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.

23 thoughts on “On utilitarianism and climate change

  1. I love when you wrote this:

    “reasoned faith in a coherent moral order (kamma) secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.”

    Thank you Ajahn Sujato.

    This sums it up about any topic in the world. I’m an Agnostic for 33 years; since I was 17; I take from all beliefs as long as it is about ‘reason and peace’; like Gandhi stated something like all religions/ways of life can lead to Enlightenment.

    Do any of the monks in Australian (such as you; Ajahn Brahm; etc ever come to NYC? Do you list it anywhere..??

    Betty Ann

  2. Bhante, you wrote “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.”

    By logical entension we should treat all animals as precious sentient beings and avoid all slaughter for human consumption. This means giving up eating meat and becoming vegetarian or even vegan. I cannot see the carnist lifestyle compatible with the Buddhist practice especially in the practice of kindness and compassion. Why eat the meat of a slaughtered animal that wanted to live out its life to a natural death? That’s an indirect contribution to deliberate killing.

    Irrespective of what we believe the Buddha said about meat consumption the killing of an animal for food is a heinous act and Buddhists should not support the practice by buying and eating the flesh of an unfortunate victim.

    And while on the subject of climate change and global warming the livestock industry worldwide contributes at least 18% of all greenhouse gases. This figure exceeds the global transport industry according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in its report “Lifestock’s Long Shadow”. A new study “Lifestock and Climate Change” by the Worldwatch Institute says the 18% is underestimated and that it should be 51% i.e. the global lifestock industry contributes half of all greenhouse gases http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6294 . This is an additional reason to avoid eating meat if we are environmentally conscious.

    My hope is that more Buddhists will make the effort to better inform themselves on how our lifestyles affect greenhouse emissions and migrate to a more environmentally sustainable and humane eating pattern.

    • Thank you for that, Albert, i couldn’t agree more. The east asian Mahayana tradition is doing a great job in promoting vegetarianism, while the Theravada lags behind.

    • Hi Albert
      “killing of an animal for food is a heinous act” In my opinion this is an extreme position. Vegetarianism as a choice, fair enough, Producing food in a way that is friendly for our environment and sustainable, good idea. But vegetarianism as a moral position, which effectively condemns most of the planets inhabitants?

      Is a carnist lifestyle compatible with the Buddhist practice? From the position of Theravada I guess we would have to say that it is, both from the scriptual side and from the way that the religion has been lived.

  3. 1. Hot climates patently support more life than cold climates. If climate change makes places (on average) more like Thailand and less like Siberia, then the environmentalist should be in favor of significant climate change.

    2. The world cannot presently continue to industrialize without burning fossil fuels. A moral doctrine that opposes the use of fossil fuels is thus a moral doctrine that opposes industrialization. It is a moral doctrine that condemns billions of people, and their children, to a stunted life of rural subsistence agriculture.

    3. Climate change may prove to be a harmless catastrophe. If any of us should be alive in 100 years, we may look upon a world where coastlines have moved, temperatures have risen, and life and human civilization thrive as never before. We may look upon the uncanny ruins of cities lost to the sea, and then turn our gaze inland, to behold the new skylines that have grown up in their stead. We may visit the vast plains of Canada, and discover hundreds of millions of Bangladeshis living quite contentedly there, who will tell us pitiful stories about the hardships their grandparents endured in the old country, before, mercifully, it sank, and good riddance… We may look down from above upon the legions of robotic combines that meander through the less temperate regions of the Earth, reaping unprecedented harvests made possible by elevated temperatures, a CO2-rich atmosphere, and vast irrigation networks fed by coastal desalination plants. And so on, and so on.

    Of course, it is also conceivable that technological progress will stall, that humanity will be found to lack the flexibility and initiative required to cope with change. And it is also conceivable that climate change will ultimately turn out to be far less dramatic than we fear. It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future. But for my part, I am willing to pluck up my courage and cast my lot with industrial civilization. The rural poor have it bad, and they need all the help we can give. The security of stasis must be a luxury made for another age.

