“What’s all this love of arguing? No one ever convinces anyone else.”
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I view Buddhism as a path leading to enhanced personal and collective flourishing. The Buddhist vision of personal flourishing involves living lives that embody compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity, nongreed, nonhatred, nonharming, truthfulness, patience, persistence, and generosity, and that appreciates our interdependence with all beings and the Earth. These are lives guided by an ethic of care for the people, things, and conditions that fall within our purview. Collective flourishing involves cocreating the social conditions that nurture the possibility of flourishing for all beings. We are all responsible for each other and for cocreating the world we want our children and grandchildren to inherit.

It’s possible to think of our every action as if it were a vote for the future.

It’s possible to think of our every action as if it were a vote for the future. Every dollar we spend is a vote for a certain kind of future: Is the product we are buying wholesome and beneficial? Does the company that produces it care about its workers, the public, and the environment? What does it lobby for in Washington? Do the foods we buy support the humane treatment of animals? Does our home rely on renewable energy? We can also ask whether the career we’ve chosen contributes to the well-being of others. Every conversation we engage in also shapes the future by fostering either greater cooperation or animosity.

Beyond individual actions, we can also join together in collective action to change public opinion, petition governments, alter business practices, sustain organizations pursuing social justice, and build coalitions with groups with overlapping interests. Most of the important social advances of the past two centuries in America were the result of this kind of collective action, including universal secondary education, women’s suffrage, marriage equality, the right to collective bargaining, and the abolition of legal racial segregation. But it’s important that we engage in collective action in the right sort of way. Whenever possible, our actions are best guided, as much as possible, by an ethic of care, and not by anger, hatred, and resentment. Here, it’s best to recall the words of the Dhammapada, that “hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through nonhostility.” It’s best to avoid arguing with others—arguing rarely changes hearts and minds. Instead, we can think of our conversations with those we disagree with as planting seeds—we don’t seek to convert or defeat others but explain how and why we see things differently. And conversing means listening as well as explaining. We have something to learn from everyone, even—maybe even especially—those we disagree with.

We also need a realistic theory of how societies change. Societies can never reinvent themselves de novo but can evolve only from where they are as political, economic, sociological, historical, and psychological conditions allow. The abolition of slavery, the establishment of women’s suffrage, the wider acceptance of gay and trans rights, and the introduction of Medicare were all long-term projects that took fifty, seventy-five, and one hundred years from their inception to attain their initial realization—a realization that still remains incomplete.

Why did the British slave trade end in 1807, and not twenty-five, fifty, or one hundred years earlier? Why did the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantee Black males the right to vote but not women? The answers to these questions point to a long list of historical contingencies—changes in attitudes, beliefs, habits, norms, customs, morals, technology, economics, power dynamics, and demographics that had to occur before these projects could reach initial fruition. These movements would never have succeeded without zealous advocates working to mobilize public opinion over long horizons of time—but zealous advocacy alone was never enough.

ur contemporary dream of bending the arc of history toward greater justice is a crucial aspect of the modern moral imagination. Every forward movement, however, can inadvertently trigger its own backlash—like the Thermidorian reaction to the French Revolution—a backlash that undoes progress and sets the clock backwards. Social action needs to be mediated by practical reason—the careful calibration of strategy and tactics while weighing the array of supportive and resistant social forces.

History is filled with accounts of vanguard movements that aimed at social improvement. The Confucian project during the Warring States period in China, the clerical project during the Protestant Reformation, the Bolshevik project during the Russian Revolution, and the Evangelical project during the American temperance movement are just a few examples. These movements tried to uplift society through teaching, sermonizing, scolding, criticizing, shaming, and ostracizing—and sometimes the gulag and guillotine.

Contemporary attempts to cleanse Americans of their sins of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia bear a significant resemblance to these earlier crusades. As much as vanguard movements try, it’s human nature to stubbornly resist being coerced into improvement. People don’t want to be scolded, shamed, or be made into “better people.” They mostly want to be left to live their lives without interference and in accord with beliefs and customs they think have been in existence since time immemorial. Some right-wing populism reflects this kind of resentment over attempts to make them over into more “enlightened people.”

This doesn’t mean reform never succeeds. The temperance movement greatly reduced the average amount Americans drink. The Protestant Reformation remade Northern Europeans into more thrifty, sober, and hardworking people. The Confucians had an influence on Chinese society that has lasted over two millennia. These movements were aspects of the longer-term project we call civilization, but civilization always comes with a price. We shouldn’t be surprised when people resent elites intent on their betterment. This is an argument for a more charitable approach to civilizational improvement—one with less scolding, shaming, and ostracism—more carrot than stick.

