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A New Buddhist Ethics

Copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.

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Chapter 4. Economic Issues


The choice of how we earn our living has an enormous effect on shaping our lives and on shaping the world. Most of us have to work for the majority of the days of our life, for many if not most of our waking hours, so the conditioning effect is naturally that we become our work. Whatever we choose to do will thereafter limit our personalities, our habits, even our aspirations. Most of us would rather not subject ourselves to this huge conditioning influence, yet feel that we have no choice. At the same time work can creatively channel our energies and develop our characters in ways which would probably not have otherwise happened.


Traditionally, Right Livelihood has been given an important status in the Buddhist Path, being one of the Eight Limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path in itself. Traditional discussions of this part of the Eightfold Path often emphasise the importance of avoiding jobs which do harm and, more positively, doing those which are of benefit. Whilst this remains an important part of what we should consider in choosing our livelihood, the matter is very much more complicated than that. As anyone who as ever had to make a career decision knows, selection of an appropriate means of livelihood involves a complex series of compromises between skills, qualifications, interests, one’s own needs and desires, and demand from society for what one has to offer. Concerns about the direct or indirect harms caused by one’s livelihood tend to take a much lower place in many people’s thinking about their livelihood than simply working out what sort of job they could feasibly do, where there is sufficient demand for their services, which meets their needs, and which they would find at least bearable, even if not positively enjoyable. The central issue of livelihood ethics, then, is how we should make use of this limited choice and what attitude we should take towards work, avoiding harm to ourselves as well as to others. The need to avoid harm, in a modern account of the Buddhist ethics of livelihood, needs to be put fully in the context of the conditions in which we choose our livelihood.


Whatever one’s choice of livelihood, as always the Middle Way should be the prime basis of judgement for guiding that choice. On the one hand one may have ideals as to what sort of work would be most ethically and spiritually supportive, both for oneself and others. Certain types of work may help us to exercise and develop virtues or other desirable skills and characteristics, and some may directly benefit the world. On the other hand one needs to address the conditions which really operate. If one has dependents, one is constrained by a need to earn money so as to meet their needs. If one has limited skills and qualifications, it is useless to aspire to a job one will never be able to get. If going into business, it is useless offering goods or services for which there is no demand. The choices we make will inevitably involve a compromise between the conditions and the ideals, but they are none the less the “right” choices for all that. Their rightness arises from their relationship to the conditions as well as from their relationship to the ideal.


One radical move we can consider when contemplating the limitations of the world of work, also traditional in Buddhism, is that of a purely religious means of livelihood, such as that of the Buddhist monk or nun who survives purely on the donations of lay-people. Sometimes this is seen as stepping outside the economic system and avoiding its constraints, but it would be an illusion to assume that monastics have placed themselves beyond economic conditioning entirely. However simple their needs, like others monastics are dependent on demand. If there are insufficient lay-people willing to support monks and nuns (whatever their motivations for doing so), then fewer of them can exist. The Buddhist monastic sangha is also shaped by the expectations of lay-people (whether or not these expectations are helpful), for dependency of one group on another gives power.


As in entering any other job, then, Buddhist monks and nuns should take into account the limitations of their role due to the conditions in which it exists. Though they may have a noble and inspiring role to play as monastics, it is still a social and economic role. Very similar conditions apply to those who take on a semi-monastic life of one kind or another, such as running a retreat centre or living in voluntary seclusion to concentrate on spiritual practice. In every case there is a question of livelihood, because livelihood is not what one does so much as how one supports oneself.


Beyond the limited opportunities which exist for such explicitly religious livelihoods, lies the world of capitalism: of public employment, private employment, or self-employment. All of these types of employment have their own advantages and disadvantages.


In some sectors of public employment, especially in caring professions, there may linger the “public service ethos” that sees work as performing a wider service for others and having a wider purpose than the mere generation of wealth. However, the public services, certainly in the UK and probably to a large extent in other developed countries, have been under a lot of pressure in recent years to conform to a narrower set of utilitarian expectations, which try to measure performance according to quantifiable and measurable targets. Thus teachers may find themselves less concerned with developing the characters of their students than trying to push them through exams in a way which meets set targets, and medical staff may be forced to prioritise the economic efficiency of their work over the actual care and well-being of their patients.


One may choose to try to work with these apparently ever-narrowing conditions, or to avoid working in such circumstances. However, the abandonment of public services to those without a broader vision or a public service ethos is not an action which readily passes a Kantian test for objectivity. When I am educated or treated in hospital, I would want those who serve me to have a broader vision and to uphold it. If we can manage it, there is a strong case for devoting ourselves to public services, even if these are not only narrowed, but perhaps also corrupted and depleted. Even in such circumstances public service is usually for benefit and rarely for harm (unless perhaps one is serving in the military or law-enforcement, a different set of issues which I will discuss in chapter 10), and we have to balance their continuing benefit to others against the bad effects they may be having on the workers themselves.