  4. I’m constantly amazed how often hard core vegetarians sound like fundamentalists.

    The Buddha taught in the Pali Cannon that intent is everything in karma and specifically addressed meat eating (Sujato, do you know which passages these are?). Moving away from intent to the belief that the karma of certain things is always negative moves the Buddha’s karma right back into the karma of the pre-Vedic and Jain religions, which the Buddha rejected.

    So I wouldn’t say that Theravada is behind the other forms of Buddhism, but just that as we read what we understand to be the Buddha’s teachings (the Pali Cannon), vegetarianism is not required of us nor was it required of the Sangha during the Buddha’s time. Perhaps the Pali Cannon is wrong, and the other versions of Buddhism are correct, but that is a whole other issue.

    If we agree that intent shapes karma, then the farmer plowing his field for soybeans (to make the soy milk for tofu) can be creating negative karma just as much as the butcher killing a pig. If he is plowing the field, enjoying the pain he is causing to to deer and other browsing animals as he plows their feed under the ground, or is enjoying the pain of the earthworms, beetles, ants, wasps, bees, grasshoppers, rodents, etc., etc., etc. as the plow destroys their homes, he is causing himself negative karma. If the farmer is applying pesticides and feels anger or hatred towards the sentient being (insects and birds) that are eating his crops, he is creating negative karma. If a person in their garden throws a slug or insect into a can of gasoline thinking, “damn bug”, then that person is creating negative karma.

    We kill a lot of things in order to live. Negative karma can creep in anywhere, not just when we kill mammals.

    As for M., I didn’t read all of your post because your first statement about how hot climates support more life than cold ones didn’t enthuse me about reading the rest. I would suggest that you catch up with your reading since science has shown that past a certain point the advantages of a warming climate and greater CO2 are offset by other factors such as the release of methane from previously frozen tundra, acidification of the ocean, water dead zones which support hydrogen sulfide (a deadly poison) producing bacteria, etc.


    • Alan said: “I’m constantly amazed how often hard core vegetarians sound like fundamentalists.” Conversely there are also hard core carnists who will defend their position at all costs.

      As for a farmer plowing his field making as much negative karma as a butcher killing a pig we have to look at intention. The pig was killed with deliberate intention to sell its body parts. A farmer plowing does not pluck out a victim to kill. When driving my car insects hit the windscreen and are killed but I did not have any intention to kill them so there is no negative karma there. Similarly for the farmer plowing.

      As to the Buddha’s position on meat eating there were no large scale industrial factory farming then. This kind of livestock farming only started in the last century and nowadays up to 95% of the meat, milk and eggs sold come from factory farms.

      It is well documented that this industry is exceedingly cruel to its livestock which are not allowed to exhibit natural foraging and nesting behaviour and instead are restricted to cramped and unsanitary conditions. Baby pigs have their teeth clipped and tails docked without anaesthetic. Chicks have their tips of their beaks cut off with a hot iron again without anaesthetic and these are just two examples among many. Lowly paid and poorly trained farm workers also subject the animals to abuse by hitting, kicking, whipping, yanking tails, throwing and slamming. All this is done behind closed doors out of sight to the public. And I haven’t even mentioned about the abuses and inhumane practises against animals in slaughter houses.

      So when you buy your meat, milk and eggs do you consider the cruelty behind their production or don’t care? If we Buddhists practice kindness and compassion then don’t we have an obligation to find out for ourselves what goes on behind unwelcome closed doors at the windowless production facilities?

      Finally I have a personal experience to tell. Some ten years ago when I was still a carnist I asked a senior monk of the Ajahn Chah school whether at mealtimes I should share my merits with the animals whose flesh I was eating. The answer gobsmacked me. He said that I should concentrate on the texture of the flesh and not think about the animal because that would make me sad. That advice proved useless and hastened my departure from carnism.

    • Ah, you missed my point. If the farmer does have hatred towards the animals that he is harming by plowing, then negative karma is “generated”. If his heart is filled with greed about all the money is going to be made off of the crop he is planting and he forgets or ignores the suffering, he is causing negative karma for himself. I got a feeling the later is pretty common. If those conditions are not met, he does not create negative karma. Same, actually for a butcher, if he could achieve it, which I think would be just about impossible.

