Studies in Buddhist ethics 6 – the 21st century

coherence

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The 21st Century

This is part six of a series of posts based on a 27 February talk I delivered for the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies; click for parts

  • one, Introduction and orientation
  • twoBuddhist ethics in the 1970s
  • threeBuddhist ethics in the 1990s and
  • four: Ongoing debates.
  • five: Categorical Thinkers.

I would like to retrace my steps over one of these debates and speculate about its origins and suggest a resolution. Let us return to Little and Twiss’ tripartite system for classifying religious ethics, beginning at the most basic level of an agent’s situational application of basic norms and progressing through the validation of those norms; either be in the form of duties (deontological) or ultimate goals (teleological) and culminating in vindication, looking at metaethical concepts and discussions, or the reasons given for accepting or rejecting certain validations.

Perhaps Hallisey and Heim are correct that many, if not most, Buddhists in history lack a sophisticated moral system. Buddhists can appear to avail themselves to a variety of ethical theories to justify particular actions. Perhaps even at the level of validation of those justifications they can oscillate between deontological and teleological ethics. And perhaps most Buddhists have not spent the necessary time analyzing metaethical concepts such as not-self, dependent origination, and so on in a way that would lead to truly consistent and systematic modes of thought. Hallisey concludes to this effect in stating that:

In Theravādin commentarial literature, the Buddha is portrayed as intervening in one case to ensure the safe delivery of a child, against the demands of karma, while in another case, he uses the grief that comes from the death of a child to bring a mother to a spiritual awakening. In one case he encourages monks to support their dependent parents with the property of the monastic order; in another case, he encourages monks to keep their distance from their families. The diversity of stories associated with each one of the duties included in the Mangalasutta encourages us, in turn, to respond to the rich particularity of each situation before us without holding ourselves to a standard of moral consistency generally associated with taking guidance from a single ethical theory. (Hallisey, 1996, p.42)

However, the great thinkers of Buddhist history dating back to the Buddha himself, and including Nāgārjuna, Vasubhandu, Buddhaghosa, Śāntideva, Tsongkhapa, and others can appear before us as brilliantly systematic and consistent moral thinkers. As Richard Gombrich writes of the Buddha:

On the one hand, I [Richard Gombrich] do not think the Buddha was interested in presenting a philosophically coherent doctrine: the evidence that his concern was pragmatic, to guide his audience’s actions, is overwhelming. On the other hand, I have also concluded that the evidence that he had evolved such a structure of though and that it underpinned his pragmatic advice is no less compelling. (2009, p.164)

Charles Goodman, in skillfully introducing a breadth of Buddhist thought to Western philosophers, asks that we:

Suppose the great thinkers of the Buddhist tradition, such as the historical Buddha himself, or Buddhaghosa, or Asanga, or Śāntideva, were somehow to learn about and come to understand the debates in Western philosophy about free will, ethical theory, justice, virtue, the demands of morality or the justifications of punishment. How would they respond to these debates? (2009, p.4)

As Goodman’s work unites these thinkers under the banner of consequentialism, it is clear that he does find both a consistent thought structure and in fact a single (although varying slightly amongst traditions) ethical theory to describe Buddhist ethics. A similar case can be found in the more recent life and work of the well renowned Thai monk Buddhadāsa. Donald Swearer suggests that ‘as a reformer… he [Buddhadāsa] has been misunderstood by some for being overly intellectual and difficult to understand; by others for his relative isolation at [his] forest hermitage … and by still others for unrealistic idealism’ (1979, pp.55-56). And yet Swearer himself suggests that ‘Buddhadāsa has developed a complete system of thought which has consistently integrated ontology, epistemology, and ethics. In short, Buddhadāsa has construed a holistic view of reality, the way it is to be known or realized, and how one acts in the world having achieved that end’ (Ibidem, p.56).

So while Keown, Gombrich, Goodman, and Swearer may have drawn out consistent and coherent metaethical concepts and arguments in their work, Hallisey and Heim may be focused more on the level of individuals’ particular norms and justifications. In other words, the right question might not be whether or not Buddhist thinkers had coherent systems of thought, but rather ‘where do we look, and how do we determine what these systems might be?’ The importance of examining the more basic aspects of Buddhists lives, which seems to be the driving focus of Hallisey and Heim’s works, cannot be overstated. Without these, the metaethical concepts become detached from their lived reality leading to wild and bizarre interpretations. But to think that the Buddha or later Buddhist scholars lacked altogether an ethical theory puts Buddhism outside of, or at least in odd relationship with, other moral and religious traditions and conversations.

There will be one final section giving concluding thoughts in the coming days.

Further Reading:

Goodman, C. (2009). Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defese of Buddhist Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gombrich, R. (2009). What the Buddha Thought. London: Equinox.

Hallisey, C. (1996). Ethical Particularism in Theravāda Buddhism. Journal of Buddhist Ethics , 3, 32-43.

Hallisey, C. (1992). “Recent Works on Buddhist Ethics.” Religious Studies Review, 18:4, p.276-85.

Heim, M. (2007). Toward a “Wider and Juster Initiative”: Recent Comparative Work in Buddhist Ethics. Religion Compass , 1 (1), 107-119.

Keown, D. (1992/2001). The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. London: Palgrave.

Swearer, D. (1996). “Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa’s Interpretation of the Buddha,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 64, No. 2, pp. 313-336.


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