Practical Philosophy


Working papers by Socrethics




First version 2008   Last version 2016





Table of Contents




1.      Starting point

2.      Type of Problem

3.      Cultural Evolution

4.      Social Philosophy

5.      Philosophy of Life

6.      Conclusion








This paper is an abstract of the website

Socrethics is a catenation of Socrates and ethics. It refers to the Socratic way of thinking, which was used in creating the papers on this website.


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].




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].


In the tradition of Socrates we consider the Noble Truths as theses, which are open to falsification [Die Lehren der Philosophie].

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 concept (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:

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 “hamster wheel”? 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 the summum bonum:

         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 Stoicism and the Age of Enlightenment

says that the biological trend towards higher levels of suffering can durably be broken by technological and/or ethical progress:


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 smallest among all possible paths of evolution [The Cultural Evolution of Suffering].


Ethical progress

Possibly the world 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”) [The Cultural Evolution of Suffering].






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 [The Biological Evolution of Pain].


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 Cultural Evolution of Suffering].


The pessimistic scenario says that the biological trend towards higher levels of suffering cannot durably be broken by technological and/or ethical progress:


Technological progress

Following some arguments in favor of skepticism:

- The ambivalence of knowledge and utopias [Cultural Pessimism and Therapy]

- The ambivalence of technological progress [The Cultural Evolution of Suffering]

- The underestimation of risk [On the Perception of Risk and Benefit]


Ethical progress

Following some arguments in favor of skepticism:

- The skepticism about free will [Eine interdisziplinäre Betrachtung zur Willensfreiheit] [The Controllability of Life Satisfaction].

- The tolerance of suffering. Compassionate, risk-averse and non-violence ethics succumbs in the competition with less compassionate, less risk-averse and more violent ethics. Ethical concepts are subject to the forces of evolution, as well as biological and technological concepts [The Cultural Evolution of Suffering] [Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition].






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 ethical and/or technological progress. 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 life-affirming ethics.




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. As a consequence the Buddhist denial of the world cannot easily be dismissed as being irrational [The Denial of the World from an Impartial View] [On the Buddhist Truths and the Paradoxes in Population Ethics]. But possibly Buddhist escapism is not the best strategy to reduce negative welfare. For this reason we compare Buddhism with Negative utilitarianism, a type of ethics which does not exclude the active fight against suffering [Why I’m (Not) a Negative Utilitarian].




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 (Buddhist) 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 [Hostility and the Minimization of Suffering]. 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 [Negative Utilitarianism and Justice]:

- 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 national competition by a global consensus (keywords: UN Security Council, climate protection) increases the chances to implement risk-averse principles. Negative utilitarian progress is measured in terms of (weighted) average life satisfaction, and not in terms of economic indicators like the GDP and GNI [Short History of Welfare Economics]. This leads to an increase in life satisfaction, in particular to an improved situation of the worst-off [Negative Utilitarian Priorities].






Pessimistic scenario


Let us assume that the pessimistic Buddhist world view holds: What would be the best social philosophy in this case? Unfortunately Buddhism adds little to the idea of a good society, since it rejects society altogether [Zhang, 442] [Moral Relativism and the Search for Happiness].

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]. But possibly small, retreat-oriented communities are the best solution in a pessimistic scenario. The fact that today’s global population cannot resume a nomadic or monastic lifestyle does not prove anything. Today’s population is not the result of Buddha’s advice. The challenge consists in developing new forms of retreat-oriented ethics (e.g. in the context of antinatalism).






If the technological fight against suffering has a chance to succeed, then the Buddhist escapism is hard to justify. On the other hand the current political situation is characterized by immense risks (keyword nuclear deterrence) and the normative force of reason may not be strong enough to implement fair political systems. Possibly life-affirming social philosophies of any kind are counter-productive in the long-run, because they serve an inscrutable evolutionary process (chapter 3.1) which perpetuates suffering [Zimmer, 214-215]. Consequently the retreat-oriented, non-violent Buddhist alternative cannot be refuted so far.




5.  Philosophy of Life


In the following we compare a contemporary form of (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 social philosophy. Within this framework the Stoic ethics is characterized by a high sense of responsibility for (possible) partners and children. Stoics strive for self-control, clear judgment and inner calm (apatheia) while avoiding destructive emotions like anger, envy and jealousy. 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, where the belief in progress is predominant, the Buddhist way of living is hard to implement, and there are empirical indications that the classic Buddhist advice is better avoided [Zhang, 442] [Moral Relativism and the Search for Happiness]. That does not prove, however, that the Eightfold Path is refuted. It only confirms that Buddhism conflicts with the optimistic and expansionist scenario, which is anticipated by modern society.






Pessimistic scenario


The Stoic virtues prepare their adherents for a possible pessimistic scenario. If individual as well as societal projects fail, then self-control helps to maintain equanimity. The life satisfaction of a Stoic does not depend on power and reputation. Peace of mind comes out of the conviction to act in accordance with reason. In a pessimistic scenario the world will never be “good”, but it may still be possible to make it “less evil”.


Early Buddhism was first and above all an escapist concept for the liberation from suffering in a pessimistic scenario. The social role of wandering ascetics was probably the one of priests or healers but they certainly did not have the resources for fighting injustice. The acquisition of such resources may lead to inscrutable entanglements with the ruling economic, political and military institutions. Attempts to improve the world by means of violence, in particular, are thought to be ineffective or even counter-productive in the long-run. According to Buddha liberation has to come from inside.








        René Magritte  La Promesse




A major argument against the retreat-oriented Buddhist way of living – in particular childlessness and non-violence – is that it conflicts with the biological meaning of life and therefore has to be “paid for” by the loss of natural happiness. Similarly a Stoic partnership without passionate love can be seen as a lack of emotional richness [Nussbaum]. Aristotle used the argument that insensitiveness is far from human nature [Höffe, 101]. But Buddhists and Stoics are not unemotional [Robertson]; they are differently emotional. The question is whether meditative and contemplative kinds of happiness can compensate the loss of passionate kinds of happiness. Whoever engages for Buddhism or Stoicism cannot know the outcome with certainty. The sublimation of passion is hard work and – like any other philosophy – not suitable for everybody:

- If the compensation of passionate happiness fails, then the Buddhist and Stoic philosophy (while avoiding external risks) start to create internal risks.

- If the compensation succeeds, then the passionate life looks like a questionable risk.

[Philosophy as Therapy – A Review]

Buddhists and Stoics assume that – in the average – the suffering produced by failed sublimations is smaller than the suffering produced by obsessive and aggressive character types.




6.  Conclusion


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 liberation from suffering, in a pessimistic scenario it may be the Eightfold Path. Stoicism is easier to reconcile with the biological meaning of life (than Buddhism) and – at least its late (Roman) version – allows constructing and defending high-tech societies. But it is uncertain if the technological reduction of suffering (e.g. in health care) will ever justify the suffering and risk, which is produced by such societies. With the given uncertainty of forecasts it makes no sense to promote a universal ideal of the human character [The Moral Ideal of the Complete Life]. Between moral absolutism and moral relativism there is a world of reasonable differences [Hampe, 280-281].


The “world of reasonable differences” is explored in the following papers:



         The Good Life in Philosophical Films

         Philosophy as Therapy – Beyond the Medical Model



         Konkurrierende Lebensziele

         Erkenntnis und Transzendenz in der Lebenspraxis

         Moralischer Perfektionismus und Gerechtigkeit






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