In 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—
“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:
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