Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

How were Buddhists ethical?

with 2 comments


In recent years there has been a good deal of discussion of the nature of Buddhist ethics, On August 1, 2014 Jayarava wrote a post about ethics in the Pali canon. My aim is not to add anything new to the discussion of Buddhist ethics but simply to recapitulate positions that modern philosophers specializing in Buddhism have taken on why and how Buddhists, especially Buddhists in India, were ethical. It is well known that Buddhists recommended avoiding taking life, stealing property, violating societal norms on sexuality, lying and becoming intoxicated. What is less clear is why. Answering this question takes us into the realm of meta-ethics, that is, the discussion of the criteria by which one may know that something is or is not ethical, and the classification of various ethical theories.

What everyone writing about Buddhist ethics these days seems to agree upon is that Indian Buddhists themselves said almost nothing about why it is a good idea to avoid killing and so forth; they seemed content just to recommend against doing certain things. If modern philosophers wish to talk about Buddhist meta-ethics, they cannot simply do scholarship on ancient texts and report what the texts say. Rather, they must try to infer on the basis of what is said explicitly in ancient texts what the authors would now have to say about meta-ethics if they were made aware of this field of inquiry.

Some modern authors, such as Damien Keown, have placed an emphasis on the virtues that Buddhists recommend cultivating. Indian Buddhist literature, both scriptural and commentarial, offer advice on how to cultivate carefulness, friendliness, generosity, kindness, responsiveness to the afflictions of others, impartiality, equanimity and other positive mental states. The Buddha himself is usually taken as a model human being, and when his mentality is described, it is described as one that is unfailingly furnished with the positive mental traits just mentioned. The precepts—avoid killing, avoid taking what is not given etc—are given as descriptions of the behavior of a man whose mind is furnished with those virtues. The emphasis is therefore not so much on rules of conduct as it is on the mentality behind the conduct.

Other modern authors, such as Charles Goodman, make the observation that virtue ethics normally presupposes the reality of a self or a soul in which the virtues reside and that Buddhism is based firmly on the doctrine that there is no self, there is no personal identity that can be said to own the virtues, but instead there is a constantly changing series of conditioned events upon which a notion of self or person is superimposed. A virtue ethic with no self is, according to Goodman, an anomaly, and therefore it is better to look at Buddhist ethics as a kind of consequentialism, that is, an ethical theory that identifies good actions as those that have desirable consequences and bad actions as those that do not have desired consequences. Goodman, following contemporary meta-ethical custom, distinguishes between act-consequentialism and virtue-consequentialism or character-consequentialism. In the former, the emphasis is on discerning the consequences of a particular form of behavior, such as taking life or making someone comfortable. In the latter, the emphasis is on the advantages of kindness or the undesired consequences of cruelty—in short, on the good consequences of having a character as much as possible like the Buddha’s. 

Jayarava, who was mentioned above, has made a case for early Buddhist ethics being a kind of moral particularism, which is the view that a moral value can be attached to a particular concrete action but that it is impossible to derive general rules of what kinds of action are good ones which are bad. A moral particularist can take the view that there is a fact to the matter of whether, say, the hanging of Saddam Hussein was a morally good or a morally bad action. What the particularist says cannot be done is to arrive at a rule that can be applied to other cases. Even if we can determine the truth of whether it was good to hang Saddam Hussein, we cannot necessarily determine in advance whether it would be good to hang some other head of state.

In contrast to the moral particularist is the moral skeptic who argues that there is no fact to the matter of whether any action is moral or whether any mentality trait is a virtue as opposed to a vice. I myself have stated in an essay called Moral murk ethical skepticism as a position I accept but do not know how to defend. My contention that at least some forms of Buddhism, such as the Mādhyamaka school of classical India, entails moral skepticism is not widely accepted, but so far no one has managed to convince me that my claim is indefensible, even if many people find it unpalatable.

There is yet one further position on the nature of Buddhist ethical theory that some modern philosophers, such as Mark Siderits, have taken up for discussion, which is that some Buddhists, such as the Mādhyamikas, deliberately avoided theoretical discussion about what makes some actions or mental states good. In the same way that these Buddhists carefully avoided theorizing about metaphysical matters, Siderits suggests, they may also have avoided theorizing about what moral right and wrong consists in. Theorizing, the story goes, often leads to attachment to a particular view, which in turn often leads to having contempt for those who have opposing views, which eventually contributes to the suffering in the world.

So far, no one has been able to make a compelling case that one of the positions outlined above is better than the others. What is more to the point is that no one that I am aware of has made a compelling case that any of this really matters. Indeed, some have hinted at the possibility that Indian Buddhists had no meta-ethical theories, not because it never occurred to them to develop any, but because they saw meta-ethical discussions as a distraction and a waste of ineffectual resources that could better be put to other uses. I tend to take that position myself, which makes me wonder why on earth I wrote this blog post.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 14:22

Posted in Buddhism

2 Responses

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  1. Nice thoughts, as ever, Richard. I have been arguing for a while, and continue to do so in some forthcoming work that trying to shoehorn Buddhist ethics into the familiar Western metaethical categories is a mistake, and that Buddhist ethical thought (inlcuding that of Buddhaghosa, Nāgārjuna, Aryadeva, Candrakīrti and Śāntideva) offers instead a moral phenomenology, a way of transforming moral vision. I actually see that as a good thing, and as a welcome alternative voice regarding the end of ethical practice and cultivation. We are led by Buddhist ethical cultivation, I think, to see the world, ourselves and others differently, and that transformed vision is both more in accord with reality and healthier for everybody. See my “What is it like to be a Bodhisattva?,” “Mindfulness and Morality,” “Buddhist Ethics” and some of the stuff in the hopefully soon-to-be-published second Cowherds volume MOONPATHS: ETHICS IN THE CONTEXT OF CONVENTIONAL TRUTH. As ever, j

    Jay Garfield

    Friday, August 8, 2014 at 17:03

  2. Thanks for this article. One of the odd differences I think between Western and Buddhist notions of ethics is that in the West we seem very taken with ethical dilemmas as grindstones for producing ever sharper ethical distinctions. The problem with this technique is that it necessarily requires theorizing, and I suspect if pursued to any great degree requires meta-ethics in the sense of your final paragraph.

    I don’t get the sense that the Buddha (I mean, the person found in the Pāli Canon) really felt that this was worthwhile. The broad outlines of sīla were clear enough, the rest could be left inchoate. In this I believe we see a parallel with his claims about metaphysics and ontology. Issues of ethical refinement, not to say meta-ethics, are issues for the classroom; they do not help end dukkha. This doesn’t mean he had nothing to say about them, it simply means that he did not believe that pursuit of all loose threads was a worthwhile enterprise.

    The Buddha’s ethical system should be seen as structured around the Four Noble Truths as four tasks to perform in order to reach an end of suffering, as per his formulation of them in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. (Viz., to be understood, to be abandoned, to be realized, to be developed). Seeing his ethics in western terms, as interested in the meta-ethical foundations of ethics for example, results in confusion or the imposition of ideas that I think fit only in a loose sense.

    I don’t think the Buddha was terribly interested in whether ethics could be seen as relating to virtues as versus consequences, for example. He does provide a rough causal picture for how intention functions in sīla, and does discuss some of the kammic benefits and dangers of particular actions. But the philosopher’s attempt to further refine the matter stems from a different intent than that of striving for liberation, and hence I suspect that were the Buddha asked about this he would urge us back to the process outlined in the Noble Truths.

    Douglass Smith

    Monday, December 22, 2014 at 07:45


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