Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture

Karl Popper and the Crisis of Liberalism

Posted in: Politics
This article is part of the series Karl Popper. Articles in the series are:

Why do all these social philosophies support the revolt against civilization? And what is the secret of their popularity? Why do they attract and seduce so many intellectuals? I am inclined to think that the reason is that they give expression to a deep-felt dissatisfaction with a world which does not, and cannot, live up to our moral ideals and to our dreams of perfection


Readers who have followed me this far in my journey into the philosophy of Karl Popper have already been exposed to many of his most important ideas. In part 1 of this series I gave an account of his central philosophical innovation, which is that knowledge progresses through a process of conjecture and refutation. In part 2 we turned to Popper the critic, and especially to his criticisms of the attempt to find historical laws according to which society develops, a trend in social science that he calls ‘historicism’. We saw how it is based on a confusion about the nature of scientific knowledge, and how historicist ideas, including those of Marx, tend to be allied with a utopian vision of human society; and we looked at some of the reasons that Popper identified for why attempts to create utopias fail. We also saw that he advocated an ‘open society’, in which there is maximum respect for the individual, and minimum obstruction to the free flow of criticism. Such a society requires and encourages a more scientific approach to government, in which study of the way social institutions function is used as a basis for incremental improvement, in a process that Popper called ‘piecemeal social engineering’.

So much for the story so far. Here what I wish to do is articulate a Buddhist response to Popper’s political philosophy. Let me briefly state the position that this article will be dedicated to spelling out. I find Popper’s criticisms of historicism and utopianism, and also of Marx in particular, so convincing as to be decisive. And I find his alternative of an open society governed by piecemeal engineering admirable and persuasive, and his defence of Western liberal democracy hard to better. Nevertheless, I shall argue that Popper’s open society is too limited an ideal, and leaves too much that is important for and about human beings unattended to. Moreover, it assumes and requires a moral basis for society which his worldview does not itself provide an adequate account of or foundation for. This lack of a sufficiently profound vision for humanity – both in Popper’s thought and in liberalism generally – is, I believe, in part responsible for the enduring appeal of utopian ideologies. It is in addressing this lack that Buddhism has something more to offer.    

Happiness and Suffering

We can get a taste both of the virtues of Popper’s thought and its limitations by looking at his views on happiness and suffering. There was, he said,

no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure… In my opinion human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway.2

This asymmetry is reflected in the distinction between the utopianism that he so criticized, and his own piecemeal method of social engineering. In an imagined utopia, everybody is happy. This, Popper argues, is of no use to practical politics, ‘for there are no institutional means of making a man happy’.3

The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good.4

The evils to which he refers are primarily the degradations of hunger and poverty, and part of his reason for advocating liberal democracy is that it has the best record in tackling these. But even if we have fully removed such grosser forms of suffering, there remains what one might call the existential suffering that can only be addressed by questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence. These lie outside the province of political method, and indeed of Popper’s philosophy generally. They do, however, have political implications, since the answers available to such questions will influence the kind of society in which politics must operate.

The Strain of Civilization

The limitations of the open society come close to being acknowledged by Popper in his discussion of its emergence as a transition out of tribalism.

A closed society resembles a herd or a tribe in being a semi-organic unit whose members are held together by semi-biological ties – kinship, living together, sharing common efforts, common dangers, common joys and common distress.5

In contrast, ‘As a consequence of its loss of organic character, an open society may become, by degrees, what I should like to term an ‘abstract society’.6 By this he means that individuals are abstracted from their social context, and interact with one another in impersonal ways, such as through written communication or the exchange of a currency. This has the following result:

There are many people living in modern society who have no, or extremely few, intimate personal contacts, who live in anonymity and isolation, and consequently in unhappiness. For although society has become abstract, the biological make-up of man has not changed much; men have social needs which they cannot satisfy in an abstract society.7

It may be questioned whether this tendency is exclusive to open societies, but it seems that Popper thought that they were particularly prone to it. He described the result of this as the ‘strain of civilization’.

