“Ethics” is advertising


By “ethics,” in quotes, I mean talk about ethics, rather than what people actually do. This page explains “ethics” as signaling: personal advertisement. We all display “ethicalness” as a strategy for looking like attractive mates and coworkers, by signaling class status, tribal loyalty, and superior personality traits.

Although this post is part of a series on leftish “Buddhist ethics,” most of it applies equally to all ethical posturing. As you read it, you can imagine the small adjustments required for Christian rightish “ethics,” or for secular centrist “ethics.”

People really, really want Buddhism to be about ethics, even though it isn’t. Anyone who has read more than a couple Buddhist books knows:

  1. Consensus “Buddhist ethics” does not contradict leftish secular morality on any issue.
  2. Consensus “Buddhist ethics” contradicts traditional Buddhist morality on most issues.

From this, one ought to conclude that “Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist at all. It just is leftish secular morality. Calling it “Buddhist” does not make it so. Although most Buddhists know the facts, no one draws the obvious conclusion. Why do Buddhists want to pretend we have a distinctive “Buddhist ethics”?

No one notices the anomaly because no one takes “Buddhist ethics” seriously as ethics. When you, a leftish Westerner, gradually convert to Buddhism, “Buddhist ethics” never requires you to change your moral actions or ethical thinking. That’s very comfortable. You come to trust, without noticing the general pattern, that “Buddhist ethics” has no force. It is always safe to ignore it in practice. However, it needs to be referred to piously at ritually appropriate times.

So what is “Buddhist ethics” for?

This question is important, because Consensus Buddhism is roughly “meditation” plus “ethics.” For the Consensus, “what is Buddhist ethics for?” is half of the question “what is Buddhism for?”.

A non-Buddhist is more likely to put it differently: “Why are you a Buddhist?” That’s a question worth pondering.

They wouldn’t ask that unless you said you were a Buddhist. So, why do you say you are a Buddhist? (Or “are into Buddhism,” or “practice Buddhism.”)

That’s another interestingly different question. I think it contains the seed of the answer to “what is ‘Buddhist ethics’ for?”.

Brad Warner, my favorite Zen teacher, recently blogged about why people in small American towns say they are Christians:

Saying you’re a Christian in Foley, Alabama may not necessarily mean you’re a Christian as opposed to a Buddhist or Jew or Muslim, etc. Rather it may mean that you are attempting to align yourself with what you see as the more ethical, thoughtful and just generally decent members of your community rather than those elements who drink and curse and fight and generally cause a lot of problems for everybody else. Saying you’re a Christian in places like this usually means, I think, that you’re trying to be one of the good guys.

To them, the only people who try to be decent are the Christians (or whatever other religion they were raised among, but I’ll stick with the example I’m most familiar with). They have the experience that those who proclaim themselves not to be Christian are often lawless and unprincipled, disruptive to society, dangerous. To say you’re not a Christian is sort of like saying you don’t believe in the law. That could mean you’re capable of all sorts of criminal behavior from jaywalking right on up to murder and mayhem.

Saying you are a Christian in Berkeley, California1 has a different effect. Some people there interpret “Christian” as “homophobic racist who thinks corporations should be allowed to pollute as much as they like, and poor people should just starve to death.”

Let’s rewrite Warner’s explanation, for use in Berkeley:

Saying you are a Buddhist in Berkeley may not necessarily mean you’re a Buddhist as opposed to a feminist or New-Ager or anti-globalist, etc. Rather it may mean that you are attempting to align yourself with what you see as the more ethical, thoughtful and just generally decent members of your community rather than those elements who discriminate and exploit and harrass and generally cause a lot of problems for everybody else. Saying you’re a Buddhist in places like this usually means, I think, that you’re trying to be one of the good guys.

In other words, “Buddhist” in Berkeley means the same thing as “Christian” in Foley. Most Foley Christians may be ignorant of basic Christian doctrines, and rarely if ever go to church, but that’s not the point. Most Berkeley Buddhists may be ignorant of basic Buddhist doctrines, and rarely if ever go to a meditation group, but that’s not the point. That’s not what Buddhism is for. It’s a way of saying what sort of person you are. At least, that’s one thing it is for!

What is “I am a Buddhist” supposed to say about you? The rest of this page suggests that it is a statement of allegiance to the monist-leftist side of the American culture-war tribal split; it is a sign of moral piety; it is a claim for high status within the middle class; and it signifies particular personality traits such as openness and agreeableness.

This used to work well, because it was a “costly signal.” However, the strategy’s effectiveness has declined over time. Saying “I am a Buddhist” may now be heard as “I’m cowardly, disorganized, boring, and dumb.”

We can do better than that. At the end of this page, I’ll discuss better approaches to Buddhism, to ethics, and to communicating what sort of people we are.

Costly signaling

In economics and in evolutionary biology, “saying what sort of person you are” is called signaling.

People differ; and so we discriminate. We’d rather marry someone generous and considerate than someone selfish and oblivious. We prefer doctors who are knowledgeable and attentive to ones who are incompetent and arrogant. We don’t want to sleep with someone who “forgets” to mention they are married and have active herpes, or buy a used car from an acquaintance who has turned the odometer back.

In short, we would rather collaborate with good people than bad people. However, the people we want to collaborate with are more likely to cooperate if they think we’re good people. So everyone goes around saying “I’m good! I’m good!” a million times a day.

Except that it’s really easy to say “I’m good!” even if you aren’t. Bad people go around saying “I’m good!” all day too. How do you know who is telling the truth?

This is such a difficult and important problem that much of everyone’s day consists of trying to figure out whether other people are good, and trying to convince them that you are. How?

Someone saying “I’m good!” is not credible because it’s cheap and easy. (So no one says that literally.) You are more likely to be persuaded if you see them writing a check to a charitable organization, or if they spend a weekend volunteering with you at a homeless shelter. Those are costly signals—one in money, one in time.

Religion is a costly signal. Going to church every Sunday wastes much of your leisure time, and they want ten percent of your income. Meditation retreats take a whole weekend at least; they’re excruciatingly boring, physically painful, the food is usually awful, and you aren’t supposed to get high or or play video games. In both religions you have to sit through tiresome morality lectures and pretend to be nice to everyone. These are credible signals. If you know someone is religious, you know for sure something about them; no one would do those things unless they had a compelling reason. But what is religion signaling?

Partly—this should be obvious now—religiosity signals that you are ethical. That is mainly what Consensus “Buddhist ethics” was invented for. But why does it work? Why would you believe that someone who wastes a lot of time and money on religion is ethical, rather than stupid or crazy?

Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior gave me considerable insight into contemporary Buddhism. Mostly we buy and do things, he writes, not for their inherent qualities, but for what they say about us.

It may take some work to realize how pervasive this is; I recommend the book highly. Once you see it, our compulsive signaling is both funny and sad. It’s funny because mostly we are unaware of it; we deliberately blind ourselves to our own motives. It’s sad because we choose what to consume, and how we spend our time, in order to define what sort of person we are—rather than to enjoy ourselves. Mostly, we don’t even know what we actually like! Signaling is a dystopian arms race. Conspicuous waste (of time, attention, money, and physical resources) is one of its main mechanisms.2 If we could somehow all agree to stop, everyone could have better lives.

Miller’s first example—now a bit dated—is Glacéau™ SmartWater™. Drinking it signals healthiness, hipness, and sexiness. But it’s just distilled water with tiny amounts of three common minerals added. There’s nothing about the contents of the bottle that is healthy, hip, or sexual. The steep price tag is justified by branding. Branding is what associates a product with the particular personal qualities it signals. So how do you do that?

One way is with celebrity endorsement. SmartWater “is advertised with the image of a nearly nude Jennifer Aniston.”3 Does this make anyone believe SmartWater™ is “a magical intelligence-boosting elixir from the French Alps”?4 I doubt it. What does she know about health? Maybe some people are dumb enough to think SmartWater™ is something more than ordinary water, but that’s not the point. As a signal, it would work just as well if no one believed that.

Why? Because it’s expensive, and because everyone knows that everyone else knows that it signals healthiness, hipness, and sexiness. So everyone knows what it is meant to signal, and that it is a costly signal of that. And how does everyone know that?

Advertising. The point of most advertising is not to convince you a product is functionally superior. It is to inform you which unrelated, personal qualities the product signals. And why do you have to see the advertisement a dozen times before you buy? Because you need to be convinced that everyone else has seen it, so they know what your buying the product is supposed to mean.

Anyone can buy SmartWater™, even diabetic, clueless, ugly people. So even if we all know it’s meant to signal healthiness, hipness, and sexiness, why would anyone think you are healthy, hip, and sexy if they see you drinking it?

The stuff is expensive enough that for most people it forces trade-offs. If you drink SmartWater™, you must spend less on something else. This makes SmartWater™ a credible public display of your priorities. We know that you are making a significant effort to be seen as healthy, hip, and sexy, rather than (say) comfort-loving, reliable, and caring. Your attempt is only likely to work if you actually are at least somewhat healthy, hip, and sexy—because there’s lots of other ways we can check. So unless you are an idiot pursuing an obviously doomed strategy, the costliness of your effort makes the signal at least somewhat reliable.

