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A New Buddhist Ethics

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

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Chapter 7: Scientific Issues

The value of scientific progress


Already, in discussing animal experimentation in the previous chapter, we have run into the need to make moral judgements about the value of scientific knowledge. The moral assessment of scientific knowledge is relevant to all sorts of other issues, such as the moral acceptability of scientific research as a livelihood, the question of how much funding should be given to scientific research, and how much every individual in society should allow themselves to be influenced by scientific views and approaches.


On the face of it, there is much about science which should make it compatible with core Buddhist ideals. Both scientists and Buddhists are concerned with trying to find out what conditions are really like. Both are concerned with increasing objectivity and the avoidance of illusions caused purely by subjective mental states. Science advances through the comparison of theory with experience: similarly Buddhism, if it is not to be treated as a metaphysical dogma, is a body of theory which gains its value by being applied through experience.


On this basis, the roads of scientists and Buddhists should lie together for a long way. True, the traditional emphasis in each has been different. Science has focused on the investigation of what is usually (barring quantum physics) taken to be a predictable material world out there beyond us, and in doing so has often neglected the assumptions and the mental states of the observer. Traditional Buddhism, on the other hand, has never developed scientific ways of investigating the physical world, but has devoted its investigations primarily to the mind and its workings. However, with sufficient open-mindedness on both sides, this difference of emphasis could be seen as purely complementary, with each side being able to help remedy the weaknesses of the other.


Unfortunately, however, such open-mindedness is not as common as one would hope, and where interaction does take place it is sometimes at the expense of reducing science to Buddhism or Buddhism to science. The great stumbling-block to practising the Middle Way in science is a bundle of dogmas which are best called scientism. Scientism is not required for the practice of science, and is often held with the greatest degree of stubbornness by people who are not in fact scientists (such as philosophers). Foremost amongst these dogmas is what philosophers refer to as the fact-value distinction. According to this distinction no fact can imply a value, nor a value a fact, as facts are objective statements about the world, whereas values are subjective responses to it. Along with this often come other scientistic dogmas: determinism, materialism, and moral relativism, all of which depend on this supposed independence of facts from values.


This incredibly tenacious dogma seems to have arisen out of the tendency we have to look at the world and see things, without being aware that what we are actually seeing is perceptions: our own heavily edited version of what may be out there. There is much traditional Buddhist material on this, including basic teachings like those of the three characteristics of existence and the conditioned nature of the objects of experience. Part of the editing process involved in our having individual perceptions (rather than immediate access to reality) is one of value. We pick out the experiences which are useful to us, focusing for example on the charging predator or the attractive potential mate, and cutting the background. If we could have experiences of things, they would just be factual, but since this is not the case we have to come to terms with the fact that there are no value-free facts and no fact-free values. By taking into account human experience rather than just the object of investigation, Buddhism has reached a radically different conclusion on this.


Since the fact-value distinction underlies so much not just scientific but general academic discourse, the implications of the Buddhist challenge to it are immense. For one thing it means (as I have already suggested in the introductory chapter) that much descriptive academic “Buddhist Ethics” (which attempts to just describe the facts about what Buddhists believe about ethics, whilst excluding value judgement) is a travesty of the term. However, in relation to scientific endeavour, it implies that there is no such thing as pure knowledge for its own sake, that scientific virtues can also be moral virtues, and that scientists can by no means exempt themselves from a moral framework of judgement.


Firstly, there is no such thing as knowledge for its own sake, or “pure” science. On the contrary, in the last 300 years or so in the Western world there has emerged a scientific culture with its own values, which have often challenged the values of other elements of Western culture. These values are often ones which place objectivity before dogma, and can be seen as predominantly positive values for Buddhists, but they should be recognised as values. So, one Buddhist principle in relation to science seems to be that we should never accept the appeal to science for its own sake, but ask what other values underlie a particular scientific enterprise. Why is it good? What ends is it leading to? A scientific development is never wholly distinct from its technological applications, however much highly-specialised scientists may protest that they are not responsible for technological application.


