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'A New Buddhist Ethics Chapter 10: Violence and law-breaking

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


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The issues of violence with which most of this chapter are concerned are very often taken in traditional Buddhism to be covered by the First Precept, not to strike living beings. For many traditional Buddhists then, it is a simple deontological matter: all violence is wrong. Nevertheless, violence amongst the general public is just as common in Buddhist countries as in any other country, and the police and armed forces use it as they do in other countries. Plainly the straightforward deontological interpretation of this precept does not meet the conditions, and we need a more sophisticated approach using the Middle Way. As always this will involve asking what the underlying reasons for the precept are, and trying to address these conditions. I will be looking at violence and law-breaking on an increasing scale, ending up on an international scale but beginning with individuals and the question of self-defence.


We have already discussed some of the reasons why violence may be wrong (e.g. in the euthanasia section of chapter 8): violence cuts off identification with the victim, causes suffering, brutalises my own responses, reinforces a delusion of separateness, and often leads to a cycle of conflict when the other person responds. If I am trying to follow Buddhist ethics I am not likely to be walking the streets attacking people myself. However, what if someone else attacks me? Surely I can use violence in self-defence?


When we look at the reasons suggested above why violence is wrong, though, all of them apply to violence used in self-defence just as much as initiated violence. A response of self-defence cuts off identification with my attacker, stopping me recognising why he/she attacked me in the first place and addressing those conditions. It can cause as much suffering as the original attack, or indeed more. It brutalises my own response, and reinforces a delusion of separateness. Most importantly it continues the chain of violence which the attacker began, likely to lead to further escalation of the conflict.


The instinct to fight back is one of revenge, but revenge has no moral justification. There is thus no basic reason why it is any better to respond to an attacker with violence than it was to attack in the first place. The fact that your defence was “provoked” may make it more defensible in law or in popular opinion, but these justifications must be distinguished from moral ones.


There may be practical arguments why it is claimed that it is better to fight back. If you don’t fight back the attacker may continue to attack you, do you further injury, or even kill you. It is perfectly reasonable to try to prevent him/her doing this, but there are better ways of doing it than fighting back. Running away, calling for assistance (if available), restraining the attacker physically, or giving the attacker what they want (for example your wallet) are all preferable responses to fighting back in that they stop the violence and avoid further injury to either of you. Even better is the trained use of a technique such as Non-Violent Communication in such circumstances, to engage the attacker in recognising your personhood and your needs, whilst you recognise his/hers. Of course, this takes a lot of nerve in such circumstances, and may not succeed, but it may result in a negotiated outcome from which both sides benefit in terms of confronting new conditions.


The use of martial arts in such circumstances, however much their origins may be associated with the Buddhist Tradition, is not necessarily in accordance with Buddhist ethics. Some martial arts are simply more effective ways of fighting which use concentration techniques allied to meditation. Some use the enemy’s strength against him, leading him to do injury to himself. Whilst this has a certain irony to it, it is basically just as violent in both intention and outcome as straightforwardly punching him in the face.


Another argument for self-defence is that it provides immediate justice. The attacker may get more than they bargained for and refrain from attacking again. This is a possible outcome, but it is an extremely high-risk strategy to use, even if you are adept in, say, martial arts. The attacker may be a better fighter than you expect, and much greater violence may ensue than would otherwise be the case. Even if you get the better of him, there is no guarantee that this will have the effect of deterring him from further crime in future. It is only really in a situation where there is no policing at all that you have any excuse to turn yourself into a law-enforcement agency (see section below on law enforcement).


If this applies to mere bodily self-defence, it applies even more to the justification for carrying a knife or a gun for self-defence. It is true that if you threaten an attacker who is not armed with a weapon, this will probably deter them from attacking you. However, they may just go looking for a more vulnerable victim, and in the meantime you have contributed to making weapons more acceptable (regardless of their legal status, which of course is also relevant here). If on the other hand you carry a weapon and they have one too, the likely result is much more serious violence than would occur otherwise.


Overall, then, there are pretty good reasons for the traditional Buddhist opposition to violence even in self-defence. Whilst running away or giving in to threats may seem undignified and challenge our sense of pride, our dignity and pride are really not at all important in such circumstances. It is far more important not to contribute to starting a spiral of violence which may have far-reaching negative consequences, and involve you in some very negative and narrowed mental states for some time to come. The only possible exceptions to this occur in circumstances when there is no law-enforcement agency (e.g. a situation of anarchy or of totally dysfunctional police, not just the police not being handy) and you have the capability to enforce the law yourself. However, even in these circumstances you should follow the law, which will probably allow for overpowering and constraint of the attacker rather than retaliation.




Suicide is also an act of violence, though against oneself. It may take place in a great variety of circumstances, from the avoidance of suffering in the final throes of a terminal disease, to a proud determination not to accept failure, to the outcome of depression, to a self-sacrificial act to save others. The issues where a person commits suicide to avoid suffering when nearing death are very similar to those already discussed in relation to euthanasia, with the distinction only that the person concerned kills themselves rather than asking someone else to do it. I am concerned here only with the other kinds of cases of suicide.


