On utilitarianism and climate change

Climate change is back – with a vengeance. We’ve been distracted by financial crisis, the Arab spring, and Fukushima. Now, the International Energy Agency has revealed that the financial crisis did not, as was expected, lead to any significant drop in carbon levels. While media interests continue to befuddle by presenting denialism as if it were an actual scientific position, we’re looking increasingly unlikely to keep the global temperature rise down to 2C. A catastrophic rise of 4C is looking increasingly likely by the end of the century. (There’s descriptions here of what the impact of these temperature rises will look like).

This week I’m going to Canberra with the good folks of ARRCC to speak with the politicians. We want to present to them that climate change is not just an economic or technological problem. It is, at heart, a moral problem.

I believe that all the world’s religions embody values that can, and should, provide for the protection of the environment. It is such a clear cut issue that it can serve as a test case for a system of ethics: if an ethical system does not justify saving the environment, it cannot be correct.

A few weeks ago I ran some posts arguing that Buddhist ethics were, at base, a utilitarian ethics. That means that what is ‘right’ is closely linked with happiness or suffering. The great advantage of such an ethic is that it is empirical: it is based on the actual experience of pleasure, not on an assumption of some abstract quality of ‘the good’.

The most famous secular utilitarian of our age is of course Peter Singer. He’s an Australian ethical philosopher who founded the worldwide animal liberation movement – I had the pleasure to meet him at one of our meetings for Animal Lib many years ago.

A recent article in the Guardian intrigued me, since it suggests that the ethics of climate change have challenged Peter Singer to question whether his utilitarian philosophy was adequate to address the subject of global warming, and to reconsider the possibility of some kind of ethical absolute – a position that in western philosophy is usually associated with Christianity. I wondered why Singer would make such a concession, and figured that there must be some pretty hard arguments. If that’s the case, perhaps Buddhist ethics might run into problems as well – so best to check it out.

I wanted to consider whether the things that Singer considers a problem for his form of ‘preference utilitarianism‘ would also be a problem for Buddhist ethics. Note that I’m not going to consider whether they are a genuine problem for Singer’s own ethics. The article says there are two main problems.

the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change.

If there are more people, then there are more people who can be happy, make good kamma, and so on; but there are also more people who will be unhappy and make bad kamma. In particular, as population grows and pressure for scarce resources increases it becomes harder to maintain a reasonable level of happiness. I would also suspect that, on a large scale, less happiness would in turn lead to more unskillful acts: prisons are full of people who were plenty unhappy even before they got locked away. So there is no particular reason to think that a bigger population, beyond a certain level, is intrinsically good, and hence no reason to think that limiting population to control climate change is inherently ethically problematic. Furthermore, a limited population, one must assume, is more likely to be sustainable over the long term, and thus allow for a greater total number of people, even if the number at any one time is less.

This is, of course just to focus on the basic principle and leaving aside the dubious question of whether we can really equate, say, carbon emissions with population growth. Carbon emissions are, rather, closely associated with economic growth, and studies repeatedly show that, beyond satisfying reasonable needs, economic growth does not lead to happiness. So this argument lacks traction.

climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won’t much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won’t much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one.

This argument falls flat, too. Utilitarianism, whether of Buddhist or other forms, is essentially empirical – it infers from what we know. And what we know is that human life exists in interrelationship with all other forms of life on this planet, and it always has done. We can imagine a possible world where we all live as brains-in-jars enjoying our matrix-reality, but this has no empirical basis. Serious ethical choices shouldn’t be made on these kinds of fantasies. (This question relates to Hume’s Problem of Induction, but I won’t get into that here.)

So I think these arguments fail, and are surprisingly weak, in fact. The author of the article, who is a Christian, relishes Singer’s slight weakening of his position, however, as he sees the alternative thusly:

Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.

A rash assessment indeed, this ‘only’! How about this as a Buddhist rephrasing: “reasoned faith in a coherent moral order (kamma) secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.” If this is acceptable then the ‘only’ needs to go.

The article is a mixed bag: while I cannot agree with the author’s claim that ‘Only a doctrine of creation can affirm that we are fundamentally linked to the natural order manifest on Earth,’ I think we can all concur that ‘Our island home matters because the lives of human beings go well only when her natural systems go well too.’

But even this falls short; it still privileges humanity over other species, and sets human life as somehow separate from ‘natural systems’. In truth, we are part of nature, nothing more, nothing less. Our special position is not that we are a separate moral order, but that we are conscious, so we can reflect on and operate on the world in ways that other aspects of nature cannot. And with moral awareness comes moral responsibility.

