In Indian religions and philosophy, mokṣa – the escape from the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra) and, thereby, the liberation from suffering (dukkha) – is (typically1) the ultimate goal of (one’s/my/your) life. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and other schools of thought disagree about various details – Buddhists prefer the term nirvāṇa instead of mokṣa, for example – but all accept a version of the doctrine that right (non-) action leads to good karma, which leads to better rebirth, and ultimately to mokṣa. That ultimate goal is a selfish goal, however – the ultimate aim of my right (non-) action (regardless of what that consists in) is my liberation from death, rebirth, and suffering – which seems to be in conflict with the Buddhist doctrine of anattā, usually translated as “no self” or “non-self”. If the self is (in some relevant sense) an illusion, then aiming for the liberation of that (non-existent) self is incoherent, or misguided at the very least.

This latter point can be thought of as a caricature of (one kind of) Mahāyāna criticism of “Hīnayāna”, the latter itself a caricature (or strawman) of “mainstream” Buddhism (at the time; what is or is not “mainstream” right now is quite debatable). That I call it a “caricature” is because things aren’t this simple (but they really never are). Neither Mahāyāna critique, nor what it was critical of, is accurately captured by this simple point. Caricatures aren’t entirely false either, however – they simplify and exaggerate, but don’t make something up from scratch. In this case, the reality behind the caricature has to do with two very different readings of core Buddhist doctrines.

The first of those readings is largely in line with the “standard view” sketched in the first sentences of this article, and is thus ultimately selfish, even though it may require altruism (i.e. the opposite of egoism or selfishness) to achieve the ultimate (selfish) goal. I suppose that this reading could be called “Hīnayāna” indeed. Not because there ever was any “Hīnayāna” current or school defending it, because it is very similar to “Hīnayāna”-as-caricature.

The second reading is typically based on an interpretation of anattā as a rejection of the self, and thereby of any kind of (ultimately) selfish goals. In this reading, some form of altruism is no instrumental or intermediate goal as in the ultimately selfish, “Hīnayāna” reading, but is the ultimate goal. The normative ideal of this reading is something like the Bodhisattva ideal. For this reason, this could be called a “radical Mahāyāna” reading. It’s not Mahāyāna simpliciter, however, as the “Hīnayāna” reading appears to be influential in some Mahāyāna schools as well, and conversely, as apparent examples of this ultimately altruist or selfless reading can be found in “mainstream” (i.e. non-Mahāyāna) Buddhism as well.

It seems to me that both the selfish and selfless readings are possible in the sense that there is nothing in scripture that forces either of the two. In the contrary, available scripture can be interpreted such that it is consistent with either reading. Consequently, there are no internal reasons to prefer either view or reading. (“Internal” to Buddhism, that is.) There are external reasons to think one of the two might be preferable, however.

I’ll use the names “Hīnayāna reading” and “radical Mahāyāna reading” to discuss these two readings in the following, but want to emphasize once more that these terms do not refer to schools or traditions of Buddhism, but to two different ways of reading Buddhist scripture. There is no school or tradition called “Hīnayāna” and neither is there a school or tradition called “radical Mahāyāna”. Even though it might be the case that one school or tradition leans more towards one of the two readings than another, both kinds of readings can be found in all main branches of Buddhism.

The Ultimately Selfish or “Hīnayāna” Reading

The ultimate goal of life is to escape the suffering that comes with the cycle of death and rebirth. Suffering comes in several kinds, including pain, loss, and the deep discomfort and fear associated with the realization of the impermanence of all things (including oneself). Life is suffering, death is suffering, birth is suffering, and liberation from suffering is, therefore, achieved by no longer being reborn. (Whether the latter implies some kind of immortality or extinction is not clear. Both interpretations can be supported by interpretations of available scripture.) Rebirth is caused by karma and karma in turn by intentional action.2 Good karma and good rebirths are, thus, an instrumental goal towards the ultimate goal of liberation from suffering, death, and rebirth, but not the only instrumental goal. How the various instrumental goals, tools, and requirements for liberation are related to each other is not clearly specified. Wisdom (or non-ignorance, non-delusion, etc.) is a prominent instrumental goal, as are lovingkindness (or compassion3) and “concentration” (or the ability to focus or control one’s mind, etc.), but why they (and others) are instrumental goals and how they contribute to the ultimate goal and/or to each other can be (and always has been) debated.

If one takes a somewhat broader approach to the “Hīnayāna” reading, its ultimate goal could be restated as liberation from suffering, or more specifically: my liberation from my suffering. The only important difference between this broader approach and the stricter version outlined above is that the stricter version explicitly associates suffering with the cycle of death and rebirth and the related concept of karma. For a Buddhist modernist or secular Buddhist that association might be problematic, because in a science-based worldview there is no place for rebirth or karma. Such a reading appears to preserve the ultimate goal (but whether it really does is quite debatable), but would require a reassessment of the instrumental goals and their (inter-) relations. Without saṃsāra, there is no nirvāṇa either, which leaves really just one plausible interpretation of the liberation from (one’s/my/your) suffering: peace of mind. The ultimate goal, then, becomes my peace of mind, and the instrumental goals or tools are whatever technique (such as meditation) can help achieving that ultimate goal. I’m not sure whether this still can be called a “Hīnayāna” reading, however – eliminating the association with saṃsāra seems to turn it into something else entirely. Nevertheless, it is still a “selfish” reading (in the sense that the ultimate goal is a selfish goal).

