UK Murder rate rose 5% last year?

So says the Guardian, normally one of the more reliable sources of news around.

But, adds the subheading, overall crimes are stable, or even falling despite the August riots. Of course, since many people won’t get as far as the subheading, they’ll miss this point.

And the 5% increase in murder rate? It’s actually a 5% increase in the number of murders in the year. The murder rate is the number of murders in a year per population. So what is happening to the murder rate?

Here’s Wikipedia’s data on the murder rates in the UK from 2000-2009: (This data is convenient to copy here, but note that it is not identical with the Home Office’s figures, available here.

1.71 1.79 2.1 1.75 1.60 1.38 1.42 1.46 1.26 1.17

So the murder rate has been falling for a decade. And the ‘5% increase’ is compared with 2009/2010, which had the lowest number of murders in 11 years, according to the Guardian; but according to the Home Office’s own figures, 2010 was the lowest since 1990. In fact the UK murder rate has been pretty much stable, apart from an increase for a few years around 2002, since the 1960s. The Home Office analysis discusses the trends in homicide:

One can assess from this analysis that the number of homicide incidents recorded in 2010/11 was not statistically significantly different to the number of homicide incidents in 2009/10 or 2008/09, despite the actual number of incidents having risen by three per cent since 2009/10. However, the number of homicide incidents recorded in 2010/11 was statistically significantly lower than the number of incidents recorded in 2006/07 and 2007/08, and those recorded between 2000/01 and 2004/05. This means the risk of becoming a victim of homicide was, in fact, lower for 2010/11 compared with those earlier years.

In other words, there’s no statistical significance to the increase. Oh, and this also clarifies that actual increase in murder rates, as opposed to number of murders, was 3%, not 5%.

So the Guardian’s heading was both factually wrong and misleading. The actual situation is that crime levels are fairly stable in the long term. But even for a respectable media outlet like the Guardian, that doesn’t make much of a headline.

All this is just one example of a trend in the (mis)reporting of violence and crime. We are constantly being told how the world is getting more violent – but the statistics tell a different story.

Do you have any other examples?

Just War in theory and practice.

Some time ago I wrote a post detailing why I was opposed to the notion of a ‘just war’: essentially because the theory is basically a blueprint for ideological justification of war. Here’s an example of what I was getting at.

In a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Cardinal Pell said that he opposed the war in Iraq, but believed the war in Afghanistan was justified.

So congrats on not supporting Iraq. Pell is not alone: 36 million people protested that war, but it just sailed ahead anyway.

What of Afghanistan? Let’s consider this in light of Catholic just war theory. Please remember that I am not endorsing this, or any other, theory of a just war – I oppose them all. Nor do I have any special agenda in mentioning the Catholic approach – it is just that Pell’s statement came to my attention, and the Catholics have a well-articulated theory of just war, which was the blueprint for the modern secular treatment.

The reasons for thinking Afghanistan more justified than Iraq are clear enough. The 9/11 attack was, in fact, initiated by Al Qaeda while they were being sheltered under the Taliban. With the best will in the world it is difficult to imagine that the Taliban could have been reasonable or responsible partners in any negotiations to bring Al Qaeda to justice.

Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11, and never posed any serious threat to the US, which is why a tissue of lies had to be invented to persuade the public to support the invasion. So while Pell’s opposition to the Iraq invasion is good, it hardly constitutes a vindication of just war theory. That war was obviously immoral, and no sophisticated analysis is needed to understand why.

Okay, so here’s the basic principles of Catholic just war theory, considered in the case of the Afghanistan war. According to catholicism.org, ‘the following conditions of a just war must be considered before deciding to go to war. All of these conditions must be present at one and the same time.’

  • Just cause: force may be used only to correct an evil to the nation or community that is lasting, grave, and certain.

Let’s allow this one. The attack on 9/11 was devastating and horrific, and while it has played a vastly disproportionate role in global events since then, there is no doubt that 9/11, and future potential attacks, demanded an effective response.

  • All other means of securing or defending its rights must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

Again, let’s allow this one. It’s difficult to be certain, as there is always another way; but the Taliban really were pretty impossible and it is difficult to see any other course of effective action.

  • There must be a serious probability of success.

This is where I would say the adventure in Afghanistan was totally misguided. There never was any prospect for genuine long-term success, and this is still true today. The US presence will fade away, the bitterness of the war will remain, and the extremists will regroup. Understand that ‘success’ here does not mean putting in schools for the Afghanis or making better conditions for women. If these things happen, then that’s terrific, but the war was not waged to improve the lives of the Afghani people, nor should war ever be waged for such purposes (according to the first principle above). The war was waged to get revenge on Al Qaeda and prevent future terrorist attacks, and needs to be assessed in that light. Al Qaeda has been massively damaged and Bin Laden killed, but the ‘terrorist threat’, according to people who believe in such things, has not significantly fallen. And for those of us who look to the causes of conflict, not just the effects, who can doubt that a whole new generation of extremists has been born out of the seething resentment at the unjust invasion and often horrific abuses? And meanwhile, thousands keep dying every year…

  • Proportionality: the expected good to be achieved must be greater than the destruction and disorder that will be caused by the use of force. (Modern weapons of mass destruction must be seriously considered when evaluating this condition.)

