Dharma Morality as Virtue Ethics




Nicholas F.
Gier, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy

Department of
Philosophy, University of Idaho

USA 83844-3016


for PDF file that prints diacriticals properly


Published in Indian
eds. Purusottama Bilimoria and Joseph Prabuhu (Springer, 2009). 


By the term
. . . I understand nothing short of moral virtue.


–Bimal Krishna

MacIntyre, the philosopher who has done the most to reintroduce virtue ethics,
argues that utilitarianism cannot distinguish between the clear qualitative
difference between the internal value of the virtues and the extrinsic value of
ordinary pleasures, a difference crucial to what is called "character
Whereas it is virtually impossible to do the hedonic calculus for ordinary pains
and pleasures, there is no question about the long term good consequences of the
virtues and good character, as compared to the long term pain that the vices
bring.  This means that attempts, such as Michael Slote’s gallant effort,[3]
at founding the value of the virtues on their own grounds fails, because one
cannot deny that the virtues were preferred, very early in human social
development, primarily because of their good consequences.


In my book
The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi
I have proposed that both Buddhist and Confucian morality be conceived as virtue
ethics roughly similar to Aristotle and his doctrine of the mean.  In my book I
interpret Gandhi’s ethics of non-violence from a virtue perspective, but I was
not sure, especially since Gandhi had so many non-Indian influences, if this
would apply to any other aspect of the Indian tradition. Reading the collection
of Bimal Krishna Matilal’s essays Ethics and Epics was just the
breakthrough that I needed to think about a more general dharma virtue
ethics that includes Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Following an aesthetics of
virtue, I will propose that the virtues are personal creations that are, as
Aristotle maintains, "relative to us," and I also suggest that deontological or
utilitarian readings of the ethics of the Hindu epics are not always supported. 


In the first
section I will discuss the different roles that rules and virtues play in our
moral lives, and I will demonstrate that the virtues have axiological priority. 
The second section will present the outlines of a virtue aesthetics, which I
will explicate in terms of Confucius and Gandhi.  In the third section I will
demonstrate that dharma is best interpreted as virtue rather than duty.
Drawing heavily on Matilal in the fourth section, I argue that there are good
reasons to read portions of the Hindu epics as virtue ethics.  Matilal offers
some wonderful insights about the true nature of karma, and in the fifth
section I combine these with my own thoughts about Buddhism to offer a
non-fatalistic interpretation of the motto "character is destiny." In the last
section I use Matilal’s acute observations about KŬ�a to formulate a Hindu
virtue aesthetics that parallels the Confucian-Gandhian view in the second




     When one
thinks of the question "Which came first–moral rules or virtues?" the obvious
answer, I contend, is that virtues came first.  Moral imperatives are
abstractions from thousands of years of observing loyal, honest, patient, just,
and compassionate behavior, just as moral prohibitions have come from equally
ancient experiences with the vices.  There is good evidence that the expression
of moral rules requires a spoken language and one could argue just as
persuasively that virtues manifested themselves in prelinguistic human beings.
For example, strong circumstantial evidence for compassion among the
Neanderthals can be joined with the hypothesis that their very high larynx made
it impossible for them to articulate basic vowels. Michael Spangle and Kent
Menzel state that "spoken language transformed our species and was a major
factor in forging the human world as we know it."[5]
They also argue for the existence of an "acoustic trigger to conceptualization"
that gestural language obviously lacks.  While there is now a consensus that
gestures are integral to all natural languages (remarkably, the blind gesture
when they speak), it is generally agreed that they do not express abstractions
very well.


It is even more
clear that divine virtues precede divine law, because God’s virtues would remain
even if God chose not to create a world.  The doctrine of the Trinity (Hindu,
Buddhist, or Christian) allows the possibility that the divine virtues are not
exclusively self-regarding. The Pauline view that the Law was created only to
manifest human sin further proves its contingency and confirms the idea of a
"lawless" God before creation. For medieval nominalism the moral law
characterizes what God has ordained (potentia ordinata) for a sinful
world, and it is not part of God’s absolute power (potentia absoluta). 


Leslie Stephen describes virtue ethics as follows: "Morality is internal.  The
moral law. . . has to be expressed in the form, ‘be this,’ not in the form  ‘do
this.’ . . . The true moral law says ‘hate not,’ instead of ‘kill not.’ . . .
The only mode of stating the moral law must be as a rule of character."[6] 
In other words, people of good character and virtue require no reminder of what
the rules are or what their duty is.  For John Stuart Mill the application of
internal sanctions had much more moral value than the imposition of external
sanctions, those that most often used by parents and societies to control human
behavior. Mill’s argument is persuasive: a society of mature virtues would
require few police, judges, and prisons thereby maximizing utility and
supporting character consequentialism.


speaking, the sanctions for virtue ethics are internal and self-regulating,
whereas the sanctions for rule ethics, especially in its popular religious form,
are external.  (Kant and contemporary Christian ethicists join virtue ethics in
favoring internal sanctions.)  For the Greeks, the Roman Stoics, Buddhists, and
the Confucians, virtue is its own reward, but popular Christianity appears to
have made the incentive for good deeds eternal life in heaven, with eternal
damnation for those who do not follow the rules.


 One of the
problems with rule ethics is applying the rules to specific cases.  The
imperatives of virtue ethics–be patient, be kind, be generous, be
compassionate, be courageous–better equip an individual to negotiate the
obstacles of the moral life.  The virtue ethics approach is not to follow a set
of abstract rules, but to develop an ensemble of behaviors, dispositions, and
qualities that lead to human excellence and the good life.  Virtue ethics may
not have pat answers to specific cases–no ethical theory could offer this–but
it does prepare the moral agent for adaptation, innovation, and self-discovery.


Martha Nussbaum,
a major proponent of virtue ethics, states: "The good agent must therefore
cultivate the ability to perceive and correctly describe his or her situation
finely and truly, including in this perceptual grasp even those features of the
situation that are not covered under the existing rule."[7] 
Aristotle’s practical reason is the ability to perceive "finely and truly" any
situation, whereas Buddhists would call it the virtue of mindfulness and the
Confucians would say that it is doing "what is appropriate" (yi).  I have
developed a formula for Confucian ethics that articulates this concept in a
simple way: ren +yi + li =ren*. Ren means the
physical person, who, in the process of personally adapting (yi) social
customs (li), becomes a virtuous person ren*, a homophone of
with the number 2 added to the character ren. The literal meaning
is therefore "two peopleness" and the ethical meanings are human excellence and
benevolence.  The social-relational nature of the Asian self stands in
instructive contrast to those Euro-American ethical systems built on strict
personal autonomy.




Euro-American philosophy has unfortunately severed the time-honored connections
between truth, goodness, and beauty.   A Chinese poet of the Book of Odes
conceives of moral development as similar to the manufacture of a precious
stone.  At birth we are like uncut gems, and we have an obligation to carve and
polish our potential in the most beautiful ways possible.  The ren*
person is a work of fine art, something wholly unique and distinctive. Whereas
the craft potter takes thousands of mugs from the same mold, the ceramic
sculptor makes one singular work.  Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont’s inelegant
translation of ren* as "authoritative person" plays on the dual meanings
of authority and creative authoring and leads to helpful translations such as
"becoming authoritative in one’s conduct is self-originating–how could it
originate with others" (Analects 12.1).  Ames and Rosemont also observe
that li as "propriety" is "profoundly different from law" because it can
be personalized and stylized.[8]


 The Confucians
were both dancers and expert musicians, and it is the performing arts that are
the best model for a contemporary aesthetics of virtue. Confucian sages were
moral virtuosos who used their yi to create their own unique style of
appropriating the social patterns of their community (li). This
achievement is both moral and aesthetic because it results in the embodiment of
the good (li) and the personal creation of an elegant, harmonious, and
balanced soul.  Confucius claimed to have the ability to read the character of
composers by listening to their music.  It is also said that in his later years
Confucius put the Book of Odes to music in the proper way, presumably
based on a correlation between notes and virtues (9.15). 


 For Confucius
the beauty of the sage kings lies in their virtue; the beauty of any
neighborhood is due to the goodness of its residents; a person without ren*
could not possibly appreciate music; and a society without li and music
would not be just; indeed, li cannot be perfected without music.  Gandhi
once said that he could not "conceive of an evolution of India’s religious life
without her music."[9]
He would also have celebrated the fact that the Analects reports that the
fusion of li and music first came with the commoners and then was adopted
by the nobility (11.1).  One if reminded of the fact many of the most memorable
melodies in European music came from folk (in many instances Gypsy) music.


