simple example, it is (probably) right that I should meditate regularly; it is according to Buddhist ethics in the broad sense. It is also wrong that I should shoot cats that come into my back garden for sport, which means that according to Buddhist ethics I should refrain from this kind of behaviour. Shooting cats is wrong in the narrow sense as well as in the broad sense.

It is not always clear where the boundaries lie between the broad and narrow senses, but this doesn’t matter. The important point is that Buddhism does recognise ethics in the broad sense as well as in the narrow sense. What we ought to do is not just “morality” as people often think of it: not just about whether to be nice to my neighbours or whether or not it would be right to have an abortion. Morality in this narrow sense is certainly part of morality more generally, but every single action or decision I make about anything is also ethical. If I decide whether to brush my teeth, if I try to make another effort to return to the object of meditation, if I choose a book off the bookshelf: all of these are moral acts in the broad sense.

This is one point where, to begin with, Buddhism seems to have a much wider vision than most Western philosophy. Many Western philosophers would follow the eighteenth-century thinker Kant in assuming that, whilst there are some kinds of actions that can be moral or immoral, there are also others that are morally neutral, where it is not relevant to talk about morality. But one of the starting points of Buddhism is the complete inter-connectedness of all phenomena. Nothing is entirely separate; nothing can be rigidly distinguished from anything else. It is our minds that impose such distinctions on our experience. Although we must use some distinctions, we must always do so with an eye to the effects of doing so. So, if we are trying to overcome the limitations of our minds and their delusions, we should try to recognise that there are no such things as morally neutral acts, only acts that are of relatively more or less moral significance. Yes, it does matter more whether I start World War 3 than whether I brush my teeth, but that doesn’t stop both of these being moral matters. We are never let off the hook, and there are no moral holidays.

In this book I shall be concentrating almost entirely on ethics in the broad sense. Although “ethics in the narrow sense” describes how people often see ethics and describes one way in which the Buddhist tradition speaks of it, it is ethics in the broad sense that really deals with how we should live. I cannot resolve questions about ethics in the narrow sense without considering ethics in the broad sense. However, at the same time this does not mean that I am describing the entire Buddhist path, because in this book I will be focussing on areas of moral discussion. In the Buddhist Threefold Path there are two other major aspects of human development, which fall under the headings of “meditation” and “wisdom”, alongside “ethics”. Though meditation and wisdom will not be excluded here where they are inextricable from ethics, I am not attempting to do justice to them in the same way that I will be attempting to do justice to ethics.

The inextricable relationship between ethics and the rest of the Path is also one reason why we can never make absolutely valid moral rules. Every decision about how to behave also depends on beliefs and states of mind. Supposing I was wondering whether to lie to my aunt when she asks me if I liked the horrible socks she gave me for my birthday. Well, if I lie this has the virtue of being kind, whilst if I tell the truth it has the virtue of honesty and might stop her giving me horrible socks in future. What the right course of action would be depends on my state of mind and beliefs as well as my aunt’s. How offended is she going to be? Will she actually benefit from honesty? Am I too much in the habit of being either brutally honest or timidly kind? I really cannot resolve this one without thinking in a much broader way about ethics.

The Starting Point: the Middle Way

At this point a common reaction is to give up, assuming that we could never really know what’s right if we really try to take everything into account. It’s too complicated! The temptation is simply to fall back on some simple moral rules which some authority figure has given us, or give up on there being any real right action at all. But this would be the easy way out. If we really want to help the world, and help ourselves, we have to face up to how complex things really are. There are no simple yes or no answers. This is the starting point of the Middle Way, which I take to be the most fundamental principle of Buddhism: we must stay in that complex, unclear middle ground and avoid premature judgements. Though there’s another over-simple answer to avoid even in this, that we should never make judgements! Judgements are still necessary but should be based on as much clarity, patience and understanding as we can reasonably manage.