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) was a pessimist about civilizational improvement. He thought appeals to reason and ethics rarely improve the behavior of social groups, and that the fates of societies are determined more by power dynamics than appeals to justice and reason. He argued that no ascendent social group (be they feudal landowners; hereditary aristocrats; bankers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs; professionals and technocrats; commissars and apparatchiks; slave owners; or dominant ethnic and racial groups) has ever ceded its power and privilege voluntarily. He also believed that no minority ever surrendered to a majority without social coercion or the naked use of force. Every ascendent social group devises seemingly convincing justifications as to why they and not others are on top. A disadvantaged group may resort to violence to attain justice, but Niebuhr believed revolutions—more often than not—just replaced one master with another and exchanged one form of injustice for another.

Many progressives believe ending capitalism will lead to a more just society.

Many progressives believe ending capitalism will lead to a more just society. Modern capitalism involves a large number of interlocking institutions, customs, beliefs, practices, and norms that evolved over centuries. It can never be abolished through some act of political will, just as feudalism and mercantilism were never abolished through deliberate intention. Attempts to intentionally abolish it—as in the Russian collectivization of farming or the Chinese Cultural Revolution—generally turn out to be disasters. Capitalism will eventually evolve, for better or worse, into something else—just as feudalism evolved into mercantilism and mercantilism into capitalism. Rather than abolishing private property, the financial system, the profit motive, globalism, or the modern corporation, it makes better sense to establish limits on them, gradually transforming capitalist economic power by strengthening the countervailing powers of labor unions, consumer and environmental groups, government antitrust watchdogs, and political parties favoring progressive taxation. This will involve an evolution in our understanding of ethics and a new consensus on what it means to be moral people in a pluralistic and deeply interconnected world. Buddhist ethics, with its emphases on nongreed and interdependence, has an important contribution to make in this evolution.

Arriving at this new consensus is a long-term project that might take decades—perhaps lifetimes—to achieve. Perhaps we don’t have enough time for that—perhaps global warming, or nuclear war, or some other human-caused catastrophe will destroy our possibilities for a better life before we ever get there. While this might be true, it doesn’t change the inertia that always stands in the way of social evolution. You can’t get to a new set of arrangements without first laying the groundwork for new sets of beliefs, customs, and norms, creating new sets of practices and institutions, and getting buy-in from powerful social groups. All this takes time, and there are never any guarantees for success. History provides us with few reasons for optimism. But for Buddhists, our job—despite the odds—is always the same: to keep showing up, keep being mindful, keep responding appropriately to each moment with wisdom and compassion, and keep being informed by the outcomes of our actions. The Buddhist vision of collective flourishing is compelling, as is our obligation to try to make the world better—but this Buddhist vision needs to be accompanied by an adequate theory of social change.

The approach I am defending here is steeped in the liberal tradition of John Dewey and Isaiah Berlin. American philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) was a liberal activist—a founding member of the ACLU, AAUP, and NAACP, and a president of the League for Industrial Democracy—but also a pragmatist. Pragmatists believe our visions of goodness, truth, and justice are limited by our fallible nature and the circumstances of our births. Social class, religion, ethnicity, race, gender, region, family dynamics, and education all color how we view the world, and, as such, we will always have conflicting opinions about how things ought to be. While we can never transcend this embeddedness in social history to achieve a god’s-eye view of truth, goodness, and justice, we can expand our narrow horizons through meaningful dialogue with those who disagree with us.

Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) thought that because our conflicting ideals do not form a single harmonious unity, people will always differ on which ideals to pursue and the trade-offs to make among them. For example, the relative importance of social equality and personal liberty will always be a point of contention—there is no absolutely correct way to get this balance right. Since conflicts between diverse social groups over the right way to live are inevitable, it helps to develop sets of norms, practices, and institutions that allow us to resolve conflicts through dialogue, coalition building, and compromise, and with as little coercion and violence as possible.

Liberal democracy is, in essence, a set of norms, practices, and institutions that allow diverse social groups to live side-by-side (and sometimes together) without killing each other. It is, as Winston Churchill suggested, “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Its greatest weakness is that it is incapable of inspiring the fervor and devotion that revolutionary, religious, fascistic, and nationalistic movements can. That’s because it offers no hope of an eventual utopia or final victory. All it offers is the possibility of gradual improvement through partially satisfying compromises along with the certainty of the continuation of some level of intergroup conflict. On the positive side, it is a pragmatic vision of how imperfect and contentious beings can gradually move toward greater justice under the right sets of circumstances. It agrees with Lyndon Johnson’s adage that politics is “the art of the possible.”

What does this mean for engaged Buddhists? It means there will always be a gap between our aspirations for society and the degree to which we can realize them. It means following the methods of nonviolent resistance developed by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.—a method that exerts force but minimizes the resentment force inevitably generates. It means that planting and cultivating the seeds for a better future involves engaging with people we disagree with. It suggests that we engage with them not as villains and enemies but as fellow imperfect beings. The Buddhist virtues of lovingkindness, right speech, and deep listening can help us in our task. Our enemies are the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion, and not the people who exhibit them—a class of people that necessarily includes us and everyone we know.

Adapted from an online presentation given for New York Insight Meditation Center.

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