Eat Peas! Thinking About the Ethics of Veganism

world map made form  peasA recent article in the Guardian (that I read via a post about Buddhist Action Month) shares some new research about the environmental effects of meat and dairy farming compared to growing cereals and plants. The results are stark; “even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing”. In short, growing peas has a comparably miniscule environmental impact compared to raising beef. And the opening words of the article sum up the implications: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” So should we eat peas?

I decided to try being a ‘domestic vegan’ 18 months ago, following a hunch that it was time to give a predominantly plant-based diet a go. By ‘domestic’ I mean vegan at home, but not strictly outside. Previous attempts at veganism had been idealistic but short-lived, though overall I have maintained a mainly organic vegetarian diet for 32 years. This time round veganism is easier: it’s more popular, so there are more vegan dishes on offer in restaurants, and more vegan burgers in shop freezers. The invention of Oatly Barista means that vegan coffee drinking is actually pleasant. Still, as the narrator in Simon Amstell’s film on veganism, Carnage, jokes: “a breakthrough in the quality of nut cheeses” would really make a difference.

So I find myself wanting to encourage others to shift to a plant-based diet. As part of doing so, I’d like to present a way of thinking about the ethics of veganism, as it is important to pitch this appropriately. I will conclude that veganism is not an ethical obligation, but rather a reasonable consequence of valuing universal welfare.

From a Buddhist point of view, there is nothing wrong with eating meat. It is well known that the Buddha himself was not vegetarian. On occasions, I get offered cooked meat. If the alternative to my eating it is that the meat gets thrown away, I sometimes eat the meat. Buddhist ethics is based on the principle of not harming living beings, and having an attitude of kindness. What follows from that principle is that one should not act in such a way that animals are knowingly harmed. This precludes buying meat or choosing it on the menu. Vegetarians also avoid fish and seafood since these creatures are harmed by being caught.

Blacknose SheepBut what if the cow or chicken or salmon has been reared with care on an organic farm, and has been killed in a humane way? My brother has started breeding his own sheep for meat, on a very small scale. A lot of petting of happy lambs goes on. My feeling here is that eating carefully-sourced meat is much better than eating meat produced on big industrial farms which are indifferent to animal welfare. The maximisation of animal welfare should be an ethical priority. However, this leaves a residual ethical issue regarding what one might describe in terms of assenting to the intentional deprivation of life. No animal wants to die, but prefers to live and flourish in its own way, just like us. If there is an alternative to eating meat, is it right to kill an animal against its wish? However, the argument here is not straightforward, since domestic animals by definition come into existence by being useful to humans. One might therefore argue that it would be better if domestic animals did not exist. However, in terms of practical ethics, it is still good to maximise animal welfare, even if in theory it would be better still if animals reared to be eaten did not have to exist at all.

This way of thinking about Buddhist ethics does not directly entail veganism, though veganism is a way to contribute to animal welfare. A common argument for veganism among Buddhists has been an ethical perfectionism: that one ought not harm living beings, hence one ought to avoid eating meat and dairy. This argument does not convince me. Ethical perfectionism may be admirable, but the environmental impact, and hence harm to living beings, of human life on this planet is complex. I would rather understand Buddhist ethical perfectionism in terms of working on deep-rooted mental states, as well as on speech and action. Dietary perfectionism is too narrow.

To put it more practically, one of the things that has held me back from turning to a plant-based diet was uncertainty about whether it was any better to eat imported soya beans than local cheese. The environmental impacts on rain forest life are unknown, whereas the positive effects of local organic farming are tangible. My scepticism about dietary perfectionism, together with uncertainty about environmental impacts, meant I had insufficient reason to become vegan. However, the new research presented in the Guardian is completely unambiguous. The evidence is clear that it is would be much better for the planet for human beings to be vegan.

