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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