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Practical Philosophy


Working papers by Socrethics




First version 2008   Last version 2017





Table of Contents


1.      Starting point

2.      Type of Problem

3.      Cultural Evolution

4.      Social Philosophy

5.      Philosophy of Life

6.      Conclusion






1.  Starting Point




The guiding idea of the Socrethics website is a Socratic examination of the Buddhist Truths.





         The Buddhist Truths are an answer to the question “What should I do”, the question which – according to Kant – is at the core of practical philosophy.

         The Buddhist Truths are also a form of philosophical therapy with a strong normative claim. The four Noble Truths can be interpreted as diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and prescription [Gethin, 63-64] and represent a detailed ethics for the cure of suffering. The Buddhist denial of the world and the corresponding retreat-oriented way of living, however, are in conflict with the Western understanding of therapy.

         The Buddhist Truths are in a difficult relation to the Western understanding of effective altruism. According to Mahajana Buddhism the most consequent altruistic activity is teaching the Buddhist doctrine at the price of one’s own liberation [Conze, 120].


The turning point from sage advice to critical investigation came with Socrates and his method of elenchus or dialectical enquiry (…). Socrates marks the beginning of practical philosophy [Haldane]. He was driven by the personal question of how he himself should live and the more general question of how one should live [Sellars, 35].


In the tradition of Socrates we consider the Noble Truths as theses, which are open to falsification.

A hypothetical falsification concerns the following areas:


1.      Biological and cultural evolution:

Transhumanism – which is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s overman – may eventually lead to the liberation from suffering. It has a theoretical potential to refute the Buddhist Truths.


2.      Social philosophy:

         Positive utilitarianism says that life’s chances outweigh its risks. If that is true, then the Buddhist denial of the world (expressed by the first Noble Truth) is irrational and the skepticism with regard to life affirming altruism is not justified.

         Rawls theory of justice (human rights and the difference principle) attempts to reduce suffering as well as Buddhism. But whereas Rawls’ concept cannot be implemented without force, Buddha teaches the principle of non-violence (at least for the members of the sangha). Justified violence has a theoretical potential to refute the Buddhist Truths.


3.      Philosophy of life:

The radical ethical priority of the avoidance of suffering – as suggested by Buddhism – is a controversial matter [Nagel, 173, 217] because it conflicts with the biological meaning of life. Excessive ethical demand may lead to neurotic disorders and somatic illness. In this case suffering is not besieged but merely transformed into new forms. Freud’s psychoanalysis has a theoretical potential to refute the Buddhist Truths.




2.  Type of Problem



Cultural evolution

Greek skepticism started the debate concerning the justification of suffering, known as theodicy. In a contemporary philosophical debate suffering cannot be charged to a divine creator any more, but (indirectly) to all individuals who procreate. On the other hand, turning against life might be a hopeless undertaking and result in an additional kind of suffering. The situation is characterized by a moral dilemma:

What is a reasonable answer to the fact that traumatic forms of suffering exist and persist?

         Is it the retreat from life in the tradition of Theravada-Buddhism?

         Is it the non-violent promotion of ethical knowledge in the tradition of Mahajana-Buddhism?

         Is it political and humanitarian action in the occidental tradition?

         Is it technological progress?

The basis of every therapy is the understanding of suffering. The prime goal is therefore a theory of the origination and dispersion of suffering:

         Does the cultural fight against suffering with its increasing complexity and its prolongation of lifetime lead to lower levels of suffering or does it have the characteristics of a hedonic treadmill with worsening conditions? The answer to this question requires analyzing the ambivalence of technological progress.

         Can the distribution of suffering be influenced in a long-term perspective? Will an extremely suffering minority pay the price for the progress of the majority?

         The control of cultural evolution presupposes the existence of a free will. To what extent are human values and decisions controlled by the unconscious?



Social philosophy

In contemporary ethics the theory which comes closest to Buddhism is negative utilitarianism [Keown, 176], an ethical theory which is attributed to Karl Popper.