There is much in the Pāli canon that invites a “Hīnayāna” reading. On several occasions, the Buddha refused to answer metaphysical questions, for example, because metaphysical speculation is “unbeneficial” and “does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to Nibbāna”.4 And on similar grounds he rejected various other kinds of practices and ideas: they are unbeneficial – that is, they are not instrumental goals (or instruments) on the path towards the ultimate goal of personal liberation. What is, perhaps, more telling than this even, is the Buddha’s initial reluctance to teach others. He needed to be convinced by a god to share with others whatever he had learned about the way to end his own suffering.5

Much secondary literature also seems to favor a “Hīnayāna” reading. In his Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa, the most important philosopher of the Theravāda school (the only surviving school of “mainstream” Buddhism), emphasizes that being virtuous is (ultimately) in one’s own interest. Even apparently altruistic virtues like lovingkindness (ultimately) benefit oneself. And in the Mahāyāna tradition, the bodhisattva ideal is often (but not always!) promoted by claiming that it will lead to all kinds of superpowers and/or a state of bliss, and thus, that it is one’s self-interest to aim for bodhisattva-hood (and ultimately Buddha-hood). Compassion, lovingkindness, and other aspects of altruism, then, all appear to be instrumental goals leading to ultimately selfish goals.

The main (internal) problem for a “Hīnayāna” reading has already been mentioned above: the doctrine of anattā. This is a pseudo-problem, however. Anattā is a problem for the “Hīnayāna” reading only if it is interpreted as meaning that (in some relevant sense) there is no self. If there is no self, then aiming for liberation (from suffering) of that non-existent self is incoherent. But the interpretation of the anattā doctrine is itself controversial. There are many Buddhist philosophers (especially within the Mahāyāna tradition) who have indeed interpreted it as meaning that there are no selves, but the doctrine can also be interpreted as a rejection of liberating self-knowledge (as in Brahmanism), for example.6 Hence, anattā does not necessarily conflict with a “Hīnayāna” reading.

The Ultimately Selfless or “Radical Mahāyāna” Reading

If, however, anattā is understood as a rejection of selves (as is more common in Mahāyāna), then the ultimate goal of aiming for liberation from my suffering is incoherent. Then all suffering is equally bad, regardless of whose it is, and the ultimate goal becomes the elimination of all suffering. This is exactly the point that Śāntideva makes in what is probably the most discussed passage in his Bodhicaryāvatāra.7 His argument appears to be that because persons or selves are not ultimately real, there are just experiences of suffering and no persons experiencing that suffering, and therefore, that it makes no sense to merely try to prevent some suffering which “I” mistakenly believe to be “mine”. There is no “I” and “mine”, there is just suffering, and because it is undisputed that suffering must be prevented,8 this implies that all suffering must be prevented.9

A key theme in chapter 8 of the Bodhicaryāvatāra in which this passage occurs, but also of chapter 9, is the no-self interpretation of anattā and its ethical implications. For example, just a few verses before the passage just mentioned, Śāntideva argues:

If I give [others] no protection because their suffering does not afflict me, why do I protect my body against future suffering when it does not afflict me? The notion ‘it is the same me even then’ is a false construction, since it is one person who dies, quite another who is born.10

I have no self-defining-essence and, therefore, menow and meseveral-decades-ago or mein-the-future are really quite different persons. There is nothing ultimately real that those “me”s have in common – or nothing that makes “me” me, at least. There is some kind of causal chain or process linking those “me”s, of course, but a causal chain is not identity. Methen is simply not the same as menow, and therefore, there is no substantial difference between the relation between menow and methen and the relation between me and others. Menot-now is an other (and not self). And that, in turn, implies that if I’m concerned about menot-now (which really isn’t me, or not menow at least), I should be concerned about other others as well.

A similar point was made by the Western philosopher Derek Parfit, who found the realization that there are no selves “liberating, and consoling”. He wrote that:

My life seemed like a glass tunnel (…). When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.11

While Parfit’s conclusion is quite moderate, the rejection of selves (together with the premise of the badness of suffering) can lead to the advocacy of rather extreme kinds of altruism in Buddhism. Perhaps, the best illustration is the Jātaka story about the hungry tigress, which appears in slightly different forms in the Jātakamālā and the Divyāvadāna.12 The Jātaka tales are stories about past lives of the Buddha. In Vyāghrī-jātaka, one of the best known Jātakas, a bodhisattva and his discipline encounter a hungry tigress, about to eat her own cubs. The bodhisattva (the Buddha in one of his previous lives) sends his discipline away to search for food, but in his absence, the bodhisattva contemplates that:

Why should I search after meat from the body of another, whilst the whole of my own body is available? Not only is the getting of the meat in itself a matter of chance, but I should also lose the opportunity of doing my duty. … Therefore, I will kill my miserable body by casting it down into the precipice, and with my corpse I shall preserve the tigress from killing her young ones and the young ones from dying by the teeth of their mother. [By doing so] I set an example to those who long for the good of the world; … I stimulate the virtuous; … I confound the people who are absorbed in selfishness and subdued by egotism and lusts; … and finally that wish I yearned for, ‘When may I have the opportunity of benefiting others with the offering of my own limbs?’ – I shall accomplish it now, and so acquire erelong Complete Wisdom. Verily, as surely as this determination does not proceed from ambition, nor from thirst of glory, nor is a means of gaining Heaven or royal dignity, as surely as I do not care even for supreme and everlasting bliss for myself, but for securing the benefit of others: …13

And so he kills himself by jumping down the cliff and let the tigress and her cubs eat him.14 And when his discipline returns (without meat), he is greatly impressed by his teacher’s selfless deed and exclaims in veneration:

Oh, how merciful the Great-minded One was to people afflicted by distress!15 How indifferent He was to His own welfare! How He has brought to perfection the virtuous conduct of the pious, and dashed to pieces the splendid glory of their adversaries!16

The normative ideal of Mahāyāna Buddhism is the bodhisattva, one who is destined to become a Buddha, but not pass into nirvāṇa before saving all sentient beings.17 What it means (or requires) to be a bodhisattva is neatly summarized in the following bodhisattva vow (which is widespread in East Asia):

