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How Do We Care For Future People?
 Buddhist and Jain Ideas for Reproductive Ethics (Part 3)
J. Hughes   Aug 31, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Buddhism and Jainism believe there is an evolutionary continuity between animals, humans and “gods,” and that all creatures will evolve from animals to a posthuman state. From a Keynote Address delivered at the International Jain Conference at Claremont Lincoln University, August 24-25, 2012.

Genetic Enhancement

Turning to genetic enhancement we first need to reflect on the different views on humanity in the Abrahamic and South Asian faiths and in the European Enlightenment.  Abrahamic faiths believe in a recent divine creation of humans in their current form, and an escathological timeline in which humans will still be human at their final judgment.  For humans to use science to try to become more than Human 1.0 is seen by Christian bioethics as hubristic “playing God,” which could only have evil consequences.

Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, however, believe there is an evolutionary continuity between animals, humans and “gods,” and that all creatures will evolve from animals to a posthuman state. This places Hindus, Buddhists and Jains closer to the progressive optimist and posthumanist aspects of European Enlightenment thought, which holds that human existence is a happy evolutionary accident that can be improved upon with science and reason.  Granted, the evolution from human to god or arhat in South Asian religion was not to be accomplished with technology, but through spiritual means.

Nonetheless, even if cognitive and genetic enhancement in itself cannot grant freedom from karma, moksha or nirvana, the South Asian religions generally have no human-essentialist objection to the use of technology to ameliorate sickness, extend life, or expand mental faculties even if it means we become more than human.

What then is the obligation of parents and of society when safe genetic enhancement is available? We are already dealing with these obligations around prenatal genetic testing, especially in IVF, when parents are faced with choices about which among a set of embryos to implant.  According to liberal secular bioethics our obligation is ensure that our children have the best possible bodies and brains for accomplishing a wide variety of life goals. The bioethicist Julian Savulescu has formulated this principle into the concept of procreative beneficence, in which we are obliged to choose the most able of a set of possible embryos, and will be obliged to carefully genetically enhance our children’s health, cognitive abilities and psychological traits when we can.

For Buddhists and Jains the question has an added dimension, our concern for our children’s capacity for spiritual growth.  Ensuring that they possess health, long life and the full complement of faculties as the prerequisites for spiritual growth is a basic obligation for the application of genetic selection and engineering. But it will also be possible to use gene therapy for moral enhancement by removing predilections to certain kinds of addictions or vices, and by enhancing our capacity for self-control, compassion, spiritual experience, and rational discernment.  While Jains and Buddhists will presumably see psychopharmaceutical and genetic enhancement of moral and spiritual capacities as only complementary and facilitative to meditation and traditional spiritual exercises, both Jain and Buddhist theories of karma would presumably welcome any technology that reduced karmic accumulation.

We also have the obligation to ensure the best possible lives for all future persons, which raises an interesting question about the relation of Jain and Buddhist eschatological views to the possibility of a posthuman future. Although both Buddhism and Jainism believe in a certain degree of predestination on the basis of past karma, they also believe that people can have life conditions more or less conducive to spiritual growth.  If we can create a more peaceful world fewer people in the future will accumulate the karma of killing. If we can create synthetic meat in vats there will be less animal slaughter. If we can subsidize and encourage genetic enhancement, physical, cognitive and moral, more people in the future will have the prerequisites for working towards moksha. 

Neither Jainism nor Buddhism are utilitarian in the Western sense, since we see the creation of a certain kind of posthuman character as the most important accomplishment by which to judge actions by, a view sometimes called character consequentialism.  In other words, for Jains, Buddhists and presumably other religions, the morality of both genetic enhancement of one’s own children, and of the next generation in general, turns on whether enhancements are likely to increase their chance of making spiritual progress. 

Since it is harder for animals to make spiritual progress than humans, we have one additional obligation: to confer upon as many animals as possible the attributes necessary for spiritual progress. The author David Brin calls the duty to genetically enhance animals for greater intelligence the “uplift ethic,” and the prospect of the uplift of great apes is now imminent since we have decoded the genomes of humans and apes, and located the sequences that led to the development of human cognition.
A Posthuman Future

I close with some reflections on the implications of Buddhists and Jain views of the history for our attitudes about a posthuman future.  Both Jains and Buddhists share the Hindu model of an beginningless and endless timeline, with cyclical multi-billion year universe life courses (kalachakras), views that are more compatible with contemporary cosmology than those of the Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand Jains and Buddhists also shared the South Asian belief that the historical epochs could be characterized morally, with periods of declining dharma (Dusama) followed by periods of utopian progress (Susama). These historical periods were punctuated by the appearance of great beings, mahapurushas, who would either take up roles as righteous rulers, cakravartins, or as great sages, tirthankaras for Jains and Buddhas for Buddhists.

In South Asian mythology these mahapurushas  would be known by the presence of dozens of physical attributes, which included

Large bump on top of the skull
Golden skin and their body covered in tight curled hair
A tuft of hair between the eyebrows
A large, long tongue and forty teeth
Long arms that reach to the knees
Webbed fingers and toes
A thousand-spoked wheel on the sole of each foot
A glowing aura
Not to mention superhuman beauty and grace.
If they had these attributes clearly Mahavira and the Buddha were the product of some pretty intensive genetic enhancement. As religions founded by posthumans how could we not be uniquely enthusiastic about the prospect of genetic enhancement.


*  Buddhism and Jainism can connect with and illuminate contemporary bioethics around a shared belief in an evolutionary trajectory and moral continuity from animal to human to posthuman.

*  Buddhism and Jainism differ radically in how they connect with bioethical debates on personhood, with Jains adopting substance dualism and Buddhists closer to neuroscientific reductionism.

*  Liberal Buddhists and Jains could, however, set aside literal interpretations of ensoulment and adopt a materialist, neuroscientific view of ensoulment that would permit some abortion and distinguishes between the karma incurred from harming different kinds of animals.

*  While some secular bioethicists believe it is permissible to genetically enhance humans and animals, and Abrahamic faiths generally oppose genetic enhancement, Jains and Buddhists would use virtue consequentialism to judge genetic enhancements, approving of those that give future generations maximal opportunity for spiritual growth, meaning not only that enhancement for health and cognitive ability might be obligatory, but also enhancement for moral and spiritual traits.

*  Jains and Buddhists are more open to the radical optimism of the Enlightenment that we may transcend our humanness.

To Read Part 1 CLICK HERE

To Read Part 2 CLICK HERE


Barnhart, Michael G.  1995. “Buddhism and Morality of Abortion,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 5.

Hughes, James, 1999.  “Buddhism and Abortion: A Western Approach,” in Buddhism and Abortion, Damien Keown ed. Macmillan.
______. 2007. “Buddhist Bioethics,” in Principles of Health Care Ethics second edition. Oxford University Press. pp. 127-134.

Hume, David. 1739. A Treatise of Human Nature: Book I: Of the understanding. Part IV: Of the sceptical and other systems of philosophy. Section VI: Of Personal Identity.

Locke, John. 1689. Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Peters, Ted. 2005. “The Soul of Trans-Humanism,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 44(4): 381-395.

Sciberras, Colette. “Buddhism and Speciesism: on the Misapplication of Western Concepts to Buddhist Beliefs,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics.

Waldau, Paul. 2002. The Specter of Speciesism; Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wise, Steven. 2003. Drawing The Line: Science And The Case For Animal Rights. Basic Books.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)

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