___Protestant vs Buddhist Economics___

by John Dwyer


Protestant Economics

In his essay "Can Technology Be Humane", Paul Goodman makes an interesting claim about the nature of modern science and technology. Basically, he argues that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a technological civilization but rather that the problem lies in the way that it has been dominated by government bureaucrats, self-interested corporations, and a bloated educational system. The fundamental failure of modern civilization is that it has become over-technologized.

Goodman believes that the twin western emphasis on rationalism and the scientific way of life is a good thing. These concepts reflect not only our culture but also encompass our moral core. They have been prostituted to the extent that mechanical systems of production and the bureaucratic emphases on centralization and specialization are destroying personal relationships and community values. The term destruction is highly appropriate because modern science and technology:

1. No longer can claim to be improving the quality of life of the inhabitants of the advanced countries.

2. Are wasteful, not only in the production of entirely unnecessary goods and gadgets but also in the duplication of efforts.

3. Treat human beings as things rather than serve their needs.

4. Create incredibly complex systems that can no longer solve local or community problems effectively.

5. Result in ecological breakdown.

6. Reward triviality, corruption, and phoniness.

None of these problems is inherent in science and technology itself, argues Goodman. They are the effect of moral corruption. Science and technology have fallen willingly under the dominion of money and power.

Goodman's attempt to solve this problem is partial and traditional. For example, he claims that a moral reformation must occur that puts technology and science back into its rightful place. In other words, he advocates a return to the moral values of the Western (i.e. largely Protestant) past without being able to say exactly what shape that reformation will take. But he does provide some guidelines by suggesting that the new reformation will involve considerable decentralization and localization of the funding for scientific and technological research. Moreover, there will need to be a new emphasis on the more prudent development of technology to serve human needs. Finally, future technological development will need to be more ecologically sound, meaning that researchers will need to focus onthe appropriateness of technology to the physical and human environments where it will be applied.

This agenda means a return to a more pure and ethically sound form of the scientific way of life. Despite the fact that Goodman believes that communal decisions are too important to leave to scientists and technicians; and despite his interest in the development of scientifically knowledgeable citizens; Goodman has a special role for those engaged in the scientific and technological professions. He wants to revive scientific and technological attitudes that existed in the past:

For three hundred years, science and scientific technology had an unblemished and justified reputation as a wonderful adventure, pouring out practical benefits, and liberating the spirit from the errors of superstition and traditional fail. During this century they have finally been the only generally credited system of explanation and problem solving.

The key to reformation is to develop scientific and technological professionals with character and moral fibre. They should be trained not only in their specialization, but also in the "social sciences, law, the fine arts, and medicine, as well as relevant natural sciences."

This new kind of scientific and technological professional - the technologist - will be an individual who accepts responsibility for his/her actions; stands up to "the front office and urban politicians"; and belongs to a professional organization that supports this new ethic of responsibility. Thus, Goodman is able to get around the major problem facing those who believe in the power of technology when wisely used - the fact that it gives those engaged in science and technology considerable power in wider society.

Clearly, there are lots of problems in Goodman's reformation scenario. While he suggests that modern technology society is a highly complex and interlocked system, he appears to believe that we can still return to the more simple values of the past. While he decries the modern educational system - with its specializations endless "catechism of tests" - he still believes that the education of scientists and technicians can somehow be reformed and made more ethically meaningful. Goodman puts his faith in a spiritual revival that he sees developing all around him as people begin to question the loss of meaning in modern life in affluent societies.

Goodman's emphasis is on a spiritual revival. He thinks that the "present difficulty is religious and historical". Simply to try to eliminate corruption or change institutions would not be sufficient for Goodman. What is really necessary is "to alter the entire relationship of science, technology, and social needs both in men's minds and in fact." He thinks that it is because the spiritual, or moral focus if you will, has been lost, that we have got ourselves into a serious problem. He thinks that problem is evidenced in modern culture. As he says: "Without moral philosophy, people have nothing but sentiments." We can see those inchoate sentiments displayed on talk shows like Oprah every day, when people without any clear philosophy of life clap whenever they hear a sentiment with which they can agree.

