The Quietist’s Case

“The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.” J.M. Coetzee

The word “quietism” has been used to characterize a number of distinct but related phenomena. Perhaps its oldest use refers to a heretical stream within Catholicism that emphasizes self-sufficiency, mysticism, and a withdrawal from worldly affairs. Quietist tendencies have been identified in other religions such as the Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, and ultra-orthodox Judaism to identify a conscious separation from social and political engagement. In a more general sense, quietism is often used to characterize those individuals or schools of thought that (passively) accept existing political arrangements and/or refrain from political engagement. When used in this manner, the word quietism usually has a negative connotation. For example, in her take-down of philosopher Judith Butler, Marta Nussbaum repeatedly claims that her positions can give rise to a passive or hip “quietism.”

In fact, one cannot escape the impression that to some observers the type of quietism that aspires to withdrawal from political engagement is perceived to be as bad, or even worse, as someone fighting for the wrong cause. Especially in an era where social and political engagement is emphasized greatly, quietism is  seen as insensitive, immoral, or elitist – a pastime only available to the privileged.

Can a more positive case be made for political quietism? What would this entail? And how might a quietest respond to the negative perception of such a stance?

A number of secular arguments for political quietism can be identified:

1. Political quietism as a consequence of moral nihilism. If there is no objective justification for any kind of normative ethics over another, the case for advancing a particular political ideology is weakened and an individual may decide to simply withdraw from political engagement of any kind. Such an individual may respond to the political engagement of others with incomprehension, amusement, or sadness, depending on temperament.

2. Political quietism as a consequence of the recognition of the futility of political engagement. This position would extend the orthodox economic argument about the negligible effect of one’s individual vote in a democracy to political engagement in general. He can still have a preference for certain social and political arrangements but has resigned himself to the fact that, as a general rule, he has little influence over it.

3. Political quietism as a response to the irrationality associated with the practice of politics. This position emphasizes the ways in which politics triggers all kinds of ancient tribal instincts, group-think, anger, and violence. This position is well described by Joseph Schumpeter:

“The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes primitive again.”

This aversion to politics may not necessarily translate into political quietism and can also give rise to “political” efforts to replace political decision making with some kind of market-based decision making in which participants actually have “skin in the game.” If one considers politics to be a fundamental and unalterable part of life, however, an alternative response would be to withdraw from it altogether.

4. Political quietism as an aesthetic response. In this form of quietism, what is most objected to in politics is its vulgarity. To such a political quietist debating, organizing, marching, and shouting slogans debases the person involved. As Michael Oakshott wrote, “Political action involves mental vulgarity, not merely because it entails the occurrence and support of those who are mentally vulgar, but because of the simplification of human life implied in even the best of it purposes.”  He might still prefer one social arrangements over another but they would need to be achieved through education, individual virtuous behavior, and silent (non) consent. This kind of response to politics would expected to be even stronger if politics is also considered to be arbitrary, stupid, and ineffective.

5. Political quietism as a response to political alienation. An individual (or group of individuals) may decide that the political environment of their era is so fundamentally opposed to their own political outlook that any kind of political engagement would be pathetic, painful, and meaningless. This form of quietism is distinct from the general economic argument about the utility of political action and specific to time and place. A nationalist-socialist in post-war Germany, an advocate of a hereditary monarchy in the United States, a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism during most of the 20th century, etc.

Is political quietism possible? One might object that the “personal is political” and removal from politics is impossible in principle. That not to participate in politics is itself a political act. An obvious rejoinder is that this response does not leave much conceptual space between personal morality and collective action. For political quietism to have meaning, politics must refer to something beyond the rather obvious recognition that each person’s actions (or lack thereof) has effects on others. The “political” in political quietism discussed here refers to the (conscious) shaping and influencing the structures that enforce norms, collective decision making, laws, government, i.e. the “supra-individual” realm.