These are the four Bodhisattva vows. … Even though sentient beings are unlimited [in number], I vow to liberate/save [them all]. … Even though the kleśas18 are innumerable, I vow to stop [them all]. … Even though the Buddhist teachings are inexhaustible, I vow to know [them all]. … Even though Buddhahood is unsurpassable, I vow to attain [it].19

It should be fairly obvious that this is an unattainable ideal, and that is a problem. According to the Buddha one of the main causes of suffering (aside from life, death, and rebirth itself; see above) is craving or attachment. Having a goal is having an attachment, and wanting to fulfill that goal (which is inherent to it being a goal) is having a desire or a “craving”. Now, if one has a clear ultimate or final goal that can actually be achieved, then by achieving it (and because it is one’s ultimate goal) one would extinguish all other (instrumental) goals and have no more cravings or attachments, provided that the achievement is permanent and not subject to deflation or erosion, of course. This might be possible in principle. It might be possible, for example to achieve and (relatively effortlessly) maintain a mental state undisturbed by attachments and associated suffering, and thus, achieve some kind of enlightenment or peace of mind, and thereby eliminate (at least) this source of suffering. However, as the requirements of bodhisattva-hood in the quote above are obviously impossible to satisfy, except perhaps, for some kind of supernatural being, the goal of achieving bodhisattva-hood can never be achieved, and therefore, that attachment can never be overcome, that craving can never be transcended. This seems a clear point in favor of the “Hīnayāna” reading, which aims for a much less ambitious ultimate goal. Regardless of whether it can actually succeed, the “Hīnayāna” reading suggests a path away from (my!) suffering that seems more or less within reach, while the path suggested by a “radical Mahāyāna” reading only seems to promise more suffering (for me!) by saddling me with an impossible goal.

What makes this even worse is that compassion makes the (aspiring) bodhisattva suffer with those who suffer – their suffering becomes his.20 (But the joy of others also becomes his.) The more the aspiring bodhisattva gets attuned with the suffering in the world, the more he suffers himself. And the more the aspiring bodhisattva becomes aware of the scale and extent of suffering, the more he might despair about the possibility of ever “fixing” that.

This isn’t exactly right, however, because a bodhisattva only cares about the suffering of others – he is indifferent about his own suffering. Somewhat paradoxically, this implies that a bodhisattva cannot suffer. A key aspect of suffering is that it is an undesirable state – it is a state one wants to escape. To suffer is to experience something bad (such as pain, loss, discomfort, and so forth) and to desire not experiencing that. But a bodhisattva has no such desire. He doesn’t care about his own pain, loss, discomfort, and so forth; he only cares about the suffering of others. And if one doesn’t care about one’s own pain, loss, discomfort, and so forth, then one cannot suffer.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to someone who is merely aspiring to become a bodhisattva – that is, someone who hasn’t learned yet to be indifferent about his or her own suffering. For the aspiring bodhisattva there is just the increasing awareness of and identification with the suffering in the world. The path towards bodhisattva-hood, then, is a path of suffering,21 and this leads to another paradox. If one genuinely cares about the suffering of one’s fellow beings, one wouldn’t want them to enter a path of suffering, and thus, an (aspiring) bodhisattva should discourage others from aiming for bodhisattva-hood. But at the same time, an (aspiring) bodhisattva might realize that the more bodhisattvas there are, or even the more aspiring bodhisattvas there are, the better the chances of reducing (or even eliminating) suffering in the world, and thus to realize the ultimate goal according to the “radical Mahāyāna” reading.

The problem is really less paradoxical than it might appear, however, for two reasons. Firstly, the bodhisattva vow doesn’t commit one to succeeding; only to honestly trying. Failure to save everyone from suffering doesn’t disqualify a bodhisattva. This should be fairly obvious, as even the Buddha has not succeeded in saving everyone.22 Secondly, and even more importantly, if achieving bodhisattva-hood eliminates any further suffering (by that bodhisattva) and will reduce suffering by others (than that bodhisattva) as well, then this outweighs the increase of suffering on the path towards bodhisattva-hood. However, this is only the case for people who actually have a chance of becoming bodhisattvas. For those who can never succeed in that respect, aiming for bodhisattva-hood will just bring the suffering of the path, and never the overcoming of suffering promised by the destination.23 And consequently, teachings and recommended therapies for suffering should differ according to the capacities of the audience. This is what is called upāya-kauśalya or “skillfull means” in Mahāyāna Buddhism. But even then, it might be necessary to lure some people onto the path towards bodhisattva-hood by (falsely?) promising them superpowers or other kind of bonuses (which would be another kind of example of skillful means).

The doctrine of upāya-kauśalya gives the “radical Mahāyāna” reading an obvious advantage, but on a closer look, it turns out that that apparent advantage may actually be a disadvantage. The “obvious advantage” is that any scriptural passage that seems to support a “Hīnayāna” reading and/or that seems to contradict a “radical Mahāyāna” reading can be explained away by means of upāya-kauśalya – that is, by claiming that it is just an example of skillful means in teaching to a less advanced or less qualified audience. The disadvantage is that this implies that no appeal to scripture can prove this reading wrong. Any apparent scriptural counter-evidence to a “radical Mahāyāna” reading can be explained away and neutralized (or even turned into support) by an appeal to skillful means. The problem is that if there is no way to find out whether something is wrong, there is no way to know whether it is right either.

