Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


Buddhist Practice as Play

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Buddhist Practice as Play: A Virtue Ethical View

Meynard Vasen

The debate about which Western ethical theory is most suited to understand Buddhist ethics has been fruitful, because it places the Buddhist tradition in a light that brings out new features. In this article I take further Keown’s view on Buddhist ethics by offering a virtue ethical interpretation of Buddhist ethics with praxis/practice as a central notion, and a form of naturalism as foundation. I draw on the notion of play, as developed by Gadamer and Wittgenstein, and on MacIntyre’s view on virtues as grounded in practices, narratives, and traditions, as widening hermeneutical circles. I conclude by arguing that such an interpretation is a fruitful one, both in the sense that it increases our understanding and that it motivates to engage in Buddhist practice.

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Act and Result in Nikāyan Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Act and Result in Nikāyan Ethics

Stephen Evans

Scholars continue to debate the ethical priority of act versus result in Buddhist ethics. The present essay looks at the issue as an approach to exploring the connection between act and karmic yield: Why there should be such a connection at all? The priority question was not asked in the Nikāyas (or commentaries) and it seems to have been the same thing to say that an act was good and that it had happy karmic yield, suggesting a kind of identity between the two. Given the necessity and specificity of the connection—the yield must accrue and must accrue for this person—and the analogical resemblance between act and karmic yield, a causal explanation seems unsatisfactory. Suspending such assumptions, the connection appears simply as an indissoluble unity. It is hypothesized here that the unity is grounded in a primordial cosmic order, which I call the “sacral dimension,” conformity to which is by definition right and of necessity beneficial, violation of which is by definition wrong and of necessity harmful. Evidence for belief in such an order is found in the Nikāyas and supporting similarities noted in the Upaniṣads.

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Cultivation of Virtue in Buddhist Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

The Cultivation of Virtue in Buddhist Ethics

Charles K. Fink
Miami Dade College, Kendall Campus

One question pursued in Buddhist studies concerns the classification of Buddhist ethics. Damien Keown has argued that Aristotelian virtue ethics provides a useful framework for understanding Buddhist ethics, but recently other scholars have argued that character consequentialism is more suitable for this task. Although there are similarities between the two accounts, there are also important differences. In this paper, I follow Keown in defending the aretaic interpretative model, although I do not press the analogy with Aristotelian ethics. Rather, I argue that Buddhist ethics corresponds to a more generic, act-centered virtue ethics. Buddhist moral reasoning is often strikingly consequentialist, but I argue that this does not support the consequentialist interpretation. Analyzing the concept of right action must be distinguished from providing a justification for living a moral life and from formulating a procedure for making moral decisions.

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Consequentialism, Agent-Neutrality, and Mahāyāna Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Consequentialism, Agent-Neutrality, and Mahāyāna Ethics

Charles Goodman
Binghamton University

Several Indian Mahāyāna texts express an ethical perspective that has many features in common with Western forms of universalist consequentialism. Śāntideva, in particular, endorses a strong version of agent-neutrality, claims that compassionate agents should violate Buddhist moral commitments when doing so would produce good results, praises radical altruism, uses a critique of the self to support his ethical views, and even offers a reasonably clear general formulation of what we call act-consequentialism. Meanwhile, Asaṅga’s discussions of the motivation behind rules of moral discipline and the permissible reasons for breaking those rules suggests an interesting and complex version of rule-consequentialism. Evidence for features of consequentialism can be found in several Mahāyāna sūtras as well. In reading these sources, interpretations that draw on virtue ethics may not be as helpful as those that understand the texts as committed to various versions of consequentialism.

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How Ethically Unstable Is Egocentrism?

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Impermanence, Anattā, and the Stability of Egocentrism; or, How Ethically Unstable Is Egocentrism?