This strain, this uneasiness, is a consequence of the breakdown of the closed society… It is the strain created by the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us – by the endeavour to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, and to accept responsibilities. We must, I believe, bear this strain as the price to be paid for every increase in knowledge, in reasonableness, in co-operation, and in mutual help, and consequently in our chances of survival, and in the size of the population. It is the price we have to pay for being human.8

While this may be true as far as it goes, I find both Popper’s analysis of the strain of civilization and its solution inadequate. He sees the problem as arising from the residual wish for the protection of the tribe; and its solution is to bear the strain stoically as we embrace rationalism and individualism. He does make it clear that there are gains to this, as well as losses.

Personal relationships of a new kind can arise where they can be freely entered into, instead of being determined by the accidents of birth; and with this a new individualism arises. Similarly, spiritual bonds can play a major role where the biological or physical bonds are weaken9

But in what these ‘spiritual bonds’ consist Popper says nothing. Surely, we can only expect people to forgo the social needs that are met by a tribal society if the spiritual bonds that are to replace them are properly articulated. And if part of the psychological appeal of utopian ideologies is that they seem to offer a return to the comfort of the tribe – which I don’t doubt – that appeal will remain, with all the dangers it brings, until the alternative is sufficiently compelling. Popper’s limited conception of spirituality is revealed in his dismissal of ‘mysticism’, which I discussed in Part 1 of this series. Accordingly, he sees all dreams of something beyond the rational mind and the autonomy of the individual as a residue from a pre-human stage of development. Whereas for a Buddhist, such dreams point us forwards, towards a higher state of being and communing.

Reason and Values

To try to put this point on firmer footing, let us discuss reason, since Popper was fundamentally a rationalist, and his open society was one in which the rational autonomy of individuals was paramount. Here I would like to repeat a point made in the first article in this series, and to stress its importance. Reason, Popper acknowledges, cannot provide its own justification, either theoretically or practically. Theoretically, there is no rational justification for reason, for such justification would be circular (reason justifying itself already assumes its own legitimacy). Practically, there is no rational argument that will persuade an unreasonable person to adopt reason. The adoption of reason is a moral decision, and therefore presupposes a moral perspective. Liberalism assumes the rational autonomy of individuals, but a willingness to be reasonable is a moral quality, and morality cannot be located merely in reason.

Nature consists of facts and of regularities, and is in itself neither moral nor immoral. It is we who impose our standards upon nature, and who in this way introduce morals into the natural world.10  

This much is acknowledged by Popper, but he doesn’t follow through all the consequences of the line of thought. For one must conclude that reason is not an absolute value. In fact it is not really a value at all, but a faculty. However, its application to the discovery of truth, and as a unifying a factor in humanity’s social life, must be guided by values. Reason is subordinate to a moral perspective that is beyond reason, and therefore a society cannot be effectively based upon reason unless it is also, and more fundamentally, based upon supra-rational values.

Since the effort to be reasonable is a derivation of an adherence to supra-rational values, an advocacy of reason itself cannot possibly be a sufficient basis for civilization. What the best terms are for expressing values – whether love, wisdom, truth or beauty – is too large a question for now. The point is that one’s conception of the ideal form of humanity’s social life needs to be underlain by a view of existence that includes transcendent value in its fullest articulation.

And this, I argue, requires a spiritual perspective that is largely missing from the philosophy of Popper. He acknowledges that rationalism is not self-sufficient, and itself requires a leap of faith. But for him the choice is merely between two kinds of faith, only one of which he finds acceptable.

