6

My understanding of utilitarianism is that value is the result of an action e.g. which actions provide the most happiness.

There appears to be an overlap between Buddhism and utilitarianism however am unsure how these come together or grow apart in the actions we perform as well as the value of the results.

EDIT

The answer posted to the question is a good candidate for the commonalities as well as differences.

  • 1
    There are definitions of utilitarianism on the web, for example this one: Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined in various ways, including as pleasure, economic well-being and the lack of suffering. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which implies that the "end justifies the means". This view can be contrasted or combined with seeing intentions, virtues or the compliance with rules as ethically important. – ChrisW Jul 30 '15 at 7:38
  • I think Buddhism can contradict utilitarianism too. Non-action, non-desire and emptiness are anti-utilitarian. When they say it's not about the results but about the process, it is also not utilitarian. – eric Jul 30 '15 at 23:52
5

(Theravada) Buddhism is absolutely utilitarian... that's a pun, see, it's both absolute and utilitarian. I guess the more accurate contrast is moral absolutism and consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is a type).

In Buddhism (again, Theravada, at least), it is certainly the consequences of the action that are important, though only for the actor - the consequences to others (or society, etc.) are, at least technically, discounted:

Ill done is that action of doing
which one repents later,
and the fruit of which
one, weeping, reaps with tears.

Well done is that action of doing
which one repents not later,
and the fruit of which
one reaps with delight and happiness.

-- Dhp. 67-8 (Buddharakkhita, trans)

and

Let one not neglect one's own welfare
for the sake of another, however great.
Clearly understanding one's own welfare,
let one be intent upon the good.

-- Dhp. 166 (Buddharakkhita, trans)

Of course, it is also understood that actions that one performs knowing they will harm others are generally not in one's own best interest, as they tend to sully the mind. By helping others, one helps oneself, and vice versa.

At the same time, Buddhism is also clearly absolutist on the level of ultimate reality; whereas it acknowledges that physical and verbal acts are morally variable, the mind states that initiate them are not. Since the acts themselves are merely conventional terms describing a sequence of mental states and their physical consequences, it is the nature of the individual mental states themselves that determine the ethical value of the acts.

katame dhammā akusalā? yasmiṃ samaye akusalaṃ cittaṃ uppannaṃ hoti ... tasmiṃ samaye aññepi atthi paṭiccasamuppannā arūpino dhammā — ime dhammā akusalā.

What dhammas are unwholesome? At whatever time an unwholesome mind has arisen ... at that time, whatever other dependently arisen immaterial dhammas there are - these dhammas are unwholesome.

In brief, acts are only bad because of their consequences, but the consequences are dependent on the nature of the acts (on an ultimate level), so morality is both absolute and utilitarian.

  • @Ven.Yuttadhammo - Shall I understand "mind states" (and wholesome and unwholesome mind) as comprehending or including habitual and volitional intentions? BTW, Thx for all your responses to SE-BU questions 🙏 – PaPa Jul 30 '15 at 17:51
  • Including, yes. Comprehending? I don't understand that. – yuttadhammo Jul 30 '15 at 18:09
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When a person has not yet attained Nirvana, actions of such a person come from a completely utilitarian point of view.

When a person strives on the path towards Nirvana, actions of such a person come from a less and less utilitarian point of view.

When a person attains Nirvana, actions of such a person come from an even less utilitarian point of view.

When a person attains Nirvana, that person acquires immense compassion for other beings. Thus, actions of such a person come from his will to help other beings ease their suffering and attain Nirvana.

Do actions of such a person arise because he gets something in return from these actions? Yes. In order to help others attain Nirvana, he must survive. Thus, he must get food, water and shelter. In order to help others attain Nirvana, he must develop the wisdom for teaching. Thus, he must learn how to teach and gain experience. There are many things such a person must do to help others. Thus, on this level, in this "reality", there is utilitarianism in Buddhism, but this utilitarianism is only visible to a mind which has not yet attained Nirvana.

To a liberated mind which has attained Nirvana, there is no utilitarianism in his actions, nor in the actions of other minds which attained Nirvana. Why there is no utilitarianism in his actions? To answer this question, we must answer this question: Why does the will to help other beings in attainment of Nirvana arise in a person who attains Nirvana? To answer the previous question, we must answer this question: Why does the will arise? To answer the previous question, we must answer this question: What is the cause of that will arising?

To give an understandable answer to the last question (and to others in the chain of questions) is impossible. The answer must be experienced: "will comes from ignorance". Does this mean that a person who attains Nirvana and helps other beings in attaining Nirvana is ignorant because there is "will" present in his mind? No, he is not ignorant. Such a person clearly sees what he is doing. He sees his ignorance. He understands it. He knows it fully. By seeing, understanding and knowing, he sees, understands and knows his "will". He sees, understands and knows, that there is no utilitarianism in his "will". To see this and understand it fully, it must be experienced. There is no other way.

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