Michael G. Barnhart
Kingsborough Community College/CUNY

Egocentrism has always been viewed as profoundly unethical, and thus a reason against ethical egoism. This paper examines the arguments for such claims and finds them somewhat wanting. It then considers the positions that egocentrism is psychologically untenable and that it is philosophically unstable. Though it appears true that egocentrism is a psychologically unappealing position for many, it isn’t universally so and may be adaptable to some dystopian situations. However, the claim that it is philosophically unstable may be more promising, and the paper turns to Owen Flanagan’s Buddhist-inspired discussion of the issue in his book The Bodhisattva’s Brain. Flanagan argues that the notion of anattā offers an important reason for not taking oneself seriously and thus fatally undermines the meaningfulness of privileging one’s own interests or concerns over others. The paper examines this reasoning, but concludes that Flanagan’s interpretation of anattā may be too weak to support his refutation of egocentrism. The paper concludes by suggesting a more extreme interpretation of anattā that Flanagan rejects and argues that it might both do the job and better resist philosophical criticism than its weaker cousin.

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Resources for Buddhist Environmental Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Resources for Buddhist Environmental Ethics

Christopher Ives
Stonehill College

In recent decades Buddhists have been turning their attention to environmental problems. To date, however, no one has formulated a systematic Buddhist environmental ethic, and critics have highlighted a number of weak points in Buddhist arguments thus far about environmental issues. Nevertheless, Buddhism does provide resources for constructing an environmental ethic. This essay takes stock of what appear to be the most significant of those resources, including the Buddhist anthropology, the tradition’s virtue ethic, elements in Buddhist epistemologies, doctrines that make it possible to determine the relative value of things, the Four Noble Truths as an analytical framework, and bases for action if not activism.

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Buddhism, Punishment, and Reconciliation

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

Buddhism, Punishment, and Reconciliation

Charles K. Fink
Miami Dade College, Kendall Campus

One important foundation of Buddhist ethics is a commitment to nonviolence. My aim in this paper is to work out the implications of this commitment with regard to the treatment of offenders. Given that punishment involves the intentional infliction of harm, I argue that the practice of punishment is incompatible with the principle of nonviolence. The core moral teaching of the Buddha is to conquer evil with goodness, and it is reconciliation, rather than punishment, that conforms to this teaching. I argue that a commitment to nonviolence requires not only that we refrain from inflicting intentional harm, but that we refrain from inflicting unnecessary harm, and that this has important implications concerning the practice of incapacitation. I analyze the concept of harm and argue that the Buddhist understanding of this notion leads to the conclusion that none of the standard justifications for punishment are compatible with the principle of nonviolence, properly understood.

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Review: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics. By Charles Goodman. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, viii + 250 pages, ISBN 978–0–19–537519–0 (cloth), $74.00.

Reviewed by Richard Hayes

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Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Buddhist Morals

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 12, 2005

Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Buddhist Morals: A New Analysis of puñña and kusala, in Light of sukka

Martin Adam
University of Victoria

This paper offers a new basis for assessing the nature of Buddhist moral thinking. Although consistent with Damien Keown’s view that Buddhist eth­ics may be considered a form of virtue ethics, the account outlined here does not aim to determine which western ethical theory Buddhism most closely matches. It suggests instead that Buddhist discourse presupposes different kinds of moral agency, distinguishable on the basis of the spiritual status of the agent. The moral language characteristically employed in different texts of the Pāli Canon differs accordingly. This accounts for some of the difficul­ties experienced by modern authors attempting to make comparisons with western traditions. Apparent inconsistencies among the texts can be resolved if one takes careful note of the spiritual status of the moral agents under dis­cussion. The argument is based upon an analysis of a particular conceptual schema found in the Pāli Canon, namely, the tetrad of four logical categories of action based upon the pair of the bright and the dark (sukka and kaṇha). This schema is employed in order to clarify the relationship of two more commonly discussed terms, puñña and kusala.

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Conference: Revisioning Karma

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 12, 2005

Papers from the JBE Online conference

on “Revisioning Karma”

 

Honorary Chairman and Convener: Dale Wright
Occidental College, Los Angeles

 

Critical Questions Towards a Naturalized Concept of Karma in Buddhism

Dale Wright
Occidental College

Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Buddhist Morals: A New Analysis of Puñña and Kusala, in Light of Sukka

Martin Adam
University of Victoria

Merit Transfer in Mahāyāna Buddhism

Barbra Clayton
Mt. Allison University

Reflections on Kant and Karma

Bradford Cokelet
Northwestern University

Karma, Rebirth, and Mental Causation

Christian Coseru
College of Charleston

Is the Buddhist Doctrine of Karma Cognitively Meaningful?