      You assume farmers are without hate (or greed), but that is not true in my experience. I have known farmers who truly hate ground squirrels, bugs, birds and many other sentient beings that eat their crops and enjoy seeing them get their “up commence” whether by plowing, pesticides, or by going out with a 22 rifle and shooting them. Predator and “varmint” hunting/trapping is big in many farming areas and the rational is often to preserve the crops the farmer is growing (and to be fair, to protect the sheep or cattle the farmer/rancher is raising, also). On factory farms professional trappers sometimes are hired to keep the “varmint” level down.

      Some members of the Sangha during the Buddha’s time asked the Buddha to state that vegetarianism be required for members (at least so it states in the Pali Cannon, which may be wrong, of course). And that was done w/o factory farming being invented yet. The Buddha refused. “Intent, intent is everything” he said. So I think the impulse some vegetarian’s have to make everyone obey their moral direction is at least 2500 years old.

      But at least we agree on one thing, intent and the Buddha’s understanding of karma are intertwined, which is why you can drive a car, walk on a path without sweeping it clear of insects, eat meat (if the three conditions the Buddha set for that act are met), or eat vegetarian (remember, sentient beings died when raising your vegetarian food). That is a good start.

    • You are quite right to point out that a warmer world will lead, e.g., to the diminution of some species, the desertification of some regions, and even perhaps to the emergence of formidable oceanic ‘dead zones’ (although you will no doubt admit that the arguments for the latter are somewhat weaker than those for the others.)

      But a warmer world will also lead to the proliferation of countless other species; it will make regions that are now brutally cold and harsh come alive; and in particular it will bolster the numbers of the higher forms of life, such as mammals, birds, and reptiles, that are most valued by the environmentalist. I think it is quite likely (and I hope that you will follow me far enough to agree that it is at least within the realm of plausibility) that even significant climate change will be a net gain for the environment.

      One may of course propose doomsday scenarios that moot these points, but so long as the reasoning and evidence that establishes their likelihood remains of a more speculative nature, the fact that such outcomes can be conceived will not lead reasonable people to make the enormous sacrifices required to (perhaps) diminish their probability. All sorts of things may go very wrong in a world as unpredictable and poorly understood as ours. The future is incorrigibly dangerous; no human policy can make it safe.

      Disagree with some or all of this if you like. The remainder of my post, had you bothered to read it, you would have found to be concerned with the effect of climate change, and the policies proposed to prevent it, not upon the welfare of the environment at large, but specifically upon human life, and even more specifically upon the penurious lives of the billions of people who are now trapped in places that have not yet been graced by the frenzy of carbon-fueled capital investment that has made the rich world such a comfortable and economically secure place to live, and is even now, at the margin, bringing more and more of the world’s population within the fold of material prosperity.

      I contend that dramatic climate change is, in fact, probably compatible with the continuation of a large and flourishing human civilization. And I further contend that the policies that have been proposed to subdue the magnitude of climate change represent a repudiation of our civilization. Not only would the end of fossil fuels put on indefinite hold the extension of industrial civilization to those who now suffer viscerally, in their spirit and flesh, every rough day of their lives, in its absence, but the cowardice and callousness displayed by those who would countenance this retreat would belie the values of courage and humaneness upon which our civilization must be founded if we are to respect ourselves and survive.

      Every ton of coal that is burned to build roads, houses, schools, restaurants, stores, mills, plants and factories in places far removed from the ethical consciousness of the rich-world elite amounts to a little victory against needless human misery, against the stultifying, backbreaking tyranny of the fields. It is rude capital investment that opens the door to artistic, cultural, spiritual and intellectual development, because it is only by means of a massive stock of capital that our labor can be made productive enough to leave us time for more refined pursuits.

      This post has ended up rather polemical. I will conclude. I believe that the opponents of fossil fuels have wh0lesome intentions. I believe that they are oblivious to the grievous harm that the policies they advocate will impose upon the most vulnerable people in our world. Most of them probably imagine that the parties who stand to gain from the continued use of coal and oil are either interested businessmen or people who are attached to their enormous suburban houses and pickup trucks, and that an end to the use of fossil fuels would therefore merely mean that such interests would take a loss and such people would have to get used to living in ecologically sensible apartments and driving cute electric cars. And this is a tragic misapprehension.

