Peter Singer and Shih Chao-Hwei on How to Build a Better World

6 min read

I’m always looking for books that force me to revisit my ethical positions on how we use and abuse nonhuman animals (animals) and other aspects of human-animal interactions, so when I was asked to write an endorsement for a conversation between renowned philosopher and professor Peter Singer, often called “the father of the modern animal welfare movement,” and Shih Chao-Hwei, a Buddhist monastic, social activist, scholar, and recent winner of the Niwano Peace Prize, in their new book titled The Buddhist and the Ethicist: Conversations on Effective Altruism, Engaged Buddhism, and How to Build a Better World, I said yes. Immediately, I became aware that this dialogue went far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Among the topics they consider are animal welfare, gender equality, the death penalty, and much more. Their conversations cover a staggering array of topics and I’m sure you, too, will rethink some views you have on different ethical questions and will be exposed to many situations and dilemmas about which you’ve rarely or never thought. Here’s what Singer had to say about their outstanding book.

Shambhala Publications

Source: Shambhala Publications

Marc Bekoff: Why did you and Shih Chao-Hwei write The Buddhist and the Ethicist?

Peter Singer: The book developed out of some time we spent in conversation when I was attending a conference in Taiwan about our treatment of animals. Chao-Hwei was one of the organizers of the conference, and I was speaking about my views on the ethics of how we should treat animals, which I had developed in my book Animal Liberation. She had founded an organization in Taiwan promoting animal welfare.

We soon found that, although our views come from very different philosophical backgrounds, we were very largely in agreement about how we should treat animals. Then we traveled together from Taipei to Hualien, to visit the Master Cheng Yen, the founder of the charity Tzu Chi, which does wonderful work to assist people all over the world. On the train to Hualien we explored other ethical questions, and from that discussion arose the idea of having a dialogue that would be recorded and then transcribed, with a view to publication. To arrange this and have the dialogue took some time. Then we developed the dialogue further over email until we felt we had covered the most important questions in a way that might interest readers.

MB: How does your book relate to your backgrounds and general areas of interest?

PS: I am a secular utilitarian, born and raised in Australia, and, of course, Chao-Hwei is a Buddhist, originally from Burma, but she has lived a long time in Taiwan. So our backgrounds are very different. But one thing that immediately struck me about Chao-Hwei is that she is not the kind of Buddhist who is focused only on achieving enlightenment.

On the contrary, she is an “engaged Buddhist”—that is, someone engaged with the world, and trying to reduce the suffering experienced by sentient beings. That gave us an essential common ground from which to discuss ethics, because, of course, utilitarians judge actions by their consequences, and in particular the extent to which they reduce suffering and increase happiness.

MB: Who do you hope to reach in your interesting and important book?

PS: We would like to reach all readers interested in ethical issues and in the different approaches taken to ethical issues in Buddhism and utilitarianism.

MB: What are some of the major topics you consider?

PS: We begin with some basic questions about the nature of ethics, and whether it is a matter of feelings, such as compassion or reason, or some combination of the two. Then I ask Chao-Hwei to help me to understand some core Buddhist concepts that have always puzzled me, such as karma and nirvana. After that, we move to current issues, such as equality, especially for women, sexuality, abortion, the ethics of our treatment of animals, euthanasia and suicide, and the death penalty and killing in war.

Readers of Psychology Today are, I assume, are interested in these issues, but what I think they will find especially fascinating here is the fact that two people from very different cultural and philosophical backgrounds can listen to each other, understand where the other is coming from, and, very often, though not always, agree on what is to be done.

Beyond the particular issues we discuss, I think that anyone who is seeking to understand human psychology should be interested in Buddhism because it is a very ancient understanding of the human mind that has stood up well to the test of time and is now, in important aspects, being vindicated by modern science, as Robert Wright argued in his book Why Buddhism Is True. Chao-Hwei presents a version of Buddhism that does not require us to accept the religious elements that secular Westerners, like myself, are unable to accept.

So her approach to Buddhism should appeal to many readers. Buddhism, like all long-lived religions, often forgets its core message. Chao-Hwei presents us with “engaged Buddhism,” a fresh and important new approach to Buddhism that, while also practising meditation, does not tell us to turn inward and focus only on our own enlightenment, but also advocates engagement in the world.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

PS: The closest parallel, perhaps, is The Philosopher and the Monk, which is also a dialogue, between Jean-François Revel, an important French intellectual, and his son, Matthieu Ricard, who abandoned a promising scientific career to become a Buddhist monk. It’s an interesting book, but very different from The Buddhist and the Ethicist, partly because it is a father-son dialogue, partly because it was published 25 years ago, but above all because Chao-Hwei and I have a different focus, exploring more concrete ethical questions than the broader discussions of life that Revel and Ricard discuss.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about ethics and Buddhism they will change the ways in which they behave?

PS: I’m always hopeful that we can make the world a better place. Buddhism and recent psychological research agree that living an ethical life is far more rewarding than measuring success by how much you earn or what prestige-brand items you can afford to buy. I’m always trying to get that message across to more people and to help them to see what living an ethical life involves. I’m trying to do that in as many ways as possible. The Buddhist and the Ethicist is a different approach from my other books, such as The Life You Can Save, or Animal Liberation Now, or Ethics in the Real World, and I expect it will reach a different audience.

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