So, let’s try to understand how we can go about doing ethics in the broad sense. How can we really deal with all this complexity? Well, if we are to deal with a very complex, inter-related reality as far as we can, we need to understand the truth as far as we can. Our understanding of the truth depends on many factors such as awareness, openness, wisdom, reflectiveness, and decisiveness, so we can try to cultivate these through meditation, study and reflection.

Our progress with these will vary, but there is one thing we can all do from the start to avoid handicapping ourselves unnecessarily in our brush with reality: we can avoid dogmatic assumptions or prejudices which make us constantly interpret the world in certain skewed ways. So, the first step towards doing ethics in a broad sense, taking into account all the conditions, is to avoid dogmatic beliefs.

A simple example of this which everyone will be familiar with might be racism. Supposing I have a neighbour who is (to take a nationality at random) Turkish, and my moral issues are about how to treat him. Now, there are obviously many better and worse ways to relate to him, but a good starting point is to avoid racial prejudice. If I approach all my interactions with him with the idea that he’s a Turk and Turks are somehow inferior to my own race, then I will not get to grips at all with what he’s really like. What he’s really like may be anything from a saint to a mass-murderer, but I will never find out if all I think when I see him is “Turk”. It may be right to treat him in any of a variety of ways, but I will never determine what these are at all if I don’t start to see him as a complex human being rather than just a “Turk” to begin with.

This is an obvious point to most reasonably civilised people in the modern world. However, the same point applies more subtly in lots of other areas. My dogmatic belief may not be a positive one, but a negative one. Here are some examples of positive and negative dogmatic beliefs:

“There’s no such thing as morality”

“The world was created by God”

“I’m free to do what I like”

“We are reborn after death, so I can aim for a better rebirth”

“There are many ‘truths’ and therefore no truth”

What makes these statements dogmatic is not the fact that no evidence is given for them. It is impractical, and sometimes counter-productive, to try to back up everything we say with evidence (and of course the statements are also taken out of context). No, what makes them dogmatic is the fact that there could never be any evidence to back them up. Any reasons you could give to support them could just as easily be interpreted the other way, as any student of philosophy knows.

To give an example from the Buddhist tradition, there are many pieces of evidence which have been put forward to support belief in rebirth, (such as the inexplicable memories of infant prodigies[7]), but all of these can be interpreted in other ways too, (such as that there are impersonal stray strands of consciousness floating around which are sometimes picked up by children). To insist on one kind of explanation when there are equally probable alternatives is to make a metaphysical claim which is not a response to that evidence, but rather is an absolute and prior assumption which you would stick to whatever the evidence, fitting the evidence to the assumption rather than the other way around. It is to act in some ways as a critic of Galileo’s did when Galileo first used his telescope to observe mountains and craters on the moon: since his observations went against the accepted Aristotelian belief that the moon must be a perfect sphere, the critic insisted that there must be a transparent substance filling in all the gaps between the lunar mountains. Metaphysical claims tend to be accepted on faith, or because everyone else in your group or society accepts them. Since no one can ever challenge these dogmatic assumptions, they become unquestionable positions even when they seem to be increasingly at odds with reality.

The Buddha’s Middle Way is first and foremost a way of disencumbering ourselves of these dogmatic positions. In the Buddha’s life we first of all see a young prince in a palace surrounded by one kind of dogmatic assumption: the nihilistic idea that there is no morality in our lives beyond seeking our own pleasure or following the ways of people around us. He breaks out from this kind of dogmatic assumption, renouncing his restricted life as a prince in a quest for the right path. However, then he runs into the opposite type of dogmatic assumption, that of the eternalists with fixed ideas about the kind of beliefs and practices they should follow to reach a state of absolute goodness or salvation. These are represented by the five ascetics, who practised austerities in order to achieve a greater reward in the end. In seeing the limitations of this approach, too, the Buddha had to find a new way forward beyond both these types of human illusion, so he adopted the Middle Way.