The nineteenth-century conflict between science and religion appears to me to be superseded. Since an ‘uncritical’ rationalism is inconsistent, the problem cannot be the choice between knowledge and faith, but only between two kinds of faith. The new problem is: which is the right faith and which is the wrong faith? What I have tried to show is that the choice with which we are confronted is between a faith in reason and in human individuals and a faith in the mystical faculties of man by which he is united to a collective; and that this choice is at the same time a choice between an attitude that recognizes the unity of mankind and an attitude that divides men into friends and foes, into masters and slaves.11

We are, it seems, offered a choice between faith in the rational faculty of individuals as a unifying factor for mankind, or faith in an irrational ‘mysticism’ which unites people only with those that share the same faith, and creates enemies with those that do not. What this leaves out is the possibility of a faith in the supra-rational values by which the use of reason must be guided. To assume the supra-rational as a basis for reason (as Popper does, albeit not quite in those terms), but then insist that the only choice is between the rational and the irrational, is itself not very rational.    

Among the consequences of the failure to uphold a sufficiently clear perspective of transcendent value in relation to which reason must operate, there are two I would like to suggest as of particular importance for this discussion. One relates to the values themselves, the other to the exercise of reason in relation to them. Firstly, utopian ideologies in part gain their power from being reflections — howsoever distorted by quixotry and even baser matter — of our capacity to respond to values, out of which arises a dream of a better world in which such values are more fully manifested. Such a dream is, I suggest, not only inevitable but necessary for the health of a society. The question is, whether it is channelled in a creative or a destructive way.

Secondly, I maintain that unless the faculty of reason is guided by higher values, it will be co-opted by lower ones. While reason is a universal faculty, and therefore potentially a unifying factor for humanity, nonetheless it is itself value-neutral, and can be put to a variety of ends. In its application it can either be governed by true values which are supra-rational, or by false values which are sub-rational. Distinguishing between the two kinds of reasoning is difficult, and requires honesty and intelligence. Any fool can complete a syllogism, but in the application of reason to complex matters, discerning good reasoning from bad is no easy matter.  

In the doctrine of Marx we can see combined a utopian vision and an attempt to harness the rational faculty to its defence. The response to such ideas must be correspondingly twofold. Popper has done an outstanding job in showing how utopian ideologies in general, and Marxism in particular, are rationally indefensible. But for the task of presenting the possibility of a better world, based on an awareness of transcendent values in all their glory, his rational individualism is too limited, and we must look elsewhere.  

The Crisis of Liberalism

This discussion is of far greater consequence than merely deciding whether or not Popper happens to be right, but takes us to what has been called the ‘crisis of liberalism’. Whatever others may mean by this phrase, to me liberalism’s real crisis is its urgent need to locate itself within a framework of higher values. In this sense my argument is similar to that of conservatives who believe that liberalism must be balanced by a civil society with a religious underpinning. However, the very tradition that has both promoted reason and created Western liberal democracy has led inexorably away from theistic religion as a source of moral authority — essentially because the notion of a creator God does not stand up very well to rational scrutiny. Liberalism and rationalism both require a moral underpinning, but have led to an undermining of the religious framework which historically has, however imperfectly, provided it. The result is that liberalism is cut adrift from its moral moorings. The excesses of mass consumerism, hyper-sexualisation, and unrestrained hedonism, alongside the atomisation of society, the fragmentation of the family, and the weakening of community, are ammunition for the enemies of the open society, whether Marxists, Rousseauists, or religious fundamentalists — and one cannot but feel that they have a point.

This is why the West urgently needs Buddhism. In it, the highest values of human existence are exemplified and embodied in the person of the Buddha, who provides an ideal for humanity that is more inspiring than mere rational humanism. Although the spiritual awakening he taught cannot be rationally demonstrated (since it is fundamentally to do with ultimate value, which is by nature supra-rational), unlike in theistic religion one is not required to believe anything irrational. Perhaps most important, it offers a clear articulation of a moral basis, both for any path of higher development of the individual, and for society as a whole. Popper’s fear was that ‘mysticism’ merely unites a collective, and creates enmity with those outside the collective, whereas rationalism, being universal, unites all of humanity. But the mysticism of Buddhism, if one wants to call it that, is based upon and inseparable from morality, which unites humanity on a more fundamental level than reason can.