Secondly, the virtues which make a good person are the same virtues of objectivity that create a good scientist, and vice-versa. Scientists sometimes appear to have moral failings because they have failed to reflect on their own personal situation through a narrow focus on their object of research: for example, they may fail in their duties to their family. However, this is a failure of objectivity generally which might also have an effect in that scientist’s scientific work, as he/she fails to take into account a vital condition that falls outside his/her narrow focus. On the positive side, though, a scientist who is objective in observation and uses theory in a balanced way, using it to guide investigation but not being over-attached to it, is more likely to be successful in understanding conditions better, just as a person who uses Buddhist theory in the same way is more likely to engage effectively with the conditions of their life.


Thirdly, science cannot be exempted from a moral framework of judgement. This does not mean, however, that it must be subjected to a framework of judgement which excludes the values of science. Rather, a truly moral framework will be one which includes all that is most objective in science, taking into account the effect of science on people and other beings because they are an important part of the total conditions. An objective attitude will want to establish an understanding of conditions, but its objectivity will be limited if it stops at explaining them or theorising about them without also appreciating their inter-relationship with all that one identifies with.


Some of the application of these general principles should be seen in the three specific scientific issues I will look at in the remainder of this chapter. However, first we should look at how they apply to some of the general practical issues I began this section with. Should Buddhists be scientists? How much should we (or the government) fund science? How much should we concern ourselves with science?


In general, it appears from the principles I have suggested above that scientific research is a right livelihood that can help one develop skills and virtues which should be valued by Buddhists. However, this is subject to the question of exactly how one does science (with how much objectivity) and what exactly one researches. In undertaking scientific research, one does not become blameless for negative results when further reflection or awareness could have revealed them at the outset. A scientist who works in an area of nuclear physics that could be applied to nuclear weapons today, for example, will know that this is what they are doing. If they have clearly worked out that it is still morally the right policy to work in that area, then he/she is in a much more morally defensible position than one who just hides behind the dogma that his/her science is “pure”. Similar sorts of reflections will perhaps be needed by scientists working in areas that could be environmentally destructive.


Clearly, very similar considerations should apply to government funding of science. Science has enormous and complex benefits for society which make it justifiable for governments to support it, and politically perhaps we should support this, yet government support for developments which might well have a negative impact on other beings, or contribute to the narrowing rather than the broadening of minds, is another matter. As I shall explore further in chapter 9, we all have some responsibility to interest ourselves in scientific developments because of this political dimension.


Scientific progress is not inevitable, nor does it consist in one great unstoppable rolling monolith, as people sometimes seem to think. It consists of people, ideas, papers, institutions etc., all of which develop in ways for which individual humans can become responsible. We can step back from the brink, technologies can be destroyed, and new discoveries can be erased. It is no excuse that others will do it if we do not, for by stepping back we will make a powerful impression. It is not at all easy to judge when to do this, and no clear guidelines can be given for it: rather, the virtues of true objectivity are the most important element in preparing for such a decision. Amongst all those thousands or millions who do science in a way that is beneficial to humankind, it is those few that need to be prepared not to do science in certain respects or certain ways that should win the highest respect - for putting objectivity above conformity.


Genetic Engineering


Genetic engineering is the deliberate manipulation of genes by human beings, in order to produce a more desirable or useful type of organism than that which is likely to be produced by the normal process of gene mixing in reproduction without human interference. The useful new organism could be a single-celled organism, a plant, an animal, or a human being. We do not have to limit ourselves to what is technically possible now in discussing this subject, but rather try to establish how the Middle Way could create a general approach to both present and future forms of genetic engineering.


There are two extreme forms of dogma to be avoided at the outset in this case. The first, as already discussed in relation to the environment, is the dogma of naturalness. Genetic engineering is not automatically wrong because it is “unnatural”. Not only is what we take to be natural subjective in the extreme and subject to constant change, but what we take to be “natural” in terms of genetic manipulation depends on our conditioning and what we are used to. Human beings have been manipulating the genes of the organisms around them for thousands of years through the process of selective breeding. All that has changed in recent decades is the directness and speed of human interference.


At the other end of the scale though, lies another type of dogma. Genetic engineering is not necessarily right, either, because it is a fruit of scientific progress. As I argued in the previous section, such progress is not inevitable, and we can take responsibility for not making it, or even erasing it. It is not necessarily right, either, just because it may be pursued with good intentions, if those good intentions have not been subjected to sufficient critical awareness.