And, of course, SmartWater™ is not your only signal. It works only as part of a lifestyle: a comprehensive package of healthiness-hipness-sexiness signals. Taken as a whole, a lifestyle is extremely expensive, and therefore a credible signal.

Um, yes, … so, about Buddhist ethics.


The Dalai Lama, as everyone knows, is a saint, and his omnipresent smiling face endorses Buddhism™, so it must be highly ethical. How do you know he is a saint? What, specifically, has he done that is unusually ethical? (I hope you find it a bit uncomfortable that you can’t answer this question.) We know he is a saint because he’s the official spokesperson for Buddhism™, which is an especially ethical religion. And we know it’s an especially ethical religion because he endorses it. Isn’t that interesting?

No one cares what the Dalai Lama actually says or thinks or does about ethics. (Which is why no one knows, and why you can get away with “quoting” him saying whatever vapid moralizing nonsense you like.) What matters is that everyone knows that everyone else knows he’s a symbol of ethicalness. (Everyone knows that because of a highly effective co-branding campaign he and the Consensus ran in the 1990s.) So by mentioning him reverentially, you can signal that you are at least trying to be perceived as ethical.

And, by saying “I am into Buddhism,” you at least “align yourself with what you see as the more ethical, thoughtful and just generally decent members of your community.”

But, talk is pretty cheap. To make your signal credible, you need to buy a whole lifestyle package. You need an ideology. To quote Miller:

Each individual’s ideology (religious, political, and philosophical beliefs) can be viewed as his ad campaign—designed not to convey verifiable news about the world, but to create positive emotional associations between the individual as product and the customer’s aesthetic, social, and moral aspirations. (p. 30)

Signaling tribal commitment

The Baby Boomer countercultures split the American middle class into two hostile tribes. Members of both considered anyone in the other tribe inherently immoral. With us, or against us! To be minimally acceptable as a human being, you had to demonstrate commitment to the correct side.

To count as a member in good standing of the monist (“left”) tribe, you needed to have the correct opinion about hundreds of issues. You had to like tofu, Bob Dylan, Cesar Chavez, and Tom Robbins, and to hate nuclear power, Dolly Parton, Ronald Reagan, and the Moral Majority.

Checking to see whether someone had all the right opinions would be hugely time-consuming. This is what “badges” are for.5 A badge is a low cost, easily communicated signal that stands for a group of valued traits. In the ’60s and ’70s, hair length was a reliable badge. If you were a guy with long hair, you definitely liked tofu (or pretended to), and if you had a crew cut, you hated it (or were careful never to try it because that’s sissy food). This was highly efficient and a Good Thing. Then, in the ’80s, rural working-class heavy metal fans grew long hair, and that screwed everything up for everyone else.

“I’m a Buddhist” was widely adopted as a replacement badge. If you “were a Buddhist,” you definitely liked Bob Dylan and hated Dolly Parton, and so on for everything on the list. You didn’t necessarily know or care much about Buddhism, but that wasn’t the point.

Badges are reliable only if they are “policed.”6 If insufficiently green people tried to make themselves acceptable by passing themselves off as Buddhists, but weren’t actually committed, the badge wouldn’t work. So, much of what goes on at Buddhist events is badge-checking. The badge police quiz you about all your opinions; if you admit to watching a UFC championship, or thinking of your brother in the military as a hero, or voting for a Republican, you are kicked out.7

Signaling moral piety

One main reason Christians go to church is to signal their moralness. Almost all Americans were nominally Christian until the Boomer generation. The hippie/green/monist/left tribe mostly rejected Christianity, which created a new problem: how to signal moralness, if not by going to church?

Religion has many functions, so there were many reasons the tribe needed a replacement. In the 1970s, “spiritual experience” was the driver for American Buddhism and other new religious movements. In the 1980s, though, signaling moral piety also became important. The problem was, 1970s American Buddhism had nothing much to say about ethics.

Let’s go back to SmartWater™ for a moment. It was an astonishing branding accomplishment: nothing about it had anything to do with what it signaled. However, that made the product vulnerable to moral entrepreneurs, who developed a moral marketing campaign pointing out that it’s just water8 and that its disposable bottles kill sea otters and give you diabetes.

VitaminWater™, a line extension of SmartWater™, solved that problem. It has vitamins added, so it’s not just water.

Mind you, everyone knows that for a penny or two you can get a pill with more vitamins in it. So nobody drinks VitaminWater™ because they think it’s healthy.9 Its function is the same as SmartWater™—signaling.

Consensus “Buddhist ethics” was invented in the 1980s to give Buddhism a moral signaling function. It’s got hardly any ethics in it, and everyone knows that the ethics it does have are exactly the same as you can get anywhere else. No one actually buys Buddhism™ to get the ethics inside. They buy it because it’s an effective signal of commitment to being seen as moral. It’s effective because it’s expensive and because everyone knows it’s supposed to be ethical. Whether or not it is ethical is just as irrelevant as whether or not VitaminWater™ is healthy. It’s a strategy for showing respect for social norms and stability, while not actually signing up to do anything specific or difficult.

That commitment signals not only to other people, but also to yourself. In an era of ethical ambiguity, many people worry “Am I ethical enough? How ethical should I be? How do I know what would count as adequately ethical?” A costly investment in a supposedly-ethical system is a way of reassuring yourself that you are making a serious effort. Of course, for this to work, the system needs to contain at least homeopathic quantities of ethical ingredients.

A related function of “Buddhist ethics” is to provide an illusion of extra justification for what is, actually, mainstream secular ethics. A major problem with secular ethics is groundlessness. It can’t say why anything is right or wrong (despite best efforts by secular moral philosophers). This makes secularists secretly uneasy. Traditional religious morality was backed by stories, at least; they may have been silly, but they did provide some comfort. “Buddhist ethics” is designed to give the vague sense that somehow somewhere there’s some convincing magical and/or rational Buddhist justification for secular ethical beliefs.

Signaling class

The American social class system is a taboo topic; so I have to point out some basic facts that everyone knows but are rarely stated explicitly.

Social class is not economic class. Many working class people make more than a hundred thousand dollars a year; many upper-middle class people make less than thirty. Income and social class correlate statistically, and are also causally coupled, but only loosely. Social class is determined by personal mental characteristics, not by anything external such as possessions or employment (although those do function as class signals).

The middle class is a competitive ladder, or a series of progressively smaller, more exclusive circles: social clubs. The ladder is created by the upper middle class, for the benefit of the upper middle class. The border between the middle-middle and upper middle class is the most stringently defended of any in the system. Although upper middle class people compete with each other, they cooperate against the middle-middle and below.

Social class is largely a matter of “values”: attitudes, tastes, and opinions. What you like (or say you like) defines your class. Roughly speaking:

  • To be lower middle class, you only need to have the right general attitudes, which is easy because there’s only a handful. The most important is wanting to move up within the middle class. To do that, you know you need to be “respectable.”
  • To be middle-middle class, you need to have all the correct opinions. (You are allowed to choose the leftish set of opinions or the rightish one, of course.) This requires memorizing endless lists of taboos and shibboleths, which is a conspicuous waste of time. “The news” and the political internet are tools for this. The high cost of keeping track of all that meaningless noise, and the ease of verifying it by asking your opinion of last night’s synthetic outrage event, makes it an effective signal.
  • To be upper middle class, you need to be able to figure out, on the fly, what would be the correct opinion about things that are new to you. This requires conceptual sophistication: years of study not only of details, but also of ways to think. That is what a liberal arts education used to be for.10

Some of the criteria for the upper middle class are just arbitrary shibboleths invented to keep the club small. But if you admit only a few people, why not the best? The upper middle class selects for valuable allies—the sorts of people they want on a business team, or who would be a good parent for their children. Some traits they look for are intelligence, adaptability, diligence, social skills, ability to defer gratification, and ability to stay cool under pressure.

Everyone in the middle class wants to move up, so everyone wants to develop these qualities. That is difficult, so second best is to find ways to signal having more of the qualities than you actually possess. This leads to an arms race of faking vs. detecting. The elaborate tests devised by the upper-middle class are relatively, not perfectly, reliable. As the middle-middle class figures out how to pass a specific upper middle class test, it loses its value. The test then moves down, and becomes a test of middle-middle classness (and screens out the lower middle class). Eventually the lower middle figures it out too, and it loses all its value. In the meantime, the upper middle class has to keep inventing new criteria.11

Some American middle-class values are specifically Protestant.12 Secularized versions of Protestant morality are now the code of public decorum for the American middle class (left and right). That is, to be middle class in America, you need to demonstrate that you can conform to Protestant values when ritually required to do so.13

One important function of Consensus Buddhism is training in how to act middle class. It both has methods for developing some of the general traits, and also teaches how conform to some specifics of the code of public propriety. This is the reason the Consensus appeals only to the middle class. (The working class and upper class both think these values are ridiculous.)

