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Episode post here. Thanks once again to Caroline Wall for this transcript!


Matt Teichman:
Hello, and welcome to Elucidations. I’m Matt Teichman.

Henry Curtis:
I’m Henry Curtis.

Matt Teichman:
With us once again is Graham Priest, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. And he is here to discuss Buddhist political philosophy. Graham Priest, welcome back to Elucidations.

Graham Priest:
Hi, guys. Thank you. Welcome back.

Matt Teichman:
So curious parties can listen to our previous episode on Buddhist metaphysics for more details on this, but maybe we can just begin with a quick recap of the Four Noble Truths, which serve as the ethical underpinning of a lot of Buddhist philosophy.

Graham Priest:
Okay. So the Four Noble Truths are as follows. First of all, life is characterized by dukkha, which is unhappy states, if you want to phrase it like that. The Second Noble Truth is when we experience these unhappy states, there’s a cause, or at least one cause, which we have under our control, which is the mental attitude we bring to bear over these things—if you like, attachments and aversion. The Third Noble Truth is a corollary. Get rid of the cause, and you get rid of the effect. So if you change your head space, then you won’t experience unhappiness when things go wrong.

And then, the Fourth Noble Truth is itself an eightfold. It’s the Eightfold Noble Path, which is a bunch of techniques to help you to change your head space. And these are partly understand the world in which you live, partly understand what your body and your mind are doing. But then, through the more explicitly ethical—at least, a Western philosopher would recognize them as ethical—right action, right livelihood, right speech. If you want to summarize those, don’t go around being an asshole to people.

Okay. But the whole Four that define the basis of Buddhist ethics have a presupposition which is never made explicit, which I sometimes think of as the Zero-th Noble Truth, which is that suffering is bad. And the first time you hear that, you think, oh, yes, that’s obvious. And the second time you hear that, you think, well it’s obvious. And then the third time you hear that, you have a serious debate about the question. But the thought is, generally, that suffering is a bad thing. And that’s why most people want to get rid of it. Well, that’s true enough.

Matt Teichman:
What would be an example of a situation I might be in where it might help to apply the Eightfold Path?

Graham Priest:
You lose your job. Of course, not many people will be very happy with that. But the thought is that, hey, your job is going to end sooner or later anyway, and you shouldn’t be so attached to it. Because doubtless, it was good to have a job, and you enjoyed it, and it gave you many rewards, and so on. But all things come to an end. So that was a phase in your life. A new phase is coming. Now, welcome the new.

Matt Teichman:
So accept the things you can’t change, and change the things you can.

Graham Priest:
Yeah, if you’d like.

Henry Curtis:
You say that you think that we might call the Zero-th Noble Truth the idea that suffering is bad. And you say, okay, the first time you think of that, it’s obvious. And then, progressively, as you think more and more about it, it becomes a little bit murkier as to whether or not it’s true. One way someone might say that suffering can be good is the suffering that’s involved in some sort of admirable pursuit. So let’s say I’m an artist, and I’m trying to make some exquisite, beautiful piece of art. I might have to really suffer in the process of creating that. So if I were to follow the Eightfold Noble Path as it’s laid out in Buddhist philosophy, would I then have to eschew the sort of sufferings involved in activities that are creative?

Graham Priest:
No, that’s a good thought. I think the first thing to get your head around is that the Buddhist path is not one of sitting on your cushion blissing out. Okay? The Noble Path is a path of engagement, especially in later Buddhism, where compassion becomes a central virtue. Compassion is not just saying, oh, what a poor bastard. It’s actually getting off your bum and doing something about it. Right? So you have to act compassionately. You have to engage in life to help people in a compassionate fashion. So Buddhist philosophy is very much concerned with being engaged with life. And Jay Garfield once said to me, Buddhism is not about freeing you from life. It’s about freeing you for life. So that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do things as long as they don’t go around screwing up other people.