So, we do not need to worry about the fact by itself that genetic engineering alters the shape and functioning of the world we live in, but we do need to look carefully at how it might alter that world and how it will affect the other beings in it. In doing this the scientists and biotech companies that promote genetic engineering need to look beyond the narrow focus of a particular commercial scheme to use genetic engineering to address a particular problem, for it often seems that those involved fail to consider the wider context.


Let me first consider a couple of examples of genetic engineering projects that have plainly failed to consider the wider context. One scheme for the genetic engineering of crops is the “protato”, a potato with added protein content. The idea is that this potato should be used in developing countries to avoid protein deficiency in children[21]. This fails to consider that the reason such children are protein-deficient is that they are failing to eat existing easily-producible sources of protein such as lentils and other pulses[22]. Is it really simpler and cheaper to get farmers in developing countries (including the very poorest) to all grow a new and more expensive type of potato, than simply to grow more lentils? Another scheme is the genetic engineering of farmed salmon with extra growth hormone. These fish grow much faster and are much larger than normal salmon, but are also vulnerable to disease. The originators of this scheme fail to accept the likelihood that some of these genetically engineered salmon would escape and mix with the normal wild salmon. Because they are larger and heavier, they may quickly out-compete the wild salmon, but after doing this, they could be quickly wiped out by disease, effectively wiping out the wild salmon[23].


Both of these examples plainly have a commercial motive, and offer fairly transparent rationalisations for a short-term pursuit of wealth. Though it may be scientists who work out, say, how to genetically engineer salmon to grow faster, it is business which applies it in this way. As argued above, scientists cannot hide behind the excuse here that they are only doing science (whether “pure” or otherwise) and others exploit their results, as the application of their science is obvious from the start, and only a little reflection could make some of the dangers obvious.


There is quite a strong argument that similar concerns apply to all possible applications of genetic engineering. In many cases (like that of established GM crops like soya, already widely grown in the US) there is no clear evidence of any harm arising from the genetically engineered nature of the crop. However, there is much potential harm simply because the nature of the technology is so new and much of genetics still so mysterious. For example, there is not a clear correlation between desirable features and identifiable genes, and a manipulation of genes that succeeds in bringing in one kind of desirable characteristic (e.g. drought resistance) might also unknowingly introduce another (e.g. vulnerability to a rare but lethal disease). Once a GM crop is commercially grown, however, its pollen may contaminate other non-GM crops in the vicinity, and the dangers of unforeseen but large-scale environmental effects (and, perhaps less likely but still possible, effects on consumers of the crop) are unpredictably present.


On these grounds some argue for a strong precautionary principle in the use of all GM crops and animals. At the extreme, this means that they should never be introduced because of the unpredictable dangers, however great the potential benefits. This probably involves too intolerant an attitude to risk and too great an attachment to the world as we know it. Although sufficiently safe GM crops of clear benefit to humankind (when the whole context is taken into account) may not exist yet, it is not impossible that they will exist in the future and that we will want to welcome them in the future. However, it does seem that a combination of narrowly-focused scientism, commercial opportunism, and insufficient care from governments has allowed GM crops to be introduced far too rapidly so far, particularly in the US. The sheer scale of the possible devastation, for humans and for animals and plants, should at least justify a weaker version of the precautionary principle for GM crops.


Where the genetic engineering of animals is concerned, the discussion in the previous chapter should make clear a lot of the likely response. It is no more wrong to genetically engineer an animal than it is to breed it, but the most likely applications of genetic engineering of animals are to sustain or even intensify factory farming. Even if genetic engineering could, in future, create a stationary animal that was no more sentient than a plant, but could produce meat[24], the environmental objections to such meat-raising would probably still remain. If such a genetically-engineered “animal” also had greatly reduced needs for land, food and water, then perhaps we should no longer object, but such an animal would in effect now be a plant.