Up through the 1960s, white American Buddhism was upper middle class. There wasn’t any white American Theravada yet, and Tibetan Buddhism hadn’t arrived. Zen was the thing. The Zen of the day was an Orientalist version of Episcopalianism (an upper middle class sect):14 intellectually pretentious and emotionally repressed, with no beliefs to speak of, an austere aesthetic, and just the right amount of grim ritual.

Why did this successfully signal upper middle classness? Intelligence: the few available books were dry and academic. Zen was supposedly paradoxical, and making any sense of it was famously difficult. Its rituals required memorizing and paying precise attention to details. Adaptability: Zen, at the time, required you to accept a lot of alien Japanese culture. Diligence and ability to defer gratification: meditation is boring and painful; a test of stick-to-it-ive-ness. Ability to stay cool under pressure: meditation is training in not expressing emotions. Equanimity is hugely valuable in a tense boardroom negotiation. Social skills: an exception—Zen practitioners were notoriously weak in this area!

Effective signals must be costly. Before the 1980s, calling yourself a Buddhist would mostly provoke suspicion or hostility: a social cost. It also required great effort to track down rare texts, to travel great distances to meet teachers, and to struggle with alien, difficult ideas and practices.

During the ’80s and ’90s, user-friendly presentations and widespread availability dramatically lowered Buddhism’s cost—and therefore its signaling value. This popularization moved it down to the middle-middle class. New books made Buddhism easier to understand. The Consensus eliminated the fussy rituals and foreign cultural displays. Its very popularity made it useless as a signal of originality and risk-taking. (Meditation, however, remains a trial!)

Signaling openness

Current personality theory considers “openness to experience” a key trait. Miller describes it as “curiosity, novelty seeking, broad-mindedness, interest in culture, ideas, and aesthetics. Openness predicts emotional sensitivity, social tolerance, and political liberalism. People high on openness tend to seek complexity and novelty, readily accept changes and innovations, and prefer grand new visions to mundane, predictable ruts.” (p. 146)

The 1960s counterculture had unprecedentedly high levels of openness.15 Traditional religions signaled low openness, i.e. “squareness”; one of many reasons the hippies had to create new ones.

Buddhism signals low openness in Asia—it’s mostly profoundly conservative—but in the West, Buddhism was a signal of high openness, simply because it was unfamiliar. If you are a Western Buddhist, it’s likely you think of yourself as having most of the characteristics Miller describes. If you became a Western Buddhist before about 1990, you probably actually do. Or did.

As Buddhism became more familiar, as its sharp edges and spiky bits were smoothed out by well-meaning Consensus innovators, as more and more of the alien Asian elements were replaced with comfortable Western ones, as its complex concepts were replaced with simpler ones in the name of accessibility, as its practices were rendered emotionally safe—it ceased to function as an effective signal of openness. Buddhism became about as radical as The Gap clothing chain (which originally marketed to hippies but now sells mid-range clothes to middle-aged middle-middle class middle Americans). If you actually have high openness, Consensus Buddhism is utterly unappealing.

I think many people continue with Consensus Buddhism because they want to seem open to experience, and haven’t noticed it no longer signals that. Consensus Buddhists want to be seen as liberal, cultured, curious, and tolerant. My observation is that, on average, they are the exact opposites.16 Consensus Buddhism now comfortably confirms status-quo social reality.

Buddhism: badge of blandness

For the upper middle class, it’s important to have some unusual, vigorous opinions and tastes; this is a test. The ability to cogently defend your originality demonstrates intelligence, independence, and willingness to take calculated risks. As part of this test, you also need to stay cool while someone insults your opinion, and to find a humorous, non-hostile comeback. This demonstrates emotional stability. Buddhism qualified as an esoteric, socially-risky activity in the ’60s and ’70s, so it was useful as part of a portfolio of signals of independent intelligence.

Conspicuous blandness—the absence of distinctive taste—is typical of the middle middle class. If you know you cannot pass a test of independent opinion, it’s the next-best strategy. If you admit no atypical passions, no one can needle you about them, so you can simulate emotional stability. Also, in a situation where you aren’t sure even what the consensus opinion is, expressing none at all is safest.

Many people know it’s higher status to have independent opinions, but are incapable of developing any themselves. As a simulation, they yell “racism is a moral cancer!” or “socialism is the road to serfdom!” in a proud, confrontational way, as though these were not the most bland opinions anyone could possibly adopt. (They were radical opinions—in the 1960s—and somehow that reputation sticks to them in less supple minds.)

Consensus Buddhism is now the blandest American religion. It’s thoroughly familiar, comfortable, safe; it doesn’t require you to believe or do anything in particular; everyone in the left tribe has vaguely positive feelings about it, so you won’t be ostracized.

Beyond that, it’s training in how to be bland. Its ways of talking, the social practices at gatherings, and the meditation practices themselves all encourage “equanimity”: blandness, absence of strong emotions, abandoning likes and dislikes (“attachment and aversion”).

Signaling agreeableness

Agreeableness, in current personality theory, is “warmth, kindness, sympathy, empathy, trust, compliance, modesty, benevolence, and peacefulness.”17 (Maybe this list reminds you of something…)

Agreeableness is a good thing (most of the time). In fact, it’s nearly the same as moral goodness (most of the time). We want friends, coworkers, and spouses who are agreeable (most of the time), and therefore we’re all trying to signal high agreeableness (most of the time).

If everyone were good, agreeableness would always be good. But life includes some bad people:18 dishonest salesmen, womanizers/sluts who try to seduce your spouse, coworker-psychopaths who play devious office politics, and outright criminals. If everyone reacted to bad people with trust, compliance, and peacefulness, they’d grab everything and rape, kill, and eat everyone. So some of the time, agreeableness is a bad thing. Assertiveness, power, domination, hostility, and violence are sometimes good things.

Opposing bad guys is risky; they retaliate. Taking that risk is heroic action on behalf of the community, and it ought to be rewarded. It is rewarded: most of us would rather have, as friends, coworkers, and spouses, people who will stand up for what’s right in the face of wrong-doing. Ideally, we want allies who are consistently agreeable to our in-group, and effective in supporting us; and consistently hostile to our out-group, and effective at opposing them. This is difficult, and no one will do it for us all the time.

Some people who know they are incapable of skilled, situationally appropriate hostility adopt a second-best strategy: to be highly agreeable in all situations. This eliminates the risk of retaliation.

Consistently agreeable people are seen as cowardly, weak, and maybe stupid by the majority. They are free riders who gain the benefits of others’ protection of society while avoiding retaliation risk themselves. They are pleasant to be around most of the time, but you know they will be useless in a crisis.

Agreeableness increases the risk of predation by bad guys, so highly-agreeable people try to form closed communities in which everyone can be nice to each other. Consensus Buddhism, obviously, is one of those. This works up to a point, but such communities are easy pickings for psychopaths. This is the pattern of Buddhist sex scandals: it usually turns out that many people knew, for many years, what was going on, but no one was willing to take a firm stand against the perpetrator.

If you are a highly agreeable person, it pays to advertise it. You want to find other highly agreeable people to hang out and be nice with. And you want bad guys to know you aren’t going to oppose them, in hopes you won’t attract their attention, and they’ll leave you alone.

One main function of ideologies is to advertise your level of agreeableness. Highly agreeable ideologies include Consensus Buddhism, Mormonism, and socialism. If you are highly disagreeable—your best strategy if you aren’t good at cooperation—it pays to advertise that, too. Radical feminism, the Westboro Baptists, and Neoreaction signal broad disagreeableness.

Consensus Buddhism is not only a signal of high agreeableness; it’s a way of developing the trait itself.

Many services are also marketed as amplifiers of agreeableness. These usually teach “etiquette,” that is, how to emulate the tacit social norms of the local ruling class. Such norms usually require practicing superhuman levels of patience, discretion, generosity, and sympathy; the implicit goal is to demonstrate that one’s prefrontal cortex can maintain tight inhibitory control over selfish or impulsive behaviors. It has always been crucial for ruling-class youth to acquire such conspicuous agreeableness indicators, so they can evaluate one another’s capacity for peaceful and efficient cooperation, which is vital to the smooth operation of the various conspiracies that secure their wealth and power, such as feudal aristocracies, organized religions, trade guilds, parliaments, and media conglomerates. Traditionally, Europeans bought etiquette training at boarding schools, universities, and finishing schools. (Miller, pp. 241-2)

Such elite institutions are mainly open only to the upper-middle and upper classes. Consensus Buddhism functions as a cut-price version: training in the leftish middle class public code of decorum.

Agreeableness is particularly valued during courtship.19 Especially among the left tribe, passionate statements of commitment to agreeable ideologies are an essential part of the mating ritual. (See Miller, pp. 246-9, for funny and insightful examples and analysis.) In certain circles, “I’m a Buddhist” is a powerful claim to romantic attractiveness. (And some Buddhist events can be highly efficient singles markets!)

“Superhuman” levels of agreeableness signal high status when agreeableness is called for. Showing high agreeableness in conflict situations marks you as a loser.