As mentioned above, a potentially fatal problem for a “Hīnayāna” reading is the doctrine of anattā. If that doctrine is interpreted as meaning that there are no selves (in the sense of self-defining-essences or something like that), which is a common interpretation in Mahāyāna Buddhism, then a “Hīnayāna” reading becomes incoherent. Instead, the no-self interpretation of anattā supports a “radical Mahāyāna” reading. But I also mentioned above that the interpretation of the anattā doctrine is a point of contention, which might seem to imply that the “radical Mahāyāna” reading is no longer supported if the no-self interpretation of anattā could somehow be shown to be false. This is not necessarily the case, however. The “radical Mahāyāna” reading is not directly supported by the no-self interpretation of anattā. Rather, that interpretation merely implies a rejection of the ethical egoism (i.e. the idea that one should aim for one’s self-interest primarily or even exclusively) at the basis of the “Hīnayāna” reading. The rejection of ethical egoism together with a belief in the badness of suffering leads to the altruism (or selflessness) that characterizes the “radical Mahāyāna” reading. Consequently, a rejection of the no-self interpretation of anattā would only weaken the “radical Mahāyāna” reading if there would be no other reason(s) to reject ethical egoism.

Undecidability, Metaphysics, and Ethical Egoism

Scripture alone cannot help to decide which of these two readings is right. As mentioned a few paragraphs back, any scriptural passage that seems to conflict with a “radical Mahāyāna” reading can be explained away by an appeal to “skillful means”. Somewhat similarly, any passage that seems to suggest altruism as an ultimate goal, and thus seems to conflict with a “Hīnayāna” reading, can be explained away by (re-)interpreting it as being about altruism as an instrumental goal only. (Notice, for example, that the bodhisattva in the story about the hungry tigress mentioned above acquires “erelong Complete Wisdom” through his self-sacrifice, which could help support an ultimately selfish re-interpretation of that sacrifice.)

This might change, of course, if there are independent reasons to reject some scriptures, but they would have to be independent reasons – rejecting some scripture because it doesn’t correspond with one’s preferred reading gets things the wrong way around. Theravāda Buddhists and many Buddhist modernists might reject some (or even many) sūtras because of their supposed in-authenticity, but that only reveals their ignorance of the fact that the sūtras they do not reject are just as in-authentic. All Buddhist scripture is the product of centuries of selection, redaction, rewriting, and even invention against the background of inter-sectarian struggle (and this is not just true for Buddhism, but for Christianity as well, for example – the Bible is the result of similar sectarian struggles and editorial processes).24 Furthermore, one may even wonder whether (historical) authenticity is an appropriate norm – according to Jan Westerhoff, for example, it isn’t.25

Scripture, then, cannot really help decide which is right, and neither can tradition, as some currents in the Buddhist tradition tend to one reading, while others tend to the other. They cannot both be right either, because their ultimate goals contradict each other. The ultimate goal of the “Hīnayāna” reading is self-interest (namely, to remedy one’s own suffering), which makes that reading a form of ethical egoism, while the ultimate goal of the “radical Mahāyāna” reading is to eliminate all suffering, which means that that reading explicitly rejects ethical egoism. Skillful means doesn’t mean that they can both be right in some sense either – it merely means that the “Hīnayāna” reading can be useful for some audiences or in some circumstances (but that doesn’t make it technically “right” or “true”, just contextually appropriate).

If one would want to adjudicate between these two readings, one would, therefore, have to look outside Buddhism. One might, for example, prefer the reading that is least dependent on dubious metaphysical assumptions. Or one might look for other reasons to either accept or reject ethical egoism.

In their traditional forms, both readings depend on assumptions of karma and rebirth. Neither fits in a more scientifically based worldview, and thus, these certainly qualify as “dubious metaphysical assumptions”. Both readings could be adapted to a less dubious metaphysics, but whether what is left can still really be called “Buddhism” is quite debatable.26 Without karma and rebirth the “Hīnayāna” reading changes into a kind of self-help. Stephen Batchelor writes that he does “not envision a [secular] Buddhism that seeks to discard all trace of religiosity, that seeks to arrive at a dharma that is little more than a set of self-help techniques that enable us to operate more calmly and effectively as agents or clients, or both, of capitalist consumerism”,27 but that is exactly what would be left after “cleansing” the “Hīnayāna” reading of its problematic metaphysical assumptions.

In case of the “radical Mahāyāna” reading, on the other hand, eliminating karma and rebirth would drastically limit what a bodhisattva could hope to achieve and possibly make that ideal – in a literal sense, at least – impossible altogether. While the “Hīnayāna” reading would be reduced to self-help, the “radical Mahāyāna” reading would be reduced to the opposite: a call to altruistically help others, or more specifically, to decrease suffering wherever and whenever possible. As mentioned, the question is whether such a “cleaned up” reading can still be called “Buddhist”. Personally, I think they (i.e. both of them) could be, depending on what exactly they maintain and reject, but it is important to realize that there is no objective answer to this question. How much revision to a view or reading one tolerates is quite subjective. And most likely if you already prefer one of the two readings, you will be prone to believe that a metaphysically “cleaned up” version of that reading is still Buddhist, while a similarly “cleaned up” reading of the other is not.

Dependence on dubious metaphysical assumptions is, thus, not a useful criterion either, which leaves only the issue of ethical egoism itself. As mentioned, the “Hīnayāna” reading is a form of ethical egoism because its ultimate goal is a selfish goal, it is the cessation of my suffering. Now, it could be objected, of course, that this reading promotes compassion and altruism and therefore isn’t selfish, but that would be a mistake. In the “Hīnayāna” reading, the purpose of compassion and lovingkindness is gaining merit or good karma. Hence, apparent altruism is ultimately in one’s self-interest, and thus, egoist. Ultimately, what matters is (alleviating) my suffering, and your suffering only matters in as far as I can gain merit from reducing it (and thereby ultimately alleviate my own suffering). Hence, if a “Hīnayāna” reading suggests altruism as an instrumental goal, it could be understood as a kind of apparent altruism for ultimate egoism.