 Although he was
not at all as active in the arts as Confucius, Gandhi is committed to the same
ancient unity of truth, goodness, and beauty.  More so than Confucius Gandhi is
committed to prioritizing truth: "Truth is the first thing to be sought for, and
Beauty and Goodness will then be added unto you."[10]
Gandhi’s focus was also more on the inner beauty of the pure heart rather than
natural or artistic beauty. "Purity of life is the highest and truest art. . .
.The art of producing good music from a cultivated voice can be achieved by
many, but the art of producing that music from the harmony of a pure life is
achieved very rarely."[11]
Confucius would certainly have agreed with this statement.  Gandhi rejected the
concept of art for art’s sake and its amoral aestheticism and there is no
question that Confucius would have agreed with the proposition that art must be
an ally of the good life or it loses its value.  While in England Gandhi
experienced the controversy surrounding Oscar Wilde and he joined Wilde’s
critics with the charge that he was guilt of "beautifying immorality."[12]


From the
standpoint of Heaven the Confucians would have agreed with Gandhi that its truth
[cheng=sincerity] is most important, and its beauty and goodness follows
second and third.  Gandhi may have subordinated beauty to both truth and
goodness so as to forestall any philosophy of life that would place the
acquisition of artworks before basic needs of the people.  Gandhi believed that
for the masses to appreciate beauty it must come through truth.  "Show them
Truth first and they will see beauty afterwards.  Whatever can be useful to
those starving millions is beautiful to my mind.  Let us give today the vital
things of life and the graces and ornaments of life will follow."[13] 
In this passage Gandhi’s passion for justice appears to have led him to reduce
beauty to utility.  He may, however, have a more sophisticated aesthetics in
mind, one in which form follows function, one that is manifested in the
exquisitely beautiful and simple Shaker furniture.  Gandhi relates asceticism to
aesthetics in the following way: "Asceticism is the highest art.  For what is
art but beauty in simplicity and what is asceticism if not the loftiest
manifestation of simply beauty in daily life, shorn of artificialities and
make-believe?  That is why I always say that the true ascetic, not only
practises art but lives it."[14]
In a personal conversation with Gandhi’s grandson Ramachandra, a creative writer
and philosopher in his own right, he described the way that Gandhi led his daily
prayer services as a form of minimalist art.


 Gandhi once
asked a disciple if a "woman with fair features was necessarily beautiful?"  The
initial affirmative answer was quickly withdrawn when Gandhi followed with "even
if she may be of an ugly character?"[15] 
For Gandhi beauty is always "an index of the soul within."  He also observed
that although they say that Socrates was not a handsome man, "to my mind he was
beautiful because all his life was striving after Truth. . . ."[16]
M. Kirti Singh has remarked that Gandhi was perhaps as ugly as Socrates, "yet
there was a rare spiritual beauty that shone in his face."[17] 
This is a moral beauty that comes from the courage of being true to one’s self
and being true to others.  Gandhi’s virtue aesthetics is best summed up in this
passage: "Life must immensely excel all the parts put together.  To me the
greatest artist is surely he who lives the finest life."[18]



The Sanskrit
word dharma is generally understood as strict duty, a set of obligations
by which all good Hindus, Jainas, and Buddhists must live.  But, even with this
traditional understanding, there are important distinctions that are sometimes
overlooked. Brahmins, for example, have different duties than vai�yas
do, and the Jaina householder and the Buddhist layperson have less strict
obligations than the monks. Beyond the relativism of caste duty, there is also
the fact that different virtues will be required for each of the a�ramas,
and, furthermore, a particular virtue dominates each of the cosmic ages.  


In most
instances caste duties are explained as virtues, as in this list for brahmins
from the Par��ara �m�ti: "Assiduous work, the bridling of the passions,
compassion, liberality, truthfulness, . . . discipline, generosity,
righteousness, . . . [and] wisdom. . . ."[19] 
This dharmic virtue ethics is further explained by the development of character
traits (lak�a�a) by which a person’s virtues can be known. In the
of the Mah�bh�rata King Nahu�a asks Yudhi��hira what
is, and he defines it as the virtues of truthfulness, generosity,
forgiveness, goodness, kindness, self-control, and compassion.[20]
Going completely against caste determinism, Yudhi��hira contends that a ��dra
having these qualities would actually be a brahmin, and if a brahmin
lacks them he would be a ��dra.


Some passages of
The Laws of Manu define dharma as customs not duty. The righteous
king "should ordain (as law) whatever may be the usual custom of good, religious
twice-born men, if it does not conflict with (the customs of) countries,
families, and castes."[21]
The king was to honor local custom even though it might contravene sm�ti.
This analysis supports the theory that laws are indeed abstracted from customs
and the practice of the virtues, and only if this axiological priority was
honored could a healthy flexibility and tolerance of different customs and
virtues flourish. Stanley Tambiah has discovered this type of moral polity
ancient Sri Lanka: "The polities modeled on mandala-type patterning had central
royal domains surrounded by satellite principalities and provinces replicating
the center on a smaller scale and at the margins had even more autonomous
tributary principalities."[22]
Tambiah gives this type of polity the engaging name "pulsating galactic
polities," and he believes that this form of political organization is better in
integrating minorities and respecting their customs.


