IEET > Vision > Contributors > Alex McGilvery > HealthLongevity > Futurism
Buddhist Right Speech – can we improve ourselves, to improve others?
Alex McGilvery   Jun 17, 2012   Ethical Technology  

IEET has introduced the Buddhist concept of Right Speech as the tool for moderating comments and adding civility to the community. As we are using it, Right Speech is a tool for deciding if a comment is useful to the conversation. Thus, a comment needs to be true, it needs to not be abusive or divisive, and it needs to move the conversation forward.

As I look deeper into the concept of Right Speech, I find that the Buddha’s idea is more than just a way of deciding if our words are “Right” or not. As one part of the Eightfold Path, it is part of a continual discipline of self-awareness and mindfulness. By Right Speech we improve ourselves and put ourselves in a place where we might be of aid to improving others.

I was curious about the idea of Right Speech and its relationship to my own conception of responsible speech, so I dug a little deeper. In the Christian Scriptures, Ephesians 4:29b says “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” Here, as in Right Speech, we have a test for our words. At first glance there seems to be a great difference. Right Speech is abstaining from speaking lies, abuse or idle chatter, but there is also an emphasis on making a conscious decision to speak words of value. The value of the words is in their ability to encourage or teach those around us.

The challenge with both Right Speech and this advice from Ephesians is that it could be argued that the truth is often unpalatable. If we simply refrain from speaking anything that might not be seen as “nice” we will be deafened by empty words. If we say everything that comes into our heads we will end up being cruel and untruthful. What makes Right Speech particularly appropriate for IEET is that it is a conscious technique for filtering our thoughts and words. Our goal is to use whatever technology is available to ethically enhance the human species. By employing Right Speech we are doing just that. It will become, not just a tool for moderating the forums, but a tool to change the way we think.

A recent article in the New York Times discussed the reality of perception bias. That is the sense that we already know the answer and do not need to listen to other opinions. We have discussed the concept here at IEET. Perception bias means that we are less likely to hear what others are saying to us on an issue. Instead of a debate we have a series of parallel monologues. Perception bias is not counteracted by intelligence, self awareness, or facts.

What does counteract perception bias is the development of a relationship with a person on the “other side” of the issue. Put people in a room and let them get to know each other. Then present them with a problem to be solved. They will be much more able to work with each other, even if they are from a diverse background. The effect of perception bias is reduced.

Going back to Right Speech then; we can’t put all our community in a room and wait while we get to know each other. What we can do is encourage each other to the discipline of Right Speech. Ultimately it isn’t about the other person, it is about me. Do I choose to work on my words so they are adding to value of the conversation? It is my responsibility when to speak and what words to use.

Words can wound or heal. They can open up new possibilities or they can shut things down. They are the tools that help me to know myself and the other. While IEET will be moderating comments based on Right Speech, it is solely my own responsibility whether I take that discipline and technology and use it to evolve into a more thinking, self-aware individual.

Alex McGilvery is currently living in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada. He is an author and serves as the minister of a thriving United Church congregation.


All true, Alex.
Nothing much wrong with Buddhism or Christianity save that they are often contrary to our politics. Madisonianism in America is decidedly un-Buddhist, un-Christian.. Nasty Speech in America is a logical flow from what the Framers wanted; naturally not exactly what the Framers wanted, yet entirely predictable.
It was always bad, in the Framer’s day they even fought duels over politics.
Right Speech can and almost certainly will work at IEET, but on the outside? the rightwing in America wont like anyone any more or less if they use Right Speech, and they will respect them less if they do use Right Speech. Doesn’t matter what they say, they only respect those who are Madisonianly aggressive—and you cannot separate this from makes America America as you cannot separate the French language, wine, and cheese from what makes France France, what makes the French French.
Integral, not superficial. Therefore:

“Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.”

makes abundant sense in church—in any any house of worship—but outside in the bad old world, the so-called ‘Real’ (Darwinist) world, such is IMO more veneer than substance. Being an American, I know I will have to fight the Right in America, and Right Speech is rather superficial as when you examine the way we communicate in America, that Madisonian tension infuses say 80 percent of our lives here; it isn’t limited to politics because what is politics? policies of course, the sum total of those policies having a profound, well-nigh dominant effect on the totality of our lives. Only reason it isn’t completely dominant is that there is the escapism of religion, spirituality, arts, entertainment, friendship, sex, travel, etc.
However we can only escape to a degree, generally perhaps 20 percent of the time depending on the person and the person’s circumstances—the Darwinist world always intrudes. Thus escapism as veneer and Right Speech as diplomacy, though necessary and positive, are comparable to covering cow flops with gold bars; underneath the gold bars the cow flops are still cow flops.