Whose Buddhism is Truest?

Here’s a generally excellent article on the current trends of how early Buddhism is conceived, with special reference to the Gandhari texts, and reflecting on how this impacts the current state of things.

My only quibble would be that the author somewhat overstates the importance of the Gandhari texts in this context. Of course they are important, but they mostly confirm previous theories that have been influential in the past generation or two of scholars, rather than overthrowing any orthodoxy.

i think there is no doubt that the basic principle here is true: the Buddhist texts, from the earliest times, existed in multiple variants. In fact every monastic would have memorized the texts somewhat differently. This diverse tradition is engaged with by the centralizing tendency represented by the Councils, which attempted to create a monolithic canon. But at no stage was there ever a single body of texts universally accepted by all Buddhists.

As usual, however, i feel the need to issue a caution in that these findings are often mistakenly assumed to disprove the usefulness of text-criticism and to overthrow the orthodoxy. This is not the case. In fact they only contradict certain of the conclusions of earlier generations of scholars, conclusions which had already been substantially modified by later text scholars. The Gandhari texts are simply one more source, albeit a uniquely valuable one, to help aid our understanding of early Buddhism. In fact, without the background knowledge of the texts established by conventional text-criticism, it would not be possible to really understand what these few texts are and how they relate to each other.

An interesting article about dependent origination

Thanks to Simon for pointing out this article:

Unpopular facts about one of Buddhist philosophy’s most popular doctrines

Most of what he says is obviously true. I don’t understand, however, what he has against the three life idea: the twelve links clearly acknowledge two births, at vinnana and jati, so what’s the problem? The only grounds the author criticizes this interpretation on is the Upanisa Sutta, but that simply doesn’t say what he says it does, namely, that all the factors are in ‘this life’. On the contrary, the Balapandita Sutta, for example, clearly does imply a sequence of lives.

I particularly like his suggestion that the use of ‘nama’ is connected with the patriarchal notion of preserving the family ‘name’. It is a complex matter, but it is true that ones’ ‘name’ is often felt to be the only thing that is immortal. This is felt especially among the patriarchs: because of the uncertainty of paternity, a ‘father’ can never be sure if he really ‘survives’ in his children biologically, so the ‘name’ is all he has. The connection between this and dependent origination, if any, is however very abstract. It is important, however, to do as the author has done, and burrow down ‘underneath’ dependent origination to see where the roots of it lie in Indic culture.

The date of the Flower Sermon

The origin of the Zen school is traditionally traced to Mahakassapa, who was said to have received a direct transmission outside the scriptures. This transmission is illustrated with the evocative story of the Buddha holding a flower silently before the assembled Sangha: only Mahakassapa understood, and smiled. The story is gains special resonance since Mahakassapa is renowned as a curmudgeonly old monk – although his authentic verses in the Theragatha do indeed show a delightful love of nature.

Despite the fame and importance of the story, it is not attested in any Indic scripture, and is a Chinese Chan invention. It’s first appearance is apparently in the compilation of koans, the 無門關 (Wúménguān, often rendered in English as The Gateless Gate), compiled by the Chinese Zen master Wumen Hui-k’ai (無門慧開) and first published in 1228. The development of the notion of lineages is discussed by Dumoulin.

Siddhattha’s practice of samadhi

Siddhattha attained samādhi as a child, and then again under his early teachers. When he was near the night of his Awakening, he recollected the jhana he experienced as a child, and realized that that was the path to Awakening. But why did he reject the experience under his early teachers, even though he reached even higher levels of samādhi, the formless attainments? I can make sense of this only in consideration of the broader context.

When he realized the attainment of jhana as a child his mind was free of theories and control. He was alone under the tree, that is, in the realm of nature. But the event was an ‘accident’. His attainment was part of the intuitive cycle of nature, and as a child he had no way of understanding or reflecting on what had happened.

Under his teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Udaka Rāmaputta, however, he first learnt the theory, that is, the rational explanation of his mystical experiences. This point is emphasized in the original text, but ignored by most discussions of this point. It was that very theory that prevented these meditations from ripening in full Awakening, presumably because they identified a purified state of consciousness with the Eternal Self. Hence he rejected, not the meditative experiences as such, but ‘that Dhamma’, that is, the religious system which framed the meditative experience within a particular dogmatic framework. He started his practice with wrong view, and hence his samādhi was wrong samādhi: it did not lead to insight.

