Theravāda Ethics

Volume 4 1997

The General and the Particular in Theravāda Ethics: A Response to Charles Hallisey

Kevin Schilbrack
Wesleyan College

In the most recent issue of JBE (volume 3, 1996), Charles Hallisey calls into question what he sees as a pernicious assumption at work in the study of Theravāda ethics. The problem, according to Hallisey, is that many scholars who study Theravāda ethics assume that the Theravāda tradition has only a single moral theory, and they therefore try to reduce the plurality of the tradition to fit their single-theory view. Hallisey recommends that scholars see the Theravāda ethical tradition as an instance of ethical particularism, a position he describes both as pluralistically including many theories and as having no theory at all. For this reason, Hallisey recommends that scholars abandon the abstract search for the nature of Buddhist ethics in general. After clarifying Hallisey’s recommendation, I argue that it is wrong. Although the Theravāda tradition, like any religious tradition, includes more than one ethical theory, there is no good reason not to inquire into its general or formal features. With Russell Sizemore, I recommend an inclusive understanding of comparative religious ethics that sees a place for both for the historical study of the particular and the philosophical study of the general.

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