Buddhism is for losers

At the beginning of this page, I asked: “What is ‘Buddhist ethics’ for?” My answer has been that it’s a strategy for advertising yourself as a “good” person—good to work with, hang out with, or have children with. I’ve explained why this strategy worked. I say “worked,” because it no longer does. Various trends I described have progressively lowered Western Buddhism’s signaling value. “Buddhist ethics” isn’t fooling anyone anymore; everyone understands, implicitly, that there’s no such thing. Buddhism isn’t daring and sexy and hip anymore; it’s your batty aunt’s quaint, harmless, old-fashioned hobby. And it has gone from an upper middle class religion to a middle-middle one, and now probably a lower middle one.20

Lower middle class people are not losers! There is nothing wrong with lower middle class Buddhism. In fact, the Aro gTér lineage, which I practice, was almost entirely working class in the 1980s, and is still mainly working and lower middle class. I myself am working class by some criteria, and lower middle by some others.

There is nothing wrong with comfortable, simplified, status-quo Buddhism, either! The Consensus impulse to create that was well-motivated and useful. I would like to see different Buddhisms available for all sorts of different people.

By “Buddhism is for losers” I mean that, at this point, saying you are a Buddhist is likely to signal that you are loser in the eyes of many people who, a couple decades ago, would have been impressed. For them, “Buddhist” now means “well-intentioned but ineffectual”; someone who can’t get their stuff together enough to do anything significant or interesting.

What’s dysfunctional is using Buddhism to signal high status if that doesn’t work. That is definitely a loser’s strategy. It was bad enough that Consensus Buddhism was mostly empty posturing. Empty posturing that doesn’t fool anyone is totally pointless.

We can do better

We can do better at Buddhism, at ethics, and at signaling.

Possibly we can do better at Buddhist ethics, too. If a genuinely Buddhist ethics were possible, that would at least be intellectually fascinating. As a Buddhist, I’d hope it could also solve problems current secular ethics fails at. I think a comprehensive contemporary Buddhist ethics is probably impossible. However, in several upcoming pages I’ll suggest ways Buddhism may at least contribute to a sophisticated contemporary ethics.

Suggesting that we can do better at Buddhism, and how, is the overall goal of this blog. Much of what I have done so far may seem unpleasantly disagreeable. I’ve suggested that modernist American Buddhism was dominated for two decades by a single narrow school (the “Consensus”) which had value in its time, but no longer meets current needs. My intention, in being disagreeable, is to clear space for alternatives. I’ve begun to sketch one alternative, but it certainly should not be the alternative. We can and should have many new Buddhisms that are suitable for different people, and that are better at addressing their needs for meaning than the Consensus now is.

We can do better at ethics. In an upcoming post, I’ll consider “Buddhist ethics” in terms of adult developmental psychology. I’ll suggest that “Buddhist ethics” is an adolescent morality which may actively impede some Buddhists’ personal growth. Moral developmental psychology explains more sophisticated ethical approaches. It explains how, as individuals, we can grow into them; and how institutions and ideologies can support individuals in that growth. These insights could influence the design of innovative Buddhist paths that guide students toward moral maturity and broad competence in dealing with life challenges. Elsewhere, I am also developing an approach to contemporary ethics that I find promising, and that is indirectly influenced by Dzogchen.

We can do better at signaling. It’s tempting to say “we should all stop doing that, stop pretending, just be as we are”; but that’s impossible. Signaling is fundamental to the human way of being. “Being as we are” includes it. Also, it’s not a zero-sum competition; it is a net positive. Similar people enjoy each others’ company, and getting accurate information about other people’s personalities allows us to form like-minded communities. For example, high-openness people can get together and enjoy discussing cannibalism, necrophilia, and black magic, so I signal my high openness by writing Buddhism for Vampires. Meanwhile, low-openness people can get together and enjoy discussing compassion, healing, and mindfulness. I’m sure you know where to find that!

For Buddhists, better signaling means being more specific about what sort of Buddhist you are—which could say a lot about what sort of person you are in general. Before the Consensus homogenized all of Buddhism into uniform blandness, saying that you practiced Zen or Theravada might have conveyed more information than it does now. I hope in future that many highly distinctive Western Buddhisms will emerge. Declaring allegiance to one will make it quite clear what sort of person you are. This may enable Buddhist subcultures to function as highly supportive, close-knit communities for the particular kinds of people they attract.21 (See also my “Inclusion, exclusion, unity and diversity” on this point.)

More broadly, signals are somewhat arbitrary—who would have thought water bottles could signal sex?—and choosing the right ones has a huge impact on the quality of a society. Signaling motivates the worst things humans do. Rulers fight wars of conquest less to grab material goodies than to signal personal dominance. Signaling also motivates the best things humans do. Artistic creation is meant to signal intelligence and openness. Altruistic acts signal agreeability and tribal loyalty.

The Renaissance began when a handful of powerful men in Tuscany agreed to compete with each other by seeing who could commission the most glorious artworks, instead of whose army could slaughter the most people. As individuals and as societies, we do have some choice about which signals to use. Understanding that most of what we do is signaling helps us see that we have choices. In any given situation, is there a different way I could signal the same personal quality, whose side-effects would be better for me and/or others? Can we eliminate state subsidies for negative-value signaling activities, and perhaps even encourage positive-value ones?22

The Industrial Revolution led to conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste as major signaling methods. Consumption is great if you actually enjoy it,23 but if you are consuming mainly to signal, you’d probably get more enjoyment from something else. And, there’s nothing good to be said for conspicuous waste. Recently, awareness of this has driven the development of conspicuously ethical consumption: products advertised as “fair trade” and eco-friendly. Miller applauds this (p. 324), but I am skeptical. Most such products do not seem to be better in the ways they claim. So far, there has been a near-complete failure of badge policing. The certification organizations supposedly devoted to this are thoroughly corrupt and have altogether other agendas. Individuals who buy “fair trade” products just want to signal; they don’t actually care whether it benefits poor people thousands of miles away, so they don’t bother to check. Still, the approach is promising in principle.

The changing structure of the global economy, shifting away from industrial production and rendering most middle class careers obsolete, will force major changes in signal strategies anyway. Miller writes (p. 305):

Something will soon replace the current system of consumerist capitalism and its key features: credentialism, workaholism, conspicuous consumption, single-family housing, fragmented kin and social networks, weak social norms, narrowly economic definitions of social progress and national status, and indirect democracy distorted by corporate interests and media conglomerates. These seemingly natural features of contemporary society will seem as alien to our great-grandchildren as mammoth hunting, field plowing, and typewriting seem to us now.

The middle class values that worked well during the industrial era are now obsolete. It’s widely predicted that the Western middle class will be automated out of existence over the next few decades. Signaling allegiance to middle class values is a becoming a loser’s game.

Middle class Buddhism has outlived its usefulness. Can we develop new Buddhisms that point out ways to escape the middle class into more satisfactory ways of living?24

