Metta and the Ethics of Killing

| February 17, 2013 | 73 Comments

vole300260In metta (loving-kindness) practice, one widens the circle of concern from the self, to loved ones, to neutral and difficult people, and then to all beings. The question is, does the goal of minimizing suffering and maximizing well-being for all beings entail not killing any of them?

From the traditional Buddhist point of view, it does. The first of the Five Precepts is  “I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.” I’ve been told that the Buddhists view precepts as guidelines, not as commandments in the Judeo-Christian sense. But still, I think it’s clear that Buddhists take this guideline pretty seriously.

This question arises in the context of an article on the neuroscience behind metta practice that I contributed to the Wise Brain Bulletin (pdf). I won’t summarize the article here, except to say that the reason metta practice works is that when we feel affection toward a loved one or ourselves, the brain releases the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which stimulate reward areas of the brain. The interesting twist is that these mood hormones persist in the brain for several minutes. This means that if you contemplate a benefactor and then shift your attention toward a neutral or difficult person, the chemicals released upon contemplating the benefactor make it easier to feel affection toward a neutral or even difficult person.

The reason we know this is in large part because of scientific studies of rodents, especially a mouse-like creature called the vole. I referred to these studies in my article, and one reader found this objectionable. The reader believes that research on animals is cruel, and that is inconsistent with an intention to be kind to all sentient beings.

My perspective is different. I do condone laboratory research on animals, subject to approval by institutional review boards. In full disclosure, you should know that I write software for a pharmaceuticals company that does conduct animal research—but my opinion in favor of animal research preceded my decision to take this job.

This is an important point to discuss with regard to Secular Buddhism. I think there is full agreement among us in rejecting supernaturalisms like rebirth and karma, but there is diversity in our views on other Buddhist doctrines that are naturalistic in form. The Five Precepts are perfectly naturalistic in their form. Yet so are the principles of Marxism and free market economics. Just because ideas are presentable within a naturalistic framework does not mean they actually are good ideas.

In my view, the prohibition on killing conflicts with the goal of reducing suffering in some cases. For instance, Buddhists traditionally believed that life begins at conception and therefore oppose abortion.  Yet I think we understand now that forcing a pregnant woman to bring an unwanted child to term itself creates suffering, probably more than is perceived by a fetus in the brief period during which an abortion procedure takes place.

I was also surprised to learn that Buddhists discourage euthanasia for pets that are dying (see here and here). My argument is that killing does not necessarily inflict suffering, particularly in non-humans who don’t have an intellectual concept of what it means to die. Rather, killing may be the end of suffering if done quickly—certainly for animals that are already dying.

This seems clear to me. But with laboratory animals that are not about to die from natural causes, it’s not as clear. There are two cases:

1. In some experiments, such as the ones I referred to in my Wise Brain piece, it appears that the animals were well treated and well-nourished during their lifetimes. The only question is whether it is ethical to kill them in order to study their brains. These studies, by the way, are not conducted simply to satisfy researchers’ curiosity but because the results have potential application in treating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, addiction, and autism.

2. In other research, for instance on cancer, laboratory animals becomes diseased and experience suffering for extensive periods during their lifetime.

In the first case, I see no problem with quick, “humane” killing of animals that have enjoyed a good life. We all are of the nature to die. Whether one dies naturally or is killed, we all still die. Killing an animal does shorten its life, but animals bred for laboratory experimentation would never otherwise have been born in the first place. So in evaluating the morality of such an enterprise, I think the judgment has to be made holistically. Between birth and inevitable death, was it a life worth living?

The fact that a laboratory animal is killed by someone, rather than dying of old age (or as likely in the wild, killed by a non-human predator), does not seem very significant once the doctrine of karma is rejected. Do graduate students who kill mice become callous toward their fellow human beings? I know no evidence of this.

My argument that it’s morally acceptable to kill animals that have lived their lives in comfortable conditions would also apply to animals raised for food. Barnyard animals living in contented “free range” conditions would never have been born if they did not serve human purposes in some way. The fact that they will die—as you and I will also—does not seem pertinent to me.

There is a much higher ethical bar to pass when animals experience pain for an extended period of their life. Since mice and humans are both mammals and share similar pain systems, it’s hard to argue that the pain a human being feels is qualitatively different than a mouse’s pain. One difference, though, is that humans have higher cognitive abilities, which also leads us to fear our future deaths. It can be presumed that while mice experience pain, the intellectual concept of death is beyond their cognitive capabilities. Thus, employing the Buddha’s parable of the two arrows, it may be that mice experience the first arrow of sensory pain itself, but little of the second arrow of ruminating over pain sensations.

This latter difference makes me feel that one can legitimately value human suffering over animal suffering to some extent. If it only took one mouse dying of cancer to save one human dying from cancer, I would certainly be in favor of it. But if it takes 1,000 mice dying of cancer to save one human from dying from cancer, perhaps that’s too much.

In this second category of animals that feel extended pain in there lifetimes, I would put animals raised on “factory farms.” Various reports  indicate that mass production of meat results in conditions under which animals live in pain. Thus, it seems to me that food produced in this manner should be avoided. I admit I have some work to do in this area. At home, I generally eat soy burger and tofu chicken salad rather than real meat, but away from home, I don’t find I can subsist on salad and dairy.

One might contend that the arguments I make in favor of killing animals under certain circumstances could also be applied to justify killing humans. The difference, however, is that there is no reason to think that non-human animals—except possibly other great apes—have a conceptual understanding of death like we do. A human being sentenced to death—even by a method believed instantaneous and painless—will suffer from anxiety over the pending execution. Laboratory mice do live on death row, but have no clue. They therefore suffer from no such anxiety. These arguments could, however, justify physician-assisted suicide of terminally ill patients, an issue I’m still struggling with.

Finally, with regard to war, there is little pretense that the wounded and the dying do so without suffering. There is also the mourning of the survivors to take into account. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the celebrated Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh goes too far in preferring, in the hypothetical case, nonviolent submission to genocide to employing violence in self-defense. It seems to me that the goal should be to minimize suffering and the loss of life overall, not to minimize the number of lives you yourself have ended. Thich Nhat Hanh’s view is not necessarily mainstream even within Buddhism, as there is a traditional tale that the Buddha himself, in a previous life, killed a pirate to prevent mass murder.

In sum, there simply is no reliable rule, such as “Never kill a sentient being” that is guaranteed to be consistent with the goal of minimizing suffering for all sentient beings. Such rules can certainly be cultivated as practices that through repeated attention become habits. But the goal of being kind requires us to use our intelligence and mindfulness to recognize exceptions to the general rule.

 


 

As an addendum, I’d also like to make a few points about secularizing the practice of metta which did not appear in my Wise Brain article.

I lead secular meditations for the Humanist Mindfulness Group, which is associated with the Harvard Humanist Community and through them, the American Humanist Association. The phrases used in metta, at least in English, sound to many humanists like prayer, for instance

“May all beings be happy.”

I don’t know if this is just an issue with the forms used in English, or if occurs in the original Pali. However, the “May ..” construction in English is generally used when one person asks another person for permission—

“May I?”

“Yes, you may.”

So, to make clear to humanists that we’re not engaging in prayer, what we’ve done is to introduce alterative phrasing. It seems to me that what one is really doing in metta is to express an intention or a desire. So, instead of using a form like “May I be safe” we say “I’d like to be safe.” It’s true that the “I’d like” form is a bit prosaic, but some of us prefer unambiguous prose to possibly misleading poetic language. Still, to give it a bit of rhythm, what we’re doing is using the “I’d like” just once, for instance:

I’d like:

To be safe

To be healthy

To be happy

To be at ease in the world

Another thing we’ve done is to evoke the memory of the no longer living in metta practice. This step is something we’ve found to be effective, though it is a departure from the traditional Buddhist practice. The traditional practice stems from a text called the Visuddhimagga or Path of Purification written by the Theravadin monk Buddhaghosa nearly one thousand years after the time of the Buddha. This text relates an anecdote in which a monk was having difficulty with the practice. It turned out that his benefactor, a former teacher, had recently died. When the monk shifted to an actual living benefactor, his practice succeeded (see Visuddhimagga, 8:7). Underlying this anecdote seems to be the belief that something is actually transmitted through psychic powers from the person who offers metta to the object of the meditation, and that this would fail if the receiver was dead. As humanists, we don’t buy this. It shouldn’t matter whether the benefactor you’re thinking of is alive or dead, only whether thinking about that person evokes warm feelings in your own mind.

Therefore, in thinking of a dead benefactor, we words such as:

I remember her kindness

I remember her love

Memories like these can remind me to be kind to those I encounter.

A video of our humanist metta meditation can be found at Seeing The Roses.

I welcome your reactions to either of the two themes I’ve developed in this article.

Photo Credit: soikha

Category: Articles

Rick Heller

About the Author ()

I am the co-founder of the Humanist Mindfulness Group, which meets jointly with the Cambridge Secular Buddhists Meetup Group, at the Humanist Center in Harvard Square, Cambridge. We mostly practice breath, sound, and metta meditation. I created Seeing The Roses to present online videos of secular meditations. I also occasionally update a blog and Twitter. I am also a freelance journalist who sometimes writes about the neuroscientific basis of contemplative practice.

Comments (73)

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  1. Luke Seubert says:

    In developing his universal ethical philosophy, “Reverence for Life”, Albert Schweitzer embraced a strong “refrain from destroying living creatures” principle. In fact, Schweitzer’s position on this point is absolute. However, he also recognized that the great cycle of life requires living beings to harm other living beings – that this is in fact unavoidable. He therefore proposed harming life only insofar as it was absolutely necessary. So, while advocating an absolute ethic, Schweitzer also recognized the need for a compromise solution, a “Middle Path”, if you will.

    The following quote which explains these ideas in eloquent detail comes from Albert Schweitzer’s book, “The Philosophy of Civilization”, published in 1923 and is found in Chapter 26 entitled, “The Ethics of Reverence for Life”. The concluding paragraph is especially succinct and poetic:

    “An absolute ethic calls for the creating of perfection in this life. It cannot be completely achieved; but that fact does not really matter. In this sense reverence for life is an absolute ethic. It makes only the maintenance and promotion of life rank as good. All destruction of and injury to life, under whatever circumstances, it condemns as evil. True, in practice we are forced to choose. At times we have to decide arbitrarily which forms of life, and even which particular individuals, we shall save, and which we shall destroy. But the principle of reverence for life is nonetheless universal and absolute.

    Such an ethic does not abolish for man all ethical conflicts but compels him to decide for himself in each case how far he can remain ethical and how far he must submit himself to the necessity for destruction of and injury to life. No one can decide for him at what point, on each occasion, lies the extreme limit of possibility for his persistence in the preservation and furtherance of life. He alone has to judge this issue, by letting himself be guided by a feeling of the highest possible responsibility towards other life. We must never let ourselves become blunted. We are living in truth, when we experience these conflicts more profoundly.

    Whenever I injure life of any sort, I must be quite clear whether it is necessary. Beyond the unavoidable, I must never go, not even with what seems insignificant. The farmer, who has mown down a thousand flowers in his meadow as fodder for his cows, must be careful on his way home not to strike off in wanton pastime the head of a single flower by the roadside, for he thereby commits a wrong against life without being under the pressure of necessity.”

  2. allen says:

    All of your arguments, Rick Heller, are based on one thing. That human beings are superior to animals.

    Try this (slight) reworking of one of your paragraphs:

    My argument that it’s morally acceptable to kill humans that have lived their lives in comfortable conditions would also apply to humans raised for food. Barnyard humans living in contented “free range” conditions would never have been born if they did not serve [nutritional] purposes in some way. The fact that they will die—as you and I will also—does not seem pertinent to me.

    The only reason ‘my’ version is laughable (if indeed it is), is that no-one in their right minds would advocate killing humans in the way you support killing animals for laboratory experiments, or food.

    I would like Buddhists (and others) to come out and say “Humans are inherently superior to all other forms of life; our existence is important, theirs is not.” At least we’d then know where we all stood.