Goodman's emphasis on spiritual revival is intrinsically western, i.e. Protestant. Goodman doesn't really define this Protestant mind set very well, but clearly it involves a certain set of values that include:

1. A commitment to western rationalism and, in particular, scientific logic.

2. Faith in the freedom and power of the individual.

3. A desire to investigate God's nature and discover (not manufacture) useful knowledge.

4. A firm belief in the power of science and technology to improve the human condition.

When you tease out some of these western values, however, you might want to ask yourself whether they are not part of the problem rather than the solution. The emphasis on logic and reason tends to lead towards excessive rationalism and the loss of a spiritual core. The hegemony of the individual leads, if not towards selfishness, at least towards self-centeredness. The attempt to discover nature's secrets implies scientific complexity and the kind of specialization that givens science and technology a hegemonic position. The belief in the power of science and technology elevates those activities even further until they become a substitute for spirituality.

These criticisms are especially valid if one stops to look at the structure of Goodman's argument. The article hinges on spirituality, but there is nothing especially spiritual about Goodman's argument. If this is a "Protestant" analysis, then why is there no discussion of heaven or the relationship between heaven and earth. Goodman appears to want to define his spirituality in terms of moral philosophy, but that only begs the question. How can a moral philosophy be spiritual without a deeper religious core? If moral philosophy replaces religion doesn't that pave the way for making any kind of spiritual argument irrelevant. What Goodman mentions but doesn't show us is the way that Western rationalism (particularly Protestantism) evolved into a special combination of materialism with bureaucratic rationalism that made science and technology less humane.

Buddhist Economics

Given the fact that Western rationalism has led to greater materialism and less spirituality, it is not surprising that many of those who seek to reassert an element of spirituality into our modern technology have looked to other spiritual systems. One of the most influential religious systems that are transforming our way of looking at science and technology is Buddhism. In "Buddhist Economics", for example, E.F. Schumacher tries to show us that Buddhism offers an alternative spiritual approach that could help not only the advanced nations but also those nations that are confronting scientific and technological development in an effort to improve the conditions of life in poor regions.

Schumacher was a German born, British practicing, economist. His understanding of Buddhism is limited largely to a few basic principles such as: right livelihood, the middle way, non-violence and the eight-fold path. He applies these principles rather crudely in his own philosophy of appropriate or intermediate technology. Before discussing his argument, therefore, we might want to say a few things about Buddhism and its spiritual core.

Buddhism is sometimes describes as religion without a God. There is no God in Buddhism because spirituality revolves around a personal awakening. That awakening, usually achieved through meditation, allows the individual to realize that there is no such thing as the self and that all life is interconnected. The spiritual core of Buddhism is self-annihilation or nothing. Once the interconnectedness of life is understood there is no thing that anyone can cling to. Liberation is achieved through letting go of all attachments. The full process of liberation can take a long time, since Buddhists believe in reincarnation.

All life is interconnected and even inert materials like rocks are at some level animate for the Buddhist. The unnecessary destruction of any living thing is a consequence of believing that all things are on a spiritual path towards awakening. To perform unnecessary violence on any living thing, especially the higher forms of mammals, is morally wrong for Buddhists, who practice the principle of non-violence. Some monks will even try to stay as still as humanly possible so as not to disturb even the microscopic forms of life around them.

In some stricter forms of Buddhism, the practical consequences of this position can be quite extreme. The individual focuses totally on the awakening process and gives up everything that is not necessary to support life. The Buddhist monk carries a begging bowl and receives food from others, who benefit spiritual by supporting those who are on a more direct path to enlightenment. The monk gives up all craving for material objects, living as simply as possible so as not to be deflected from his/her goal. In strict monastic societies, almost all forms of technology are considered useless since they do not further one's spiritual journey.

It is usually the less strict forms of Buddhism that interest Western critics of science and technology. These forms of Buddhism, including Zen, are not monkish, at least not in the traditional sense. Practitioners believe that spirituality is not only for austere monks but that the average person can achieve an awakening. The average individual, of course, has to live and work in the material world. In order to make a living, individuals will need to utilize the different forms of technology that are available. Living and working in the material world is often referred to as the "Middle Way" to spiritual development. It means being able to live and work in the world but without clinging to worldly things.

This is a difficult concept to translate. But basically it involves appreciating the things of this life - love, sex, food, clothing, shelter, and cultural trappings - for what they are and nothing more. One can enjoy the things of this life even more as a Buddhist because one isn't so attached to them as to crave them. Craving things means objectifying and deifying objects. It implies greed and possessiveness. It involves violence in trying to control things and competitiveness with others to get one's share of them.