A milder variant of this critique is to state that you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. It seems indeed rather obvious that if a quietist position on politics is conjoined with ignorance about the political process and social-political and cultural trends in general, all kinds of unexpected, bad, things can happen in one’s life. This would be a kind of ignorant quietism – one that is mostly associated with the kind of religious quietism that categorically avoid knowledge of, and participation in, the modern world. A more secular quietism does not need to have this characteristic and can incorporate knowledge of social-economic- and cultural trends to make rational individual decisions. One  might even argue that a response that confines itself to what we can meaningfully influence actually empowers the person.

Is political quietism “ethical” (immoral, wrong, etc.)? To a political quietist of a nihilist persuasion this question is nonsensical because  it assumes the very thing that needs to be established: that there is an objective set of normative guidelines that humans can and should translate into political action. As for the other variants of political quietism, a plethora of rejoinders are available to its adherents as well. Is abstaining from futile acts wrong? How can it be wrong to withdraw from the stupidity, violence, and ugliness that is intrinsic to political activity?  The political quietist may not have an iron-clad case, but his position can draw from a wide variety of metaphysical, religious, existential, psychological, economical, and cultural-aesthetic traditions.

Does the political quietist even has to “make” or “defend” his case? There is a type of political quietism that follows from the recognition that society does not have a “goal” or “purpose” that political action should bring about (or maintain). The quietist may consider this kind of “teleological” thinking about society naive, quasi-religious, and restrictive. It is often this kind of quietism that upsets people the most because this quietist refuses to “play the game” at all.

The Unrepentant Nihilist

The topic of nihilism raises two important questions. “What do we mean by nihilism?” “What are the consequences of nihilism?” (Is it a disease or a cure?)

In her book “The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth-Century Responses to Meaninglessness” (1992) Karen Carr distinguishes between:

  1. Epistemological nihilism (the denial of the possibility of knowledge)
  2. Alethiological nihilism (the denial of the reality of truth)
  3. Metaphysical or ontological nihilism (the denial of an independently existing world)
  4. Ethical or moral nihilism (the denial of the reality of moral or ethical values)
  5. Existential or axiological nihilism (the feeling that life has no meaning).

Some forms of nihilism imply other forms of nihilism. For example, if one denies the possibility of knowledge or truth then this renders the idea of normative ethics void. On the other hand, one can believe that there is an objective world of which true knowledge is possible but also hold that all moral preferences are subjective and life has no objective meaning. In fact, the desire for knowledge and truth can turn against the idea of an objective morality. As Nietzsche observed: “But among the forces cultivated by morality was truthfulness: this eventually turned against morality, discovered its teleology, its partial perspective–and now the recognition of this inveterate mendaciousness that one despairs of shedding becomes a stimulant.”

The main concern of Carr’s book is whether nihilism is considered a “crisis” with transformative and redemptive powers (as per Nietzsche or Karl Barth) or instead a “rather banal characterization of the human situation” that needs to be welcomed and celebrated as an antidote to dogmatism, a view she associates with the writings of Richard Rorty and contemporary deconstructionists and  anti-foundationalists. Carr herself does not welcome this “joyous affirmation” of nihilism because she believes that such an anti-dogmatic position produces the paradoxical effect of reinforcing “dominant social beliefs and practices of our culture” and the “absolutization of the dominant power structures of the culture to which we belong” because it cannot appeal to any critical (objective) standard outside of itself.

Carr’s position is puzzling for a number of reasons. It is not clear at all that nihilism would have the effect of reinforcing existing power structures. Most power structures and cultural norms are in fact based on residual beliefs about objective morality. It is also not clear why an abandonment of truth would have a reinforcing effect instead of a transformative effect. Carr herself writes that “one is left with simply the blind assertion of one’s private will; if the particular community to which one belongs does not support one’s will, one simply finds (or creates) a community more sympathetic to one’s tastes.” But this scenario of continuous power struggle and creating one’s own communities sounds rather dynamic, not static.