    • @ Alan
      I had posed these questions: So when you buy your meat, milk and eggs do you consider the cruelty behind their production or don’t care? If we Buddhists practice kindness and compassion then don’t we have an obligation to find out for ourselves what goes on behind unwelcome closed doors at the windowless production facilities?

      I will add another one. Are the miserable lives of factory farmed animals not a consideration of what you choose to eat? What’s your answer to these questions?
      These are questions about ethics and not about the Buddha words in the Pali Canon.

      To even up my earlier comment about the Theravadan monk I now relate another experience this time with a Tibetan Buddhist nun some four years ago when I asked her publicly her views on vegetarianism. She said that one person, namely myself, is not going to have any impact on the number of animals killed and it would make no difference whatsoever. Well how wrong she was because if she had taken the trouble to inform herself she could have easily found out that a person abstaining from meat for one year will avoid the deaths of approximately 100 animals. Of course we are not talking of absolute numbers because of the different appetites and meat preferences but the number is significant for just one person.

      And while we are talking of crop farming 90% of the corn and soy beans planted in the USA is used for cattle feed instead of feeding people. So the vast majority of the animals being killed by plowing, insecticides and pesticides result from the production of animal flesh. The rule of thumb is that 10 kilos or pounds of grain are required to produce just one kilo or pound of beef. Therefore when you eat your beef ten times more animals have died compared to you eating grain. And we have not even considered the amount of water and fuel used to produce the beef.

    • Albert, Your concern for the well being of all creatures is admirable. I think that the way that food is produced, it’s impact on the environment as well as the ethical issues associated, are issues which we all need to reflect on. To live our life in a way that doesn’t leaving a heavy mark on the planet is a noble ambition and one that is appropriated for this time.

  5. While I appreciate that people may have to eat meat, intention is the main factor and there are situations that through ignorance and necessity people kill animals, and even other people, any person that would consciously kill and animal and eat it (when it is not out of necessity or ignorance) I personally believe (no matter how accomplished worldly/academically) they would have to have a barbaric mentality and therefore be a “barbarian”.

    • Having said that to turn to vegetarian and just eat rice or vegetables and pouring fat ladened sauces on everything is dangerous too. Combining rice and lentils to make a proten, or tofu, soybean, chickpeas with rice and vegatables or something with soy sauce or whatever is necessary and doing some study or research into what makes a good vegetarian meal is necessary or you can get sick or people either get very fat or very thin, so it needs to be done carefully and properly.

      This would be even more necessary when feeding sangha I would imagine and sometimes it might be necessary just to start by jut cutting back on meat and seeing a dietian or nutritionist or something first maybe.

  6. Hi Albert, those are very good questions.

    But you need the ask the same of yourself. Factory farming is not limited to raising meat. The soybeans that a vegetarian eats probably came from a factory farm, in fact large Chinese Agribusinesses (factory farms) are buying up land throughout the world to grow soybeans. A lot of this land will be removed from forests and other uses to grow soy. Massive amounts of pesticides, and fertilizer will be used, killing millions of insects, rodents, birds, fish, and other living creatures. Factory farmers are also pushing very hard to use Round-Up resistant soy to increase yields. They are displacing the native farmers and making it difficult for them to survive.

    Factory farming. Factory meat raising. People raising food in all forms are acting in a greedy or hate filled manner.

    Now, if you or I know about the damage that factory farming and factory meat cause and don’t make a choice to avoid them are we responsible karmicly (is that a word ;))? That is a very interesting question and I’m not sure I have a good answer.

    The Buddha (in the Pali Cannon at least) gave three criteria about when a person can eat meat. Quoting from memory, and I may have missed something, the are (1) the animal could not have been killed and butchered specifically for you nor can you believe the animal has been killed for you, (2) you can not select the animal, and (3) you can not see the act of killing nor hear the cries of the animal being slaughtered. Generally, meat bought in a market are thought to pass these three criteria.

