Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Noble Ninefold Path? The Complex Ethics of Right Consumption

Cross-posted yesterday at The Interdependence Project.

John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century thinker most closely associated with the moral philosophy called Utilitarianism, wrote: "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."

Roughly two-and-a-half millennia before Mill, Shakyamuni Buddha said more or less the same thing. The system of ethics taught by the Buddha, one of the pillars of Buddhist spiritual practice, is based not upon a rigid moral code handed down by a god or authority figure, but upon the principle that actions that bring about a positive effect and result in well-being are inherently virtuous and worthy of being cultivated, and actions that bring about a negative result and lead to suffering or harm are inherently unvirtuous and worthy of being abandoned.

The noble eightfold path, part of the Buddha's earliest teachings, is a step-by-step plan for bringing all aspects of one's life into alignment with the ethical goal of harmlessness -- living in a way that doesn't create harm in the world, but only brings benefit. Living in this way creates the conditions and the good karma that will not only make oneself and others happy, but will support one's path to liberation.

The Buddha's prescription for an ethical life did not shy away from the nitty-gritty: for example, right livelihood, one of the eight parts of the noble eightfold path, includes specific suggestions on which careers it would be best to avoid due to the amount of harm they typically involve. Many butchers and prostitutes are really very decent people, but the Buddha taught that being a butcher or a prostitute probably isn't the best career choice for someone who wants to follow the spiritual path as he taught it.

In the time of the Buddha, people's lives were harder in some ways, but also much simpler. The brutal facts of life and death were on display in a more harsh light -- but by the same token, the choices one could make on a day-to-day basis were also more straightforward. As our lives have become more comfortable and secure, they have also become more complicated. Ours is a highly globalized and interdependent world where the simple choices we make in the supermarket or on the street or in our homes have ethical implications that stretch thousands of miles and impact thousands of lives.

Peel a banana and eat it, and you create ripples that go outward and circle the planet. You cannot divorce the enjoyment of that banana from the realities of economic oppression in the banana republics of Latin America, or the environmental costs of industrial-scale monocropping and toxic pesticides and preservatives and petroleum-based transport. Through something as seemingly simple and even innocent as growing, selling, buying and eating bananas, we are all complicit together in a system of production and consumption whose ethical implications boggle the mind.

And this is not to single out bananas for journalistic abuse. Pretty much anything and everything we enjoy is steeped in the suffering of other beings. Patrul Rinpoche, in "Words of My Perfect Teacher," wrote at length about the unfathomable amount of suffering that goes into producing a simple cup of tea. Want something more complex to chew on? Pick up your iPhone, if you have one, and contemplate the recent string of suicides among iPhone factory workers in China (or AT&T's massive contributions to Tea Party candidates in the recent midterm elections).

If the Buddha were living in today's era of global commerce, I suspect we would have a noble ninefold path, and the ninth aspect of the path would be Right Consumption. Surely how and where you spend your money is just as important as how and where you make it. If you're contributing your dollars or euros or yen to a product or a system or a company that does more harm in the world than good, that's something the Buddha would probably advise you to look at.

Yet, making the right choices in today's world is not always an easy or straightforward proposition. When there are conflicting interests, how do you judge whether the harm outweighs the good or vice versa? Much of the time, it's difficult for us to even know what impact our consumer choices might have. The facts are not always available to us -- and even when they are, many consumers prefer not to know the facts.

The ethics of consumption in today's world is not something on which I pretend to be any kind of an expert at all. I find it incredibly difficult, and I think the Buddha would find it difficult too, if he were living today. Even by withdrawing to a monastery and living in relative seclusion from the world, you can no longer extract yourself from the global matrix of consumption. (You can trust me on this one, as I'm currently living in a very remote monastery, miles and miles away from anything.) Your carpets are still made of petroleum products, your tea and coffee and bananas still come from impoverished countries on other continents, your stove still runs on natural gas, even your Internet service uses the same orbiting satellites as people all over North America. The days when you could get most of what you needed from your neighbors, or you could build it or grow it with your own hands, are gone. Some people are trying to get those days back, or at least minimize the damage, but it's not a simple proposition to put the genie of global commerce and industrialization back in the bottle when we are all enjoying the genie's magic conjuring tricks.

We sentient beings were never truly independent of one another, or of our global environment. The Buddha knew that almost 2,600 years ago. But the real fact of our interdependence is now more plain to see for anyone who cares to look. And when we see the extent of our interdependence, we realize that the ethical repercussions of even simple, everyday actions and choices stretch further in space and time than we could have previously imagined. Edward Hubbell Chapin said, "Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity."

When we begin to realize how much harm is created through everyday consumer choices we ordinarily take for granted, we might feel a sense of paralysis. How can we do anything or consume anything without creating harm? On the other hand, we might become very self-righteous and think that we've got the correct moral choices figured out, and everyone else should just get with our program and the world would be a better place. Both of those extremes are crazy-making. We either become despondent about our ability to bring about any positive outcome and therefore give up caring , or we go to war to save the world, determined to convert everyone to our way of thinking and our particular ideas about right consumption.

The Buddha, as always, would probably advise us to follow a middle way, avoiding both extremes.

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