    (Just in case it isn’t obvious, I DON’T think humanity is superior to all other forms of life).

    A

    • Luke Seubert says:

      Allen stated:

      “I would like Buddhists (and others) to come out and say “Humans are inherently superior to all other forms of life; our existence is important, theirs is not.” At least we’d then know where we all stood.”

      Allen, allow me to point something out. Humans are part of the cycle of life, in which it is inevitable that some forms of life kill and consume other forms of life. Nobody gets upset when lions kill and consume gazelles, and nobody considers it a moral outrage when some bacteria kills humans, and other bacteria along with assorted maggots, beetles, etc. then eat said humans. It is part of the cycle of life.

      Humans killing and consuming animals is not the same as saying humans are superior to animals, just as it is not saying that lions are superior to gazelles or that bacteria and maggots are superior to humans. It is just the way of life.

      • Candol says:

        “Humans killing and consuming animals is not the same as saying humans are superior to animals, just as it is not saying that lions are superior to gazelles or that bacteria and maggots are superior to humans. It is just the way of life.”

        Actually i think it is somewhat saying jsut that. But first let me correct something. Humans raising the question of superiority about themselves being able to eat or kill animals is not the same as lions eating gazelles. Now if lions were able to speak they probably would say they were superior to gazelles.

        but of course we can’t know that. The thing in most case these days it is not necessary for humans to kill animals for food, let alone for any other reason.

        You can’t really compare our behaviour with lions. Not only do we have choices that liions don’t have, we supposedly have more intelligence and this enables us not to eat other creatures. Our digestive systems can live without meat. But we like it and that’s why we continue to eat it. We don’t really care about animals and that’s why we continue to kill them and abuse them. When we say we care, we still don’t care about them as much as we care about our selves and our usually selfish needs or desires.

  3. Candol says:

    I’m afraid i’ can’t even read the whole article. I’m just too upset by it. I am dead against any study of animals. There has been too much abuse and too much unnecessary waste of animal life to condone the continuation of this practice. I don’t care if it means that we don’t get the cures for human diseases we think we have a right to. I really don’t care if people die instead of animals because I don’t think that human life is necessarily worth more than an animals life.

    Of course humans do have a natural tendency to value human life more.

    However, according to the book i’m reading from his philosophical perspective (scientism) there is no inherent rightness or wrongness in this practice but abuse is abuse and i find it wrong myself. However i go with Peter Singer’s view who states that inflicting pain is wrong. How do you know that you are not causing suffering? Are the animals not bored? Do they not miss their friends and families when you kill them? and do you think just because some studies on animals appear not to cause pain that this absolves those that do?

    I’m sorry. I’m disgusted that someone who calls themselves a buddhist can hold such a job. I’d say like all people put in a position where their livelihood depends on breaking an ethical principle that you are rationalising.

    And i know how hard it is to deal with such a situation because once i was a felt maker which meant i worked with the wool from sheep that involved the cruel procedure of mulseing. I no longer do that job and i admit i did not quit it because of that practice but i sure did have a major crisis of conscience and became a vegetarian again when i learned about it. I had become a feltmaker before knowing about mulseing. So i do understand from firsthand experience the issue of conflict between ethics and earning an income.

    Anyway, like i said – rationalisation.

    • Candol says:

      “I am dead against any study of animals. ” Pardon the pun and i need to correct myself so that you understand i mean i’m agains t the use of animals in laboratory research. I’m sure everyone knew what i meant but i might as well make the correction anyway.

  4. mufi says:

    Rick: For whatever it’s worth, it seems to me that you’ve struck a reasonable balance between our prior ethical obligations to each other (i.e. those of use who are actually capable of understanding and abiding by such concepts, which members of other species generally are not) and compassion for all sentient beings.

    The moral absolutists will, of course, say otherwise. I recommend that you simply let them have their say and move on.

    • Candol says:

      Mufi, Could you explain what you mean by our prior ethical obligations? Do you mean our priority of obligation to those in our species?

      Yes let him move on. I’d rather not know about buddhists taking this position. Its too disturbing.

      • mufi says:

        Candol: More or less. (See “social contract theory” or “contractarianism.”)

        • mufi says:

          PS: Lest I mislead you into thinking that I believe there is a water-tight, perfectly consistent, rational defense of human exploitation of animals, I don’t. The topic is way too emotion-laden for that ship ever to sail (as I was recently reminded in the Meat Eating thread).

          But I do think that the capacity to understand and abide by ethics in the first place is at least as relevant to this discussion as is the capacity to suffer, which Rick already treated above.

          After all, it would be ridiculous if we were to hold members of other species to the same behavioral standards that we hold each other. For example, I can shout bloody murder at my cat, Fred, all day long and he’s still going to try to hunt and torture mice, birds, and any other small critters that happen to wander into the house or yard. It’s simply not in his nature (and beyond my ability to train him) to deprive himself of such grizzly pleasures.

          That doesn’t make us objectively better, of course. (Fred makes a much better cat than I do.) And it doesn’t justify treating other species however we might want. As far as I can tell, no one in this discussion – certainly not Rick – believes that.

          But justification itself only makes sense in relation to ourselves. (Fred wouldn’t get it. Nor does he get a vote.) We are special in that sense.

  5. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Rick, you raise excellent questions for us to consider. Many of us here have thought about and discussed some of these. My view is that life IS suffering. I know the Buddha didn’t say that exactly, but it’s how I view it. There is much to enjoy, yes, but that which is not born will never suffer. Therefore I am pro abortion, for any reason. I think having kids was the most selfish and cruel thing I’ve done.

    As for euthanasia for pets or people, I am for it, as it puts an end to their suffering.

    Now, I’m a huge fan of science, but adamantly against testing on animals. Not only are we creating suffering in animals, but we are doing so for the sake of humans. That is placing humans in a superior position. It’s saying, it’s ok to cut into a rats brain to help grandma. I hotly disagree! I know we have learned so much by killing and cutting into animals, but I feel it’s reprehensible to cause suffering to one species to further the knowledge of others. As humans we can make mindful decisions not to do that, to discover in other ways. We do like thinking of ourselves as intelligent, so we must take the task to procure information without harming other living things. This includes insects!

    It’s hard enough and life brings enough suffering to rats and monkeys without the most dangerous of all primates causing yet even more suffering to all animals on this planet, and we really are.

    As for food, I find myself disgusted with how poorly evolution has engineered animals. That animals need to eat other animals for energy is about as wasteful and cruel as it can get. Plants, on the other hand have beautiful, efficient design, getting energy from a freezing giving sun and available water. It annoys the hell out of me that I like meat so much. I eat far less of it than I used to. I would like to give it up altogether but my instinctive attachment is strong. I respect vegetarians and vegans in a big way.

    Rick, I disagree that we aren’t creatinine suffering if we raise them comfortably then kill them at the end of their life for food. Just being born is the doorway to suffering. We are breeding animals, and just by bringing them into the world we have created the cause for suffering. They will have hunger and thirst, desire and frustration, fear, sadness, etc.

    Only on earth does suffering exist in our solar system, because only on earth there is life. No one suffers on the moon, Venus, Mars etc. humans cause more suffering than any other species on earth. I’m not proud to be human.

  6. mufi says:

    On a different note, my teenage daughter has raised pet rats for the past year or so and we’ve grown quite fond of them. So, naturally, their species’ status as a lab animal of choice (superceded only by mice, if I recall correctly) has become a household issue. (At least her rats are not lab animals, I sometimes tell myself.)

    Still, while I’m not 100% sure that my daughter would choose to save my life over the lives of her rats, I am 100% sure that I would choose to save hers over theirs – and many more, for that matter.

    Insofar as lab research on animals can help lead to an effective treatment for what ails her, I’m a supporter – not a proud one, mind you, but an unapologetically biased one.

  7. Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

    Allen,

    With regard to whether I believe that “human beings are superior to animals,” I guess I would say yes, broadly speaking. I don’t believe in any grand generalization that “all sentient beings are created equal.” Rather, there appear to be gradations of sentience. Until we understand more about the science of consciousness, I don’t know that we can really be sure about this, but it seems to me that a chimpanzee is more sentient than a spider. I may be wrong about that. I consider adult chimps equal to human toddlers, and superior to human infants. In other words, they should be treated like little humans.

    With regard to your interesting word experiment, I would like to die of natural causes, but would be perfectly willing for my corpse to be devoured by animals, as in Zoroastrian mortuary practices. Cremation contributes to global warming, and burial requires development of open spaces. I would not mind dying unawares–for instance, in my sleep as a result of an earthquake–but the point is that human beings have death anxiety because they know what may happen whereas animals are truly unaware of what may be in store for them, and therefore do not suffer. Our prefrontal cortex does make us different from other animals (excepting perhaps primates).

    Candol,

    I don’t actually call myself a Buddhist. When I get a chance to explain in detail, I say that I am a secular humanist who follows a number of Buddhist practices. In this post, I am exploring what is the doctrinal “litmus test” for using the term secular Buddhist. Is it okay to reject rebirth and karma, but not acceptable to reject the precept of not harming any sentient beings in favor of a utilitarian view that seeks to minimize overall harm to sentient beings, even if a few sentient beings are harmed in the process.

    The former approach, never harm a sentient being, has the advantage of a clear rule that is simple to follow, in concept if not in practice. The approach I advocate is more complicated, and does require weighing the utility of improving the well-being of humans against that of other species. It is my opinion that good people year for simple rules they can follow that guarantees their are acting correctly. I believe that, in the absense of metaphysical processes, no rules that are perfect, without exception, can ever be deduced.

    When I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, there was complete doctrinal openness with regard to theology. Instead, the glue of the UU Church is social and political activism. It is my hope that this thing being called secular Buddhism can be fairly non-doctrinal and “big tent” with regard to socio-political questions.

    I am certainly aware of the danger of motivated reasoning and rationalization. All I’ll say is that I’ve only been working in the pharmaceutical industry for a short time, and my views above are of much longer standing. My ethical concerns with regard to my work are more in regard to whether pharma companies make too much profit and are not making drugs accessible enough to the poor.

    Dana,

    I guess I think that it’s better to live and die than never live at all. Traditional Buddhism seems to see life (samasara) as a continuing nightmare, and just when you think its over, you emerge into another nightmare, until finally you awaken and become a non-returner. I don’t share that view.

    mufi,

    I was thinking about the question of, what if I was outside a burning building and there was a question of saving something inside or not. Not being a fire fighter or having survival training, would I risk my life?

    If I was thinking in my rational self-interest, of course I would not. However, I think I would be overcome with emotion and do it in certain cases–if it were my wife or other human loved ones(we have no pets). I would certainly not do it for a mouse. I might do it for a rare, inanimate object, such as an ancient papyrus that had yet not been photographed and studied.

    In my most recent encounter with a mouse, which came into our house uninvited and terrorized a certain member of my family, rather than kill it, I did manage to trap it in a shoebox and let it go outdoors.

    • mufi says:

      Rick, I do love thought experiments. Yours seems a good one.

      Oh, that mouse that you kindly escorted outdoors – expect a return visit. (Presently, there’s one living behind my oven, subsiding on Fred’s cat food, which sits adjacent to the oven. Drives him nuts that he can’t seem to catch him.)

      BTW, if you haven’t yet read this book, then I highly recommend it to you.

    • Candol says:

      “Until we understand more about the science of consciousness,” I feel condfident that there are not gradations of consciousness but there are gradations of intelligence. People tend to like to think of one as the being the same as the other, AND they don’t even know they are doing it. Look at your justifications of the way animals may or may not feel. What could you possibly know about what animals feel. The experiements i’ve read about only interpret the behaviour in humans, which are the only terms which we seem to be able to understand.

      I remember in Susan Blackmore’s book that she actually started conflating self consciousness with consciousness towards the end of her book. Self consciousness is not consciousness as far as i’m aware. Consciousness means beings can feel pain, if they have sense organs, and emotions if they have a the emotion receptors (or whatever the right term is.)