The Middle Way as the basic principle of Buddhist ethics, then, is strongly symbolised by the Buddha’s life and the method he is said to have used to make progress towards enlightenment. It is not, however, dependent on the historical truth of the Buddha having ever actually lived such a life, or having ever actually gained enlightenment; for insisting on this (even though it may well be true) is likely to lead to another sort of eternalist dogmatism. The Middle Way can never be true because of some article of faith, only because it works in helping us to understand the causes of suffering and to overcome them. We only know it to be true insofar as we have experienced this, and up to that point it is just theory (though potentially very useful theory).

So, to practice the Middle Way in relation to a moral problem, we first need to become aware of the two extremes of illusory belief we might fall into in relation to it, then follow a path between them which seems to be most adequate to all the conditions at work.

It would be possible to give a more detailed philosophical account of the Middle Way here: for example, exploring the idea of “evidence” and the exact nature of eternalism and nihilism. However, I have done this elsewhere[8] and do not want to go into too much theoretical detail here. For everyday purposes it may be much better to think in terms of the symbolic power of the life of the Buddha and to try to apply the central insight it represents to moral issues.

[1] See After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre, pub. Duckworth, chapters 1 &2

[2] Published by Wisdom Publications

[3] Published by Cambridge University Press

[4] The Ten Pillars of Buddhism Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications

[5] See Robert M. Ellis A Theory of Moral Objectivity p.447 onwards for discussion of this issue

[6] See The Ten Pillars of Buddhism Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications

[7] For a good example of this see Lama Anagarika Govinda The Way of the White Clouds pub. Rider, p.131-136

[8] In my book (and Ph.D. thesis), A theory of moral objectivity, available as a book from www.lulu.com

From Chapter 5: Environmental issues

Attitudes to “Nature”

Like all the other moral issues discussed so far, environmental issues affect us constantly in our everyday lives, not just on certain occasions. For the “environment” in its broadest sense, consists of all the conditions in which we live. Our whole existence depends completely on those conditions, and we ignore them at our peril. The Middle Way also fundamentally requires us to address conditions around us as well as within us, so that to suggest that Buddhists could ignore environmental issues would involve the strangest of narrow assumptions. We cannot ignore the environment that supports our bodies any more than, when meditating, we can ignore our bodies and simply dwell in our minds. The environment constantly affects our bodies just as the body affects the mind.

The key metaphysical idea which tends to affect our attitudes to the environment is that of “nature”. For some reason we traditionally tend to see the world beyond human beings as acting in a coherent, orderly, even intelligent way that we label “natural”. This type of belief has taken many forms, from the Natural Law first promoted by the Stoics, the Christian version in which Nature is designed by God and is a reflection of his glory, through to modern versions such as the Gaia Hypothesis, where the world is likened to a single organism, and Deep Ecology, which accords the natural world an inherent dignity.

All of these are dogmatic metaphysical constructions which have no relationship to the Middle Way, for all of them involve constructing an idea of “Nature” which is in fact in our image, whether that is to say that it was made for us or to say that it is other than us. Whenever we start relating to an idea of “nature” rather than simply to a set of specific conditions, there is a constant temptation to over-generalise and to apply our idea of “nature” dogmatically. If there is a cycle of predation whereby different species live on each other and support each other in a stable mutual dependency, this is not due to a “Balance of Nature”, for we have not seen the whole of nature, only this particular stable mutual dependency. If traditionally we have been able to live so far by consuming both animals and plants, it does not make it “natural” to eat both rather than just one or the other, nor does it indicate that things were designed to be that way by God. If foxes eat rabbits, this is not because “Nature is red in tooth and claw”, it just means that foxes eat rabbits, and perhaps that we are mildly shocked by observing violence between animals which is beyond our personal experience. Similarly, if we see a mountain at sunset and find the sight majestic, this does not mean that the mountain has some sort of “natural” personality enabling it to have personal majesty, only that we are awestruck by the particular experience we encounter when mountain, light, and our receptive observation come together.

