“Ethics” is advertising

Jennifer Aniston nearly nude with Smart Water

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 advertising absence of judgement

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:

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 practiced for more than a decade, 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.