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

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


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

The collaborative effort involved meticulous transcriptions due to the language barriers, ultimately being translated by Yuan Shiao-Ching, and critical discussions over this time which both stretched and probed each other’s thinking.

This book contains topics some may find challenging or triggering including suicide, abortion, animal cruelty and eugenics. These are, nonetheless, provocative subjects that any atheist or Buddhist will inevitably consider eventually, and how the Buddhist precepts of some two and a half thousand years ago hold today, without appearing somewhat sanctimonious and inappropriate in contemporary context.

The book reads as a scripted dialogue or a transcript of a private conversation, offering readers insight into the exceptionally polite and respectful exchange between Singer and Ven. Chao-Hwei. The conversational tone seems to take on a Q&A structure, where Singer seeks Ven. Chao-Hwei’s reflections which consist of Buddhist tales as well as her own experiences, and questions are reiterated in responses, one assumes emphasizing her understanding, but also useful for a neophyte Buddhist audience. Ven. Chao-Hwei emerges as a well-researched and informed Buddhist, seamlessly blending Western psychology with strict Buddhist perspectives.

3. Ven. Chao-Hwei. From Initium Media

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

The juxtaposition of utilitarianism with the perceived Buddhist emphasis on contemplation over activism highlights a significant disparity in their approaches to instigating positive societal change. If it is deemed acceptable to eat the flesh of another living creature, how and where does one draw the line between staying alive and murder? And where does that argument end? In a respectful “waste not want not” environment, should we still be eating the way of our hunter-gatherer forebears, or do we live in a world where, thanks to advancements in many fields, many of us have a choice? We despise cruelty inflicted on animals, yet remain blind to the meat sandwich we may be consuming. 

The dialogues were insightful enough to prompt reflection in many areas. One example was during the section discussing the Chinese Mahayana practice of Compassionate or Merciful Release. It brought back memories of my time in Brittany, a region known for its seafood-centric culture due to its northwestern peninsula location in France. Unlike the selfish or detrimental situations cited by Ven. Chao-Hwei, where the practice has often become an ego-driven act, or akin to a business not dissimilar to fox-hunting where the fox is caught only to be rereleased in front of a pack of hungry dogs for the chase, local Breton Buddhists engage in the practice of releasing wild-caught crabs and marine life. Caught by local fishermen, delivered to the local supermarkets and kept alive, they are quickly bought by the Buddhists and freed in safer coastal waters. This is surely a small example of earnest compassion in action with no religion needed. No crabs needed either for us to do similarly small yet meaningful acts of kindness.

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

I have been a vegetarian my whole life, so naturally, this conversation intrigued me. However, the discourse on gender equality caught my attention even more, and I found myself not just in agreement with Ven. Chao-Hwei, but also heartened by the fearless stance she takes against numerous misogynistic issues. Over the years, I’ve often discussed these problems, and seeing them boldly addressed by this courageous woman was incredibly validating. The deeply entrenched misogyny, established millennia ago*, has lingered in an unevolved and insecure state, casting a shadow over the lives of countless women, and causing immense suffering for too many across various religions and life paths. And religions like Buddhism should know better than to be caught up in the illusion of gender and separatism. 

As for the other topics raised in this discourse, they are not only of valuable interest but ultimately serve as a diving board from which we can nosedive into our own deep thoughts and flex uncomfortable synapses.

As a lifelong philosopher introduced to Buddhism at a very young age when Geshe Namgyal Wangchen lived with us at our family home, I was eager to read this book. The challenging topics presented serve as an excellent introduction for those intrigued by either perspective, whether seeking a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy or, akin to any engaging debate, desiring to explore two thoughtful viewpoints to expand their own thinking. My feeling is that the book and discussion is presented in such a way so as to aid the reader to do just this. 

The book provides fascinating discussions between an incredibly progressive female Buddhist and a broader-thinking man than many. While I, as a woman, feel congruent with the feminist opinions offered by Shih Chao-Hwei, I could not help but wonder, actually almost amuse myself with the thought of, were this book a conversation between a traditional male monastic and an atheist, like Germaine Greer. Or even Richard Dawkins, just how differently the book would read. 

Ultimately, this is a 5-year-long, deeply considered conversation between two intelligent and lively minds that is wonderful to be witness to, with questions that would have us all reflecting actively.

Related features from BDG

Book Review: Until Nirvana’s Time: Buddhist Songs from Cambodia
Book Review: The Power of Mind: A Tibetan Monk’s Guide to Finding Freedom in Every Challenge
Book Review: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep

More from Nachaya’s Book Corner by Nachaya Campbell-Allen

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