And some of the good things that are in life are certainly creating art. And as funny as that may sound, that doesn’t mean you have to be attached to the end. I mean, you might think it follows, because to do it, you have to have the desire. Desire is attachment. Okay, that’s too fast. You have to have the goal to act. That doesn’t mean that you have to be emotionally engaged with it. You can engage in something because you think it’s a bloody good thing to do, right? So you can think that you should act compassionately. You’re not always going to succeed. You’re going to fuck up sometimes. When you do well, you say, well, I’ll put that down to an experience in life and get on with it. And sometimes, you’re going to succeed. And then, you can be happy about that. But you know that the success is going to be transient, because everything is in life.

Okay, so come back to art. So, given what I’ve just said, it should be clear that there’s absolutely nothing to stop you being engaged in the production of art as long as you’re not attached to it, in the sense of the Second Noble Truth, and that sometimes, you’re gonna fail. Well, that’s life. You get used to it. When you do, you put it behind you and get on with the next. Whatever. Sometimes, you’re gonna succeed and get your art shown in the Met or whatever. But you know that’s a transient achievement anyway, so you shouldn’t be too attached to it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get joy and pleasure out of it. So, I mean, the bottom line is you do not have to suffer to produce great art. Now, maybe some artists have been tortured people—Van Gogh, Beethoven, perhaps. But that’s certainly not true of many great artists. Picasso, Bach lived very happy lives. So it’s not that to produce great art, you have to go deaf, live in a garret, starve, et cetera, et cetera.

Henry Curtis:
So this is more of a general question, not as much a followup. It seems like the Eightfold Noble Path is originally conceived as a way to get rid of suffering in my own life. Right? So how does it then follow from that that the way that I’m supposed to treat other people is something that Buddhist philosophy should encourage you to do?

Graham Priest:
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. There’s nothing as such in the Eightfold Path which undergirds compassion as a virtue, if you like. I mean, certainly, the middle triad of the Eight is right speech, right action, right livelihood. And generally speaking, those are compassionate. You should act compassionately. So that’s there. But why should you act compassionately? I mean, these things are not given because they’re without rationale. They all have a rationale. What is the rationale?

Well, I think in early Buddhism, a lot of the rationale is that if you act selflessly, then you do a lot to destroy this active attachment to your own ego, which is dukkha—suffering—generating. There’s certainly an element of that in it. I mean, maybe that’s not so much ethics as prudence, although sometimes it’s very hard to draw the distinction between these two things. But certainly, there are later Buddhist ethicists who engage with this question directly. And they want to say it’s not simply a matter of prudence. So in later Indian Buddhist philosophy, compassion is the central virtue, and it’s an end in itself. It’s not prudential. And the question is, how do you understand that?

And probably the greatest Buddhist ethicist was a man called Shantideva, who was working in about the eighth century in India—who writes a long tract on this. And like most ancient texts, people argue about how you interpret it. However, the thought is something like this. Hey, look, suffering is bad. Okay? And the badness of it does not depend on whose suffering it is. I mean, in a sense, the question of who is a bit of a chimera anyway, because there’s no self that experiences the suffering. There are just experiences of suffering, and suffering is bad. So if it’s bad, you want to get rid of those experiences. And who they belong to is kind of irrelevant. So I think that’s a very standard Buddhist justification of this.

Matt Teichman:
Yeah, this is interesting. So, given that the topic of this episode is political philosophy, it seems like some of the stuff we’ve discussed feels first-personal. Some of the stuff we discussed feels like, yeah, you lose your job. You’re not going to be able to get it back by force. So you should learn how to deal with it and move on. That feels like something that an individual would do, or an attitude that an individual would decide to take on. This idea that suffering is bad, and we should try to minimize the overall amount of suffering in the world, feels more third-personal. It feels more like I’m not talking about me in my own life, but just everybody, society at a mass scale. Do the ideas that we’ve been discussing in moral philosophy lead naturally to some sort of political program, or some view about how society should be set up?

Graham Priest:
Well, I think this starts by taking us back to Henry’s question, and what I call the Zero-th Noble Truth. Okay. The Zeroth Noble Truth is that suffering is bad. And even if you think that that’s not universally true, it’s a pretty good guide to life. Right? And then, why not just my suffering? Why other people’s? Well, that’s that suffering is bad, period. Doesn’t matter whose it is.

Matt Teichman:
Yeah. There is no ‘who’, in a way. Right?

