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. Continue reading