This criterion was clearly not met in Afghanistan. It is, of course, impossible to truly understand the scale of destruction that is caused by a war such as this, so let us keep the task manageable by relying on one reasonably quantifiable measure: the number of deaths.

The deaths from 9/11 were around 3000, so the deaths from any response to that should be similar. But this is not the case. Civilian deaths are in the order of 17,000-37,000; and I find the saddest part of that is the sheer volume of the uncertainty. In the majority of cases, no-one really knows. The real figure is probably much, much larger.

The coalition military deaths totalled 2765 by the end of 2011; that is, as many invading forces have died as perished in the attacks on 9/11. At least we know who these are, for these are people with actual names and lives, not just a faceless ‘enemy’ whose dead are not even worth counting.

In addition, between 36,482 and 40,658 Taliban have been killed. Interestingly, it is much harder to find these statistics than for the civilian or coalition deaths. The Taliban are the devil, so who cares how many die? Well, their mothers do. And the sisters and brothers and fathers and friends of the dead, most of whom, as always, were young and naive men pressured to go off and fight for what someone else has told them is just and right.

The total casualties would therefore be at least 60,000, probably 100,000 or more. In any case, with due allowance for margins for error, the number of deaths is massively disproportionate as compared to the initial attack.

  • Force may be used only as a last resort.

I have my doubts over this one, but let’s allow it to be generous.

So there we have it. According to the tenets of the Catholic just war theory, the war in Afghanistan is clearly unjust, as it fails to meet the criteria of having a ‘serious probability of success’, and of being proportional. Failing just one of these is enough to render it an ‘unjust war’. I think there may be room for disagreement as to the probability of success, but not regarding proportionality. This is so clear cut as to be beyond any reasonable doubt.

And yet Cardinal Pell supports it. Why? Because the purpose of just war theory, when it comes right down to it, is to justify war. If the theory doesn’t fit the current war, then it can be ignored or argued around. The nominal purpose of the theory is to clarify thinking so as to make a proper moral decision in a difficult situation. But in practice, it doesn’t work.

The Better Angels

A while ago we had some discussion of Steven Pinker’s thesis that violence is in decline. The book continues to provoke and raise important questions of ethics, consciousness, and history. Pinker has a new article in the Guardian; where also Madeleine Bunting has kicked off a series of articles discussing the book and its implications. Her article also has a lot of links to online discussions, including this lengthy and positive review article by Peter Singer.

Singer emphasizes the role that an emerging universal ethics has in reducing violence. Increasingly, so the thesis goes, we think not just of our good and the good of our family or tribe, but of the good of the whole world. Now, where have I heard that before?

Would the Buddha occupy?

The occupy movement has spread out from Wall Street to many parts of the world, including a modest presence in Australia. The most interesting events from a religious point of view are the will-they-won’t-they vacillations by the Anglican Church in response to the camp of protesters at St Pauls. Symon Hill in the Guardian makes the rather obvious point: since Jesus smashed up the temple, wouldn’t he be more interested in the issues of poverty and greed that the Occupiers are raising than with the fall in revenue dollars for the cathedral? Despite the absurd claims of the prosperity gospel types, Jesus didn’t believe in supply side economics. He stood on the side of the poor and the dispossessed.

What about the Buddha? As a contemplative, his main focus was on meditation and finding freedom from samsara. But he was far from indifferent to social concerns, and there are many suttas that speak of this. I will just draw attention now to a crucial passage in the Agganna Sutta. The Buddha is speaking of how society evolves – or devolves – in response to the choices people make.

“Now it occurred to one of those beings who was inclined to laziness: ‘Well now, why should I be bothered to gather rice in the evening for supper and in the morning for breakfast? Why shouldn’t I gather it all at once for both meals?’ And he did so. Then another one came to him and said: ‘Come on, let’s go rice-gathering.’ ‘No need, my friend, I’ve gathered enough for both meals.’ Then the other, following his example, gathered enough rice for two days at a time, saying: ‘That should be about enough.’ Then another being came and said to that second one: ‘Come on, let’s go rice-gathering.’ ‘No need, my friend, I’ve gathered enough for two days.’ However, when those beings made a store of rice and lived on that, husk-powder and husk began to envelop the grain, and where it was reaped it did not grow again, and the cut place showed, and the rice grew in separate clusters.

“And then those beings came together lamenting: ‘Wicked ways have become rife among us: at first we were mind-made, feeding on delight……and the rice grows in separate clusters. So now let us divide up the rice into fields with boundaries.’ So they did so.

“Then, Vasettha, one greedy-natured being, while watching over his own plot, took another plot that was not given to him, and enjoyed the fruits of it. So they seized hold of him and said: ‘You’ve done a wicked thing, taking another’s plot like that! Don’t ever do such a thing again!’ ‘I won’t’, he said, but he did the same thing a second and a third time. Again he was seized and rebuked, and some hit him with their fists, some with stones, and some with sticks. And in this way, Vasettha, taking what was not given, and censuring and lying, and punishment, took their origin.