Graham Priest:
In a certain sense. Okay. So once that’s on the table, then it’s clear that compassion is an important ethical virtue. And so you want a society which is as compassionate as possible, and certainly not one which goes around inflicting gratuitous suffering on people. So that raises the question, how do you—well, what would such a society be like? And how would you get there from where we are? Which are both crucial questions. So that’s the kind of domain that Buddhist ethics takes us into, I think. And now, we start to engage with very recognizable themes in political philosophy.

Matt Teichman:
In a way, it feels like the duel of utilitarianism. If the ideal there is to maximize the amount of happiness that there is experienced by somebody or other in the world, maybe the opposite of that is to minimize the amount of suffering experienced by someone in the world.

Graham Priest:
Yeah. It can be seen like that. Look, there are current debates amongst Western philosophers as to how to conceptualize Buddhist ethics. Some people have argued that it’s a form of utilitarianism. Some people have argued that it’s a form of virtue ethics. In truth, I think it’s neither of those, although it has elements of all those things. So it doesn’t fit comfortably into any of the Western categories.

My old friend Jay Garfield said to me once, Buddhist ethics is like plumbing. If plumbing goes wrong, you’ve got a problem. Let me tell you how to fix it. And I would add that if your neighbor has got a problem with their plumbing, you’d better fix it, too. Because otherwise, it’s quite likely to become yours. And anyways, they’re not having a happy time with their screwed-up plumbing. So there are certainly utilitarian elements in Buddhism—negative utilitarian, as you want to put it—but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Henry Curtis:
Has there been a great deal of political philosophy in the various Buddhist schools of thought?

Graham Priest:
Very little, very little. Generally speaking, Buddhism has been concerned more with private practice than public practice. So there are remarks in some of the early sutras that the Buddha makes about political organization. And there are some early Madhyamaka texts by Nagarjuna which give advice to the ruler. That’s the Ratnavali. But generally speaking, Buddhism has not gone there. Interestingly, over the last 70 years, we’ve seen this change, because there are a bunch of philosophers who fall under the general rubric of engaged Buddhists who are people who’ve taken the Buddhist message to heart and said, okay. It’s not good enough just to sit on our bums. We’ve got to get out there and improve the world.

So one of the early people who fell into this category was the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was engaged in the Vietnam War, trying to end the war. But there are other philosophers, Buddhist philosophers, who are often thought to be in this league. The current Dalai Lama is one of them, as well. So there is a general movement to moving from understanding that Buddhism is not just a personal practice, but it’s also—and it should be—a socially engaged practice. And of course, it should always have been like that, just because compassion is the central virtue in Mahayana Buddhism. It’s just that Buddhist philosophers I think have, generally speaking, not taken this to heart until perhaps fairly recently.

Matt Teichman:
So you might think that the desire to minimize suffering is open-ended when it comes to how to implement it. Maybe some people think the best way to keep the level of suffering as low as it can be is via lots of charities, for example. And maybe some people think the best way to keep the amount of suffering as low as it can be is via aggressive social programs funded by public taxes. Is that right? Is the political program that you’re interested in open-ended in that way?

Graham Priest:
Well, I think given the general goal, how to realize that is not at all obvious, as you say. So this is where serious political debates start. Now, as you look around the world that we currently live in, it’s very hard to go past the thought that an enormous amount of suffering that’s occasioned is caused by capitalism, for all kinds of reasons. I mean, capitalism functions for the wealthy. We all know about the 1\%. And the 99\%—their wellbeing is not really considered. Their function is to make wealth for the 1%. And they can be used and abused in the process—exploited, made redundant, given false desires. Because if you’re selling something, you want people to buy it. So you use this kind of advertising which induces in people all these illusory desires, that if they buy a new pair of shoes or whatever, they’re going to be fulfilled or happy—just complete bullshit.

Then, have a think about what capitalism has done to the third world, and all the people that have been destroyed in South America because of the exploitation of American capitalist countries. Think about the way that capitalism is driven by a constant requirement for growth. And we know what happens when economies go into recession. And it has very serious effects. Capitalism is predicated on constant growth. And what is constant growth doing to our environment at the moment? Well, a lot of people are already suffering from this. But hey, I’m sure as hell in the next 50 years, unless something purely miraculous happens, a lot more people are going to suffer.