      Yesterday i heard someone say (it might even have been on the secular buddhist talk i was listening to,) that our stomach is a brain, albeit one that does not have thought going on down there. Perhaps animals have their sense receptors and emotion receptors in other parts of their body too. I think the way science draws a lot of its conclusions about animals to be doing nothing more than highlighting the limits of our own knowledge rather than the limits of non-human experience.

      It unbelievable thick of you to say that animals do not feel death anxiety and do not suffer. How can you possibly say that? I have observed it first hand. How can you not if you are working with animals. They probably do not KNOW. Even we don’t suffer with an anxiety of death when we don’t know what’s coming. If you think we all live with an anxiety about death, i think that’s an exaggeration.

      • Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

        Candol,

        To clarify terminology, I am making a distinction between fear and anxiety, fear being an emotional reaction in the present moment, with anxiety being a cognitive process by which one ruminates about a danger that could occur in the future, even if one’s present conditions are perfectly safe.

        I have never worked with animals who were going to be slaughtered, so you’re right, I have no first hand experience. I am relying on having read the work of Temple Grandin, who has written about her career designing slaughterhouses and ways to make them so that the steers do not feel fear as they are led to the slaughter. According to Grandin, these slaughterhouses can be designed so that the animal can be led calmly to the place where they are killed nearly instantaneously. Obviously, not every slaughterhouse is like that.

        I think we can “know” that animals have limited foresight about the future–i.e. what may happen two weeks from now. Although certain animals, like squirrels, do store food for the future, this is believed by scientists to be instinctive behavior rather than a cognitive process. I found an article about which animals may have some concept of future:

        http://io9.com/5828440/banana+hiding-weasels-are-the-rare-animals-that-know-about-the-future

        But I think we can be fairly confident that most animals are incapable of feeling angst over their death in the distant future. There simply is no evidence that they do (except perhaps among apes, whose lives I would advocate protecting like human lives). And if Temple Grandin is right, they can be slaughtered with less pain than humans typically go through when they die.

        • Candol says:

          “I think we can “know” that animals have limited foresight about the future”

          I profoundly disagree with you that we can know much about anything of what goes on in an animals mind. Smart humans even have trouble understanding what goes on in minds of humans of low intelligence. How can we possibly know what animals feel, think, experience.

          I think its sheer arrogance and self-deception but alas to some extent which we may be biologically designed to hold.

          Let me make this suggestion. I think that humans mostly function on instinct. It seems to me that this is what the concept of not-self suggests. or rather the theory that we do not have a self at all. Consciousness is just a ruse, a quirk to helps us in the race to survive. It exists in all animals. It is the difference between plants and animals, or at least one major difference.

          We may be machines after all. Just so self deluded that we cannot even detect that we too are mere machines.

          I think its high time, i mean HIGH TIME, that man stop making qualitative distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

          that said, I am inclined to the view, though it is counter intuitive, that there is no ultimate right or wrong. Which means you can kill as many animals as you like and ultimately it makes no difference. Of course i won’t like it and they wonb’t like it and maybe many others won’t like it but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.

          But the buddhist view is that one should be cultivating compassion for all beings and you can’t be doing that whilst going about killing them, least of all for your own benefit – in your case to make a living.

          You are breaking the step of the eightfold path of right livelihood. Even when people struggle to give up eating meat, they will try to avoid wrong livelihood. But you say you are not a buddhist. Good. That’s a neat excuse.

          It also excuses us who identify as buddhists from taking you seriously.

          • mufi says:

            We are not machines and neither are lab animals.

            That’s what’s so uncomfortable about this topic: We know from first-hand experience what pain feels like, and as best we can tell from modern biology, other animal species possess much of the same neural design that we do – that is, the same “first dart” delivery system that pains us.

            At a cognitive (as opposed to an affective/emotional) level, the anatomical and behavioral evidence also implies more of a continuity than I’m comfortable with – particularly among certain species (elephants and parrots come immediately to mind, along with the usual great apes). I would even hazard to say (provisionally, from my lay person’s knowledge) that these species also experience a “second dart”, albeit, probably not to the same degree that we humans do, given our own anatomical and behavioral idiosyncrasies.

            We needn’t be 100% certain about these evidence-based inferences in order to use them as premises in our moral reasoning.

            Yet, assuming these premises are true, I still think Rick’s presentation here is motivated by compassion. Granted, it’s biased towards the interests and well-being of other moral agents – who, by nature and by social convention, are categorically human – and in that sense it’s asymmetrical – that is, not all sentient beings (or even humans, for that matter) receive equal amounts of compassion. Some receive more than others. I think that’s reasonable, or at least easy to relate to.

            But is it Buddhist? Arguably, not, although the canonical sources – not to mention the different schools of Buddhism that survive today – do not seem as consistent or in consensus on the topic of animal welfare (let alone animal rights) as some would like to believe.

            And, even if not, since when is Secular Buddhism so orthodox? It’s very easy to project one’s own (anachronistic, cosmopolitan) view upon the Buddha, and that might even be deemed an acceptable spiritual practice in nowadays. As history, however, it’s poor form.

    • Candol says:

      “In this post, I am exploring what is the doctrinal “litmus test” for using the term secular Buddhist. Is it okay to reject rebirth and karma, but not acceptable to reject the precept of not harming any sentient beings in favor of a utilitarian view that seeks to minimize overall harm to sentient beings, even if a few sentient beings are harmed in the process.”

      ” A FEW sentient beings are harmed..” There goes the denial. Since when have their only been a few animals killed and abused in the name of medical science. I suspect it would be fascinating and alarming to note actually just how many animals have been killed and/or abused in the name of medical science in comparison to how many lives have been actually saved.

      Let me not be a hypocrite here. I take a drug daily that if its not saving my life yet, is certainly giving me a quality of life that i coudlnt’ otherwise have. I take oroxin for hypothyroidism. I expect this has been tested on animals. I know that these days some meds actually use pigs hormone. I am almost certain animals have lost their lives for my sake with regard to this medicine. However, i would say its better to have forgone this treatment than put those animals through what they’ve been through.

      But again, what i should be saying is that it is doubtful that most medical science actually requires the use of animals at all. In the long distant past, doctors actually tested their drugs on themselves. And as far as i know, without significant negative result. But people doing this research should have the courage to do that rather than on animals. And failing that on consenting humans.

      I really think our obsession with saving human lives at all costs and extending human life at all costs is obscene. And the suffering that is caused because of it is far greater (even amongst humans) if not the same as that which it purports to prevent. I am of course referring to the population problem. Medical science has not yet acknowledged the suffering it has indirectly caused. Thankfully we can’t accuse Professor Flores or inflicting suffering on animals in the pursuit of a cure for bacterial diseases.

      As someone i read recently said and i believe myself, science solves some old problems while creating new ones. Actually no he didn’t say it quite like that. But that’s what i think. so we can say science solves some types of suffering while creating others.

      Science is good when it teaches us real knowledge about our world but its not quite so clear when it gets down to converting knowledge to applications.

      But back to your litmus test. As a non-secular buddhist, why are you even bothering? I think if you don’t wish to think of yourself a as a buddhist, you’ve just lost the argument about what is legitimate right to explore the question here at all. Except of course Ted has given you the right. I would just suggest its not legitimate.

      • mufi says:

        Candol: Rick needn’t identify as a Buddhist in order to raise a legitimate question (call it an external challenge, if you like) about what is or isn’t acceptable, according to Secular Buddhism, with regards to this topic. It seems that his interest is more than merely academic, but even that alone would be sufficient grounds for asking.

        BTW, in my experience, as soon as someone raises some inconvenient truth about Buddhism as it relates to the modern animal rights movement (like the fact that the Buddha ate meat and refused to prescribe vegetarianism to his monks), animal rights activists quickly drop Buddhism like a hot potato as a moral authority on the matter.

        While that’s fair enough – especially in an unorthodox crowd like this one – the point is that Buddhism (even the secular variety) hardly settles the matter.

        • Candol says:

          I accept your first point Mufi. I have no issue with paragraph 2. But i don’t know what you are saying in para 3.

          What point is it that Buddhism doesn’t settle? ARe you talking about eating meat? To me its pretty straightforward. Its straightforward why the buddha ate meat and his monks also. But today is different from the day of the buddha and i think he would prefer we didn’t eat meat, unless we come from a culture where food is in short supply. Also here we don’t have to bed.

          Not even the monastics really beg. They get their food donated but it can be vegetarian or otherwise depending on what monastery you are in. I thought it interesting to learn that ajahn brahm’s monastery isn’t vegetarian but bhante sujato’s is. They are from the same source – bhante sujato was sent by Ajahn brahm to state Santi monastery. So here what we are seeing is personal preference of the leaders.

          • mufi says:

            Candol: Sorry, I overlooked this reply.

            To answer your question: Yes, I was referring to eating meat, although presumably one could apply to related topics whatever general principle or rationale lay behind the Buddha’s decision on the topic.

            I’ve heard others claim that the Buddha, were he alive today, would prescribe vegetarianism (if not veganism). Personally, I harbor some doubts, but I’m no scholar of Buddhist history or philosophy, and the arguments on both sides seem rather speculative to me.

            However, what’s clearly evident (as you’ve also observed) is that there’s a divergence of views on this topic among traditional Buddhist communities. With that in mind, I’m hardly surprised to find such a divergence within unorthodox circles like this one.

    • Candol says:

      I think its more accurate to say that you child/wife was terrorised rather than that the mouse was terrorising your family member.

    • Miyo Wratten MiyoWratten says:

      “With regard to whether I believe that “human beings are superior to animals,” I guess I would say yes, broadly speaking. I don’t believe in any grand generalization that “all sentient beings are created equal.” Rather, there appear to be gradations of sentience. Until we understand more about the science of consciousness, I don’t know that we can really be sure about this, but it seems to me that a chimpanzee is more sentient than a spider. I may be wrong about that. I consider adult chimps equal to human toddlers, and superior to human infants. In other words, they should be treated like little humans.”

      I apologize if someone else has asked this question. I’ve tried to read through the long threads of responses, but I’m not really great at following such long threads so I may have missed it:

      I’m curious about this idea of ranking the importance of living beings by levels of sentience. It seems that you are justifying killing and performing experiments on animals because they are less sentient than we are.

      I just wonder if there isn’t a danger in ranking living beings in this way. If we find that mice are ‘less valuable’ than chimps, does it really justify injecting them with poisons so we can see what effects they’ll have? Who is to decide if it is OK to squirt mascara into a rabbit’s eye to see if it will cause blindness, over squirting it into a human infant’s eye?

      I believe a couple of others have made reference to this fact as well: How do we really know what goes on in the minds of other beings?

      To me, the danger here is in finding ways to make ourselves feel better about the things we do as humans: Testing on animals, killing them and/or raising them for food.

      At what point do we measure when too much is too much? You said that killing hundreds of mice for experimentation is “too much,” but who is to decide? There are those here who feel that killing one mouse is too much. Who is right? Those who value life regardless of the level of sentience, or those who justify it through some assigned level of importance based on … sentience, size, attractiveness … what’s the measure we should choose?

      Is not the point of the Buddhist philosophy that we should value all life equally, without attaching to them our human labels. Those labels would include “important,” “not important,” “cute,” “not cute,” “sentient,” “less sentient,” etc.? If we remove those labels, would we not see that all life has something very important to contribute to all other life around us? We all have an equal share of importance to contribute to the ecology of our planet. This is seen by the fact that when the not-at-all-sentient tree of a certain kind disappears, so do certain species of animals that depended on them for food and shelter.

      Perhaps we should be using a different measure when considering animal experimentation. Not so much what animal would be used, but perhaps what the experiment is for. At one time, using animals to try out medicines for epilepsy, cancer, and more, was needed in order to improve the lives of humans. I know for myself, my cousin’s life has been saved by medication that she still uses to regulate epilepsy and other conditions she has. I’m certain most of her medication has been tested on animals. Necessary? While some say no, I am grateful for the results, but perhaps not more than she is.