The most basic question is whether it is justifiable to take one’s own life at will, in a way in which it is not justifiable to take the life of someone else. To this question there are clear eternalist and nihilist extremes of answer. The eternalist answer is that suicide is not justifiable under any circumstances because of some absolute rule. In the case of Christianity this is the idea that one’s body belongs not to oneself but to God, and thus that taking one’s own life is a sin against God, rejecting his creation. Traditionalist Buddhists who follow what is in effect an eternalist line on this tend to derive a complete prohibition of suicide from the First Precept. The nihilist answer, on the other hand, is that there are no higher values forbidding suicide, so it is purely a matter of preference. This is often extended to the idea that society should not interfere in the fulfilment of this preference, resulting in a “Right to Die”.


The Middle Way here seems to be that there are some values which should affect our judgement about killing ourselves beyond our mere preferences, but these are not absolute values, but ones that merely help us to address conditions which the suicide neglects. Most suicides are likely to be in a state of either frenzied distress or depression which makes it clear that they are out of touch with conditions. They would be wrong, then (assuming they were capable of moral reasoning at all) to commit suicide in that state, and we would be right to prevent them from doing so. There are many conditions which they would not be taking into account: the other side of the case of whatever it is that distressed them, the effect of their suicide on others, and its effect on themselves if they should fail.


More fundamentally, a distressed suicidal state is probably the worst possible example of an unintegrated state. The distressed person is probably not only incoherent in their feelings, but alienated from their own will to live. The will to live is such a basic instinct for most of us that we can be almost certain that it will re-emerge if the suicidal person is restrained from suicide. In this kind of case, then, it is the degree of mental disintegration and alienation which make the decision to commit suicide a wrong one. The fact that this state is (probably) brought to an end by the suicide of the person does not do anything to improve its moral quality: a distressed and disintegrated person can recover, but a dead one cannot. The disintegrated person has chosen to indulge their disintegration rather than take steps to try to heal it.


None of this applies to calm and integrated suicides, who have decided that, given their situation, death is the best option. In this kind of situation suicide is a facing-up to conditions, a mark of objectivity, rather than an avoidance of them. This may be the case with some self-sacrificial suicides, where the conditions are such that killing oneself will give others the chance to live. A famous example of this is Captain Oates, the companion of Scott, the Antarctic explorer who reached the South Pole just after Amundsen reached it first. On the way back, when the remaining party were giving way to frostbite and running out of food, it is recorded that Oates deliberately walked off into the snow to certain death, in order to give his companions a chance to live (though unfortunately this failed and they died anyway). Whilst the idea that he was less valuable than the others may have involved some dogmatic assumptions, one cannot fail to admire the spirit with which such a suicide calmly comes to terms with the conditions and judges other things more important than his own ego. It is only where the suicide appears to be a result of self-abnegation, an eternalist asceticism extending to the destruction of oneself, that one can judge self-sacrificial suicide to be less justified. This appears to have been the case with Jesus, who seems to have walked into an avoidable death through some such motives.


Perhaps the proud type of suicide, the defeated Roman who falls on his sword, may be at least partially put in the category of justifiable suicides too. The decision that death is better than humiliation may be based on a false judgement, but it involves facing up to the facts as he sees them, and overcoming a fear of death as opposed to giving in to a fear of life.


As some of the above examples illustrate, there is not much difference between known and avoidable risk-taking and suicide. A suicidal impulse can be expressed by taking a crazy risk without good reason, because one does not care about the outcome. It can also be expressed (as in the case of Jesus) by deliberately walking into a situation where you know you are liable to be killed, even if others then do the deed.


So, in conclusion, the best sense of the traditional Buddhist opposition to suicide can probably be taken to be an opposition to distressed suicide. There is no “Right to Die” in such cases. Morally, however, one cannot object to integrated suicide which involves facing up to the conditions, as long as it is not actually motivated by self-sacrifice which neglects one’s own value.


Law enforcement


If you believe in the justification of the existence of the state as discussed in the last chapter, one necessary aspect of the state’s functioning is that of the law and its enforcement. Laws are necessary to prevent disorder and create the stable society necessary for any pursuit of spiritual development, as I argued in the last chapter. The definitive difference between law and morality, however, is that law is not just a matter of conscientious choice for the individual, but must be observed by all, including the unwilling. This means that those unwilling to obey the law must be subjected to coercion. Coercion must involve at least the threat of violence, because if the unwilling resist with violence, violence may have to be used against them to ensure that they are overcome by the agents of the state.


This, at any rate, is the basic rationale for the use of violence by the police, or by anyone else who is authorised by the state to enforce the law. From a Buddhist perspective, we need to ask if this is enough of a case to overcome the basic moral objections to violence we have already considered. For violence used by an individual policeman or policewoman in the course of their duties still does all the things we suggested above that violence does: it cuts off identification with the victim, causes suffering, brutalises his/her own responses, reinforces a delusion of separateness, and often leads to a cycle of conflict. However highly trained the police may be to only use violence with great care in certain highly circumscribed situations, the fact that they need to use it appears to conflict with their spiritual needs as individuals. How should Buddhism deal with this moral contradiction?


Traditional Buddhism has completely failed to deal with it. Because of the traditional emphasis on individual purity of conduct in the Eastern traditions of Buddhism, anyone who uses violence is still believed to be creating bad karma for themselves, even though they are performing a morally justifiable public service. As a result, it is difficult for any Buddhist policeman (or soldier, as we will see when we get on to war) to take Buddhist practice seriously whilst doing his job. The complete divide between morality and law enforcement sometimes means a complete lack of restraint on the part of those enforcing the law, because they no longer have any sense of a Buddhist morality that is relevant to them. The pattern here is not that of the Middle Way but that of eternalism, in which an unachievable ideal becomes the basis of morality, and as a consequence only lip-service is paid to it.


