I advocate a naturalized, pragmatic, and humanistic understanding of Buddhism. That is, Buddhism as a way of life that enhances personal and social flourishing. By personal flourishing, I mean living lives that are emotionally satisfying, meaningful, psychologically rich, and attentive to the moral and aesthetic possibilities in each moment. Lives that embrace the Buddhist values of compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity, non-greed, non-hatred, non-harming, truthfulness, patience, persistence, and generosity and appreciate the Buddhist wisdom of our interdependence with all beings and the Earth. Lives that guided by an ethic of care for the people, things, and conditions that fall within the circle of our lives. By collective flourishing, I mean co-creating the social conditions that allow everyone to flourish. We are responsible for each other and for co-creating the world we want our children and grandchildren to inherit.
I think we should view every personal action we take as a vote for the future we will inhabit. Every dollar we spend casts a vote for the future: is what we are buying really wholesome and beneficial? Does the company that makes it care for its workers and the environment? What does it lobby for in Washington? Does the career we’ve chosen contribute to other’s wellbeing or just make us wealthy? Do the foods we eat support inhumane factory farming? Does our home use renewable energy? Every conversation we engage in also contributes to making the future better or worse.
We can also join together with others in collective action to change public opinion, or petition governments, or sustain organizations pursuing justice. But it’s important we do so in the right sort of way. We shouldn’t fight against or hate others but be motivated by an ethic of care. We shouldn’t argue with others—argument never changes hearts or minds—but we can always plant seeds, explaining how and why we see things differently. And having these conversations means listening as well as explaining. We have something to learn from everyone, even—maybe even especially—those we disagree with.
Finally, we need a realistic theory of how societies change. Societies can never reinvent themselves de novo but can only evolve from where they are as conditions allow. Some people think we need revolutionary solutions—but after the Russian Revolution, Russia is still very much Russia; after the French Revolution, France is still very much France. I wish I could be more optimistic about the theory that if we burn everything down, something better will arise from the ashes, but there are no historical examples of this happening.
We need a long-term perspective on social change. The abolition of slavery, the establishment of the woman’s right to vote, gay marriage, and publicly funded healthcare were all long-term projects that took 50, 75, and 100 years to reach their initial goals, and even now the complete set of these goals remain unfinished everywhere in the world.
Why did the British slave trade end in 1807, and not twenty-five, fifty, or 100 years earlier? Why did the 15th amendment to the U.S. constitution guarantee Black males the right to vote and not women? The answers to these questions point to a long list of historical contingencies—changes in attitudes, beliefs, habits, norms, morals, technology, economics, demographics, and international relations that had to occur before these projects could reach fruition. All of these movements also required dedicated vanguards working to mobilize public opinion over long horizons of time, but that alone was never enough.
As we look at the sweep of history—of the rise and fall of Athens and Rome; or two millennia of centralized Chinese governments from the Han Dynasty to Xi Jing Ping; or 500 years of Russian autocracy from Ivan the Terrible through Stalin to Putin—we see no gradual movement towards better and happier societies—just the successive rise and fall of everything. Our contemporary dream of nudging society towards greater political and economic equality, of bending the arc of history towards greater justice, is an important part of modernity. But we have to bear in mind that every progressive movement creates a backlash—like the Thermidorian reaction to the French Revolution—that can overwhelm progress towards greater fairness if social action isn’t accompanied by the wisdom Aristotle called phronesis or practical reason.
It's been the same with every vanguard movement to improve the state of society—the Confucian project during Warring States China, the clerical project during the Protestant Reformation, the Bolshevik project during the Russian Revolution, and the Evangelical project during the American temperance movement. There vanguard movements tried to transform society by sermonizing, scolding, criticizing, shaming, and ostracizing—and at times the Gulag and guillotine. Progressive attempts to reform Americans by cleansing them of the sins of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia bear a significant resemblance to these past crusades.
As much as vanguard movements try, people stubbornly resist being coerced into improvement. They don’t want to be scolded, shamed, and preached to, confess their sins, or be made into ‘better people.’ They just want to be left alone to live their lives without hectoring and interference. A good deal of current right-wing populism reflects this kind of resistance and resentment over attempts to make them over into more ‘enlightened’ people.
This doesn’t mean reform never succeeds. The temperance movement greatly reduced American alcohol consumption. The Protestant Reformation made Northern Europeans more thrifty, sober, and hard-working. These movements were all aspects of the longer-term project we call civilization: the turning of brawling, drunken brutes into people fit for polite society.
Civilization comes with a price, however, and we shouldn’t be surprised when people resent elites intent on their betterment. This is an argument for adopting a more charitable approach to civilizational improvement with less scolding, shaming, and ostracism—more carrot than stick; more positive reinforcement than punishment; more ‘God loves you’ than hellfire and brimstone.
We will never abolish capitalism or neoliberalism, just as no one ever abolished feudalism or mercantilism. Capitalism and neoliberalism will one day evolve into something else—just as feudalism evolved into mercantilism and mercantilism into capitalism. Rather than talking about abolishing private property, the profit motive, globalism, or multinational corporations, let’s talk about establishing limits on and gradually transforming capitalist economic power by strengthening ‘countervailing’ powers—labor unions, environmental groups, government anti-trust watchdogs, political parties that support progressive taxation. This calls for an evolution in our understanding of ethics and arriving at a new consensus on what it means to be moral people a deeply interconnected world.
Perhaps you thought Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren was the best candidate in 2020. Sanders and Warren didn’t win because a majority of Democratic primary voters didn’t want them to. If we are going to get to a place where a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren could win primaries and elections, a lot of people will have to think differently about what’s best for society, and this requires a long-term educational project—a project that might take lifetimes.
You might think we don’t have the time for it—global warming will end civilization as we know it before we ever get there. That might be true—but it doesn’t change the laws that govern how societies evolve. Ninety-nine percent of all the species that have ever lived on earth are now extinct. There is no reason why, from evolution’s point of view, that might also not happen to us.
There are no guarantees of success. History does not give us many reasons to believe in happy endings. But for Buddhists—success or failure—our job is always the same—to keep on showing up, keep on being mindful, keep on responding appropriately to each moment, and keep on being informed by the outcomes of our actions.
The Buddhist vision of flourishing is compelling, and so is our obligation to make the world better—but Buddhist teachings need to be supplemented by an adequate theory of social change. The particular vision I am presenting today is steeped in John Dewey’s pragmatism. Dewey was an activist—a founding member of the ACLU and the NAACP—but always a pragmatic one. Compassion alone is not enough and must be balanced by discerning wisdom.
I offer this vision for your consideration.
This article is the text of Seth Segall’s presentation on 12 October 2023 for an online course sponsored by the New York Insight Meditation Center, called At the Crossroads of Secular and Socially Engaged Buddhism.