    Now, as a thought experiment, you live in the time of the Buddha, long before factory farming was invented, and you were given meat to be eaten. You believe the animal was raised and killed in a cruel manner. How does this fit into the three criteria the Pali Cannon has passed down to us? Why didn’t the Buddha add a forth criteria about whether the animal was treated cruelly.

    Perhaps the translation is not completely accurate and the term translated as “hear the cries of the animal” can also be taken metaphorically to mean that you have no reason to believe the animal was treated cruelly. I honestly don’t know. How does the knowledge of cruelty change our intent?

    My personal action is to avoid food, meat, egg, or vegetable, that I believe was raised or grown on a factory farm.

    My point for all the vegetarians out there is that the situation is not as cut and dried as many of you make it out to be. My impression (and this may not be true of any of the readers of this post) is that for many vegetarians compassion ends at mammals. But both when raising and butchering meat, AND when raising crops, sentient beings are INTENTIONALLY killed. Intentionally butchered, poisoned, burned, picked off of plant leaves and thrown into a vat to die and be made into compost, etc. etc. The difference is that when raising crops many of the sentient beings killed are insects. Well, in my book, they count too. Just as much as the pig or cow.

    And we (all of us) should be careful not to use language that dehumanizes anybody (for example, Barbarians, Huns, Nips, Sand N*****s). Dehumanizing language is always the first step to hatred.

    My 2-cents.


    • Alan, I will try to answer in the same order as you wrote.

      1. Factory farming is clearly limited to the raising of farm animals and does not extend to crops.

      2. The Oxford Dictionary defines factory farming as:
      “A system of rearing livestock using industrial or intensive methods, by which poultry, pigs, or cattle are confined indoors under strictly controlled and often cramped conditions. It is strongly opposed by those concerned with animal welfare. Also called battery farming.”

      3. Most consumers do have a choice in avoiding pesticides, insecticides and artificial fertilisers in their food by buying certified organic produce. They also have a choice to avoid genetically modified food. I buy organic and non-GM food as much as possible.

      4. As to the Buddha’s attitude to meat consumption it is a given in the Vinaya that he allowed it and I do not question that. In fact a Buddhist can eat meat to his heart’s delight and not break the 5, 8 or even 227 precepts. Lots of Buddhists, monastic and lay justify their meat consumption on this basis. But that’s not the point. By narrowing their focus on just eating the flesh of animals the bigger picture is missed namely how the animals were raised and slaughtered. These are important ethical issues that I have mentioned in previous comments and I don’t need to explain them further here. It also further impacts on the development of kindness, (Platonic) love and compassion which are core Buddhist values.

      5. Why didn’t the Buddha add a fourth criteria about whether the animal was treated cruelly? Who knows but he said to let the Dhamma guide you. It took quite a few years to inform myself as factory farms and slaughterhouses actively keep outsiders away but I managed to read sufficient public documents to decide to cut out meat. Like I said in a past comment the consumption of meat became incompatible with the practice.

      6. For vegetarians compassion does not end with mammals but extends to all life, exactly as Buddha taught.

      7. I repeat that it requires up to 10 kilos of grain to produce just one kilo of animal flesh and also up to 10 times as much water and fossil fuel to produce the same quantity of meat compared to grain. So in producing the same quantity of meat compared to grain up to 10 times as many animals die. Add to that the pain and suffering of factory farmed animals denied natural behaviours and a natural lifespan. So pick your choice.

    • Albert, “the consumption of meat became incompatible with the practice”. It became incompatible with your practice. Eating meat and being a Buddhist are compatible.

      I would also question “Most consumers do have a choice” + “For vegetarians compassion does not end with mammals but extends to all life, exactly as Buddha taught.” , what is the flip side and implications of that statement?

  7. It appears that there are two extremes, one side decided that meat should be forbidden the other side think that it is fine to eat meat. What is the middle path ?

    There is a belief that forbidding people from eating meat is the way to spiritual progress. The ones that are vegetarian due to the rule sometimes think that they are more holy or spiritually advance than the people who aren’t. However, that is not necessarily the case according to the Mahasihanada Sutta:

    There are people who “eats no fish or meat and drinks no rum or spirits or fermented rice- gruel. ….Or a person becomes a herb-eater, a millet-eater, an eater of water -plants, or rice-husk-powder, or rice-scum, of flowers of oil-seeds, of forest roots and fruits, who drinks no cold water…” , etc.. as a practice.