I would suggest that there is a way forward from this impasse only if we focus on the Middle Way as the basis of Buddhist moral practice, rather than non-violence alone. The Middle Way requires us to take account of all conditions, which includes the totality of those affecting a situation. A policeman using violence against a criminal, then, is not only committing an act of violence, but also protecting others, engaging in circumscribed, trained activity, and enforcing the law. All of these surrounding conditions help to lessen the adverse effects of the violence. The police are also facing up to a condition which many of the rest of us fail to face up to: the reality of criminality in society (though the danger is, of course, that they will fail to appreciate the extent of goodness, gentleness and subtlety). To the extent that they focus on this wider context and meaning for their activities, it could be argued that they are doing a job which is actually worthy of considerable moral praise.


However, not all police are doing this to the same extent. In the world’s police forces there are violent abusers, sadists, torturers, and corrupt near-criminals, as well as very many civilised, highly trained, polite and principled people. The justification for police activity obviously depends to a great extent on the management of the police force and its place in the culture of the country, and particularly the general justification of the government. I think it is useful here to judge bodies such as states and police forces in roughly the same way as we judge individuals; in terms of their virtues which are developed by integration. An integrated state is relatively free of conflict and hypocrisy, and its agents are for the most part doing what its representatives claim. There is a common basis of judgement there which enables the government and its agents to address conditions with reasonable effectiveness. So, one would expect a reasonably integrated government to have an integrated police force, which gives an overall context and justification to the occasional necessary use of violence far better than that of a less integrated state.


An integrated police force can also be judged from its attitude to violence and its policies in using it. The best-justified police use of violence is clearly only as a last resort, and in response to criminal violence, not pre-empting it. Very often the mere assertion of police authority, with the backing that criminals know it to have and the threat of worse consequences for resistance, is sufficient to make criminals submit. However, if they do not do so, forcible restraint of the criminal is the obvious next option. If this is impossible, it may then be possible to bring in non-lethal weapons of a type increasingly used by police, which may immobilise or stun the criminal.


Obviously, stunning a criminal by whatever means, such as a blow with a baton, is still a violent act. If it is possible to stun, though, it is difficult to see what justification the police would have for killing or seriously injuring. Any immediate threat the criminal may pose (for example being about to set off a bomb or shoot someone else) can be immediately prevented by stunning as much as it can by killing. It is true that in some situations police may be at risk of being killed themselves, but unless there are still technical reasons why stunning is more difficult to make effective than killing, their risk seems to be made no greater by such a policy.


With this kind of flexible and progressive response to the violence offered by criminals, with a clear overall culture of public service, and with coherent management by a democratic government, there is no reason to apply moral blame to the violence used by modern Western police forces, and no reason why a Buddhist should not be a policeman or policewoman whilst practising ethics with complete seriousness. It is only when governments or police forces are disintegrated, or there is a divergence from the general character of the force by an individual that there is cause for concern. It is certainly one of the challenges of the job to overcome and counteract the brutalisation and objectification that all kinds of violence are likely to cause, but the strength of the context should generally allow the police to do this reasonably well. The police also overall probably reduce suffering and conflict rather than increasing it (again if they are not, we should enquire why).


In this case, then, both the eternalist attitude that sets moral standards idealistically high and makes them too inflexible, and the nihilistic attitude which dismisses morality as not being relevant to the police, can be overcome by the effective application of the Middle Way. In this we are much aided by the high standard of policing generally in the modern West, though this should not prevent us from maintaining a moral and political concern about any lapses from this standard.




Once criminals have been caught, tried, and found guilty of breaches of the law, how should they be punished? Here we enter an area of debate where there is a great deal of contention in the modern West, and a large division of opinion between conservatives and liberals. The basis of this division of opinion is two sharply divided theories of punishment (which can, incidentally, be applied to any type of punishment, not just by the state but also by parents, organisations etc). It will be helpful to review these before trying to determine how the Middle Way applies to the issue.


The two opposed theories of punishment are generally known as Utilitarianism and Retributivism (or Retributionism). Retributivism is the older theory, generally supported by conservatives, which sees punishment as a form of justified revenge. The criminal has inflicted a wrong on society, and so society should in return inflict a proportionate wrong on the criminal. To do so is understood as having a direct moral value, perhaps because it fulfils the will of God, rights the moral balance in the cosmos, or rationally balances the moral account. Needless to say this is a dogmatic position of an eternalist kind. There is no reason to think that revenge of any type is good, or that it fulfils any useful function in itself.


There is a Buddhist version of this theory, which is to argue that punishment provides the criminal with just deserts according to the law of karma. This is a deeply incoherent position, since even if you believe that the criminal will inevitably suffer in proportion to his misdeeds, this does not provide any justification for the state having to dole out this suffering. On the contrary, if the criminal is going to suffer anyway, then no formal punishment needs to be bothered with.


Retributivism basically requires the state to take on the role of God, a role which it cannot perform very well (not being omniscient or omnipotent) and where, even if it was successful, it would be duplicating God’s role. Nobody knows exactly what a criminal “deserves” (if anything), but many people are willing to give an opinion based on their own subjective scale of values. Run by mere people, the clumsy apparatus of the state is most unlikely to give out correct “justice” in this sense, so if you really believe that such revenge is commanded by God (or karma, or natural law, or whatever, which amounts to much the same), why not leave it to him?


