This page will describe some similarities and differences between Buddhism and utilitarianism—it will not constitute a complete description of Buddhism itself. Unless noted otherwise, the description here is based on a Theravadan interpretation of Buddhism. Both utilitarianism and Buddhism recognize the important role of happiness relative to suffering, but they approach the problem differently.

Suffering Edit

The first principles of Buddhism are enumerated by the Four Noble Truths. English translations of the Four Noble Truths vary, but are essentially this: suffering exists; desire is the cause of suffering; suffering can be removed by removing desire; and the way to remove desire is the Noble Eightfold Path[1]. The Eightfold Path is an outline for living a virtuous life in which people avoid causing harm and cultivate the skills that are necessary to release attachment to worldly things and thereby reduce suffering[2].

Helping Self Versus OthersEdit

Different schools of Buddhism interpret and seek nirvana differently. The largest division is betwen Theravadan Buddhism, which is characterized by a focus on removing suffering for the self (which requires compassion for all), and Mahayana Buddhism, which characterized by a goal of removing suffering for all. Thich Nhat Hanh calls for engaged Buddhism in which adherents follow principles from several types of Buddhism and seek to actively reduce suffering of others.

The main focus for Theravada Buddhism is harm-reduction, which corresponds to negative utilitarianism. For Mahayana Buddhism, the main focus is both harm reduction and creating positive impacts on happiness.


The perception of happiness in Buddhism differs from that in Western societies. Desire is considered something that can never be fulfilled and that perpetuates a cycle of reincarnation into a life of suffering:

the feeling that results from kamma gives rise to craving (a subtle form of greed and aversion), clinging, and becoming; and these, in turn, form the conditions for further kamma. Thus the results of action, in the presence of ignorance, breed the conditions for more action, creating feedback loops that keep the kammic processes in motion. (Bikkhu, 1996, p. 48; where kamma is the same as karma)
The experience of suffering stems from clinging to something or someone (this clinging is also called attachment). For example, a people who make their happiness dependent on gaining the attention of others will experience suffering when their condition changes and they no longer receive that attention.

Suffering in Buddhism is different from physical pain. Pain is the direct, physical experience such as what happens after an injury. Suffering is typically viewed as the mental anguish that stems from unfulfilled desire, although the term can be used in other ways. An example is that a person with an injured knee might feel pain from the injury and might also experience suffering that comes from the thwarted desire to go jogging or be pain-free. Suffering in this case sometimes results in self-talk such as saying "Oh wo is me. Why did this have to happen to me? This isn't fair! Wahh wahh wahh." Some authors use the terms dukkha, duhkha, stress or other terms to describe suffering.

The Buddhist concept of happiness is also related to the Buddhist concepts of impermancence, and mindfulness. Impermanence is the belief (or dispositional attitude) that nothing last for ever and that all things come to an end. Mindfulness is an approach to interpreting experience for what it is as opposed to allowing our uncontrolled mind to manufacture an imaginary story about that experience.

The principles of impermancence, and mindfulness are combined in the practice of mindfulness meditation in which temporary discomforts are perceived to be fleeting and that our tendency to catastrophize these experiences is unskillful and blinds us from the true nature of the experience. Beginning meditators can cultivate this skill by sitting silently and not responding to an itch: instead they realize that the experience is temporary and is merely a sensation. If meditators release their attachment to the false expectation of being itch-free, suffering dissipates and the itch dissapates. During that practice, meditators develop the skill of redirecting their attention away from worrying about the itch and toward simple awareness of the direct physical experience, which does not include any counterfactual expectations of how life should be.

When the Theravadan approach to suffering is viewed from a utilitarian perspective, it would suggest the belief in a hierarchical utilitarianism in which the first goal is to reduce suffering and that true happiness is not obtained by fulfillment of desires but by abandomment of our attachment to fulfilling those desires. The Mahayana tradition differs by pursuing both reduction in suffering and increase in the happiness of others, with engaged Buddhism taking the most direct action to facilitating that increase in happiness.


In the West, Buddhism is known for its practice of meditation, but the Buddha's teachings to new students began with encouraging them to adopt a set of virtuous behaviors: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood [3]. These are the first steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right view refers to understanding kamma (karma), which is to say that in refers to understanding the relationship between action and suffering (because it was believed that actions in one life caused suffering in the next)[4]. The next five teachings constitute efforts to adopt a set of commitments and behaviors that stop the cycle of karma and harm. Good an bad are thought to be "inherent parts of the cosmos, and not simply social convention"[5]. The next set of teachings pertain to right concentration and are right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Meditation is a technique used in Buddhism to develop mindfulness and discernment[6].