A lot of the world’s coastal area, including South Manhattan, is going to be underwater. We’re going to see mass migration. We know what problems migration causes. So if you start to think about the effects of capitalism, the litany of its disastrous consequences is pretty obvious. Okay. Now, I haven’t tried to be systematic about this. This is just a smorgasbord of some of the immediate things that will come to you.

So it seems to me that there is no Buddhist who could be content with a capitalist system. It just screws people over too much. We shouldn’t have an economic system whose main aim is the production of wealth, not the happiness of people. I mean, the point of capitalism is the use of people for the production of wealth, whereas any rational person should think that the point of wealth is the happiness of people.

Matt Teichman:
It occurs to me that one other possible connection with capitalism is via this idea of the self. So if you look at any advertisement on TV, it does this thing that in the fancy academic literature sometimes is called interpolation. But what that is is the ad is addressing you, the individual. This generic product that’s made in a factory—it’s for you. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to make you feel more like the kind of person you want to be, et cetera, et cetera. It seems like a lot of marketing of mass market products is geared towards being an ingredient in each of our self-conceptions, as it were.

Graham Priest:
Well, absolutely. And I don’t know how much you know about modern advertising, but one of the founding fathers of advertising was a guy called Bernays, who was actually the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays was active in the 1920s, and he was the first person who applied modern advertising techniques. He reckoned he could sell anything. You just have to appeal to people’s egos, their subconscious feelings of inferiority, blah, blah, blah. So a lot of the modern advertising techniques were developed by Bernays.

Now, later on, Bernays worked for not only advertising companies, but for political parties. And his techniques were used in terms of political salesmanship. So a lot of them have been taken over by political advertising and so on. So your comment about advertising of products for sale applies equally to political advertising nowadays. I mean they are attempts to manipulate your psyche–not for your benefit, for goodness sake, but for the benefit of whoever is making the adverts, or whoever is paying for the adverts to be made, let’s say.

Henry Curtis:

It seems like another possible connection between Buddhist philosophy and capitalism, and specifically the Buddhist idea about the nonexistence of the self, is that a lot of the philosophical arguments that seem to be given in defense of capitalism involve the idea that there are these self-standing agents capable of entering into contracts with one another, and that there’s something unethical about interfering in that process. How would you think the idea of the non-existence of the self undermines this idea that, say, if I sell someone to something, or if I employ them in some way, that this is one kind of autonomous agent and another autonomous agent interacting in a justifiable way?

Graham Priest:
Okay. Look, Marx is very good on this. So the kind of view that you’re explaining is a view that you find being developed in the West in the 17th, 18th century. It’s contractualism. So you find it in Hobbes and Locke. And the thought is that everybody is an autonomous agent. Everybody is completing themselves with a bunch of desires. And then, we all come together to—we need some kind of central control for the mutual good. But the point is that we all come together in this social contract to make contracts with each other.

It’s no coincidence that this view arises in Western philosophy when capitalism is hitting its straps, because in some sense, it’s just an ideological justification of capitalist practices. It’s what you need for me to justify my using you. Okay. You come and work for me. Okay? I’ll pay you a minimum wage. But that’s okay, because you do have your own free will. Okay. I know if you don’t get a job, you’re going to die. Well, you’re a free agent.

Okay, so this is a piece of ideology that gets trotted out. But it’s based on false metaphysics. People are not independent agents. No person could live for the first five or six years of their life if it weren’t for their mother, or father, or their carers. Right? And just think about—never mind the kid. Think of an adult. How can an adult flourish on a desert island? Think of all the things you do which depend on other people, like the software you buy to record this program, like the food you buy in the shop, like the friendships you have which contribute to your life, like traveling on an airline to see interesting places, like—the list just goes on. You and I could not flourish without a society.

Okay. So this thought that we’re all autonomous agents, which come together with our desires, well-defined, just to be traded off against each other is just false metaphysics. We are essentially social creatures. That’s Marx. Okay? But it’s exactly the same in later Buddhism. Because no one is what they are in and of themselves. Everyone is what they are dependent on other things. And the other things—the Buddhists weren’t so terribly interested in other people. But hey, the point was there that other people are shit important for you and me, and for each other.

