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Why Buddhist Ethics Require Political Libertarianism

Politically engaged buddhists too often lean progressive because they don’t understand the fundamental nature of the state.

Western Buddhists often embrace political progressivism, calling for more state action — for more laws and regulations — to address problems such as economic inequality, sexism and racism, and environmental degradation.

A Summary of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhism is typically thought of as a religion, the fourth largest in the world, but the label is a bit misleading, especially to westerners used to Abrahamic faiths. The core of Buddha’s philosophy, as presented in the earliest extant texts, is an examination of the human condition through a carefully developed analysis of the causes of our suffering, and a path for alleviating it in the form of practical advice that draws only on our own resources and abilities. This analysis and advice is grounded entirely in our own natural characteristics and abilities, and does not depend on the support, judgement, or even existence of supernatural traits or beings. Thus Buddhism as a philosophical system looks more like Stoicism, Epicureanism, or Aristotelianism than it does Christianity or Judaism or Islam.

  1. to abstain from taking what is not given
  2. to abstain from sensuous misconduct
  3. to abstain from false speech
  4. to abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind

The Nature of the State

My argument isn’t that progressive Buddhists don’t understand Buddhism. Rather, it’s that progressive Buddhists go wrong in their politics because they don’t understand the fundamental nature of the state.

The Problem with “Legitimate” Violence and Taking

By definition and necessity, states kill and take. But here anyone who isn’t an anarchist adds that they do so legitimately. There is said to be something about states — about their features or their origin or their procedures — that makes this killing and taking legitimate and grants them the authority to do it, when the rest of us would be condemned if we acted similarly. There is a deep philosophical literature on this question of legitimacy, one going back to Plato and continuing in robust conversation today. And there are interesting and powerful arguments to be made on both sides.

Indirectness and Intent

One objection to this conclusion would be to point out that the political Buddhist himself is not violating the precepts directly and thus could be meeting the requirements of Right Action, at least in a narrow sense. Other people, likely non-Buddhists, are doing so instead. Furthermore, his intention when calling for political action is to improve the state of the world. It’s not to employ violence or to take what people have not given freely. Therefore, political activism remains acceptable.

Buddhism and the Scope of Permissible Political Action

Where does this leave political action within the context of Buddhist ethics? Must Buddhists, if they are to live their principles, simply accept the poor state of the world and never act through government to improve it? I don’t believe so. For there is nothing wrong with using the political means available to us to stop wrong actions. You can vote to end state violence. You can vote to limit laws that inevitably lead to it. You vote to reduce the amount governments take from us against our will. And there are strong reasons to think that doing so, that reducing the state’s ability to use violence or threaten violence or to take money not given to it freely, will achieve many of those very ends so many socially engaged Buddhists aim at.

Political ethicist. Writer. Podcaster. Free Market Buddhist.

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