“Ethical Theory? We Don’t Need No Stinking Ethical Theory!”

I recently had the good fortune to attend the two-day conference on Contemporary Perspectives on Buddhist Ethics co-hosted by The Center for Buddhist Studies and the Department of Religion at Columbia University that was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.  My understanding is that this was the first-ever conference devoted exclusively to Buddhist ethics.

The conference pulled together an exceptional group of speakers and panelists including Damien Keown, Bob Thurman, Karl Potter, Andrew Olendzki, Mark Siderits, Christopher Queen, Sallie King, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Charles Goodman, Owen Flanagan, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, Barry Schwartz, George Dreyfus, and some eighteen other presenters representing such diverse disciplines as Buddhist and Indo-Tibetan studies, analytic philosophy, ethics, psychology, neuropsychology, and literary theory.  The panelists addressed a wide variety of questions, but this post focuses on only one:  Why didn’t Buddhism develop an ethical theory of its own?  This topic was most fully developed by Damien Keown, [1] and I owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing these ideas to my attention.

Damien Keown

Keown’s keynote address pointed out that while Buddhism is rich in ethical teachings (sila, the precepts, the paramis, the Vinaya, the wholesome and unwholesome mental factors in the Abhidhamma, the Jataka Tales, the Brahmaviharas) it has absolutely no tradition of ethical theorizing.  That is, no extended exploration of why certain ethical concepts make it onto standard Buddhist lists (e.g., not killing, lying, or stealing) while others (e.g., not keeping promises) do not, or discussion about what to do when ethical precepts conflict (e.g., are there ever any circumstances under which it is permissible to tell a lie or take a life?)

The Western philosophical tradition is rich in ethical theorizing from Plato and Aristotle through Spinoza, Kant, and Hume, all the way to Mill, Sidgwick, Rawls, and Parfit.  These philosophers discuss questions like what is the nature of the good, what underlying principles make certain actions moral or ethical, and what constitutes a just social order that promotes human flourishing. Philosophers often organize ethical systems into various types, e.g., Virtue Theory, Deontology, Consequentialism, Particularism, etc., and there is interest in developing a unified theory that combines the best features of each.  Academics in Buddhist Studies find aspects of both Virtue Theory and Consequentialism in Buddhism, but really, these are acts of creative interpretation, as there is little evidence that Buddhist thinkers would have had much use for these categories.

Why did none of this interest Buddhist thinkers?  One could argue that they just wanted to lay out minimalist broad principles — be compassionate, work towards the liberation of all beings, use skillful means — and let practitioners work out the details on their own through some combination of mindfulness, discernment, and innate wisdom.  But this was uncharacteristic of Buddhist thinkers in other philosophical domains.  They paid a great deal of attention to other philosophical matters — epistemology, phenomenology, logic, metaphysics, cosmology, and so forth.  Why leave only ethics to fend for itself?

The possible answers to this question are manifold.  Here are a number of suggestions:

  1. Not only Buddhism, but other religions/philosophies originating on the Indian subcontinent, including the ones that preceded Buddhism, also neglected ethical theory.  Buddhists didn’t take up the subject because no one before them had, and none of their competitors did.  It just wasn’t a part of the conversation at the time.  My objection to this argument is that in any tradition someone has to be the first one to address the subject.  Why was there, over the course of 2,500 years, no Buddhist Socrates?
  2. Buddhists saw ethics as subservient to soteriology.  Once one had become a Buddha, one’s infinite compassion and wisdom would directly see what was skillful in any immediate situation, so there was no need for elaborate rules or theories.  Once one had become an Arhat, freed from greed, hatred, and delusion, one would also be constitutionally incapable of unethical action.  The idea that ethics were inherently knotty and might always require a certain degree of conscious deliberation, even when one has reached the end of the path, seems foreign to Buddhist thought.  Perhaps this lacuna is one reason why contemporary Buddhist teachers who have reached a certain impressive level of awakening still fall prey to ethical lapses?
  3. Buddhist teachings focused on turning inward, withdrawing from the world, living as a wandering mendicant.  Social, economic, and political systems were something one dropped out of, not something one improved.  There was no impetus to develop a theory of what constituted a social order that promoted either justice or human flourishing.
  4. Buddhist teachings focused on the community of monks rather than the laity.  The Vinaya had many complex rules governing the life of the monk and the sangha.  Less attention was given to rules governing the life of the laity living the lives of householders, parents, and business people.  Of course, this explanation neglects why Buddhists failed to develop a critical literature exploring the Vinaya itself, e.g., the theory underlying the monastic rules and an exploration of whether the listed rules are either exhaustive or equally appropriate.  As a result, Buddhist rules concerning the sangha are never really thought through.  Are rules about alms rounds and the handling money, for example, appropriate under all economic systems? Why does generosity to the sangha create more merit than giving to the poor?
  5. The Buddhist doctrine of two truths, while paying lip service to the idea that form was emptiness and emptiness form, privileged “emptiness” as the ultimate.  At the ultimate level, relative concepts like “good” and “bad” become meaningless.  There is ultimately no wrong-doer or victim — everything is perfect just as it is.  Overemphasis on the absolute may foster disinterest in theorizing about the relative level, which is the level where ethics apply.

Buddhists never developed a variety of disciplines that could have added greater depth to the tradition.  Not only is there no Buddhist ethical, political, or social theory, but Buddhist history has also been, by and large, ignored.  Buddhism has not been very good at examining itself.

As Buddhism moves West, philosophers and historians, schooled in Western philosophical and historical methods, are using their skills to help Buddhism examine itself.  As a result, we now have a Professor of Buddhist Ethics, a Journal of Buddhist Ethics, revisionist Buddhist history, and Engaged Buddhism. This is all to the good.

Psychologist Jeffrey Rubin once warned of the twin dangers of Orientocentrism and Eurocentrism in approaching Buddhist teachings.  One school of thought bows to the sacred wisdom of the East, the other assumes the West knows best.  Rubin recommends “a more egalitarian relationship in which there is mutual respect, the absence of denigration or deification, submission or superiority, and a genuine interest in what [we] could teach each other.”[2] The Dharma offers Westerners something precious and unique — but the West also has precious gifts to offer the Dharma.


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  1. [1] Damien Keown is Professor Emeritis of Buddhist Ethics at Goldsmiths University of London — the only Professor of Buddhist Ethics anywhere in the world.  He’s the founding co-editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Contemporary Buddhism, a member of the Pali Text Society, and the author of many books including The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (1992), Buddhism & Bioethics (1995), Contemporary Buddhist Ethics (2000), and Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism (with Christopher Queen and Charles Prebish, 2003).  Nice work if you can get it.
  2. [2] Rubin, J. (2003). Close encounters of a new kind. In Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY.