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I have been lurking here for a long time, but I made an account just to ask this because I am very conflicted, and I think some of you here maybe able to help me like you have many times before without you knowing.

I have the opportunity to join a company (it's in stealth so I can't say much) in a very senior leadership position on the business side. I have a coveted background for this because although I have built my career around business functions, I have several, admittedly very elitist degrees, including 2 masters degrees in hard sciences and engineering, direct research experience in a similar area while in academia (although I never engaged in / actively avoided animal experiments), and have a fancy resume when it comes to my career. The company is very promising and is founded by someone who also founded a very very well known company that has had massive success. It also has an A+ research team, and is backed by several well known billionaires, so it has the resources and potential to reduce the suffering of many people with serious unmet medical needs.

On a personal level, I am still fairly young and this is a big opportunity for me that I never thought I would have at this point in my career, and I feel the work has meaning, which is something I struggled with in my previous and current role. But the fact that the company engages in and will continue to engage in animal experimentation for research, really brings an uneasy feeling in my chest that is hard to explain. Once again, I will be on the business side and will not being doing any direct research work ever, and that work will be done whether I join them or not, and I have the potential to help in maximizing the good that comes out of that work by helping more people benefit from the outcomes, but it still feels... wrong?

I doubt there is something in there is anything directly relevant in the suttas, but can someone guide me here? I feel lost.

p.s. after typing this I recognize that I want people to say this is ok and there's nothing wrong with it. Please don't do that if it's not what you believe.

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The commentary to Dhammapada 124 reads:

Then the Buddha returned to the monastery and told Thera Ananda and other bhikkhus about the hunter Kukkutamitta and his family attaining Sotapatti Fruition in the early part of the morning. The bhikkhus then asked the Buddha, "Venerable Sir, is the wife of the hunter who is a sotapanna, also not guilty of taking life, if she has been getting things like nets, bows and arrows for her husband when he goes out hunting?" To this question the Buddha answered, "Bhikkhus, the sotapannas do not kill, they do not wish others to get killed. The wife of the hunter was only obeying her husband in getting things for him. Just as the hand that has no wound is not affected by poison, so also, because she has no intention to do evil she is not doing any evil."

Then the Buddha spoke in verse as follows:

If there is no wound on the hand, one may handle poison; poison does not affect one who has no wound; there can be no evil for one who has no evil intention.

So, based on the above, I would say that if you work in a company that deals in the business of living creatures (sattavaṇijjā), but your job function is completely unrelated to harming or exploiting living creatures, for e.g. you're maintaining the IT systems, or you're working in Human Resources managing work contracts, then you're not violating the Right Livelihood for lay persons, as defined in AN 5.177.

On the other hand, if you directly harm or exploit living creatures, for e.g. as an experimental scientist, or if you're the business owner or key decision maker (i.e. very senior leader) who influences the operation or business of harming or exploiting living creatures, then yes, that's violating the Right Livelihood for lay persons.

The reason for this is explained in Dhp 124:

If there is no wound on the hand, one may handle poison; poison does not affect one who has no wound; there can be no evil for one who has no evil intention.

It's all about intentions.

As a side note, this answer applies only to unethical animal experimentation. It may be possible that there exist ethical versions of animal experimentation, but that's out of the scope of this answer.

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    I haven’t still been able to make up my mind, but this helped more than I can describe right now. Thank you. Dec 17, 2021 at 8:28
  • So, if you work for say "Exxon/Mobil" and do no direct fossil fuel pumping, burning you are OK? Besides, "Obeying the husband" is an anachronism.
    – bsd
    Dec 17, 2021 at 9:41
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    @bsd The doctrine of Buddhism cares only about intention: If you have genuine intention to do X, a tendency is generated, and X will (in most cases) eventually be done. If you wanted to kill people and you hired a hitman to do it, you still had the intention to kill, even though you didn't directly do it. Regarding ExxonMobil, if you genuinely want to protect the environment, you will have the tendency to do so, the company is irrelevant. Some Buddhists may tell you exactly what to do in this situation, others don't. Whether you believe this doctrine is valid or not is another matter. Dec 17, 2021 at 10:32
  • We're splitting hairs here. I know how I feel and think about myself, my actions, and my choices when I lay my head on my pillow at night, regardless of any specific doctrine.
    – bsd
    Dec 17, 2021 at 10:58
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    Very good explanation. Actually I worked in IT department of a company that sells cropcare products including INSECTICIDES. I have never had the intention to kill or harm living creatures during my time working in that company. I just did my job, which was to install and maintain the IT systems.
    – Damith
    Jan 6 at 7:01
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I think wrong livelihood for lay-people is narrowly defined in the suttas -- in AN 5.177:

Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.

