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Gautama Buddha
(c.563 - c. 483 BC)

picture of Gautama Buddha
"May all that have life be delivered from suffering"
Gautama Buddha
(c.566 BC - c.480 BC)

Could the founder of Buddhism be classed as a proto-negative utilitarian?

Buddhists believe that all contemporary existence is inseparable from suffering - though the Buddhist way to escape pain and suffering is via the Noble Eightfold Path rather than Bentham's notional felicific calculus. Moreover nirvana, the cessation of individual existence, is remarkably akin to the the most counterintuitive outcome of allegedly applying a negative utilitarian ethic. "Nirvana" literally means extinguishing or unbinding.

Most Buddhists would say it is misleading to equate nirvana and death. There are other interpretations of the concept of nirvana. According to the Dhammapada, a collection of 423 verses in Pali allegedly uttered by the Buddha, Gautama Buddha described nirvana as "the highest happiness". On his deathbed, Gautama Buddha is supposed to have stated that the question of an afterlife "not conducive to edification." What matters is the escape of living beings from desire by being extinguished.

So how useful is the negative utilitarian label? Although a spot of ancestor-snatching rarely goes amiss, the parallel might best be called strained.


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