Rather than
being abstract and deontological, dharma is, as Paul H�cker proposes,
"radically empirical" and it can be conceived only through experience.[23] Even
though social customs stand third behind �ruti and sm�ti on many
Hindu textual lists, it could be argued that they are actually the true source
of dharma.  For example, this passage from the Mah�bh�rata gives
priority to customs: "Dharma has its origin in good practices and the
are established on dharma."[24]
Furthermore, �pastamba’s Dharmas�tra begins: "And we shall explain the
accepted customary laws, the authority for which rests on the acceptance by
those who know the law and on the Vedas"; and "he should model his conduct after
that which is unanimously approved in all regions by �ryas who have been
properly trained."[25]
H�cker contends that "this is the most concrete and most precise definition of
the Hindu concept of dharma that I know."[26]
In The Laws of Manu (12.110-111) Matilal discerns the same
"rational-democratic" principle in the provision that a jury of ten men would
convene and resolve disputes about the law.[27]


Just as we have
proposed a functional equivalence between Chinese li and Greek ethos,
we can now see dharma as the Indian ethos. Dharma is like
li in two other respects: it starts as religious rite ("rituals, study of
scripture, and austerities"), and grew to pertain to every aspect of daily life.
For the Aristotle ethos becomes ethos ethik

when the virtues are developed according to practical reason
operating in the context of multifaceted experiences. According to Bangalore
Kuppuswamy, "dharma does not consist in blind conformity to customs; a
man’s behaviour should based on reasoning, should contribute to the welfare of
humanity and should be guided by conscience."[28]


 Frank Edgerton
defines dharma as "propriety, socially approved conduct, in relation to
one’s fellow man or to other living beings."[29] 
We have already seen that the best translation of the Chinese li is also
propriety, and Ames and Rosemont draw a good point from the Latin proprius,
"’making one’s own’ as in property."[30]
This parallels the Indian tradition where one is expected to match one’s own
nature (svabh�va) with one’s own dharma (svadharma).  As
Austin Creel phrases it: "One’s dharma is the total situation in which he
finds himself; it is the law of his own being, the proper function of nature or
constitution. . . . It is his appropriate function; it is the manifestation in
social existence of his actual capacities.  Dharma in this sense is
deemed not an external code but the inner law of a being."[31]
This inner law, however, is not something akin to Kant’s rational autonomy,
which as J. N. Mohanty observes, is far too abstract and impersonal compared to
"the innate characteristics of the individual,"[32]
which is designated in Sanskrit as svabh�va.


Just as every
Chinese makes a personal appropriation of li by means of yi, so
may every Indian do the same with dharma. Such a proposal has obviously
gone beyond the confines of traditional Hinduism, even the revised caste system
envisioned by Gandhi, where a son, although free from discrimination, would stay
within the vocation of his father. Gandhi’s challenge to his satyagrahis,
however, appears to inspire the freedom of the Hindu ascetic, whose dharma,
according Purushottama Billimoria, "is the correlate of his own innate
constitution of which he is master," and "what he should do and not do . . . is
left entirely to his own determination."[33]
This is certainly the best example of developing one’s svadharma
according to one’s svabh�va. Within Gandhi’s circle of disciples,
however, it was clearly only the Mahatma who did, not within considerable
controversy, allow himself this much liberty.



If dharma
is duty then Hindu ethics should conform to something like Kantianism, but
Matilal maintains that is not really the meaning of dharma, a point that
we have already argued in the previous section.  Matilal quotes Robert Lingat
favorably when he maintains that dharma is never "imposed" but simply
"proposed"; and he paraphrases Louis Dumont idea that dharma "reigns from
above without actually governing the world."[34]
Both of these descriptions are intriguing but vague, but Matilal proposes that
dharma is "open ended," a crucial aspect of rules in virtue ethics.


Matilal finds a
caricature of Kantianism in R�ma, whose inflexibility with regard to duty leads
to absurd and/or harsh decisions.  As Matilal quips: "R�ma’s dharma was
rigid; KŬ�a’s was flaccid."[35] 
Even though he was encouraged to do so by the sage J�b�li, R�ma was not going to
break a promise, even if it meant that he could regain his kingdom and avoid 14
years of exile. One of R�ma’s lame excuses for shooting V�lin in the back was
that a person has no duties to animals, V�lin being a member of Hanuman’s monkey
army. (Kant held that mistreatment of animals was blameworthy at least as a
reflection of the person’s character.) R�ma’s extreme interpretation of a wife’s
duty to her husband has led generations of Indian women to conform to an
impossible ideal. Following S�t�’s example, Indian women are required to stay
with their husbands no matter what they ask of them and no matter how much they
are abused.


