Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for August 7th, 2014

How were Buddhists ethical?

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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.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 14:22

Posted in Buddhism