Private employment is a much more varying situation, but in most cases involves serving the interests of shareholders, who in our capitalist system ultimately determine the policies of a company in the interests of earning money for themselves. In a large company one may be less conscious of this than in a small one, just as one is less conscious of the process of steering and changes of direction in a large ship than in a small one, but nevertheless such direction occurs, and determines the whole moral approach of a business. This makes it more likely (though not inevitable) that when there is a clash between the priorities of profit and the well-being of workers, suppliers or customers, the profit motive will win, and the private sector worker will find him/herself caught in an ethically dubious role.


One way out of this is to work for a charity, or for a company with a specific moral goal, perhaps a not-for-profit company. However, the opportunities such bodies offer are limited, and may still not suit any one particular individual’s skills or needs. Another approach is to become involved in the management of an ordinary for-profit company and to try to influence it for the better: however, the realism of such a strategy will need to be assessed carefully. Certainly, the profit motive does not prevent private companies from contributing to public good, and the earning of money, providing it is kept in balance with other priorities, is not in itself bad. However, profit often has a way of subtly corroding other kinds of priorities.  


The type of goods or services produced by a private company is another important factor to consider. How far are these goods or services beneficial and how far are they harmful? Either the harm or the benefit may be to those involved in the production, to the seller or to the consumer, but any such harm involves the reinforcement of narrow ego-identification as we avoid recognising or responding to that harm, and develops potential for conflict, whilst benefit provides the basis of positive relationships amongst all concerned. For example, harm from production may come from eggs produced by battery chickens kept in minute cages (see chapter 6 on animals), harm to the seller may come from prostitution (see previous chapter), and harm to the consumer may come from drugs which create intoxication. On the other side, benefit to the producer might come from fairly-traded goods paying those in developing countries sufficient to mend their roofs and educate their children, benefit to the seller might come from buying groceries in a small local shop that is in danger of closing down due to competition from supermarkets, and benefit to the consumer might come from any wholesome food or genuinely useful service.


Very often different harms and benefits have to be weighed up against each other. For example, if I were thinking of becoming a veterinary surgeon, my motivation might well be to relieve the suffering of animals (and indirectly their owners), which is obviously a benefit. However, the job might well also involve supporting factory farming with its abuse of animals, for example by providing antibiotics to be injected into cows whose udders have been infected because they have been made so grotesquely huge to satisfy the demands of milk-production that they drag on the ground. Perhaps one could become a veterinary surgeon but attempt to avoid such work, but this would doubtless involve many difficulties. In any case, should I leave cows to suffer who have been treated in this way?


This last example raises the difficulty of systemic harms as opposed to individual ones. In a simple moral world, we would simply have to choose whether to do harm or to do beneficial actions. However, we do not live in a simple moral world, but in a complex interdependent world full of interlocking systems. We can choose to some extent whether to participate in a certain system, but nearly every system involves some harm and some benefit. If we participate in any kind of competitive economic system then some are harmed when they are left behind due to failing to compete. If you are a doctor and prescribe drugs for your patients, you might be supporting drug companies with questionable practices in the process, or the drugs may have harmful side-effects. If you are a refuse collector, you are doing people a very useful service, but at the same time helping to fill landfill sites with a toxic brew that seeps into the water table.


The need to work in systems that cause harm as well as good is a basic problem when we are considering right livelihood. It would not be in accordance with the Middle Way to ignore the complex realities of the systems that surround us and make over-simplified moral choices. A livelihood is not necessarily a good one just because it benefits people now, if it also leaves toxic waste for thousands of years; nor if it does benefit here but grossly exploits people who live thousands of miles away. Whatever we do we should make our choices in awareness of the systems we are participating in.


However, we also have to make choices which still enable us to act in the world. A broadly Utilitarian approach is quite useful for these kinds of choices because it enables us to take all kinds of conditions into account and weigh them up. This means that we need to think about all the harms and benefits which we are systemically supporting through the livelihood we are considering, and try to work out whether more benefits are created than harms. In doing this we should look hard-headedly at what the actual effects of the whole system we participate in are, not just at our own motives and intentions. Perhaps I don’t intend to pollute the atmosphere when I drive a car as part of my work, but I still do so and am aware that I do.


