In the past few years, especially since the publication of Damien Keown’s The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, there has been a small academic cottage industry devoted to the question of how one might best classify Buddhist ethics. Which of the three standard branches of analytical ethics does it fall under: consequentialism (à la J.S. Mill), deontology (à la Kant) or virtue ethics (à la Aristotle)? The debate has generally been a tussle between virtue ethics (Keown’s position) and consequentialism (Charles Goodman). My friend (and contributor to this blog) Justin Whitaker suspects that a deontological interpretation of Buddhist ethics is possible, but he’s a voice in the wilderness so far.
At the SACP, Michael Barnhart proposed a way of sidestepping this debate entirely. As far as ethics itself goes, he says, Buddhism is particularist; it doesn’t adhere to any real theory, it just responds to particular situations. Where it does have a theory isn’t in ethics at all, but in something else entirely: the question of what we care about, or should care about. (Specifically, he argues, Buddhists claim we should care above all about suffering.)
Barnhart based this idea on Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “The importance of what we care about.” I didn’t comment on his paper right after the SACP, because I wanted a chance to read Frankfurt’s piece first. Having read it, I would now say that Barnhart and Frankfurt both run into a common problem: an unreasonably narrow definition of ethics.
“Ethics,” says Frankfurt, “focuses on the problem of ordering our relations with other people. It is concerned especially with the contrast between right and wrong, and with the grounds and limits of moral obligation. We are led into the third branch of inquiry [i.e. about what we care about], on the other hand, because we are interested in deciding what to do with ourselves and because we therefore need to understand what is important or, rather, what is important to us.” (The italics are Frankfurt’s.)
This view of ethics is pretty common today; both analytic philosophers like Frankfurt and Continentals like Emmanuel Lévinas will claim that ethics is all about the Other. But why exactly should we think that this is the limit of ethics? We get our term “ethics” from Aristotle’s classic work, which is unambiguously concerned with the question of what we should care about. In a sense that’s exactly what eudaimonia, human flourishing or happiness, is: Aristotle effectively defines eudaimonia as that which everyone agrees we should treat as most important, though we all disagree on what exactly this most important thing turns out to be. Ethics, for Aristotle, is the study of what we should care about. Morality might be a narrower term, but as I noted in my previous post, there’s a reason to draw a distinction between the two.
As I also noted there, Bernard Williams has been a major proponent of the ethics-morality distinction. Strangely, Barnhart reads Williams but sees him as part of the problem. Barnhart’s article treats Williams as merely asking the usual question of modern ethics: “What should one do?” But Williams’s work is in many respects an attempt to reject that question in favour of the older and broader question, “How should one live?” – a question that can and likely does include the question “What should one care about?” Williams specifically makes the distinction between the two questions on p4 of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. He defends the “How should one live?” question precisely on the grounds of its breadth, even its vagueness – narrower questions, especially “What should one do?”, take too much for granted.
Robert Gimello once suggested to me that “religion,” rather than ethics, was a better term for the more wide-ranging concern that Williams speaks of. But this seems to stress the definition of “religion” unacceptably. Avowed atheists like Lucretius and Nietzsche are clearly concerned with the question of what we should care about. People can speak, and have spoken, of atheist religion, but this seems rather a form of special pleading, very far removed from any common usage.
And what of Buddhist ethics – how then do we classify it? I feel comfortable calling it virtue ethics, only because “virtue ethics” has tended to function as a catch-all category for any ethical system that (as opposed to consequentialism and deontology) does not concern itself primarily with the trolley problem, with particular decisions in hard and rare cases. Buddhist ethics in general seems more like Stoicism and Epicureanism than like Aristotle; however we classify these systems, we are probably also right to classify Buddhist ethics. More often than not they are understood as virtue ethics, so I am happy to place Buddhist ethics there.