The Middle Way involves moderation. A Buddhist can take what they need from the material world, but they lose their spiritual center whenever the things of this world take over their minds. Also, since everything is connected, any abuse of the things of this world, through over consumption or waste, means committing violence on nature. Nature, of course, means both human nature and the physical world since there is not the same distinction that exists in Christianity. Whereas in Christianity, man is given dominance over nature, in Buddhist mankind and nature are one. Any harm done to nature is the same as doing harm to oneself.

Living in the material world is doable for the moderate Buddhist but only on his/her own terms. In any society, there will exist a range of occupations or ways of making a living. Many of these are harmful or wasteful occupations that any self-respecting Buddhist would naturally shun. As for those occupations that are not intrinsically wrong, a moderate Buddhist would tend to choose ones that "nourished and enlivened the higher man and urged him to produce the best he is capable of." In other words, one's occupation should be more than simply a way of making a living, it should encourage the development of one's spiritual personality."

"Right-livelihood" is an important term in moderate Buddhism. It is important not to get it confused with the Christian, specifically Protestant, concept of work. In Protestant theology, work is a way of disciplining ourselves and keeping our bodies and ourselves obedient. We discover fulfillment through the pursuit of our vocation, which we are supposed to do to the best of our ability. But, as fulfilling as work is, it still remains a punishment for our sins. In the moderate forms of Buddhism, whatever one does, particularly one's work, is part of one's spiritual path. Labour, particularly labour that is of benefit to others, is fundamentally religious.

In Protestantism, it doesn't matter what one does for a living, provided it is not evil. The point is individual discipline and self-control. The emphasis is on the self-development of the worker. In Buddhism, the relationship is much more complex, the kind of work that one does really matters and the entire point of labour is the maximization of selflessness. Whatever one does, one does it to the best degree possible, not out of a desire for individual creativity or achievement, but out of a selfless desire to contribute to the well being of others.

A key work in the moderate Buddhist paradigm, and one that is strangely missing from Schumacher's essay is compassion. Material life is a painful journey for every living being. The natural response is to feel compassion. By feeling compassion for others, one feels less for oneself. That's why it is important to pick an occupation - a right livelihood - where one is doing good for others. That's also why it is important, however insignificant one's task, that one do it as selflessly as possible.

Schumacher tends to mix up Protestant and Buddhist principles when he talks about the "nourishing and enlivening factor of disciplined work". His view of the importance of labour and full-employment is inherently Western. To put it bluntly, a Buddhist doesn't need a job, occupation or craft to achieve personal dignity or "to display his scale of values and develop his personality." A Buddhist can practice right-livelihood as a monk, as a wife, or in any kind of labour that contributes to the human weal. Moreover, it is misleading to talk about terms like personal dignity and the development of a personality through work. Spirituality comes from within; spirituality is what forms personality; and spirituality needs no scale on which to display itself.

Why focus on these differences? Well, they are important. A good Protestant needs work to define and nourish himself or herself. A good Buddhist doesn't define himself or herself by their work. A good Protestant needs a job and a respectable position in society much more than a good Buddhist does. A good Buddhist is much more discriminating about what they will and will not do to secure a right livelihood. This makes the Buddhist much freer to choose in a modern economy than someone with a Christian background. The Buddhist?s dignity is not tied to occupational respectability. A Buddhist would prefer to do a job that is trivial and demeaning than one that is personally nourishing and enlivening, if the latter is in any way harmful.

Now that we?ve got a handle on the principle behind "Right-Livelihood", let's unpack its economic implications. A great many occupations in affluent and technologically advanced societies involve one or more of the following:

1. An excessive use of natural resources.

2. Direct or indirect harm to other living beings or the natural environment.

3. The exploitation of people for selfish ends.

4. The manufacture and manipulation of artificial needs (i.e. cravings)

5. The wasteful consumption of resources.

In a nutshell, Buddhism is anti-materialistic and directly opposed to the ethic of consumerism. While not directly anti-scientific or anti-technological, moderate Buddhism opposes the use of science and technology whenever these promote materialism or consumerism. To the extent that technology has distracted human beings from their spiritual mission, and increased their materialist cravings, Buddhists are very effective critics on religious grounds.