An element of cold calculation is required in such matters to avoid being paralysed into inaction by a fruitless search for moral purity. If I can pursue a livelihood which broadly does more good than harm, and am doing so in full awareness of the harms I am doing, then this will have to be good enough. So, though working in the private sector may have the disadvantage of supporting greed and working in the public sector the disadvantage of supporting bureaucracy, perhaps I should still do so if the livelihood is beneficial in other ways. But I need to keep the moral balance under review and be aware of ways in which the conditions are changing.


The final way of working which I have not yet discussed is self-employment or running one’s own business. This has the advantage of flexibility and independence and the disadvantage of insecurity. One cannot be forced into morally dubious actions nearly so easily in this situation, but there are still the pressures of the market and the need to stay solvent. Running one’s own business can also exact an enormous toll of stress through insecurity and involve long hours of work. Again, one will also need to look at the harms and benefits created by the business and weigh them up.


Whatever the style of work one adopts, one is confronted by complex assessments of priorities. If the work is beneficial to others but so demanding that one’s own character becomes stunted through constant exhaustion, or if it is harmful in some ways but highly enjoyable and satisfying, or if the work is both exhausting and harmful but the only way one can find to support one’s family, all one can do is to try to weigh these factors against one another. It is the awareness with which one does this, rather than the nature of the work itself, which ultimately creates the right livelihood. It is closing one’s mind to any of the different types of harm or benefit involved in one’s livelihood that makes it wrong livelihood, and opening one’s mind to these effects, with both awareness and real sympathy, that makes it right livelihood.


Having said this, it is difficult to imagine how one could be a hired assassin, a slaughterhouse worker, or a heroine dealer without closing one’s mind to a very great extent. It is also difficult to imagine how one could be a Buddhist monk, an aid worker, or a creative artist without opening one’s mind to some extent, although there may still be many blind spots. There will always be types of work which it is probably better to engage in rather than others, but we should be slow to condemn others’ choices before we fully understand their approach to their work.   





Judgements about livelihood involve decisions about what we put into society, but there are also important decisions about what we take out of it. At the time of the Buddha there were probably very few consumer choices compared to today: perhaps you could buy your rice from one farmer or another, and perhaps you could concentrate more on essentials or more on luxury goods, but there were relatively few choices about where to buy something. Today, however, anybody with even a small amount of money is confronted with an enormous amount of choice as to how to spend it. Although we often need to spend much of this money on meeting basic needs like food, even in doing this we are confronted with a huge choice of shops with a great range of goods. As for further “disposable income”, thanks to the internet, many people in the developed world are now in the position of being able to buy almost any type of goods they wish in the world within the value of the money they have available to spend. This provides consumers with a huge amount of power, which can be exercised for good or for ill. Perhaps alongside “Right Livelihood” on the Eightfold Path we should also have “Right Consumption”.


Buddhism traditionally takes the view that our desires for worldly things are a lure which distracts us from spiritual life. Certainly consumer culture strongly illustrates the “thirst” or craving which leads us into obsessive or anxious states of mind, distracted by expectations of new goods or experiences and constantly seeking fulfilment in new sensations. Whatever advertising implicitly promises to give us by planting a certain image of their product in our minds, we are most unlikely to get from that product, because our experiences of anything are much more complex than advertising suggests, and also because our changing mental states are unlikely to leave us in any state of satisfaction for long.


So, one basic principle of Buddhist ethics with regard to consumption involves avoiding consumerism. It is impossible (and probably undesirable) to avoid absolutely all exposure to advertising, but we can certainly limit our exposure to it. In this way we are left freer to determine our own judgements in relation to consumption and are less likely to have our choices grossly stimulated or even subtly conditioned by advertisers.


Even leaving advertising (and other kinds of consumer pressure, such as social conformity) aside, most of us come up with rationalised desires for unnecessary purchases quite well enough by ourselves. Even when we are making clear moral judgements about whether and how to spend money, we are still left with dilemmas of consumption.


One such dilemma is the question of what our needs “really” are. Rather than admitting that we just want something, it is very easy to turn it into a need, but people’s estimates of their “needs” vary hugely. Most of us would name things like food, water, simple clothes, and shelter as needs, but what about books, musical instruments, computers, crockery, table lamps, CDs, telephones, cars? We could survive without these things, but they enrich and benefit our lives in various ways. So, it is probably misleading to suggest that we should only buy what we “need”, and the dichotomy between “needs” and “wants” is a similarly unhelpful one.


Instead, to get to grips with the real complexity of conditions, we should think of a sliding scale of needs. There are some things we need (or want) more than other things. How far we should go down that scale in actually purchasing things depends on a balancing process. If we spend too little, we may fail to meet physical, cultural, educational, and social wants, or simply have too little pleasure. If on the other hand we spend too much, we actually make all of our spending less effective in meeting our wants, as an obsessive attitude towards acquiring goods or experiences starts to distract us from a realistic consideration of the conditions of our lives.