This shifts the ethical emphasis away from animal welfare, and towards the health and diversity of the whole natural world. The human population is heading inexorably towards 10 billion, every one of us wanting to be well-fed. There is a corresponding pressure on land-use entailing environmental changes that are mostly detrimental to biodiversity. With this, the consequences of our continuing to eat meat and dairy will be the impoverishment and degradation of non-human habitats.

The ethical argument for becoming vegan that follows from this perspective is not based on dietary perfectionism, nor even from an ethical obligation not to harm living beings. It is simply an appeal to the welfare of all beings. The welfare and flourishing of the whole planet is good in itself. Human actions that diminish this welfare will harm humans too, for we exist as part of the living whole. From this positive appeal to universal welfare some simple practical reasoning follows. If we believe that human activities are responsible for global warming and environmental change (for which there is plenty of evidence), and if we value the earth’s biodiversity and flourishing (essential for our long-term welfare), then it is reasonable to shift to a plant-based diet, and we ought to do so. Whatever changes we make to our diets, away from meat and dairy, will be good ones to make.

It could be tempting to turn this into a Buddhist ethical argument. Since it is wrong to harm living beings, but right to practice kindness and compassion, then the wholesome or ethically skilful course of action, based on what we now know about the effects of farming practices, is to choose and to promote a vegan diet. But I don’t find it personally helpful to relate to food in terms of right and wrong. I would prefer to promote the positive value of universal welfare, and to invoke the ideal of the bodhisattva, who seeks the well-being of all. From these positive commitments, together with new evidence regarding farming, the practical conclusion rationally follows: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” Eat peas!

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Karma and Buddhist Ethics

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How does the karma relate to Buddhist ethics? Is karma the basis of Buddhist ethics? Or is Buddhist ethics one thing, and the law of karma something else that is somehow related to ethics? In an earlier essay on this blog I distinguished the psychological from the universal meaning of karma, arguing that western Buddhists very often understand karma in terms of how intentional actions leads to psychological consequences that we experience in this life, whereas Buddhists have traditionally understood karma as operating over many lifetimes. The traditional view of karma as a system of natural justice seems to suggest that Buddhist ethics is based on karma. But for many westerners who think of karma as a psychological rather than a universal law, karma does not seem to be the basis for ethics, because we tend to think of ethics in terms of doing what is right or good, whatever the consequences might be for ourselves.

The question can be phrased like this: is an action good because the karmic consquences are positive, or are the karmic consequences good because the action is good? If we think that an action is good because the karmic consequence is good, then karma is the basis of Buddhist ethics. But if we think that the karmic consequence is good because the action is good, then we think that ethics – what counts as right and wrong – has a validity which is independent of the consequences for ourselves of our actions. I want to argue that karma is not the basis of Buddhist ethics, and that our intuitions about what is good and bad are indeed independent of the consequences of actions for ourselves.

This topic is a Buddhist version of the dilemma posed by Plato in his Euthyphro. In this early dialogue, Socrates engages in dialogue with his eponymous Athenian interlocutor about the nature of piety or holiness. But what is holiness? Euthyphro says that it is what the gods love, but Socrates asks him whether the gods love holiness because of its holiness, or whether holiness is such because it is loved by the gods. This is a dilemma because if the gods love holiness because it is holy, then it is holy whether or not there are any gods; but if the holiness is holy because the gods love it, then what counts as holiness depends on the arbitrary preferences of the gods. The dilemma also translates into more familiar theistic terms. If we suppose that God wills the good, is this good good because God wills it, or does God will the good because it is good? Is goodness the arbitrary invention of God, or is goodness part of the nature of reality, independent of God?