Where genetic engineering is not tied in to such exploitative processes, however, and has been carefully thought through and tested, there are no reasons to object to its use. Genetically engineered pets that were tractable and easy to look after would probably lead happier lives than ones that were not so adapted. If we can reasonably rule out risks of unexpected side-effects or weaknesses and genetic engineering can benefit an animal, there is no reason not to do it.


This leads us finally to the question of the genetic engineering of humans to have desirable characteristics: the idea of “designer babies” that raises so much controversy, and is currently forbidden by law in most places. This raises issues of the status of human life that I will be exploring in the next chapter. However, for now it is enough to point out that we have no reason to reject this practice by appeal to nature, human nature, God’s design or any other such dogma. The focus once again needs to be on the awareness and the circumspection with which such designing might be done.


If we could safely make human beings more genetically likely to develop intelligence, wisdom, sensitivity, reflectiveness, empathy, energy, and other positive qualities, then it seems we should take this opportunity to improve their starting conditions and relieve some aspects of their suffering. However, we should not get too narrowly attached to this possibility, which is most likely to be technically impossible without many dangers and negative side-effects. One such obvious danger is that, by generally allowing parents to design their babies, governments will set free and redouble the forces of ignorance by allowing the selection of aggressiveness, physical beauty, obsessive diligence, or other traits which are not beneficial to the wider world in the longer term.


Whilst genetic engineering could potentially help us in various ways, we could not genetically engineer a Buddha. The Middle Way consists of the balanced judgements that we make in response to the conditions that we find ourselves in, and it is not possible to take spiritual shortcuts simply by manipulating the prior conditions. Indeed according to the traditional accounts, the Buddha could hardly have been better prepared for his path if he had been genetically engineered, as he seems to be credited with optimal intelligence, vigour, beauty and sensitivity from the outset. Despite this, he still had to struggle, and in some ways his favoured starting point might be seen as a disadvantage rather than an advantage.


Genetic engineering, then, is not morally problematic in theory, but in practice almost every actual or likely application of it can only be approached with severe reservations by anyone who is trying to face up to conditions and extend their identifications. The practical problems are so great that they might even justify outright rejection, joining the campaigning of those who reject all forms of it. However, even if we form an alliance with those who campaign against genetic engineering in principle, it is still important to distinguish between practical and dogmatic reasons for opposing it and to avoid the latter. Concentrating on practical reasons is much more likely to promote dialogue with those who promote genetic engineering, and to still allow those aspects of the technology that might be genuinely useful to emerge.




Cloning is the deliberate reproduction of an organism that is genetically identical to another one already existing. It is thus a form of genetic engineering, except that genes are chosen from the combination found in an existing organism rather than in any more direct way. Like genetic engineering, cloning can be seen as the extension of a practice which has been operating for thousands of years: for gardeners have been producing new genetically identical plants by taking cuttings and grafting them since Roman times. More recently, however, scientists have discovered new techniques for taking a cell from an adult animal and putting its nucleus in a fertilised egg, giving the new developing animal exactly the same genes as those of the adult animal the cell was taken from. So we can now also produce identical new genetic copies of animals: including, potentially, humans.


As with genetic engineering, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this practice as “unnatural”, but we need to look at its applications and consider whether they involve an extension of our identifications or a narrowing of focus. There are three major possible applications, all still far from developed technically at the time of writing: cloning of animals, reproductive cloning of humans, and non-reproductive cloning of humans.


Many of the possible uses of cloned animals also involve other forms of genetic engineering, and depend on it. For example, after genetically engineering an animal with a desirable characteristic (e.g. to produce a vital chemical, to grow faster etc), this characteristic could then be reproduced rapidly using cloning. The result of this might be genetically identical herds. Such herds would be extremely vulnerable to disease or to sudden changes in conditions, as they would lack the genetic diversity which creates such flexibility. This would be yet another way to try to sustain factory farming, but it is hard to see how it could be compatible with any identification with the animals.


Some other cloning of animals might operate only on an individual level, and thus be less dangerous. For example, pet-owners might want their favourite animal cloned when it is near death, so they could have a “replacement”. Here what is problematic is the delusion that the clone is the same as the dead animal (it is only genetically identical, not identical in other ways, such as life-experience), and the encouragement of a failure to come to terms with impermanence.