Apart from the question of the effect our consumption is having on us, its effect on others and on the world in general should form an important part of this balancing process. Every physical piece of goods we buy is using a little more of our planet’s limited resources, whether of iron ore, oil, water, timber or other things. Some of these resources are renewable or recyclable, others not, but in any case the rate of renewal or recycling still limits the available resources. We need to be conscious of this effect whenever we buy it.


Similarly, our choice of purchase has an effect on producers and traders. By choosing our goods we have power over which producers and/or suppliers to support and which to avoid. This is a power of consumer choice which we have no excuse not to use positively: through using it we can support more sustainable production and transportation, greater justice in trading, recycling of materials, avoidance of harm to animals, and fairer treatment of workers by companies. A certain amount of knowledge is needed to exercise this power, and we need to try to discern public relations ploys where companies try to advertise themselves in ethical terms even when they are not particularly ethical. However, apart from this awareness, very little further effort or expense is needed to make the effort to purchase a more ethical product in preference over a less ethical one. It is mainly a lack of reflection, and mere habit or social convention, which causes many people to carry on buying the same ethically dubious products.          


So, the Middle Way suggests that we should exert the maximum of awareness in these kinds of ways in deciding how much money to spend, in deciding how far to go in fulfilling our wants, and in choosing which products to buy. All of this involves recognising the conditions at work both in our minds and in the world at large when we buy goods, and it is the failure to recognise these conditions (and to actively take them into account as far as we can) which primarily makes wrong consumption.  




The borrowing and lending of money at interest is one of the basic processes which allowed the rise of capitalism in Europe from the late medieval period. Traditionally in medieval Christianity, and today for many Muslims, this is or was a forbidden activity, on the grounds either firstly that it interferes with a natural and stable “just price” for any piece of goods (including money, so the price of money should be no more than its own face value), or secondly that it encourages exploitation of the poor. The first of these objections is one which cannot be compatible with a Buddhist approach to ethics, for it flies in the face of impermanence and encourages us to avoid recognising the reality of constant economic change. Due to the economic conditions we live in, the possessing of money enables us to gain more money, so it is simply an unavoidable fact that lent money is worth interest as well as the capital sum lent.  There is thus nothing intrinsically unjust or wrong either with lending or with borrowing money, either with or without interest, and an absolute objection to it is eternalistic. But perhaps we should look more carefully at the second objection.


The careless lending of money, with interest or in some cases even without it, can certainly operate as a way of exploiting the poor, or even of exploiting the thoughtlessness of those who are currently still rich. Whether money lent is used to meet urgent basic needs, or is used for indulgence in luxuries, if it cannot be paid back, the lender has simply found a way of exerting power over the borrower. Especially in the case of the desperately poor in developing countries, the continued requirement to pay interest on debts is one of the main factors which prevents people from recovering control over their lives after difficulties. It can only be a narrowed sort of calculation, neglecting open-minded consideration of the conditions at work, which leads lenders either to lend (rather than give) money to people in these circumstances, or to insist on continued repayments of interest.


Even for those who are not desperately poor, debt can be an unnecessary source of constant anxiety, pressure and conflict. Debt reduces freedom of action enormously by creating a constant need to earn money, and can thus also reduce freedom to do good in the world. Since debts constantly narrow our concerns, they prevent us getting to grips with wider and more important ones. Who will care too much about the environment, for example, if they are facing a personal mountain of debt? Yet much the same can be said about the effects of responsibility for children and for work. Any of these burdens are probably best avoided on the whole, yet facing up to them can also have the effect of forcing us into a more mature objectivity.


Quite often in the modern world, too, debts are taken on for very good reasons. Payment on a mortgage may be one way of taking responsibility for housing ourselves and others, and making provision for old age. Student loans also enable the positive transformation of the lives of young people through higher education. Given the support that higher education can give to the development of the character through development of the understanding and intellectual training, and the lifetime value of this training early in life, there can be little argument that most student loans are worth taking. Most students are very far from being able to finance such education by any other means, and the education would be much less timely and effective if they had to wait to save up the money before gaining the education. (None of this is intended to undermine the value of higher education later in life or of grants or scholarships where they are available as an alternative to loans).


Another valuable type of loan is one used to start or develop a business. Much small business activity would be impossible without such lending, and it makes possible an independence of thought and operation and development of initiative which would never be possible otherwise. In these sorts of circumstances, the normal consideration given to the viability of the repayments and the strength of the business considers the conditions adequately to also give it moral justification, for the relationship of lender and borrower is not primarily an exploitative one, but one of mutual benefit.


