“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.

Everything Changes. Buddhism, too.

Glass Buddha (Susan Gott, 2011)

Religions and philosophies thrive, wither, or die according to their ability to address the existential concerns of a particular time and place.  As religions evolve, traditionalists strive to maintain ideas and practices which have lost their resonance, while modernizers strive to reinvent the religion to meet the needs of the moment.  Religions that survive over millennia manage to thread the needle between these two extremes.

Judaism, for example, evolved over time from the worship of a local semitic tribal deity, to a monotheism based on ritual animal sacrifice, to a rabbinic religion based on prayer, sacred texts, charity, and moral observance. There was plenty of in-fighting along the way between traditionalists and reformers — Hellenists vs. Maccabees, Nisnagdim vs. Hasidim, Orthodoxy vs. Reform.

Buddhism has also evolved in response to changing circumstances.  Many Buddhisms are long extinct — who remembers the Hemavatika or Rajagiriya? — while newer forms emerge with predictable regularity.  Today we honor many of the re-inventors (e.g., Nāgārjuna, Dōgen, Hakuin), but there was plenty of in-fighting along the way — Theravāda vs. Mahāyāna, Kamalaśila vs. Moheyan, Nichiren vs. Ryōkan, Wallace vs. Batchelor.

As we explore Buddhist evolution, it can be useful to examine how Buddhism has adapted — and continues to adapt — to changed existential circumstances.  We can ask,   for example, “What concerns did Buddhism address in 500 B.C.E. India?” and “What concerns does it address in the West today?”  Answers to these questions may help us understand the trajectory of Buddhism’s ongoing evolution.

Speculation about the existential concerns of a vanished culture and era is always perilous, but we can at least explore the concerns that animated the philosophical debates of that time and place.  All of the philosophical systems that emerged from the Indian subcontinent (e.g., Buddhism, Jainism, Advaita Vedanta, Yoga) were concerned with pretty much the same thing: liberation from cyclical existence.  Life was suffering, the endless cycle of rebirth was meaningless, and the doctrine of karma, based as it was on a set of Brahmanic ritual practices, had lost credibility.  The Buddha provided a way to moralize karma and elucidated a path for ending cyclical existence that resonated with his time.

Those primary concerns no longer resonate with us today, at least not in the West.  It’s not so much that a maximalist, unnaturalized view of karma and a literal doctrine of rebirth have been proven false.  It’s just that these ideas no longer have much traction.  Most Westerners are satisfied with some alternative belief of what happens after death,  either some Abrahamic version of the afterlife, or a Naturalist view of cessation of consciousness.  Since most Westerners don’t believe in cyclical rebirth, the question of how to end it is not a front-burner issue.   A Buddhism that insists on unnaturalized karma and literal rebirth as essential core teachings is irrelevant to primary Western concerns. Westerners don’t become Buddhists because they want to end the cycle of rebirth  —  they’re motivated by some other inner disquiet.  While a naturalized version of karma and a metaphorical version of rebirth can be acceptable to Westerners, they will never be the core features that motivate Westerners to practice.

What, then, are the primary existential concerns that contemporary religions/philosophies have to address to acquire relevance?  Any such list would probably include the following:

  1. Naturalism and Materialism have seriously undermined Theism’s authority.  It’s harder today to define what’s right and meaningful by relying on “God’s word.”  At the same time, Naturalism and Materialism can’t fill the void left by Theism’s demise because they can’t — on their own — address fundamental questions of meaning and goodness.
  2. Western emphases on individualism, competition, achievement, and acquisition have driven rising living standards, but have also fostered a spiritual vacuum.
  3. Technological advances have raised the specter of global extinction, but our social and political arrangements have failed to rise to the challenge. At the same time, an exponential increase in the rate of technological change is driving an increased rate of social change. How can we address the global challenges of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and how can we adapt to the rapid pace of technological and social change?
  4. The Global Village thrusts peoples with vastly different histories, concerns, grievances, and perspectives into more intimate contact, straining traditional allegiances and identifications, increasing potential conflict, and increasing demands that we be able to adopt multiple perspectives.
  5. As the problems of infectious disease and subsistence-level poverty gradually recede in importance in the developed world — albeit, much too slowly! — problems of inequality, overindulgence, and chronic disease move to the foreground.  At the same time, global inequality and the difficulty of integrating emerging societies into the established international order persist.

Does Buddhism have core features that directly address these concerns?   I think it does.

  1. Buddhism provides a non-theistic ground for defining the desirable and ethical.
  2. Buddhist teachings on impermanence, interdependence, and the constructed nature of the self resonate with Naturalist accounts of the physical world and emerging ideas from the fields of ecology and neuroscience.
  3. While a maximalist, unnaturalized view of karma with supernatural connotations rubs against the grain of Western thought, a naturalized view of karma can reinforce the reality that our thoughts and actions have consequences in terms of our character development, relations with others, and long-term well-being.
  4. Buddhism offers an effective set of tools to help people accept pain, mitigate suffering and increase their personal sense of well-being, meaning, and fulfillment.  It builds core cognitive skills of mindfulness and discernment, decreases cognitive rigidity, and helps develop internal resources.
  5. Buddhist teachings on compassion, non-identification, non-greed, non-harming, and mindful listening can help resolve conflicts within the Global Village. These same values can also facilitate the further taming and civilizing of social structures Steven Pinker has described in The Better Angels of Our Nature.
  6. Buddhist teachings on impermanence can foster resilience in the face of change, while teachings on interdependence can deepen ecological awareness.
  7. Buddhism can help the West overcome its one-sidedness.  Buddhist teachings on non-greed, generosity, and compassion counterbalance Western consumerist and acquisitive values, ameliorating economic inequality and existential emptiness.  The Buddhist cultivation of inner being balances the Western emphasis on doing and achieving, while its teachings on interdependence balance the Western over-emphasis on individualism.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the direction Western Buddhism is taking.  Its emphasis on human thriving and well-being, mindfulness, values, ethics, and social engagement   is entirely predictable.  For most Westerners, a modest meditation practice will suffice to improve their subjective sense of well-being.  While there will always be adepts who will access deeper meditative states and make greater commitments on the path of Awakening, the average Western Buddhist will most likely make do with less.  This is the way Buddhism has always been  —  One path for the householder, one for the ordinary monk, a third for the exceptional adept.

Some will be dissatisfied with a naturalized Buddhism that focuses on human well-being.  Fortunately, more traditional forms of Buddhism will still exist for them to turn to.  They’ve been around for a long time and aren’t going anywhere soon.  If Hasidic, Orthodox, Reform, and Secular Judaism can exist side by side in our modern era (as do  Liberal and Fundamentalist forms of Christianity), so can traditional and naturalized forms of Buddhism.

It’s just that most of us will opt for a Buddhism that speaks our own language and addresses our deepest concerns.


The Buddha image used in this post is my photo of a copyrighted work of art by Susan Gott, used with her permission.  

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