Belief in “Nature” can provide support for unreflective exploitation of resources on the one hand, or sentimental attachment to them on the other. For many centuries the dominant Western attitude to the environment has involved the assumption that “Nature” has infinite resources and can be exploited indefinitely. This had a tendency to prevent people examining the effects of their actions on the environment, blithely unaware that resources like metal ores, oil and coal are finite and non-renewable and others like timber, fish and soil still finite and fragile even though renewable. Pollution of all types was also blithely assumed to be simply absorbed by Nature. The idea of Nature as a Mother perhaps reveals the psychological tendency behind this: when immature we simply assume that mother will always provide for us, will always be there to help, and can lovingly absorb whatever tantrums we throw at her. But Nature is not a Mother. Nature does not even exist.

On the other hand, the idea of “Nature” is a rallying point for many environmentalists who feel that Nature needs to be defended against a human onslaught. Yet we are in no position to defend Nature in general, only some tiny part of it. Unfortunately the part we want to defend tends to be a part we are already sentimentally or aesthetically attached to, and “Nature” becomes the basis of mere conservatism, resisting change even when this would have positive effects. For one example, many people believe that it is “natural” for the uplands of Northern England, Wales and Scotland to be mainly sheep pasture, despite the fact that this is an entirely human-made landscape created after the destruction of earlier forest, and that sheep farming is only made economically possible by huge subsidies. These areas are highly suited to the erection of wind turbines, which could generate useful electricity without pollution or resource loss, yet huge campaigns are under way in many of these areas to prevent turbines being erected because of attachment to this landscape, where a narrower conception of what is “natural” takes precedence over the bigger picture.

As a starting point for the resolution of problems in environmental ethics using the Middle Way, then, I propose that we begin by entirely expunging the terms “Nature” and even “natural” from our thinking, certainly not using them in any way as a source of value. When we are tempted to talk of “nature” we should simply ask ourselves what we really mean and put things in more precise terms. For environmental issues are just that: a whole series of (very serious and interconnected) issues, which we should look at one by one by examining the specific conditions at work as much as we can, not by making sweeping judgements either for or against “nature”.

Buddhism particularly helps to highlight that there are psychological conditions at work here as well as physical, chemical, biological, geographical, sociological and political ones, and we need to address these just as much. There is no value in simply stating that we “ought” to recycle, stop polluting etc if our ego-identifications are wholly set against doing so, for we need to work with adapting these as well as the physical conditions. Nor, given the limited scope and influence of law in a modern democratic society, can we simply claim that political action to save the environment is needed without taking responsibility for our personal role.

In the remainder of this chapter, I will be looking at a number of areas of life in which environmental issues arise, and suggesting a general approach for their resolution given the Middle Way. As always this will not allow absolutely complete answers in particular cases, and solutions to specific environmental problems often depend on detailed scientific knowledge which is far beyond the scope of this book. However, in a general book about ethics like this it is possible to sketch out the likely course of a justifiable moral balance in relation to the environment as in other areas.

Farming and food

Human beings need food, and a large proportion of that food depends on farming. Although fishing still provides a major alternative source of food, this is nearly always supplementary to farmed food, and hunting and foraging for wild plants now provide only a tiny proportion of the food eaten by the world’s population. So, we are enormously dependent on the world’s farmers, and their task is perhaps the most important one in human society.

However, farmers are directly in contact with some of the environmental conditions on which we most rely. Any kind of crop needs varying quantities of sunlight, water and fertile soil, and in the absence of sufficient of these three things farming is unsustainable. Crops are also vulnerable to competition from other plants (weeds), consumption by insects and larger animals, being spoilt by adverse weather, disease or fungi, or poisoned by human chemicals. Even when farmers have overcome these obstacles (as they often do) through care and ingenuity, they can still find that the market for their crops is insufficient to make them economically viable. Although we still grow enough to feed the world’s population at present (despite localised famines in some developing countries), our doing so depends on all these fragile conditions continuing to operate.