"These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in.

Ven. Sujato translates the same slightly differently:

Mendicants, a lay follower should not engage in these five trades. What five? Trade in weapons, living creatures, meat, intoxicants, and poisons. A lay follower should not engage in these five trades.

I've read modern commentators expand on that to add it should be an "honest" living, not based on fraud or deceit.

There's a slightly related topic here: Is it ethical to develop software for financial company? I think the consensus there was that if you develop some product (other than one of the five proscribed) you're not necessarily blame-worthy if some people mis-use it.

Another related topic might be all the ones which ask about including for example Why is contributing to the market demand for meat not wrong? -- and opinions seem to differ, with some people (and some schools of Buddhism) saying that buying and eating meat isn't blame-worthy because in doing so you yourself don't have the intention to kill (and other people or schools disagreeing).

Another question might be, what do you mean by "alleviate suffering of humans"? I've now chosen to work for a company that produces medical software (used in hospitals) instead of "financial technology" -- and I don't regret that choice, I don't know a better one -- but that (i.e. medical technology) isn't exactly the type of "alleviating suffering" that Buddhism is about (Buddhist "suffering" might be more about the second of the "two arrows"). Even so, "providing medical care" is generally ethical, and is an action (and intention) that one might not regret -- and apparently it's even a duty, for monks also. And a for animal experimentation in particular, you might find people have written about that, more precisely than in this answer -- for example A moderate Buddhist animal research ethics for example looks relevant (but that's behind a paywall so I haven't read it).

Another topic from modern history -- apparently Nazis performed immoral medical experiments on humans, is it immoral for others to use the results of those experiments? That's an extreme scenario (though "animal experimentation" might be considered extreme also), and therefore perhaps not a good way to think about everyday morality, but perhaps it introduces another topic that's been discussed on this site, i.e. the so-called trolley problem.

Answers like this one might imply that lay livelihood is a no-win scenario and might help provide insight into why some people choose to live as monks instead.

In summary you're conflicted, and I'm not sure that the suttas provide an easy answer to your question. If the "vegetarianism" is one of the closest topics, people and schools seem to differ:

  • Some people have what seems to me a "compartmentalised" view (like "my paying the butcher doesn't mean that I want to kill"), which I find hard to understand
  • Other people have a broader view (like "all types of agriculture results in some animal deaths"), which I find hard to deny

Personally I am vegetarian, I think that means not that I'm especially virtuous but I'm fortunate or rich to live in a society where that amount of choice is even possible. I have "actively avoided" (as you say) working for companies in the "defence industries", so I'm happy (or to some extent conceited) about having done that. But I'm working in the medical industry, which depends on some animal experimentation -- not the company I work for, but the industry as a whole -- so to some extent there's no avoiding it.

So I'm not sure how you'll want to draw the line. I feel at peace with my decision, to use my experience as a telecommunication software developer to develop medical software.

Samana Johann wrote in this answer:

So once feeling involved, doubt of ones goodness arises, it's good to lesser seek excuses to continue as usual but look for changing toward proper livelihood.

In his case his own choice of "proper livelihood" is presumably that of monk, not lay-person. Perhaps we're both agreed that "freedom from remorse" is important -- fundamental -- my own decision was that it's better (less regrettable) for me to work like this than not.

There are some more extensive articles including one with an author's discussion of (or opinions about) Right Livelihood, on this page: The Buddhist Layman.