But moderate Buddhism is doubly effective as a critique of technological society but it incorporates a healthy dose of common sense. Buddhists were among the first to offer an analysis of the globe as an interconnected ecosystem that could be irreparably damaged through wasteful consumption. They were among the first to advocate the moderate use of resources and to point out the dangers of a selfish, egotistical and possessive approach to the products of nature. Because of their emphasis on fairness and compassion to all living creatures, they were also among the first to defend the weak against the aggression of the rich and powerful elements in society.

It is important to remember that Buddhist common sense comes from a particular approach to living in the material world. The teachings of Buddha are obviously common sensical in their emphasis on a "reverent and nonviolent attitude" not only to sentient beings, but all living things. This attitude is fundamentally different from the more rationalist ethic described by Paul Goodman that arguably led to the nonsensical destruction of the planet through the aid of science and technology. In Schumacher's terms, Buddhist common sense leads its followers to making important distinctions about what constitutes "the most rational way of economic life."

In making some of these distinctions, Schumacher often reads his own biases into Buddhism. In particular, he transforms Buddhists into the defenders of alternative or appropriate technologies that emphasize "simplicity, individual self-worth and self-reliance, labour intensiveness rather than capital intensiveness, minimum energy use, consistency with environmental quality, and decentralization rather than centralization." While Schumacher's emphasis on the self is completely alien to Buddhist philosophy, he is quite right about some of these things. For example, all Buddhists regard it as important to conserve as much energy as possible. All Buddhists would agree that it is important to live a simple life, and to provide for basic human needs on the small and modest scale rather than to produce large quantities of disposable goods. Buddhism remains one of the most effective critiques of a consumer society, driven by constant cravings rather than genuine needs, in our age. As for the environment, suffice it to say that the North American environmental movement adopted Buddhist concepts from its infancy. In fact, the author of the America's first recognizably environmental work, David Thoreau in Walden, was obviously influenced by eastern religion.

The problem with Schumacher is that he makes Buddhists sound like technological reactionaries and even rural primitives. Nothing could be further from the truth Buddhists were among the first to embrace the computer and information revolution, and for spiritual reasons. The Internet conforms to the Buddhist notion of an interlinked global network that transcends physical space. It also provides opportunities for greater understanding and communication between cultures. Greater understanding leads to greater identification, and greater identification leads to compassion.

The moderate Buddhist emphasis on justice and compassion means that modern communications technologies must be used to promote a more global community. Just because these global technologies also advance a corporate and consumerist agenda, that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be used for other purposes. Moderate Buddhists are more than willing to embrace new technologies whenever and wherever they can serve a human and an ecological purpose.

Buddhist economics, as Schumacher invented it, is not one that would necessarily prefer a local or small-scale perspective to a global one. In some situations, the local viewpoint is common-sensical and most conservative of scarce resources. But in some cases, problems and solutions must be dealt with on a global basis. Buddhists are among the most active advocates of a global political community. A global political community in some ways implies a global economy. Moreover, only a globally based economy based on technology can improve the conditions of life of the poorest regions of the globe. The Buddhist imperative of compassion means that we need to use technology to improve the global community.


Of course, using technology as a tool doesn't mean becoming obsessed by it or craving the useless products that can be manufactured by modern technological systems. Centralization in some respects does not deny decentralization, and the preservation of local cultures, in others. The point is that Buddhism, at least in its moderate forms, is not anti-technological. It does, however, appear to have the spiritual capacity for subsuming and restraining technological and economic progress within certain bounds. There is no given appropriate technology for Buddhists; what Buddhism appears to have is a clear idea of the appropriate path that economics and technology should take. What is particularly interesting about Buddhism, as opposed to Western religious systems, is the confidence, vitality and flexibility of Buddhism in the face of technological progress.

What appears equally revealing, Goodman's plea for a new Protestant reformation notwithstanding is the powerlessness of unreformed Christianity to direct, or stem the tide, of technological progress that no longer contributes to the quality of life. Perhaps Western religion is paralyzed because it sowed many of the seeds of rationalism and materialism that now confront us. It is fascinating that the most clear examples of a Christian reformation expressly designed to meet modern challenges is borrowing heavily from non-Western religious traditions such as North American native society and Buddhism that described a very different kind of relationship between nature, man and the divine.