There are, however, competing concepts of “objective” social philosophies:

         Positive utilitarianism says that life’s chances outweigh its risks. If that is true, then it is rational to expand life.

         Contractual concepts of justice like the one of Rawls suggest that liberty rights should have a higher ethical priority than the welfare of the worst-off.

Major questions are the following:

         Can suffering be compensated by happiness?

         Does the minimization of suffering imply a hostile philosophy? How many people should there be?

         Can negative utilitarianism be reconciled with a concept like Rawls’ Justice as Fairness.

         What are the global ethical priorities?



Philosophy of life

Major questions are the following:

         Is the Buddhist therapy worse than the disease?

         Is it reasonable to promote a universal ideal of the human character?




3.  Cultural Evolution




Optimistic scenario


The optimistic scenario – which stands in the tradition of the Age of Enlightenment – says that the biological trend towards higher levels of suffering can durably be broken by technological progress:


The current situation is unique in history. There is an immense knowledge that was not accessible to Buddha. Theoretically it is possible to use biotechnology to eradicate aversive experience in all sentient life. Life-long happiness could be genetically pre-programmed. In the post-Darwinian Era, applied nanotechnology could extend hedonic engineering to all life-forms on the planet (David Pearce, Negative utilitarianism).


If above vision becomes true, then suffering could be seen as a limited, intermediary state associated with the birth of a new world – similar to the pain that goes with the birth of a child. Cultural evolution could be regarded as a project which reduces or eliminates suffering, whereas otherwise it would persist or increase. If suffering could be besieged by technological means, then the accumulated suffering up to this point may be the least as compared to all other (natural) evolutionary paths of sentient life.







Pessimistic scenario


Buddhism is known for its pessimistic view on life’s chances and risks. Science confirms that suffering increases quantitatively and qualitatively in the course of evolution. Happiness increases as well, but suffering cannot be compensated by happiness across individuals.


In biology the increasing capability to feel pain has to do with the increasing importance of learning mechanisms. The importance of learning mechanisms increases with the lifetime of the creatures and with the complexity of the environment. The behaviour of long-lived creatures is shaped by painful experiences acting on these learning mechanisms. A wide range of emotions enhances the capability to respond to the environment. A wide range of emotions implies a high level (intensity and duration) of pain. Under these premises the capability to feel a high level of pain is superior with regard to biological fitness.


There are some parallels between cultural evolution and biological evolution. Cultural evolution (so far) prolongs the lifetime of humans. It also adds to the complexity of the environment and increases the need for adaptation so that learning mechanisms become more important.


The pessimistic scenario says that the biological trend towards higher levels of suffering cannot durably be broken by technological progress. Technological progress and utopias have proven to be ambivalent. Whereas natural risks only change in large time periods, technological risks steadily increase [Rees, 26] [Birnbacher, 25].






4.  Social Philosophy


With current definitions of impartiality and rationality it is unclear, if total welfare (in terms of life satisfaction) has a positive or negative sign [Contestabile]. As a consequence the Buddhist denial of the world cannot easily be dismissed as being irrational. But possibly childlessness and non-violence are not the best strategies to reduce negative welfare. For this reason we compare (early) Buddhism with Negative utilitarianism, a type of ethics which does not exclude the active fight against suffering.




Optimistic scenario


The optimistic scenario says that the growing world population with its increasing competition and specialization leads to a technological boost in the health care sector and eventually to a lower average level of suffering. High technology medicine cannot be developed in nomadic or monastic communities. Negative utilitarianism, in contrast, is applicable to complex societies.


Negative utilitarianism is characterized by compassion and risk-aversion. In an optimistic scenario negative utilitarianism is not hostile to the existence of life. However, in order to avoid the totalitarian character of utilitarianism, the theory has to be amended with human rights. If human rights are introduced as a side constraint of negative utilitarianism, then the theory approaches Rawls’ justice as fairness. The First Principle corresponds to human rights and the Second Principle improves the situation of the worst-off. From a negative utilitarian perspective the most urgent amendments to Rawls’ theory are the following.