“Then those beings came together and lamented the arising of these evil things among them: taking what was not given, censuring, lying and punishment. And they thought: ‘Suppose we were to appoint a certain being who would show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment! And in return, we would grant him a share of the rice.’ So they went to the one among them who was the handsomest, the best-looking, the most pleasant and capable, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the rice, and he agreed.

“‘The People’s Choice’ is the meaning of Maha-Sammata, which is the first regular title to be introduced. ‘Lord Of The Fields’ is the meaning of Khattiya, the second such title. And ‘He Gladdens Others With Dhamma’ is the meaning of Raja, the third title to be introduced. This, then, Vasettha, is the origin of the class of Khattiyas, in accordance with the ancient titles that were introduced for them. They originated among these very same beings, like ourselves, no different, and in accordance with Dhamma, not otherwise.

So here we have it. Violence is caused by inequality, which is prompted by greed and laziness. One of the key junctures is the marking out of the earth: taking the abundance offered by nature, and claiming it as personal property. It is specifically in response to such strife that a legitimate (‘Dhammic’) government is formed, elected by the will of the people to ensure justice and peace for all. The purpose of government, the prime reason for it to exist, is to protect those who are the victims of exploitation.

So, I have no doubt the Buddha would be sympathetic to the ideals of the Occupy movement. Their main issue is how obscene, unregulated greed has created vast inequality, impoverishing the 99% while the 1% grow ever richer. I’m not sure whether he would be down in Wall St right now – somehow I think protests weren’t his thing. But he was a surprising man, so who knows?

Nuns and Rape

There has been an international response to the horrific gang rape of a nun in Nepal as I reported earlier. It is terrible that it takes such an extreme case to draw attention to what has been an ongoing problem for many years. Nevertheless it’s good that something is finally happening. A new article suggests that the Nepalese authorities have finally offered to provide her with free medical care. There has been significant international interest in pursuing this case, and I will keep you up to date.

Here is an article I wrote a number of years ago in response to this issue. It is a revised portion of Chapter 4 of the book Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies (Santipada).


In some countries, such as India, nuns have been raped and subsequently forced or encouraged to disrobe, being told that they have broken the basic precept for their celibate life (pārājika 1), and can no longer continue to live as a nun. This has caused a tremendous degree of distress and trauma, and moreover creates a climate where nuns fear to report any attacks, which can further encourage would-be rapists. But the Vinaya is not so cruel, and deals with rape in a compassionate way, allowing the nun, who is the victim not the perpetrator, to continue her spiritual path.

The position of the Vinayas on this point is quite straightforward, so we will simply present some relevant Vinaya passages from the Vinayas of the three main traditions: the Pali Vinaya of the Theravada; the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as observed in the Chinese and related Mahayana traditions; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya as observed in the Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition.

Theravāda

The Pali version of bhikkhuni pārājika 1 specifies that a bhikkhuni only falls into an offense if she acts willingly. This is confirmed by actual examples in the Pali Vinaya where a bhikkhuni is raped:

Now on that occasion a certain student was infatuated with the bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā. And then that student, while bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā had entered the town for alms, entered her hut and sat down concealed. Bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā, returning from alms-round after her meal, washed her feet, entered the hut, and sat down on the couch. And then that student grabbed bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā and raped her. Uppalavaṇṇā bhikkhuni told the other bhikkhunis about this. The bhikkhunis told the bhikkhus about it. The bhikkhus told the Buddha about it. [The Buddha said:] ‘There is no offense, bhikkhus, since she did not consent’.1

Similarly, there are other cases of bhikkhunis who are raped, and in no instance is any offense or blame imputed to the bhikkhuni.2 This is entirely consistent with the application of the rule for bhikkhus, since whenever a bhikkhu had sexual intercourse or oral sex without his consent he was excused by the Buddha.3 Indeed, there is a series of cases where bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, sikkhamānas, sāmaṇeras, and sāmaṇerīs are abducted by Licchavī youths and forced to have sex with each other. In each case, if there is no consent there is no offense.4 This understanding is maintained in the Pali commentarial tradition.5

Dharmaguptaka

Unlike the Pali, the rule itself does not specify that the bhikkhuni is acting out of lust. However, this factor is found in the rule analysis, which specifies that a bhikkhuni must consent to penetration with sexual desire.6 Further, she must experience pleasure at the time of entering, remaining, or leaving in order for there to be an offense.7 This is made clear in the non-offense clause:

There is no offense if while asleep she does not know; if there is no pleasure; in all cases where there is no lustful thought.8

Mūlasarvāstivāda

Like the Dharmaguptaka, there is no specific mention of ‘desire’ in the rule formulation itself. But again the rule explanation makes the point clear.

If she is forced, then if she does not feel pleasure in the three times [i.e., when entering, staying, or leaving] there is no offense. The offender is to be expelled.9

This quote comes from the Chinese translation of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. I can’t read Tibetan, so I can’t confirm that the same passage is found in the Tibetan version, which is the normative Vinaya for the central Asian traditions. However, given how consistent the traditions are in this, as in all major points of Vinaya, there is no reason to think the Tibetan text is any different.