Daily meditation sometimes begins with an exercise to create an appropriate mindset for meditation. That could be metta meditation, recitation of the Heart sutra, a dedication of the merit of meditation (e.g., the equivalent of "sending prayers" to somebody), or a lineage prayer/chant honoring the monks who brought teachings to the person who is meditating. Specific practices vary across sects.

The actual practice of meditation varies, with some using primarily silent meditation (most of Theravadan Buddhism) and others using substantially more chanting (e.g., Tibetan Buddhism). Chanting (or silent recitation of any text) is pragmatically useful to help free the mind of thoughts that typically disrupt the first moments of meditation. Theravadan Buddhists prefer silent meditation (perhaps after a period of chanting, silent recitation of text, or a process of mentally naming physical experiences) because it is thought to help the meditator acquire the skill of focusing on one thing thereby increasing the ability to consciously redirect thoughts away from old desires and toward a more factual understanding of the human condition. That skill is perceived to be instrumental in freeing oneself from suffering, which is a goal of both Buddhism and utilitarianism.

Compatibility of Buddhism and UtilitarianismEdit

From a utilitarian perspective, one of the more interesting features of Buddhism is its explicit discernment between desire-fulfillment and pleasure. In the Buddhist view, there is no denial that some experiences are pleasurable in the instant that they happen, but their focus on the total effect of attachment-to-desire. The traditional view is that the cycle of karma and rebirth is itself suffering (separating people from nirvana) and that karma in this system produces desire[7]. In Westernized versions of Buddhism, the role of reincarnation is minimized and more focus is placed the observable link between desire and suffering; for example: "Desire does not cause suffering; the cause of suffering is the grasping of desire"[8]. In other words, we make our happiness contingent upon fulfilling that desire, and when these unmet desires exist we are not happy. There is little reference to the positive, motivating aspects of desire in Western dharma talks. Utilitarianism differs by arguing that pleasure and pain are the empirical motives for human behavior and that behavior is good when it reduces suffering or increases pleasure.

One resolution of the desire-happiness dichotomy is based on conscious management of desire. One Buddhist view is that the mere presence of desire evokes negative emotional states whenever desire is unfulfilled. This observation is combined with an observation, obtained through meditation, that the untrained human mind wanders randomly and sometimes produces desire in the process. If the mind wanders randomly in the production of desire, then the untrained mind will be endlessly subjected to the suffering of not having desires fulfilled.

From a utilitarian perspective, one post-hoc rationalization to resolve the desire-happiness dichotomy is that the most preferable state of happiness is that which is obtained after removing the whimsical cycle of desire that stems from the untrained, wandering mind. In that sense, Buddhism would be relatively consistent with preference utilitarianism. If that rationalization is ignored, the the question remains if pleasure really is a moral good that legislators should consider when drafting laws and that individuals should use to direct their own behavior. If the Buddhist view is accepted, then individuals would likely pursue ways to release their desires and governments might facilitate that process.

Another difference between Theravadan Buddism and utilitarianism (as a personal ethic) is that Theravadan Buddhism approaches the issue of suffering as a challenge for each individual. There is not an emphasis on trading one's own effort for the direct benefit on others.

In practice, novice Buddhists who as taken precepts commit to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech (including lying or spreading rumors), and taking drugs. In the West, these precepts are often explicitly communicated as goals such that people are encouraged to avoid eating meat but not punished or chastised if they do. Those who commit to further precepts commit themselves to releasing their attachment to desirous things (which is not perceived in the way that a Westerner might perceive "suppressing your desires").

Thich Nhat Hanh's engaged Buddhism appears to be closer to utilitarianism than other types of Buddhism because that school places emphasis on social action to help others. Members of the engaged Buddhism movement are often active politically. Engaged Buddhism and utilitarianism differ in the justification for action, with Buddhism being rooted in cultural beliefs in reincarnation and utilitarianism based in more secular beliefs in the moral importance of pain and happiness. The principles of Buddhism are focused on the individual (or the effects of the Buddhist student on others) whereas Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism was conceived as a basis for a political philosophy that would be applied to the drafting of legislation or state Constitutions.


  1. Sumedhho, A. (2002). The Four Noble Truths. Hertfordshire, UK: Amaravati Publications. PDF HTML
  2. Bikkhu, T. (1996). The Wings to Awakening—An Anthology from the Pali Canon, chp. 11 HTML [ PDF]
  3. Bikkhu (1996), chp. 11, p. 195
  4. Bikkhu (1996), p. 196
  5. Bikkhu (1996), p. 196
  6. Bikkhu (1996), p. 218
  7. Bikkhu, 1996, p. 48
  8. Sumedho, 2002, p. 30

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