What she really appears to fear is a situation where critical thinking with universalist aspirations is replaced by a more individualist Hobbesian perspective in which “disagreements…deteriorate into contents of power.” A more cynical (or “nihilistic”) observer may point out that this has always been the condition of mankind and that the kind of critical perspectives that she feels are needed have always been rhetorical tools in power struggles and lack credible cognitive merit.

She approvingly quotes Thomas McCarthy who writes that “critical thought becomes aestheticized and privatized, deprived of any political or social implications. There can be no politically relevant critical theory and hence no theoretically-supported critical practice.” But is this a defect or a virtue of nihilism? Is this a disease or a cure? This assessment basically captures a modern, scientific, view of the world where morality and culture are an emergent property of evolution and politics can be best understood in a “contractarian” framework where individual preferences, coordination, and bargaining create moral and cultural conventions, an outlook that might be considered a major improvement over religion, or the vacuous nature of most “critical theory.”

Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness

Even people who are inclined to believe in a universal, objective foundation for morality are sometimes prone to the impression that in certain situations invoking “moral” arguments is rather insincere. For example, moral arguments in favor of (income) equality are often dismissed by libertarian-leaning individuals as just a sanitized expression of resentment and envy by “losers.” But can this argument be generalized? Is moral rhetoric simply a way of pulling someone’s leg, and often employed when faced with a poor bargaining position? In a remarkable experimental philosophy paper, Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness: Experimental Clues for an Ancient Puzzle (1997), Yanis Varoufakis throws some much-needed light on this topic.

A series of elegant games were designed to test the hypothesis that the “strong” would have a tendency to maximize their strategic advantage and the “weak” would have a tendency to choose “quasi-moral acts,” even when this is clearly against their own interests. In all three variants of the game, the cooperative solution was dominated by the solution to “cheat” but, quite remarkably, as the incentive of the “strong” to “cheat” increased, the “weak” displayed even more “cooperating” behavior. In the third version of the game, the tendency of the “weak” to cooperate slightly declined but this was only because the payoff for the “strong” to cheat was decreased (but still a dominating strategy). Since the participants of the game alternated between being “strong” and being “weak,” and long-term reputation effects were ruled out by not allowing the same pair of players to play the game twice in a row, we cannot claim that different kinds of people will play the game differently, or that the cooperative behavior of the “weak” was motivated by reputation effects. And since players varied their strategy depending on whether they were in a strong or weak bargaining position, moral theories that would predict that players in both roles would recognize the value of having a cooperative disposition (a la David Gauthier) can be dismissed, too.

Since it never makes sense in these games to cooperate against an uncooperative opponent, the most credible explanation of the “weak” to often cooperate is that this kind of behavior (or rhetoric) comes with being in an “unfavorable” strategic situation (i.e., one’s “social location.”) As the author of the paper notes, “Many (and on occasion most) of our participants swapped happily their cooperative choices for strategic aggression when they moved from the weaker to the stronger role.”

What to make of these results? For one thing, they could be seen as evidence that “power corrupts” and that the (formerly) “oppressed” will exhibit the same kind of aggressive behavior when they are in a position to become the oppressors. This is a popular view, and it does not seem these experimental results contradict it. This perspective also seems to reinforce political views that aim for the abolition of political power (anarchism) instead of giving all people (as represented by parties or coalitions) equal access to it (democracy). Of course, differences in bargaining power do not disappear in the absence of political power so even in a stateless society we would still expect to see the tendency of those in a strategically “weak” position to moralize. Also, in the real world there will often be “reputation” effects, and we would also expect people with natural (hereditary) advantages to find themselves more often in a stronger bargaining position.

It is undeniable, however, that “moral rhetoric” is often used by those in power (sometimes even more so), too, instead of just naked appeals to strategic advantage.  In a sense one could argue that in modern societies the division of resources is not exclusively settled by strategic advantage (or strength) but by a combination of strategic self-interest and moral rhetoric. We then would expect political actors that reconcile self-interest (or group interest) with evolved (“hardwired”)  moral outlooks (egalitarianism) to prevail.

