Printed: 2020-05-25

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Buddhist Right Speech – can we improve ourselves, to improve others?

Alex McGilvery

Ethical Technology

June 17, 2012

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.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837