A Vision of History

To explore this further I would like to introduce an important idea of Sangharakshita’s. In his lecture, ‘A Vision of History’, he offers us a perspective on history, emphasising the emergence of ‘individuals’ from the ‘group’, individuals who then form ‘spiritual communities’. Like Popper, he acknowledges that there are many possible interpretations of history, but he saw this as the most important because it relates to what is most important in human beings, namely their spiritual development.

Briefly, the predominant form of social relationship throughout human existence is and has been what Sangharakshita calls the ‘group’. Members of the group are not valued in their own right, but are merely ciphers whose interests are subordinated to those of the collective. The group is governed by false values of collusive self-interest, which circumscribe freedom of thought and expression.

From within such a context, from time to time, individuals arise — ‘true individuals’ — who see beyond the narrow aims, shallow virtues and deluded ideas of the group, and strike out alone in search of deeper truth and meaning. If a number of such true individuals come together, a new form of communion becomes possible, which is the spiritual community.

Spiritual communities rarely can live in isolation, and must come into contact with the group. In doing so they may begin to influence it for the better, so that the values of the group become reflections, however pale, of the values of the spiritual community. In such a ‘positive group’, the growth of true individuals is encouraged and therefore facilitated, the spiritual community’s numbers are replenished, and it is therefore able to continue exerting its positive influence on the group.

Sangharakshita’s idea of the group corresponds closely to Popper’s closed society. The prototype of both is the tribe. It is a body of people, bound together by ties of mutual need or interest, in which the freedom of the individual is constrained, by force if necessary, by the expectations of the collective. But the differences between the two men become obvious when it comes to the ideal societies that they respectively espouse. The spiritual community includes, but is more than, just a state of cooperation between rational individuals. At its highest manifestation it consists of individuals in a perfect state of mutual harmony, based on a shared spiritual understanding. I argue that this difference of perspective reflects a limitation of Popper as a thinker. For just as I argued in Part 1 that Popper’s philosophy neglects the spiritual aspects of the life of the individual, so here I suggest that he neglects the spiritual aspects of humanity’s collective life. He neglects the fact that a free society can only be created by free individuals, and that to be truly free means to be spiritually free. It is only a collection of spiritually free individuals who can form spiritual communities, which can then serve as a model for society at large, and exert a moral influence upon it.

Not that Popper’s ideal of an open society is incompatible with the Buddhist vision of spiritual community. In fact, I suggest the former offers a good foundation for the latter. As Sangharakshita has said, since the practice of Buddhism is by its nature a free choice by an individual, ‘One cannot be a Buddhist unless one is free not to be a Buddhist’.12 Buddhism tends to flourish in relatively open societies, in which its universal message, moral foundation, and sophisticated soteriology are able to display themselves openly, and it tends to wither in closed ones, in which it becomes either captured or repressed by the group. Buddhism should therefore welcome the opportunity to compete in a free marketplace of ideas, and has amply demonstrated its ability to hold its own when given the opportunity to do so.

But while Buddhism is compatible with an open society in Popper’s sense, it adds something further to the situation, something too little recognised by Popper. Given his scorn for Hegel I doubt he would have appreciated the irony of this, but one could even see this in terms of Hegelian dialectics (without the historical determinism, or even necessarily a historical progression). The thesis of a closed society, or group, gives way to its antithesis of an open society of rational, autonomous individuals, within which there is the possibility of a synthesis in the form of a spiritual community. While one should not take this too literally, it is not merely rhetorical, but points us towards an important truth: The spiritual community transcends and reconciles the differences between a closed and an open society. Like a tribal society, it consists in a limited number of members, united by a shared understanding and way of life. But like an open society, this is entered into freely, with no question of enforced conformity. The shared understanding is not the blind adoption of tribal taboos, superstitions and hierarchies, but the realisation of universal moral and spiritual values. And the freedom with which this is entered into is not merely the autonomy of rational agents, but the willing submission of the individual to an ideal that transcends the individual and the rational.  