One might put it like this. Right Speech is more than just diplomacy: it is also a discipline that, when practised by everyone, allows good sense and reason to emerge.

In fact, I would say that the proven to which Intomorrow alludes - the rampant nature of discourse in general, and the sad reality that the voice of Right Speechers tends to gets drowned out by the less scrupulous - is merely a special case of the much more general prisoners’ dilemma, or “tragedy of the commons”. Except for those who are genuinely addicted to bad discourse (which, come to think of it, is most of us), we all stand to benefit from the proliferation of Right Speech. But at an individual level, respecting such a discipline can put one at a disadvantage.

And as with all other manifestations of this problem, the solution will tend to be a combination of enforcement, peer pressure, and the example provided by those willing to accept the disadvantages involved in holding themselves to a higher standard. In the mean time, sites like IEET can provide “safe spaces” where excellent discourse can take place, without being polluted by the entropic effect of trolls. I still think it could catch on.

And not to be thoroughly pessimistic; If I were, IEET would not be the site to go to. I am afraid of those at the bottom (corruption is trickle down; vulgarity is trickle-up) of the food chain because of meeting them all the time—they tend to be out on the open. I’m not so much afraid of them physically anymore, but of hearing the same sh*t, p*ss, f*ck- talk that is amusing the first hundred times you hear it (or via cinema) but gets old after a thousand times.
You say to yourself: ‘does social progress actually exist or is it illusory’?
That’s what bothers me most; the question I ask is, “have I been a fool all these decades?: better to invest in gold bullion or cattle futures than to be a social-futurist.”
At least tangible assets will put food on the table and not merely words on paper. Social-futurism has been a great deal of hot air; Pete, I remember 1968 very clearly, people in 2012 are no less vulgar and predatory than they were in ‘68. Which includes Right Speech.

I wonder if this policy will be effective.

I am very much in favor of it, as I need to be practicing more discipline, in this regard, in my life.


As an effective technology competing against other rhetorical technologies, I fear that this is a losing battle.

I have seen people tend to respond more to powerful invective than to polite speech.

True, as George Lakoff has recently pointed out, being seen as a “nice person,” even to one’s ideological enemies, does tend to give a person or group an amount of power over those who do nothing but attack another person or group (eventually, they are seen as nothing but negative and hateful). So this policy may eventually work to that end.

Yes, it’s the competition with arguably more effective rhetorical technologies that makes it hard for Right Speech to catch on. But those other (manipulative) technologies tend to work better in the short term than in the long run. Admittedly Keynes said that in the long run we’re all dead, and in the pre-transhumanism era that was a reasonable thing to say 😊 , but it is possible to develop an effective brand around Right Speech, without necessarily being the Dalai Lama.

Meanwhile, as I point out above sites committed to this policy, fairly enforced where necessary, can provide a safe space where good sense and reason is more likely to emerge, rather as a well-refereed sports match can allow wonderful things to occur.

Peter, you’d be hard pressed to find any Buddhist who would disagree with you, but “right speech” is much more complex than you’ve described in this article.

For example, the wheel beneath your “cart” has only one spoke —-  right speech is one part of the Eightfold Path, where without the other seven you would in fact have gold bars covering cow flops, just as Intromorrow described.

It’s also important to note that those gold bars don’t only cover up cow flops, but occassionally a strateigically placed landmine, especially when the other seven aspects of the Eightfold Path are not there in equal measure.

Of course, I don’t mean to sound pessimistic because what you’ve described should be encouraged, there’s just other things to take into account.

Don’t want to take credit for Alex’s article, but thanks, these are good points. Obviously the focus of commenting guidelines has to be on the actual comments, and “right speech” seems like a good place to start, but as you say there are other things to take into account if one wants to do good in the world (and not only in a Buddhist context, of course).