Experimental evidence that those in a weak strategic position tend to play the “morality card” does not necessarily imply that the idea of a objective morality is a chimera. Many people still seem to believe that universal normative ethics is possible. On the other hand, a position of moral skepticism or moral nihilism does not mean that morality can be exclusively explained as a (psychological) response to a weak strategic position. In this sense, studies like these cannot provide definitive answers concerning the truth value of normative statements (or the lack thereof) or the evolutionary psychology of  moralizing. Also, the tendency to cooperate is not identical to moral rhetoric (or moral behavior in general) and additional research is needed to further differentiate between the two in the face of strategic weakness.

Our best understanding of moral behavior at this time is that it is an outcome of evolution and specific to species and their life history. In such an evolutionary perspective the question of which moral perspective is “correct” simply does not make sense. As this understanding of morality will come to dominate in society, bargaining will gradually come to replace traditional ethics and moral rhetoric will increasingly be seen as either ignorant or (deliberate) manipulation. Such a development  could be classified as the end of “morality” as we know it, but it can also been as the beginning of an era where modern (secular) humans arrive at a new understanding of what morality means. It is difficult to predict what a society will look like in which “a-moral” humans settle disagreements and conflicts about scarce resources exclusively by strategic interaction and conventions, but some efforts to understand and predict this have been made by writers like David Gauthier, Anthony de Jasay, and James Buchanan (albeit from different perspectives).

David Gauthier revisits Morals by Agreement

“The prohibition on bettering by worsening seems to me to lie at the core of any adequate social morality.” David Gauthier, 2013

In may 2011, the York University in Toronto organized a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement. Gauthier’s own contribution to the conference, “Twenty-Five On,” was published in the July 2013 issue of Ethics. Since Gauthier has only sporadically published since the start of this millennium, his article provides a valuable resource to understand how Gauthier’s views have changed since the publication of Morals by Agreement.

Gauthier identifies his contractarian approach as an alternative to both “Kantianism or utilitarianism” and contrasts the maximization paradigm of classical game theory with Pareto-optimization:

“Instead of supposing that an action is rational only if it maximizes the agent’s payoff given the actions of the other agents, I am proposing that a set of actions, one for each agent, is fully rational only if it yields a Pareto-optimal outcome….To the maximizer’s charge that it cannot be rational for a person to take less than he can get, the Pareto-optimizer replies that it cannot be rational for each of a group of persons to take less than, acting together, each can get.”

Gauthier’s rational cooperators (the updated version of his “constrained maximizers”) do do not “bargain” and interact on a maximizing basis but seek agreement using the principle of “maximin proportionate gain” (previously called “maximin relative benefit”). Unlike in Morals by Agreement, Gauthier does not really discuss under which conditions these issues are relevant, but perhaps they comes into play in the production of “public goods.” After all, as has been argued by philosophers such as Jan Narveson, without such an argument, Gauthier’s Lockean proviso can do all the important work without having to consider the distribution of goods arising from public action. As Anthony de Jasay has written:

“Output is distributed while it is produced. Wage earners get some of it as wages in exchange for their efforts; owners of capital get some of it as interest and rent in exchange for past saving. Entrepreneurs get the residual as profit in exchange for organization and risk bearing. By the time the cake is “baked,” it is also sliced and those who played a part in baking it have all got their slices. No distributive decision is missing, left over for “society” to take.”

Interestingly enough, Gauthier has strengthened the role of his revised Lockean proviso:

“The proviso is not the whole of morality or even the last word, but it is, I believe, the first word. It provides a default condition that may be appealed to set a baseline for social interaction.”