    According to the Buddha, a person ” may do all these things, but if his morality , his heart and his wisdom are not developed and brought to realization, then indeed he is still far from being an priest or contemplative. But, Kassapa, when a monk develops non- enmity, non ill-will and a heart full of loving-kindness and , abandoning the corruptions, realizes and dwells in the uncorrupted deliverance of mind, the deliverance through wisdom, having realized it in this very life by his won insight.”- Mahasihanada Sutta

    Just because a person eat meat does not mean that they are mean or immoral. In the same way, it is possible for a person to be a vegetarian and yet engages in impure words, thoughts , and action. For example, Hitler is a vegetarian and yet he can be verbally and physically abusive towards human. Eating meat does not make you a failure in the spiritual path, and eating vegetarian does not mean that a person is peaceful or non-violent, or succeed in the spiritual path.

    It is clear that forbidding people from eating meat does not help to purify people of inner defilements that obstruct progress on the spiritual path . Maybe this is one of the various reasons why the Buddha did not feel the need to lay down a rule forbidding people from eating meat eating. However, he clearly said that those who kill other beings for consumption or offering will give rise to future disadvantage due to the act of killing living beings or ordering a living creature to be killed:

    “If anyone slaughters a living being for sake of the Tathagata or any of his disciples, he thereby creates much demerit in these five instances: When he says: Go and fetch that living sentient being this is the first instance in which he lays up much demerit. When that living being experiences pain and fear on being led along by the neck, this is the second instance in which he lays up much demerit.
    When he says: Go and slaughter that living sentient being this is the third instance in which he accumulates much demerit. When that living being experiences pain and panic on being killed, this is the fourth instance in which he lays up much demerit. When he provides the Tathagata or his disciples with such food that is not permitted, which is unsuitable & unacceptable, this is the fifth instance in which he collects much demerit.
    Anyone who slaughters a living being for sake of the Tathagata or any of his disciples creates future disadvantage on these five occasions… “- Jivaka Sutta

    Nowadays, we rarely have to worry about this because there is no need to hunt and the meat can be purchased in markets. Does the Buddha endorse his lay disciples to engage in selling meat in the market? The Vanijja Sutta clearly shows that it goes against Right Livelihood of the Eightfold Path:

    “A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.” – AN 5.177 : Vanijja Sutta

    It is clear that the Buddha neither endorse that people kill living beings, order them to be killed , or sell the meat of living beings for others to purchase.

    Also, Right Intention is part of the Eightfold Path. One of the three right intention taught by the Buddha is the intention of Harmlessness. It is wishing others be free from suffering. Compassion is empathy with those afflicted by suffering. It has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. Compassion springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear, sorrow, and other form of dukkha.

    In an effort to put our intention of harmlessness and intention of good will / metta into practice, we should be mindful of the food we eat to minimize harm for other living beings. In this way , we develop both internally ( compassion, right thought, intention) and externally ( minimizing dukkha and harm for others through our action and choices), since eating vegetarian simply because we are being forbid does not help us progress in the spiritual path.

    It is recommended ( not have to) that people choose to eat vegetarian as an expression of an inner compassion and intention of harmlessness. If people have the intention but are in a habit of eating meat or find it difficult , maybe start with one day a week or so.

    • Hi imeditation,

      I think alot of vegatarians are just thinking of it from the point of view of the animal, their suffering., not necessarily what they might gain from not eating meat.

      What right do people have to make animals – sentient beings suffer like that for a bit of food when at least in the West there is plenty – i wasn’t suggesting that it would lead to awakening or anything or that it should be forced; although it does seem odd that Governments and people are forcing others to give up smoking even near other people incase they ‘breath in a bit of smoke’ or something and this is morally ‘good’ and ‘correct’ but that people can defend carnivores and the suffering that meat eating can inflict on animals .

      People can be morally outraged by a person hitting someone else or yelling at someone then go and sit down and eat meat, or kill an animal? …animals are sentient beings too.

      Kind Regards

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