3 thoughts on “Review: A New Buddhist Ethics”

  1. I would like to thank James Stewart for his review, but also point out that he has apparently misunderstood the purpose and context of my book. It was not intended as a scholarly book or as a contribution to academic Buddhist Studies. It was intended as a work of practical philosophy, providing a practical discussion of normative ethics for a more popular audience, primarily a Buddhist one. For this reason it deliberately includes a minimum of theoretical discussion and referencing.

    His complaints about the lack of detailed discussion and justification also take no account at all of the fact that I have published other books dealing with the theoretical issues, in full academic detail and with full referencing. In the foreword to A New Buddhist Ethics I write “Readers who want more philosophical underpinning should turn to my thesis “A Theory of Moral Objectivity,” and to the work on my website http://www.moralobjectivity.net.” If Mr. Stewart has not taken this clear advice, then I do not think he has the right to demand philosophical underpinning which has been freely offered but which he has ignored. More recently I have also produced Middle Way Philosophy 1: The Path of Objectivity, which provides a further and updated academic discussion both of the ethical theory and other philosophical aspects of the Middle Way Philosophy I draw on in A New Buddhist Ethics.

  2. There are also more basic issues at stake here which James Stewart does not seem to understand, so I have decided to comment further to take this opportunity to raise them. These basic issues involve the whole ethos of academic Buddhist ethics, for example as commonly practised in this journal. They are raised in the book under review, but my arguments about them are also given further support elsewhere, as mentioned above. They are concerned with the nature of ethics and the point of studying it, the fact-value distinction, the epistemology of claims relating to Buddhism, and the boundaries of “Buddhism”.

    My approach to normative ethics is just not understood by Stewart. Normative ethics is the study of what we believe to be the right way of living and acting, and as such it is the only area of ethical discussion of substantial practical value. The overwhelming emphasis of academic Buddhist ethics, however, is not normative but descriptive: it is concerned only with what Buddhists (viewed as scientific specimens) either do or should believe – but with ‘should’ determined only by consistency with scripture or other aspects of Buddhist tradition, and thus only descriptive of the authority of those sources. Such discussion does not help to improve anyone’s life or actions – for to change how they live or act, they need to be convinced that a particular way of judging the best way to live or act actually is the best way, normatively speaking. To say, as Stewart does, that those people or traditions under study regard their principles and traditions as normative, merely begs the question of whether they are indeed normative or not. To describe normative beliefs is not to argue normatively.

    This approach in academic Buddhist ethics is closely related to the widespread philosophical assumption of – and rigid application of – the fact-value distinction, leading to the limitation of the study of Buddhist ethics to the study of purported facts about values, rather than the values themselves. The fact-value distinction does not stand up to philosophical scrutiny when we think in terms of moral judgements made by flesh-and-blood agents rather than abstracted moral propositions, for in experience all alleged facts are value-laden and all values assume facts. Yet analytic philosophers, and all those who follow their lead in this respect, illegitimately apply conclusions based only on the analysis of abstracted moral propositions to the actions of moral agents. The whole project of studying “Buddhist ethics” in a normative moral vacuum is deluded, as all the individuals engaged in it constantly make normative value assumptions which they apply, consciously or unconsciously, to their supposed description of Buddhist ethics. Unfortunately these value assumptions do not generally get examined, because of the denial (again, illustrated by Stewart’s review) that the values of scholars themselves have anything to do with the justification of their works.

    In contrast, my approach to Buddhist ethics has been to look for insights offered by Buddhism that will help us to normatively justify a moral position. It is for this reason that I have developed the theory of the Middle Way and of moral objectivity which is primarily applied rather than exhaustively explained in the book under review. This seems to me not only a far more useful but a far more exciting project. I am concerned not with what such-and-such a Buddhist scripture says about such-and-such an issue, but primarily with how to justifiably resolve long-standing dogmatic conflicts in issues of ethics between the different kinds of metaphysical positions identified by Buddhist teaching as eternalism and nihilism.

    Stewart’s review also illustrates the obsessive concern in academic Buddhist ethics with what is or is not “Buddhist” – as though Buddhism is, or could have, clear boundaries. I now call my philosophical approach “Middle Way Philosophy” rather than “Buddhism” to avoid confusion at the level of first response, but the point remains that this approach is inspired by a central teaching of the Buddha – the Middle Way and the ‘silence’ or avyakrta. It has to be acknowledged that the Middle Way is an important part of the the teaching of the Buddha. The interpretation of the Middle Way in relation to moral issues should then be a matter of concern and interest for those studying Buddhist ethics. Whether or not the ensuing interpretation of the Middle Way is “Buddhist” in the sense of being compatible with (other parts of) Buddhist scriptures or tradition is then of no relevance or interest, and I can see no justification for Stewart’s evident need to judge my book in these narrowly prescriptive terms. The question for me is solely whether the ensuing account of the Middle Way is morally useful.

    Stewart’s reaction to my book thus illustrates for me the major respects in which academic Buddhist ethics, rather than Middle Way Philosophy, is “problematic”. For one thing it is misnamed – it should be called “Descriptive Buddhist Ethics”, because it offers no actual moral guidance or inspiration. For another, it is dominated by scholars who only accept the justification of any position in relation to Buddhist ethics in terms of references to scripture or to evidence of Buddhist practice, thus excluding genuine moral exploration which offers justification either in directly practical or in wider philosophical terms, but which may be inspired by Buddhism. “Buddhist ethics” as it seems to be predominantly practised on these pages is a massive missed opportunity to explore the acute moral insights of the Buddha in a relevant way, because it is mired in conventionalism and unnecessarily rigid assumptions.

  3. Thank you for your reply and clarification. Just two points in response to your suggestion that the reader look to your other writings in order to get a full understanding of your philosophical position.

    The Middle Way ethics thesis of your book drives much of the applied ethics discussion. Given the central role that this ethical theory plays it seems reasonable that it would be adequately discussed in the book proper. Requiring that the reader read one or two other books as a prelude to reading A New Buddhist Ethics seems rather demanding particularly if A New Buddhist Ethics is indeed intended for a general readership.

    Second, I take it then that the theory laid out in A New Buddhist Ethics is an abbreviated version of the argument that a reader would find in the books you mention above. Even so, the abbreviated version should cast the theory in its best possible light. It seems odd to require the reader to study another book (or books) just so that they can be acquainted with the best version of the argument. After all, one would expect the best version to be included in the first instance. In any case, my discussion of your Middle Way thesis is concerned with how it is presented in this book, not in another book.

    Many of your other points have already been addressed in the review proper. So I redirect you and other readers there.

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