The reproductive cloning of humans raises similar issues: if many copies are made, it weakens the general human response to new and different conditions, whilst if only a few are made it probably still involves delusive attachment to the individual being copied. Why would anyone want to create identical copies of one individual? Perhaps because they have highly desirable characteristics. However, if we cloned Siddhartha Gautama, we would not get the Buddha, because the Buddha became such through his life experience. Apart from the danger that the individuals many people would want to clone would actually have many undesirable characteristics, the difficulties of actually reproducing a mature person with the identical virtues would make the task practically impossible. Alternatively, people would want to use cloning to bring back dead relatives, or even to make copies of themselves, under the same delusion noted above with regard to pets.


Perhaps a more morally defensible potential use of cloning, however, is non-reproductive human cloning. This offers the potential for parts of the body, from skin cells to whole organs, to be grown in a tank ready for a recipient who needs that body part replacing. If this becomes technically possible, there seem to be no major problems with it: no sentient being will suffer, and many painful conditions may be alleviated in a far more satisfactory way than taking body-parts from a donor (see section on transplantation in next chapter). The only issues might be ones of the expense and sustainability of the procedure. Would we all want a full set of spare body parts kept in the freezer ready for when we might need them? This would involve huge medical resources, and perhaps a failure to face up to the changing and decaying nature of our bodies. However, if organs could be grown only when needed, this might be a very positive development.


So, the position in relation to cloning offers clear moral contrasts. There is no basic moral reason why Buddhists should object to cloning; however, all its potential uses for reproduction of whole animals or humans appear to involve a failure to face up to the conditions at work. With non-reproductive cloning, however, we might have a basically blameless medical tool to be evaluated like any other medical treatment.


Space Exploration


In contrast to the above first two issues relating to science (and technology), which relate to biological science, that of space exploration relates primarily to physical science. If it is not so often thought of as a moral issue in the same way as genetic engineering and cloning, this is perhaps because it does not present choices in individual life so much (except for the very small minority of people actually participating in space exploration). It is, however, a public issue which depends on moral attitudes. Should the states of the world spend huge amounts of money on space exploration? Is it worthy of our support and our taxes? Is space exploration a morally justifiable goal for human beings?


By “space”, I mean anywhere beyond the earth’s stratosphere, including the moon, the planets, the stars, and the mind-bogglingly huge areas of vacuum between these objects. Not all activities in space, though, are any longer exploration. The launching of satellites for communications and/or military purposes, for example, is no longer exploratory. However, under the general heading of “space exploration”, I include potential human activities beyond the earth’s orbit, such as mineral exploitation or colonisation of the moon or planets.


There are many possible motives for space exploration: scientific curiosity, the mere glory of penetrating, and perhaps colonising, “the final frontier”, nationalistic competitiveness, and the search for resources, such as further mineral reserves ready for when the earth’s run out. It is probably best to examine these motives, or reasons offered for exploring space, as the best method of judging their morality.


Firstly, scientific curiosity. On the face of it, astronomy is the most practically useless of sciences, the most “pure” of sciences. Of what use to us is the knowledge of distant galaxies, or of the geological composition of Mars? However, this would be to take an unnecessarily narrow and unimaginative conception of “use”. Astronomy has in the past done much to aid navigation, today it can help us spot dangers to the earth such as colliding asteroids, and if space is to be of any help to human beings in the future, it will only be as a result of prior scientific investigation. Like other sciences, astronomy helps us to get to grips with conditions, and not to look at those beyond the earth would be a very parochial attitude indeed. Space exploration can obviously be hugely helpful to astronomy, not only by sending our space probes or space ships to investigate, but through such projects as the Hubble space telescope, the orbiting telescope that can now observe the universe free of the interferences created by the earth’s atmosphere.


So, although I have previously argued that the idea of a pure science is dogmatic, astronomy is not such a science. Like many other sciences, its future benefits cannot be easily predicted, but its potential for giving us important information is large. This by itself might justify some degree of space exploration, or at least projects like the space telescope.