It does not seem Gauthier has substantially revised his interpretation of the Lockean proviso. In a nutshell, the proviso forbids bettering oneself at the expense of another person. As such, the proviso can be “sharpened as a weapon of reason against parasitism.” As Gauthier appears to recognize in his discussion of “Robin Hood,” the proviso does not seem to leave much room for coerced income re-distribution where one party is worsened for the benefit of another (provided the proviso was not violated prior to this action). In his final remarks in an online discussion that his paper triggered, he writes:

“Any form of redistribution may involve a proviso violation, and so is prima facie wrong. Whether the violation is actually justified depends on (among other considerations) whether it rectifies an earlier wrong.”

While Gauthier has often followed John Rawls in characterizing society as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” he now prefers the phrase “mutual fulfillment” because mutual advantage puts too much emphasis on “competitive or positional orientation” and is too restrictive. This change of wording, however, does not fundamentally change the contractarian framework that Gauthier advocates. In fact, one could argue that the word “contractarianism” suffers from a similar defect in characterizing his approach to morality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this paper is where Gauthier reflects on the nature of his contractarian enterprise. In Gauthier’s opinion, absent a plausible justification of Kantian and utilitarian approaches, the Hobbesian contractarian approach is the only credible road to construct a modern, rational, approach to morality. As evidenced by his emphasis on the Lockean proviso, Gauthier’s contractarianism is not aimed at conferring legitimacy on whatever outcome results from markets and bargaining because this would privilege conditions that reflect prior violations of the provis. As such, his contractarianism is not an exclusive forward-looking approach using the status quo as a starting point. He writes:

“The key idea is that the best justification we can offer for any expectation or requirement is that it could be agreed to, or follow from what could be agreed to, by the persons subject to it, were they to be choosing, ex ante, together with their fellows, the terms of their (subsequent) cooperation. The hypothetical nature of the justification is clear—if, per impossible, you were to be choosing, together with your fellow humans, the terms on which you would interact with them, then what terms would you accept? Those are the terms of rational acceptance, the terms that you, as a cooperator, have good reason to accept given that others have like reason. “

In reality this requirement can, of course, produce vigorous discussion because it is rather challenging to objectively demonstrate who has unjustly benefited from violations of the proviso/contractarian approach and to what degree. This challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that over time groups that were deprived of their liberties have now been granted special privileges by governments to offset such events. It also not clear how the individualist assumption embodied in Gauthier’s contractarianism can be squared with compensating victims (ranging from taxpayers to minority groups) by any other person than the specific individual(s) who engaged in behavior that violated the proviso.

Gauthier discusses three different objections to his contractarian approach.

The first is the objection that only actual contracts are binding. Gauthier replies that “actual agreement would not show that the terms agreed to were rational, since it privileges existing circumstances. The contractarian test, in taking the ex ante perspective, removes that privilege.” This perspective may sound overly optimistic because it requires that people who think about ex-ante agreement reach a specific determinate result (see below). In response to Gauthier, however, one could argue that there is an interesting asymmetry here. While the existence of a contract does not necessarily reflect (non-coerced) rational agreement, a person who denies and can demonstrate not having agreed to a certain obligation (as is the case with most government obligations) provides reasonably good evidence that the contractarian test has failed.

A second objection to the contractarian framework is that it is redundant. If it is rational to act in a certain way, than the appeal of a social contract is superfluous. Gauthier answers that this misses the point because individual rational behavior will not tell us what it would be rational to agree under “suitably constrained circumstances.” As with the first objection, it is clear that Gauthier, like Rawls, wants to push the reset button on existing circumstances to allow for a social agreement that does not privilege existing conditions. What is really important for Gauthier is to show that a rejection of existing conditions as a starting point does not follow from an (arbitrary) moral conviction but is required by his contractarian framework, a non-trivial challenge.

The third objection, and in my opinion the strongest, is that an appeal to ex-ante agreement does not yield a sufficiently determined result. One might even go further and argue that the substance of hypothetical agreements cannot be established in a meaningful fashion.