We can similarly ask whether an action is good because the karmic consequences are positive, or whether the karmic consequences are good because the action is good. Is Buddhist ethics based on the law of karma, or does the law of karma depend on an independent moral principle? It is hard to know whether the Buddha or the early Buddhist tradition worried about this kind of question. Nevertheless the words of the Buddha implicitly but very clearly tell us that the law of karma depends on a moral principle that is independent of the law of karma: ‘I say, monks, that karma is intention; intending one does an action through body, speech or mind.’[i]

These words are well-known, but they are more surprising than they appear. By saying that ‘action’ is ‘intention’, the Buddha is saying that what matters is not what you do but your mental state when you do it. The scholar Richard Gombrich has pointed out that, in the context of his time, the Buddha was using the language of karma here in an audacious way. Instead of focussing on ritual action, which was the original Brahmanical meaning of ‘karma’, the Buddha shifted attention to the psychological processes involved.[ii] By doing so, it is clear that the karmic consequence of an action depends on the actor’s intention, so that a good consequence depends on a wholesome intention, rather than the good consequence determining what counts as a good action.

Wholesome (kusala, ‘skilful’) or good intentions are those based on generosity, love and wisdom; unwholesome ones are those based on compulsion, hostility and delusion. Being good is based on the cultivation of wholesome mental intentions. It is wholesome intentions that result in good karmic consequences, and unwholesome ones that result in bad consequences. When we understand the relation of Buddhist ethics to karmic consequences like this, it is clear that ethics is not based on karma, but the law of karma is based on ethics.

So what is the role of karma in the Buddha’s teaching on ethics? I would say that the role is one of motivation. Buddhist ethics is a very practical business. We are all familiar with the experience of knowing the right thing to do but not being able to do it, as when we hide in our corner instead of making an effort to help someone; and we are familiar with knowing that an action is unwholesome but finding ourselves unable to stop doing it, as when we turn to pornography or comfort eating to assuage our existential discomfort. This is the human sitation, and in this situation the teachings on karma give clear reasons for acting from wholesome intentions, and not acting unwholesomely. The reason is that there will be an inevitable appropriate consequence for all of our intentional actions. Such consequences may be discernable in this lifetime (psychological karma), or one may believe in karmic consequences as operating over many lifetimes (universal karma). In either case, we are reminded that our destiny is in our own hands, and we alone are responsible for our future well-being.

Two important consequences follow from the fact that Buddhist ethics is not based on karma, but that the teaching of karma is a motivation to practice ethics. Firstly, we can discuss Buddhist ethics without necessarily discussing the law of karma, either in its psychological or its universal sense.[iii] We can discuss, for instance, how Buddhist ethics is connected with empathy, with the intuition that all living beings, like us, seek happiness and wish to avoid suffering. We can furthermore appreciate how the practice of Buddhist ethics is concerned with the well-being of others as well as ourselves, which is a non-karmic perspective on why we should act ethically.

Secondly, the fact that Buddhist ethics is not based on karma helps us to better understand what the Buddha meant when he taught the desirability of the cessation of karma. It is a very common theme in the early Buddhist discourses that the disciple practises in order to put an end to karma.[iv] We can now understand that this does not mean getting beyond Buddhist ethics, somehow going beyond good and bad. Rather, it simply means getting beyond the self-centred nature of karma as a psychological motivation for ethical action. Once one gains sufficient psychological integration to be able to act from wholesome intentions, there is no need to concern oneself with the consequences of one’s actions when making ethical decisions, since those decisions will be based on an appreciation of the roots of wholesome action, not on a concern for one’s own well-being.

In conclusion, it turns out that a belief in the law of karma is not necessary for a correct understanding of Buddhist ethics, whether this belief is in the form of a belief in the psychological or the universal meaning of karma. It is possible that many westerners who take up Buddhism have already developed an acute awareness of ethics, without reference to traditional Buddhist teachings on karma. For such western Buddhists, there may be little reason to take on a form of psychological motivation which is culturally alien. Moreover, reflections on culturally western forms of ethical concern, such as those based on rights and duties, seem to be perfectly compatible with Buddhist ethics, if not part of the traditional articulation of ethics. However, I suspect that when it comes to the actual practice of ethics, a reflection on the law of karma will always have a place as a useful psychological motivation to be good.

[i]Anguttara-nikāya 6.63, the Nibbhedika-sutta: cetanāhaṃ bhikkhave kammaṃ vadāmi, cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti kāyena vācāya manasā.