The other type of punishment theory, more favoured by liberals, is utilitarianism. Here the punishment of a criminal is justified by its good effects overall, leading to greater happiness in society at large than would occur if the criminal was not punished. These good effects could be due to deterrence (the criminal concerned, and perhaps other criminals, don’t do it again), reform (the criminal has become a better person), purgation (the criminal has been got rid of, “cleaned out” of society), or pragmatically controlled retribution (regardless of the fact that revenge has no real moral value, people want it and are happier if they feel it has taken place). All or any of these effects may lead to more happiness in one way or another, though different utilitarian accounts of punishment may lay more stress on one of these or the other.


Whilst utilitarianism on some other issues we have considered can be associated with nihilist attitudes, “utilitarianism” in relation to punishment is actually a very broad-brush term covering a variety of generally positive and compassionate approaches. What these have generally had in common is a tendency to face up to conditions which retributivists often ignore: the fact that many criminals re-offend after being punished, the fact that they are human beings with needs and a role in society despite having being given the label “criminal”, and that many traditional forms of punishment tend to brutalise and alienate rather than improve the criminal. In these respects, more liberal approaches to punishment clearly seem to be more in harmony with the Middle Way.


The chief defect of utilitarian approaches, according to the retributivists, is their lack of regard for justice. If it made everyone happier, utilitarianism could in theory justify turning a guilty mass-murderer free, whilst executing an innocent person. Criminals need to be demonstrated a moral standard which they can understand, retributivists argue, or they will not learn to follow one.


These kinds of (largely only theoretical) objections can be overcome easily by substituting the Middle Way for utilitarianism as a basis of judgement. Executing an innocent person would not be an objective way of acting, because it would be making an exception of one case, would involve an especially callous disregard for the life of that individual, and would be based on a rather limited and narrowed estimation of future effects. The best way in which criminals need to be set an example, too, it can be argued, is through contact with virtuous and integrated people in general (rather than in one specific judgement), from which it might be understood at least how ethical objectivity leads to a more fulfilled life.


The primary Buddhist concerns in approaching punishment, then, might well share a concern for addressing total conditions with many utilitarians. However, the ideal of spiritual progress being more important than merely pleasure or the avoidance of pain would particularly suggest an emphasis on reform. Reform, however, must here mean helping the criminal to develop a stronger moral character, with the possibility of spiritual development. Deterrence and pragmatically-controlled retribution might also be seen as subsidiary goals whilst these conditions need addressing, but a reformed criminal does not need deterring. A more objective victim also does not need to believe that revenge is being taken for him/her in order to refrain from starting a riot.


Taking reform seriously as the basis of penal policy would have a big effect on the types of punishment used by the state. Obviously violent punishment like flogging would not be appropriate, as it teaches the criminal the acceptability of violence as well as brutalising the flogger. Capital punishment would also be out of the question, as a dead criminal cannot be reformed, and state-sponsored murder hardly sets a good example to the rest of society. This tends to leave as the main alternative the punishment on which Western society increasingly relies: prison. Prison, however, in many respects does the direct opposite to reforming the criminal, as far from bringing him/her into contact with more integrated people, it throws criminals together to learn from each other.


More reformatory types of punishment are already widely used for less serious offences, though, such as probationary supervision and community service. Perhaps the answer is to extend these models, with more close constraints, for more serious offences. The problem with this is the widespread (and in many ways justified) distrust in the community for serious criminals, meaning that they would not be trusted to remain in close contact with ordinary people. This distrust might need to be overcome by using guards or surveillance techniques, but if criminals are to be reformed it is vital that they have more contact with good examples than with bad ones. This might mean that they undergo education or do community work during the day, in the ordinary community but under close surveillance, and have their activities and contacts severely restricted at night and at weekends, only being allowed to have contact with certain approved people.


Whilst the political difficulties involved in introducing this are immense, the practical difficulties of keeping so many people in prison (at least in the USA and the UK, where the prison population is ever-growing), and the obvious and growing evidence that prison does not work, may well force governments to move increasingly in this direction. In the meantime, we can at least support (or participate in) the work of Buddhist prison chaplains, who at least are allowed to cross the threshold and offer a different sort of example to prisoners. In the UK at least, there is also much good work done in prison education and in the probation service, which gives hope that some progress is at least being made in social attitudes to punishment.




If we accept the general principle that there should be a government and that a government is obliged to maintain its authority through laws, coercively enforced if necessary, this implies that we also accept the requirement to obey the law ourselves. However, there may also still be other occasions when we are tempted to break the law because it is convenient, or even when we feel that it is morally important to break the law. The kind of situations we are considering here, then, vary from the banal to the critically important. For example, in the UK it is illegal for anyone over 8 years old to cycle on the pavement, but faced with the alternative between a particularly dangerous stretch of road and an empty pavement, many cyclists choose to break this law. At the other end of the spectrum, law-breaking may be due to a morally-inspired protest against what are considered immoral actions of the state, such as the actions of peace protesters in trespassing on military bases and perhaps even damaging military equipment.


