A Buddhist Perspective on Violence, the Intent to Harm, and State Action

Also, an introduction to libertarianism.

I want to start by thanking all of you for the wonderful response to the launch of The Free Market Buddhist. It's zoomed past 100 subscribers, and the new Twitter account already has 60 followers. I've gotten so much positive feedback, and from people with such a variety of perspectives on both Buddhism and politics. It's amazing that this newsletter has so quickly found such an engaged audience. Thank you!

In this issue of The Free Market Buddhist, I look at the way Buddhists think about the role of intent when judging the ethics of acts and how that might impact our judgement of the wrongness of using state violence to enforce our political preferences. Then, for people new to the libertarian perspective on politics and economics, I give an introduction to where I'm coming from and how I think about the case for political and economic liberty.

State Action and Intent to Harm

One of the arguments I make against Buddhist calls for expanded state action is that new laws and regulations are ultimately calls for violence and the threat of violence be used against others. When you say, "We ought to ban the sale of large sodas in order to prevent obesity," what you're actually doing is asking the state to use coercive violence against people who might sell large sodas. This is just definitionally what laws are. They're authorizations of force. Otherwise there'd be no enforcement mechanism, and they wouldn't really be laws at all.

Right Action, the First Precept, and many other principles of Buddhist ethics prohibit Buddhists from harming another being. As Khenpo Samdup, the monk at the temple I attend, writes, "This core of non-violence and non-harm is, in effect, another way of stating the whole of Buddhism." It's why so many Buddhists are vegetarians, for instance. And just like it would run counter to the dharma's teachings for a Buddhist to kill a deer for his dinner, it would also be wrong for him to command another to do it for him. (Buddhist disagreement about meat consumption by monks tends to focus more on whether you can eat meat that's offered to you and was killed by someone else, not at your request.) Likewise, if it is wrong for me to beat you up or kill you because I don't want you to sell a large soda to another person, it seems clearly wrong for me to command or request a police officer to beat you up on my behalf. To think otherwise, categorically, would lead to absurd conclusions such as murder violating Buddhist ethics, but hiring a hitman being perfectly permissible.

A possible solution to this tension appears in the role intent plays in Buddhist ethics. In short, while it's never good to kill, it's far worse to kill intentionally than unintentionally and knowingly than unknowingly. Constructing a new forest monastery means killing a lot of insects, worms, and other creatures as you dig and lay the foundations. But killing them isn't the intent. If there were a way to build without destroying these small creatures, that would be the right path. Likewise, if while laying the foundation, you see a creature about to be killed, as a good Buddhist, you should take a moment to move it to safety.

We might, then, apply this approach to state action. The intent of the soda ban isn't to use violence against dealers of large sodas. Rather it's to help prevent obesity. If there’s a way to accomplish that without calling for violence or the threat of violence, we ought to take it. But that obesity continues to occur speaks to the need to turn to law.

There's obviously something to this. But I worry it doesn't ultimately address the concern and instead only obfuscates it and so makes us more likely to use even more violence to advance our political interests. To see why, let's think about what it means to say we didn't intend the state to use violence on our behalf.

Arguing that there ought to be a law preventing X, but that you don't intend to harm people who do X in violation of that law is, I'd argue, incoherent. A law just is an intent to use force against people who behave, or fail to behave, in a certain way. This is true even of laws that carry only a fine. Making offenders pay cash for their offense doesn't immediately look like using violence against them, but you only need to ask yourself “What happens when they refuse?” to discover the violence present in every government command.

Thus, except in the rather unlikely scenario where you pass a law that no one violates, calling for a law is indistinguishable from calling for coercive force, and coercive force will inevitably follow. No one ever says, "We should create a new law we won't enforce." Similarly, going back to the example of laying a foundation for a temple, we can't use the escape of moving beings out of harm's way if we notice they will be harmed, because harming people who disobey is, again, the very foundation of law. It just wouldn't make any sense to say, "Let's pass a law that we'll enforce with violence or threats of violence, but the moment we notice someone might be harmed during that enforcement, we should stop the enforcement."

