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I’ve recently been reading Christopher Gowans’s Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. It is an introductory textbook of a sort that has not previously been attempted, and one that becomes particularly interesting in the light of David Chapman’s critiques of Buddhist ethics. While Gowans and Chapman would surely disagree about the value and usefulness of Buddhist ethics, they actually show remarkable agreement on a proposition that could still be quite controversial: namely, that the term “Buddhist ethics” or “Buddhist moral philosophy” names above all a Yavanayāna phenomenon. That is: the way that Gowans and Chapman use the terms “Buddhist ethics” and “Buddhist moral philosophy”, what they name is a contemporary Western (and primarily academic) activity, even if it is one conducted primarily by professed Buddhists. (“Professed Buddhists” include Chapman and myself; I don’t know whether they include Gowans, but I would guess they do.)

In this respect, Gowans’s textbook differs greatly from previous introductions to Buddhist ethics, like those of Winston King, Damien Keown and Peter Harvey. The older textbooks refer the reader mostly to primary Buddhist sources, especially the Pali suttas. When they introduce their readers to Buddhist ethics, what they see themselves as introducing is a first-order discourse, an intellectual activity that Buddhists in Asia have been doing for millennia. Gowans, however, is introducing readers to a second-order discourse, an intellectual activity that goes back 300 years at most and probably considerably less – and one that includes the works of King, Keown and Harvey. Gowans’s approach, like Chapman’s, makes them objects of study in their own right.

Both Gowans and Chapman are important in this respect because they mark a sea-change in the way we talk about Buddhist ethics. Is Buddhist ethics really a thing traditional Buddhists have always done, or is it a thing that we Buddhist scholars are doing now? Gowans and Chapman’s approach suggests the latter view (Gowans implicitly, Chapman explicitly), and there is not necessarily any shame in that. The question to ask is: are they right? Is Buddhist ethics, arguably like Hinduism, a modern creation?

The answer, no surprise to anyone I can imagine, is that it depends on how we define ethics. In my view, part of the problem with “Buddhist ethics” is that it has tended to define ethics wrongly. That is, the way contemporary Buddhist ethicists approach the idea of ethics is one that orients us away not only from traditionally Buddhist concerns, but from what I take to be proper human concerns.

Two areas of inquiry occupy Gowans’s work above all, areas that I think fairly reflect the concerns that are typically considered “ethics” in the English-speaking world (and specifically in departments of philosophy). One is applied ethics: what are Buddhist views on contemporary social and political issues like abortion, social inequality and the natural environment? I have previously discussed why I think this focus an innovation, and my own position on it.

But there is another area of contemporary “Buddhist ethics” that I’d like to turn my attention to here. (Keown focuses much more on this latter area, where Harvey focuses on the former.) This is the question of how we classify Buddhist ethics, according to the key categories of analytical ethics: is it consequentialist? Deontological (Kantian)? Virtue ethics? A large amount of ink, and pixels, has been spilled on this question. I have commented on it before, but I think there is more to say – and more that sheds light on the problems with the project of “Buddhist ethics” today.

In my previous discussion I was okay with lumping Buddhism in under “virtue ethics”, since “virtue ethics” functions as a residual category for those traditions that are not consequentialist or deontological. But there are further problems here. For one thing, “virtue ethics” often tends to get reduced to Aristotle, and as Gowans himself points out, there are very large differences between Aristotle’s thought and most Buddhist thought – differences of the utmost importance to someone like me who is deeply influenced by both. Aristotle insists on the continuity of self that Buddhists are at pains to deny, as well as advocating a life centred around participation in politics and family. In many respects I think the Buddhists are closer to Aristotle’s Hellenistic critics – the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics – than to Aristotle himself. The category of “virtue ethics” effaces the distinction between them, which is to my mind among the most important distinctions in philosophy.

We can get further by asking why analytic philosophy (which “Buddhist ethics” tends to follow) makes its distinctions in the way that it does. Analytical ethics, as far as I can see, is concerned above all with decision procedure: the unit of ethics is a single decision that one individual or one organization can make, and the clearly articulated principles that underlie that decision-making. That is why it is concerned above all with consequentialism and deontology, or theories like John Rawls’s that attempt to lie directly between the two: they articulate clear principles on which one can make a decision between alternatives. One can program a robot to be a consequentialist, a deontologist or a Rawlsian. Any ethical approach that does not rely on such a clear procedure, that requires subtler human judgements, is considered virtue ethics – which is really to say, miscellaneous.

I think Gowans gets at many of these points, at least implicitly, in his thoughtful chapter called “Normative ethics: anti-theoretical and other interpretations”. My main qualm with that chapter is its title: the long Buddhist traditions of abstract metaphysical reflection should give the lie to any claim that Buddhism is “anti-theoretical”. What traditional Buddhism does not have, I would argue, is the kind of theory that directly informs a decision procedure, of the sort that characterizes modern analytical ethics. It is for this reason, I suspect, that Keown has characterized Buddhism as “morality without ethics”. Traditional Buddhism indeed does not have ethics of the sort found in modern analytic philosophy; attempts to give it such an ethics have themselves been modern. But I’ve criticized Keown’s thesis at length in both my dissertation and my recent article – because it does have reasoning about how we human beings should live, in broader terms that do not focus on individual decisions and actions. That reasoning tends, however, to fall in areas we might consider more metaphysics and psychology than ethics – at least if “ethics” is considered to be about our decision procedures for action, as analytical ethics largely is.

Just for that reason, I suspect the most important recent book in Buddhist ethics may turn out to be Maria Heim’s The Forerunner of All Things – on Buddhaghosa, the thinker whose ideas in many ways came to define Theravāda Buddhism. What Heim illustrates is how Buddhaghosa’s thought is profoundly ethical in the sense of examining how human beings should live – and in a way that moves very far away from decision procedures. Buddhaghosa’s concern is not even with choice as such, taken as a unit, for in Buddhaghosa’s view the very idea of choices as units is psychologically unrealistic. Rather, Buddhaghosa engages in a kind of ethical reasoning that focuses on the habits that underlie our decisions. I am not sure that Buddhaghosa explicitly denies free will in the way that Śāntideva does, but he is arguably doing something more important: developing in detail a way of thinking about good and bad that does not rely on a conception of individual choice. Where analytic philosophy helps us ask how we can program robots to be ethical, Buddhaghosa asks in a sense how human beings are already programmed to be unethical, and what that means –and thus how we can be reprogrammed to be more ethical.

In short, I suggest we modern Western ethicists or moral philosophers don’t get very far when we ask how Buddhists have responded to our questions. We learn much more, even about closely related matters, once we learn how to ask their questions. Heim goes further than most in showing us what that could mean.