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The Noble Ninefold Path? The Complex Ethics of Right Consumption

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me at dhblogfeedback (at) gmail (dot) com.




Episode 15:

The Noble Ninefold Path? The Complex Ethics of Right Consumption


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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The only problem.

The only problem here, is that this piece ends too soon, before exploring just _how_ one would apply the middle path here, just _what_ that would mean in this context with regards to consumption, considering it seems some amount of suffering is or is nearly unavoidable.

Thank you


Even if Right Consumption isn't "canon" so to speak, I wish it was something that got more attention outside of environmentalist/anti-globalisation circles, because it takes a lot of effort to know where all our everyday objects of consumption come from, and what suffering we may be helping perpetuate by supporting those industries.
It's also not just consumption that is so pervasive and automatic today, it's consumerism. Boycotting products/companies for life because of your principles and trying to explain it? People are more likely to be sympathetic if you said it was due to a bad service experience. But environmental records? Labour practices? Tax dodging? Political contributions? Religious affiliations? I've found some people who'll seem insulted these issues even need consideration. It's just shopping, forcrissakes, you wet blanket.
It's a hard battle with others, and I think it's hard even with ourselves--we're both using equipment made using materials and that involved cheap labour and environmental damage to produce. But I still like having awareness of all the human, geographical and environmental connections that go into our products. That awareness helps me feel grateful, and lessens craving for the unnecessary. I'm happier needing less stuff, and trying hard to lead by example.

We need Buddhism economics?

We need Buddhism economics? For starters, a focus on externalities [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality].

whats the demand?

A very interesting post. I agree that we can't neglect the demand for a product. If our economy is demanding a product, manufacturing and cultivation will take place despite extemes. I think the demand for elicit drugs in the US is a prime example. The consequences of American drug consumption has far reaching implications.

I think Right Action covers it

The second ethical principle, right action, involves the body as natural means of expression, as it refers to deeds that involve bodily actions. Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind. Again, the principle is explained in terms of abstinence: right action means 1. to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, 2. to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and 3. to abstain from sexual misconduct. Positively formulated, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to keep sexual relationships harmless to others. Further details regarding the concrete meaning of right action can be found in the Precepts.

Yes, but....

Right Action does sort of cover it, but then it also sort of covers how you earn a living -- but that was regarded as important enough to warrant separate coverage as Right Livelihood.

Given the explosion of the human population since the time of the Buddha and our post-industrial, conspicuous pattern of over-consumption and its deleterious effects on, well, everything, it doesn't seem unreasonable to put a new emphasis on Right Consumption -- just as much as on Right Livelihood.

Perhaps the problem is simply the English word "Livelihood," which isn't broad enough to encompass how you spend your money as well as how you earn it.

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