Gauthier disagrees and refers the reader to his paper on “Political Contractarianism,” where he outlines which kind of society would pass the contractarian test. Most readers read some kind of (moderate) libertarianism in his political writings (he also wrote a back cover endorsement of Jan Narveson’s “The Libertarian Idea”) so it would seem that in Gauthier’s view rational agreement produces classical liberalism, perhaps with some allowance for a very limited welfare state based on mutual insurance arguments (Gauthier’s own writings are not particularly clear here).

Gauthier may not sufficiently recognize that his emphasis on voluntary association, the Lockean proviso, and rejection of parasitism puts him at odds with many other philosophers and people. In particular, his position that there is a morally relevant distinction between “harming” and “failing to help” is a core libertarian belief that is not shared by many. When most people think about a (hypothetical) social contract they do not think about the terms of interaction (like Robert Nozick’s side constraints) but about specific conditions they would like society to conform to such as equality of opportunity or equality of income. Absent these conditions, they will “reject’ the society they live in, regardless of whether such conditions can occur without worsening the position of anyone. Similarly, Gauthier’s writings strongly reflect the perspective that non-zero sum interactions between people prevail in markets that pass the contractarian test, a position that does not seem to resonate with many people yet.

Both Gauthier’s approach to morality and his view of society as a cooperative venture for mutual fulfillment is far removed from the democratic “churning society” that we live in today. Gauthier seems to be very much a philosopher of the future, or of a society with people of high intelligence. This would be consistent with Steven Pinker’s perspective, who writes in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that the General Social Survey, which tracks the characteristics of society in the United States, contains hints that “intelligence tracks classical liberalism more closely than left-liberalism” (p. 663).

Buddhism, science, and the political mind

One of the complaints about science is that it does not offer any moral guidance. It can describe reality and causal relationships but it does not tell us how we should behave. One can accept such a situation as a fact of life but most people are drawn towards belief systems that do offer such moral guidance. What is interesting about Buddhism, or at least its more (modern) secular versions, is that it both seeks to understand reality and to offer moral and “spiritual” guidance as well. This of course presents a problem. Science also seeks to understand reality but the consensus is that if there is anything we are learning about reality it is that life has no objective meaning and the idea of objective, person-independent morality is an illusion.

One of the perplexing things about Buddhism is the assumption that gaining a correct understanding of Reality (typically written with a capital R) will trigger a corresponding change in our moral outlook. For example, when a person comes to realize that the “self” is an illusion, a lot of moral misconduct will disappear. Unfortunately, getting rid of such “illusions” about the self is neither sufficient nor necessary for moral progress. Great moral progress has been made in countries where people are firm believers in the existence of an unchanging self and many moral defects have been identified in countries where a belief in the illusion of the self is encouraged. In fact, the belief in a self is interesting because it has been both praised as a guard against nihilism and as an illusion that undermines morality.

Despite its appearance of being a secular open-minded belief system, Buddhism rests on a rather strong premise about the beneficial effects of seeing the “real” nature of reality. But contemporary science does not support such strong statements about reality. Like any other topic in science, our understanding of reality is subject to continuous revision. It might even be possible that we live in a computer simulation and “reality” outside of it is quite different from what Buddhists believe.

One of the most level-headed discussions of Buddhism and science is Donald S. Lopez’s Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. This book is a detailed exposition of the history of discussions about the compatibility of Buddhism and science. The author recognizes that the position that Buddhism  is compatible with, or even supported by, science is as old as Buddhism itself and provides reasons why Buddhism more than any other “religion” is prone to such statements. In the end, however, Buddhism is recognized as a rather diverse and dynamic belief system and whether it is compatible with science depends on what is exactly meant by “science” and “Buddhism.” It is clear that a lot of historical expositions of Buddhism contain claims that are now known to be scientifically incorrect.  This raises the question how much of Buddhism can be rejected before it is no longer Buddhism.