By the way, the opposite – that is, apparent egoism for ultimate altruism – has been rather influential in Western thought, particularly in certain branches of liberal thought, such as libertarianism, and in (neo-)classical economics. Both apparent altruism for ultimate egoism and its opposite can be assessed by two main criteria: whether its ultimate goal should be an ultimate goal, and whether its supposed instrumental goal actually contributes towards that ultimate goal. In case of apparent egoism for ultimate altruism – that is, the idea that the interest of all are best served if everyone is selfish (as in Mandeville’s famous Fable of the Bees) – there is no evidence whatsoever that this actually works, and a lot of evidence against the idea. If everyone aims for their self-interest exclusively, problems like “the tragedy of the commons” – such as pollution and the climate crisis – arise, for example. And if there are differences in wealth and power, then those are more likely to become greater rather than smaller if everyone is selfish. The other way around, apparent altruism for ultimate egoism isn’t particularly plausible either, unless one assumes the doctrine of karma and rebirth (or some other automatic reward mechanism). It is for that reason that a “naturalized” version of the “Hīnayāna” reading reduces to nothing but self-help – without karma and rebirth, the altruistic aspects of this reading can no longer make a significant contribution to achieving the ultimate goal. (Perhaps, it is for this reading that Western “secular Buddhists” tend to prefer such a naturalized version of the “Hīnayāna” reading – it fits perfectly with the kind of egocentric individualism that pervades Western culture, and that I have called “cultural psychopathy” before.28) More important than these considerations about the helpfulness of supposed instrumental goals is the question about the propriety of the ultimate goal, however.

There are at least two major problems for ethical egoism, and each of them may be sufficient on its own to discard the doctrine altogether. The first problem is that ethical egoism collapses “right” and “wrong” into “right-for-me” and “wrong-for-me”, which it equates with “in my self-interest” and “not in my self-interest”, respectively. The easiest way to see this problem – and why it is a problem – is through a revised version of a problem for egoism suggested by Kurt Baier.29 (It is a revised version, because Baier’s original argument didn’t work.30)

Suppose that there are two politicians D and R that are both running for president (and there are no other candidates); and let’s define ethical egoism as follows: (1) Anything that someone does in their best interest is morally right; anything that someone does against their own best interest is morally wrong. D is behind in the polls, and for whatever reasons, he can only win the election if he has R killed. Given that it is in D’s best interest to win, it follows from (1) that (2): It is morally right if D has R killed, and it is morally wrong if he doesn’t. Obviously, it is in R’s best interest to prevent D from having hum killed, and thus it also follows from (1) that (3): It is morally right if R prevents D from having him killed. However, if R prevents D from having him killed, which is right according to (3), then D does not have R killed, which is wrong according to (2), and therefore, R’s prevention is both right and wrong at the same time, which is a contradiction.

The only way to avoid this contradiction is to change (1) into (1*): Anything that someone does in their best interest is morally right-for-them; anything that someone does against their own best interest is morally wrong-for-them. Then “right” and “wrong” in (2) and (3) change into “right-for-D”, “wrong-for-D” and “right-for-R” as follows: (2*) It is morally right-for-D if D has R killed, and it is morally wrong-for-D if he doesn’t. (3*) It is morally right-for-R if R prevents D from having him killed. And the new conclusion becomes: if R prevents D from having him killed, which is right-for-R according to (3*), then D does not have R killed, which is wrong-for-D according to (2*), and therefore, R’s prevention is both right-for-R and wrong-for-D at the same time. That is not a contradiction because “right-for-R” and “wrong-for-D” are not contradictory predicates.

However, this apparent solution effectively eliminates the concepts of “right” and “wrong”. And what is substitutes for them – “right-for-me”, “wrong-for-you”, and so forth – are just synonyms of “in my self-interest”, “in your self-interest”, and so forth. A statement of the form “the right thing to do is whatever is in your self-interest”, which is one way of defining ethical egoism, then becomes “the right-for-you thing to do is whatever is in your self-interest”, which is in turn synonymous with “the thing-to-do-that-is-in-your-self-interest is whatever is in your self-interest”, which is a tautology. What’s, perhaps, more problematic than that tautology itself is that this disqualifies ethical egoism as a moral theory. Ethical egoism no longer tells us anything about right and wrong, because it has effectively eliminated those concepts, and therefore, it can also no longer instruct us that what we should do is what is in our self-interest, because that claim presupposes the concepts of “right” and “wrong”. Hence, ethical egoism is either incoherent (because it allows the same action to be right and wrong at the same time), or it is a tautologous claim that cannot tell us what we should do (or what our ultimate goal is or should be).

The second problem for ethical egoism is that is a form of arbitrary discrimination. This is a problem because arbitrary discrimination is (nearly?) universally considered to be unacceptable. This may seem a counter-intuitive claim as there obviously are many examples of arbitrary discrimination around us – racists arbitrarily discriminate certain “racial” or ethnic groups, for example, and sexists arbitrarily discriminate genders. However, even racists and sexists agree that arbitrary discrimination is wrong, they just don’t think that their discrimination is arbitrary. Rather, they believe that they have good reasons to discriminate certain groups – people belonging to those groups are inferior (according to them, and in some relevant sense), for example, and therefore, less deserving of certain rights or privileges.31 Note that discrimination itself is not inherently wrong – there might be perfectly acceptable reasons to give some person or persons certain rights or privileges in some circumstances. It is the arbitrariness that makes arbitrary discrimination wrong. Without good reasons to discriminate, you should treat people equally and equally take their interests into account. Again, (nearly?) everyone agrees about that.

