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Science is capable of helping living beings flourish, or of generating suffering for living beings.

Either of these two capacities are the result of trial and error as well as research and technological development.

So if it is known that in the trial and error process of developing technologies to help life flourish that some degree of suffering could occur in the case of an error (such as a nuclear meltdown causing death or radiation sickness, or experimental medicine causing sickness or death,) would those scientists developing said technologies generate bad karma if suffering did, in fact, occur, even though their intention (life's flourishing) is pure?

How does an active R&D scientist who is also a Buddhist navigate the potential suffering that their R&D is capable of generating, so as to not accumulate any bad karma?

  • Would the question be clearer with an example of what type of trial and error you're asking about? I'm imagining "medical research and development" might be an example, where an experimental medicine might be harmful or ineffective (or beneficial). – ChrisW Feb 21 '17 at 20:03
  • Oops, meant to do that. I will do so now. – Eben Feb 21 '17 at 20:06
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The paper Buddhism and Medical Ethics: Principles and Practice says (claims):

The study of Buddhist ethics is a recent development brought about by the arrival of Buddhism in the West, and largely in response to the demand of Westerners for clarification of where Buddhism stands on a range of contemporary moral issues.

Although Buddhism is widely respected for its humane and benevolent moral values, there is an apparent absence in traditional Buddhist thought of a branch of learning devoted to reflection on ethical issues.

See also:

While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is the Middle Way and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well being. The keynote of Buddhist economics is simplicity and non-violence. From an economist's point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern - amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfying results.

It may be that there isn't a direct, traditional answer to your modern question.

I'll try to list some of the traditional answers which may indirectly answer or touch on your question:

  • Traditional Buddhist monks (who you might look to for ethical advice) don't typically try to develop technology (except perhaps meditation as a type of technology).
  • The kind of "suffering" that Buddhism tries to address is mental, spiritual, or emotional suffering, rather than material or technological poverty
  • There's some doctrine (e.g. here) which says that "intention" matters -- if an enlightened person did harm without intending to, that's karmically neutral
  • There's some but only a little doctrine on the subject of "right livelihood": it's traditionally defined for laypeople as no "trade in weapons, living beings, meat, alcoholic drink or poison". Maybe the best (most harmless) form of livelihood is the monks': i.e. "living from begging, but not accepting everything and not possessing more than is strictly necessary".

I personally took those "right livelihood" guidelines as forbidding "trade in weapons" (e.g. any military R&D), but as permitting telecommunications R&D even though that might be used for good or ill.

Someone else I know studied nuclear physics and eventually chose a career in nuclear medicine (rather than nuclear power or military applications).

You presumably know that there are modern (not specifically Buddhist) guidelines for the development of e.g. medical and nuclear technologies. If you're going to practice that type of development you might at least consider those (modern ethical and engineering) guidelines.

There's some doctrine that's sometimes taken to be general advice, in the Kalama sutta:

... when you yourselves know: "These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill," abandon them.'

when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.

Beware I might be quoting this out of context, but I'm pretty sure it's often (rightly or wrongly) interpreted as giving you permission to think (or know) something for yourself -- that includes considering whether it's censured or praised by "the wise".

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I believe that meditation on the Middle Way along with relative vs absolute Bodhicitta. No matter how much science may claim to be the ultimate arbiter on the question of what is reality, it is nonetheless conventional reality. See Thomas Kuhn Structure Scientific revolutions.

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