Who is to blame?

As suggested by the last case mentioned in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, in the case of rape, it is the rapist, not the victim, who is to blame. The Vinaya attitude towards rape of a bhikkhuni is uncompromising. A man who rapes a bhikkhuni cannot ever be ordained, and if they are ordained by mistake, they must be expelled.10 Similarly, a novice who rapes a nun must be expelled.11 The treatment of a rapist of bhikkhunis is treated in the same way as one who commits one of the 5 ānantarika acts (murdering one’s mother or father or an arahant, wounding a Buddha, and maliciously causing schism in the Sangha). Thus the rape of a bhikkhuni is regarded as one of the most heinous possible acts, with dreadful practical and kammic repercussions on the offender. When Uppalavaṇṇā was raped, the commentary tells us that the earth, unable to bear the weight of that evil, split in two and swallowed up the rapist, who immediately fell into hell. Never is the slightest blame attached to the victim of the rape.

The position of the Vinayas is thus clear and unanimous: there is no offense for a nun who is raped, and the blame must lie with the rapist. A nun, whose life is devoted to celibacy and non-violence, will feel shattered and deeply traumatized by rape. At that time she needs support from her friends and teachers in the holy life. As in all the Vinaya cases mentioned above, she need feel no shame or blame in talking about the rape honestly and openly with other nuns, and if need be, with monks as well. The friends and teachers of the victim need to extend the greatest possible compassion and support. They must clearly and consistently reassure the victim that she has done nothing wrong and has not in any way broken her precepts. It is important that the police are told about the rape, so they can try to prevent similar crimes in the future. The Sangha should investigate whether there is any ongoing danger to nuns in that situation, and should take steps to ensure their protection and safety.


1Pali Vinaya 3.35: ‘anāpatti, bhikkhave, asādiyantiyā’ti. NOTE: references to the Pali Vinaya are to the volume and page number of the PTS edition of the Pali text. References to the Chinese Vinayas are to the Taisho edition.

2Pali Vinaya 2.278, 2.280

3E.g. Pali Vinaya 3.36, 3.38, etc.

4Pali Vinaya 3.39

5E.g. Dvemātikapāḷī: chande pana asati balakkārena padhaṁsitāya anāpatti. (When there is no consent, but she is taken with force, there is no offence.)

6T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b5-6 : 比丘尼有婬心。捉人男根。著三處大小便道及口

7T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b12 ff.

8T22, no. 1428, p. 714, c7-9 : 不犯者。眠無所覺知不受樂一切無欲心

9T23, no. 1443, p. 914, b12: 若被逼者三時不樂無犯。逼他者滅擯

10Pali Vinaya 1.89

11Pali Vinaya 1.85

Gangraped Nepal nun now faces expulsion from nunnery

The Times of India reports a harrowing story of violence and ignorance. Please read it first before coming back to this post.


This story is shocking: for a woman, from a powerless and disadvantaged background, who has chosen to live a life of simplicity in accord with the precepts of her religion, to be so abandoned by those who should be protecting her.

This story is by no means unique. I have heard of such cases many times. The rejection and denial by the Buddhist authorities in such cases only fuels more attacks. The nuns know that if they are raped they will be expelled, so they do not report the attacks, and men come to know that they can rape nuns with impunity.

The Nepalese Buddhist authority says that such cases never came up in the Buddha’s time, and appears to be arguing that one has to be a virgin to be ordained. This is an astonishing level of ignorance – repeatedly refuted in the comments to the article (the blog commenters know more about Buddhism than the authorities…). Half an hour with a Vinaya book would have showed him that rape did in fact occur in the Buddha’s lifetime, and the Buddha was very clear: there is no offence for the victim, and the perpetrator has committed one of the most heinous crimes possible.

But it’s not the factual mistake that is the real worry: it’s the disturbing way that a half-baked allusion to a mythical past somehow acts as a blanket excuse for such unfeeling dismissal. Supposedly ‘Buddhist’ ideas are being used to diminish compassion and justify cruelty.

Rape is no surprise. It is, shamefully, a part of human life everywhere. The incidence of violent crimes against women is horrific, no matter where or when you live. But there are things that can be done about it, starting with identifying that the rapist is the criminal, and he should be punished, not the victim.

It is a long road, and there is no simple solution. As people committed to Buddhism as a spiritual path, we need to recognize the close links between the status of women in the Sangha and the wider picture of violence to women. If the patriarchs of a religion treat women like this, how can they expect to set an example for the rest of society? The outcome of the consistent denial of women’s equality and refusal to recognize the fullness of women’s humanity is all too predictable. Recent figures from the UN reveal that over 60% of men in Thailand think it is sometimes justifiable to beat your wife, a figure that is second worst in the world.

Now Thailand has a female Prime Minister. Yingluck said in an interview that there is equality for women in Thailand; this is true in law, but far from true in practice. Hopefully her presence will do some good.

We need to get over surprise and denial. Rape and violence against women is a sign of a mind that is sick. But such minds do not exist in isolation. They emerge from a culture where women are routinely objectified, denigrated, regarded as lesser – the Tibetan word for woman means ‘inferior birth’.