Racism and sexism are wrong because they fail this standard, even though racists and sexists believe otherwise. There are no good reasons (barring exceptional circumstances) to give one “race” or gender more rights and privileges than another. There are no good reasons (again, barring exceptional circumstances) to let the interests of one “race” or gender outweigh the interest of others. Ethical egoism fails that exact same standard, however. According to ethical egoism, in deciding what to do – or in deciding what is the right thing to do – my own self-interest outweighs the interests of all others. That is a form of arbitrary discrimination, which has been pointed out most acutely by Śāntideva:

When happiness is liked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself? When fear and suffering are disliked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I protect myself and not the other?32

What is so special about me that my interests outweighs yours? What is so special about me that my suffering is more important than yours? The obvious answer is “nothing”. And given that there is no good reason why my interests count for more, ethical egoism is a form of arbitrary discrimination. This has an important implication. Arbitrary discrimination is morally wrong. Ethical egoism is arbitrary discrimination, and therefore, morally wrong. The ultimate goal of a “Hīnayāna” reading – the cessation of my suffering – is a kind of ethical egoism, and therefore, arbitrary discrimination, and therefore, morally wrong. Therefore, a “Hīnayāna” reading is morally wrong.

Now, it could be objected that a “radical Mahāyāna” reading errs in the opposite direction, but that objection would be based on a misunderstanding. Before explaining the misunderstanding, let’s first spell out the objection. The “Hīnayāna” reading is morally wrong because it gives more weight to my interests (i.e. my suffering) than to the suffering of others, and thus, discriminates arbitrarily. But if that is the case, then the “radical Mahāyāna” reading is also morally wrong because it gives more weight to the interests (i.e. suffering) of others than to my interests (even requiring me to suffer for the sake of others), and thus, also discriminates arbitrarily. The misunderstanding actually is twofold. Firstly, as in case of the “Hīnayāna” reading, it is the ultimate goal that matters, and the ultimate goal according to the “radical Mahāyāna” reading is to end all suffering, which includes my own. That goal doesn’t discriminate (not even non-arbitrarily). Secondly, it isn’t strictly speaking the case that the “radical Mahāyāna” reading requires me to harm my self-interest for the sake of others. It might seem, perhaps, that the extreme self-sacrifice of a bodhisattva would go against his self-interest, but even that isn’t the case. A bodhisattva cannot harm his self-interest (as long as he remains a bodhisattva) because, as explained above, a bodhisattva cannot suffer and because death will only result in rebirth as another (or the same?) bodhisattva. In as far as it could be said that the “radical Mahāyāna” reading forces a bodhisattva to discriminate against himself, this discrimination is thus not arbitrary, but it could even be argued that this is not a case of discrimination of a bodhisattva against himself at all – it’s just that because a bodhisattva cannot harm his own interests, what seems to go against his self-interest actually doesn’t, and thus, he doesn’t need to explicitly take his own interests into consideration.

On external grounds, then, it seems that a “radical Mahāyāna” reading should be preferred to a “Hīnayāna” reading (because the latter turns out to be morally problematic), but whether that matters depends, of course, to the extent that one is willing to take such external considerations into account. If one holds the view that the only authority that matters is Buddhist scripture and Buddhist tradition, then considerations external to those are largely irrelevant, but for a more modernist or secular-minded Buddhist external considerations like these may (and should) matter. Western secular Buddhism seems to be leaning towards a naturalized “Hīnayāna” reading, however (that is, to Buddhism as self-help – see above), but Japanese secular Buddhism (and especially its more radical wing) tended to lean in the opposite direction (that is, to a “radical Mahāyāna” reading). The term “secular Buddhism” – or its Japanese equivalent 世間仏教 , at least – was coined by Inoue Enryō in 1887,33 more than a century before it first appeared in the West, but Japanese secular Buddhism was mostly destroyed by political repression in the first half of the 20th century.34 This is quite unfortunate – especially if a “radical Mahāyāna” reading is more appropriate from a science-based or secular perspective indeed – but even if “radical Buddhism” is more or less dead, it might still be worthwhile (as a philosophical exercise, perhaps) to explore where a more secular or naturalized version of the “radical Mahāyāna” reading would lead.


addendum (November 2nd) — But what about the “Middle Way”?

I mentioned above that one school or tradition might lean more towards one of the two readings than another, which could be interpreted as suggesting that the two readings are extremes on a spectrum. I doubt that such an interpretation is correct, however. Instead, what seems to be the case is that sometimes one reading is emphasized and sometimes the other, and that schools, traditions, and philosophers differed with respect to these emphases. Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra is predominantly based on a “radical Mahāyāna” reading, for example, while Vasubandhu’s Treatise on the Bodhisattva Vow (which is also a Mahāyāna text), the “Hīnayāna” reading appears to be much more prominent.

If the two readings would be considered extremes on a spectrum, this might suggest a compromise or “Middle Way” as the proper Buddhist path. This would, however, be a mistake for a number of reasons. Firstly, while it is true that the Buddha advocated a middle path between asceticism and hedonism and argued for a middle position (but not “middle path”) in some metaphysical dilemmas, he did not claim that one should always aim for compromise or some kind of “middle path” in that sense (which would be a fallacy, moreover). Secondly, it is highly doubtful whether such a compromise is even coherent. Recall that the two readings have opposing ultimate goals: self-liberation versus universal liberation. What could a compromise between those two even mean?

