Thursday, June 21, 2007

Right Livelihood and The Nuremberg Trials

Wrong livelihood

In Buddhism, the concept of right livelihood is an important one, for Buddhism is supposed to be more of a way of life than a religion. Choosing an appropriate profession, or avoiding an inappropriate profession, is a crucial step in a buddhist practice. In technical terms, Right Livelihood is the fifth of the eight path factors in the Noble Eightfold Path, and belongs to the virtue division of the path.

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.

Asparagus’ position was that the evilness lies not necessarily with the scientist but rather with the army specialist who takes the scientist’s invention and uses it for purposes not originally intended. He gave as an example the daisy cutter bomb, called BLU-82, which was used in the Middle-East to penetrate into caves, to reach and maim people which regular bombs could not.

The BLU-82 was originally designed to clear helicopter landing zones and artillery emplacements in Vietnam. .. Later, bombs were dropped as much for their psychological effect as for their anti-personnel effects. The US Air Force dropped several BLU-82s during the campaign to destroy the Taliban and al-Qaeda terror networks in Afghanistan to attack and demoralize personnel and to destroy underground and cave complexes.

My example was the napalm and its improvements by chemical engineers.

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."

More recently, we have learned about the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, where doctors and psychologists are helping the torture technicians by reviving prisoners when they lose consciousness from pain or exhaustion or by finding their mental and psychological weak points to work on. Salon has an article called “The CIA’s torture teachers” which gives details about a US military's secretive program called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) to "reverse-engineer" techniques originally designed to train U.S. soldiers to resist torture if captured, and to develop brutal interrogation tactics applicable on detainees considered rightly or wrongly to be enemies of the US.

After WWII, prominent members of the political, military and economic leadership of Nazi Germany were prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials
(, where the argument given by the defendants — “I was only following orders“ — to excuse their crimes was thoroughly debunked and rejected.

Nuremberg Trials

What excuses do the doctors, engineers and scientists mentioned above have?

Update: 22 June 2007
From today's Salon
"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."


Nebu Pookins said...

What excuses do the doctors, engineers and scientists mentioned above have?

The excuse is that you would have done the same in their position. See the Stanford prison experiment, the Milgram experiment, etc.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Et Bush cherchait des armes biologiques en Iraq.

Voila il aurait du chercher au vietnam:

Buddhist with an attitude said...

Merci à tous les commentateurs pour les liens.