Buddhist Ethics as Virtue 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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