Our latest guest essay on utilitarianism.net is 'Buddhism and Utilitarianism', by Calvin Baker. Here I'll just reproduce the final section comparing Effective Altruism and Engaged Buddhism, which may be of particular interest to Forum readers:
Engaged Buddhism is a somewhat heterogeneous social movement grounded in the conviction that Buddhists ought to bring Buddhist practices and values to bear on contemporary issues. Engaged Buddhists tend to be united in their commitment to addressing the structural, systemic, and institutional causes of suffering in their political, economic, social, and environmental forms, in a way that manifests Buddhist values of compassion and nonviolence. More succinctly, “Engaged Buddhism is characterized by activism to effect social change.” Activities carried out under the banner of Engaged Buddhism have taken a variety of forms, e.g., environmental activism in Thailand, hospice and elder care, participation in the Extinction Rebellion movement, work to alleviate hunger and poverty in Sri Lanka, disaster relief, recycling, and attempts at peaceful conflict resolution in Myanmar.
Effective altruism (EA) is a movement whose goal is to do the greatest possible amount of good, in terms of well-being, given a fixed quantity of resources (money, research hours, political capital, etc.).53 Given its emphasis on impact maximization, EA is heavily invested in global priorities research: research into which cause areas, and which interventions within those areas, are most effective at promoting well-being. So far, EA has focused the majority of its efforts on global health and development, farm animal welfare, and risks of extinction and civilizational collapse, including risks from transformative artificial intelligence (AI), pandemics, nuclear weapons, great power conflict, and extreme climate change. The EA emphasis on prioritization research marks a significant contrast with Engaged Buddhism, which has not attempted to systematically answer the question of how to bring about the greatest amount of well-being, given a finite quantity of resources. So, whereas EA retains a more analytical, research-heavy orientation that attunes it to problems that are—thankfully—not currently manifest, like engineered pandemics and misaligned, superintelligent AI, Engaged Buddhism is geared more towards social activism and immediately salient social issues.
It is also productive to compare EA efforts to reduce the suffering of farmed animals with the implications of Buddhist philosophy for non-human animal welfare. Buddhists have traditionally regarded all sentient beings as moral patients, holding that, like us, non-human animals are subject to duḥkha.55 Buddhist ethics, EA, and utilitarianism are therefore similar in assigning greater importance to non-human animal welfare than most other moral approaches.
We can nuance this picture, though, by recalling that Buddhism distinguishes between pain (negative hedonic valence) and duḥkha and maintains that pain is only bad to the extent that we are averse to it. (From a Buddhist perspective, pain is unavoidable, but suffering on account of pain is not.) It is extremely plausible that pain is aversive to many non-human animal species—including all those currently subjected to the horrendous conditions on factory farms, such as cows, chickens, pigs, and fish. However, it is possible that some species—perhaps only a tiny minority—lack the cognitive architecture that is necessary to generate what is, for the Buddhist, the ethically-relevant conjunction of pain and the higher-level attitude of aversion (dveṣa) to pain. It is therefore possible that Buddhists will end up with a slightly less expansive moral circle than many utilitarians and effective altruists, who tend to hold that pain simpliciter is bad and worth alleviating.
Finally, we can inquire into Buddhist and utilitarian perspectives on the future of humanity. Although utilitarianism is compatible with multiple positions in population ethics, a prominent strand in recent utilitarian(-leaning) work embraces totalism, which says, very roughly, that the more happy people there are in a population, the better. By totalist lights, the best-case scenario for humanity is that it develops into an extremely long-lasting interstellar civilization composed of trillions of happy people (or more!). To me, it seems doubtful that Buddhism would go in for a picture like this. As we saw in section 2, Buddhist ethics does not start with a conception of what is good and then say that we should maximize the total quantity of that thing in the universe (as does utilitarianism). Instead, Buddhist ethics starts with the problem of duḥkha and then sets out paths to the solution to that problem. Even on the tentatively optimistic reading of Buddhism, on which attaining the cessation of duḥkha is positively valuable, it seems to me that Buddhists would find the claim that we should bring new beings into existence, so that they too can overcome suffering, to be an alien one. Rather, it seems that Buddhists thinking about the future would wish for us to lead whichever beings currently exist along the path to awakening, and perhaps for the bodhisattvas of the interstellar space age to try to save the aliens too (if doing so turns out to be tractable).
There is one fascinating way in which Buddhist and utilitarian thinking about the future seems to converge, however. Over the past several decades, applied ethicists—alongside the public—have become increasingly interested in human biomedical enhancement, which we can gloss as the project of biomedically intervening on the human organism for the purpose of increasing well-being. Human enhancements would thus include everything from currently existing, relatively mundane procedures such as laser eye surgery to radical possible interventions, such as genetic engineering aimed at dramatically increasing general mental ability (“IQ”).
I believe that Buddhism and utilitarianism are both committed to in-principle support for human enhancement (if this can be achieved without harmful side-effects or unintended consequences). Utilitarianism says that we should promote the sum-total of well-being. So, if a certain enhancement would make humanity better off, utilitarianism would support it. For its part, unlike many other religious traditions (such as Christianity), Buddhism thoroughly rejects the notion that there is a sacrosanct human essence that we must preserve. Moreover, Buddhism is pragmatic about attaining the cessation of suffering. For instance, if it turned out that stimulating the brain in a certain way during meditation allowed meditators to more efficiently gain insight into the nonexistence of the self, it seems that Buddhists should heartily endorse this practice. So although Buddhists may disagree with totalist utilitarians that our primary objective should be to become a vast interstellar civilization, they may well agree that we should use the tools of modern technology to intervene in our biology and psychology—perhaps radically—to attain a greater level of well-being.