- A principle for the protection of non-contractual cases (including animals)

- A risk-averse population policy

- A risk-averse principle for technological progress

In an optimistic scenario the trend to replace wars by a global consensus (keyword: UN Security Council) increases the chances to implement risk-averse principles (keyword: climate protection). Negative utilitarian progress is measured in terms of (weighted) average life satisfaction, and not in terms of economic indicators like the GDP and GNI. This leads to an increase in life satisfaction, in particular to an improved situation of the worst-off.


Possibly the global community passes thru a learning process which leads to a global consensus on a high degree of risk-aversion with regard to suffering, according to the German saying “Durch Schaden wird man klug” (“Being hurt, makes you wiser”). Even if the world will never be “good” the minimal optimistic scenario says that it is possible to make it “less evil”.






Pessimistic scenario


Ethical concepts are in competition and subject to the forces of evolution, as well as biological and technological concepts. Above sketched concept of justice has to be defended against corrupt, fascistic and totalitarian systems, which dispose of enormous economic, political and military power. We do not know if the cost of this conflict (in terms of suffering) is smaller as compared to the Buddhist strategy of non-violence. The MAD doctrine could end in madness.


Let us assume that the pessimistic Buddhist world view holds: What would be the best social philosophy in this case? Unfortunately (early) Buddhism adds little to the idea of a good society, since it rejects society altogether [Zhang, 442]. The reason for this lacking advice could be that Gautama Buddha was a Saka. The Scythians were nomads who lived in the wilderness and it is quite likely that Gautama introduced wandering asceticism to India [Beckwith, 5-6]. The social role of wandering ascetics was probably the one of priests or healers, who offered spiritual or medical help in passing. Justice was thought to be enforced by the law of karma and rebirth.


According to Buddha liberation has to come from inside.








        René Magritte  La Promesse





5.  Philosophy of Life


In the following we compare (late) Stoicism with the retreat-oriented lifestyle of the early Buddhists.

Both philosophies strive for a state of mind which is free from suffering [Baus].




Optimistic scenario


Stoicism was – before it turned agnostic – an optimistic philosophy, based on the assumed progress made by the government of reason. Insofar Stoicism was a predecessor of the Age of Enlightenment. In the present the Stoic attempt to achieve an objective judgment leads to concepts like the ideal observer or original position and therefore to a kind of cosmopolitanism, which is compatible with the above sketched (optimistic) social philosophy. Within this framework the (late) Stoic ethics is characterized by a high sense of responsibility for partners and children. Stoics strive for self-control, clear judgment and inner calm (apatheia) while avoiding destructive emotions like anger, envy and jealousy [Robertson]. Violence, which is required to stabilize or defend the state, is based on duty (pietas) and not passion.


In contrast to the socially engaged (late) Stoicism, early Buddhism promoted the retreat from social commitments. In modern societies a corresponding way of living is hard to implement, and there are empirical indications that the classic Buddhist advice is better avoided [Zhang, 442]. This result, however, does not come as a surprise, since Buddhism conflicts with the competitive and expansionist character of modern societies.






Pessimistic scenario


The Roman civil wars lead to the decline of Stoicism, because the conception of a universal reason governing the world was shattered. Likewise, if the currently looming global catastrophes materialize indeed, it would be hard to maintain the ancient belief that natural laws are “good” and that – after having done our best – we should accept the world “as it is”. At a certain point even the Stoics hesitate exposing their children to catastrophes and wars. In a pessimistic scenario the (early) Buddhist concept of childlessness and non-violence is more convincing than taking the responsibility for a family and then struggling for equanimity.