As Matilal
easily demonstrates, Kant’s absolute duties to tell the truth and keep a promise
come in for some severe criticism in Hindu literature. Kant too easily assumes
that there is a rational harmony among our duties and that they cannot
conflict.  Matilal notes the significance of the fact that both Kant and Indian
ethics recognize an intimate connection between truth telling and promise
keeping, explaining the latter as "protecting the truth" (satya rak��).[36]
Matilal analyzes KŬ�a’s use of the story of the hermit Kau�ika as a response to
Kant, but I will use a similar story that I found effective in my ethics


Let us say that
I am over at my best friend’s house and we are watching a football game in a
back room. There is a knock at the door, and, as luck would have it, I am the
one to answer. Standing at the door is a crazed man, armed head to foot, who
demands that my friend come out so that he can kill him.  Silence is not an
option, as was also the case with Kau�ika. The bandits would have tortured a
confession out of the hermit, and the terrorist would interpret my silence as
assent that my friend is indeed home, and he would barge right in. Therefore, I
tell the terrorist, as convincingly as all my mental and emotional energy can
muster, that my friend is not home.


In this case
Kant would allow that prudence might dictate that I lie, but because I always
have a moral duty to tell the truth, my action has no moral worth.  The virtue
ethics response is very different: my action does have moral worth, primarily
because, in this instance, I did the right thing and I could successfully
challenge anyone who said I did not. I have always been a truth teller, and the
fact that I have lied in this situation in no way destroys my habit of virtue;
and it certainly does not mean that I have now become a liar rather than a truth
teller. Furthermore, I feel guilt and remorse about my actions and I rededicate
myself to a life of virtue.


Matilal’s answer
is very much the same.  He maintains that Kau�ika’s "dharma is at least
dictated by the constraints or contingency of the situation."[37]
And, although �pastamba states that all perjurers go to Hell, Matilal notes that
the Dharmas�tras of Gautama and Manu make an exception when one lies to
save a life.  Matilal states that the dharma "cannot be known as
universally fixed," and that "our practical wisdom has a sort of malleability"
so that it can adjust to changing situations and circumstances.[38]
Furthermore, Matilal recognizes the necessity of genuine remorse as a sign of a
temporary lapse from virtue.  "The feeling of guilt must be genuine, and
it must be distinguished from the feeling of simple regret."[39]
Finally, virtue ethics response allows for genuine moral conflict and supports
the truth of tragic heroes caught in irreconcilable ethical dilemmas.  


The principle of
utility is implied in KŬ�a ‘s justification of immoral means to prevent the
evil Kauravas from winning the war. Yudhi��hira once said that there are many
and the only way to find the correct one is to follow the
, which can be translated as "the conduct of the good people." In
this term Matilal finds a "primitive proto-utilitarianism," which is very
clearly expressed in the common phrase "for the sake of the happiness of many
people, and for the sake of the good of many."[40]
Matilal acknowledges that the greatest attraction of utilitarianism is its
monism, i.e., its assumption that all moral problems can be solved with a single
principle.  He claims, however, that "dharma-morality is pluralistic,"[41]
and he proposes that this view can be held without succumbing to irrationality.
Matilal’s frequent mention of "practical wisdom" as the deciding factor in moral
decision-making suggests that we should look at Hindu ethics from a virtue
perspective.  I propose then that "the conduct of good people" be read as a call
to emulate the virtuous among us. It is, therefore, character consequentialism
that we see in the Hindu epics, not a hedonic consequentialism.


In an essay
entitled "Dharma and Rationality," Matilal discusses the story of the
king who decrees that a lake of milk should be constructed for the good of his
people. He argues that that even though a sovereign, using the principle of
utility, could order that everyone make sacrifices for the greatest good, people
would be tempted, as this story shows, to empty a pail of water into the lake of
milk under the cover of darkness.  Again, there is an instructive parallel to
Confucian virtue ethics in the Confucian critique of the Mohist doctrine of
universal self-sacrificial love, based as it is on a Chinese utilitarianism. 


The Confucian
Mencius argued that people would always love those closest to them and that it
was not immoral for them to do so.  People would not love benevolence�indeed
they would begin to hate it�if it were forced on them in a way that did not
conform to their natures and their circumstances.  Rather, benevolence would
start by modeling family members and teachers and then spread with
understandably less intensity to all people and animals.  The Mohists commit the
error of the Farmer of Song, who, so eager that his rice would grow more
quickly, went out at night and tugged on the shoots with disastrous results. 
Mencius’ "virtue sprouts" require specialized care and develop at their own rate
in their own soil.


