Thesis Q & A

Thesis Q & A April 16, 2008

My thesis (oh yea, that) will aim to answer two questions:

  1. Can Buddhism be said to be deontological in nature? That is, is Buddhism, as a philosophy of life, based on a notion of an underlying duty that each of us can and should understand and live by?


  2. Can a deontological ethics, namely Kantian, incorporate elements of other forms of ethical theory such as virtue ethics and utilitarianism?

1. Buddhism does preserve the term dharma from its precursor Hinduism (Brahmanism), and dharma can at times mean ‘duty’. It is also at times a more abstract ‘nature of the universe’ kind of term, which makes it quite vague and difficult for philosophers to attempt to handle. Dharma is perhaps akin to ‘God’ in Western use – no two people seem to mean exactly the same thing when they use the word.

But that doesn’t mean it can be dismissed in discourse about Buddhist ethics. In fact, the Dharma seems to be the centerpiece of the Buddhist life. However, there are other important aspects of Buddhist ethics – such as the desire to eliminate suffering (roughly utilitarian) and the cultivation of virtues such as generosity and compassion (roughly virtue-based). I was sold on Larry Kohlberg’s theory of stages of moral development even before I knew it existed, and so I may be biased in saying that Buddhism agreed too and did so 2500 years before Kohlberg was born.

  1. Of course we all begin with (selfish) concerns with gaining happiness and eliminate suffering. We soon enough extend those to people around us and then beyond that to our community, and so on.
  2. And over time we learn that the best way to bring happiness and alleviate suffering is to develop certain virtues or skills. We must be engaged in our world to help remove the suffering that we saw that got us started in the first place.
  3. In this process we begin to see the common affinities of all people or all beings; we begin to develop universal principles, what Kant called categorical imperatives.

In Buddhism this is found 1) in the 1st of the four noble truths, which acknowledges the truth of suffering in our lives, 2) the perfections (paramitas) of generosity, patience, ethics, energy, meditation, and learning/wisdom that are encouraged by Buddhist teachers (namely Shantideva), and 3) by the dharma, the supreme morality -or truth of reality- which once awoken to, cannot be transgressed.

2. Recent writers on Kant and his ethics have begun to see him ever more as a virtue-theorist with great debt to Aristotle. Kant did not want to deny the importance of virtue-ethics, but merely to demonstrate their limits. To Kant, virtues were indispensable, but also insufficient for a fully moral life. The virtues orient us to the moral law, but it is the moral law itself which is the true gem of a well lived.

Similarly, Kant and Kantians (such as myself) can make room for and even encourage a limited amount of utilitarian theorizing. Just as we eventually develop a sense of right and wrong based on our ever-deepening connection with the moral law, we very immediately have a sense of pleasure and pain – good and bad. At the earliest moral stages our sense of good and bad is naturally a tactile sense, but as we develop it becomes emotional and spiritual. If we do not adequately mature our sense of our own pain, then it stands to reason that our ability to identify and empathize with the pain of others will be inhibited.

The above, with some fancy quotes and citations, should suffice as a beginning to a fine piece of scholarship, right? 🙂

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