Matt Teichman:
When I try to think of an example of a government that identifies itself as Buddhist, the first example that comes to mind is Myanmar. And we don’t necessarily have to talk about Myanmar, but I guess I’m just curious—have there been any historical examples of these ideas about selfhood and the essential social nature of people being implemented in practice in the name of Buddhism?

Graham Priest:
Yeah. Fast answer, no. Slower answer is a bit more nuanced. There are, of course, countries in the world which have as a state religion Buddhism. Myanmar is one of them. But there are others. Thailand does. What happens when you get any orthodox religion taking over is: the religion starts to function as a basis for the power structure. So people in power will invoke the religion when it’s conducive to their ends. Now, I mean, this is true of Christianity, obviously. It’s true of Islam. It’s equally true of Buddhism.

And so what happens is that often, you will get the Buddhist religion—not the philosophy, but the religion—being invoked to justify what they want. Myanmar is an obvious example of this. Okay. So what the Myanmarese—is that the right word?—military are doing to the Rohinga is just unconscionable. Okay? So even though it’s nominally a Buddhist state, you cannot claim that this is being driven by Buddhism. Okay. So that’s one issue.

There are other places that have a state religion of Buddhism. Tibet is the obvious example. Tibet hasn’t been exactly as brutal as Myanmar, but it’s not exactly an egalitarian society. It has a priestly hierarchy, and often, many things run for the priesthood. So that’s not nearly as bad as Myanmar, but it’s hardly the utopian Buddhist society. The one society, I think, which has made an attempt to implement Buddhist philosophy is Bhutan, which you may well have never heard of. Okay? It’s a Himalayan kingdom to the east of Nepal, which is at least nominally driven by the desire to produce a happy society. And the index of the wellbeing in society is not how well the economy is running, but how happy people are.

Okay. Now, you’ve reached my limit of knowledge about Bhutan. How well this society runs, I have absolutely no idea. I’d love to go there and find out. But the problem is, there isn’t a model for what a good Buddhist political society is like. Buddhism has been implemented by kingdoms, by religious hierarchies, by—maybe not anarchist societies. But Buddhism tells you what the aim of a sensible society is like. It doesn’t give you a political structure to achieve that. So there isn’t really a blueprint. I mean, this is one of the challenges, I think, for any Buddhist who wants to engage with political philosophy to think through these issues. And as we talked about earlier, there isn’t a Buddhist canon on this to draw on, really.

Matt Teichman:
It sounds like, based on what we were talking about, pursuing a political program on these lines might look a bit like socialism or possibly anarchism. Those are the two political movements that first jump to mind as resistant to capitalism.

Graham Priest:
Yeah. Look, I think that’s right. Look, the word ‘socialism’ has so many meanings that it’s almost a useless word, I think. But certainly, one of the things about a socialist society is that it runs for people and tries to minimize the suffering of people. To that extent, Buddhism is sympathetic to that. But what passes for socialism is often a long way from that. I mean, in the United States, socialism of the Bernie Sanders kind is perhaps just to the left of Angela Merkel. So it’s not very far to the left on the political spectrum.

Certainly—well, anarchism. Again, how you understand an anarchist or a syndicalist state is not obvious. But there is an obvious problem with power structures. And we see this in capitalist countries. We see this in the old Soviet Union. Once a power structure is established—and it might be political, it might be religious, whatever—what we see is that the power structure starts to function for its own benefit, not for the benefit of the people who are in power. As Lord Acton said, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So I think any Buddhist who thinks through a sensible society is going to be strongly against hierarchical power structures to the extent that it’s possible. To what extent is it possible? Hard question.

Matt Teichman:
But something maybe decentralized, at least—

Graham Priest:
I think it has to be strongly decentralized. Yeah.

