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  • What's the rationale or logic behind the precepts?
  • Does fairness come into it?
  • Are the list of precepts ever expanded to accommodate changing contexts?

Being very unfair to someone who trusts one is pretty similar in emotional harm to cheating on a spouse or lying, especially when the unfairness is made possible because of an abuse of a position of power.

For example, employees of large corporations often feel lied to, even cheated when they are laid off by their employer because of new management policy. Yet, these are explicitly the terms of most employment contracts.

Similarly, a home owner can feel pretty awful when evicted by the bank or lender for failure to pay the mortgage, especially when the bank is usually writing all the rules ab-initio protecting itself from market risks. Yet, this too is an agreed upon constraint because one party operates from a position of power.

Modern life relies on governments, corporations and other faceless institutions to a large degree, and they do wield a great deal of power, so a lot of their transgressions fall afoul of the fairness test, though technically none of them are lies. This has to be a large source of misery in this world today.

Yet, going by the precepts, at least to me, such behaviour doesn't seem to be overtly criticised.

Does Buddhism have anything to say to such scenarios?

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"Do not be unfair" is pretty vague. Do not lie and do not steal, those are easy recognize and not do. What is fair and unfair is subject to debate, well so are perhaps all precepts but I would say unfairness even more so.

Who says its unfair to sack an employee? The entire system is unfair if it forces a company to sack anybody. The problem isn't with the individual, not in the scenarios you mentioned anyway. Does an economic system accumulate good and bad karma? They're not sentient so they can't follow precepts.

Just because a home owner feels awful doesn't mean its unfair. Don't get into the game if you don't want to play, meaning don't make loans if you might not be able to pay them.

I don't know what Buddhism has to say, but escaping the hassle of financial injustice does seem to be one of the perks of becoming a monk. Maybe the Buddha felt great leaving royal life behind and not having to concern himself with taxes, but this is just speculation.

  • Thanks. 1. It is pretty vague, but so is 'avoid sexual misconduct' of which I have encountered numerous interpretations. Some say it's ok to kill mosquitoes, others say that is a violation of first precept. 2. Economic systems are controlled by people too - if I push a rock down a mountain, and it kills someone, can I say the rock did the killing, I accumulate no karma? 3. Modern economies often leave no choice about not getting into debt. Very often people get fooled into taking loans they don't require. 4. I believe monks took/gave loans in the Buddha's period. Links in next comment. – Buddho Aug 31 '15 at 5:07
  • 1. Vinaya doesn't allow those with debts to be ordained unless they promise to repay the debt after ordination. 2. Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya seems to allow monks to take on loans 3. According to Vedic custom if a monk leaves bad debts, his creditors will get all his karma - this practice seems to have been accepted by the Buddhists too. – Buddho Aug 31 '15 at 5:11
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Does Buddhism have anything to say to such scenarios?

The precepts are in a way minimum requirements. There are lots of actions that are unwholesome, that are not specifically listed in the precepts, but that does not make them any less unwholesome.

One cannot simply say that if an action does not violate a precept, then it must be okay to do it.

One must both observe the intention (cetanā) behind the action, i.e. is it based in the 3 unwholesome roots and what kind of consequences will be the result of the action, i.e. will the action be wholesome for oneself and for other beings?

One must also strive to not only fulfill the minimum requirements but all the time see how one can improve one's mind and do as much good as one is capable off while keeping true to both oneself and other beings.

If the action is based in the 3 unwholesome roots then we already know that it cannot lead to wholesome resultants for oneself or other people. Such actions will only lead one further away from Nibbana.

Does fairness come into it?

Fairness can be implicit or derived from the precepts or from the reflection-quotes given by the Buddha, e.g. when he talks about how actions that are displeasing and disagreeable to him, how can he then inflict them upon another being?

"Again, householders, a noble disciple reflects thus: 'If some­ one were to address me with harsh speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to me. Now if I were to address another with harsh speech, that would not be pleasing and agreeable to the other either. What is displeasing and disagreeable to me is displeasing and disagreeable to the other too. How can I inflict upon another what is displeasing and dis­agreeable to me?"