  1. Note for non-American readers: Berkeley is probably the furthest-left town, politically, in America. 
  2. This insight is due to Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class
  3. Miller, p. 43. 
  4. Miller, p. 43. Actually, it’s manufactured by the Coca-Cola Company in Hillside, New Jersey—which is a mile west of Newark Airport—and other unromantic places. 
  5. Miller, p. 116. 
  6. Miller, p. 117. 
  7. This is because Buddhism is commited to inclusivity and accepts everyone. So long as they have the correct opinions about all topics. 
  8. It does taste surprisingly good. Yes, I’ve bought it. By the way, have I told you about how healthy, hip, and sexy I am? 
  9. Or maybe some people are so dumb it doesn’t occur to them to think “I could take a vitamin pill instead, and save a buck fifty per bottle.” But VitaminWater™ would work just as well as a signal even if no one were that dumb. 
  10. It was also a wonderfully conspicuous waste, since it is costly and useless as preparation for any sort of productive job. Changes in the higher education funding system opened the liberal arts to the lower middle class, so now tens of millions of people have expensive educations that are useless both practically and as a class signal. This is a disaster for both individuals and society. (A liberal arts education can be valuable in other ways—but that’s outside the scope of this post!) 
  11. An interesting specific example is musical taste. Up until the 1970s, to be upper middle class, you had to like classical music and dislike popular music. This worked because you could only learn about classical music in college, and mostly only the upper middle class went to college. It stopped working because the middle-middle started going to college, and also because it was hard to deny that the best rock music was as good as much of the classical repertoire. The new criterion was liking only the correct sorts of rock, and being able to explain what was correct about them. This eventually got to be both too easy and too geeky. So starting in the late 1990s, the new new criterion was having eclectic tastes. You had to be able to say which were the best performers in numerous genres, from alt-country to nu metal to gabber. (Plus of course you still had to have something intelligent to say about Monteverdi.) See Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste and “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore.” 
  12. Catholic cultures place much less value on diligence and the abilities to defer gratification and suppress emotions. Max Weber influentially argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that these were keys to the development of the modern world. 
  13. Consider how people stereotypically behave at Protestant funerals vs. Catholic wakes, for example. 
  14. “An Episcopalian is a Presbyterian with a trust fund. A Presbyterian is a Methodist with a college education. And a Methodist is a Baptist with shoes.” 
  15. Miller has an extremely interesting theory about why (p. 213) which, unfortunately, is too complicated to explain here. It involves memetic parasites and the function of disgust
  16. Another point. This is important, but I’m relegating it to a footnote because this page is too damn long. Miller observes that openness is valuable only when combined with high intelligence. If you are smart enough to evaluate whether new ideas are good ones, being an early adopter works in your favor. If not, openness results in your adopting superficially attractive but harmful and wrong ideas. (A relevant proverb: “You should have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.”) Consensus Buddhism is infested with “woo”: pseudoscientific and supernatural nonsense. Some is traditional Buddhist woo (which modernist Asian Buddhists tried to get rid of as early as the 1850s); much is Western woo. High-openness, low-intelligence people are suckers for the stuff. 
  17. Miller, p. 149. 
  18. I’m using the phrase “bad people” somewhat humorously. There are no entirely bad people (or entirely good people). However, this simplification helps explain the logic of defector-punishing. 
  19. On average, women are more agreeable than men. On average, agreeableness is more valued in women, and assertiveness in men. This is probably the reason that Consensus Buddhism has been progressively feminized. For an insightful analysis, see “Back to Suffragette City?” by Nella Lou (a woman), based on a post by Brooke Shedneck (another woman) that was also excellent but unfortunately is no longer available. Nella Lou interprets the Hardcore Dharma movement partly as a backlash; I think she’s right. Feminization probably contributes to Consensus Buddhism’s progressively lower perceived status (discussed in my next section). I strongly support the existence of feminine and/or feminist religions, but I wouldn’t want Western Buddhism to be available only in that form. I do see some danger of that happening. 
  20. Meanwhile, ironically, Buddhism has recently become the prestige religion among the Chinese elite. Perhaps even more interestingly, a modernized form of Nyingma Tantra is considered the highest-status version. That addresses new problems of meaningness—nihilism, specifically—that rich, educated Chinese find themselves facing rather suddenly. 
  21. Miller points out (pp. 297-301 and 305-307) that American housing law is a major obstacle to the formation of close-knit communities. Anti-discrimination regulations, created with the best of intentions, have the unintended side-effect of making distinctive subsocieties illegal. He makes an interesting a priori case that this has been disastrous. I don’t know how much empirical support there may be for the thesis. 
  22. Miller has two chapters of proposals for government actions that would shift signaling incentives. Many of them I don’t like, but they are at least interesting. 
  23. “Consumption is great if you enjoy it” is a Tantric perspective that is contrary to Sutric Buddhism and to leftish secular ethics (which derive from Puritanism). I’ll touch on this briefly in an upcoming post; I hope to write about it in detail at some point. 
  24. Stay tuned for discussion in an upcoming episode. See also the conclusion to Miller’s book, pp. 328-329. 

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

67 thoughts on ““Ethics” is advertising”

  1. “Perhaps even more interestingly, a modernized form of Nyingma Tantra is considered the highest-status version.” Precisely. And even more precisely, the higher the social status of the Buddhist community, the LESS concerned they are with ethics and social justice; the more likely they are to view Buddhism strictly as individual liberation. The higher the class status, which includes the majority of tantra practitioners, east and west, the more they appear to use Buddhism as a justification for not giving a shit about anybody but themselves.

    I left a Nyingma Dzogchen tantra community because it was insufferably classist, catering to the global elite who make 6 & 7-figure incomes. The previous community was Shambhala, also insufferably classist. After these experiences, I left institutional Buddhism altogether, and practice as a “post-buddhism Buddhist” (See above).

    For more on a class analysis of Buddhism, which I often discuss on Engage! http://engagedbuddhism.net/2015/01/14/what-suffering/

  2. roughgarden — Thanks, that’s a great post; I’ve tweeted a link to it!

    I thought what you said about Gen X / Gen Y attitudes to institutions is right and important.

    Unfortunately, while I think the institutions created by Boomer Buddhism have outlived their usefulness, I think the kind of Buddhism I want to see does require institutions to function. It can’t work on a DIY basis. (Some upcoming posts address this obliquely; I might also write about it explicitly at some point.)

    I’ve been thinking recently that, with Consensus Buddhism having come to an end, Gen X/Y anti-institutionalism is the remaining main obstacle to modern Buddhist tantra. There’s probably ways to work around that, but it’s somewhat daunting.

  3. Just a couple comments:

    These titles are getting more clickbaity by the article. If you haven’t already, can you admit this prominently?

    And, what signals do you suppose you put out, especially from this blog?

  4. Great series. Shines a light on how tribal we are, and now invisible our tribal-ness is to us.

    And I have to thank you for the beautiful little footnotes with back-links. May this become a web-standard!

  5. Marie — Thank you very much!

    The footnotes are produced via the WordPress Markdown feature. I recommend it!


    These titles are getting more clickbaity by the article. If you haven’t already, can you admit this prominently?

    I hereby admit it gladly and explicitly. I think it’s obvious enough that “prominently” would be a waste of readers’ attention.

    Relatedly, it’s obvious that some of what I write is satirical, which is not nice. Some people object to that. I do it because the topic is otherwise extremely dry, and few people would want to read about it without a leavening of humor. I do it partly because some readers enjoy it—and I like to help people enjoy themselves. I do it also partly because it increases the number of readers—and I want these ideas to be more widely understood.

    what signals do you suppose you put out, especially from this blog?

    Answering that would take a long blog post; and I don’t think anyone cares about what I think about myself. Or at least, no one should care about that! It doesn’t interest even me.

  6. Not sure how to use the quote function.

    I appreciate the satire and motivation for the titles. I just think it’d be better to acknowledge (or even make fun of) the fact that you’re using clickbaity tactics. Unacknowledged, intentionally dishonest, etc clickbait is common.

    When I read an author make any kind of sociological observation it seems natural to me to apply that sociological observation to the author. Surely when you read Spent you thought about how you yourself send out signals, so I don’t think “doesn’t interest even me” applies. Openness about your own signal sending seems to me relevant to this article.

  7. I do wonder if Tantric practice still gives one some social status. It’s complicated and slightly inaccessible. I see lots of people practicing one form or another of it here in West LA. Dzogchen and other non-dual practices have status I think. Having a shaman is hot too. I think the bigger status signal right now might be following a Paleo diet, or an ancestral diet. Having food sensitivities and foods you avoid are good too- it’s slightly difficult and implies that you are very discerning and careful and are paying attention to your health, but in a virile way- meat and potatoes- meaning that you are no sissy and are getting real. Also, it’s not cheap. Raw foods are still really hot, and pickiness about the kind of water you drink- I have heard so many discussions about this that I could never possibly count them. It’s a little hard to see out of my own bubble, but those are the things that seem to be happening on the westside of Los Angeles- unless you’re a vegan, but then you are back to the weak and ineffectual thing again, and are probably also doing mindfulness Doing hatha yoga is also important, and walking around in yoga clothes, talking about the yoga retreat you went to in Maui is good too. Detox diets. Raw vegan detox diets even better.

  8. Interesting, thanks!

    I follow a Paleo/ancestral diet, loosely—mostly because it’s tasty and funny rather than because I believe it has health effects. I didn’t know it had status value too!

    Since I practice tantra AND Paleo, I must have VERY high status! Yay!

  9. Buddhism isn’t daring and sexy and hip anymore; it’s your batty aunt’s quaint, harmless, old-fashioned hobby.

    Maybe that’s a good thing. You will find people getting into Buddhism for other reasons than being daring and sexy and hip — maybe better ones. I have no personal stake in Buddhism but have felt something similar about quite a few other things I have been into.

    Of course I am just trying to signal my superiority by claiming to be above normal signaling practices.

  10. Thinking about this while I sat and did my Tantric practice with my lama at the Tibetan Buddhist center I go to, looking forward to my paleo dinner at home (when I should have been focusing) this evening I was thinking back to when I was investigating spiritual approaches maybe a dozen years ago here in LA. I can remember quite distinctly that it was all about Nondual teaching- of whatever tradition- such as dzogchen. It was also all about tantra. I never really heard anybody rave about mindfulness- that’s almost a medical treatment now, and it was huge in psychology circles. I remember lots of zen talk in the 70s and 80s though. It really does all seem to be about tantra too. I guess the prestige has in fact switched to tantra- it’s definitely more rarified; it’s more complicated to learn; it involves languages like Sanskrit and Tibetan and the Himalayas; you can take exotic trips to investigate it; you have lots of stuff to learn too, which puts others off and makes you look smart I suppose. It doesn’t seem to be so much about weird America gurus like in the 60s though- it’s more serious now- perhaps the authentic lineage thing gives you more credibility, and protects you from weird cult assumptions. It also means you are likely to have a smaller and more intimate community experience. I know a lot of film types like it- we have some very upper crusty types who come to our center, and a child of a very famous celebrity couple. It must be cool in their circles I’d suppose. Anyway, it occurs to me that that dzogchen Tantric type teaching, and similar types from other traditions, is quite likely where the opinion leaders are in fact going at this time. That’s what was happening when I was heavily looking around and I don’t think it has changed. In Asia this stuff was upper crusty too.