Using the model of objectivity and the importance of addressing conditions, the key justification for the law is that it is generally objective and addresses conditions in society. As I argued in the section on law enforcement, one way of thinking of this objectivity is in terms of the integration of the state. The justification for breaking the law, then, can only be that the integration and objectivity of the individual in some circumstances exceeds that of the state. In the case of a corrupt state, then, we can justify law-breaking quite widely provided that we are less corrupt than it, but in a reasonably integrated modern democratic state we need to be more careful. However, there may still be some situations where our objectivity exceeds that of the state. This may be because, despite being generally reasonably objective, the state has been neglectful in a particular area: two examples of this, fitting my examples above, might be UK government neglect of facilities for cyclists, and a wrong policy in participating in the war against Iraq.


Governments, then, are not uniform institutions which work with equal effectiveness in all circumstances. To suggest that we should absolutely always obey the law because governments are always justified, would involve an eternalist attitude to the state of a kind which I discussed in the last chapter. On the other hand, to completely dismiss the value of government and the importance of obeying the law because of its weaknesses in some areas would be nihilistic. Finding the Middle Way as to whether we are justified in breaking the law in a particular case, however, requires consideration not just of the state, but of other conditions: ourselves, and the practical consequences of breaking the law.


I have already argued above that the condition for justified law-breaking is one where one’s own integration or objectivity exceeds that of the state. This requires a consideration of our own objectivity, something which most people are generally likely to over-estimate. If you are thinking of breaking the law in a serious way, then, it is important to get advice from objective friends and make quite sure you are justified in doing so. Simply having a dogmatic commitment to a moral principle (such as freedom or pacifism) does not give you a moral justification for breaking the law, due to our limited objectivity in the conception and interpretation of such principles. It is only when we have reflected carefully, and taken a variety of factors into account, including taking a serious look at our own moral qualifications for the enterprise, that we might be justified in a serious breach of the law.


The other area of conditions to take into account is the practical consequences. One of the very likely consequences of a serious breach of the law is that you will be arrested, tried and punished. You need to be prepared to accept this, as a necessary aspect of the state’s functioning, and go through with it with your moral confidence intact. By breaking the law you may succeed in drawing attention to a weakness in government policy, but at the same time if governments did not inflexibly punish law-breakers they could not function as governments. Punishment, then, is simply part of the conditions you will have to face.


There may also be consequences to others from your action, too. You need to ask questions about the effect on your future life, and hence on others, of you possibly spending a period in prison and acquiring a criminal record. You will also be setting an example to others, many of which may not be as objective as you. A Kantian type of test might be helpful here: would you be happy for other people to break the law in similar circumstances?


In more trivial circumstances, of course, the reflection may be briefer. We need have little compunction in breaking the letter of trivial or archaic laws which are no longer widely observed or enforced (the law of blasphemy might be one example of this). Where there is clearly no possible harm to anyone from breaking the letter of the law, and the risk of punishment is slight, as in the case of cycling on an empty pavement, a brief reflection on whether my own safety and convenience justify this might be necessary, perhaps including a Kantian test and a consideration of the effects of the example I am setting.


From a Buddhist perspective, morality is far more important than law and completely overrules it. However, in most circumstances there are good moral reasons for obeying the law and the two are not in conflict. Where there might be a conflict, it is important neither to absolutise nor to disregard the law, but to try to respect its genuine function in addressing conditions and try to support that function as far as is compatible with moral concerns.




So far we have been mainly discussing the relationship between the individual and a generally integrated, Western democratic government. However, if our exploration of ethics is to have any universality we must certainly look further beyond this situation. Many people today live under totalitarian, corrupt, and despotic governments. In the relatively recent past even people in parts of Western Europe lived under authoritarian governments (such as Franco’s Spain) and may still be reflecting on the moral problems raised in that situation. In the future, too, it is impossible to predict what kind of governments we may encounter, or how we may need to respond to them.


My main question in this section is, if one is ruled by an unintegrated government, is one justified in attempting to overthrow it? Here, unlike in the previous section, one is no longer considering areas of neglect or misjudgement on the part of a generally justifiable government, but a government which, although it may have some good points, is generally so far from Buddhist values that we can no longer give it even a very provisional or pragmatic support. It may, for example, be a power-crazed dictator who imprisons, tortures and executes critics without trial; it may be a kleptocrat who diverts huge amounts of state resources for his personal use; it may be a one-party state in which elections are staged events and a dogmatic ideology is uncompromisingly imposed. It may be any of many variations on these types of scenarios. What sort of actions should we take here?


One way of approaching this issue is in terms of my discussion of law-breaking in the last section. After all, a rebellion is simply a large-scale piece of law-breaking. There I suggested that the basic justification for breaking the law might be where the individual is more integrated than the state. In the kinds of scenarios we are considering here, this is much more likely to be the situation. However, I also suggested that we should consider our own level of integration and all the likely practical consequences of law-breaking.


Here, as well as our degree of integration, we would have to consider our skills in the art of rebellion. If we are leading the rebellion, we need considerable skills of leadership, courage, and probably political and military skills. If we are merely following or assisting, we still need to consider how far we can actually do so. These skills in the absence of integration, however, will make the rebellion useless, however great its abstract ideals, for without an integrated leadership to replace the repressive or corrupt government that is being overthrown, the results may well be no better. History is littered with revolutions which began with high ideals, and after much bloodshed led the nation into a worse situation than the one it started in.


Rebellion also needs to be considered in a completely pragmatic way, for a rebellion which does not stand a realistically good chance of success will again simply make the situation worse, probably inspiring more fear on the part of the corrupt or repressive government so that they become even more repressive. The rebellion may well need substantial resources and both domestic and foreign support to succeed.