As I have argued
above, it was the virtues that came first and only afterward moral rules. This
means that moral rules are actually abstractions from the practice of the
virtues, just as moral prohibitions are abstractions from the practice of the
vices. Therefore, no moral rule could "reign from above" nor could it even
"propose" without the specific moral content that action and the virtues
provide. Interestingly enough, moral rules, even as abstractions, still preserve
their normative force. Therefore, dharma can indeed "propose" as a
general guide for action, but it must always be contextualized and
individualized.  In other work I have argued that one can support a world ethic
of respect for cultural values and virtues of rich variation�a world-wide
version of Tambiah’s "pulsating galactic polities� and at the same time enforce
the Declaration of Human Rights in instances, such as honor killing and female
genital mutilation, where we can determine that certain customs can be banned.



greatest contribution to our understanding of Indian thought is his discussion
of karma and how it has been misunderstood: "The karma doctrine
requires that man’s own ‘character’ be his own ‘destiny.’"[42]
This statement supports an Indian virtue ethics and also allows us to confront
the challenge of fatalism. Matilal makes a strong case for separating karma
from caste and suggests that the concept of karma is compatible with both
reason and individual responsibility.  He argues that karma was
originally introduced to solve the problem of evil and to answer the fatalism
found in the �jivaka school.[43] 
The law of karma appears to be fatalistic only because it was linked to
caste heredity.


 The Buddha once
said that "they who know causation know the dharma,"[44]
a great example of how dharma, as J. N. Mohanty observes, connects "what
one ought and what in fact is."[45]
This happy violation of the Humean prohibition of deriving an Ought from an Is
demonstrates how virtues are derived from the facts of our personal histories
and how this contextualizes all moral decision-making. The famous "mirror of
" is not a common one in which individual identities are dissolved, as
some later Buddhist believed, but it is actually a myriad of mirrors reflecting
individual histories. The truths they discover in their mirrors will be very
personal truths, moral and spiritual truths that are, as Aristotle says of moral
virtues, "relative to us."


Mohanty argues
that the law of karma allows an "interplay of freedom and determination"
in which the agent is neither totally free nor totally determined.[46]
In short, karma does not prevent one from doing otherwise. Matilal also
holds that that karma supports moral freedom and responsibility, mainly
because karma looks like fate only if we are ignorant of all the causal
threads. Following the Buddha, those who know their own causal web of existence,
especially noting how their actions affect themselves and others, will be able
to develop the cardinal virtue of mindfulness.  If they know the truth (i.e.,
the true facts of their lives), then they will then know what to do. We can now
see how character is destiny, and as long a compatiblist justification for moral
freedom is accepted, we can say that those who are unmindful and do not develop
the virtues are destined to experience the truth that the vices are their own


Seeing the law
of karma as a psychological law allows us to avoid the both the
extravagance and absurdities of the common view of it as a cosmic law with
inscrutable laws of retribution. It also means that we may also see, as some
Buddhists do, the six realms of existence as metaphors for the "animal,"
"angelic," and "demonic" moments of one single life span. Therefore, the law of
karma can be conceived as the rather trivial truth that all actions have
consequences. If we conceive of karmic causality as conditionality, we can now
state the following conditionals concerning moral responsibility: "If we act
motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion, we are planting the seed of suffering;
but when our acts are motivated by generosity, love, or wisdom, then we are
creating the karmic conditions for abundance and happiness."[47] Again,
we see, in a way that supports moral responsibility, that character is destiny.


 For the
Buddhists, karma works at two levels–one immediate and one delayed. In
any of our acts we can immediately experience the results depending on whether
they were done, for example, out of love or hatred. (Only the truly obtuse
person will claim to be unaware.) Later on, these seeds of our actions will
produce their inevitable fruits and, following the principle of interdependent
coorigination, these fruits will finally ripen. The ripening of karmic action is
a pervasive metaphor in all Buddhist literature, and it supports very well the
non-fatalistic motto that character is destiny.



summarizes very well my argument thus far: "A moral agent exercises his
practical wisdom, and also learns from the experiences he passes through during
his life.  He has an enriched practical wisdom when it is informed by his
experiences of genuine moral dilemmas.  A moral agent needs also a character
which is nothing but a disposition to act and react appropriately with moral
This is precisely how Aristotle’s relative mean operates (right time, right
place, right manner, etc.) and also how the Confucian concept of yi works
as a personal appropriation of the norms of li. 