Our agriculture is seriously threatened in the long term by a combination of many changing conditions: limited soil fertility, widespread soil erosion (often associated with deforestation), salinisation, desertification, droughts, too much human demand for water, new influxes of weeds and pests which have spread around the world, diseases threatening vital pollinating insects such as bees, extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes and floods, unpredictable changes in consumer demand, public reaction against poisoning of crops and water by herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers, and dependency on government subsidies which may be withdrawn. Farmers that keep animals also have further problems of animal diseases, the effects of widespread over-grazing on pasture, and the moral backlash against the cruelties of modern animal farming in some sectors of the population (there will be more discussion of this in the next chapter, which focuses on animals).

Added to all these problems is the major issue of land use. The more land that is used for other human purposes, or made unusable for agriculture by changes of the kind mentioned above, the more pressure there will be on remaining agricultural land, increasing the likelihood of it, too, being degraded by unsustainable use. Increasing population adds to the pressure, as does increasing consumption of meat and dairy products in the world, for animal husbandry takes up huge amounts more land than crop-growing (in the case of grain-fed cattle for example, about ten times more land is required to produce the same amount of human food, because of the amount fed to the cattle).  

To farm successfully in the long-term means addressing a whole host of conditions. Not only do farmers have to make a living from the land whilst maintaining all the positive conditions for growth that their crops or animals need and fending off negative conditions, but they also need to do so sustainably whilst not reducing the long-term fertility of the land or harming other conditions important to creatures on the earth. If we add to this some consideration of the sustainability of the task for the farmer, including his or her psychological health in a job involving many pressures, insecurity and often very long hours of work, we get an extremely demanding profession.

So, should a Buddhist be a farmer? Unquestionably yes, for farming is a right livelihood on which the rest of human society absolutely depends. To earn that livelihood, the farmer certainly has to protect his/her crop, which certainly means some destruction, of plants if not of animals. Traditional Buddhist objections to this seem to be based on considerations of purity rather than on Middle Way ethics, for far from recognising the conditions at work in the growing of food to support human society, they create an irresolvable conflict with those conditions by (at least theoretically) requiring absolute non-violence. Farmers need to exercise skill, balance and wisdom in their use of violence, but even arable farming is impossible without some violence against living organisms. Buddhist farmers should not store any residual or even theoretical guilt about this.

However, to be a farmer whilst extending ego-identification beyond the mere immediate earning of a livelihood demands that a Buddhist farmer also address sustainability issues. Crop growing needs to be held in balance with other uses of land which enable a sustainable climate and supports wildlife (such as pollinating and pest-eating insects) on which farming depends, so the further destruction of forests, hedges and other wildlife habitats for the sake of short-term efficiency is unlikely to be supported by the Middle Way. It also seems safe to suggest that a Buddhist farmer should farm organically, since organic farming is indefinitely sustainable and avoids unnecessary pollution and resource-wastage in the wider environment.

Why should a farmer do these things, when the job is difficult enough already? The strongest answer is that in broadening his/her identifications from mere present needs into the future, the farmer will develop and grow in character. Addressing the future in some ways makes it easier to address it in others: for example, organic production makes it much more likely that the farm will be fit to pass on to the farmer’s children. Openness to the environment creates awareness and enjoyment of it which is its own reward, in contrast to the closed mind of the farmer who only looks at his/her land in short-term economic terms.

This kind of openness to the wider environment and future human welfare might also require a farmer to think much more radically about the best use of his/her land than is customary. For example, should it be in agricultural production at all? Would it be better used for forestry or recreation? Tradition in a particular area dictates that land is used in a particular way, for example, sheep grazing in upland areas: but the best use of that land might involve a complex mixture of forestry, crops, orchards and recreation according to the exact nature of the land. Bio-fuels and wind turbines might offer other new possibilities for profitable and sustainable use of the land. This alternative use might actually increase sustainable human food production by making more effective long-term use of the land and supporting agriculture elsewhere, e.g. pasture turned into forest is helping to prevent deforestation and preserve water supplies needed in other areas, instead of requiring grain to be grown elsewhere to provide supplementary feed to animals.

So, the key moral requirement for farmers following the Middle Way seems to be an open consideration of the complex environmental factors at work, rather than being under the power of convention and habit in farming practices. Naturally an appreciation of wider environmental conditions also needs to be balanced with the immediate needs of earning a livelihood, but in the longer-term livelihood and wider concerns are likely to be much more in harmony.

