Buddhism as a Virtue Ethics


To my mind the ethics of Gautama Buddha can best be interpreted as a virtue
ethics. Confucius’ view of the moral person as an artistic creation resonates well with
Plato’s view of the unity of reality, the good, and the beautiful. Agreeing with his Greek
contemporaries, the Buddha also established an essential link between goodness and truth
on the one hand and evil and untruth on the other. Both the Buddha and Christ, however,
would have asked for two major changes in Greek virtue ethics. In both Buddhism and
Christianity pride is a vice, so the humble soul is to be preferred over Aristotle’s
"great soul" (megalopsychia). (Aristotle’s megalopsychia may even
be too close to megalomania for the comfort of most contemporary persons.) Both the Buddha
and Christ would also not accept Aristotle’s nor Confucius’ elitism. For Aristotle only a
certain class of people (free-born Greek males, to be exact) could establish the virtues
and attain the good life. (Greek eudaimonism has been called "an ethics of the
fortunate.") In stark contrast, the Dharmakaya and the body of Christ contain all
people, including the poor, the outcast, people of color, and women. For Buddhism we will
perhaps have to change the definition of virtue ethics from "the art of making the
soul great and noble (megalopsychia)" to "the art of making the soul
balanced and harmonious."

Like Greek virtue ethics, Buddhist ethics is also humanistic and thoroughly
personalist. The Buddha started with individual people and the condition of their souls.
Society can set the rule "kill not" and threaten punishment as a deterrent, but
people, said the Buddha, will not stop killing until they learn to "hate not."
The Buddha focused on hate and other disturbances of the soul more than any ancient
philosopher. The Buddha believed that most people do evil out of fear; in other words,
evil is primarily done defensively, not offensively. Such a personalist ethics concludes
that external peace will not happen unless there is internal peace.

The Buddha’s virtue ethics is also as flexible as Aristotle’s. If David J.
Kalupahana is correct in describing early Buddhist ethics as a contextual pragmatism, then
the traditional translation of the moral imperatives of the eight-fold path is wrong.
Translating the Sanskrit stem samyak- that appears in each of the words as the
"right" thing to do makes them sound like eight commands of duty ethics. Instead
of eight universal rules for living, they should be seen as virtues, i.e., disposition to
act in certain ways under certain conditions.

A translation of samyag- more appropriate to Buddhist pragmatism would
be "suitable" or "fitting." So we would have "suitable or
fitting" view (samyagdristi), "suitable or fitting" conception (samyaksankalpa),
"suitable or fitting" speech (samyagvak), "suitable or fitting"
action (samyakkarmanta), "suitable or fitting" livelihood (samyagajiva),
"suitable or fitting" effort (samyagvyayama), "suitable or
fitting" mindfulness (samyaksmriti), and "suitable or fitting"
concentration (samyaksamadhi). It is only fitting, for example, that a warrior eat
more and more often than a monk, or it is suitable that the warrior express courage in a
different way than a monk would. Both are equally virtuous, because they have personally
chosen the virtues as means, means relative to them.

A. J. Bahm’s more literal translation of samyag- as
"middle-wayed" view, "middle-wayed" conception, etc. brings out the
parallel with Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean even better. Bahm observes that the
Buddha’s mean "is not a mere, narrow, or exclusive middle [limited by strict rules or
an arithmetic mean], but a broad, ambiguous, inclusive middle." Therefore, the
virtues of the eight-fold path are seen as dispositions developed over a long time, and
they are constantly adjusted with a view to changing conditions and different extremes.
Bahm acknowledges that the translation of "right" is acceptable if, as it is in
both Buddhist and Greek ethics, it means

that which is intended to result in the best [i.e., the summum bonum].
. . . However, right, in Western thought, tends to be rigorously opposed to wrong, and
rectitude has a stiff-backed, resolute, insistent quality about it; right and wrong too
often are conceived as divided by the law of excluded middle. But in samyag- the
principle of excluded middle is, if not entirely missing, subordinated to the principle of
the middle way."

Neither the Buddha nor Aristotle give up objective moral values. They both
agree, for example, that is always wrong to eat too much, although "too much"
will be different for each individual. It is also impossible to find a mean between being
faithful and committing adultery or killing and refraining from doing so. But even with
this commitment to moral objectivity, we must always be aware that the search for absolute
rightness and wrongness involves craving and attachment. Besides, developing the proper
virtues will make such a search misdirected and unnecessary.

The Buddha’s famous statement "a person who sees causation, sees the
Dharma" implies that we know how to act, not because of abstract rules, but because
of our causal past and circumstances. The "mirror of dharma" is not a common one
that we all look into together, but it is actually a myriad of mirrors reflecting
individual histories. Maintaining the essential link between fact and value, just as Greek
virtue ethics did, the Buddha demonstrated that the truth about our causal relations
dictates the good that we ought to do. As Kalupahana states: "Thus, for the Buddha,
truth values are not distinguishable from moral values or ethical values; both are values
that participate in nature." This is the same ethical naturalism that we find in
contemporary virtue ethicists such as Philippa Foot.

Bahm also draws on the meanings of samyag- as "evenness,"
"equilibrium," "balance," and "equipose" to emphasize
another Buddhist insight: viz., the Middle Way will always bring equanimity to the
virtuous soul. This allows us to correct a common understanding of Nirvana as complete
emptiness or quiescence. Buddhist Nirvana, however, is more like the contentment of
Aristotle’s eudaimonia, the inner peace of Epicurus’ ataraxia (lit.
"unperturbedness"), and Stoic indifference. The cessation of craving does not
mean extinguishing all wants and desires. Good Buddhists can still desire all that can be
attained. Craving is a desire for things that cannot be attained: unlimited power, wealth,
and sexual conquest of all those whom we find attractive.

Let us look at some issues regarding "right" speech. The Buddha
explained that "suitable" speech means not to lie or slander, but this is not to
be taken as an absolute prohibition. Obsession with lying in Judeo-Christian ethics
culminated in Kant’s moral absolutism, in which even white lies were not allowed. The
concept of right speech as "suitable" speech is found in Confucian ethics as
well as in Buddhism. Confucius once told his servant to get rid of an especially
irritating visitor by saying that he was not home. In Mahayana Buddhism the idea of
fitting or appropriate speech is found in the doctrine of "expedient means." The
loving father in the Lotus Sutra found that he had to lie to his children in order
to get them to leave a burning house, symbolic of the fire of craving. 

Those who insist on an absolute prohibition against lying are those who are
secretly craving that the world should be different from what it is. As Bahm states:
"Unwillingness to accept things as they are is the basis of lying, and any expression
of that unwillingness is wrong speech." This is one of the subtlest forms of
self-deception–lying to oneself about the nature of the world–which is obviously a
deeper and more profound lie than the father’s white lie in the Lotus Sutra.
Acceptance of the world as it is and not craving that it can be radically changed is
fundamental for the realism and pragmatism found in Buddhist ethics. This is one way of
understanding the Mahayanist’s provocative claim that Samsara is Nirvana and Nirvana is
Samsara. Nirvana is not simply personal extinction at the end of life, but full commitment
to this world as the focus of the spiritual life.



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