  11. I had visionary mushroom trip experience once when I was 21 relating to the line of Dalai Lamas and Tibet, snow lions and wheel of fire in the sky and everything, it’s funny you posted most of the time because I was listening to Oh Mercy on head phones during that trip. Anyway, that’s why I decided to take the Kalachakra empowerment with HH, for me it’s got nothing to do with who you think is ethical and everything to do with who you think is a tantric adept.

  12. Thank you for this series. I’ve (sort of) given up on Buddhism after attending various sanghas/retreats/talks, etc. I just couldn’t take the bland Unitarian-ness of it all.

    I want to ask you about metta, because I feel like it ties into your point about agreeableness — but I believe you’ve cited metta specifically as something you have found valuable in Buddhism (correct me if I’m wrong).

    It seems to me that some of the qualities of the exemplary Western Buddhist (and those promoted specifically as products of “metta”) also overlap with the conventional desirable female traits of being ever loving, extremely empathetic, unrelentingly friendly, even towards those who cause harm, etc. Most liberal educated American women aren’t willing to admit that they feel guilty about not being agreeable (feminism made that uncool!). Basically, I think Buddhism provides a secular-leftist-approved rationale for women to hold themselves to the ideal of being likable 100% of the time, to everyone, which is exhausting and unhelpful. (This also ties into your point about Western Buddhism as an expression of Protestantism; metta as taught in Bay Area sanghas sounds a lot like Jesus’ love to me).

    I would be interested in knowing how/if you think metta could be of real value, rather than just reinforcing over-agreeableness (gendered or otherwise).

  13. mtraven

    Maybe that’s a good thing. You will find people getting into Buddhism for other reasons than being daring and sexy and hip — maybe better ones.

    I hope so! My fear is that 20 years of Consensus hegemony has trained everyone to think “Buddhism? Lame personal-advertising strategy from the 1990s”—even people who would get into it for good reasons if they knew what it actually can be.

  14. Foster Ryan — Thanks, these are very interesting observations!

    The post I have scheduled for Friday discusses the ways Tantra combines working-class and aristocratic values (both historically and in the present). It’s interesting to know that it’s still appealing to the upper classes in L.A.; I wasn’t really aware of that.

  15. fiona — Thanks for these comments, which are insightful and (for me) slightly uncomfortable!

    I’ve (sort of) given up on Buddhism after attending various sanghas/retreats/talks, etc. I just couldn’t take the bland Unitarian-ness of it all.

    Come over to the dark side!

    I want to ask you about metta, because I feel like it ties into your point about agreeableness — but I believe you’ve cited metta specifically as something you have found valuable in Buddhism (correct me if I’m wrong).

    You have caught me in a polite lie. Most of the time, I am disagreeable when appropriate, but occasionally I slip and am nice when I shouldn’t be.

    I have not ever actually practiced metta. I have practiced lojong, tonglen, and chöd, and did find them valuable. I included metta in the list in a misguided attempt to be ecumenical and say something nice about the Consensus. I had been tempted to say something snarky about metta, and suppressed that.

    I have read (somewhere) that the metta practice taught in America was invented by Sharon Salzberg, and has no specific ancestry in traditional Buddhism. I don’t know whether this is correct. (If someone knows, or tracks it down with a web search, I’d be interested to hear.)

    Since I have not actually practiced it, I can say only that, from a distance, it looks to me like you are correct here:

    It seems to me that some of the qualities of the exemplary Western Buddhist (and those promoted specifically as products of “metta”) also overlap with the conventional desirable female traits of being ever loving, extremely empathetic, unrelentingly friendly, even towards those who cause harm, etc. Most liberal educated American women aren’t willing to admit that they feel guilty about not being agreeable (feminism made that uncool!). Basically, I think Buddhism provides a secular-leftist-approved rationale for women to hold themselves to the ideal of being likable 100% of the time, to everyone, which is exhausting and unhelpful.

    Did you read the essay by Nella Lou I linked in the footnote about the feminization of American Buddhism? I suspect you’d find it to your taste.

  16. Interesting comments about Shambhala and that Nyingma Dzogchen community being classist roughgarden. Shambhala is the only sangha I’ve really been involved in to any extent, there is not much else here in St. Johns. But its Dzogchen mostly that I gravitate towards, if your going to be a Buddhist you might as well aim for the highest and sexyist eh. But yeah… For a working class Joe like me forking out for a trip to Sutrayana Disneyland is not really a high priority, which is fine, I learned about all I needed to learn doing the first 5 levels, I always knew how to take it to level 11 anyway. I find Shambhala is still a great place to go and sit, and the people and teachers I’ve met have been uniformly great, but yeah, I have issues with fealty too David and I dont want to interfere in other peoples paths… Sometimes the dark side is more fun, there have been times at church where I’ve been like, wait a sec, I’ve got a drawer with shrooms, acid, and ecstasy waiting for me at home, when does the real party start… I might just have the attention deficit disorder, im lazy and I get bored with practice easily… Love

  17. Thank you so much for these articles. Very enlightening. I live in a very liberal/leftward part of the US where “buddism” is frequently being pushed even in schools to promote “tolerance” and “open-mindedness”.

    Seems to be gaining ground as a tool for many to mask guilt and nihilism.

  18. “The post I have scheduled for Friday discusses the ways Tantra combines working-class and aristocratic values (both historically and in the present). It’s interesting to know that it’s still appealing to the upper classes in L.A.; I wasn’t really aware of that.” Surprised? I’m not.

    A study of religious membership in the US shows that San Jose, California is the most Buddhist city, followed by Boulder, Colorado. Hawaii is the state with the highest percentage of Buddhists, followed by California. Los Angeles has 70,000 Buddhists, with 145 Buddhist centres. Recent projections are that Los Angeles will become the epicentre of US Buddhism.

    Check the map in the Huff-Post article.


    The Buddhist sect with the most members in the US is Insight Meditation Society, right? Wrong. It’s Soka Gakkai Int’l, with 330,000 members. SGI is originally a Japanese Nicheren sect which has no connection to IMS or Theravada. IMS claims 20,000 members. I was told Shambhala has 10,000 members in the US. I can’t find any stats on Zen affiliation.

    Pew’s study of “Whites who are Buddhist in the US” has some interesting results:

  19. Roughgarden, that was interesting. It’s clear that California and the west coast are the epicenter. In one way it’s obviously partially a result of the region having the largest Asian populations, but not only. It seems to me that Buddhism is the Asian tradition settled on as a respectable alternative to Judeo-Christian traditions. It just works better than the other Asian traditions, although there are still plenty of Hindu tradition practitioners here, but Indian religion brings a lot of challenging baggage with it, although it is clearly rich in good qualities. Hindu practices still make one a little suspect, push the vegetarianism too much, and are too culturally Indian for easy adoption among regular people, of whatever class. Buddhism is intellectually acceptable, considered compatible with science, and heavily supported in the holistic and psychotherapeutic community. I think that the large presence of Asian populations forms a powerful economic foundation for the propagation of Buddhism. They have money and they spend it to build temples and sponsor teachers. A lot of the Vajryayana events and centers are heavily populated by Asians, especially the Chinese. Vajrayana seems to have a lot of prestige in these populations. A large percentage of my center is Asian American- maybe 40%- and this in a white majority area, but not only white of course- along with African American and white folks, and a few latinos. We had conversations about moving from the white Westside for a better location and one of the arguments was to move to East LA somewhere, where the Chinese population would heavily support us. We do have Chinese sangha members from the area and they say that there would be a lot of support over there among their friends. As somebody put it, for them to be Vajrayana practitioners is like for a white person to be Episcopaean or Catholic. It’s respectable and makes them upstanding members of society. It’s interesting that there was some mention on your page of a Nyingma Dzogchen group being the pinnacle of the social ladder. That’s a trip on an idea, but I can see it as possible. It has great clout as the pinnacle of teachings, and more doable for non-monks, and the least puritanical.

  20. Thanks, Foster, It’s really great to have some ‘on the ground’ first hand accounts to correlate with the numbers. I was told that in the Dzogchen community I was in that there were a significant number of wealthy Chinese members. These are the global elite who can afford international jet travel to an exclusive two-week retreat with the guru. The sangha headquarters is in Seattle, so a lot of people were flying in from the East. However, when I saw photos of people who went on these retreats, they were, almost to a person, white people, mostly women, between the ages of 60 and 80 years old, quite a bit older than some other Vajra/Dzogchen sanghas. That doesn’t discount what you saw in the sanghas in the Los Angeles area, but it’s just the makeup of this particular group, wealthy retirees, the ‘golf and cruise’ set.