Henry Curtis:
One of the central tensions that surrounds discussions of anarchism has to do with the power that an anarchist state would have—or the anarchist lack of a state, anarchist communes, communities—would have to affect the change that’s been caused by the damage of past systems. So what would you think would be the lesson of Buddhist philosophy, specifically a Buddhist philosophy that attempted to diminish suffering in the world, on that debate? Because I could see some people being against hierarchies because of the suffering they cause, but thinking that the most effective way to rid the world of compassion quickly—some of the most severe forms of compassion would require at least perhaps a temporary strong authoritative state.

Graham Priest:
No, this is a very good point. I mean, look, there are two issues here which we should separate. The first is, okay, what would your ideal society be like? And in truth, we haven’t got a clue. Okay. That’s something we have to maybe do by trial and error. But the second is, even if we thought we knew what that would be like, how do you get there? Presumably, it’d be good to head for some kind of de-centralized state. But then, there’s the issue you raise about how the fucking hell do you get there?

Now, there’s a catch-22 in anarchism. Because any transition you make to a different political state is going to occasion a backlash. That’s political science 101. We’ve seen that in the Soviet Union. We’ve seen that in the United States. We’ve seen that whenever there’s a change of political/economic regime, the people who have power are not going to sit down and take it easily. There’s going to be a backlash. And often, the people in power have control of the military, the police. That’s an awful lot of firepower. So often, if you want to change things, you’re going to have to worry about the backlash.

Now, we know that without some kind of organization—probably central organization or coordinated organization–you’ve got Buckley’s chance against a coordinated backlash. So you need this if you’re going to fight the backlash. Now, here’s the catch-22. You need the central organization. Otherwise, you can’t get there. But once you’ve got the centralized organization, you have this feature of power structures—that it’s going to start to run for its own benefit. So you’re damned if you do. You’re damned if you don’t. I don’t think there’s any easy solution to this question.

Henry Curtis:
So do you think the sense in which Buddhist philosophy is anti-authoritarian, the sense in which Buddhist philosophy encourages its adherents to think of answers and think of questions somewhat for themselves—do you think, in any sense, that would have implications for a Buddhist political philosophy, or any sort of politics informed by Buddhism, whereby we would think that because the philosophy is anti-authoritarian, the actual politics itself should also be anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical in a similar way?

Graham Priest:
No. I don’t think that necessarily follows, although it might be true. And I think, for a start, one really needs to draw a distinction between the philosophy and the religion. You’re right: as a philosophy, there’s no God in Buddhism, and so there’s no sense in which there can be divine revelation. And in one of the sutras, that [Kalama Sutra](), the Buddha says, don’t believe something just because someone tells you, some priest tells you, because it says so in a sacred text. Make your mind up. Figure it out for yourself. Well, it’s a bit more nuanced than that, but that’s the bottom line. So there is this—don’t believe it just because someone, an authority, tells you. You can see where it makes sense for yourself.

Okay. That’s the philosophy. I mean, it must be said that Buddhism as a religion is enormously hierarchical and top-down. And a novice monk actually has to do what the head of the temple says. And don’t try arguing too much with them about it. Otherwise, you might not get very far into priesthood. It’s a top-down power structure. So that’s not quite the same as the philosophy. However, setting that aside, your question was, given that the philosophy is ‘figure it out for yourself’, and so it’s anti-authoritarian in that sense, does that imply that the political structure should be anti-authoritarian?

And I don’t think that follows. Once we move to the question of a political system, the question really is, what kind of political system is going to be most efficacious in the general aims of Buddhist ethics? And it seems to be an empirical fact that power structures function in just the way I’ve described. I don’t think this is a priori. It just seems to be a lesson from history that power structures pretty soon start to function in the interest of those in power. So that’s why I think most Buddhists might well be against some kind of political hierarchy of power. But I think that’s a separate point.

Matt Teichman:
So Henry and I are super fired up by this topic now, and we want to get out there and change the world. What would be an example of a contemporary political debate, or issue, or policy question, that would benefit from this type of perspective?

Graham Priest:

Take your pick. Virtually anything—because any political policy is going to have consequences. That’s what they aim to do. So you need to think through the consequences of political decisions—not only political decisions, but political structures. And you’ve got to decide what the best political decision or what the best political structure is in terms of the consequences. And that can be amazingly local. I mean, it can be, what’s the best way of making the New York subway run better? It could be bigger. It could be, is the current way that politicians are elected in the United States sensible? To which the answer is obviously no.