So, the moral justification of lending and borrowing at interest seems to depend very much on the conditions of the loan. The financial benefit to both lender and borrower is one way of judging this, but it should not be the only one. Both lender and borrower should also try to take into account the wider effects of the loan, and especially the psychological and practical effects of indebtedness. The Middle Way here requires that we should not judge purely in terms of either moral or other rules: it is not just a question of borrowing or lending at interest being morally wrong in itself (an eternalist position), nor is it a question of all such transactions being acceptable, or to be judged purely in terms of their financial security. We also have a responsibility to be considered in all these kinds of cases for the wider effects of debt.


Once a debt has been incurred, there are also moral issues regarding repayment, both for the lender and the borrower. Should the borrower always pay debts? Here a Kantian type of reasoning is helpful: if I would wish others to repay their debts to me, I should repay my debts to them. However, if I am an open-minded person attempting to follow the Middle Way, I would not expect my debtors to undergo unreasonable suffering to pay their debts, nor to inflict unreasonable suffering on others. Perhaps my debtor’s children could reasonably go without Christmas presents to help pay their father’s debt, but not without clothes or nutritious food.  I should give priority to fulfilling my own obligations in paying off debt exactly to the extent that I would expect others to do for me. If in following that policy I still have to default on my debts, I may still be assured that I have followed the most morally justifiable policy in the circumstances.


The same kind of reasoning can be applied for lenders to the cancellation or rescheduling of debts that others cannot pay back. There are no iron economic laws requiring that debts cannot be cancelled, nor would the economic system be threatened if debts were cancelled. Perhaps in some circumstances others would be led to take their debts less seriously by hearing that others’ have been cancelled, but these kind of effects need to be assessed realistically in each case. To cancel debts that cannot be paid, or can only be paid by ruining the lives of those in debt, is often a realistic response to conditions as well as an act of compassion.


At the level of national governments, especially, there is a very strong case for completely cancelling the debts of all highly-indebted developing countries. The indebtedness of such countries not only brings great suffering to their people, but undermines the economic, political, and ecological stability of the world as a whole. To insist on adherence to economic laws and conventions in these circumstances can only reflect a narrowness of purpose and a narrowness of identification.




If the questions of debt arise when we are in need of money, those of investment arise when we have enough or an excess of it, beyond our immediate needs. This is a common situation for many people today, especially in the developed world and especially later in life. What should we do with our money?


One obvious thing we can do with our money is to spend it. The issues surrounding this have already been discussed above under “consumption”, and there I suggested that we might well be led to limit our spending by awareness of the obsessive effects of indulgence in our wants and of the limitations of resources. The more controlled we our in our spending, of course, the richer we are liable to become.


Another obvious thing to do with money is to give it away. This has much to recommend it, especially in its positive emotional effects on the giver and (provided the nature and recipients of the gifts are wisely chosen) on the world at large. In traditional Buddhism, dana or generosity is an important virtue, which helps to free us from egoistic attachment and can be practised at progressively higher levels. However, many of us are still too attached to our money to give away more than a relatively small proportion of our income. This attachment and its futility is a fruitful object for reflection, but remains a brute fact. To respond to this brute fact by alienatedly forcing ourselves to give away all our wealth would be an eternalist response; to shrug our shoulders and waste our money on personal whims a nihilist one. It is an illusion to think that either of these would solve all the world’s problems: a world with much less inequality but a lot more alienation would just be better in some respects and worse in others, whereas the indulgence of whims may stimulate the economy but does not address inequality.    


There is a third channel, however, down which our use of money can usefully be directed: the channel of investment. Through investment, we retain a claim on money that is invested, but use it for further good purposes: these good purposes may be our own welfare in future or that of others. In either case, to invest money we may often have to move outwards from an attachment to merely spending it, without going so far against our egoistic attachment as to actually give it away (though, for a few who have been brought up in a very parsimonious fashion, it may be easier to invest than to spend: strangely these people have to learn how to spend money).


Investment is directed towards the future, and this direction carries both positive and negative features. To consider the further future for many of us means an opening of a mind which is more inclined to dwell on the present or the near future. The cultivation of mindfulness in Buddhist meditation is geared towards making us able to stay in the present, but interestingly this can also help us see the past and the future in a more open vista less conditioned by cyclic mental habits. For many people, opening a pension fund, and thus showing awareness of the fact that they will have different needs when they grow old, is an expression of extended mindfulness as well as an extended sense of responsibility for the whole of one’s own life. For others, saving money to free them from the need to work so much in future, and thus enabling them to live happier and more creative lives at a future time, is also a tremendously opening and positive step, compared to the mere conventionality of working and spending without longer-term reflection.


