Annihilationism and morals

In “Early Buddhist Teachings,” Y. Karunadasa writes something along the lines of “annihilationism is an incentive to live amorally because there are no repercussions in the next life.” Page 20 in my 2018 edition. This surprised me.

Is this a common position?

It doesn’t make any sense to me. Rebirth/Kamma or not, humans are not daft. They are very social animals and can barely survive without others. They have empathy.

So they know not to hurt others without fear of punishment in the next (after-)life.

The notion of repercussions in the next life might even seems like a social tool to make people behave better.

[Edit: typos removed]


There are different types of annihilationists in the suttas.

Ranging from materialist annihilationists who think ”You only live once” and that there is no heaven or hell or consequences of deeds.

To the spiritual annihilationists that the Buddha praised - who are moral and ethical and who strive for the 3rd formless realm of nothingness. These asetics know about and have transcended both Kama Loka and Rupa Loka which they see as ”existence” contrary to the dimension of nothingness that they perceive as annihilation.

One can live morally when they have an understanding of Compassion, because such is the presence of Metta, as human morals come from Wisdom and Care towards all beings.

Just because one believes annihilation is possible, doesn’t mean that they will be immoral. For example, the Dhamma preached to a complete atheist can turn them away from craving, and when Anatta is preached in the form of the ‘no Self’ Teaching, one does not have to worry whether they are annihilated or not, because understanding Selflessness, True Metta can be understood in living for something Higher than one’s own cravings. The Buddha draws us towards Enlightenment.

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I do agree with you, but there is some indication for this idea in the suttas, namely MN60:

Moreover, since there actually is another world, their view that there is no other world is wrong view. Since there actually is another world, their thought that there is no other world is wrong thought. Since there actually is another world, their speech that there is no other world is wrong speech. Since there actually is another world, in saying that there is no other world they contradict those perfected ones who know the other world. Since there actually is another world, in convincing another that there is no other world they are convincing them to accept an untrue teaching. And on account of that they glorify themselves and put others down. So they give up their former ethical conduct and are established in unethical conduct. And that is how these many bad, unskillful qualities come to be with wrong view as condition—wrong view, wrong thought, wrong speech, contradicting the noble ones, convincing others to accept untrue teachings, and glorifying oneself and putting others down.

To me this seems somewhat of a slander, a doctrinal position posed by Buddhists to paint materialism in a bad light. We see similar debates between Christians and atheists nowadays, where the former wonder how the latter can be moral without a belief in God, even though most of them clearly are. And overall probably no less than Christians.

Elsewhere (e.g. DN2, DN23) the materialists are said to teach that “there are no results of good and bad deeds”, but in my view this specifically refers to post-mortem results. They can still have a moral system regarding results in this life. Some authors have argued for this as well, based on ancient Hindu texts that talk about materialism mentioning certain rules and virtues; sorry forgot the reference and don’t have it here.


perhaps you haven’t come across some fiction stories showing nihilistic protagonist or antagonist.

Annihilation views of automatically nothing after death, leads to nihilism which is nothing matters in the end. See rick Sanchez from rick and Morty. Despite being the smartest person in his version of multiverse, he is an alcoholic and doesn’t mind killing beings left and right just for adventure. clones his own family once, which cloned their own family, and in that episode, every cloned family kills one another.

In time loop stories where the character realized that there’s no consequences, because there is no future, they think nothing of going to hedonism and doing bad things just to experience it, because they will be revived anyway.

In another story, I saw this reasoning for non time loop, but just the antagonists realizing that death is the end goes totally evil, because there’s no consequences if they can avoid present life law.

In another story, people are put into an island without laws and just survive for some days, they get rewarded with money, but they can kill others for other’s money. Lots of rape and killing happened.

Yes, it is. But apart that, according to the Lord Buddha such repercussions aren’t imaginary, but unfortunately unpleasant reality.

But since there are many approaches to foundation of ethics, atheist and materialist may have very high ethical standards. Nevertheless if pressed with questions, they must admit that psychopath who is clever enough not to be caught by police and altruist spending all his life in the service to others have exactly the same destiny. What according to Lord Buddha is a wrong view.

Coming back to social level, while materialism and atheism may not be harmful for certain individuals, if fear of repercussions in the post mortem experience is absent, general level of morality in society is also decreasing.

It was a favourite topic of such writer as Dostoyevsky.

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Hi. I could not find the word annihilationism in this MN60.

These are all stories though - somebody’s imaginings about what happens when a worldview is taken to its logical conclusion. In real life, humans aren’t so logical; like Aardvark says, we have inborn empathy - those who don’t are diagnosed with a personality disorder like sociopathy or psychopathy - and our ‘logic’ is usually informed by our emotions. To the best of my knowledge, annihilationists have not been seen to behave like that in real life.

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Thank you, yes exactly!

This is a generalization, some people (of any faith orconviction) behave like this, while most do not. But if interpreted as people that glorify themselves and put others down, it makes sense to me.

It may, in extreme cases, but that is an exception. Look at Europe, most people are not religious anymore, but live their lives as peaceful people, good neighbors, responsible citizens. Millions volunteer to help others. In Germany right now, millions take to the street to protest against the rascist opposition party and for a society built on tolerance and cooperation, not hate.

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No, not the term but it is in the description " their view that there is no other world".

The exact same view (“There’s no afterlife. There’s no such thing as mother and father, or beings that are reborn spontaneously. And there’s no ascetic or brahmin who is rightly comported and rightly practiced, and who describes the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight.”) is called annihilationism in DN2.

True. Notice also that the same “they will reject good conduct” is repeated for other views which are more directly a negation of morals. It may just be a repeated refrain.

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Only humans who fall within the ‘normal’ range.