Nor does the "unknowingly" hedge help. First, even if you didn't know that laws are commands to use violence, you do now—or at least have had the concern they might be placed in your mind. But even if you haven't read this newsletter, or are unfamiliar with social science understandings of government, there probably exists an obligation to have some knowledge of the outcome of our actions. To take an extreme example, I've clearly done something wrong, and have violated Buddhist non-harm principles, if I fire a handgun into a crowd, even if I somehow am unaware of the effect of bullets. Knowing that bullets kill is the kind of knowledge an adult is expected to have. (And I certainly should stop firing the moment I'm made aware of the damage I'm doing.)

Does this mean, then, that Buddhist monks shouldn't build forest monasteries? They know it will harm woodland creatures, and they of course have the option of not causing that harm by instead sitting outside in the grass or on rocks. Probably not, because Buddhism ethics regarding violence scales the wrongness (e.g., the amount of negative karma generated) by the level of the beings killed. The death of insects is still killing, but it's nowhere near as bad as killing humans. Therefore, while it's permissible to build the monastery if it means killing insects, the monks would certainly have to refrain if it meant killing or harming humans.

My argument isn't that Buddhist must reject all laws. The consequences of our actions matter, but so do the consequences of non-action. Instead, we should be aware of what it means to enforce a law and only use that violence when it appears absolutely necessary. It's not controversial to point out that quite a lot of laws on the books aren't worth killing over.

What do I mean by “libertarianism?”

The Free Market Buddhist is the result of combining two great influences on my thought. The first is obviously Buddhism. The second is libertarianism. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful, especially for my non-libertarian readers, to introduce what I mean when I talk about the system of political and economic liberty I'm calling “libertarianism.” That word comes in for a lot of abuse, and its meaning is often contested.

To do that, however, I'm going to cheat a bit. Recently, my colleague Grant Babcock wrote an essay for Libertarianism.org answering the question, "What is a libertarian?" Grant is a wonderful writer and did such a good job introducing the philosophy of liberty that I'm going to just quote from the beginning it, and then encourage you to read the rest. Grant and I share a perspective on what libertarian is and what it stands for.

A libertarian is committed to the principle that liberty is the most important political value. Liberty means being free to make your own choices about your own life, that what you do with your body and your property ought to be up to you. Other people must not forcibly interfere with your liberty, and you must not forcibly interfere with theirs.

Libertarians envision a pluralist, cosmopolitan society united by commerce and travel, not divided by nationalistic antagonisms. They envision a world where people are free to experiment with different ways of living, free to try new ideas that might just be crazy enough to work. A world driven by the entrepreneurial spirit that is always asking questions like “How could this be better?” and “Can I make something entirely new?” Such a society may have a patchwork messiness about it, but it would also be vibrant and humane.

Because all people are moral equals, each possessing a wide domain of rightful autonomy, libertarians believe that claims of special authority—like those claims made by governments throughout history—require special justification. In other words, people claiming the right to infringe upon our liberty carry the burden of explaining why they’re entitled to do so.

Furthermore, libertarians tend to believe that most (if not all) of the claims to special authority made by the various governments around the world are unjustifiable. Governments assert wide‐​reaching powers to control people’s day‐​to‐​day conduct, take their belongings, and even conscript them into fighting wars. If they offer any justification for these powers, it’s only as an afterthought.

When ordinary people aren’t careful to respect their neighbors’ privacy, or presume to boss other people about or physically interfere with them, those of us concerned with justice and civility object. We might say: “Stop that. Mind your own business.” But the agents of the state act like the same rules don’t apply to them. Once they decide they want to do a thing, they generally don’t stop to consider whether doing it is any of their business in the first place, or whether they’re going about doing it in a way that disrespects the dignity or autonomy of their fellows. Legislators, bureaucrats, police, and other agents who enforce the state’s commands treat other people as pawns on a chessboard to be maneuvered into whatever configuration they deem best. Too many fail to see people as independent agents with their own desires and plans. That’s true even in relatively free societies.

Libertarians think that we ought to hold ourselves, and our governments, to a higher standard—that a freer society is possible and desirable. When people cooperate with one another peacefully, with respect for each other’s rights and liberties, we are capable of incredible things.

Please, read the rest here at Libertarianism.org. You might still end up disagreeing with the libertarian position, but it’s worth exploring these ideas.