insights now allows me to do something that I thought that I could not do in my
own comparative virtue ethics–namely, to add KŬ�a to the Buddha, Confucius,
and Aristotle. The problem of course is that KŬ�a appears to be the least
virtuous person in this list and can hardly be seen as practitioner of the
Middle Way.  Nonetheless, Matilal declares that his "dark Lord" as a
"paradigmatic person . . . in the moral field," who "becomes a perspectivist and
understands the contingency of the human situation,"[49]
both necessary elements of virtue ethics.  He also describes him, as opposed to
the rigid R�ma or Yudhi��hira, as an "imaginative poet" in the moral realm: "He
is the poet who accepts the constraints of metres, verses, and metaphors.  But
he is also the strong poet who has absolute control over them. . . . He governs
from above but does not dictate."  This guarantees that KŬ�a ‘s "flexibility
never means the ‘anything goes’ kind of morality."[50]


If KŬ�a is not
omnipotent in the Judeo-Christian sense, then Matilal cannot claim that KŬ�a
has "absolute control over the metres"; nor is it advisable to have him
governing them from above.  Nonetheless, the fine arts, I believe, give us a
very rich analogue for the development and performance of the virtues. Most
significantly, this analogy allows us to confirm both normativity and creative
individuality at the same time.  Even within the most duty bound roles one can
easily conceive of a unique "making one’s own."  Even though the Confucians must
have had a set choreography for their dances, one can imagine each of them
having their own distinctive style.  The score for a violin concerto is the same
for all who perform it, but each virtuoso will play it in a unique way.  The
best judges have the same law before them and yet one can detect the creative
marks of judicial craft excellence. Even the younger brother who defers to his
elder brother will have his own style of performing this duty, his own dharma


It is the
virtues and practical reason that allows us to navigate the river of law with
its constant flow and identity but also its shifting banks and channels. Not
only does practical reason guide us in choosing a mean relative to us, it also
allows us to suspend the law when it is in danger of "becoming an ass" � la
Dickens. Matilal observes that dharma "gets fulfilled in novel and
mysterious ways,"[51]
so it may be expressed in violation of law or duty.  For example, the Pandava
brothers were so concerned about retrieving some sacrificial sticks that they
were punished for their ritualistic rigidity by a yak�a (disguised as a
stork and symbolizing dharma). (Significantly enough, Yudhi��hira, the
only brother not punished, then discovers that dharma is the "conduct of
good people" discussed above.) One of my favorite examples comes from the
Confucian Mencius who said that li forbids any man from touching woman
not directly related to him; but if your sister-in-law is drowning, then by all
means you should extend your hand to save her.  When we look back at the KŬ�a’s
suspension of the rules of war, his justification, compared to these examples,
does not appear, at least for me, very compelling at all. I am particularly
reminded of the incident in which KŬ�a tells Arjuna that he can attack Kuru
Karna even though his chariot is stuck in the mud. In contrast to the Buddha,
Confucius, and Gandhi, I contend that we find more creative dynamism and less
virtue in KŬ�a’s actions.




In this chapter
I have argued that the best option in this time of great moral crisis is a
return to the virtue ethics of the ancients.  Moral rules are too abstract and
too rigid, and it is difficult to apply them to complex situations and
decisions.  They, however, still retain their normative force in the application
of national and international law. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, fails to
distinguish between qualitative values of the virtues and external quantities of
pleasure, and sometimes the hedonic calculus produces unrealistic and even
absurd moral obligations. 


As opposed to a
rule based ethics, where the most that we can know is that we always fall short
of the norm, virtue ethics is truly a voyage of personal discovery. Ancient
virtue ethics always aim at a personal mean that is a creative choice for each
individual.  Virtue ethics is emulative–using the sage or savior as a model for
virtue–whereas rule ethics involves conformity and obedience.  The emulative
approach engages the imagination and personalizes and thoroughly grounds
individual moral action and responsibility.  Such an ethics naturally lends
itself to Matilal’s moral poets and a virtue aesthetics: the crafting of a good
and beautiful soul, a unique gem among other gems.



Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal: Ethics and Epics
ed. Jonardon Ganeri (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 50.
Hereafter cited as Ethics and Epics.

phrase "character consequentialism" comes from Philip J. Ivanhoe, although
he gives credit to Peter Railton for initiating the idea.  See Philip J.
Ivanhoe, "Character Consequentialism: An Early Confucian Contribution to
Contemporary Ethical Theory," Journal of Religious Ethics 19:1
(Spring 1991), pp. 55-70.

Slote, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press,

F. Gier, The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi (Albany,
NY: State University of New York Press, 2004).  This essay began as a review
of Matilal’s Ethics and Epics in

Notre Dame Philosophical
(June, 2003), and then rewritten, without the
third section, as "Toward
a Hindu Virtue Ethics
" in Contemporary Issues in
Constructive Dharma
, eds. R. D. Sherma and A. Deepak (Hampton, VA:
Deepak Heritage Books, 2005), vol. 2, pp. 151-162. The first two sections
are adapted from The Virtue of Non-Violence.

