Damien Keown’s The Nature of Buddhist Ethics closes by arguing for parallels between Buddhist and Aristotelian ethics. He claims that “there are many formal parallels between the ideal of human perfection conceived by the Buddha and that envisaged by Aristotle” (193), such that “Aristotelianism provides a useful Western analogue which will be of use in elucidating the foundations and conceptual structure of Buddhist ethics.” (196)
Is Keown right? Is Buddhist ethics like Aristotle’s? I think he is at least right that Buddhist ethics is much more like Aristotle’s ethics than its two usual competitors in modern analytical ethics, consequentialism and Kantianism. (Sorry, Charles and Justin.) It is so because Aristotelian and Buddhist ethics both focus on dispositions, states of character to be cultivated, rather than on actions taken discretely as Kant and utilitarians do. In that respect Buddhist ethics can meaningfully and helpfully be called “virtue ethics“. Keown may have been the first to make the virtue connection – since he wrote his book at a time when consequentialism and Kantianism were so dominant that the various forms of “virtue ethics” were barely given any consideration at all – and we owe him for that. (In part for this reason, I still recommend his book as possibly the best existing introduction to Buddhist ethics.)
I think the focus on dispositions against discrete actions is quite important. For that reason I no longer think that “virtue ethics” is an entirely misleading category, as I once did. Yet there does still remain something misleading about it, which is its sheer largeness. “Virtue ethics” in the sense at issue here includes not only Aristotle and the Pali suttas but Confucians, Stoics, and Epicureans – and these traditions do not agree on very much.
This is all of the utmost importance to me because I have long taken both Aristotelianism and Buddhism – especially the Pali Buddhism that Keown focuses on – to be core among my own ethical traditions. So it would be very convenient for me if Keown was right and the ideals of the two traditions were parallel in the most important respects. Unfortunately for me, they aren’t. Or at least they historically have not been. And Keown’s attempt to equate the two winds up avoiding what I take to be the most crucial issues.
Let us look in more detail of at “the ideal of human perfection conceived by the Buddha and that envisaged by Aristotle” – meaning nirvana and eudaimonia respectively. Keown follows John Cooper in noting that for Aristotle eudaimonia is final (teleion), which means among other things that “everything else that is desired is desired for the sake of it…” (197)
I think this characterization of Aristotle’s eudaimonia is correct: Aristotle believes that eudaimonia must include all the things we desire for their own sakes, a comprehensive good. But two pages later Keown then makes this startling claim:
Whatever else nirvana is, it is indisputably the summum bonum of Buddhism and may be characterised, like eudaemonia, in the way described above: (a) it is desired for its own sake; (b) everything else that is desired is desired for the sake of it; (c) it is never chosen for the sake of anything else. This formal equivalence of eudaemonia and nirvana seems unexceptionable, and in fact involves little more than the conceptual unpacking of the notion of an inclusive final goal. (199)
Wait wait, hold on, back the truck up. “Unexceptionable”?!? Item (b) – smuggled into the middle of the sentence without argument – is wrong. We do not desire everything else for the sake of nirvana, not according to classical Buddhist texts. There is a beautiful passage in Augustine’s Confessions that treats all of our desires as misguided longing for God: “Pride imitates what is lofty; but you alone are God most high above all things…. Curiosity appears as a zeal for knowledge; yet you supremely know all.” (II.13) And so on. For Augustine, God is clearly final in the sense of (b). But nirvana is not analogous to God in that way. I am aware of no comparable passage in any Buddhist text that says our desires for external goods are really desires for nirvana.
And I don’t think they could be. For one thing, it is our desires for those other things that keep us out of nirvana. Moreover, those other things are unworthy, characterized by the three marks of impermanence, suffering and non-self (essencelessness, anātman/anattā); nothing about this is a reflection of nirvana’s perfection, in the way Augustine would see them as a reflection of God’s. The texts claim we seek these things because we think, erroneously, that they are permanent, satisfactory and having a self or essence; Candrakīrti is particularly explicit about this but the claim is there in the Pali literature as well.
One could try to claim that only nirvana really satisfies those desires (for permanence etc.) – but the Pali texts frustrate such an attempt. Texts like the Udāna describe nirvana in terms of what it is not; they refuse to say it is permanent or satisfactory or selfed/essential. (The description of nirvana as permanent, satisfactory and with essence does occur in the later Nirvāṇa Sūtra and similar tathāgatagarbha texts, but Keown is making his claims about Pali Buddhism, in which no such doctrines occur.) We need to turn away from our other desires, and toward the radically different desire that is a desire for nirvana. In Keown’s own words, “The goal is the replacement of worthless objectives by an orientation of the entire personality toward what is truly good.” (222) Replacement by, not transformation into.
This all matters because Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia, as Martha Nussbaum argues at length, includes the satisfaction of our everyday desires for such everyday external goods as social status, praise, romantic partners, children, and a comfortable material standard of living. (Aristotle is somewhat ambiguous on this point, especially in Ethics X.6-8, but it is the general tenor of his thought.) The idea that such goods are unworthy, and that true eudaimonia consists in virtue alone, was the idea of Aristotle’s Hellenistic foes, the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. But it is that idea that is closest to traditional Buddhist nibbāna or nirvana – a state characterized by freedom from disturbance and suffering, irrespective of any such goods, as Epicurus’s ataraxia is. (See the Itivuttaka‘s discussion of nibbāna, for example.)
This is a pretty huge distinction with tremendous ramifications for the way we live. It matters if the things we typically desire are not worthy of desiring, as the Pali texts repeatedly say and Aristotle does not. Charles Taylor, in his writings on Nussbaum and on MacIntyre, refers to this as a distinction between “revisionist” and “comprehensive” views of the good: in the latter, which is Aristotle’s view, every good that people do in fact seek must somehow be included in our understanding of the good, of eudaimonia. But in the former, which Taylor identifies with Plato, some goods may be found wanting, and we simply reject them. It seems to me inarguable that the Buddhism of the suttas – and the Udāna and Itivuttaka – is revisionist in this sense.
Elsewhere I have equated Aristotle’s eudaimonia instead with good karma (puñña), on the grounds that the idea of good karma has to do with the connection between virtue and other goods, internal and external. There are problems with this equation too. Good karma is also not a final good, since it could be chosen for the sake of something else (namely nirvana). But I suspect that such an alternative equation gets us closer to the relationship between Buddhism and Aristotle as it really is – or at least as it really has been. Perhaps an idea of nirvana-as-eudaimonia might be appropriate for us to take up now, as a constructive innovation – but as ever we must acknowledge our innovations as innovations.