Denigration of women runs deep in Buddhist culture: it is there in the absence of women’s voices, in the texts that speak of women as ‘black snakes’, in the refusal to allow women ordination, in the persecution of those who speak up about discrimination, in the routine beatings in homes of ‘good Buddhists’, in the abominable trade in sex slaves in Buddhist countries, in the silence of the patriarchs on women’s issues, in the monopolization of resources and information by men, in menstruation and other taboos on women’s bodies, in the meditations on the ‘repulsiveness’ of female bodies, in the patronizing control rules of the garudhammas or Amaravati’s ‘Five Points’, in the inane locker-room talk of Buddhist men, in the routine externalization of male desire projected as emanating from the feminine, in the denigration of concern for women as ‘Western feminism’. And it is there, in its most brutal and pure form, in the gang rape and subsequent rejection of a young nun from the lowest class of society.

Not that this is in any way a ‘Buddhist’ problem. It is a human problem, which finds expression in just about every form of human culture. Western culture demeans and reduces women in its own ways, but until we get our act together we can’t hope to help others.

I’ve been through a slow, uncertain, and sometimes agonizing internal process. I gradually came to recognize how I was participating in the sexism of the Sangha culture I had joined, and started trying to untie it bit by bit, and to do what I can to help others. It is not obvious; it is a corruption deeply embedded in culture and language, and it erupts in feverish emotion whenever the pattern of denial is challenged.

The more I raised the question to consciousness, the more I realized how bizarre it all is. To treat or think of women as in any way ‘evil’ or ‘lesser’ is to regard half of humanity as somehow built wrong. It is as absurd as to criticize the sky for being inadequate, or the earth for being wrong. We need to stop participating in this madness. We need to speak out. We need to stop complying. We need to act.

UPDATE: The Nepal Buddhist Federation, who’s representative is quoted in the article, appears to be a legitimate body which is doing good work in Nepal. If you’d like to help go to their website and leave them a message asking them to reconsider their policy regarding nuns who have been raped. Here’s the message I left:

I am writing concerning the recent article in the Times of India concerning a nun who was gang raped and subsequently expelled from her monastery. A representative of your organization was quoted as saying that a nun who has been raped cannot continue to be a nun. This is not true: the 1st parajika offence for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis is only for consensual intercourse. In addition, it is not a compassionate and helpful attitude, which as you can see from the many comments to the article, has caused a great deal of criticism of Buddhism. I humbly beg you to reconsider your policy and urge that nuns who are the victims of such heinous crimes be accepted and cared for in their communities.

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.

Vardy vs. the Buddha

I’ve just come back from another interfaith event. This was the Studies of Religion in Focus Conference 2011, entitled Core Ethical Teachings, held in the New South Wales Parliament building (although the event was educational rather than political). A range of speakers from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism were invited to speak and discuss on certain ethical issues, especially as they pertain to the New South Wales high school syllabus for Studies of Religion. Key areas included sexual ethics, bioethics, and environmental ethics. I was invited to speak from a Buddhist perspective on sexual ethics. I don’t quite know why a celibate monk ended up speaking on this – is there some special kink here that I don’t know about?

As always, interfaith discussions revealed a range of rich and fruitful insights, but I want to specially focus on the contributions by the main speaker, Dr Peter Vardy. He’s an English theologian and educationalist of note, and gave two articulate and persuasive speeches that dominated the main event. His position seemed to be received very well, but I had some serious concerns with his approach, which I’d like to discuss here.

Vardy wants to bring education back to focus on the whole person. He despises the fragmenting and degrading of education, the relentless focus on performance and outcomes, and speaks eloquently of an education that draws students on to their highest potential. These ideas found a strong resonance with the audience, who were mainly teachers of religion in high schools. I couldn’t agree more with this critique, and have believed the same thing since, well, since I was in high school.

The problem lies with Vardy’s analysis of the cause of the problem, and his consequent inability to propose any persuasive solution. He points to the modernist and post-modernist trends, the loss of a center of values, and the relativization of all morals. He argues that if we adhere to a purely ‘relativist’ postion on morality, we have no solid ground with which to withstand evil. His litany of evils included the usual suspects: Hitler, Pol Pot, modern art, the sexualization of teenage girls. In his own words, and his own emphasis, ‘WE ARE IN A MESS!!!’; and post-modern relativism is to blame. The solution is some kind – and here Vardy was quite timid as to details – of absolutist ethics, a rock solid ground of morality.

I beg to respectfully disagree. The reason for the arising of relativism was the failure of absolutist ethics. Lest we forget, the era of absolutism was the era when my own view was right, and anyone else was a heretic. The inevitable outcome of that attitude, when combined with technological superiority, was colonialism, with its program of imposing European Christianity on the rest of the world.

Vardy laments the intellectual vacuity of relativism, bemoaning the tendency for young people to just say, ‘Well, I’ve got my view and you’ve got yours, and everyone is entitled to their own view’.