[ii] Richard Gombrich, How Buddhism Began, Athlone, London, 1996 p.51.

[iii]See for instance Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, Windhorse, Cambridge, 2010; Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order in which I practise presents Buddhist ethics in this text without basing it on karma and rebirth.

[iv]See for instance the Nibbedhika-sutta cited above.

Two Meanings of Karma

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The law of karma is a fundamental principle of the Buddhist worldview. In brief, karma refers to the idea that intentional actions have consequences for the agent, in this life and in future lives; in fact, it is karma that leads to rebirth. Buddhists understand the law of karma as another manifestation of dependent arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), the law of case and effect, whereby everything that exists arises due to specific conditions. In this sense, the law of karma is a sort of natural law, so that actions are naturally followed by consequences, not as the result of divine judgement. But they will follow: the Buddha emphasised that actions lead inevitably to appropriate consequences: 

Not in the sky, nor in the midst of the sea,

Nor by hiding in a mountain cave:

No place on earth is to be found

Where one might escape one’s wicked deeds.[1]

The inevitability of karmic consequences is a large part of the way that traditional Buddhism has presented its ethical teachings. Evil actions, like killing, stealing, lying and so on, are bad karmas and will lead to rebirth in an unpleasant human situation or in hell. Good actions, on the other hand, such as generosity (especially giving to Buddhist monks), makes merit and leads to good rebirth in a pleasant human situation or in heaven. Western Buddhists, while aware of the traditional teachings on karma, are generally more inclined to understand the law of karma in a psychological sense, as a reminder that good actions will produce pleasant experienced consequences in this life, and that bad actions will lead to unhappiness. My contention in this article is that in fact we should understand that ‘karma’ here is being used in two ways, and has two quite distinct meanings, which traditional Buddhists have not necessarily noticed, but which is important for western Buddhism.

I will call the two meanings of karma universal and psychological. When western Buddhists talk about the law of karma, they often have in mind only one meaning of the term, and that is the psychological meaning of karma. In its psychological meaning, the law of karma in Buddhism amounts to this: intentional actions of body, speech and mind have psychological consequences for the agent, such that good actions bring positive experiences in their train, and bad actions bring negative experiences. For instance, if I make a habit of going to the monastery and giving food and money to the monks and nuns, then this generosity has certain consequences: I feel happier, because my concern has been habitually directed beyond myself; I feel inspired, because my giving to the monks has brought me into contact with Dharma-practitioners; I feel my life is more meaningful, because my generosity has brought me into connection with the sangha in a general sense. Conversely, if I make a habit of fiddling my tax-return and stealing packets of coffee from work, then there will be certain consequences: I feel unhappier, because of the edge of anxiety that HMRC will catch up with me, or the kitchen manager at work will notice my theft; I feel more anxious, as I need to be careful who I am honest with, especially at work; I feel my life is a struggle, because I’m not able to relax into every moment with a good conscience.

The psychological meaning of the law of karma is extremely important for understanding how practising ethics has good consequences and leads to a happier, more integrated sense of self. This is the best basis for further progress on the Buddhist path. As an aside at this point, it is worth noticing that Buddhist ethics is based on the axiom that ‘actions have consequences’, but a good action is one that has good consquences for everyone, not just for oneself. The law of karma follows from the ethical axiom, but the psychological consequences for onself should not be the only considersation for our actions. But perhaps for a lot of us the promise of greater happiness acts as a prompt to remember to be good.