L. Spangle and Kent E. Menzel,

Metaphor, and Myth: the Origin and Impact of Spoken Language,
Seventh Annual Meeting of the Language Origins in DeKalb, Illinois, 1991;
http://baserv.uci.kun.nl/~los/Meetings/Dekalb/Articles/ 24‑MENZEL.htm.
Studies have shown that deaf people do not score very well in some areas of
abstract reasoning (see Helmer R. Mykelbust, The Psychology of Deafness
[New York: Northwestern University Press, 1966], pp. 85-89).  I am indebted
to Shane Sheffner, student in my senior seminar on virtue ethics, for these

Stephen, The Science of Ethics, quoted in Louis P. Pojman, Ethics:
Discovering Right and Wrong
(Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.,
1990), p. 114. I am indebted to Pojman for the insights of the next two

Nussbaum, "Non-Relative Virtues" in Midwest Studies in Philosophy ,
vol. 13,  eds. Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling, and Howard K. Wettstein
(Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University, 1988), p. 44.

T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A
Philosophical Translation
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), p. 51. 
All translations cited come from this work.


Cited in Madan Gandhi, A Gandhian Aesthetics (Chandigarh: Vikas
Bharati, 1969), p. 266.



12 (September 11, 1930), p. 386.

Harijan 6 (February 19, 1938), p. 10.



6 (November 13, 1924), p. 377.



6 (November 20, 1924), p. 386.

in Madan Gandhi, A Gandhian Aesthetics, p. 69.



6 (November 13, 1924), p. 377.


Kirti Singh, [The] Philosophical Import of Gandhi

(New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1994), p. 136 note 3.

in ibid., p. 135.

in Soosai Arokiasamy, Dharma, Hindu and Christian according to Roberto de
(Rome: Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 1986), p. 25.

in Matilal, Ethics and Epics, p. 54.

Law of Manu
, trans. Wendy Doniger and Brian K.
Smith (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1999), 8.46; p. 156.

J. Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed: Religion, Politics,
and Violence in


(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 175.

H�cker, "Dharma im Hinduismus," Zeitschrift f�r Missionwissenschaft und
49 (1965), p. 99.

Vana Parva
27.107, cited in Bangalore Kuppuswamy, Dharma and Society
(Columbia, MO: South Asia Books, 1977), p. 17.

Dharmas�tras: The Law Codes of �pastamba, Gautama, Baudh�yana, and Vasi��ha
trans. Patrick Olivelle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1.20.8,
p. 31.

"Dharma im Hinduismus," p. 99.

and Epics
p. 78.


Dharma and Society, pp. 51-2.

Edgerton, The Beginnings of Indian Philosophy (Cambridge, MS: Harvard
University Press, 1965), p. 30.

and Rosemont, pp. 51-52.

B. Creel, Dharma in Hindu Ethics (Columbia, MO: South Asia Books,
1977), pp. 4-5.

N. Mohanty, "Dharma, Imperatives, and Tradition: Toward an Indian
Theory of Moral Action" in Indian Ethics: Classical Traditions and
Contemporary Challenges
, eds. P. Billimoria, J. Prabhu, and R. M. Sharma
(Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2007), vol. 1, p. 53.

Billimoria, "Introduction to Part A: Early Indian Ethics–Vedas to the G�t�;
Dharma, Rites to Right" in Indian Ethics, vol. 1, p. 39.

and Epics
p. 42.

p. 47.

p. 26.

pp. 26-27.

p. 50.

p. 33.

p. 68.

p. 68.

p. 414.

p. 412.

trans. N. Ross Reat (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), �3, p. 28.

"Dharma, Imperatives, and Tradition," p. 66.

pp. 73-74.  For more on conditionality, karma, and freedom see
Nicholas F. Gier and Paul K. Kjellberg, "Buddhism and the Freedom of the
Will" in Freedom and Determinism: Topics in Contemporary Philosophy,
eds., J. K. Campbell, D. Shier, M. O’Rourke (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004),
pp. 277-304.

am indebted to Joseph Goldstein for this statement and this insightful way
of redefining karma.  See his �Cause and Effect� in Radiant Mind:
Essential Buddhist Teachings and Texts
, ed. Jean Smith (New York:
Riverhead Books, 1999), pp. 291.  The definition of karma as
volitional action is not only good P�li Buddhism but it is also the position
of the great Mahayanist philosopher Vasubandhu: �karma is will (cetana)
and voluntary action (cetayita karanam)� (cited in Theodore
Stcherbatsky, The Central Conception of Buddhism [New Delhi: Motilal
Barnarsidass, 1974], p. 32).

and Epics
p. 33.

p. 34.


p. 42.

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