      On the other hand, using animals to test lotions and makeup? Has a life been lost because someone hasn’t been able to use mascara? Do we not already know what works and what doesn’t for these things that have existed for literally thousands of years? Do we NEED a “new and improved” formula for foundation? Shaving cream?

      Should we not use this as a measure, rather than the ‘importance’ of a living being our measure?

      I’m no scientist so you most likely have some insightful counterpoints here, which I am curious to see.

      • Candol says:

        Pretty good post Miyo. I”m interested to see how Rick will respond.

      • Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

        Miyo,

        It’s good to see another voice added to the conversation.

        One of my strong beliefs is that it is impossible to come up with rules that are guaranteed to be wise guides to action, without exception.

        I remember way back when I was growing up as an Orthodox Jew that a friend of mine said that one of the great things about Judaism is that you get a set of rules, and that if you follow them, you are guaranteed to be doing the right thing. Without knowning anything about mindfulness at the time, I think I noticed a turning of my stomach, a bit of aversion. Perhaps it’s pride in my own intelligence, but I was probably a little bit skeptical then, and am certainly more now as a secular humanist, that there can be rules that are perfect in all situations. Perhaps a God can come up with such rules, but I doubt humans can.

        So now, with regard to the rule of “never kill,” I present the question of whether to use insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria, which the CDC page states are more effective than untreated mosquito nets. Malaria is a potentially fatal illness.

        http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/malaria_worldwide/reduction/itn.html

        I can’t find a link right now, but I have read that some Buddhists on retreats in Southeast Asia are told not to swat mosquitoes and to consider mosquito bites as opportunities for nonjudgmental acceptance. I don’t know if these retreats take place in malarial areas.

        My position is that it’s okay to kill mosquitos, especially if they are threatening to kill you. Even when they are just an irritant, that irritating is causing you suffering, whereas, based on what we know of science, we can be confident that crushing a mosquito with your hand kills the mosquito, extinguishing sentience and suffering, in literally one second. So why should you suffer for an hour with a mosquito bite in preference to the mosquito suffering for one second in being crushed to death? (insecticide is a different story. It may impose a slow death on the insect.)

        I guess the rebuttal to that it is worse to impose suffering on another being than to experience suffering yourself. Well, I guess that is a matter of opinion, but that argument doesn’t hold much water with me. I think we should be coming up with policies that reduce suffering overall, not focusing to much if the cause of the suffering is one beings action on another.

        So, I don’t know where you come out on kiling mosquitos. But, if I you agree that it is okay to kill mosquitoes under certain circumstances, then I’ve got a “foot in the door” to my argument that it’s okay to kill sometimes. If we then agree that the general rule has exceptions, we can then apply our human intelligence to try to figure out what the exceptions are to the rule of not killing that is, of course, a pretty good guideline in general.

        To reiterate another point that I think is key, I distinguish between killing and suffering. Killing can be done in seconds, and the animals will only experience pain very briefly if kiling is done in such an immediate manner. I think we can be confident about this because we know from science that it takes 1/2 second in humans for stimuli to be processed by the nervous system and come to consciousness. So, a form of killing that brings a near-instantaneous loss of consciousness will literally not be experienced at all, like the cliche “he never knew what hit him.”

        Thus, with regards to mice, I am more concerned with the conditions that they experience for days or weeks at a time, and whether that is comfortable, rather than what they experience in the seconds during which they are killed.

        I don’t think the thought experience of saying, what if it were a human being treated this way works, because humans are substantially different than mice. We know that humans not only distress in the moment, but also are able to project into the future and experience distress from the anxiety that they might be killed in the future. There is absolutely no evidence that mice can project into the future that way, and no reason to thing “we really can’t know.” Enough experimention has been done on the mouse brain to have a general sense of its capabilities.

        One other general point that I’ve thought about in the last few days with regard to the secular Buddhist project is about two types of people who may be attracted to it, and whether they can get along with each other.

        The first type are people who were religious Buddhists, like Stephen Batchelor, who took on whole Buddhist path, and then decided that certain things can be tossed out, like karma and rebirth. Folks like these are likely to retain principles that are naturalistic in form, like the Five Precepts.

        The second type are people who have never been religious Buddhists at all, but have found meditation and mindfulness practices useful for stress reduction and increasing happiness. I fall into this second category. My views on killing animals are certainly outside the boundaries for a religious Buddhist, but are mainstream for Americans in general–actually, somewhat left-of-center in that I would afford all apes “human rights” and that I eat soy products in preference to beef and chicken.

        For us secularists interested in Buddhist practices, I don’t think that doing these practices necessarily makes us want to become vegetarians or reject animal testing. I don’t see how breath meditation or the four foundations of mindfulness would bring one to even consider such issues. On the other hand, metta practice does bring you more to considering such things.

        And so yes, metta practice does make me try to empathize with a mouse, and makes me think, if I were a mouse, what would I want. I would want food, a warm shelter, and protection from predators. And if I was in a laboratory participating in experiments on social bonding, those needs would be met. I am skeptical that mice have a desire to “be free” and object to being in confinement, as long as they are provided with adequate food and shelter. As far as not wanting to die, whether as a mouse or human, I’d probably prefer to die so quickly that I didn’t realize it was happening.

      • mufi says:

        Miyo:

        Is not the point of the Buddhist philosophy that we should value all life equally…

        I’m aware of textual support for that view. For example, the Karaniya Metta Sutta (Sn 1.8) says:

        Even as a mother protects with her life
        Her child, her only child,
        So with a boundless heart
        Should one cherish all living beings;

        But is that really “the point of Buddhist philosophy”? I think there’s too much going on in the tradition to reduce it this one assertion.

        But, regardless, I for one reject that view as a naive estimation of human flexibility.

        Perhaps some rare individuals can convince themselves that they actually cherish the lives of all sentient beings equally as much as they cherish the lives of their own children. I harbor no such belief, however.

        As philosopher Stephen Asma aptly put it:

        The feeling of care is triggered by a perception or internal awareness and soon swells, flooding the brain and body with subjective feelings and behaviors (and oxytocin and opioids). Care is like sprint racing. It takes time — duration, energy, systemic warm-up and cool-down, practice and a strange mixture of pleasure and pain (attraction and repulsion). Like sprinting, it’s not the kind of thing you can do all the time. You will literally break the system in short order, if you ramp-up the care system every time you see someone in need. The nightly news would render you literally exhausted. The limbic system can’t handle the kind of constant stimulation that…the cosmic love proponents expect of it. And that’s because they don’t take into account the biology of empathy, and imagine instead that care is more like a thought.

        If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers and nonhuman animals. Of course, when we see the suffering of strangers in the street or on television, our heartstrings vibrate naturally. We can have contagion-like feelings of sympathy when we see other beings suffering, and that’s a good thing — but that is a long way from the kinds of active preferential devotions that we marshal for members of our respective tribes. Real tribe members donate organs to you, bring soup when you’re sick, watch your kids in an emergency, open professional doors for you, rearrange their schedules and lives for you, protect you, and fight for you — and you return all this hard work. Our tribes of kith and kin are “affective communities” and this unique emotional connection with our favorites entails great generosity and selfless loyalty. There’s an upper limit to our tribal emotional expansion, and that limit is a good deal lower than the “biosphere.”

        source

  8. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Rick, I don’t share that traditional Buddhist view of samsara either. I am painfully aware though how much suffering our species causes each other and other species in a single lifetime. I am extreme in my view that non existence is the ultimate not suffering. No one on the moon is complaining, yet:-)

    These are all good topics to bring up. Humans have the power to inflict incredible pain, and I don’t feel we are going to move beyond our inner chimp until, as a species, we decide to be more compassionate towards those we so easily over power. Until then we are simply hairless chimps harming others for our own personal gain, yours truly included. Can we evolve into a truly intelligent species? I doubt it.

    • mufi says:

      Dana: What’s wrong with chimps? Admittedly, they make very poor humans, but then we make very poor chimps!

      BTW, it’s far from obvious that a “truly intelligent species” would necessarily abstain from lab research on other species – particularly if it’s motivated more by the interests of its conspecific members.

    • Candol says:

      I agree with every word you say Dana. Though it probably gives you no joy. :-)

      Moreover Alex Rosenberg raises the interesting discussion that chimpanzees do not cooperate with each other while other species for survival and which is something they share with humans which chimps and other primates do not. So while this may not be a matter of intelligence, it is an interesting point about animals, human and otherwise. Certainly i know that ducks cooperate with each other. As do dogs. And cats. I don’t know about rats. But this does not mean that it makes them suitable for laboratory testing either.

  9. Rod says:

    http://www.brainsciencepodcast.com/bsp/the-origin-of-emotions-with-jaak-panksepp-bsp-91.html
    For those of you who want to go beyond the “their so cute I cant imagine eating them”, the above link might be a good starting point. Whatever your emotional predilections might be, it never hurts to look at the biology. You might also start to get a feel for where nueroscience is going with consiousness as a biological process. Ive read his current book and while not an easy read it is capable of giving you more than emotional information. There is also a more current podcast that directly addresses the ethical arguments of how we treat animals given what we know about the biology. There are also transcrips that are quicker to assimulate. I think it is respectful of this site and its intentions to look at the science and move past the angst, even if only temporarily, of some of these ethical arguments.

  10. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    I suspect that intelligence, like free will and self, are illusions our brains create. I’m not saying we don’t have cognitive abilities that other animals don’t. We do, and we have created language and abstractions such as mathematics, which is truly amazing. But when I look at the biology of a spider, or the complex social structure of bees or ants, I wonder where we get this obnoxious attitude of superiority. I’m going to blame survival of the fittest combined with lack of mindfulness and compassion.

    In our Buddhist practice we do stop to examine our delusions, and I found my previous attitude of superiority over other animals was one of them. Life is life, and just because its smaller or larger doesn’t mean it suffers more or less. All animals have degrees of consciousness, or awareness. If they didn’t they would not be able to function,hunt, find water, shy away from danger. I find myself more and more troubled how humanity puts its needs before the well being of other species.

    Doesn’t our practice encourage compassion for ALL beings? As humans with cognitive abilities, don’t we have the power to rise above our selfishness, and see the suffering in other animals? Can our supposed intelligence allow us to find ways of discovering without harming other species? If not, then I suggest our intelligence and superior attitude are delusions and we are no better than species that can’t make similar decisions.

    • mufi says:

      Dana: I have no doubt that many of us delude ourselves into thinking that we’re more intelligent than, say, an exam would bear out. But what’s that got to do with how we treat other species?

      Again, I’m not biased towards my daughter’s life and well-being over that of her pet rats because I think she’s objectively superior to them. (That’s just a straw man.) I simply love her more. Period.

      And enough folks feel the same about their loved ones that we’re willing to tolerate – within certain limits – the idea of using others (mostly rodents) in lab experiments.

      As for Buddhism, see my comment above from earlier this morning.

    • Candol says:

      Dana a lot of people confuse intelligence with goodness. I sort of think you might be making the same mistake. Especially when you say

      “Can our supposed intelligence allow us to find ways of discovering without harming other species? If not, then I suggest our intelligence and superior attitude are delusions and we are no better than species that can’t make similar decisions.”

      Certainly i agree that our superior attitude is a delusion but human intelligence is fact.

      If you take away the assumption that intelligence is necessarily good then its fairly easy to see how we can be so mistaken in our attitudes.

      One of my pet sayings is – intelligence only means (although maybe not only) our capacity for good is greater and so is our capacity for evil/bad.

      One can also say that intelligence enables people to make bigger more serious mistakes. That is to say stupid people don’t get much opportunity to make big mistakes. Not like smart people do.

  11. Candol says:

    I am unable to respond to muff directly below or even spell his name write because of autocorrect so i’m quoting and responding here. I Hope you can find my response mufi. Ah i just sold the autocorrect thingy.

    mufi says:
    February 18, 2013 at 8:01 am
    We are not machines and neither are lab animals.

    That’s what’s so uncomfortable about this topic: We know from first-hand experience what pain feels like, and as best we can tell from modern biology, other animal species possess much of the same neural design that we do – that is, the same “first dart” delivery system that pains us.