-- Sotapatti Samyutta: Veludvareyya Sutta

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I'm looking at the Sallekha Sutta.

What's the rationale or logic behind the precepts? Does fairness come into it?

Maybe the rationale is 'effacement', a.k.a. removal of personal defilements.

Are the list of precepts ever expanded to accommodate changing contexts?

The Sallekha Sutta seems to do that, by including 44 items:

  • Starting with being harmful or harmless
  • Then four of the traditional precepts (killing, stealing, lying, and unchastity)
  • Different types of wrong speech (false, malicious, harsh, gossip)
  • Covetousness
  • Each of the eightfold way (wrong view etc.)
  • Various other defilements and fetters (agitation, doubt, anger, envy, arrogance, bad friends, etc.)

For example, employees of large corporations often feel lied to, even cheated when they are laid off by their employer because of new management policy. Yet, these are explicitly the terms of most employment contracts.

People lose their jobs, even permanent jobs are impermanent (in France they're not called "temporary job" and "permanent job", they're called "defined duration contract" and "indefinite duration contact").

However because that is "explicitly the terms of most employment contracts" so I'm not sure why a person should "feel lied to".

In the past I've tried to negotiate "fairness" in my own employment contract, e.g. when the contract says that the employer can end the contract by giving X amount (e.g. 2 weeks or 6 weeks) of notice, I asked that I be allowed to give the same X amount of notice for me to be allowed to end the contract.

Unrelated to Buddhism, Wikipedia's Contract article (including the related articles in the sidebar) implies that law has made an effort to promote and regulate "fairness" in contracts -- so that although some people/parties are richer than others they have (in theory) equal or equitable legal rights.

Yet, this too is an agreed upon constraint because one party operates from a position of power.

It's asymmetrical: one bank has thousands of clients.

Modern life relies on governments, corporations and other faceless institutions to a large degree, and they do wield a great deal of power, so a lot of their transgressions fall afoul of the fairness test, though technically none of them are lies. This has to be a large source of misery in this world today. Yet, going by the precepts, at least to me, such behaviour doesn't seem to be overtly criticised. Does Buddhism have anything to say to such scenarios?

There's some advice in the Sigalovada Sutta, for example,

In five ways should workers and servants as the lower direction be respected by an employer: by allocating work according to aptitude, providing wages and food, looking after the sick, sharing special treats, and giving reasonable time off work.

"And, workers and servants so respected reciprocate with compassion in five ways: being willing to start early and finish late when necessary, taking only what is given, doing work well, and promoting a good reputation.

"In this way, the lower direction is protected and made peaceful and secure.

I don't know but that might have been advice for a feudal society, a society with less labour mobility (i.e. where people had fewer employers, perhaps only one).

Buddhism I suppose has been applied to lots of different societies: monarchies, feudal systems, etc.

See also How compatible are Buddhism and Communism?

IMO Buddhism isn't very responsible for the state of society or modern society. It's more responsible for (and has a lot more to say about, see e.g. the Vinaya) Buddhist monastic society: so far as I know the Buddha put more into organizing the Sangha than into organizing society-at-large. I don't know whether you consider monastic life "fair" or "unfair".

  • Thanks, a lot of points to think about. About feeling lied to when the employment contract gives no room for hope - expectation is a slippery slope isn't it? All human beings are imperfect, we all make mistakes, so why do we feel bad when lied to or cheated on? Why have any precepts at all - why not just advocate stoic attitudes to accept all that comes, and not offer any guidance on morality? Some Buddhists I've met actually believe this, and think ethics are like training wheels that ought to come off once one has progressed. I don't agree, but such thinking exists. – Buddho Aug 31 '15 at 5:37
  • A fully enlightened person doesn't get traumatised when things don't go his way - whether it is due to natural causes like illness and death or human causes such as foul play and incompetence. However the sila seems to be especially relevant to those starting out on the path - dhamma being good in the beginning, middle, end. Being just and fair engenders good will - most people have some distrust of corporations today because they've time and again prioritised profit over human values. Corporations have ethical guidelines, but its performance is not tracked like the stock market tracks profit. – Buddho Aug 31 '15 at 5:38
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People in the societies of ancient India do seem to have believed in a "just world" (which is the most widely used term in the social science literature). They acknowledged that life was unjust. There are many Buddhist stories, for example, involving infant mortality (Piyajātika Sutta, MN 87) and in the Therīgāthā (e.g. Thī 127-132). Buddhists characterised ordinary life as duḥkha which can mean "disappointment, dissatisfaction, misery, and suffering". Though they also believed in a way to completely eliminate duḥkha as well (though notable after 2500 there seems to be as much duḥkha as ever).

