Buddhist ethics (discipline)

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Buddhist ethics as an academic discipline is relatively new, blossoming in the mid-1990s.[1] Much like Critical Buddhism and Buddhist modernism, it is a result of recent exchanges of Eastern and Western thought. While generally thought of as a sub-field of Buddhist studies, the discipline of Buddhist ethics draws together history, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, and more in an attempt to understand what may be the fundamental question of Buddhism: how ought man live?[2]

Specific work has been produced on Buddhist ethics dating back to the 1920s. Early descriptive accounts of Buddhist ethics include Tachibana’s Ethics of Buddhism (1926), focused on Theravādin ethics, and Poussin’s La Morale Bouddhique (1927), based on Mahāyāna texts. Other early authors that expressed interest in Buddhist ethics include Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids and Isaline Blew Horner. In 1979 the Journal of Religious Studies featured a section devoted to the study of Theravādin ethics. featuring four prominent scholars in Buddhist studies.[3]


Buddhist ethics emerged as an academic discipline in 1992, with the publication of Damien Keown's book The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. His subsequent co-founding of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics in 1994 further solidified the birth of a new field in the discipline of Buddhist studies. Prior to Keown's book, only a handful of books and articles existed that attempted to delve into the questions of a specifically Buddhist ethic. Even more daunting, however, has been the separation of 'ethics' from the rest of Buddhism. Buddhism has been called an eminently ethical religion.[citation needed] It has also been argued, by Keown and others, that the very question the Buddha sought to answer was a purely ethical one, namely, "the perennial problem of the best kind of life for man to lead."[4]

In October 2011 Columbia University hosted the first conference dedicated solely to Buddhist ethics entitled Contemporary Perspectives on Buddhist Ethics.


Arguably the most fruitful attempt to define Buddhist ethics has been in terms of Western theories from Aristotle (virtue), Kant (deontological), and Bentham and James Mill (utilitarian). However, others—mainly non-Western scholars—have sought to present Buddhist ethics in a more direct or traditional form.

Aristotle / virtue[edit]

In Buddhist Ethics as Virtue Ethics, Nick Gier compares Buddha's ethical teachings to Aristotle's, "Like Greek virtue ethics, Buddhist ethics is also humanistic and thoroughly personalist."[5]

Damien Keown devotes a great deal of his work to debunking claims that Buddhism is utilitarian in nature. His work then goes on to examine the structure of Buddhist ethics, focusing specifically on morality (Pali: siila). His conclusion is that Buddhist ethics most closely resembles the ancient Greek virtue ethics found in Aristotle.

James Whitehill, in Buddhist Ethics in Western Context: The Virtues Approach, says, "Buddhism's legitimation in the West can be partially met by demonstrating that Buddhist morality is a virtue-oriented, character-based, community-focused ethics, commensurate with the Western 'ethics of virtue' tradition."[6]

Kant / Deontological[edit]

A handful of pioneering works have sought to examine similarities between Kantian and Buddhist ethics. One such is Bradford Cokelet's "Reflections on Kant and Karma".

"I would argue that, given the recent popularity of claiming that Buddhist ethics is a type of virtue ethics, Buddhist ethicists should respond to criticisms that Kant and Kantians have made of western versions of virtue ethics and to claims that most virtue-ethical criticisms of Kantianism rest on misunderstandings of Kant and Kantianism. See for example, J.B. Schneewind, “The Misfortunes of Virtue,” in Ethics, Volume 101, 1990, p. 42-63, Barbara Herman, “Making Room for Character,” and Allen W. Wood, “Self-love, Self-benevolence, and Self-conceit,” both in Kant, Aristotle, and the Stoics, ed. Jennifer Whiting and Stephen Engstrom, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996, and Onora O’Neill, Towards Justice and Virtue, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996." fn. 20, p.13."

Bentham/Mill - utilitarian[edit]

Mark Siderits suggests that the doctrine of anatta provides the grounding for an "aretaic consequentialism" [7] in which the goal is the alleviation of suffering for all beings (realizing that there is no "self" to be freed apart from others). He follows a long line of thinkers in Buddhist ethics.

Traditional Buddhist ethics[edit]

Two key teachers of traditional Buddhist ethics are Hammalawa Saddhatissa and Padmasiri De Silva. Saddhatissa was a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who wrote Buddhist Ethics in 1970 (reprinted in 1987, 1997 & 2003). De Silva has a similar work, Buddhism, Ethics and Society: The Conflicts and Dilemmas of Our Times (2002). A third, and less notable work is The Way to Social Harmony (1989, available online) by Venerable U Pyinnyathiha.[8]

These works can be invaluable as an introduction into key Buddhist canonical texts such as the Sigalovada Sutta.[9]

Further reading[edit]

  • Aitken, Robert. The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics. North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984
  • Cokelet, Bradford. Reflections on Kant and Karma. JBE 2005 Reflections on Kant and Karma
  • Keown, Damien. The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. Macmillan/Palgrave, 1992/2001 (a survey and Aristotelian interpretation)
  • Siderits, Mark. "Buddhist Reductionism and the Structure of Buddhist Ethics." Indian Ethics: Classical and Contemporary Challenges. Edited by P. Bilimoria, J. Prabhu and R. Sharma. Abingdon, UK: Ashgate, 2005. (a utilitarian interpretation)


  1. ^ This is a contestable point. The reason that the "mid-1990s" is stated is due to the sharp increase in activity in the field at that time: the publication of the first systematic study of the topic, the founding of the first academic journal devoted to the topic, and an American Academy of Religion panel (Philadelphia, 20 November 1995) devoted to "Revisioning Buddhist Ethics". Before this short span, there were ventures into Buddhist ethics, but no period marks such a dramatic "burst" in academic activity as the mid-1990s.
  2. ^ Keown, Damien (1992). The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, p. 1.
  3. ^ (1979 Vol. 7 (1) pp.1-64)
  4. ^ Keown, Damien (1992). The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, p. 1.
  5. ^ Buddhist Ethics as Virtue Ethics
  6. ^ Buddhist Ethics in Western Context: The Virtues Approach Archived 20 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Siderits, "Buddhist Reductionism..." p.293
  8. ^ http://web.ukonline.co.uk/buddhism/pyinya.htm
  9. ^ http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.31.0.nara.html

External links[edit]