The negative side of dwelling on the future, however, arises when the view of the future becomes a narrow idea which restricts awareness of the present. The obsessive deferral of gratification can be seen as one of the psychological features which gave rise to early capitalism, as a strict interpretation of religious duty in early Protestantism led people to constantly re-invest the capital they took to be given them on trust from God, rather than use it for any kind of pleasure. Although its early religious motivation has largely disappeared, this is still a strong feature of capitalism. The businessman that works immensely long hours, neglecting both his family and himself, for 40 years to build up capital for a long fantasised-about retirement, finds that by the time he reaches it, he no longer has the capacity to enjoy that retirement. Because of the narrowness of his focus on a particular vision of the future, and a lack of reflection on the whole set of conditions affecting him, and his strong habitual patterns of deferred gratification, his investment turns out to be a source of frustration. In the process of destroying his own future happiness, he has also probably made many moral compromises in a long and driven business career.


So, like most of the other uses of money we have been discussing, investment in itself is neither good nor bad. However, the motivations for investment can be open or narrow. This basis of moral judgment bears no particular relationship to whether the investment is for oneself or for others, nor how far in the future the goal of investment lies. All that can be said here is that losing one’s capacity to defer gratification can be just as limiting as losing one’s capacity for enjoyment, and a broadening of identification will require us to maintain contact with both of these parts of ourselves.


A further important part of any moral discussion of investment is the issue of where exactly we place our investments. As in spending money, there is now a huge range of choice as to how we invest money, and there is little excuse for the unimaginative response of simply putting it in a deposit account in your local high street bank. To begin with, mainstream financial institutions are not selective in where they invest their money, which means at worst that it will be invested to support activities you would actually regard as immoral, or at best not be fully used to support positive ones in the way it might. However, there has been strong growth in an alternative financial sector offering ethical investment in recent years. Although exactly what “ethical investment” means can vary and it is worth looking at exactly where the money is being invested, some institutions (such as the Triodos Bank) positively direct money only towards socially, spiritually or environmentally useful organisations. An alternative strategy is to invest money more directly for oneself in a useful project being developed by people one knows and trusts.


The argument against ethical investment is that it reduces economic efficiency by directing money away from the most efficient investments towards those judged most worthy. This perspective, however, seems to be based on a narrowly utilitarian understanding of “efficiency” as bringing about wealth in the short or medium-term. In the longer term it is much more pragmatic to concentrate not just on wealth, but on the social, environmental and psychological conditions on which future human development depend. Broadening our identifications beyond wealth even by itself helps to produce those psychological conditions.


It also needs to be pointed out that not all investment is financial. The investment of time, labour, thought, or space can also reap future dividends and our attitudes to these kinds of investments can also be relatively narrow or open. In some kinds of cases it is very important to identify precisely the type of investment required and provide it. In the case of children, for example, an investment of time and attention is needed from the parents to support the future well-being of the child and its future relationship with the parents. An investment of money is rarely a complete substitute for this.


It was Adam Smith, the eighteenth century economist, who first pointed out that investment, despite its apparently “selfish” ends, actually worked for the common good of all. Despite the narrowness with which this claim is often interpreted, it also contains a grain of truth. If we invest, even if it is apparently for ourselves, but for a broader vision of ourselves, this may work further towards the common good of all than mere giving. For money that is either spent, or given away for others to spend, may be consumed and disappear and cease to do good, whilst money that is wisely invested continues to work, and may continue doing good and multiply that good for many years to come.


Trading and trade injustice


To trade is to exchange goods, which in a primitive economy is done through barter, but in a modern economy is done through money. Whenever goods or services are exchanged for money, then, or even sometimes when one sort of money is exchanged for another, trade takes place. Such trade can simply consist in a mutually beneficial arrangement, in which each side benefits equally by swapping less desired goods for more desired ones. Such trade can provide a right livelihood in Buddhist terms. Trade injustice, however, is often associated with an inequality of power and an exploitation of one side by another. Like other forms of exploitation, unjust trade is associated with a narrowness of identification of one of the parties, who becomes concerned with making money without sufficiently considering the welfare of those he/she trades with.


To give a simple example, suppose that four complete strangers are the sole survivors of an air crash in a remote area. Only one of these people has any food, and he sees an opportunity for his own apparent advantage in trading this food. In this closed and distorted little economy the price of food rises enormously, so that the others are obliged to give the person with the food all their money and all their other belongings for a share of the food. After they have been subsequently rescued, the person who had the food comes out much richer, all through legitimate trade.