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  • Thank you so much for you answer Chris. Vegetarianism is one of the first parallels I drew myself when I was thinking about this. Like you I am a person who has chosen to not contribute to the meat industry. I don’t call myself vegetarian because I will eat meat when it’s offered to me like when visiting family because I don’t like to burden anyone with my dietary choices, but I chose not to pay for meat or food with meat, so you can see why even with that parallel it is a difficult decision for me, but this answer still helped a lot in reflecting on if I am trying to rationalize a bad choice. Dec 17, 2021 at 8:27
  • Phew, I won't have to give up the money laundering just yet. ;)
    – ThirdPrize
    Dec 22, 2021 at 14:17
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Good householder. Praisworthy to not simply act on fear and sharmeless, praisworthy to seek out for advice from wise. Yet here maybe possible to eliminate doubt and gain release. There is reason why the Sublime Buddha told about livelihoods which serve for harm should not be engaged into (weapons, poison, drugs causing shame/fearlessness, living beings, meet), as such does not give freedom from remorse even if no direct intentions are seeming to be involved. Yet, how ever, even mental agreement of harm for ones gains is unskilful kamma and disliking ones own acts does not help ones healthy self-esteem. So once feeling involved, doubt of ones goodness arises, it's good to lesser seek excuses to continue as usual but look for changing toward proper livelihood. Of course such isnjt amways easy but it's because it requires letting go of harmful to gain at least much more than what ever amount money could buy: freedom from remorse, of which is the entrance of the path toward release.

Gains gathered on harm of others, how ever large, makes never really happy and will not last long. But if gathering only little by little based on virtues, metta toward all, such leaves one always rightly glad and would last long time.

Addition to be clear about an idea of Householder Chris, saying ""Providing medical care" is generally ethical, and is an action (and intention) that one might not regret -- and apparently it's even a duty, for monks also."

Not right in this way: Aside that monks, holding virtue, would not even ask for drugs even if facing death, aside not being given to use medicine which was objected for monks and caused harm. For what evers benefit, if it involves harm, isn't right and does not prevent from it's effects:

"...Dhanañjani, there are other activities — reasonable, righteous — by which one can support one's mother & father, ( children, King, oneself )..., and at the same time both not do evil and practice the practice of merit... see Dhanañjani Sutta

...and as for not going after real right livelihood, althought knowing, it's simply because of lack of willingness, there weakness, even they wouln't really need to give up much... MN 66: Latukikopama Sutta — The Quail Simile

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  • Thank you for answering with no ambiguity on what you believe is the right choice. Dec 17, 2021 at 8:30
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I will give you the pure, uncomplicated answer to this question, with the observation that the business world (which I have very little experience with, but understand in a deeply philosophical way) is not entirely comfortable with pure, uncomplicated motivations. Business is artifice embodied; honesty challenges it to be more than that.

Yet still, I'm a fan of honesty.

I'd tell whoever offered you the job something like the following:

I really like this position, and I will accept it because I think I can do a lot for the company and its clients. I just want to say upfront that the kind of animal testing you do in other areas troubles me. I understand the practical necessities, but... could we have some discussion about that? I'd like to help change it, if possible.

Most likely that will simultaneously shock and impress the person hiring you. Corporate people are not used to people being honest, direct, and idealistic — they tend to get interviewees who try to play the 'sycophant' game just to get the job — and this will change their opinion of you. If it changes their opinion for the better (they start seeing you as strong, dedicated, and authoritative), they will agree to the conversation and hire you, and that puts you in a position to make change for the good. If it changes their opinion for the worse (they start seeing you as a troublemaker or firebrand), you won't get hired, things will stay as they are, and you will be happier for the loss.

The trouble with corporations is that they want to make people into the instruments they want for their own economic purposes. But they also want leaders who can show them the way to be better than they are. You're in a position to fill the second role, but you have to stand up and do it. That means that you have to be honest and true to yourself. Do that well, and you are on the right path.

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  • In this case animal experimentation is must for the company to develop its products/treatments, so there is no way to stop it. But you are right whether I decide to decline or accept, I tend to voice my discomfort and although I cannot stop it maybe I can influence in improving the way animals are treated to be of the highest standards, although I have zero reason to believe there is any mistreatment or inhumane treatment happening right now, in which case this decision would have been much easier. Dec 17, 2021 at 8:36
  • @zazenwallstreet: Hmmh. 'Must' is such a strong, inflexible word, not usually used in the Buddhist canon... You obviously know more about the details, but I'd hazard that the continued use of animals is as much mindless habit and history as pragmatic necessity. I'd lay decent odds that no one in the research department has ever given serious thought to changes or alternatives, because, you know, that's extra work. Who fixes a boat that floats? What you offer here isn't solutions: you offer steady, gentle, moral pressure. Raise the issue, keep it in awareness. Over time things will change. Dec 17, 2021 at 16:17
  • Currently the FDA requires animal testing; so it's needed, to get regulatory approval for a new drug or etc. I'd bet researchers do "give serious thought" but perhaps their hands are tied. Of course things may change but it's taken years and will take more.
    – ChrisW
    Dec 17, 2021 at 21:58
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Would these tests be going on regardless in a department somewhere else in the company or would you be involved with the tests? If it is the former you could argue the suffering happens whether you work there or not. If it is the latter then it is a matter for your conscience.