One of the most uncomfortable claims in Buddhism concern the origin and nature of the universe. As Lopez writes, “all of the religions of the world asserted that the world is flat. This belief, in turn, was held so tenaciously that when it was first suggested that the world is not flat, those who made such a suggestion were executed.” Most secular Buddhists would not mind claiming that the Buddha was wrong about this and that these beliefs are not the essential doctrines of Buddhism, but as Lopez writes, “yet once the process of demythologizing begins, once the process of deciding between the essential and inessential is under way, it often difficult to know where to stop.” Which raises, once more, the question of why not to reject Buddhism completely and embrace a thorough scientific, empiricist perspective on life.

A counter argument is that Buddhism offers things that science cannot offer such as deeper metaphysical insights into the nature of reality and ethical truths. But the modern scientific mind is exactly distinguished by claiming that no objective truths should be expected here. In particular, there is no credible method, to deduce such ethical truths from metaphysical “facts.” There are not many rigorous analytic philosophical treatments of Buddhism but those that exist, such as Mark Siderits’ Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction, have identified several problems and challenges. If Buddhism (even in its most modern, secular, form) is subjected to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Carnap, and Kant it is not likely that it can survive in its current form. At best it will be just another philosophical “school.”

A very sympathetic account of Buddhism, and its relation to contemporary (neuro)science and philosophy is Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Flanagan goes out of his way to give the most charitable reading of modern secular Buddhism but in the end he confesses, “I still do not see, despite trying to see for many years, why understanding the impermanence of everything including myself makes a life of maximal compassion more rational than a life of hedonism.” Perhaps this is because there simply is no necessary, logical, connection between recognizing the nature of Reality and specific moral and lifestyle choices. While Buddhists usually do not like being accused of being negative and pessimistic it can hardly be denied that more cheerful, care-free, implications of the idea of impermanence can be imagined (and have been imagined).

How would Buddhism look like if it really would be serious about making adjustments to its (core) beliefs based on science? For starters, it would treat each belief as an hypothesis that is calibrated when new evidence becomes available. But how many Buddhist publications are really serious about this? Such work is typically done by sympathetic outsiders but the result never produces a full endorsement of core Buddhist beliefs. Although Buddhism seems to be able to survive in a modern secular society it still has its share of ex-Buddhists who feel that it is still too dogmatic and unscientific. In his article “Why I ditched Buddhism” John Horgan writes:

“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”

There is one element in Buddhist thinking, however, that can throw an interesting light on the “political mind.” Buddhism is not explicitly political although some followers have made attempts to politicize it, culminating in a rather artificial movement called “Engaged Buddhism.” Buddhism teaches that nothing in reality is permanent and emphasizes the continuous birth, transformation, and rebirth of things. What sets the political mind apart is that it looks at society as a whole and wants it to conform to an arbitrary idea about political justice or efficiency. While this aim can be even perceived as unrealistic and delusional for a small group, it borders on insanity for a world composed of billions of people. When political activists recognize that the world cannot be easily manipulated in such a fashion, or run into the unintended consequences of their policies, frustration, anger, and violence often ensue. This “thirst” for control of the external world has often been ridiculed by Zen Buddhist monks and this kind of “suffering” can be successfully eliminated if the ever-changing nature of reality is recognized.

There is a growing literature about the psychology and even neuroscience of political beliefs but much of this work does not examine the most basic questions. What exactly is a political belief (or ideology)? Why do some people choose political engagement and others seek to make less grandiose changes to their personal lives and environment? Can political ideals be satisfied or does the ever-changing nature of reality (and slight deviations from any ideal) suggest that politically engaged people chase an illusion and political happiness will be brief at best. To my knowledge, there have not been many publications in which Buddhist premises have been employed to argue against the idea of political ideology and “activism”, although it seems an interesting connection to make. Such a Buddhist argument would solely emphasize personal kindness instead of the (futile) desire to make the world conform to a specific idea (and the ensuing “suffering” if reality does not want to conform).