A Buddhist Perspective on Violence, the Intent to Harm, and State Action

Laws depend on enforcement, which depends on violence. Does this violate Buddhist ethics regarding harm, even if we don’t intend the violence?

One of the arguments I make against Buddhist calls for expanded state action is that new laws and regulations are ultimately calls for violence and the threat of violence be used against others. When you say, “We ought to ban the sale of large sodas in order to prevent obesity,” what you’re actually doing is asking the state to use coercive violence against people who might sell large sodas. This is just definitionally what laws are. They’re authorizations of force. Otherwise there’d be no enforcement mechanism, and they wouldn’t really be laws at all.

Right Action, the First Precept, and many other principles of Buddhist ethics prohibit Buddhists from harming another being. As Khenpo Samdup, the monk at the temple I attend, writes, “This core of non-violence and non-harm is, in effect, another way of stating the whole of Buddhism.” It’s why so many Buddhists are vegetarians, for instance. And just like it would run counter to the dharma’s teachings for a Buddhist to kill a deer for his dinner, it would also be wrong for him to command another to do it for him. (Buddhist disagreement about meat consumption by monks tends to focus more on whether you can eat meat that’s offered to you and was killed by someone else, not at your request.) Likewise, if it is wrong for me to beat you up or kill you because I don’t want you to sell a large soda to another person, it seems clearly wrong for me to command or request a police officer to beat you up on my behalf. To think otherwise, categorically, would lead to absurd conclusions such as murder violating Buddhist ethics, but hiring a hitman being perfectly permissible.

A possible solution to this tension appears in the role intent plays in Buddhist ethics. In short, while it’s never good to kill, it’s far worse to kill intentionally than unintentionally and knowingly than unknowingly. Constructing a new forest monastery means killing a lot of insects, worms, and other creatures as you dig and lay the foundations. But killing them isn’t the intent. If there were a way to build without destroying these small creatures, that would be the right path. Likewise, if while laying the foundation, you see a creature about to be killed, as a good Buddhist, you should take a moment to move it to safety.

We might, then, apply this approach to state action. The intent of the soda ban isn’t to use violence against dealers of large sodas. Rather it’s to help prevent obesity. If there’s a way to accomplish that without calling for violence or the threat of violence, we ought to take it. But that obesity continues to occur speaks to the need to turn to law.

There’s obviously something to this. But I worry it doesn’t ultimately address the concern and instead only obfuscates it and so makes us more likely to use even more violence to advance our political interests. To see why, let’s think about what it means to say we didn’t intend the state to use violence on our behalf.

Arguing that there ought to be a law preventing X, but that you don’t intend to harm people who do X in violation of that law is, I’d argue, incoherent. A law just is an intent to use force against people who behave, or fail to behave, in a certain way. This is true even of laws that carry only a fine. Making offenders pay cash for their offense doesn’t immediately look like using violence against them, but you only need to ask yourself “What happens when they refuse?” to discover the violence present in every government command.

Thus, except in the rather unlikely scenario where you pass a law that no one violates, calling for a law is indistinguishable from calling for coercive force, and coercive force will inevitably follow. No one ever says, “We should create a new law we won’t enforce.” Similarly, going back to the example of laying a foundation for a temple, we can’t use the escape of moving beings out of harm’s way if we notice they will be harmed, because harming people who disobey is, again, the very foundation of law. It just wouldn’t make any sense to say, “Let’s pass a law that we’ll enforce with violence or threats of violence, but the moment we notice someone might be harmed during that enforcement, we should stop the enforcement.”

Nor does the “unknowingly” hedge help. First, even if you didn’t know that laws are commands to use violence, you do now — or at least have had the concern they might be placed in your mind. But even if you haven’t read this newsletter, or are unfamiliar with social science understandings of government, there probably exists an obligation to have some knowledge of the outcome of our actions. To take an extreme example, I’ve clearly done something wrong, and have violated Buddhist non-harm principles, if I fire a handgun into a crowd, even if I somehow am unaware of the effect of bullets. Knowing that bullets kill is the kind of knowledge an adult is expected to have. (And I certainly should stop firing the moment I’m made aware of the damage I’m doing.)

Does this mean, then, that Buddhist monks shouldn’t build forest monasteries? They know it will harm woodland creatures, and they of course have the option of not causing that harm by instead sitting outside in the grass or on rocks. Probably not, because Buddhism ethics regarding violence scales the wrongness (e.g., the amount of negative karma generated) by the level of the beings killed. The death of insects is still killing, but it’s nowhere near as bad as killing humans. Therefore, while it’s permissible to build the monastery if it means killing insects, the monks would certainly have to refrain if it meant killing or harming humans.

My argument isn’t that Buddhist must reject all laws. The consequences of our actions matter, but so do the consequences of non-action. Instead, we should be aware of what it means to enforce a law and only use that violence when it appears absolutely necessary. It’s not controversial to point out that quite a lot of laws on the books aren’t worth killing over.

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