Paternalism in the Lotus Sūtra

Volume 5 1998

Paternalism in the Lotus Sūtra

Damien Keown
Goldsmiths College, University of London

Medical and other analogies which depict the Buddha as a physician or wise parent are found in the Lotus Sūtra and are common in Buddhist literature.  To what extent does this image of the wise father-figure encourage paternalism in Buddhist ethics? Making reference to the approach to medical ethics developed by Beauchamp and Childress (the “four principles”), this paper discusses the ethics of the Lotus Sūtra in the light of debate about the justifiability of paternalism in contemporary medical practice.  It offers a critique of what appears to be an incipient moral paternalism in Mahāyāna Buddhism which manifests itself in a particular development of the concept of skillful means.  It is suggested that Buddhist sources which apply the concept of skillful means to normative ethics may be characterized as “paternalist” insofar as the principle of beneficence is allowed undue predominance over respect for autonomy.

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