What is an inappropriate or “wrong” profession?
"A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison." (Vanijja Sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu).
Obvious examples of what would be regarded as Right Livelihood are easy to find. The work of doctors and nurses, teachers, social workers for example. But also think about all people who work in the service industry in one way or another - shop assistants, chefs, refuse collectors and so on. In fact much of the work that goes on in the world is for the service of others.
As for wrong livelihood, anything that is to do with exploitation, deceit, killing and destruction are deemed to be unacceptable on ethical grounds. In the scriptures the Buddha refers to the practice of 'deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, usury' as wrong livelihood. Elsewhere he refers to five trades that should be avoided: 'trading in arms, in living beings, in flesh, in intoxicating drinks, and in poison'.
For Buddhism, therefore, the international arms trade is a non-starter. So too is the sex trade, selling alcohol, and trades which are involved with the slaughter of animals.
But having the right profession is only one part of a person’s life. It also matters what one does in one’s professional capacity. I remember a discussion I once had with my elder son Asparagus about the evil of scientists and engineers who use their knowledge and expertise to create or improve on weapons in order to make them more efficient.
Philip Jones Griffiths describes its use in Vietnam:
NAPALM. The most effective "anti-personnel" weapon, it is euphemistically described as "unfamiliar cooking fluid" by those apologists for American military methods. They automatically attribute all napalm cases to domestic accidents caused by the people using gasoline instead of kerosene in their cooking stoves. Kerosene is far too expensive for the peasants, who normally use charcoal for cooking. The only "cooking fluid" they know is very "unfamiliar" – it is delivered through their roofs by U.S. planes.Some of its finer selling points were explained to me by a pilot in 1966: "We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow. The original product wasn’t so hot – if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene – now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter (WP – white phosphorus) so’s to make it burn better. It’ll even burn under water now. And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.""Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine," said Kim Phuc, a napalm bombing survivor known from a famous Vietnam War photograph. "Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius."
What excuses do the doctors, engineers and scientists mentioned above have?
"June 21, 2007 Editor's note: On Wednesday, dozens of psychologists released an open letter to American Psychological Association president Sharon Brehm, expressing concern that psychologists may have played a central role in the development of abusive interrogation tactics since 9/11. Psychologists affiliated with the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program are under particular scrutiny. That program subjects elite U.S. soldiers to brutal mock interrogations to teach resistance in case of capture by an enemy that does not abide by the Geneva Conventions. Military psychologists helped reverse-engineer that training to interrogate suspected terrorists. Increasing evidence shows that the CIA employed SERE psychologists as contractors to do the same. Screen shots of the text of the letter are contained on this page and the following pages; the full letter, including the list of signatories, is available for download here."