I agree with him: this kind of relativism is shallow, and is usually little better than an avoidance of seriously grappling with the issues. But Vardy, I believe, seriously misrepresents the context in which this kind of dialogue operates. It has not risen as a replacement for serious intellectual discussion; rather, it replaces dogmatism and ignorance. In past ages, only a tiny fraction of the population received a higher education, and our record of intellectual activity is the record of the intellectual elite. Now the debate is broadened, and millions of voices who were previously silent can suddenly be heard – in classrooms where their opinion is sought, or blogs or Facebook. The quality of debate should not be compared with the Socratic dialogues, but with the chatter in the market or the village square.

From this perspective, to say, ‘Everyone’s entitled to their own views’ is actually a tremendous advance. It requires a degree of empathy, of understanding that there are many people in the world of different views, that different societies function in different, but equally valuable ways. Perhaps even more significant, it acknowledges that my views are a construct of my mind and environment, that they are conditioned, partial, and subject to change.

By all means, let’s not rest content here. Let’s delve meaningfully, rationally, and compassionately, get underneath our surface views and see where the real problems lie. But let’s not ignore the very genuine developmental achievement that relativism signifies.

Vardy seems to assume that all religions share his horror of post-modernism and relativism, and the modern ‘utilitarian’ ethics that these accompany. I would argue, on the contrary, that Buddhism ethics have always been relativistic and utilitarian. The problem does not lie with these tendencies as such, and therefore the solution does not lie in a return to absolutism. The problem is that these tendencies are still immature, and need to broaden and deepen.

What do I mean when I say that Buddhist ethics are relativistic and utilitarian? Let’s start with utilitarianism.

In the West this is associated with English philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham. According to Wikipedia, Bentham argued:

in favour of individual and economic freedom, usury, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children. Although strongly in favour of the extension of individual legal rights, he opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights, calling them “nonsense upon stilts.”

As such, he is diametrically opposed to Vardy’s call for a return to ‘natural rights’, a morality grounded on an absolute, timeless sense of right and wrong.

This is not the place to debate Bentham, but it is interesting to note how many of his moral positions have come to define our progressive modern society. I for one agree with him on every one of these points. The very fact that he had to argue for these things, which seem self-evident, points to the failings of the absloutist morality which prevailed in Europe before his time.

Bentham’s approach is that what is right is what brings the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. The great virtue of this approach is that it is grounded on a clear and recognizable reality, the experience of pleasure and pain. The Buddha explicitly grounded his morality on the same principle: What is good (kusala, literally ‘skillful’) is what leads to happiness.

There are various theoretical problems with utilitarianism, perhaps the most pressing of which is the nature of pleasure. No-one wants a morality that leads straight to hedonism, so any utilitarian philosophy must lead to the psychology of pleasure, and specifically, it must account for different qualities of pleasure; the instant gratification of eating ice-cream versus the peace of a life well-lived, for example.

As I understand it, every spiritual tradition does in fact have some such analysis, and recognizes that short term hedonic stimulation must often be restrained for the sake of long term happiness of a more meaningful sort. Certainly the Buddha, as a direct consequence of his utilitarian ethics, developed a sophisticated psychology of pleasure, evolving and deepening at each stage of the spiritual path.

This is clearly an issue for we moderns, and there is no doubt the nature of pleasure and gratification needs a serious deepening. But this is not a flaw with the utilitarian approach as such, it is just that, like any moral philosophy, its application in the real word is messy and inadequate, and it needs time to grow into its potential.

While the Buddha’s ethics were a form of utilitarianism, this is not exactly the same as Bentham’s. Most important is the incorporation of kamma, which is firmly based on utilitarian principles: do good and you’ll be happy. The ideas of kamma and rebirth are intrinsic to a full understanding of the Buddha’s ethical teachings, and as such cannot provide a basis for ethics for those who don’t believe in these things. Nevetheless, the workings of kamma and rebirth are simply an extension of principles that can be observed here in this life. When the Buddha encouraged ethical conduct, he typically gave a list of utilitarian reasons, culminating in a good rebirth. In addition, for practicing Buddhists, ethical conduct is the foundation for all higher spiritual development. So Buddhist utilitarianism is still applicable and relevant within an entirely secular context, but within the context of the path as a whole it takes on an even deeper signifiicance.

Turning to relativism, as is well-known the Buddha characterized his own teaching as being about conditionality and inter-dependence. Whether in ethics, psychology, or metaphysics, there is no room for any absolute ground. Everything is, just as it was for Einstein, relative to everything else.

But it does not follow from this that our ethics are limited to just, like, whatever dude. And the analogy from physics works here as well. (I’m using the physics analogy because in the conference Einstein was quoted as saying that relativity applied to physics, not ethics. This statement, however, is not about the basis of morality, but about the relation between science and ethics, which Einstein always believed should be kept separate. Using Einstein to justify moral absolutism is highly problematic, as he also said: ‘A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary’.)

All motion is relative, and must be measured according to Einsteinian Relativity. Newtonian physics is wrong, as it relies on discredited notions of perfect absolutes, such as ‘a straight line is the shortest distance between two points’. This appears self-evident but is incorrect in the real world, due to the influence of gravity. Nevertheless, we still learn Newtonian physics at school, and for almost all practical purposes it’s good enough. Why? Because we share a common frame of reference: the planet earth. Unless we have to fly to Jupiter or build a nuclear reactor, Newton works just fine.

In the same way, fundamental moral issues are shared, not because of some ill-defined metaphysical ‘absolute’ by which we are somehow to measure our acts, but because we share a common frame of reference: the human condition. And all humans share certain values more or less in common. Most obviously, we love life, which is basis for the moral precept against killing. As long as humans are human, this principle is found and forms the basis for a shared morality, one which cannot be argued away by shallow cultural relativism.

By an incredible stroke of luck, we are just now able to test this idea in practice. Last week humanity was contacted by a race of sentient spiders from the planet Zog. They are an advanced arachniform civilization, who have mastered interstellar travel and, so they say, want to help humanity.

It all looked good, until we found out a curious detail of Zogian anatomy: each one of them gives birth to 1000 babies every week. All of these cute little spider-babies are able to speak from birth and are as intelligent and sensitive as a human adult. The Zogians take it as a matter of course that almost all of these little ones will die shortly after birth, leaving only the fittest. They are astonished at the care and love we lavish on our infants; it seems that the human race is unique in the galaxy in this respect. If the Zogians were to preserve the life of their babies, within a few weeks their planet would die of overcrowding. (This scenario is based on the much more realistic sci-fi world invented by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye.)

It’s a bit of a worry for we humans. Just a few Zogian colonists, and the earth could be taken over within weeks. What are we to do? Is it up to our enlightened moral absolutists to convince the Zogians that they are wrong to let their babies die, and that they must preserve their lives at any cost, even if that cost is the rapid and inevitable extinction of both our worlds?

I suspect that even the most die-hard absolutist would have little trouble convincing themselves that the Zogish ethics were right for the Zogs, and human ethics were right for humans.

This example shows why all attempts at absolutism will fail. It is because they attempt to impose an unchanging value on a changing world. The values of our religions, our sacred scriptures, our traditions, were not abstract laws crystallized out of the fabric of the universe. They were guidelines that helped people, in their own time and place, to live better lives. Those times and places change, and the values needed to live good lives also change.

Some things, however, change much less and more slowly, such as the moral precept against killing. Others might be more flexible; for example, while it takes an exotic sci-fi scenario to imagine a world where the precept against killing babies did not apply in a recognizable form, it is easy to imagine societies where there is no need of a precept against stealing, whether in hunter-gatherer societies who have few possessions, or in utopian post-materialist communities.

Appeals to absolutism are persuasive only to the extent that boundaries are limited. As moral horizons expand, more and more of what we formerly considered to be ‘writ in stone’ comes to be seen as product of a certain limited time and place. As our modern world changes and adapts with terrifying, unprecedented speed, the desire to find an absolute rock for moral foundations is understandable, but can never provide a common ground of ethics for all humanity.

Many religious people can find a sense of moral certainty within their own religious framework, but that framework will never be shared by all people. We must have a universal language of ethics that all people can share. It seems to me that utilitarian ethics, which is based on the compassionate understanding of our shared experience of pleasure and pain, is the best ground for such a common ethical framework.

It is quite true, such a language will in some senses be lesser, as it is concerned solely with the mundane or secular. Nevertheless, utilitarian ethics has fuelled many of what I consider to be humanity’s greatest ethical advances. In the past, the Buddha and Bentham are two great utilitarians who made radical, lasting, and meaningful reforms in the moral landscape. In the present, Peter Singer has articulated many of our most urgent moral challenges based on utilitarian principles, including the welfare of animals and the sufferings of poverty.

Utilitarianism is not a burnt-out or trivial bureaucratic exercize. When we take it seriously, it upturns our most precious assumptions and points to a revaluation of all values. The morality of the future will be grounded in the compassionate response to the shared human experience of pleasure and pain. As we pursue this, in our typical stepwise, faltering, and uncertain way, it will force us to question the nature of happiness more and more deeply. Our initially trivial ideas of happiness and suffering, which are sufficient to give moral guidance in simple situations, must be continually re-assessed as we are faced with new and more complex challenges.

Ultimately, we will reach the deepest reaches of meaning, just as in the great religions. But rather than imagining a doctrine of the absolute from our position here in the very relative world, we arrive at the depths from the ‘inside’, from working through and with matters of importance. The utilitarian principle lasts to the very end, as the Buddha said, ‘Nibbana is the highest happiness.’

Monks in Suits

‘When ordinary people praise the Buddha, they do so only on the trivial and petty grounds of mere behavior.’
The Buddha, Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 1

In recent days there’s been considerable discussion among Buddhists, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, over the conferring of the respected title ‘Datuk’ to the senior monk Venerable Dhammaratana, abbot of the Brickfields Temple in KL. The controversy is not over the honor, but over the fact that the Venerable received it wearing a suit!

A bit strange, I think. I’ve lived in Malaysia for over a year, and i can’t imagine anyone, including the Malaysian royalty, expecting a monk to wear anything other than his traditional robes. After all, the officials at the ceremony were wearing traditional Malaysian garb, not suits. I’ve met three Prime Ministers and the Queen of England, and it never occurred to me to wear anything other than the same robe I wear every day.