It could be: hey, what passes for democracy in current Western societies? Well, democracy might be quite a good thing. Maybe, maybe not. But we haven’t got it. I mean, we live in a world which is financed by capitalism. I mean, ask who benefits by it. It takes us back to this. And the people who benefit by it are the people who are rich and can pay for ads, or at least the people who get elected, because they receive money from people who pay for the ads, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

So the sort of question you’re asking works at all levels. Anything, any decision you take, has political ramifications. And you need to think through what the consequences of those are. Now, I’m not suggesting there’s a magic bullet for any of this. I mean, I don’t have any magic solutions, and neither does anybody else. But sure as hell, sitting on our ass and just accepting the status quo is not giving us a better kind of society. In fact, looking at what is happening to the world’s environment at the moment, we’re all going to—oh, okay. I probably won’t see it. But my grandkids will see it. It’s really going to have terrible consequences for the people of the future.

Matt Teichman:
In a way, that’s a great counterpoint to somebody who might have come away from the beginning of our discussion thinking, well, the moral of Buddhist philosophy is just to sit there, and grit your teeth, and bear whatever hardship happens. I think we’re bringing out the other side of the story here.

Graham Priest:
Yeah. No, compassion—as the central later Buddhist virtue, the aim is to act compassionately. Now, what is the most compassionate thing? That’s always going to be a really hard call. That’s not obvious at all, even in very mundane circumstances. You’re a doctor. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses come with a sick child. And they say, well, we don’t want our kid to have a blood transfusion. Well, what do you do as a doctor? Do you act compassionately to the parents or the kid? Okay, well, that’s a hard choice. And you have to discern what is the best thing to do.

Virtually anything, any decision you take, is going to have good consequences and bad consequences. And figuring out what the best thing or balance is is not going to be easy. I mean, it’s what Aristotle called phronesis, practical wisdom to implement these decisions. No one said ethical decisions were easy.

Henry Curtis:
So in your thinking about Buddhist political philosophy and how that would have to relate to some sort of actual project in the real world towards improving the conditions in which people live and towards diminishing suffering, what are some of the significant roadblocks you’ve been finding? What are some issues that would make it more difficult to implement a robust Buddhist political philosophy?

Graham Priest:
So I’ve become convinced, thinking about these issues, that ideology is of central importance. Why is that? Because, well, David Hume asked the following question. If you look at power structures, they almost always function for the benefit of the people in power. Okay? We’ve been there. Now, in many power structures, the people in power are a minority. And that’s certainly true in capitalism. We know all about the 1%. Now, how is it that a minority can maintain the status quo if the system is not running for the benefit of the majority of people?

Well, sometimes the answer is bloody obvious. You use violence. Okay, so something that happened in apartheid South Africa, where the white minority kept the black and colored population under control by military and police violence. Okay? This is not contestable. One of the remarkable things about a modern ‘democratic’—and I say that in scare quotes, all right—society is that it doesn’t resort to violence much. Now, it does sometimes. So when the chips are really down, you can bring in the military. You can bring in the national guard or whatever. So I think it’s serious that in the past, they were culling violence. But it’s remarkable that happens very, very rarely. Okay.

So how is this done? Well, it’s because you don’t control people by violence. You control people by their minds. Okay? You get them to accept that the system—let’s say capitalism—is natural, God-given, inevitable, in their interest, just. [BLOWS RASPBERRY] Okay. And as long as people think that, okay. They’re not going to balk at it. But all these claims that it’s just, it’s inevitable, that it’s God-given—it’s just demonstrably false. Yet this is the ideology that people have received by all sorts of things—advertising, political propaganda, their education.

Now, there is absolutely no hope of changing while people have this mindset. So a crucial part of any change for the better, I think, is going to have to be understanding why people have these attitudes, or how they’re brought to have these attitudes, and then thinking how things can be shown to be what they are—namely, a thinly veiled justification for the benefit of an elite minority.

Matt Teichman:
Graham Priest, thank you so much for coming back on Elucidations.

Graham Priest:
Thank you.


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