There is a whole other set of humans who are deficient in empathy. Their numbers are substantial - prevalence rates in the general population are in the range of 6.2% for Narcissistic Personality disorder, 3.7% for Antisocial Personality disorder and 1.2% - 4.5% for Psychopathy.

Almost 1 in every 10 people we meet randomly are likely to be deficient in empathy! Of course, the worst amongst them end up in prison - but a large number are ‘high functioning’ or ‘subclinical’. Such people are often very likely to be found in positions of power because our modern day organizations (especially political and corporate) actively reward this trait. They are not just above the law - they are the Law :rofl:. And ‘normal’ people often repress their morals and go along.

I also feel there is also the aspect that under pressure, in difficult circumstances, people more easily become insensitive, immoral, cruel. I feel it remains surprisingly how we humans fall for the strong leader, even if he is a madman, lying and deceving all the time, a psychopath, a murderer. Probably evolutionairy ingrained (if at least he protects us).

I have seen an explaination that this also differentiates a sotapanna from a worlding. A sotapanna is not free of defilements but because of his growing wisdom, sensitivity, his actions do not become anymore so cruel, so violent, agressive, merciless.

I do not think that a worldview is really important. I believe it is more about the level of defilement present. Defilements make us insensitive.

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I beg to differ. In functioning democratic societies, separation of powers plus checks and balances generally prevent that.

Sure, but the other 9 are fine. Thats not so bad, I think :slight_smile:

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According to Lobaczewski’s Political Ponerology the worst doesn’t mean the most foolish, and so they are likely end up in the highest positions in government…

“Political Ponerology is fascinating, essential reading.” --Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect"This is an extraordinary book." --Ilan Pappe, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of PalestineThe original manuscript of this book went into the furnace minutes before a secret police raid in Communist Poland. The second copy, painfully reassembled by scientists working under impossible conditions of violence and repression, was sent via courier to the Vatican. Its receipt was never acknowledged - the manuscript and all valuable data lost. In 1984, the third and final copy was written from memory by the last survivor of the original researchers: Andrew Lobaczewski. Zbigniew Brzezinski blocked its publication. After half a century of suppression, this book is finally available. Political Ponerology is shocking in its clinically spare descriptions of the true nature of evil. It is poignant in its more literary passages revealing the immense suffering experienced by the researchers contaminated or destroyed by the disease they were studying. Political Ponerology is a study of the founders and supporters of oppressive political regimes. Lobaczewski s approach analyzes the common factors that lead to the propagation of man s inhumanity to man. Morality and humanism cannot long withstand the predations of this evil. Knowledge of its nature and its insidious effect on both individuals and groups - is the only antidote.

Sure. Religions all note that life is inherently unfair and promise that something can be done, just not in this life. It’s not like karma and rebirth are any different from any other religious morality in this sense. They all promote a just world fallacy, and all delay justice till the afterlife. It turns out that starting from any religion is a terrible way to understand morality.

My take on morality is similar to yours, we evolved to be social and that requires that we be moral. We don’t need artificial rules or threats to make us prosocial. All social mammals and many social birds are born prosocial. A very good source on this is Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist. He shows that all social mammals and some social birds share two characteristics: empathy and reciprocity. These seem to emerge from social living arrangements (social insects are different). And can be satisfactorily explained in terms of evolution.

If you combine empathy and reciprocity you can easily derive concepts like “fairness” and “justice”. And it’s clear that all social mammals have these to some extent. In his TED Talk de Waal illustrated this in capuchin monkeys. If 16 minutes is too long this 2:43 extract shows the experiment in question. Note the audience reaction. Note your own reaction. We all know what’s going on for the monkeys.

To some extent Buddhism reflects this. The reason to be moral is that one can empathise with the pain of others. If we pay attention to the impact of our behaviour on others, which is broadcast in the form of facial expressions and body language, then we will try to minimise harm. And this is partly because of reciprocity: if we are generous with others, they will be generous with us, etc. This, for example, is very similar what the Buddha preached to the Kālāma’s.

But when you look closely as the concept of sīla, it’s mostly not about morality at all: it’s about restraining one’s sensory experience and avoiding over-stimulation. In my view (FWIW), Sīla is about reducing the impact of sensory deprivation in meditation by allowing the mind to become accustomed to low levels of stimulation.

The general idea of sīla qua morality may well be a later add-on in Buddhism; a concession to lay people. In my studies of the ways in which Buddhists gradually abandoned buddhavacana for new and innovative teachings, I came to see many of the changes as attempts to reconcile Buddhist morality (karma and rebirth) with Buddhist metaphysics (dependent arising). On the one hand we are said to be the heirs of our actions (“actions have consequences”) while on the other there are no moral agents or patients to speak of.


This figure is for the USA. The USA is probably not representative of levels of empathy. The culture of violence, the long history of it at home and abroad, probably produces more anti-social individuals than for a nation not founded on genocide, expropriation, slavery, and constant war. However, I would not expect Europe to be much better.

I’m thinking especially of the contrast that Graeber and Wengrow draw in Chp 2 of The Dawn of Everything, which contrasts the freedom loving, peaceful Americans with the oppressive, savage Europeans. From an essay I’m working on

When the Jesuit priest, Father Pierre Biard encountered the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia in the early 17th century, he was not impressed by them. But as Graeber and Wengrow (2021) point out, Biard’s own accounts make it clear that the feeling was mutual. He records his interlocutor’s views of the French:

“They consider themselves better than the French: “for,” they say, “you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and neither generous nor kind ; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour”.” (G&W 2021: 38)

The Indigenous Americans were particularly appalled by the anti-social European practice of letting poor people starve while the rich lived in luxury.


Thank you for sharing!
I had heard about studies with babies about fairness which had the same results, but apes and even monkeys or birds, wow that is stunning.

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A rather broad statement don’t ya think??