Judged purely from the standpoint of law-breaking and objective conditions, then, a rebellion needs to meet a lot of conditions to be justified. However, we have not yet considered what a rebellion may mean as an act of violence (or many acts of violence), and how far such an act of violence may be justified, given all the reasons we discussed earlier in this chapter for the immorality of violence.


Rebellions may require varying amounts of violence. Perhaps the simplest type is the assassination of one key individual, in the belief that without that individual, the government must fall or at least be improved. As a calculation, however, this is probably based on an over-narrow focus on the role of that individual. If Hitler had been assassinated during the Second World War, for example (as some plotted to do), it is not at all a straightforward historical assertion to claim that the Nazi government would automatically have collapsed and Germany surrendered. Slightly bloodier is a coup d’etat, where a swift change is arranged at the top using a lot of the same infrastructure as the previous government: however, real change rarely comes of such rearrangements. To really change the nature of an entrenched authoritarian government you may effectively have to fight a civil war, with probably thousands of people dying, and many more injured, displaced, traumatised, and brutalised. The price will not just be measured in the suffering of the losers and of the fallen heroes, but in the depreciation of the humanity of the victors, who will have learnt to treat others as mere objects, and to overcome all qualms about slaughtering an individual who stands in the way of a greater political goal. Is it really worth this price?


For a Buddhist with a traditional deontological interpretation of the First Precept, the answer would automatically be “no”. As I have argued in relation to law-enforcement, though, this approach is not adequate because it enables no gradualisation of ethics. Rebels, like those committing any other sort of violence, will simply be left beyond the pale of ethics, however well-considered and objectively-justified their actions may be. As long as we accept that some ways of rebelling are better than others, there are still ethical distinctions to be made in this situation.


On the other hand, for a utilitarian, it is just a matter of weighing up the likely effects, of weighing up liberation against blood. However, a real person in the position of a rebel is most unlikely to be able to make such a calculation with real objectivity. They are almost bound to overrate the splendours of liberation, and they are not likely to fully consider the spiritual as well as the physical effects of the use of violence.


So, if there is to be a Buddhist resolution of this issue, it must be more than a mere calculated weighing-up of sufferings. It must include a due allowance for our ignorance, which will mean that a much higher threshold of justification will be required for rebellion than a utilitarian might typically require. If it is to be justified, it must be swift, overwhelming, and meticulously well-prepared. It must have the overwhelming support of the people, and the new leaders must not only be better than the old, but know themselves well enough to be almost certain that they can offer a much better alternative to the present government, even after the upheavals and brutality of the rebellion. Every opportunity should be taken to avoid violence, for example by issuing a threat prior to the rebellion to enable the previous government to leave office. By such a policy, it may stand some possibility of succeeding in improving the situation, where many previous violent insurrections in the world’s history have failed.




Having worked our way up the scale, we now finally come to the biggest manifestation of violence between human beings, that of armed conflict between nations. This not only poses large-scale political questions about the justification of maintaining and deploying armed forces, but also important questions for the individual, who if required by their nation to fight in a war will probably not have time to work out a moral response, if they have not previously considered the question and arrived at a provisional judgement.


As with the other questions of violence we have considered, the discussion takes place against a background of the Buddhist tradition of Pacifism. This Pacifism has not proved adequate in practice to preventing widespread wars in Buddhist countries[27]. As in the case of law-enforcement, the effect of absolute Pacifism is simply to cut off war from considerations of moral restraint. Although based on a response to a very important recognition of conditions – basically that, as the Dhammapada puts it, “hatred does not cease through hatred”[28] – when dogmatically used in opposition to all war, Pacifism involves also turning one’s back on any condition of conflict which cannot be resolved by non-violent means. Pacifism, then, is an eternalist response, because it provides an ideal prescription rather than attempting to work with the actual conditions of human life. In this respect it is very similar in practice to a nihilist response, which likewise concludes that there are no moral values one can apply to war, and that it is simply a barbarous struggle between the opposed desires of different groups, from which the strongest will emerge the victors to write the history books and apportion praise and blame.


In line with my approach in the rest of this chapter, I want to suggest here that there is a Middle Way even in war, and that a Buddhist can be a soldier, because a Buddhist is a person who is practising with the conditions they meet, even if those conditions are those of hell. We can be a great deal more cautious about war than most political leaders are in the modern world without forbidding it absolutely. We can fully take into account the spiritual effects of violence, which are far more far-reaching than people generally take into account. We can take into account the massive scale of suffering caused by all modern wars, including that of non-combatants. We can even try to allow for the ignorance of political leaders who order their armies into war, the likely miscalculations of military leaders, and the brutalisation of soldiers in battle. All of these suggest that war should be entered into only as an absolute last resort, meaning not just the politician’s rhetorical “last resort”, but one that is the outcome of a great deal more patience in seeking other solutions than most political leaders display.


If we do not give moral justification to war as an absolute last resort, we restrict ourselves to non-violent actions even against those who may be using the most extreme forms of violence. Many non-violent strategies can and should be tried: diplomatic pressure, economic blockades, freezing foreign assets, international legal action. However, a country that is consistently aggressive against others, or attempts the extermination of a section of its own people, and fails to respond to other measures, may need to be threatened with force. Threats of force can only be made if they can be carried out by the deployment of armed forces, and armed forces can only be deployed if they are maintained.


The development of international law during the twentieth century has placed these kinds of measures very much in the framework of law-enforcement. They can be justified in exactly the same fashion as the use of violence by police already discussed. Though engagements in combat are likely to be on a different scale to those of police, those in the role of international police could well adopt more use of non-lethal weapons and progressive responses in imitation of a police force.


The authorisation of international action has in modern times theoretically been in the hands of the United Nations. The United Nations could potentially represent the nearest we have to international integration and the end of egoistic distrust between states, justifying it to the greatest extent available in using force to resolve disputes. However, the Western powers, particularly the United States, have in recent decades so frequently sidelined the United Nations that its power as a peacemaker has been severely diminished. In following this policy, US political leaders appear to have been pursuing narrowly-conceived self-interest rather than recognising the wider conditions required for international order and trust.


Whilst the United Nations still exists, then, surely one Buddhist priority should be to try to support a revival in its fortunes as an organisation, and to only give support to wars which are fully and unambiguously supported by the UN, as a final indicator of complete international consensus, not merely “authorised” by a dubious interpretation of a UN resolution (like the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq). Such wars, would, in addition, need to meet stringent standards of being a last resort after every other possible avenue had been explored.


For other key criteria of a justifiable war we might well draw on the Catholic Just War doctrine, developed especially by Thomas Aquinas[29]. Despite his dogmatic Christian starting point, many of Aquinas’s ideas were simply pragmatic ones which highlighted how difficult it is to make wars achieve their moral purposes without a great deal of thought and care. Amongst Aquinas’s requirements were that a justified war would need to stand a good practical chance of success and be proportionate to the problem it set out to solve. Where there is a danger of being bogged down in a long and inconclusive struggle, as in the Vietnam War, or if the number of people likely to die is hugely out of proportion to the number who will benefit, as in the Falklands War, the war should not be initiated in the first place. Aquinas also suggested that the weapons used should be proportionate and involve a progressive response to those used by the aggressor, whilst avoiding the killing of non-combatants. All of this suggests that wars should not be undertaken simply on the basis of national pride, or as a matter of “principle”, but rather only in response to an almost unavoidable and obvious duty to intervene; and where there is any doubt, a precautionary policy should prevail.


Using this approach, the common procedure used by NATO (for example, in Serbia) of bombing from a distance, even when the enemy is not bombing you, in order to avoid casualties amongst one’s own troops, is indefensible. Recently in the news as I write has been the widespread bombing of Southern Lebanon by Israel, killing hundreds of people, in response to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers: hardly a proportionate response.


A proportionate, measured, and legalised response, of course, may still have the effect of producing more hatred and more violence. In a situation where this is simply likely to continue and there is no realistic chance of success, war should not be initiated, because no more objective resolution will come of it. This means that, pragmatically, one cannot attack powerful opponents. A war on China because of its treatment of Tibet, for example, is unthinkable, probably not because it would be unjust in terms of international law, but because it would stand no chance of success without an unimaginable level of bloodshed. It is only where there is a chance of enforcing international law and using force to deter future transgression, that there seems to be any possibility of breaking the cycle of hatred and bloodshed. That this can be done once a country has been comprehensively defeated can be seen from the examples of Germany and Japan since the Second World War, but, as with individual criminals, once defeat has taken place the main emphasis needs to be on reform encouraged by generous treatment rather than on retribution.  


As a final test of objectivity in war, perhaps a kind of Kantian test, or a version of the Buddhist practice of reversing self and other could be employed. Before launching that rocket at an enemy city, of course it would not be appropriate to go as far as to ask “Would I want them to do that to me?” because the answer would always be “No”. However, placing yourself in the situation of the enemy having done the deeds of the enemy state, you could ask “Would it be reasonable for them to do that to me given my state’s transgressions?”  This at least provides a check as to the degree of restraint being employed and the presence of an attitude of law-enforcement rather than revenge or anger.


So, in sum, I would argue that the Middle Way in war involves not the total denial of the moral justification of war, but a very stringent application of moral criteria to try to ensure that war does actually succeed in improving international order rather than merely perpetuating hatred and violence. This would mean ensuring that all wars were closely supported by an organisation such as the UN reflecting international consensus, that they were strictly proportionate to the scale of the problem, both proportionate and progressive in the methods of warfare used, genuinely tried to avoid killing non-combatants, and stood a real chance of success in resulting in a reform of the offending state. Very few modern wars fulfil all these criteria[30], which suggests that Buddhists should probably refuse to fight in modern armies until such time as they do, since wars that do not fulfil all these criteria produce far more harm than good on the whole. If a truly justified war were to arise, however, which objectively worked for the good of ultimate peace, a Buddhist might be justified in fighting in it.


Nuclear weapons


Beyond war as fought between nations, since 1945, there has also been a shadowy nightmare of a level of destruction far beyond war, a global nuclear holocaust. During the Cold War, from 1945 up to the end of the 1980’s, the legitimacy of the possession of nuclear weapons by the US, UK and France was hotly debated and was often seen as a major moral issue in the West. The strange consequentialist ethics of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction stated that we should possess nuclear weapons in order to ensure that they would never be used, because the consequences would be equally horrific on both sides.  These arguments are now no longer to the fore, yet all the major powers, plus a number of new middle-sized ones, now have nuclear weapons. These weapons are extraordinarily expensive and dangerous, so why should we have them?