This shows the distortions of an economic system which works purely in terms of supply and demand. Very similar, though more complex, processes determine the prices of all commodities, goods and services, so long as prices are not controlled or fixed through government interference. One kind of response to the possibility of abuse of this kind is to claim strong moral requirements for just trading and a just price, and if such arguments prevail on governments they may lead to government interference in the economic system. This could broadly be described as an eternalist response because it tries to impose an ideal model on the situation. Another kind of response (involving a complex mixture of eternalist and nihilist impulses) would be a naïve faith in the market to always bring about the best result, despite the obvious ways in which the market often creates injustice. A third, more thoroughly nihilist response would be to assume that we are powerless to change such things and that there is in any case no way of judging a fair price apart from the market.


The Middle Way can justify neither economic dogma nor resignation, but requires us to consider all the conditions at work. There is no absolute way of determining what a fair price should be, and attempts to impose it are often futile because they create black markets and greatly undermine the efficiency of economies. On the other hand, the exploitative air crash survivor is neglecting many of the conditions which affect his and others’ lives: the need for solidarity with others, especially in difficult situations, our mutual dependency and need for mutual support beyond the economic, the suppressed guilt and conflict created by such exploitative actions, and the narrowing of his own egoistic identifications. If the air crash survivor could not bring himself to simply give a share of his food to the others, at least he could have adjusted the price to take account of some of the other long-term conditions beyond merely that of how much money he could make.


The same points apply to the everyday trading both of individuals and companies in both local and global economies. Whilst there may be doubt about what makes an exploitative or unjust piece of trading judged purely from the outside, the trader can apply his or her own awareness to considering the wider conditions in which the trade takes place, and considering its social and ecological as well as its psychological effects.


One complicating factor is that the weaker party can still be absolutely dependent on an unjust exchange and strongly desire it. The sweatshop worker in a developing country would much rather be employed at an exploitative wage than left unemployed, and the wood carver, grossly underpaid for his many hours of labour, would still rather sell his carvings than not. If the injustice was individual rather than systemic, these people would have better alternatives, but where the market rate for the goods or services offered is low, there is no alternative to accepting it. In these circumstances it is the buyer who has more freedom of action, and whose responsibility it is to exercise it well. If he/she can possibly afford to do so, the buyer should voluntarily pay over the market rate in order to make sure that more of the needs of the seller are met. This is a much more effective response than not trading.


This, of course, is the principle behind the Fairtrade movement which is now gathering impetus in the West, and beginning to improve the conditions at least for a small proportion of producers in developing countries. The success of this movement is beginning to offer a strong practical counter-argument to a traditional objection to this sort of trading: that it is not economically viable. A company that engages in fair trade will not be out-competed by non-fairtrade companies selling the same type of product so long as the consumers at the end of the line are prepared to pay slightly more for certified fairly-traded products. So the ultimate buyer in a chain of trades is the one who has most responsibility for ensuring the justice of the trading, even though all intermediate traders also need to trade with an openness to changing the economic pattern, to co-operate with fair-trade certification schemes etc.


Traditional Western economics assumes that traders and consumers act “rationally”, that is, consistently to their own advantage. Caught up in the self-and-other model of moral conduct, they fail to recognise that trade does not necessarily always take place between hard-baked and limited egos, but between human beings capable of extending those egoistic identifications. In the case of fair trade this also means considering the long-term future of the trade relationship, which for success also needs to consider the welfare of the other person and their entire context. As I shall discuss further in the next chapter, this also has a close relationship with environmental issues, for another type of unjust trading is for goods that are produced in one place at the cost of environmental degradation which would not be tolerated in the environment of the buyer. The degradation of the environment of trading partners, like the poverty of trading partners, should concern us, not only because of the broader effects it may have on us in future, but because of our capacity to extend our sympathies to them.


World poverty


Finally, before leaving economic issues, it is useful to take a broader look at the biggest economic issue of our time: that is, the abject poverty of millions of people in the developing world, and the enormous gap between them and even ordinary citizens in the developed world. Around 800 million people in the world are malnourished, and well over a billion live on less than $1 a day. In contrast, the average citizen of the United States lives on about $94 a day[15]. What should be our moral response to this situation?


The eternalist response to such a situation is to compare it to an ideal one of wealth and income equality for all, without immediate recognition of the complex conditions which have given rise to this situation. A nihilist response, on the other hand, is one of acquiescence based on our conventional ignoring of such disparities, perhaps allied to a sense of powerlessness.On the one hand, I cannot solve this massive problem alone, but on the other, I should not simply judge my level of wealth according to the standards of my neighbours. A global sense of perspective about wealth and poverty is an attitude facilitated by modern communications, and a further step towards the recognition of wider conditions.