    At a cognitive (as opposed to an affective/emotional) level, the anatomical and behavioral evidence also implies more of a continuity than I’m comfortable with – particularly among certain species (elephants and parrots come immediately to mind, along with the usual great apes). I would even hazard to say (provisionally, from my lay person’s knowledge) that these species also experience a “second dart”, albeit, probably not to the same degree that we humans do, given our own anatomical and behavioral idiosyncrasies.

    We needn’t be 100% certain about these evidence-based inferences in order to use them as premises in our moral reasoning.

    Yet, assuming these premises are true, I still think Rick’s presentation here is motivated by compassion. Granted, it’s biased towards the interests and well-being of other moral agents – who, by nature and by social convention, are categorically human – and in that sense it’s asymmetrical – that is, not all sentient beings (or even humans, for that matter) receive equal amounts of compassion. Some receive more than others. I think that’s reasonable, or at least easy to relate to.

    But is it Buddhist? Arguably, not, although the canonical sources – not to mention the different schools of Buddhism that survive today – do not seem as consistent or in consensus on the topic of animal welfare (let alone animal rights) as some would like to believe.

    And, even if not, since when is Secular Buddhism so orthodox? It’s very easy to project one’s own (anachronistic, cosmopolitan) view upon the Buddha, and that might even be deemed an acceptable spiritual practice in nowadays. As history, however, it’s poor form.

    MY REPLY

    OK if we are not machines because we can feel things, then of course we are not and neither are any animals. I”ve just listened to the podcast that rod suggests which brings me a bit more up to speed on what we do know , correction what scientists now know because they can no longer feign ignorance ie that they do feel pain and emotions/feelings panic fear care seeking and 3 others apparently. But that is that scientists evidence and we and animals share these things.

    I am perfectly comfortable with being on a continuum with animals I find it strange that you are not. I think its better for us all to think of our relationship this way. I think its wonderful. And all the more reason to let go the arrogance that humans are somehow superior and special.

    We can’t know what rick’s motivation is. Maybe its guilt? Maybe deep down his conscience is pricking him.

    I’m glad you agree its not buddhist to do what rick proposes.

    But if you think this isn’t a problem for secular buddhism then I think now we are really in trouble. I didn’t think we were throwing the baby out with the bathwater (as some have suggested) when all we were ditching was rebirth, karma and cultural forms and political structure from other cultures but to ditch the fundamental ethics of buddhism.? That’s a big worry. That’s throwing out the baby in my view.

  12. mufi says:

    Candol: I am perfectly comfortable with being on a continuum with animals I find it strange that you are not.

    Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being on a biological continuum with other species – that is, unless one is looking to use biology to find a clear dividing line between us and them – one that serves us in moral dilemmas & debates like these. Therein lies my discomfort (viz. with moral greys).

    Putting aside the sentimentalist view that I expressed above (using my daughter and her pet rats to illustrate it), the closest thing that I could think of to a clear dividing line between us and them is alluded to here re: “the capacity to understand and abide by ethics in the first place.” This device is partly based on biology, but also based on common sense.

    I’m already aware of the problems with this device (e.g. that of human marginal cases), which is partly why I resort to sentimentalism. But I do think it’s a useful reminder that, ultimately, the judge and jury on these matters is not the non-human animals themselves (let alone divine or karmic justice), but rather ourselves – the moral agents of philosophical & legal tradition.

    I’m glad you agree its not buddhist to do what rick proposes.

    I think it’s clear that Rick is thinking critically about Buddhist doctrine. He should. So should we all.

    It’s highly speculative to assert what the Buddha would say, were he alive today, about lab research on animals. For example, I would not be so sure about how he would respond to the claim that “the results have potential application in treating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, addiction, and autism” [to quote Rick]. I only know how I respond: in a way that’s heavily biased – specifically, towards my loved ones (like my daughter) and more generally towards my fellow moral agents – all of whom happen to be human.

    But if I knew for sure that the Buddha would disagree with me on this matter, then he’d have to do a lot better than preach some platitude about universal compassion in order to change my mind.

  13. Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

    Candol,

    You wrote

    “I’m glad you agree its not buddhist to do what rick proposes.

    But if you think this isn’t a problem for secular buddhism then I think now we are really in trouble. I didn’t think we were throwing the baby out with the bathwater (as some have suggested) when all we were ditching was rebirth, karma and cultural forms and political structure from other cultures but to ditch the fundamental ethics of buddhism.? That’s a big worry. That’s throwing out the baby in my view.”

    Whenever there are religious reforms, the changes sometimes go beyond the intention of the original reformers. For instance, in the Unitarian Church, the original reform was to reject the doctrine of the Trinity. But subsequently, other doctrines, like the existence of God itself, were questioned and rejected by some Unitarians. Similarly, changes in Reform Judaism went quite a bit beyond the vision of the original proponents of the reform.

    So, if you start reforming Buddhism, you may decide you only want to ditch karma and rebirth, but you open up everything to questioning, including Buddhist ethics. It becomes a “slippery slope.” Once karma is removed as the ground of ethics, one has to find a new ground for your moral landscape (as Sam Harris would put it).

    I listened to both of the recent interviews between Ginger Campbell and Jaak Panksepp. As far as I can tell, my views are the same as theirs, which is that the project of understanding the brain is extremely valuable, and that certain experiments on rodents are worthwhile. In particular, the experiments on social bonding and reward that I discuss in my article do seem fairly benign, because the animals are literally rewarded with appealing foods and social opportunities. The only downside, of course, is that they are killed, but as I’ve said before, you and I are in the same boat—we will die.

    With regard to raising animals for meat, I think it can be done “humanely” but personally I would have no problem if meat were banned and vegetarianism enforced by law. As long as some forms of protein were available, I could adapt.

    That leaves us with pharmaceuticals. You say that I’m violating right livelihood by working at a pharma company. From my perspective, working at a place where people help people survive cancer and other diseases falls on the positive side of the ledger.

    Yes, I have the guilt of harm to rats against me, but those who would interfere with medical research to the point that people die who would otherwise live longer are responsible for that form of harm.

    It seems to me that Buddhists put a lot of emphasis on intentions and little on consequences. Look at the statement that I previously referred to by Thich Nhat Hanh. He would actually allow genocide to occur rather than use violence to stop it. Though Thich Nhat Hanh was responding to a hypothetical, his answer is quite similar to Gandhi’s advice to Jews being persecuted by Adolf Hitler – to commit suicide as a way of pricking the conscience of the world, rather than violently resist the Nazis. See

    http://stevereads.com/weblog/2007/12/10/gandhi-the-jewish-victims-of-the-holocaust-should-have-committed-mass-suicide/

    What we have here is the Trolly problem.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

    The Buddhist (and Gandhi’s) answer seems to be, it’s acceptable that great harm to come to the world as long as my hands are clean. The utilitarian ethics which I hold is that it is important to minimize overall harm, even if I must take action which will cause some harm in order to do so. To me, being passive does not get you off the hook. Having the power to stop great harm and failing to do so is negligence.

    Dana,

    It is true there is complexity to spider webs and bee social structure. But there is also complexity to geological formations, and they are not sentient. This interesting article suggests that the bee’s waggle dance reflects quantum mechanics,

    http://discovermagazine.com/1997/nov/quantumhoneybees1263

    yet I don’t understand quantum mechanics, and I’ll wager that bees don’t either. The single-cell amoeba also show signs of intelligence

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn15068-smart-amoebas-reveal-origins-of-primitive-intelligence.html

    but it’s very hard to imagine that amoeba are conscious, given that they have no nervous system. Still, it is possible that bees are conscious

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=exploring-consciousness

    I will am willing to include bees and other insects in my circle of concern, but this notion I’m hearing that “life is life” and humans are not superior and so a single insect life and a single human life are “equal” defies my common sense. How do you feel about the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria?

    http://www.cdc.gov/malaria/malaria_worldwide/reduction/itn.html

    • mufi says:

      Rick: The utilitarian ethics which I hold is that it is important to minimize overall harm, even if I must take action which will cause some harm in order to do so.

      This might be a difference in our otherwise similar positions, as I fail to see how utilitarian principles and logic can justify an exemption for humans from serving as lab animals – that is, without importing (through the back door, so to speak) a non-utilitarian standard, like human rights.

      My own solution is an informal hybrid of sentimentalism, virtue ethics, and contractualism, in which the traits that we traditionally associate with moral agency serve as special criteria for moral considerability, along with the brute fact that most of us prefer to advance the well-being of kith and kin (not to mention ourselves) to that of rodents.

      I’ve said enough on this topic today, so I’ll just end there.

      • Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

        Mufi:

        You got me there. In other words, I believe you’re saying that my logic would allow humans to be involuntarily drafted as “guinea pigs” if it served the greater good.

        I think what I find significant is that, for instance when the CIA did experiments on people without their knowledge in the 1950s, other people learn about it and it instills fear in them. So even a little unethical human experimentation causes not just physical distress for the actual subject, but mental distress for millions who think, “what’s to prevent the government from doing it to me?” So the costs of unethical human experimentation outweight the benefits under the scenarios I can think of.

        With animal experimentation, it is easier to “cover up” the knowledge they are being experimented on from their peers. I was interested to hear that Jaak Panksepp mentioned Temple Grandin, who as someone with autism, believes she thinks more like a non-human animal than most people do, and can relate to their fears, and therefore design slaughterhouses that do not stress the animal before slaughter.

        But even with animals, I feel that we should be giving them the opportunity to live good lives–just not perfect lives. So if an animal has 179 good days, and then on the 180th day they are killed (and its over within seconds) that seems okay to me. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist view is the harm on the 180th day outweighs the first 179 good days.

        For experiments in which laboratory animals would spend the bulk of their life suffering negative emotions, I would hope institutional review board would decline to authorize those experiments.

        And yes, if rats don’t like being picked up by the tail, I hope lab techs are trained to pick them up holding their entire body in a way that makes them more comfortable.

        • Candol says:

          I think its highly unlikely that Temple Grandin is any better placed to think like an animal than anyone else because she has autism. That’s just more self-delusion.

          Anyway i haven’t got time to respond to your other posts yet rick but i was just thinking that if Secular Buddhism adopted an official line that it was ok to do laboratory experiments on animals, i would disassociate myself from being a secular buddhist. I think others who object to it should do the same also but of course its for individuals to decide.

          The other year i stopped donating to Medecin sans frontiers because they wouldn’t send me a letter saying they do not give money and support to experiments on animals.

        • Rod says:

          Just out of curiosity and with no agenda. For those of you involved in this discussion, how has it effected your practice over the last couple of days? The mental workings that have gone into these posts, for some,have to create a base of mental activity that typically we have to struggle with to create calmness, attention, and awareness in it’s barest sense, as far as a sitting practice is up for discussion. I find it interesting to look at what we do that makes quiet harder to get to. I think shows me something.

          • Candol says:

            It hasn’t affected my meditation practice at all from the point of view of is my mind unable to quieten down. No effect. The concern is whether the ego is finding strength by doing battle. But for my part, i think its important to take a stand when there is an issue that you feel is important being up for discussion. I am very much against bystanding. I have never been a bystander when confronted directly by something wrong and i’m not about to start now.

            This is also engaged buddhism. If you just sit back and let everything happen for fear of upsetting your equilibrium, you are, well being a hypocrite.

            It was good for me to learn about that guy doing that research on emotions. That said and i was going to say this in a response to Rick but i have to do that later, i am still against lab research. His work is only “needed” because scientists refuse to notice what’s there before their eyes ie in the behaviour of real animals. That research could have been avoided, although of course it means we would know less about the structure of our brains and animal brain so i don’t condone that research either. But at least i do think that man is doing good for animals and not just for us. And he’s obviosuly coming from a place of right intention and cares about the animals he’s using. But its still wrong in my book.

            To give blanket approval to animal studies in labs is like giving blanket approval to the livestock trade. There will always be rogue elements. There will always be understimations of the pain being caused of in the studies. There will always be delusion and rationalisation which means the suffering animals experience will be underrecognised.