The only real reason that can be given is a very similar one to Mutually Assured Destruction. The fear is now no longer primarily from Russia, but from “rogue states” that might acquire nuclear weapons and use them irresponsibly. It is argued that if we possess nuclear weapons, then rogue states will be deterred from using them against us because they know of the likelihood of massive retaliatory destruction coming their way if they do.


Like much basically utilitarian reasoning, this argument fails to take into account the limitations of the minds of the people on both sides. On the side of the “rogue state” it assumes self-interested rational consistency. However, if a “rogue state” had more of the mentality of a suicide bomber, they might not care about retaliation. On the side of the major nuclear power (such as the UK) there might well also be confusion as to the source of the strike and how to respond to it effectively. The response might be a completely confused one based on anger, for example punishing a state when a terrorist organisation was in fact responsible.


Added to this is the total irrationality of revenge that I have already commented on. Once a “rogue state” has sent a nuclear weapon to a state like the UK, there is then no point in sending anything back, because all that will happen is that millions of innocent people will die unnecessarily, without anyone in the UK being helped at all. Unlike armies, nuclear weapons cannot help to impose international law or bring about a cessation of conflict: all they can do is bring about massive destruction and long-term environmental degradation.


Nuclear weapons are so nightmarishly destructive (far more so now than the ones used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that they are not likely to be used by anyone with a degree of integration or rationality. Yet at the same time they are not likely to deter the irrational or terrorist groups, who will not be afraid of retaliation. As deterrents they are hence useless. This does not mean that people or states cannot be deterred from using nuclear weapons, but only by conventional military or economic means, where at least the level of response and the people affected can be controlled to some extent.


Even if there remains any doubt about this argument for giving up all nuclear weapons, a further, renunciatory one may be used. Even if we still believe, perversely, that possessing nuclear weapons is actually in some sense in our interest, a mere extension of that interest, and an extension of the ego along Buddhist lines, would lead us to also be concerned for the interests of millions of innocent people in a foreign country potentially harmed by our nuclear weapons. Perhaps in the light of our feeling for these people, we should simply renounce the highly debatable interest that we have in nuclear weapons. We may not be able to so easily renounce our attachment to, say, using environmental resources, but these are far closer to us, and far less potentially destructive, than nuclear weapons. Let’s just let them go.




I come to this topic last in this chapter, and not without a certain reluctance, but it can hardly be avoided in the political atmosphere in which I write, in the UK of 2006. The advent of terrorist bombings, usually suicide bombings, across the world, has thrown our traditional moral and political categories into confusion, and in order to be seen to be doing something, confused Western politicians have flailed out at entirely inappropriate targets that have done nothing to reduce terrorism. Terrorism is international, yet it attacks not states but individuals. You cannot strike back at a terrorist who has just blown himself up, and threats are useless when there are no targets against which to direct the threats. The chief objective of terrorists is to provoke an over-reaction which then produces further alienation and hatred, and in this respect they have been remarkably successful.


How should governments respond to terrorism so as to address the conditions, in accordance with the Middle Way? Firstly, by facing up to the new conditions. Terrorists are not states, so you cannot overcome them by attacking states. All you succeed in doing by attacking other states is alienating their populations and creating a recruiting ground for terrorism. Secondly, by not reacting in any extraordinary way. Not introducing new anti-terrorist measures which curb other people’s freedoms too, not imprisoning people for months or years without trial, and not alienating whole communities by huge intrusive police searches, for this is exactly what the terrorists want. Just continue with reasonable security checks and normal police investigation.


Individually, only a response rooted in Buddhist practice is probably adequate for terrorism. Terrorists aim to create hatred, so the only response which frustrates their purposes is one of compassion, where we no longer hate. It may be extremely difficult to fully understand the confused and hate-filled mind of a terrorist, but we can to some extent imagine being in that state and how painful it would be. We can also at least come to a clear and sympathetic intellectual understanding of the causes of terrorism, of the clear differences between host communities where terrorists recruit and terrorist groups themselves, between Islam and Islamism. We can make an effort to spread a clear understanding, to engage with all that we find positive in Islam, and to challenge prejudiced claims about it.   


Finally, it can be noted that Islamist terrorism particularly well illustrates the extreme inter-dependence between eternalism and nihilism. If there is a rational basis to Islamism, it is that of a violent rejection of Western nihilism, accompanied by an attachment to extreme eternalism. In the long term, the only way to avoid the eternalism is to avoid the nihilism which gave rise to it. A society in which there are universally-accessible values beyond mere desire and convention, and where every doubt about the grounds of morality is not the source of its denial, but the impetus for finding a balanced moral expression in our experience, would be one where young people no longer need to turn to extreme eternalism to find meaning in their lives. Terrorism illustrates the urgency of the need to offer the Middle Way to everyone, and therefore for Buddhists to distance themselves from the merely traditional and unhelpful aspects of “Buddhism” which stop many people approaching its core teaching.


[27] For examples of these and discussion, see Trevor Ling, Buddhism, Imperialism and War pub. Unwin

[28]Dhammapada 1.5

[29] For a good summary of the current Catholic position, see

[30] The obvious likely exception is World War 2, although disproportionate methods targeting civilians were used by the Allies in the closing stages (e.g. carpet bombing in Germany and the atomic bombs in Japan). A good case can also be made for NATO interventions in the former Yugoslavia (and indeed that these interventions were rather tardy if anything) although again the methods used were not always just according to the criteria I have offered.


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