Any farmer who takes on a farm will do so in specific concrete circumstances which then need to be worked with. Adaptation from inappropriate and short-termist farming practices to long-termist ones may take a long time, so one cannot be too closely prescriptive about what the farm of a Buddhist farmer should be like. However, one would certainly expect that from whatever starting point, it would be moving towards more organic forms of crop-growing, phasing out animal husbandry (which will be discussed more in the next chapter) and diversifying habitats. In some conditions, especially where heavy government subsidies work against these tendencies, there may be strong contrary conditions and it may take a very long time to make progress in these directions, but one would expect some progress to be being made.

As for the rest of us, we have a strong responsibility to support farmers in these moves by increasing demand for food which is produced in a sustainable way and decreasing demand for unsustainably-produced food. Without this support, farmers will struggle in vain to earn a livelihood whilst changing to more sustainable production. Since it is farming which actually has an impact on the land and hence the condition of our environment, it is the impact of our food choices on farmers which are important rather than their purity.

The key decisions we can make here will be familiar to many: we can buy locally-produced food to avoid the huge expenditure of resources in transporting food huge distances, we can buy organic food which encourages organic production, and we can buy plant produce to avoid the destructive environmental effects and massive direct and indirect land use involved in animal husbandry. In opening up our sensitivity to all these conditions we help to broaden ego-identification, but if we become attached to an ideal of purity in relation to any of them it can begin to close down again. Such purity is in any case difficult to achieve in today’s complex food markets. We nearly always have to trade off different factors in deciding what food to buy, since some of the available organic food may have been imported some distance, or some of the food available as an alternative to animal produce may not be organic. To take a simple example, vegetarians and vegans often consume large amounts of soya products, but soya cannot currently be produced economically in the UK and thus is always imported. Given the huge advantages of soya as a flexible, nutritious, and sustainable food source, perhaps it is worth making that trade-off for UK vegetarians.

However, the reasons why demand for organic, locally-produced and vegetarian food is now growing rapidly throughout the Western world often has little to do with the environmental reasons I have outlined. Many people buy such food either because of beliefs about its health benefits or for aesthetic reasons: fresh, local, organic food tastes better. Whilst there is nothing intrinsically bad about either of these motivations, they are less likely to involve us in widening ego-identification than the environmental benefits. It is quite possible to start with either of these motivations and to widen them into environmental concern – a process which should be encouraged – but to stay with them alone can lead to a hardening of identification and to a culture of exclusivity. Rich gourmets who enjoy organic food, for example, might not be too concerned that the price of it goes down enough to allow others to buy it, and might even continue to support industrial agriculture to keep the masses happy.

Improving our food-buying habits also involves trading environmental concerns with convenience. The use of supermarkets, which are very convenient for consumers but exert huge economic pressures on farmers, is a highly debatable issue: should we be encouraging supermarkets to stock the right products or boycotting them entirely? Similarly, the use of packaged convenience foods which save time but create rubbish can be debated. If you suddenly decide to do all your shopping by bicycle or on foot, only use small shops, and only buy fresh whole food, as well as only buying organic, vegetarian or vegan, and locally-produced food, you may find that not all of these moral desirables can be put together in your neighbourhood, at least not without considerable expense and inconvenience. Again, it is more important to maintain some moral awareness in all these areas and to take opportunities to make progress in them than to achieve purity.          So, overall, environmental sustainability needs to be an important factor in the choices we make in relation to food, whether in relation to producing it or to consuming it. The Middle Way suggests that we should give the wider addressing of conditions involved in addressing the environmental impact of food production higher priority than narrower concerns such as those of health or taste, though there is rarely any conflict between these concerns. The Middle Way also suggests that it is maintaining awareness of a wide range of ways we can improve our food ethics, and maintaining a balance between them, rather than aiming for purity in one respect or another, which aids progress in addressing conditions.

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