The way they dealt with duḥkha was to imagine that all actions would produce consequences that could not be escaped - a theory they called "karma" meaning "action". Technically, we talk about actions (karma) and their results (vipāka) or fruits (phala), but even the early Buddhists referred to this idea simply as "karma". But an important caveat is that action that is morally significant is defined as "intention" (AN 6.63). So it's, generally speaking, not the act itself, but the intention that determines the morality of an action in Buddhism. It is believed that unwholesome intentions always cause unpleasant consequences; and wholesome intentions cause pleasant consequences. Those who cause misery are said to suffer misery commensurate with their actions. The principle outcome of karma is in fact rebirth in one of the realms (loka) of this universe - each representing a predominant experience of pleasure, pain, or ignorance. The human realm is predominantly miserable, but has the bonus of being the only realm from which we can escape duḥkha.

In the Buddhist worldview, karma ensures that everyone lives out the consequences of their actions, death not withstanding, so that in the long run everyone gets what they have earned by way of consequences. Later in the Mahāyāna it becomes possible to do religious practices to avoid the consequences, and for a while they are quite arduous, but eventually in Tantric Buddhism you can just chant a magic mantra to clear things up.

A really wicked person is likely to be reborn in hell. One down side of karma, though, is that you have to wait for someone to die, perhaps repeatedly, for the consequences to catch up with them. So you probably won't be around to witness it. Karma is a very impersonal approach to a just world. Karmic justice is usually invisible.

Another downside is that it's very difficult to conceive of a theory of how karma works that is entirely consistent with other Buddhist ideas, like dependent arising, so there are multiple competing theories of how karma works, and some rather tetchy traditional polemics survive in the old texts. Most Buddhists don't really want to know about this downside and are happy to just go along with the tradition.

The invisibility of justice is apparently difficult for Buddhists as they prone to paying lip service to karma, but taking matters into their own hands if they disapprove of something. Justice has to be seen to be done.

So the greedy businessman and corrupt politician will get what they have earned by way of consequences. Just not from us. And not where we can see it. Many traditionalist Buddhists insist that we believe this as an article of faith or we are not Buddhists. On the other hand so-called "Secular Buddhists" have no real replacement and end up simply espousing Humanism, but with meditation. The problem of how to understand karma without falling into a superstitious and backwards worldview is waiting to be solved.

  • 'People in the societies of ancient India do seem to have believed in a "just world"' - I think that's too broad an assumption, isn't it? Do not lie, do not cheat on your partner sexually, do not steal are all about fairness in a sense. If what you state were to accepted, then a robbery or murder could just as well be okay. – Buddho Aug 30 '15 at 19:06
  • Karma (in various forms) is the Buddhist, Jain and Brahmanical solution to the "just world" problem. So no assumptions necessary. Belief in morality creates the just world problem. Your other assertion makes me wonder if you even read my answer before commenting. – Jayarava Aug 30 '15 at 21:24
  • No offence intended, my apologies if any was conveyed. Just sought to clarify assumptions. "The problem of how to understand karma without falling into a superstitious and backwards worldview is waiting to be solved."- for sure, unlike so much of Buddhism, explanations of karma do leave the intellect unsatisfied, but I don't know about the pejoratives. There are things in Buddhism where I've found the intellect is the wrong tool to use, perception is a better tool. Not sure though, I am still trying to understand karma despite being an Indian growing up with exposure to numerous ideas of karma – Buddho Aug 31 '15 at 5:51

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