I suppose that you could approach this latter question mathematically. The ordered set of “moral weights” of all individuals in case of the “Hīnayāna” reading is ⟨1,0,0,…,0⟩ (although the zeros might be other positive numbers that are very close to 0). The first number in that set represents the moral weight of one’s own interests (i.e. one’s own liberation fro suffering). The “1” is followed by a row of (almost) zeros for each other individual (human and other animal). In case of the “radical Mahāyāna” reading, the same ordered set is ⟨1,1,1,…,1⟩ – that is, everyone gets equal weight. (It may sometimes look like ⟨0,1,1,…,1⟩ or some other value smaller than 1 in the first slot, but as already explained above, this is incorrect.) If the two readings are represented in this way, then, obviously, a compromise or “middle” is possible: ⟨1,x1,x2,…,xn⟩ in which each xi is a number between 0 and 1. Or in other words: everyone’s interests count, but mine count for more – however, because everyone’s interests count, they may outweigh mine.

So far, so good, but what does this actually mean? Recall that the ultimate goal is the liberation from suffering. Either Σxi (i.e. the sum of the moral weights of the interests of all other individuals) is greater than 1 or it isn’t. If it is greater than 1, then the interests of all others outweighs my interests and the result is effectively the same as the “radical Mahāyāna” reading. If it is smaller than 1, then my interests outweigh the interests of others and we end up with the “Hīnayāna” reading. The only other option is that Σxi=1 – that is, the interests of all others together are exactly as important as mine. If only humans matter, this would mean that one’s own interests are 7.8 billion times as important as those of the average other. While such a “compromise” might be hypothetically possible, it is just as morally dubious as the ethical egoism implied in the “Hīnayāna” reading. It is, moreover, quite absurd.

If the idea of the two readings as ends on a spectrum doesn’t make much sense (and indeed, it doesn’t), could there be some kind of compromise or “middle path” in combining or balancing the two readings instead? Certainly, it seems that many Buddhist thinkers didn’t clearly and unambiguously adopt one of the two readings, but sometimes leaned more to the one and in other occasions more to the other. I already mentioned Vasubandhu as an example; Buddhaghosa is another.

A compromise in this sense doesn’t seem to be consistent, however. One cannot arbitrarily switch from claiming that all suffering matters to (implicitly) claiming that only my suffering matters,35 and back again. These two positions are mutually exclusive – it is one or the other. This doesn’t mean that Buddhaghosa, for example, was inconsistent (although he may have been). Apparently selfish goals in the Visuddhimagga can be explained away as skillful means to lure people onto the path, or conversely, altruistic goals can be explained away as merely instrumental goals. This, of course, has already been explained above. What matters here is that this also implies that any apparent inconsistent mixture of (or “compromise” between) the two readings can be interpreted as a version of just one of the two.

By implication then, with regards to these two readings of Buddhist doctrine, there is no “middle way”. Compromises or combinations are incomprehensible and/or inconsistent, and consequently, one has to to choose. Given that there are no internal grounds to make that choice, one can only appeal to external grounds, and then the choice is clear. The selfish reading is morally objectionable; the selfless reading is not.


second addendum (June 24th, 2022)

Shortly after adding the above, I got a wonderful reply to something I wrote about the distinction between selfish and selfless readings in an online forum. Indañano Bhikkhu wrote that:

I think this distinction is (conventionally) meaningful only at the beginning stages of the Path – many of us originally set out with only our own “salvation” in mind, that is true. However, as one progresses in one’s practice, the qualities of karunā [compassion] and mettā [lovingkindness] will naturally increase, whether one consciously intents this or not. In later stages it is simply no longer possible not to care about the suffering others encounter in their lives, and the distinction between selfish/selfless practice ceases to make sense.

At the time, I interpreted this as saying that the selfish (or “Hīnayāna”) reading is really just a tool (i.e. skillful means) to get someone onto the path, but as soon as one has progressed far enough, one realizes that it was just that – a tool – and it becomes impossible “not to care about the suffering of others”. The ultimate goal is to end all suffering. However, since then I have come to realize that this interpretation is wrong – and by extension, that there are serious problems with the interpretation of Buddhist ethics as either selfish or selfless (as expressed above) as well. What lead to this realization is reading jay Garfield’s fantastic book, Buddhist Ethics, probably the best book about Buddhism I ever read.36

Garfield argues that Buddhist ethics should be thought of as moral phenomenology. It isn’t about a set of rules or something like that, but rather it aims at changing our perception of, and attitude to the world around us, and that is exactly what Indañano says in the quote above: “as one progresses in one’s practice, the qualities of karunā [compassion] and mettā [lovingkindness] will naturally increase” and “in later stages it is simply no longer possible not to care about the suffering others encounter in their lives”.

That said, it can be argued that the world thus perceived can be described with a certain set of “rules” (in the same way, perhaps, that the physical world can be described with physical “laws”), and those rules may involve something very similar to what I called the “radical Mahāyāna” reading above. However, this argument needs work and I’ve only just started seriously thinking about this.