To engage morally with this disparity of wealth requires some understanding of its causes. These are extremely complex, but some of them could be generally suggested as due to a combination of climate, geology, flora and fauna, environmental degradation, colonialism and its legacy, cultural and religious attitudes, technology, continuing economic exploitation, debt, political instability and corruption[16]. Various combinations of advantages and disadvantages in some or all of these areas have made developed countries to varying degrees wealthier than developing ones.


We will only make progress in helping to change these conditions by engaging with them and working with them. They are not simply a matter of having or not having money, so that the obvious solution of everyone in the rich world giving most of their wealth to people in the poor world would probably not have the desired effect. The rich world is rich in education, trust, stability, confidence, technology, infrastructure and environmental advantages (compared to the poor world) as well as in money. As aid donors have found, aid that is insufficiently supported and not directed with awareness of the context in which it is used, is not very effective in alleviating poverty. Similarly, if the rich world were to give up most of its wealth and simply send millions of large cheques to the poor, the resulting negative effect on the rich world would probably greatly outweigh any positive effect on the poor world. All of this follows from the Buddhist appreciation of the inter-penetration of conditions.


The poor are not saved by compassion alone, but by an equal measure of wisdom. Some of us are well fitted to work for charities in world development, directly helping the poor or raising money, but it would not be desirable for all of us to do so because others are needed to maintain the existing society of the developed world. Without being maintained in this way, the developed world would cease to have the advantages it has, and would cease to able to offer any help. The conditions which limit developed world aid to the developing world are also psychological conditions. As I have already discussed above in relation to investment, we are often psychologically constrained from giving by our attachment to wealth, but can chip away more skilfully at our egos through skilful investment.


Where we can all exert effort is in relation to the conditions which create extremes of wealth and poverty in the world, for these are conditions which affect everyone. We can affect political views of developing countries through political campaigning, or at least using our voice or our vote effectively when we are allowed it. We can influence investment in developing countries by our own investment choices. We can promote the cancellation of the debts of developing world countries by cancelling similar more personal debts we may be owed ourselves, as well as by political campaigning. We can influence the way in which trade is conducted by buying fairly-traded products. As I shall be discussing in the next chapter, we can also try to halt or reverse the degradation of the environment in developing countries through exercising our choice as consumers.


Many of these actions are not ones which require substantial giving up of time and money we may prefer to keep for ourselves, but simply the adequate direction of our daily behaviour. We may not all have the temperament to be political campaigners, nor the generosity to be large-scale donors, but applying awareness to our consumption, livelihood, and investments is manageable for all of us. By doing this, we have much more of an effect than that of a lone voice in the wilderness, for many others readily acknowledge the wisdom of such awareness and can be influenced simply by another’s example into acting similarly.


This is not at all to underestimate the value either of political campaigning or of generous donation to charities. These actions have further value because they are ways of engaging more fully with the conditions which create the gap between rich and poor. Unquestionably, though, they require a lot of us both psychologically and practically. A political campaigner for the poor may be neglecting other beneficial activities such as help to others nearby, investment of time with his/her children, or cultivation of personal meditation and wisdom, all of which may extend ego-identification in different ways. There is no sense in which anybody “should” be doing political campaigning rather than these other things (things which also help to create the complex conditions which make what the political campaigner is fighting for worthwhile). However, in contrast it does seem fairly clear that when confronted with a choice between two similar products in a supermarket, one well authenticated as fairly traded and the other not, we should choose the fairly traded one.


Moral awareness should not leave us with a sense of guilt about simply being who we are or living in the conditions in which we live. If given a blank slate to redesign the world in an ideal way, we might design it differently, but the world is not like that, and our ideas about how it should be re-designed are almost certainly an over-simplification. It is eternalist thinking, from whatever source, which leads us to feel for the starving with each guilt-wracked spoonful, or alternatively to construct elaborate ideologies to cover up our guilt and assert that we deserve our good fortune. We are not rich because we deserve to be rich, nor because God designed it that way, nor because the poor are being punished for previous actions, nor because you personally deliberately brought about any of their poverty. We simply need to come to terms with the condition of being relatively rich, to accept it and take advantage of its opportunities. If it so happens that you are relatively poor, then the same applies. However, this acceptance should not be confused with passivity, ignorance or lack of compassion. Instead effective activity to alleviate poverty depends on this acceptance, which in turn enables confident activity, understanding and compassion.     


[15] Sources: United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation and World Bank

[16] For a much more detailed, and fascinating, unpicking of these causes see Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond


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1. What is Buddhist Ethics?

2. Relationships

3. Sexual Ethics

4. Economic Issues

5. Environmental Issues

6. Animals

7. Scientific Issues

8. Medical Ethics

9. Political Ethics

10. Violence

11. Arts

12. Conclusion


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