I'm a Buddhist in Big Pharma -- is that cool?

How can I reconcile my beliefs with the necessities of research?

Published August 14, 2006 10:50AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I work for a biotech research company focused on developing pharmaceutical treatments for neurological diseases. I'm also a lay Buddhist who believes in the principle of right livelihood (i.e., work that brings true benefit to oneself and/or others). While I'm proud of working to develop treatments that could ease suffering for many people, I am also troubled by the enormous amount of material waste and animal experimentation needed to conduct this research. Every day in the lab I generate trash cans full of plastic waste as well as chemical and biological waste that gets sent to incinerators (polluting the air) and to landfills (not being recycled). I also have to sacrifice mice and rats on a weekly basis to test the efficacy of potential drugs before administering them to humans in clinical trials.

Thus my dilemma: Do the ends justify the means? Is the human suffering I will potentially alleviate worth the present environmental damage and animal sacrifice? I'm still fairly young and able to make a career change, but I want to be sure that I'm doing the right thing. My goal is to heal, in whatever capacity I can, so would it be better for me to go into alternative healing professions? Ones that don't pose similar moral problems? I've considered careers in alternative medicine, nutrition, homoeopathy, etc., but there are some human ailments that these disciplines just cannot address (like those based on genetics). While the pharmaceutical industry does have many problems (waste generation, animal testing, exorbitant costs for prescription drugs, shady marketing), it still has produced scores of drugs over the last hundred years that have greatly benefited human health.

So I'm stuck. Any thoughts on how I can clear my conscience or if I should change my livelihood?


Burdened Biologist

Dear Burdened Biologist,

I am not a scholar of Buddhism, but without much trouble I was able to browse in the Tipitaka, a collection of texts in Theravada Buddhism.

According to this text, the Buddha spoke to some monks and said: "Monks, 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. These are the five types of business that a lay follower should not engage in."

As you probably know, among the other occupations the Buddha recommended against, according to this text, are those of the soldier and the actor.

Susan Elbaum Jootla expands on and clarifies some of this in her commentary on right livelihood in which she says, "Breeding animals for slaughter as meat or for other uses that may be made of the carcasses is not allowed because this obviously implies breaking the First Precept: I shall abstain from killing. Working on someone else's beef ranch or selling packaged meat is acceptable as there is no responsibility for killing involved."

As to the contradictions inherent in the development and use of medicine, she says, "A doctor rightly gives drugs which are harmful to bacteria and viruses, not because he hates the 'bugs,' but in order to help cure the human being. Here the good more than balances the bad."

Two ideas are introduced here that could conceivably form the basis for deciding whether your work in pharmaceuticals is consistent with right livelihood. Do you have responsibility for the killing, and does the good done by your proximity to the killing outweigh the bad? These are questions that I think you show yourself capable of entertaining.

How does one go about auditing one's own work to see in what ways it accords with one's ethical and spiritual path? Well, as I said, I do not know much about Buddhism, but it seems to me there are a couple of common-sense ways. One, the analytical or deliberative way, would be to examine the degree of responsibility you have for the proscribed actions engaged in by your company. On one end of the scale would be, I suppose, if you yourself thought up and executed the procedures that result in the deaths of animals. On the other end would be if you were the person who swept up the floor of the lab where the animals were killed, or, at an even further remove, if you simply were a bricklayer who laid some bricks in the building where the animals were later killed. Somewhere on that scale, define your actual involvement. Then you might continue at your job but gradually move away from those actions that are most objectionable. For instance, when it is time to consider a promotion or new project, look at it in that light. At the same time, identify those areas of your work that are most welcome in the world, most helpful, and try to move closer to those kinds of actions. If jobs at your company should open up that are more in tune with your beliefs, give them special consideration.

Medical ethics is one of the 10 subjects covered by the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, a subscription to which may prove useful as you attempt to find peace and balance in your work life and spiritual practice.

The other common-sense approach relies more on feeling and intuition. As you grow spiritually, your instincts should grow more acute, so that you can sense or intuit which actions are in tune with your beliefs and practices and which ones are not.

We must all live in the world we are born into and try to find our way. My own sense of it is that we are trying to live in harmony with the world but we cannot merely try to be in harmony with the pleasing aspects of the world, the "natural" world, the flowers and trees and fuzzy little bears. The world means the world of factories and slaughterhouses and electrical generation plants and oil refineries as well: It is all our world. If you attempt to be in harmony only with those aspects of the world that you deem worthy of your harmonious regard, if you are too doctrinaire, you may find yourself blind to ways in which you can expand your harmonious participation in the world's many complicated wonders.

It is all the world: The asphalt and the juniper tree, the slaughterhouse and the bubbling brook. Harmony, it seems to me, means harmony with all of it. That means harmony with disharmony. That means harmony with evil. That means loving your enemy. Embrace it all. Move slowly toward the light -- or toward nothingness, as you please!

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