In each case his experience was unbalanced: the jhana as a child came from naïve playfulness with no under­standing of the deeper existential implications; while the experience under his early teachers was dominated by an abstract metaphysic in a patriarchal context.

Now he can return to the same practice on a deeper level of under­standing. He developed the stages of jhana, inspired by his childhood experience in nature, but with equanimity, not allowing the pleasure to overpower his mind. He was mature, balanced, possessed of the objectivity that allowed him to reflect on the conditionality and nature of the samādhi experience. This became ‘right samādhi': it lead to liberating understanding.

Australian Defence Forces seek a Buddhist chaplain – any takers?

The number of Buddhists in the Australian Defence Forces has now exceeded 350. This means the ADF is seeking a chaplain to minister to their needs. This issue has been discussed a number of times over the years, but it is only now that the number of Buddhists is great enough that the ADF is actively seeking a chaplain for them.

The role would be as an officer, who would receive basic ‘brush & comb’ training in protocol and so on, but would not go through boot camp. They would minister to the spiritual needs of Buddhists in the Defence Forces – which, one can imagine, would be a tough call.

This call has come through the FABC. If anyone’s interested, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

In this Resource Package Related to Buddhist Chaplaincy, you’ll find an interesting selection of material on this issue, complied by the ADF.

Nibbana remains not Vinnana

And another thing…

When we’re trying to understand a subtle thing like Nibbana, we should know from the beginning that we can’t really capture it in words. Heck, I can’t even describe the taste of pesto, what hope Nibbana?

That doesn’t mean we should despair or just not even try. It means that we should have a reasonable humility. And it means that we shouldn’t muck up the few clear facts that we do have – like the fact that the Buddha spoke countless times of how all forms of vinnana are impermanent and suffering and not-self.

Another of the clear facts that we have is the basic distinction between Nibbana in this life and Nibbana after death. Consciousness still operates as long as life lasts, no more. Here I will set out the basic facts, for simplicity treating only the full Awakening of an arahant.

We can distinguish the following aspects.

1. The event of Awakening. This happens once only, when a person penetrates the truth and abandons all defilements. At that moment they have a clear vision of the four noble truths, and the impossibility of them being reborn. This is a conscious experience of utmost clarity and brilliance. Since the third noble truth is Nibbana, this event involves an awareness of Nibbana. This is primarily described as Nibbana in the sense of the ending of defilements.

2. The mind of an arahant. After Awakening, the arahant lives every day in mindfulness and peace. They are fully aware, fully conscious. Nibbana is ever-present in the sense that there is never any greed, hatred, or delusion. But the mind otherwise functions as normal – thinking, feeling, experiencing, remembering, imagining, and so on. An arahant is not continuously aware of the 4 truths, but will clearly perceive them whenever she turns her mind to them.

3. The meditative attainment of arahant-fruition. This is a profound meditative immersion accessible only to arahants. It is somewhat controversial, but has some basis in the Suttas. It is clear, however, that consciousness is still operating here: it is different from the cessation of perception and feeling.

All the above aspects pertain to the living arahant, and in all of them it is uncontroversial to say that there is consciousness – in fact all 5 aggregates.

Then there is the state of the arahant after death, sometimes called ‘parinibbana’, more technically ‘anupadisesanibbana’, ‘Nibbana without residue’. It is here that all forms of conscious experience, inclusive of the 5 aggregates, or citta, or whatever you wish to call it, stop utterly and finally. This is clear and unambiguous in the Suttas.

When passages such as the ‘anidassana vinnana’ or the ‘pabhassara citta’ are invoked to lend support for the notion that Nibbana is an eternal cosmic awareness that survives the death of an arahant, the first question we should ask is, ‘Do these phrases actually refer clearly to the state of an arahant after death?’ If they don’t, they are irrelevant to the problem. We all agree that an arahant is conscious before their death.

Arguments for the ‘eternal-consciousness Nibbana’ almost invariably tend to slip from talking about the citta or vinnana in this life to the state after death. It is a subtle sleight of hand, which pivots on the ambiguity of the term Nibbana, and is hidden by the conceptual fog that mere mention of the term evokes. Read the Wikipedia article for a good example of how this works.

Nibbana is an enigma, elusive, threatening, uncompromising. It will never be tamed, no matter how hard we try to pretend that it’s something like something. It’s not. It’s nothing like anything.