Further exploration of this requires a brief dive into Buddhist philosophy. The ‘golden rule’ of morality — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — expresses the truth that the wants and needs of the individual should not be obtained at the expense of others, and that to do so is ‘selfish’. Buddhism penetrates deeper into the matter, and sees that the self from which our behaviour is assumed to proceed doesn’t really exist. The so-called individual is in fact a ‘mind-stream’ of constantly changing and interacting processes, which usually are bound up with attachment to the illusion of a fixed self (from which selfish behaviour arises), but also can, through spiritual practice, be released from that attachment. Such a release, as well as being experienced as a state of liberation, is simultaneously a realisation of ultimate value, as is expressed, for example, through such language as universal love and compassion.

What this means is that there is a relationship between members of a spiritual community that is quite different from any other kind. There is the full moral responsibility of individuals, and at the same time the shared realisation of universal value. This allows a special form of communion, which Sangharakshita has described as a ‘third order of consciousness’, which is neither individual nor collective, but transcends the distinction between them. This is the ideal, the dream, that Buddhism offers to humanity.  

Piecemeal Utopianism

In the light of this, let us look again at Popper’s favoured approach to government. He criticized utopian approaches to social transformation, and advocated what he called ‘piecemeal social engineering’, in which attempts to improve society are carried out gradually and carefully, in as scientific a manner as possible. A Buddhist approach is not utopian in the sense that Popper criticizes. A spiritual community consists of individuals who are living by universal values in a particularly uncompromising way. As such, they create what I like to call a ‘utopia in miniature’ — or in Sangharakshita’s language, ‘the nucleus of a New Society’. From such small beginnings, they attempt to exert a beneficial influence on the group. The ultimate ideal (even if its fulfilment is recognised as unrealistic) is the total transformation of the group into the spiritual community, since that would be of greatest benefit to the world. But this will not be conceived of as the wholesale imposition of the utopian dream, but in the gradual, voluntary, moral and spiritual awakening of group members to true individuality. To coin another phrase, we could call the method of the spiritual community ‘piecemeal utopianism’. In this way it is possible both to dream of a perfect society, and to be realistic about how to work towards its realisation.


Popper himself was not lacking in idealism. In his autobiography he tells us,

I remained a socialist for several years, even after my rejection of Marxism; and if there could be such a thing as socialism combined with individual liberty, I would be a socialist still. For nothing could be better than living a modest, simple, and free life in an egalitarian society. It took some time before I recognized this as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important than equality; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.13

As so often with Popper, my complaint is not so much with what he says, much of which I applaud, but with how much is left unsaid. The piecemeal transformation of society that he advocated has a longer reach than he realised, and the ‘beautiful dream’ of socialism can become the still more beautiful ideal of spiritual community, an ideal that can be realised without descending into tyranny.

Without such an ideal at the heart of the open society, its institutions will inevitably be captured by the forces of the closed society, which retain a hold over the mind of man which is more powerful than the limited ideals of rationality and liberalism. The very continued existence of the open society, with all the benefits it brings, depends on the presence within it of something beyond it: an ideal which can satisfy the deeper longings of the human spirit. The lack of such an ideal is why liberalism is in such trouble, and its enemies are growing in influence. Part of the appeal of Marxism and other utopian ideologies is that they seem to offer what mere liberalism lacks. But although I can sympathise with that appeal, still I am enough of a Popperian to want such an ideal not only to be truly worth living by and striving for, but also to withstand critical examination, and to allow an honoured (although not pre-eminent) place for the exercise of the rational mind. Buddhism meets these criteria better than anything else of which I am aware.


  1. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol 1, Routledge, p5
  2. Ibid, p284
  3. Ibid, p158
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid, p173
  6. Ibid, p174
  7. Ibid, p174-175
  8. Ibid, p176
  9. Ibid, p175
  10. Ibid, p61
  11. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol 2, p 246
  12. Windhorse Publications, p84
  13. Popper, Unending Quest, Flamingo, p36

Vidyaruchi has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order since 2009, from which time until 2013 he was personal assistant to its founder, Urgyen Sangharakshita. Since then he has been a freelance Buddhist. When not engaged in teaching or travelling he mainly lives in a shed in his parents' garden.

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