However, when traditional Buddhists talk about the law of karma, they usually have in mind something different to the psychological meaning of karma, which I will call the universal meaning of karma. In this more traditional meaning, the law of karma amounts to a theory about universal moral justice: intentional actions of body, speech and mind will have felt consequences in this life, or, more likely, in future lives. According to the universal law of karma, if I make a habit of going to the monastery and giving food and money to the monks and nuns, then such generous acts create merit, which is something like a positive balance on a cosmic balance-sheet, and which, after I have died, will come to fruition in my having a pleasant rebirth, perhaps in a well-off family, perhaps in a Buddhist country, or perhaps in a heavenly realm. Conversely, if I fiddle my taxes and steal the coffee, then such acts of taking the not-given will create demerit, which is something like a negative weight on the cosmic balance-sheet, which, after I have died, will have the result of putting me into a less pleasant rebirth, perhaps in a family of thieves, or among tax-collectors or coffee-growers, or perhaps in a hell-realm.

The universal law of karma is part of Buddhist cosmology; beings move between the various realms of existence – human, divine, hellish, animal – as a result of their karma. Due to universal impermanence, all beings arise and pass away continuously, and the effects of both good and bad actions only last for a certain period of time before they are exhausted. Hence the gods may fall and the inhabitants of hell may find their way back into the daylight, all through the law of karma. This universal karma is a system of cosmic justice, whereby moral acts never fade into oblivion, but register in the fabric of reality, their moral quality conserved until the very universe rewards and punishes good- and evil-doers.

My thought is that the Buddhist tradition has never distinguished these two meanings of the law of karma, the universal and the psychological. I think that the reason is that the universal idea of karma has its origin in ancient Indian religious and philosophical thought, and was not originally a psychological doctrine. In the Brahmanical religion of before the Buddha’s time, karma meant ritual action. For instance, a son might perform karmas at the funeral of his father, to ensure the deceased person’s passage to the world of the ancestors. Such karmas involved placing ritual items in the ritual fire, and it was believed that correctly performed ritual karma effected the nature of the universe. Around the time of the Buddha, the Jains formulated a new teaching about karma. For them, karma was a kind of substance that clung to one’s soul and kept one in conditioned existence and transmigration. Good karmas were purer than bad karmas but better than both was no karma. Again the effect of karma was inherent in the nature of the universe, but now the effect was individualised and ethical. Then the Buddha gave this individualised and ethicised idea of karma a psychological turn, so that the most important kind of karma was mental intention, and it was not a kind of substance but something more abstract.[2]

So although the psychological sense of karma has always been part of the Buddhist teaching, it has not usually been distinguished from the universal sense of karma. But actually, the two meanings of karma have very different implications. The universal law of karma is a matter of religious belief. It is not possible for ordinary people to understand the workings of universal karma; as the Buddha said, the workings of karma are unthinkable. It is simply a matter of trusting that this is the way that the universe works. Moreover, a belief in the universal law of the karma is tied up with a belief not only in rebirth but also in the various realms of existence posited by Buddhist cosmology. All in all, the universal law of karma is a matter of religious belief.

By contrast, the psychological law of karma is not a matter of belief, but is something that we can observe and test for ourselves. Indeed, most of us have to some extent learned to do good and avoid evil just because of our past mistakes. But mostly this psychological law of karma appeals to our intuitive sense of morality as well as being easily testable through actual experience. The truth that good actions have good consequences which are experienced in the here and now seems to be part and parcel of the Dharma, which is said to be evident, timeless, inviting, guiding, to be experienced individually by the wise.

My sense is that Western Buddhists are generally more inclined to think of the law of karma in the psychological sense. This makes sense, as the psychological sense of karma is practical and empirical. The universal sense of karma is, by contrast, religious and indeed a matter of metaphysical speculation, since our knowledge of it is dependent on the the Buddhist tradition. It seems to me, moreover, that the universal meaning of the law of karma is incompatible with the scientific world-view in many ways, and for this reason many western Buddhists actually do not believe in the law of karma as universal justice, while nevertheless the law of karma as a clear psychological teaching is central to their conception of the Dharma. So the distinction of psychological and universal meanings of the law of karma is important for clarifying what is distinctive about western Buddhism.


[1] Dhammapada, verse 127, my trans.

[2] Richard Gombrich traces the origins of the Buddha’s teaching of karma in Brahmanical and Jain traditions in What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, London, 2009.