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The associated karma is extremely complicated...

If you are supporting the technical systems, probably OK as your decisions will unlikely have the intent to kill or harm the animals.

If you work in business developments, and have to make a business decision that involves more suffering of animals, there will be Karma associated with it.

Not sure if your work in big Pharmas, but these companies have a long history of selling the cure for the problems they create. And this kind of business model will definitely have negative Karma associated with it.

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For me, the discourse on happiness is a good sutra about right livelihood:

“Not to be associated with the foolish ones, To live in the company of wise people, Honouring those who are worth honouring This is the greatest happiness.”

“To have a chance to learn and grow, To be skilful in your profession and craft, Practicing the precepts and loving speech This is the greatest happiness.”

“To be able to serve and support your parents, To cherish your own family, To have a vocation that brings you joy This is the greatest happiness.”

“To live honestly, generous in giving, To offer support to relative and friends, Living a life of blameless conduct This is the greatest happiness.”

“To be humble and polite in manner, to be grateful and content with a simple life, not missing the occasion to learn the Dharma This is the greatest happiness.”

...

Is such a work wrong livelihood?

I think there is not “yes or no” answer. My experience is that is not important what we do but it’s important that we do it mindfully, mindful of our intention, what cause us to suffer and what brings us towards true happiness. If we do something that creates suffering but we are mindful of it, we can recognise that it’s not good and move towards what is good instead.

Reading sutras, listen to dharma talks, reading the right books, practicing sitting and walking meditation, praying, all these things nourish my understanding and when it is nourished it becomes more clear, and when it is more clear is easier to make choices that bring me true happiness.

Speaking about work, often the intention can be money, fame or success. Venerable master Thích Nhất Hạnh said: “do you want success or do you want to be happy? If you want success you may be victim of your success, but no one can be victim of his own happiness”.

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Lord Buddha taught us that "Chethanahang Bhikkawe Kammang Wadami" - Your intentions becomes karma.

In that light, if your intention is to help the patients you are doing a good deed. However, at a much more fine grained level, you have to keep watch of your thoughts. As an example, when you are dissecting an animal or injecting them with some drug that could cause suffering to them, if you enjoy your act in your mind, you are collecting bad karma. However if you are carrying out the same activity while thinking that your act is going to help thousands of poor patients by curing them from diseases, you are collecting good karma.

If it provides you with any consolation, you can perform acts which generate good karma (punya karma) and assign those to the animals who died as a result of your actions. Animals are in a form of hell (Thirisan Apaya) which is taught of as a bad place to live (As there are worse places than this hell, this does not give anyone the right to kill them though). When you assign the power of your Punya Karma, to them you can hope for them to be re-incarnated in a better place where they can learn and practice Dhamma, thereby have a better chance of attaining Nirvana.

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I have worked at medical device companies for most of my career. I have been present in a good number of animal studies, and I don't like seeing them. It is important that you know that the animals are treated as humanely as possible, and there are strict regulations around their treatment in the USA. I consider animal studies to be a necessary evil. Without these studies we would not have modern medical devices or pharmaceuticals. The fact that people can live so long and have healthier lives, compared with the past, is directly due to these devices and pharmaceuticals, and indirectly due to the animal studies. Nothing in life is perfect, but the fact that I'm working to help many people outweighs, by quite a bit, my dislike of animal studies.

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  • Thank you for sharing your first hand experience. Do you ever feel regret despite the logical justification (which I align with)? Dec 17, 2021 at 8:38
  • No, there is no regret, but it is always sad to see and think about. However, ultimately it is the right thing to do for humanity. Many, many people around the world benefit from these medical devices and drugs....maybe you and I too someday. Maybe they will save our parents, our spouses, and our children.
    – Steve
    Dec 17, 2021 at 19:31

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