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Notes

  1. There are exceptions, such as Cārvāka/Lokāyata.
  2. The Buddha said: “It is volition, bhikkhus, that I call kamma.” (Chakkanipāta, AN 63.5/III.415. Translation: Bhikkhu Boddhi (2012), The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikāya (Somerville: Wisdom), p. 963.) The same passage is also sometimes translated (or paraphrased) as “the intention is what I call the deed”. The point of the passage is exactly what I wrote here: karma (kamma in Pāli) is produced by intentional action. This contrasts the Buddha’s view with an older view of karma as being produced by all action, which is preserved in Jainism, for example.
  3. The two aren’t the same, but the difference and how the two notions are related doesn’t matter here.
  4. Cūḷamālunkya Sutta, MN 63, §8. Translation: Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi (1995), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya (Somerville: Wisdom),​ p. 536.
  5. Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, MN 26. — That his reluctance was rooted in a concern about the ignorance of his fellow men according to the sūtra doesn’t really suggest another reading. If the/his ultimate goal was to end suffering rather than just to cure his own suffering, then that ignorance should not be a reason to be reluctant to teach. Of course, other interpretations are possible. The point I’m trying to make here is merely that this anecdote suggests a “Hīnayāna” reading.
  6. Johannes Bronkhorst (2009), Buddhist Teaching in India (Boston: Wisdom Publications).
  7. Śāntideva (8th ct/​1995), The Bodhicaryāvatāra, Translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford: Oxford University Press), §8.103.
  8. “If one asks why suffering should be prevented, no one disputes that!” — Śāntideva, The Bodhicaryāvatāra, §8.103.
  9. The main reason why this passage is discussed so much is that this interpretation cannot be right because according to the Mādhyamaka school to which Śāntideva belonged, experiences of suffering are not ultimately real either. This problem doesn’t need to concern us here, however.
  10. Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra, §8.97-8.
  11. Derek Parfit (1984), Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon), p. 281. — Interestingly, Parfit also agrees with Śāntideva that everyone agrees about the badness of suffering. See: Derek Parfit (2011), On What Matters, Volume 2 (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 565-9.
  12. Jātakamālā 1 (Vyāghrī-jātaka). Divyāvadāna 32 (Rūpāvatī-avadāna), section 4. For a translation of the Jātakamālā story, see: https://jatakastories.div.ed.ac.uk/stories-in-text/aryasuras-jatakamala-1/. For a translation of the Divyāvadāna story, see: Andy Rotman (2017), Divine Stories: Divyāvadāna Part 2 (Wisdom).
  13. Source: https://jatakastories.div.ed.ac.uk/stories-in-text/aryasuras-jatakamala-1/
  14. In the Divyāvadāna, the protagonist of the story kills himself with a sharp piece of bamboo instead. This version also differs in other details, but the story’s point and message remain the same.
  15. Indeed, there is no fundamental difference between the suffering of humans an that of other animals either. We/they are all “people afflicted by distress”.
  16. Ibidem.
  17. One might want to object that aiming for Buddha-hood is really a selfish goal and thus that this supposed “radical Mahāyāna” reading is really the same as the “Hīnayāna” reading, but that would be a mistake. According to the “radical Mahāyāna” reading a Buddha has (by definition) the goal of saving everyone, and therefore, Buddha-hood cannot be an ultimate goal. Rather, it is an intermediate goal towards saving everyone from suffering, and that is the ultimate goal.
  18. Kleśas are afflictions or negative emotions such as ignorance, attachment (or craving, desire, etc.), and aversion (or hatred).
  19. 四弘誓願者。… 亦云眾生無邊誓願度。… 亦云煩惱無數誓願斷。… 亦云法門無盡誓願知。… 亦云無上佛道誓願成。Zhiyi 智顗 (6th ct),《釋禪波羅蜜次第法門》, T46n1916, 476b. My translation.
  20. In Buddhist scripture, bodhisattvas are always male. Women have to be reborn as men before they have a chance to become a bodhisattva. While I find this offensively sexist, I’ll stick with standard doctrine here.
  21. Addressing an audience of Mahāyāna monks (and thus, aspiring bodhisattvas), Śāntideva said: “You may argue: compassion causes us so much suffering, why force it to arise? Yet when one sees how much the world suffers, how can this suffering from compassion be considered great? If the suffering of one [of us] ends the suffering of many [others], then one who has compassion for others and himself [i.e. an (aspiring) bodhisattva] must cause that suffering [for himself] to arise.” — Bodhicaryāvatāra, §8.104-5.
  22. On this point, see also Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra, 5:9-10.
  23. Still, it is likely to be the case that an aspiring bodhisattva will do more to alleviate the suffering of others than someone with a very different (i.e. more selfish) life goal, but it appears that Mahāyāna ethics forbids that kind of calculations. A bodhisattva is only allowed to cause suffering to someone if that suffering would prevent a greater suffering to the same person. — Asaṅga (4-5th ct/​2016), The Bodhisattva Path to Unsurpassed Enlightenment: A Complete Translation of the Bodhisattvabhūmi, Translated by Artemus Engle (Boulder: Snow Lion), p. 279. Charles Goodman (2009), Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation & Defense of Buddhist Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 79.
  24. On the Pāli canon specifically, see: Steven Collins (1990), “On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon”, reprinted in: Paul Williams (ed.) (2005), Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Volume I: Buddhist Origins and the Early History of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia (London: Routledge): 72-95. On the case of Christianity and the Bible, see for example: Bart Ehrman (2005), Lost Christianities: The Battles For Scripture And The Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford University Press).
  25. Jan Westerhoff (2018), The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 24-34.
  26. On this topic, see for example: Donald Lopez jr. (2008), Buddhism & Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Lopez (2012), The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life (New Haven: Yale University Press). Evan Thompson (2020), Why I Am Not a Buddhist (New Haven: Yale University Press).
  27. Stephen Batchelor (2015), After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (Yale University Press), p. 17.
  28. See: Lajos Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm).
  29. Kurt Baier (1958), The Moral Point of View (Cornell University Press).
  30. Mainly because it made question-begging assumptions.
  31. For a more extensive discussion of arbitrary discrimination see the article Is “Philosophy” Racist?.
  32. Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra, §8.95-6.
  33. Inoue Enryō 井上圓了 (1887),『仏教活論序論』, in:『井上円了選集』(Tokyo: Tōyō University 東洋大学), vol. 3: 327-93, p. 388.
  34. For more about the radical wing of Japanese secular Buddhism and engaged Buddhism, see On Secular and Radical Buddhism and/or my A Buddha Land in this World (Punctum, 2022).
  35. Notice that this is always implicit. The “Hīnayāna” reading doesn’t explicitly hold that only my suffering matters, but if my ultimate goal is liberation from my suffering, then that is what it implies.
  36. Jay Garfield (2021), Buddhist Ethics: A Philosophical Exploration (OUP).