Dharmamakara, you are absolutely correct. Right Speech is only one aspect of the enlightenment sought through Buddhism. If we were seeking enlightenment, we’d be in trouble.

What we are doing is a bit more problematic than that.  We are appropriating a religious discipline as a secular discipline. It is similar to a corporation deciding to begin their board meetings with a period of silence because that is an effective technique for Quakers.

The odd thing is that it can work within limited constraints. What we are asking is that people become more measured and thoughtful about their commenting here. The concept of Right Speech seems like it would work, even separated from its context with the other seven paths. We shall see.

Intomorrow, we’ve had this conversation before. I don’t believe public discourse needs to be a zero sum game. The way past the road block of Madisonian rabble rousing is not to become louder and nastier, but to disengage from the need to be loud and nasty.

I realize that some Americans have a perverse pride in the shallowness of their public discourse, but there are many who seek a more thoughtful way of doing things. There will be no over night changes, but that doesn’t mean that change is impossible.

@Peter—right speech is always a good place to start 😊

@Pastor Alex—have you heard about CiviliNation? They’re a non-profit group who’s goal is to foster an online culture where every person can freely participate in a democratic, open, rational and truth-based exchange of ideas and information, without fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment or lies:

The only reason I mention this is because I’m an adminstrator over at Buddha Forum and we have had a re-occuring problem with the aggressive and abusive language of “New Atheism”—- to make a long story short, the above website woke us up to fact that right speech has it’s limitations, even among Buddhists, that sometimes it’s more appropriate to take a stand.

“Intomorrow, we’ve had this conversation before. I don’t believe public discourse needs to be a zero sum game. The way past the road block of Madisonian rabble rousing is not to become louder and nastier, but to disengage from the need to be loud and nasty.
I realize that some Americans have a perverse pride in the shallowness of their public discourse, but there are many who seek a more thoughtful way of doing things. There will be no over night changes, but that doesn’t mean that change is impossible.”

Now you are becoming encouraging- and Dharmakara too; civilNation is a site to go to. Only caveat is IMO Madisonian rabble-rousing is, again, politically what makes America what it is. Wont go into the crucial yet abstruse topic of creative destruction, but merely one random example of how America differs from Europe: Europe’s labor unions have gotten along better with their publics than America’s have with America’s public. One may say, as Piero Scaruffi might, unions in Europe have been effete and lavishly wasteful—but American unions have been more confrontational to less purpose; they haven’t been as Solidarity in Poland, they have been intransigent for the sake of being such. Plus America’s unions were never much interested in women, minorities, war issues. It was well-known how ‘hardhats’ here used to club Vietnam War protesters.
Demonstrates what a cowboy-type of nation we are. Dynamic, yes—but only when one is not on the wrong end of a wrench or club!

@Intomorrow—- Although I’m not a member of IEET, let’s examine the issue of Madisonian rabble-rousing through the lense of critical thinking.

Your premise is that Madisonian rabble-rousing is “politically what makes America what it is,” whereas I would say it’s that and much more than that alone, but the problem is that none of this matters.


Because IEET was formed to study and debate vital questions such as:

- Which technologies, especially new ones, are likely to have the greatest impact on human beings and human societies in the 21st century?

- What ethical issues do those technologies and their applications raise for humans, our civilization, and our world?

- How much can we extrapolate from the past and how much accelerating change should we anticipate?

- What sort of policy positions can be recommended to promote the best possible outcomes for individuals and societies?

IEET’s mission is to be a center for voices arguing for a responsible, constructive, ethical approach to the most powerful emerging technologies, where the founders believe that technological progress can be a catalyst for positive human development as long as those technologies are safe and equitably distributed, something that they refer to as a “technoprogressive” orientation.

It’s not only a lofty goal, one to be admired, but it’s also one that speaks of human beings, societies, civilization and the world, not of America or any one particular country.

Madisonian rabble-rousers might belive they’re the center of the universe, no different than the supporters of other ideologies feel that they’re the center of the universe, but what does this have to do with IEET?

The answer is that it has nothing to do with IEET, it’s discussions and discourses, nor it’s orientation.

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