  21. Roughgarden: Oh, that’s not the case here at all. Ages range from college age to 80s. Ethnically everybody. We have poor to rich. Every class type seems comfortable there. One person lives in their car a lot of the time, another ex-homeless African American in public housing, computer programmers, a bunch of acupuncturists and psychotherapists, lots of Asian women from everywhere in Asia, French, lesbians, gay men, married, single. People tend toward intelligent and tidy. Some bring their kids to tsoks. The Bhutanese community with their families show up for tsoks and events. The events are fun and everybody gets a bit drunk. We have a chod tsok tomorrow night and I’m sure lots of us will drink too much and have a lot of fun. Not overly leftie/hippie. Maybe my lama sets a pretty balanced tone. He is Bhutanese and has a family and is a pretty balanced guy. I’d say that my guess is that this sangha is fairly representative of most sanghas in the area for this type of tradition based on the crowds at events I’ve gone to.

  22. Wow, that sounds great!

    Would you mind telling us who your Lama/Sangha are? (I think you may have done so before but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten.)

  23. Oh, wonderful! Somehow I had completely forgotten that. He gave me lots of useful advice when I was going on pilgrimage to Bhutan. Wonderful teacher; I’m very glad he now is reaching a larger group of students than when I knew him.

  24. Hi David, and thanks for this great series.

    “Similar people enjoy each others’ company, and getting accurate information about other people’s personalities allows us to form like-minded communities.”

    I think consumption/signalling is a lot about the person you want to be. You become a Buddhist not just to signal you are agreeable, but to try and become more agreeable, so that signalling of being agreeable has better validity (as Miller argues, personality signals can get busted pretty quickly).

    My observation is that the reason for the popularity of consensus Buddhism (and the vogue for mindfulness meditation) is that it is a religion/practice of self-help. It’s a therapy, People who are low in emotional stability want to be higher in stability – less stressed and neurotic, more calm and happy. If you are guilty about being a mean person who shouts at your kids, Buddhism (in theory) offers a route to being more nice (and we know nice people are more happy). If you a bit disorganised, absent minded, easily sidetracked, procrastinate, and don’t always achieve your goals (low conscientiousness), meditation offers a path to becoming a better you, to become a concentration master and get your act together and get shit done.

    So people gravitate to be with like minded people, but they also gravitate to the promise of being the people they want to become – with role models in the personality displays of wise, emotional stable and nice Buddhist teachers. Though in practice they end up hanging out with the neurotic like minded people who want to be less neurotic – the people that make up a lot of Buddhist retreats (non-neurotic people tend not to feel the need to spend much time and money to be become less neurotic).

    Within Buddhisms, there are different types that match personality type – aro is very extrovert and open, zen very introvert (and some forms also quite closed), though again here, rather than the appeal of “like-minded people”, attraction to particular Buddhist forms may often involve aspiration for your self-development. Or in the case of retreats, some extroverts might want to introvert-out for a while. Closed minded people might want to become more open minded.

    “By “Buddhism is for losers” I mean that, at this point, saying you are a Buddhist is likely to signal that you are loser in the eyes of many people who, a couple decades ago, would have been impressed. For them, “Buddhist” now means “well-intentioned but ineffectual”; someone who can’t get their stuff together enough to do anything significant or interesting.”

    Right, because successful happy with meaningful lives don’t tend to turn to religion to fix themselves and find meaning (at least in the secular societies of modern Europe). Unsuccessful unhappy people who struggle with meaning may look for for “answers” such as the turn to Buddhism, because they need to fix themselves, because there is something wrong with them (or least they think that), because they struggle with navigating the modern world, ergo, losers. Losers with middle class, white person problems (I say that as a white middle class person who likes Buddhism!)

    And so from a marketing point of view, this isn’t good for Buddhism. In my society as a male – individualistic, hedonistic Britain – the perception of needing a crutch – a life coach, a self-help book, following a teacher, Buddhist group, is seen as beta. And so in terms of signalling, this makes Buddhism (and future Buddhisms?) a hard sell for the current generation (at least in England).

  25. Shane: “If you a bit disorganised, absent minded, easily sidetracked, procrastinate, and don’t always achieve your goals (low conscientiousness), meditation offers a path to becoming a better you, to become a concentration master and get your act together and get shit done.”

    Huh. Do you know of any specific practices that are supposed to do that? Zen-style shikantaza meditation has done some things for me, but that was not one of them–and lord knows I could use the help!

  26. Dan – it would be nice if meditation did those things! But my comment was more on the sales pitch, or what lay people think meditation will do – in part due to the way mindfulness meditation is often marketed – in practice meditation doesn’t do all those things, In fact, it can do the opposite (e.g. rather than becoming a better you, realising that there is no you, just an undifferentiated energy field…).

  27. Shane – so tell us about the non-neurotic, non-losers. What are those people like? Did they manage to get raised in extremely happy families? Are they all at ‘Stage 5’ (see David’s next post for the definition of Stage 5)?

  28. Wonderful article. I forget what track led me here, and the back-button doesn’t tell me. I have posted it at my own site. I am an evangelical Christian of the CS Lewis/GK Chesterton type, and have made similar points over the years about about signalling in popular Christian culture versus traditional Christian practice. I work at a state psychiatric hospital, and the professionals there, especially social workers, psychologists, nurses, and occupational therapists, have strong leanings toward what you refer to as Consensus Buddhism – an insipid signalling of niceness and moral superiority. I have known a very few over the years who seemed to be Buddhist with more rigor and self-awareness, and with those I have found some common understanding. The others are like the unrigorous Christians (mostly Unitarian and Episcopalian up here), who subscribe to the Bernie Sanders school of all-religions-teach-the-same-thing.

    I also note, in contrast to a critic here, that you could not have written this had you not already directed the searchlight pretty strongly on yourself before looking at others. That is very CS Lewis/Screwtape Letters/On The Reading of Old Books – of you.

    My disagreements are down at the level of quibbles, and it may be that people whose religions actually are different are never fully able to make that final handshake. Centers are rather like greased watermelons, perhaps. I would note only that your reading of history includes more late 20th C conventional wisdom than is quite justified. Still, I don’t have a specific era to counter with that doesn’t have equal blind spots.

    If something brilliant occurs to me, I’ll bring it back.

  29. Very interesting, quirky, and enjoyable post. As a meditator working in the financial industry, I am constantly put off by the uniform ignorance of the Buddhist community about economics, and the resulting foolishness of many of their pronouncements. That includes, ahem, the end of your post, about the certainty of the end of work because of technology, a certainty that started with the industrial revolution. But this time it’s different! See if you are still so certain after you ponder and understand why a country like the U.S. could go from one with 50% of the population in farming to 2% in 100 years with no increase in unemployment, or why the conveyor belt, mechanization, and robotocization of industry haven’t led to 90% unemployment. Homework: what adjustments had to take place to create employment to replace dying industries, and why does new employment in new industries seem to materialize exactly as fast as old employment and industries die? Suppose a hyper-D supercomputer available to each of us could create all the food and things we use today for free on demand. Would that guarantee unemployment for all? Are you really so certain that times are different and technology will finally deliver unemployment dystopia?

    Sorry for the rant. Anyway, I’m delighted to have discovered your blog, as you are willing and able to be provocative, and with a sense of humor.

  30. Emerich, thank you very much! Glad you enjoyed it.

    I have no particular beliefs about how the economy will develop; I was pointing to some typical longer-term scenarios—utopian as well as dystopian. The actual evolution may likely be less drastic than either. Whether it includes massive voluntary unemployment or not, I have no idea. I’ve read plausible arguments both ways.

    I do think that the structure of the economy changes drastically every few decades; which does lead to shifts in signaling strategies. I have no certainty about what they will be, but I’m certain there will be changes.

  31. This was so interesting! Thank you for writing it. I’ve never really considered signalling like this (barely considered it at all really). I’ve not really read anything lately that explains so much of what we experience around us as this.

  32. ” Individuals who buy “fair trade” products just want to signal; they don’t actually care whether it benefits poor people thousands of miles away, so they don’t bother to check.”

    Is this fair ? Seems like an over generalisation, and also forgetting it might not be a case of not bothering to check but rather not having the time to. If nobody was checking, you wouldn’t know about the scandals and hidden agendas. Plus, I think many do care, it’s not just about signaling – could be less so in America than elsewhere.

  33. Absolutely fair. The takedowns on “fair trade” are common internet stuff. I might go so far as to allow that part of signalling is “getting the word out,” (though that’s also an easy excuse), and it might rise as high as “I’d like to do something, and I can’t find anything better to highlight the issue.” But that’s still pretty small beer.

    If your first response to this line of thought, with no pause or disclaimers is “oh no, that can’t be right; many people are quite sincere in these things,” then I am worried you won’t ever hear bad news about your own tribe.

  34. Some really astute comments on the middle classes there. It applies equally outside the US.

    “Conspicuous blandness—the absence of distinctive taste—is typical of the middle middle class. If you know you cannot pass a test of independent opinion, it’s the next-best strategy. If you admit no atypical passions, no one can needle you about them, so you can simulate emotional stability. Also, in a situation where you aren’t sure even what the consensus opinion is, expressing none at all is safest.”

    I’ve never seen this stated succinctly, if at all, yet I see this behaviour regularly.

  35. “If your first response to this line of thought, with no pause or disclaimers is “oh no, that can’t be right; many people are quite sincere in these things,” then I am worried you won’t ever hear bad news about your own tribe.”

    I’ve bought fair trade in all sincerity, but possibly in naivety. As for the others, they’re all bastards :-)
    I do, however, assume that at least a portion of fair trade deals are bent, because suppliers are often too poor to bother with Western consumer niceties, and middle men like corruption. Maybe I underestimate that proportion.
    Dunno, have to look it up.

  36. I asked God if the World was perfectly just. God asked if I was calling Him lazy. In the New Testament, there is a little understood phrase where Paul says we are not bound by law, but are we going to be sinners? If you believe in reward and punishment in this life, like Dante’s Inferno. Nothing matters. Do what you like and rest assured you will be rewarded or punished. I believe pleasures are generally designed to balance with pains. I drink a ton of diet soda. Am I not moral? Relax, I’ll probably get cancer and if not, it’s God’s business. With my belief in justice, I mostly feel like keeping my mouth shut. There’s really no reason to enlighten simple people who believe in right and wrong. If I don’t help the poor, maybe people think I am a Satanist. It’s hard to explain that they will be rewarded, but it’s just not my thing. God said war was servicemen competing. An evolutionist’s jaw might drop and suddenly not be so fond of evolution.

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  38. Thanks! Not surprising that political opinion columnists would prefer that people not understand why they read political opinion columns. The popularity of the phrase “virtue signaling” is probably cutting into their business (and their self-image).

    Somewhat relevant, from a couple days ago: Influencing Myself:Self-Reinforcement Through Online Political Expression:

    Political expressions on social media and the online forum were found to (a) reinforce the expressers’ partisan thought process and (b) harden their pre-existing political preferences. Implications for the role the Internet plays in democracy will be discussed.

  39. Out of procrastination, and for the reason that my physics simulation code tests take time, I finally read this whole text and connected conversation through…

    What I noticed is, that this pattern is not something what I really recognize happening in my country (Finland). Buddhism as a social signalling has never really been meaningful.

    This is partially perhaps connected to the Finnish culture, as it is socially usually viewed that matters of religious belief are very private and you would not discus them in casual conversation. This would apply also to the Protestant Lutherans Christians – the most conventional of religions. I have the impression that in the United States people are much more open about their religious views.

    I could imagine two, a bit connected, reasons for this lack of pattern. First, compared to the United States, Finland has been a strange periphery region which has meant, at least before the internet, that ideas and fads would travel slowly here. I think people in general got interested in Buddhism much later, though I am not sure of the timeline. It would not have carried much significance for the baby boomers in 1960s – there were other movements which were popular.

    Second, Finland experienced a shocking level of socio-economic change during the decades after the WWII. The whole country turned from farming and forest industry into high tech (i.e. Nokia). The role of the social classes would be very different, and also what it means to be politically “left” or “right”.

    These two things would mean that the demographics of Buddhism would be different in many ways, too time consuming to characterize.

    I see boomer generation people more in the groups connected stuff like Theosophy. When it comes to the Buddhist groups I know the best, like the Finnish Aro Sanga (I am an Apprentice), the Danakosha Dharma Center (http://www.danakosha.fi/) and the Helsinki Shambhala group, the average age of the participants is clearly bellow the boomer generation. This also applies to the other groups I know less well.

    Personally I became a Buddhist because I was interested in all kind of occult stuff and mysteries of consciousness. Signalling has never been the issue.

    I have perhaps repeated some of this elsewhere, but I hope my analysis could be beneficial to others in terms of perspective.

  40. Thank you! This is consistent with what I’ve heard about Buddhism in Finland from several Aro students. Definitely very different from America, and in promising ways.

  41. Yes. I find that the fact that even in so-called Western countries there is no single monolithic situation for this gives hope for the future of Buddhism. :)

    However, although the situation is different where I live, it is interesting to read what you write. It is still the case that most of the Buddhist books etc. written by westerners come from the Anglo-America language area. Therefore, whatever is written in US has huge impact to the general opinion what Western Buddhism should be.

    Before actually involving myself with traditional Buddhism and things like Aro gTér, therefore getting to know the subject in depth, I was certainly plagued by Consensus Buddhist stereotypes. Buddhism appeared like some kind of a fuzzy feel good philosophy, without any actual fun, lacking either shape or taste.

    It took me a while to realize that reason I had these bad stereotypes, was because “Western Buddhism” had taken this huge 2500 year old tradition, and reduced it from the most of the cool or challenging parts to make it fit for certain kind of people I could not connect with. — If I want inoffensive, tasteless, plain and acceptable religion with a lot of “I am a proper normal person” signalling, there is the state supported Finnish Lutheran Church. Why I would need Buddhism for that?

    It is especially sad to see a lot of stories and legends discarded because those contain things like supernatural elements. We can of course argue $10^{666} \mathrm{Myr}$ what is true and what is not, but there is emotional significance to many of those stories, and such things matter as they make life and practice interesting.

    Ha. I intended to write just a short answer, but then I just kept going. I guess I am in a ranting mood. :D

  42. Reblogged this on Thinking Clearly and commented:

    Buddhism is incredibly interesting to study, especially through a Western lens. David Chapman makes an interesting argument here about Buddhism as a form of virtue signalling.

    His sobering argument applies to much more than Buddhism too.

  43. Very interesting article.

    Question: as Buddhism is to the 1960s, X is to 2017. What, in your opinion, is X?

    Suggestions: you may enjoy N. Taleb’s ideas about social class today. He has a blog on Medium.

  44. You pack a lot into a small space Martina! Yes, NNTaleb, on many topics. He overshoots and overplays at times, but he is more solid and original than just about anyone out there. Fascinating question you pose. The quick answer is “spirituality,” though Buddhism and UU still hold sway. My worry is that the answer is increasingly “Nothing beyond current popularity.” It is not an aggressive nothing as online atheists sometimes present, but a vagueness and inability to even conceive of what the current-event morality does not include.

  45. Very thought provoking. I don’t think Buddhism sends quite the same signals in the UK, as the only people I know who describe themselves as Buddhists have spent months in retreat, changed their names, meditate for hours a day, and do right-livelihood type work. But growing your vegetables is an obvious signal in my community, very time consuming, quite boring,a bit expensive, and obvious signals about health, environmental consciousness and non-materialism. Sadly, my veg patch is a mess, but planting it over would probably signal having completely given up on these attributes.

  46. Brilliant article, and hits very close to home. (My Buddhist affiliation began in 1990 / 1991.)

    Many of the same observations could be made about the Baha’i religion, which attracted upper-middle / upper class “Episcopalian” types from about 1898 to the 1960s, then hippies later. Major differences:

    (1) the Baha’is have a solid, inflexible hierarchy (think Mormonism), while the Buddhists are very decentralized

    (2) the Baha’is promote a well-defined mix of “liberal” social values (e.g. anti-racism, some feminist rhetoric) alongside a “conservative” personal ethic (e.g. no alcohol, sex only within heterosexual marriage) which is policed to some extent. Buddhism imposes no real restrictions on belief or behavior (and I have not experienced much in the way of peer pressure, either), but primarily attracts Western liberals / leftists.

    (3) the Baha’is maintain a clearly-defined (but easy to cross) boundary between members and non-members, whereas anybody can call themselves a Buddhist. A few Buddhist groups are considered heretical by other Buddhist groups. ALL Baha’i groups other than the main group are considered heretical by that group.

    It’s hard to get reliable membership information from the Baha’is, but like Western Buddhism, they seem to have peaked during the 1990s. This is awkward for them, because they generally expect their religion to continue growing until it conquers the world, so to speak. Buddhists, by contrast, entertain no such expectations.

  47. This is provincial, meandering, and naive.

    In the first, you haven’t sufficiently experienced the places you’ve lived or lived sufficiently diverse places. You misrepresent both the dynamics of political identity and the interactions between divided social classes.

    For the second, take a course that will discipline your writing. You make arbitrary, unsupported, and worst of all unnecessary claims throughout this work. I thought you were at least justifying some of those in footnotes, but was disappointed. Instead, you usually wandered further from your point.

    And for the last, diversify your experiences and education. Find works that oppose the views you believe yourself to currently hold. Read them closely. Compose counterarguments them (or amend your beliefs, but it’s important to be realistic about these things) write reviews that address the points those opposing works make. And subject your argument to the least agreeable and most rigorous crucible you can find.

    That said, this piece is better than silence or private thought. It is good that you have wrote it. Please do better. Perhaps you already have.

  48. This looks like a spam criticism, because it provides no identifiers that it is directed to the actual article. And “It is good that you have wrote it” is rather suspicious. I didn’t know there were such things as generic criticisms sent out blindly. I can’t imagine why someone would bother.

  49. Oh, that’s an interesting possibility that hadn’t occurred to me!

    I thought it was just content-free superciliousness from someone with ego problems. I considered deleting it as useless and potentially irritating to readers, but I don’t have time to moderate comments currently, so I didn’t bother. (Probably I should turn commenting off here, as I have on my other sites.)

    There’s no links, which suggests it’s not spam… but maybe it was a failing attempt at spam by an incompetent…

    I guess I’ll leave it here as an entertaining minor mystery!

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