James Deitrick
University of Central Arkansas

Valuing Karma: A Critical Concept for Orienting Interdependence with Wisdom, Attentive Mastery and Moral Clarity

Peter Hershock
East-West Center

Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil

Whitley Kaufman
University of Massachusetts, Lowell

Karma, Character, and Consequentialism

Damien Keown
Goldsmiths College, University of London

Karma in the Later Texts of the Pāli Canon

Jessica Main
McGill University

Karma: Buddhism and the Phenomenology of the Ethical

Eric Nelson
University of Massachusetts, Lowell

Dark and Bright Karma: A New Reading

Abraham Velez
Georgetown University

The Reactionary Role of Karma in 20th Century Japan

Brian Victoria
University of Adelaide

Review: Introduction to Buddhist Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 8, 2001

An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues. By Peter Harvey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 478 pages, ISBN: 0-5215-5640-6 (paper): £13.95/$19.95. ISBN: 0-5215-5394-6 (hard): £37.50/$59.95.

Reviewed by Damien Keown

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A Shin Critique of Buddhist Ethics

ISSN:1076-9005 
Volume 4 1997

Teleologized “Virtue” or Mere Religious “Character”? A Critique of Buddhist Ethics From the Shin Buddhist Point of View

Stephen J. Lewis and Galen Amstutz

When comparative ethicists consider the question of ethics in Buddhism, they are tempted to implicate conceptions of teleology and virtue from Western philosophy. Such implications cannot apply to Mahāyāna exemplified in the Japanese Shin tradition. Shin is characterized not only by emptiness philosophy but also by its emphasis on spontaneous (tariki) enlightenment; both of these features undercut the notion that Buddhism can ultimately concern an intentional goal. But a teleological or virtue-oriented sensibility is not needed for the purposes of ordinary life. On the contrary, Shin social history has demonstrated that a powerful tradition of practical life based on Buddhist teaching can exist perfectly well without it. Such wisdom manifests itself both socially and at the individual level as a kind of character, if not ethics in the usual sense.

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Buddhist Ethics as Virtues Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 1 1994

Buddhist Ethics in Western Context: The Virtues Approach

James Whitehill
Stephens College


Contemporary Buddhism increasingly seeks to make itself understood in modern terms and to respond to contemporary conditions. Buddhism’s legitimation in the West can be partially met by demonstrating that Buddhist morality is a virtue-oriented, character-based, community-focused ethics, commensurate with the Western “ethics of virtue” tradition.

The recent past in Western Buddhist ethics focused on escape from Victorian moralism, and was incomplete. A new generation of Western Buddhists is emerging, for whom the “construction” of a Buddhist way of life involves community commitment and moral “practices.” By keeping its roots in a character formed as “awakened virtue” and a community guided by an integrative soteriology of wisdom and morality, Western Buddhism can avoid the twin temptations of rootless liberation in an empty “emptiness,” on the one hand, and universalistic power politics, on the other. In describing Buddhist ethics as an “ethics of virtue,” I am pointing to consistent and essential features in the Buddhist way of life. But, perhaps more importantly, I am describing Buddhist ethics by means of an interpretative framework very much alive in Western and Christian ethics, namely, that interpretation of ethics most recently associated with thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas. The virtue ethics tradition is the Western tradition most congenial to the assumptions and insights of Buddhist ethics. Hence, virtue ethics provides a means of understanding Buddhist ethics… and, reciprocally, Buddhist ethics also offers the Western tradition a way of expanding the bounds of its virtue ethics tradition, which has been too elitist, rationalistic, and anthropocentric. On the basis of this view, I predict some likely, preferable future directions and limits for Buddhism in a postmodern world.

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