Buddhism was first and above all a concept for the individual liberation from a suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end (Samsara). Wandering ascetics – as compared to Buddhists in modern societies – were less susceptible to neurotic disorders, because the nomadic lifestyle is closer to the original human lifestyle of gatherers. The fact that today’s global population cannot resume a nomadic lifestyle does not prove anything. Overpopulation is not the result of Buddha’s advice.






6.  Conclusion



Cultural evolution

Is there a technological solution to the problem of suffering?

At the present state of knowledge it is impossible to foresee, if the biological trend towards higher levels of suffering can durably be broken by technological progress. It is even uncertain, if the technological reduction of suffering (e.g. in health care) will ever justify the suffering and risk, which is produced by high-tech societies. There is no contemporary systems theory of suffering which could replace the Buddhist theory of the karma. It seems that the Buddhist Truths – which claim that the expansion of desires is tied to an expansion of suffering – cannot be falsified so far. That does not mean that the Buddhist Truths are true indeed, but it justifies a certain degree of skepticism with regard to technological salvation.



Social philosophy

Given the goal to reduce global suffering: Is justified violence more efficient than retreat?

Self-defense on the national level implies deploying weapons which are capable to deter a potential aggressor. The current political situation is characterized by a fragile balance with immense risks (keyword nuclear deterrence). Compassionate communities can only exist in niches and altruistic movements need a protecting power. The acquisition of resources to fight injustice may lead to inscrutable entanglements with the ruling economic, political and military institutions. Possibly life-affirming social philosophies of any kind are counter-productive in the long-run, because they serve an inscrutable evolutionary process which perpetuates suffering [Zimmer, 214-215]. Consequently the (early) Buddhist withdrawal from family life and politics cannot be refuted so far. Again, the failure to falsify the Buddhist position does not prove its rightness, but it justifies a certain degree of skepticism with regard to the claims of competing ethics.



Philosophy of life

Does the strict (early) Buddhist ethic lead to neurotic disorders? Does it merely transform suffering it into new forms?

The sublimation of passionate happiness into com-passion and meditative happiness is hard work indeed, and not achievable for everybody. High ethical standards are often the wrong medicine for people who are susceptible to depression. Furthermore some of Buddha’s rigorous ethical guidelines were influenced by a controversial theory of karma and rebirth and require validation. There is an ongoing debate on this issue in the environment of secular Buddhism which may lead to less ascetic conceptions of the Eightfold Path.


Is it reasonable to promote a universal ideal of the human character?

The radical ethical priority of the avoidance of suffering – as suggested by Buddhism – is a controversial matter [Nagel, 173, 217] because it conflicts with the biological meaning of life. But even if we do not question this radical priority there is more than one reasonable way of living. In an optimistic scenario fairness and technology may be the most promising path to the reduction of suffering, in a pessimistic scenario it may be (a contemporary version of) the Eightfold Path. With the given uncertainty of forecasts it makes no sense to promote a universal ideal of the human character. Between moral absolutism and moral relativism there is a world of reasonable differences [Hampe, 280-281].






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2.      Beckwith Christopher I. (2015), Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press, Princeton

3.      Birnbacher, Dieter. 2006. Natu ¨rlichkeit. Berlin: Verlag de Gruyter.

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5.      Contestabile Bruno (2016), The Denial of the World from an Impartial View, Contemporary Buddhism Vol.17, No.1, 49-61, Routledge, London

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7.      Gethin Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press

8.      Haldane John (2009), Practical Philosophy: Ethics, Culture and Society, Introduction

9.      Hampe Michael (2009), Das vollkommene Leben, Hanser Verlag, München

10.  Keown, Damien (1992), The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, New York, Palgrave.

11.  Nagel Thomas (1986), The View from Nowhere, Oxford University Press

12.  Rees, Martin (2003), Our Final Century. London: Heinemann.

13.  Robertson Donald (2013), Teach yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, Hodder and Stoughton, London

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15.  Zimmer Heinrich (1973), Philosophie und Religion Indiens, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 7.Auflage 1992, Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin