Buddhism and Utilitarianism

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Over at utilitarianism.net, we’ve just published a new guest essay: ‘Buddhism and Utilitarianism’, by Calvin Baker (Princeton). It offers an interesting exploration of the developments from Early Buddhist ethics (which is, ironically enough, fundamentally egoistic) to the strikingly utilitarian elements of classical Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism:

Śāntideva, an eighth century CE philosopher-monk, is often cited as the most informative source for the mature Mahāyāna ethical outlook. At various points throughout his magnum opus, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryāvatāra), Śāntideva makes claims that appear to reflect core components of utilitarianism.

First, Śāntideva’s paramount ethical concern is unambiguously with the well-being of sentient beings, which matches the welfarist axiology of utilitarianism. In an entirely representative verse, for instance, Śāntideva writes that “one should always be striving for others’ well-being.” Second, in the same verse, he appears to endorse the violation of common-sense moral norms when doing so will promote well-being (“Even what is proscribed is permitted for a compassionate person who sees it will be of benefit”), another hallmark of utilitarian ethics. Third, Śāntideva makes several remarks that suggest an acceptance of aggregationism and maximization with respect to well-being: “Delight is the only appropriate response to suffering which takes away the suffering of the universe”; “If the suffering of one ends the suffering of many, then one who has compassion for others and himself must cause that suffering to arise.” Finally, in the passage that has recently attracted the most scholarly attention, Śāntideva argues for a strong form of impartiality, in part grounded in the nonexistence of the self (a foundational tenet of Buddhist philosophy that we will presently explore in greater detail). “‘All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself’…I should dispel the suffering of others because it is suffering like my own suffering…If [suffering] must be prevented, then all of it must be.”

Baker goes on to offer some reasons for skepticism regarding whether Śāntideva’s view is foundationally consequentialist, as opposed to merely agreeing with utilitarian prescriptions in practice.

Finally, don’t miss the discussion of applied ethics, which includes a fascinating comparison of Engaged Buddhism vs. Effective Altruism with regard to cause prioritization and non-human animal welfare. Finally, Baker suggests that Engaged Buddhists are likely to disagree with utilitarians on population ethics, but may find common ground regarding the in-principle desirability of human biomedical enhancement (if this can be achieved without harmful side-effects or unintended consequences).

Interesting stuff!

Originally appeared on Good Thoughts Read More

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