            I am happy to have engaged in this discussion. I am happy to have heard the input or Dana and Mufi.Disappointed that more people haven’t weighed in. Maybe they haven’t anything extra to add. Maybe they are not sure what they think. Maybe they are just being cowardly and don’t to stand up for their opinions if they disagree with Rick. Who knows what or why? Maybe they just want to see what other people think.

            Sometimes i stay out of an already raging debate. Usually its because i’m at ease with my own view and confident that others are expressing my position well already.

          • Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

            A little agitation at first, because I am laying myself out here with what potentially is a position that might be roundly condemned. I’ve felt a little condemnation but not as bad might have been. Perhaps it’s that “nonjudgmental acceptance” thing.

            On the positive side, I’ve enjoyed expressing my thoughts clearly. I feel that in Buddhist circles, there is sometimes an idealism about relieving suffering that is a delusion, that is not connected with the real tradeoffs that existing the world we live in. I went to graduate school in public policy, which is all about understanding tradeoffs, and also about how good intentions can lead to bad results unless there is clarity about how things actually unfold.

            I have probably spend less time being mindful of the present moment, and more time in conceptual thought, but it has not been unpleasant.

          • mufi says:

            Rod: It may be a mere coincidence, but my sitting practice has dropped in regularity recently. I’ve still practiced mindfulness in other settings – like while lying awake in bed (when I’d rather be sleeping), while washing the dishes (I don’t have a working dishwasher), and while commuting by car to & from work.

            I reckon that formal sitting time generally helps me to regulate my emotions and I hope to get back on track soon. But I’m happy to report that I’ve actually felt relatively calm and balanced during the course of this discussion – despite some lapses into rumination while away from it, at which times I definitely lost touch with the present moment.

        • mufi says:

          Warning: This is only a thought experiment, intended to illustrate a problem with utilitarian ethics!

          Rick:

          So even a little unethical human experimentation causes not just physical distress for the actual subject, but mental distress for millions who think, “what’s to prevent the government from doing it to me?”

          That seems easy enough to fix: Simply exempt the overwhelming majority of the population and limit the pool of candidates to a fixed minority of marginal cases – possibly to orphans or, better yet, to a pool of lab-bred humans (similar to the current practice for lab rodents).

          Of course, I don’t think this idea would fly politically, but only because most folks don’t reason like strict utilitarians (as the trolley experiments demonstrate).

          Nor should they, IMO.

    • Candol says:

      Rick i won’t deal with all your points now cause its late and its too much work.

      I will not engage in any discussion about eating meat. I’ve said all i’ve had to say about that elsewhere and i’ve no interest in revisiting it here. It just makes too much else to talk about. I’d rather keep the focus on animal testing.

      That leaves us with pharmaceuticals. You say that I’m violating right livelihood by working at a pharma company. From my perspective, working at a place where people help people survive cancer and other diseases falls on the positive side of the ledger.

      Actually i misread the bit about writing software and thought you were actually a lab scientist. So being a software writer for this company is not as bad as being a lab scientist working on animals Although i think it is considered wrong in buddhism to to be working with or for such people but its not as bad as being one of those scientists. I have a wonderful buddhist friend who is a hedge fund person (what are they called) and she actually wants to become a nun. She’s been a buddhist for 12 years and hasn’t in all that time made a successful transition to another career, though she has tried once but her idea failed. So really you are marginally better than her if we are to take measure it on face value from my point of view. Anyway there are so very many occupations to be done in the world, why should it be so hard to stay out of those industries that are against your principles.

      But As you’ve stated, working at a pharmaceutical company is not against your principles. Its just against mine. But what i feel isn’t going to weigh on your conscience i can see. But i’m saying don’t try to make secular buddhism adopt your position.

      “Yes, I have the guilt of harm to rats against me, but those who would interfere with medical research to the point that people die who would otherwise live longer are responsible for that form of harm.”

      I’ve no clue what you are trying to say in this paragraph.

      “It seems to me that Buddhists put a lot of emphasis on intentions and little on consequences. ….The Buddhist (and Gandhi’s) answer seems to be, it’s acceptable that great harm to come to the world as long as my hands are clean.”

      Well that’s one way of putting it. But i would counter your point that do you really think that the consequences of saving human lives at the expense of animals lives and with the consequences of putting greater strain on the earths resources is not a negative consequence? Your outlook is only of the short term advantage. You haven’t factored in the longer term consequences nor have you factored in unforeseen consequences. Well its difficult to factor in unforeseen consequences but your view exposes your myopic position. You think the highest good is saving lives, even if its at the expense of others. Why should one creature suffer in order to save a human life. The only right answer that i can think of is because its human nature to prioritise humanity over other creatures. But that’s not a buddhist position. Its a christian one. And its also the default human position.

      But as Alex Rosenberg argues in An Atheist’s Guide to Reality, perhaps the greater good for the human species is actually not to keep all these sick people alive and extend human life for so long and so on. It is natural law to create creatures and humans so that they can survive long enough to breed but not that they survive long enough to become this plague on the planet. Human nature is out of balance with the world. This is where human intelligence and medical science that depends on animal studies has led us to. Unless a meteorite gets to us first, or some unbeatable pandemic or something of htat kind we would probably be the first creature to bring about our own extinction, along with that of so many other creatures. and in hte course of doing that, blithely go along creating misery everywhere around us. I am extremely dead against the at all costs extension of human life that medical science seems to be set on.

      “The utilitarian ethics which I hold is that it is important to minimize overall harm, even if I must take action which will cause some harm in order to do so. To me, being passive does not get you off the hook. Having the power to stop great harm and failing to do so is negligence.”

      I am asserting that you are causing harm. That it is you/your position who is being negligent.

      The natural order of things is that there is life and there is death. There is no ultimate obligation to prevent death at all costs to human life. The sort of rules that we have in society along the lines of what you just said are man-made laws and morals. Not natural laws. Other people might not share your version of man-made laws as being the highest moral value. I for one do not. But i do not think you are adding to my quality of life or that of most people, let alone the animal world.

  14. allen says:

    Candol, you say:

    “Disappointed that more people haven’t weighed in. Maybe they haven’t anything extra to add. Maybe they are not sure what they think. Maybe they are just being cowardly and don’t to stand up for their opinions ”

    Candol. Don’t be cross with us. We’re on the same side!

    I haven’t joined in lately as sometimes I can’t see the point. The meat-eaters not only seem to love a good steak, but also to love a good argument. Nothing they like better than to rattle off another thousand words, full of more clever arguments, all fancy footwork and erudition.

    I don’t enjoy a ‘good argument’. I do enjoy exchanging ideas with like-minded fellows, but there really is no point in this verbal tennis. It might provide winners (and isn’t that the natural order of things) and losers (the weak going to the wall), but what is the point? Winning arguments like this means that you’re good at winning arguments like this. Not that you’re right.

    I get worn down to the point where I don’t much care what the ‘opposition’ think. I just know, deep down in my guts, that they’re wrong, and that my life, important to me as it is, has no more existential validity than the life of any other poor creature.

    A.

    • Candol says:

      Allen. I know what you are saying but i’m not cross with anyone except Rick because i feel so strongly about this issue. But as you say, you get to a point where you don’t want to engage in any more argument. That’s why i mostly stayed out of the meat eating debate. I’ve seen it discussed often enough. I am familiar with all the points of view. And beyond a certain point, i just find it boring. You know you are not going to change anyone’s mind.

      I am not familiar with all the angles on this current topic. The situation here on this thread is different one. It is a new topic in a buddhist context. I have of course heard of some of the arguments against animal testing but i didn’t really feel it necessary to rake back over those coals for this argument. This is a new argument.

      But i do get it if others don’t feel like joining in. It is nevertheless disappointing that they are not. I suspect its because they are all closet supporters of animal testing. But i could be wrong. They might think that i and Dana and the others have covered all the angles – but probably not.

  15. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    I understand the argument that testing on animals benefits humankind. But I wonder how people would feel if aliens came here, and did painful and emotionally difficult testing on us to benefit their kind. I wouldn’t want to be one of their guinea pigs!

    You see my point? Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should, especially when it creates suffering, which most testing does, which killing a rat to see it’s brain does, which intentionally growing cancerous tumors on animals does. I adore science, but not at the expense of causing animals to suffer or die.

    • mufi says:

      Dana: I wonder how people would feel if aliens came here, and did painful and emotionally difficult testing on us to benefit their kind. I wouldn’t want to be one of their guinea pigs!

      Nor I.

      Does a lab rat feel the same way as I would? Hard to know, but I do know how my daughter’s pet rat responds when we force-feed her medicine (an antibiotic prescribed by our veterinarian as a treatment for an infected sore): aversively – like a child frightened of getting a needle injection (only with squealing rather than crying and/or complaining).

      Of course, the main difference between this situation and the animal-testing scenario is that we’re causing a rat to suffer a short-term discomfort for the sake of her own long-term well-being, rather than for our own.

      Why do I care about this particular rat’s long-term well-being? Admittedly, it probably has less to do with a sincere love – let alone an equal one – for all sentient creatures than with my great love for my daughter. She adores that rat, and now so do I. Love is not rational.

      And, like I said earlier, I would sacrifice numerous rats if I believed that doing so was in the interest of my daughter’s well-being – and it’s only an empirical question (as opposed to an a priori, deductive-logical one) whether or not that belief is justified (e.g. by the relevant scientific-medical facts) – not something that we are likely to settle by reference to sci-fi hypothetical scenarios.

  16. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Yeah, I only resorted to the scifi scenario because we don’t have any species here on earth who can overpower us. Though, it has happened in the past that humans were used by Nazis for experimentation, and the overall reaction was really negative.

    So, I guess I could ask the similar question, can we test out a drug on your daughter if it will benefit my daughter? Because, well, my daughter is more important to me than your daughter is. From your point of view, you’d feel your daughter is very important.

    That’s my point. From the viewpoint of the being who benefits, the suffering of another might not matter. But if that testing is being done on someone or something YOU care about, then the same action becomes objectionable.

    So, am I ok with furthering space exploration by sending a monkey into space? If that were my dog, I’d say hell no! So, I’m going to say the same thing regarding a monkey.

    • mufi says:

      So, I guess I could ask the similar question, can we test out a drug on your daughter if it will benefit my daughter?

      If you mean to ask “Would I agree to your doing so?”, then my answer is obviously “No. I would die first.”

      If you mean to ask “Would you support a policy that drafts people’s children (or even pets, for that matter) – say, by lottery – into such experiments?”, then my answer is still “No.”

      From the viewpoint of the being who benefits, the suffering of another might not matter.

      Or it might not matter enough to rally enough support to prohibit it – especially if the benefit is real (or at least perceived to be).

      But if that testing is being done on someone or something YOU care about, then the same action becomes objectionable.

      Of course, but some actions are closer to home, and thereby more worrisome, than others.

      I’d say that the human/pet lottery scenario that I mentioned is much closer to home than the actual norm of breeding animals (mostly rodents) for lab experiments.

      Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim to improve the lot of those lab animals (e.g. by improving the review protocols for the studies that involve them). But I see nothing wrong with caring for one’s kith and kin more than for strangers. (Indeed, that’s almost by definition, notwithstanding the cliche that “You always hurt the ones you love.”) For that matter, I also see nothing right with it. It’s just how most of us are.

      More to the point, any ethical or political framework that relies on first changing basic, widely shared psychological traits like these is most likely a non-starter.

  17. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Rick, I kept meaning to comment about what you said in regard to what’s happening in the brain when we do metta practice, and how those chemicals are then transferring warm fuzzy feeling to our memory of others we feel less affection for. You mention this feeling persists for several minutes. This explains why this works during metta meditation but may also explain why it doesn’t persist after for many of us after.

    So, I’m wondering, does doing metta repeatedly then get the brain in the habit of feeling metta towards difficult people we picture in metta meditation?

    I still struggle with this type of meditation. I find it artificial and annoying, and I’m exploring this further.

    • Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

      Dana,

      The scientists I’ve interviewed believe there is both a short-term and long-term effect. The short-term effect is in the neighborhood of 20 minutes. If we have an interaction in real life (or in the imagination) with someone who makes us feel warm, the chemicals that are released in that moment hang around for a bit and make us feel warmth toward whomever we encounter–unless that person is so difficult that they create their own release of hormones that engender fight-or-flight reactions. So if you switch from the benefactor to a truly neutral person, who by definition generates no emotions reaction, the oxytocin/vasopressin effect should last for 20 minutes. But if you start thinking about a real difficult person, you may get a release of stress chemicals that overwhelm the prior oxytocin release.

      Regarding the long-term effect, I’m told that there is neuroplasticity, and that if meet in real life (or have in mind) a person that is neutral, and you have this short-term oxytocin release, there will be neuroplastic changes over time so that you begin to shift this person from the neutral to friendly category. Potentially, you could also shift a difficult person to neutral. However, if this difficult person is one who makes you go “ballistic” then thinking about them may have the opposite effect, releasing stress chemicals, and if done repeatedly, there could be neuroplastic changes in the other direction–toward more aversion. So the advice I received is to start the practice with merely irritating people rather than people who have really harmed you.

      It certainly can feel artificial. I’ve also heard “cheesy.” But for me, I do find it makes me more tolerant and a little bit more outgoing. I’m more inclined to say hello in cases where it would be just as socially appropriate to walk by a person without saying hello. However, I’m not sure that it makes it any easier to connect on a deep level with someone with whom I’m just exchaning small talk.

  18. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Rick, on sentience and animals, what I use as a guide, and I may be wrong, is if an animal has a complex nervous system, it can experience pain and pleasure. That is an important function of the nervous system. So I don’t agree with doing anything to these types of animals that will cause them suffering.

    That said I am ok with scientists observing animals in the wild. You brought up bees. I’m a big fan of bees and, science has learned much from them. I’m also ok with tagging animals to study their migration patterns, etc. scientists are generally decent about avoiding stressing the animal.

    I’m not ok with growing cancer in rats to test drugs for human treatment. Or putting things in their eyes to see if it stings, and I’m wildly against testing on primates and other big brained animals. I don’t mind stealing a bit of spider web, or milking a snake. It’s really for me about avoiding causing suffering to animals for our own gain. I feel as humans we need to rise above our own selfishness. It’s hard, really hard, and frankly I don’t think we’ll achieve it. I do what I can by taking spiders from in my house and putting them in the garden, but I still eat meat, cheese, and other dairy. It bothers me enough that I may just give it up.

  19. mufi says:

    A postscript to my comment above, which was in response to Miyo…

    To quote a classic Theravadan essay on Buddhism and vegetarianism:

    The stark reality is that both the vegetarian and the meat-eater by their very existence in samsara causes the destruction of some form of life or other. In fact it may be impossible to live at all without the destruction of life (as the Jain munis realised)…[H]owever careful one may be in the matter of diet, there is no way to keep one’s body going in a material sense that does not cause harm to some other organism. The interdependence between organisms ensures that the survival of any one species – even the human species – must involve the destruction of other forms of life.

    That’s no less true from a secular/naturalistic standpoint (i.e. sans samsara).

    That is, in the secular/natural world, there are real conflicts, tradeoffs, and hard decisions to make – particularly if we aim to protect & nurture the lives of those sentient beings whose care we’re directly charged with (i.e. one’s “affectively community”) – beings who (pets notwithstanding) are usually fellow humans, and who suffer from an array of natural diseases and disorders. That’s not a product of rational reflection, but rather a brute fact, which no amount of metta practice seems likely to change.

    The decision regarding medical research on lab animals would seem to qualify among those hard decisions – again, assuming that the evidence strongly suggests that humanity indeed benefits from such practices. If we were to all agree that this were not the case (e.g. that it’s a myth that animal testing leads to discoveries of cures for human diseases & disorders), then I expect that we’d all agree that such harm to sentient beings is mindless and gratuitous and thereby vicious.

    Frankly, we don’t need the Buddha to tell us that, although a little traditional reinforcement might help to validate that intuition.

  20. mufi says:

    Rick: My views on killing animals are certainly outside the boundaries for a religious Buddhist, but are mainstream for Americans in general–actually…

    I agree with the latter statement, but are you sure that no religious Buddhists share your view? Because I’m not.

    Or, somewhat differently: Do dominantly Buddhist countries (e.g. like those in central & South-East Asia), in fact, ban animal testing? or, if not, do they place stricter limits on such research?

    By analogy, I recall having read that European countries follow different (and often stricter) protocols on such research than the US does, so it would not surprise me if Asian countries did likewise, though I admit that I would be rather surprised if they banned it entirely.

  21. Candol says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_testing

    Its good to read a few facts to shake up the argument. It seems quite a few millions of animals are used every year around the world (mainly in Europe and US unsurprisingly; that painful testing is unavoidable, that all drugs to be used on humans in the uk have to be tested on at least two mammalian species to repeat some of the more disturbing facts. That last in itself is highly disturbing given how i know much people complain about side effects from medication and then when you realise that the animals can’t complain very effectively. Its enough to make you want to stop using drugs at all.

    • mufi says:

      Candol: Thanks, although I’m somewhat familiar with that info already (e.g. having recently read Hal Herzog’s chapter on this topic in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals). And it doesn’t address my question: What limits do dominantly Buddhist countries place on animal testing?

      That said, I don’t have time to do any thorough research on that myself, but I did just do a quick google on “animal testing in buddhist countries” and came up with this:

      Japanese Regulations on Animal Experiments: Current Status and Perspectives
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK25422/

      The article mentions the influence of Buddhist philosophy on Japanese culture and law, but then it also states:

      There is current disagreement over whether we should aim toward more stringent regulations, similar to European countries, or continue the current self-regulation system as in the United States and Canada.

      • Candol says:

        Mufi, i wasn’t actually replying to your post but your post did trigger a little bit of google searching i hadn’t done yet. I read this and thought it worth posting. Have you found any links on animal testing in Thailand? I didn’t look very far but didn’t find anything. However i presume some stuff is done with animals in university laboratories even if nothing is done in pharmaceutical labs etc.

        As Thai buddhists aren’t vegetarians, i would think that they would have no scruples about scientific testing. I note that indians, who are quite vegetarian, especially among the upper classes, do have animal testing. But they are generally more concerned, it think with their own spiritual cleanliness than the welfare of animals – except for some of them who do care about animal welfare, particularly the Jains. But the upper classes in India, although brahmin and vegetarian are often not religious. But i know that’s somewhat irrelevant to the discussion. I think my point is that where science is concerned, animals don’t count for much. But for my part, I don’t know how relevant it is to the question what other buddhist countries do since there’s a lot of hypocrisy that goes on surrounding religion in all these countries as we’ve been shown on the facebook page with news from the buddhist world.

        • mufi says:

          Right, I certainly don’t mean to imply that “just because actual Buddhists do it, it’s therefore right (in a Buddhist sense) to do it.” That would seem to run afoul of the naturalistic fallacy (in deriving an “ought” from an “is”).

          Still, I believe the naturalistic fallacy is more relevant to deductive logic than to the challenges that we face in our every day lives, which more often draw upon our powers of induction (or inference, in general) and heuristics (or “rules of thumb”).

          Perhaps over time Buddhists (including those who claim to honor a strict view on the equality of all sentient beings) found their ethics to be overly demanding in practice, given human nature (e.g. our tribal tendencies) and the nature of life, in general. If so, then it would be easy for us to dismiss those folks as hypocrites.

          But I think a more charitable interpretation would be that their cultures are simply more experienced and better adapted to real-world application of dhammic principles than we are. And, unless one insists on a strong view that the Buddha’s wisdom is absolute (which would seem rather odd, coming from a secular/naturalistic angle), it seems very likely to me that such experience would lead to compromises.

          And that’s assuming that the Buddha himself would disapprove of animal testing, were he alive today (and well informed of the relevant costs & benefits). Given his refusal to ban eating meat (which is arguably less beneficial to human well-being than some animal tests), it is far from obvious to me that he would have.

          • Candol says:

            I don’t think his not banning the eating of meat is relevant here. We understand i think that the reason why he didn’t ban eating meat for his monks was because he wanted them to be satisfied with what they were given and not to be putting special demands on the people who kept them alive. He must have understood as one part of his reasoning for that, that if monks were to make demands on the community that fed them, it would away community support. At the same time, he was teaching his monks to give up chasing after their desires. That’s why he didn’t forbid the eating of meat as far as i know. The cow or chicken was already going to be killed. The food wouldn’t keep.

            If the monks were not going to make demands on their supporters but just discard any meat that was given to them, then they would likely starve, which he had already decided was worse than pointless for spiritual progress.

            What the buddha would have thought about the advancement of science and as a consequence, what would be involved in the science of modern medicine, ie animal testing, i think is difficult to make useful speculations about given how different things are. I think in the buddha’s day in india, medicine consisted only of plant material, unlike in china, where it includes animal parts.

            YOu would have to find arguments from where he privileges the rights and well-being of humans at the expense of animals to make a case on what the buddha might have thought. But do we really need to do that anyway as secular buddhists?

            I’d rather this one be left up to individuals to decide for themselves. And if you don’t want to leave it like that then argue the case as to why whoever is defining what it is to be a secular buddhist should be laying down the law on this matter.

            And i would suggest that if this group of definers were to come down in favour of animal testing, that you might lose quite a few potential followers.

          • mufi says:

            Candol: I’ll leave the calculations to others regarding which view would lose the most followers. Based on this thread and the Meat Eating thread, however, I think it’s safe to say that no particular view is likely to please everyone – not even the laissez faire view that you propose of leaving the matter “to individuals to decide for themselves.” (After all, if we truly believe that animal testing is wrong, then shouldn’t we support to a ban? or at least tighter restrictions?)

            As for the Buddha’s rationale for permitting meat, I’m no scholar, which is why I cited one earlier. (Here’s the link again.) I suppose it’s possible that the article is apologetic of Theravada tradition, but then it also seems fairly balanced.

            More to the point, while it presents and accepts various arguments against meat consumption, it also paints an image of Gotama as a pragmatist for his time & place, wherein he saw a problem in “the existential fact that samsara-faring must involve harm to others” and saw a solution in a particular path of moderation between (Jain-like) austerity and reckless abandon.

            I’m less interested in the details of Gotama’s solution – which probably made more sense for his monks than they do for 21st-Century lay folk like myself – than I am with the general principles that guided him – and not even those get the last word in my way of thinking.

  22. Jean-François says:

    My thoughts are very much in line with many who are against eating animals, but this is not the only topic that we must consider when we decide that it is ethical to raise, kill, and eat animals (I deal with hunting separately from farming and this post will not talk about it). There is another consideration that I didn’t see in the comments above (if it’s there, sorry, I just skimmed through) that will eventually cause suffering for every animal on earth, including humans: the environmental issue. Let’s split this issue up in two points and expand later if anyone is interested:

    1. Pollution and destroying the environment

    Raising animals and fishing means pollution and a significant detrimental changes to the environment. Large farms produce a lot of waste that pollute potable water and farming means having to but down forests for farming. Even on a fairly small scale (which I define as a small farmer producing enough to feed a fairly small local amount of clients) there are highly detrimental effects to the environment.

    2. Inefficiency

    This brings me to the next point: farming animals is inefficient. Here are a few points to consider:
    - Far more calories go into a cow than what comes out of it. To make a steak, you need a tremendous amount of water and food that could have been consumed by humans. If I remember right, 70 percent of grains grown in the US are fed to farm animals.
    - An animal takes more room than you think. To feed an animals, large swaths of land are used for mono-cultures of corn and other feed. This land could be poly-cultures that feed humans and other animals.

    If we continue to destroy our environment at this rate, we risk creating great suffering for humans and all life on earth. Is it ethical to eat animals from a suffering point of view? No.