The glory of penetrating the “Final Frontier” is obviously a motivation with can contain a fair amount of empty fantasy, much nourished by science fiction. We may be so used to such fiction that we may even think of space much along the same lines as the European colonisers once thought of the “New World”. The comparison, however, can be hugely misleading. The New World consisted of land very much like the lands of the Old World, only varying in climate, flora and fauna etc. The first European colonists had to worry about hostile natives and isolation from the resources of home, but they could fairly soon get on with clearing land, planting crops and developing their own facilities. The first space colonists (if there ever are any) will also have to worry about non-existent or unbreathable atmosphere, zero gravity or inappropriate gravity (which create great physiological problems for astronauts), absence of water, totally unknown toxins (or possibly viruses), and mind-boggling distances from home. To allow them to grow their own food or begin any other productive activities would require huge inputs of resources from home, with everything transported over vast distances, and with a degree of uncertainty about the success of the enterprise which would make the American colonists appear positively comfortable.


Perhaps this extra degree of risk, uncertainty, and challenge, however, will simply prove a spur to the incredible resourcefulness and ingenuity of human beings. We cannot write off space colonisation as an impossibility, however heavily the odds may be stacked against it, because we do not know the future. As an attitude, too, the desire to open up the final frontier has a positive quality to it which must temper the likelihood of delusion: it is an open spirit which faces up to uncertainties rather than denying them. It may involve a narrow and obsessive commitment to certain goals, but unlike genetic engineering, say, these do not seem to involve the exploitation of others or a great risk to the earth’s environment. We must weigh up each space exploration project only in relation to the resources it consumes.


Nationalistic competitiveness (which contributed greatly, for example, to the first moon landings) is obviously a less helpful motivation. It is unhelpful because closed and exclusive. If the Americans succeed in landing a man on Mars before the Japanese or the Europeans, this will largely just have the effect of hardening the ego-boundaries of Americans in their identification with their state. If this was the only motive, space exploration would just be a colossally expensive way of doing what international sport already does.


Finally, the search for further resources. It seems that the initial hopes of finding mineral resources worth exploiting on the moon were not fulfilled. However, this does not indicate that there will not be minerals worth exploiting elsewhere in space. As I have already remarked in relation to the exploitation of minerals in the earth’s environment, this is not a hope which is strong enough to be relied upon, or to give us any excuse to waste mineral resources on earth. However, the use of some resources to find mineral resources elsewhere can be regarded as a form of investment. Whilst the transportation of minerals from other planets would involve enormous costs, it is impossible to judge what might be seen as economic in the future. The mining of minerals on lifeless planets would also have the great advantage of involving no dangers of harmful pollution which would affect other organisms.


So, considering the open possibilities of different kinds of benefit which may come from space exploration, and the open-minded investigation which frequently characterises it, I am obliged to reach a fairly positive view of it in general. This may surprise those who see space exploration as the furthest reach of human arrogance, and incompatible with the basic contentedness which is part of Buddhist practice. Such contentedness, however, can only be achieved in the long-term by negotiating all the conditions around us, and space exploration attempts to do this. Contentedness based on the Middle Way is not a result of simply accepting the conditions around us, but of engaging with them with whatever degree of activity is appropriate, recognising that the conditions that sustain us are subject to change, and that we cannot rest with uninvestigated assumptions about our environment.


If space exploration were simply a dogmatic idea used as an excuse to despoil the earth’s environment, it would be an entirely negative development. However, it is openness to conditions, not attachment to the earth, which should lead us to value the earth’s environment. It may well turn out that there is nowhere else we can live, and no practicable alternative for us to our home planet, but this should not lead us to prematurely and dogmatically rule out the possibility of living elsewhere, or at least using its resources. Whether space exploration projects are worth the resources they require from public funds, given the other important requirements for those resources on earth, is a matter that can only be judged on a case-by-case basis. It may be that the age of space exploration is already over because of the urgent problems afflicting the earth, and we cannot afford the huge and risky investments involved, but we cannot assume this just yet.


[20] For more on this, compare the websites of BUAV ( ) and RDS (the Research Defence Society - ). 

[21] For more details see

[22] See for a critique of the protato proposal

[23] See

[24] As envisaged in Margaret Attwood’s novel Oryx and Crake (pub. Virago) p.237-9


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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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