But what’s stranger to me is the emotional reaction of some Malaysian Buddhists. The Young Buddhists Association of Malaysia (YBAM), one of the most important central organizations, said, ‘We were deeply saddened by the failure of Ven. Dhammaratana to set a good example in upholding the dignity of Buddhism.’ The Buddhist Channel published an article where the author Siriminda said: ‘I am disturbed and horrified to know that the venerable donned a complete lay suit to in the investiture ceremony.’

These articles, and others, were careful to acknowledge their pride as Buddhists and respect for the fact that the Venerable had received such an award. But there is no mistaking their very serious concern for the idea of such a senior monk not wearing robes. This is seen as an affront to one of the core symbols of Buddhism.

According to Vinaya, wearing lay clothes is a minor offence, although what this exactly means is not entirely clear. After all, the robes that monastics wore in those days wear, in point of fact, the same as lay clothes, except for the distinctive color and the patchwork pattern.

As with so many other things, the Vinaya issue is a distraction here. Monks break far more rules than this every day and no-one bats an eyelid. The real issue is the robe as a symbols of the Sangha, part of the Triple Gem.

The Venerable is by no means the first bhikkhu to don lay clothes. The respected German monk Ven. Nyanaponika would, so I am told, wear a brown suit when he returned to Germany, as the robs were unknown in his country. It is quite common in the west for Tibetan monastics to wear lay clothes to go to work, then put the robes on when they return to the temple. This is an unfortunate consequence of the lack of support for Tibetan monastics in the west.

In the Brahmajala Sutta I quoted from above, the Buddha makes a strong point about how people will tend to blame or criticize based on trivial details of external behaviour, ignoring that which is of true value. The Buddha was very clear on this, and always kept a sense of ethical perspective. Sadly, we Buddhists have become so attached to the externals of our religion that we tend to judge and condemn someone who has spent a life in service to the Dhamma based on such a trivial thing.

We forget: there is nothing immoral about wearing a suit. It doesn’t harm anyone. There are real, genuine moral issues facing us every day, and we as Buddhists get used to simply living as if they passed us by. But a suit! Now, that’s something to get ‘horrified’ by.

When I see Ven. Dhammaratana wearing a suit I don’t get horrified or saddened. I think, well that’s unusual. I wonder what the circumstances were that caused him to make that choice? And that’s about all it deserves.

The real take-home message of this little kerfluffle is something quite different. What we are seeing is a Muslim raja presenting an award for public service to a Buddhist monk. Just think: in how many countries in the world could something like this happen? The Malaysian people have built a society where interfaith relations are so good that this can happen, and no-one even bothers to notice.

We hear a constant narrative about Muslim ‘extremists’, about Islamic intolerance for other faiths. This honoring of a Buddhist by a Muslim should be an occasion to celebrate. Malaysians should be proudly saying to the world, ‘Look, this can happen!’ Instead, we show the world that all we care about is a suit.

And why has it happened? It is because of decades of work by leaders such as Ven Dhammaratana and his mentor K Sri Dhammananda, who have built a solid foundation for faith relations in Malaysia. I myself witnessed Ven K Sri Dhammananda’s efforts in this regard, and it was one of the things that inspired me to take an interest in interfaith in Australia.

One of the most salient aspects of the late K Sri Dhammananda’s approach to Buddhism was that he kept it real. He told a story once of how a woman in an airport dropped her handbag off a balcony. He was below, he picked it up and brought it to her. She said, ‘I didn’t think monks could touch a woman’s possessions!’ And he said, ‘I didn’t do it as a monk, I did it as a human being.’ When the Chief Rev told that story in KL, there was a spontaneous applause.

Another story. When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, he commented on the fact that Buddhists around the world had responded very calmly, without getting upset at the destruction of such a magnificent symbol of Buddhism. And he said, again to applause, ‘And that’s real Buddhism.’

Another time he spoke of when he was a young monk in KL, how he would get just so hungry sometimes in the afternoon – but the Buddhists wouldn’t give him anything to eat, because monks shouldn’t eat in the afternoon. Only the Muslims, responding to him as a human being, not as a symbol, would give him a snack.

It is this attitude, this insistence on humanity as the core of Buddhism, not external behaviors and symbols, that inspired K Sri Dhammananda’s mission, which as all Malaysians know, is the foundation of modern Malaysian Buddhism.

His approach is not the strictest. But it has a flexibility and a sincerity that has allowed Buddhist to flourish in a majority Muslim country, during a time when so many other countries have been overtaken by the spectre of fundamentalism. Perhaps it is this very flexibility, this concern for the other, that lay behind Ven Dhammaratana’s decision.

I can only imagine that wearing lay clothes would feel very strange and uncomfortable. Stepping out, knowing the judgments that others will make. I can’t imagine that he did this for himself. I can only assume he was thinking of what was best for the occasion, to be as gracious and considerate as possible for his host.

As a monk, and even more so, as a human being, Ven. Dhammaratana deserves the benefit of the doubt, not harsh judgments. Let us not forget his role in making Malaysian Buddhism what it is: a diverse, vibrant, relevant community that has helped build and sustain Malaysia as a successful multi-faith nation.