Book Review: The Buddhist and the Ethicist: Conversations on Effective Altruism, Engaged Buddhism, and How to Build a Better World

- through Francois Leclercq

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On December 12, 2023, Shambhala Publications published The Buddhist and the Ethicist: Conversations on Effective Altruism, Engaged Buddhism, and How to Build a Better World by Peter Singer and Shih Chao-Hwei.


This book features Shih Chao-Hwei, a Buddhist monk, scholar, social activist, professor at Hsuan Chuang University and founder of Hong Shih Buddha College, and Peter Singer, recognized as the "father of the modern animal protection movement" and an eminent philosopher. Singer, recognized for his influential and sometimes controversial work on bioethics and animal rights, as a professor of non-religious philosophy, explores his affinity for Buddhism despite initial skepticism, finding common ground on ethical considerations. The dialogues in this book cover a range of topics, including animal rights, gender equality, and various moral dilemmas. The collaboration, initiated at Bodhi Monastery in Taiwan in 2016, reflects a meeting of minds bridging cultural and philosophical divides over five years.

The collaborative effort involved meticulous transcriptions due to language barriers, ultimately translated by Yuan Shiao-Ching, and critical discussions during this period that both deepened and probed each person's thinking.

This book contains topics that some may find difficult or triggering, including suicide, abortion, animal cruelty, and eugenics. These are nonetheless provocative topics that any atheist or Buddhist will inevitably end up examining, and how Buddhist precepts from around two and a half thousand years ago are valid today, without seeming somewhat sanctimonious and inappropriate. in the contemporary context.

The book reads like a scripted dialogue or transcript of a private conversation, providing readers with insight into the exceptionally polite and respectful exchange between Singer and Ven. Chao-Hwei. The tone of the conversation seems to take a question-and-answer structure, where Singer seeks Ven. Chao-Hwei's reflections which consist of Buddhist tales as well as his own experiences, and the questions are reiterated in the answers, it is assumed to emphasize his understanding, but also useful for a neophyte Buddhist audience. Fri. Chao-Hwei comes across as a well-researched and informed Buddhist, seamlessly blending Western psychology with strict Buddhist perspectives.

3. Ven. Chao-Hwei. From Initium Media

The book opens with an examination of the convergence and divergence between Buddhist ethics and utilitarianism, where their discussion covers ethical scenarios, such as the sacrifice of one innocent life to save many, revealing the complexity of decision-making and the subjective nature of ethical judgments, before moving forward. logically to concepts such as karma, equal rights and gender judgments, through to the dilemma surrounding meat consumption within Buddhist communities, including monks, and the perceived inaction of Buddhist leaders in the face of to this concern.

The juxtaposition of utilitarianism with Buddhists' perceived emphasis on contemplation rather than activism highlights a significant disparity in their approaches to bringing about positive societal change. If it is deemed acceptable to eat the flesh of another living being, how and where do we draw the line between staying alive and killing? And where does this argument end? In a respectful environment where we don't want to waste, should we still eat the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, or do we live in a world where, thanks to advances in many areas, many of us have a choice? We despise the cruelty inflicted on animals, but remain blind to the meat sandwich we consume.

The dialogues were informative enough to provoke thought in many areas. One example was the section dealing with the Chinese Mahayana practice of compassionate or merciful liberation. It brought back memories of my time in Brittany, a region known for its seafood-centric culture due to its location in the northwest peninsula of France. Unlike the selfish or harmful situations cited by Ven. Chao-Hwei, where the practice has often become a selfish act, or resembles a business reminiscent of fox hunting where the fox is captured to be released in front of a pack of hungry dogs for the hunt, local Breton Buddhists practice releasing wild-caught crabs and marine life. Caught by local fishermen, delivered to local supermarkets and kept alive, they are quickly purchased by Buddhists and released into safer coastal waters. This is surely a small example of sincere compassion in action without any religion being necessary. No crabs are needed either so we can do equally small but meaningful acts of kindness.

Peter Singer with a copy of “The Buddhist and the Ethicist.” From LinkedIn

I've been a vegetarian my whole life, so naturally, this conversation intrigued me. However, the talk about gender equality caught my attention even more, and I found myself not only agreeing with Ven. Chao-Hwei, but also encouraged by the fearless stance she takes on many misogynistic issues. Over the years, I have discussed these issues often, and seeing them boldly addressed by this courageous woman was incredibly empowering. Deep-rooted misogyny, established millennia ago*, persists in a state of non-evolution and insecurity, casting a shadow over the lives of countless women and causing immense suffering to too many, whatever their religion or life path. And religions like Buddhism should know not to get caught up in the illusion of gender and separatism.

As for the other topics covered in this talk, they are not only of valuable interest, but ultimately serve as a springboard from which we can dive into our own deep thoughts and get our uncomfortable synapses moving.

As a lifelong philosopher introduced to Buddhism from a young age when Geshe Namgyal Wangchen lived with us in our family home, I looked forward to reading this book. The thought-provoking topics presented provide an excellent introduction for those intrigued by either perspective, whether seeking a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy or, like any engaging debate, wanting to explore two viewpoints reflect to broaden their own thinking. My feeling is that the book and discussion are presented in a way that helps the reader do just that.

The book features fascinating discussions between an incredibly progressive Buddhist woman and a man who thinks more broadly than many. Even though, as a woman, I feel in agreement with the feminist opinions proposed by Shih Chao-Hwei, I could not help but wonder, and even almost be amused at the idea, if this book was a conversation between a traditional monk and an atheist. like Germaine Greer. Or even Richard Dawkins, how differently the book would read.

Ultimately, this is a five-year, deeply thoughtful conversation between two intelligent and keen minds that is wonderful to witness, with questions that would get us all thinking actively.

*An upcoming review is The Gathering: A History of Early Buddhist Women by Vanessa R. Sasson.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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