    • mufi says:

      Jean-François: Even on a fairly small scale (which I define as a small farmer producing enough to feed a fairly small local amount of clients) there are highly detrimental effects to the environment.

      Uh, no. Your environmental argument here works fine if we’re talking about large (industrial-scale) farms, but then that can also be said to some extent of large farms that raise vegetable crops and fruit orchards. One could very well argue (as others have) that small farms that raise animals on grassy pastures that are unsuitable for crops (e.g. they’re too hilly and/or rocky), which create local nutrient cycles (between grazing animals and the grasses that they eat and fertilize with their wastes), are actually beneficial to the environment.

      In any case, I often find such small farms to be beautiful, even idyllic, settings.

      But let’s not confuse our opinions about the ethics of raising animals for food & clothing with ecology.

      • Jean-François says:

        mufi, I must disagree with you on the point you made about small farms and ruminants.

        Ruminants create methane gas (and a lot of it on a purely grass-based diet) and that is detrimental to the environment. What is more, areas that are unsuitable to crops may still be another animal’s biosphere (growing crops is not all that matters). Although there is a strong mitigation of harm to the environment with small scale farms and people eating less meat, I choose to go one step further and attempt to reduce all possible harm in my consumption of goods.

        For me, the action of purchasing animal flesh is unethical, but this may not the the case for you (as long as it comes from small farms respectful of the environment). I’d say that I support smaller farms and a reduced consumption of meat, but the mega corporations are a serious concern to me, as they can easily ruin small farms and take over (they already have done this and will keep on doing it).

        I hear your point on the idyllic setting, I grew up in a fairly rural place, but that doesn’t really address the points I’ve raised.

        “But let’s not confuse our opinions about the ethics of raising animals for food & clothing with ecology.”

        I respect your attempt at keeping mutually exclusive fields separate, but I do not agree that raising animals for food & clothing, ecology, and ethics are separate. To choose to raise animals has a detrimental impact and knowingly creating a world where people must suffer due to this impact is a serious moral/ethical issue.

  23. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Mufi, I’m testing out this page, and it’s letting me add a comment. You were logged in, yes?

  24. timo says:

    Hi Rick,
    I have to say that I disagree completely with some of the points you make in your article.
    First of all, when you say that you condone laboratory research on animals, subject to approval by institutional review boards, what you’re really saying is that you actually condone a speciesist, human supremacy view that supports human oppression and domination of other species by humans FOR humans. And in writing software for a pharmaceuticals company that does conduct animal research you further reinforce the human centric idea that the human exploitation, slavery, injury, abuse, and killing of other animals is acceptable. And, I can tell you that testing pharmaceuticals on other animals is completely unnecessary with many alternatives available and the science proving that testing drugs on other species is inappropriate and gives unreliable results for use in humans which has been proven many times. Please see http://www.humaneresearch.org.au/ for more information.
    Secondly when you say that you see no problem with quick, “humane” killing of animals that have enjoyed a good life, you are basically suggesting that it’s appropriate to also kill a human as long as they’ve had a ‘good life’. You also said, “Killing an animal does shorten its life, but animals bred for laboratory experimentation would never otherwise have been born in the first place.” The fact is humans could also be bred for laboratory experimentation, and you’re saying it would be okay to shorten their lifespan because they were given life in the first place. I’m not sure if you’re aware that each one of us is born to serve the purpose of somebody else. We wouldn’t have been born in the first place if that was not the case. Our parents brought us into existence as a means towards their end, so from your perspective it would be okay to breed humans so that they could be tested on in laboratories, because you see being born a as good in itself, ignoring the deliberate pain and the suffering (which is cruelty) inflicted on them for somebody else’s gain and profit. You’re also suggesting that those who bring life into the world are entitled to take it away, so long as they get to experience birth and have a good life.
    And, your argument that it’s morally acceptable to kill animals that have lived their lives in comfortable conditions applying to animals raised for food such as ‘barnyard’ animals living in contented “free range” conditions would never have been born if they did not serve human purposes in some way is again flawed in that if humans were bred for food in ‘free range’ conditions most people would argue that this is morally unacceptable (and consider that human slaves were kept in what at the time would have been considered a somewhat ‘free range’ situation.) For your reference, here is a link to the fraud that is ‘free range’, a recent investigation into the highest welfare standards in Australia http://www.freerangefraud.com . I also refer to http://www.humanemyth.org for the truth about ‘humane’ animal exploitation and killing. I think you have believed the romantic idea that the industries have planted in our heads about what ‘free range’ pretends to be, not what it is in reality.
    Furthemore, you said that people, “might contend that the arguments I make in favor of killing animals under certain circumstances could also be applied to justify killing humans. The difference, however, is that there is no reason to think that non-human animals—except possibly other great apes—have a conceptual understanding of death like we do. A human being sentenced to death—even by a method believed instantaneous and painless—will suffer from anxiety over the pending execution. Laboratory mice do live on death row, but have no clue. They therefore suffer from no such anxiety.” In your statement however, you neglect to consider that human infants and people with intellectual disabilities, even people who are unconscious or asleep, also fall into the category of not having a conceptual understanding of death, and therefore what you’re suggesting is that their deaths also, because they have no clue of what’s coming, are justified. As you can see, your argument is again flawed and based on speciesist human supremacy ideas.
    Lastly, you give the example of testing on rodents, justifying the practice to find out about the neuroscience behind metta practice. I also find the testing on rodents in this experiment objectionable and unnecessary, as there are clearly other ways of finding out about metta without testing on voles, for instance the studies where long term meditators have had brain image scans to identify the areas of the brain that are triggered during the practice of metta. It actually contradicts the practice of metta to inflict the experiments on rodents to find out about metta. This same test could have been performed on humans who give informed consent for such a procedure. And we can see the results of metta in everyday life between humans. The human experience of metta I imagine would be quite different from whatever the experience was for rodents in those experiments, which makes the results irrelevant to human experience any way. This experiment is just another example of the flawed nature of being able to transfer the results of non human animal experiments to humans.

    I therefore ask you to update your knowledge about the inappropriate nature of and unnecessary practice of animal testing and vivisection and consider how these practices are not consistent with the buddhist goals of preventing and reducing suffering where possible in the world. I also ask you to examine your clearly discriminatory and speciesist views and attitude towards other animals

    • Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

      timo,

      Well argued, but I don’t agree.

      I did look at that web site and read an article. Yes, it is true that animal models are imperfect. A drug might not harm an animal, and yet could still harm a human. Conversely, a drug might harm an animal, but not harm a human. So, for the first case, even if a drug passes animal testing, it still must be carefully tested on humans before made available for general use. In the second case, if a drug is harmful to animals, you will probably abandon it, without even limited testing on humans. I still think you are getting information from this process that is useful to humans. The question is whether it is worth the cost, and I think most people would say that it is in many cases.

      The question is, are humans and animals equal? I contend that animals do have intrinsic rights, but not equal rights to humans. The main difference that I’ve argued, as you kindly noted, is that humans can anticipate their deaths and feel stress over that in a way that other animals, as far as we know, do not. Other animals may feel stress over their immediate surroundings, but won’t feel stress if in comfortable conditions in the present moment.

      You rightly bring up the question of human adults who are, say, asleep and would not suffer if killed at that moment. Well, yes, they probably wouldn’t suffer, and in fact, many people would probably prefer to die in their sleep (of natural causes) than be conscious up to the moment of death. But if we allowed people to be asleep when killed, people would have anticipatory anxiety about that while awake. If we allowed infants to be killed, their parents would suffer.

      Where that brings my rethinking to is that if you can get enough people to value rat lives as much as they value human lives, the anxiety that humans feel about rat deaths would be enough to change laboratory practices. Human feelings toward cats and dogs are already at the level that experimentation with cats and dogs is discouraged in most places (though not eliminated).

      To sum up, I’m concerned about the moment to moment feelings that conscious animals have, but not concerned about the fact that they are killed, because all sentient beings die eventually. If human anxiety over farm animal slaughter rose to such a level that it caused many humans moment to moment suffering, that would itself be something to take into consideration (even though I question whether such anxiety is merited).

      Meanwhile, I think we should, and I do, try to substitute fake meat for real meat, mostly because of the effect of meat raising on CO2 emissions and climate change.

  25. timo says:

    Thanks Rick for your reply,

    Further to your comments, I have to say that when you support the position that most people (who are all humans!) think that testing on other animals is worth the cost, you support the human centric and speciesist view that other animals only have worth when they are used by humans towards human ends. This view, clearly ignores the inherent worth, interests, and rights of other animals not to be exploited, harmed, and killed by humans, especially for unnecessary purposes. It wasn’t too long ago when humans were testing on other humans without their consent. I wonder if you’d support that if it meant the greatest good for the greatest number. My assumption based on your position is that you would.

    I note that you also ignored my points about human infants (even though you made reference to their parents), and humans who have intellectual disabilities that are also not capable of anticipating their own deaths. Most young children also do not have a concept of their own deaths, and based on your argument that would mean that it’s acceptable to kill them because they cannot anticipate their own deaths, especially if they didn’t have parents. There are many abandoned and orphaned children in the world who could therefore be used for experiments based on your position that if only if they had parents, would killing them be unacceptable because of the suffering it would cause the parents. Therefore, based on your argument I can assume that you do not see human children and humans with intellectual disabilities having the same rights as humans who have some concept of death and can anticipate their own deaths. But you do see their parents having rights not to suffer which avoids the issue of the children themselves suffering. There is enough evidence that other animals also grieve when their babies are stolen from them which also causes the parent suffering and the children in those situations.

    And your comment that because all sentient beings die eventually that killing them doesn’t concern you would apply equally to humans. I can tell you that millions of people all over the world experience anxiety and suffer over animal slaughter because they experience compassion, which means to suffer with those who are killed. I don’t need to experiment on another animal to tell you that these people (and I include myself in those numbers)feel empathy and compassion, and it pains them to know and witness other animals suffering and being killed. To be honest not many people could watch the film Earthlings (www.earthlings.com)and not feel some distress or grief. It is because the knowing about what happens to other animals for human use and profit is kept from our collective awareness that these atrocities continue. It concerns me though that you only see the suffering of other animals causing anxiety for humans as a concern and are not concerned about the suffering of the animals themselves directly. I can see that you have a personal investment in seeing things this way. And, your comment about not eating animal flesh because of the effect on climate change (another human concern!) neglects the concern about those whose flesh is torn from their violently murdered bodies.

    We are all born equal on this planet Rick. Humans choose to ignore this, prioritising their own interests above the interest of any other species, however as you indicated there is a hierarchy of interests with cats and dogs being valued more than others (because they are used for human companionship).I think it’s time humans removed themselves from their grandiose and narcissistic position they have created at ‘the top’ of the hierarchy. If we die of disease because we don’t test on other animals then so be it. Human suffering is not more important than the suffering of any other sentient being. We are not more important than any other sentient being.

    I’m glad that you don’t support the eating of other animals, even though it appears this position is based on environmental concerns, rather than concern for the individuals who are killed so that their corpses cab be consumed.

    To finish, I ask you to imagine your self as a rat, forced into existence to be exploited, harmed, and then killed by humans. Imagine your life in that short situation and tell me you would be happy as that rat who would clearly have no understanding about why they are suffering and confined.

  26. clrsky58 says:

    Thanks for the great post and subsequent discussion. I encountered a related dilemna before I retired from a 30 year career in wildland fire management. Working in the western United States, we were working to reintroduce the vital role of fire into the ecosystem. This meant that I and my coworkers had to deliberately start fires in the woods, which in turn meant we were killing a great deal of living things, even if the fire was in a controlled setting. However, suppressing wildfires also had a negative impact: removing the fire had allowed some areas to become overgrown and unhealthy, which promoted catastrophic fire behavior. A catch-22. Plus, a lot of the fire over millenia was started by humans, and the resulting ecosystems had become reliant on human ignitions. I knew that the problem we inherited was the result of previous mismanagement, but still, it was the problem we inherited. Anyway, I often thought of the precept against killing and it was a disturbing conflict.

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