copyright Robert Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 10 (The ethics industry) part e

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The academics move in


Finally, before I leave the topic of Buddhist ethics, it is important to mention another more recent phenomenon – the development of an academic “Buddhist Ethics” industry at a remove from the actual attempt to practise Buddhist ethics in experience. Some of the leading figures in this industry are not only not Buddhists, but are clearly not interested in any personal or practical side to Buddhist ethics which might make it important to develop practically justifiable moral ideas suited to the modern context. Instead their approach is to trawl the Buddhist scriptures and sociological observations of life in Buddhist countries to support an entirely descriptive ethics. So, you can read these authors if you want to know what the scriptures tell you about a certain moral issue, or what people do in Thailand in relation to it. But is it right to do what people do in Thailand, and if so, why? These academics will not help you with that at all.


It is Buddhists themselves who are to blame for this, by letting their own moral tradition dwindle into the irrelevancies of legalism, instead of developing richer and more practically useful accounts of how to go about making justifiable moral decisions. The academics, seeing a gap in the market for Buddhist ethical explanation, have sprung to fill it. However, they could only fill it from the distinctly limited moral ideas recognised by the tradition already, and have shown no interest in innovating.


The only solution to this situation is to develop an alternative account of Buddhist ethics based, not on scripture references and accounts of what people do in Thailand, but on the Middle Way. This approach should be able to tackle moral issues and, rather than calling in traditional Buddhist assumptions as metaphysical starting points, start anew with the avoidance of such metaphysics. For example, in discussing abortion, rather than starting (as many Buddhists do) with the belief that rebirth requires a foetus to be treated as a person, let us begin with what experience actually tells us about foetuses and try to avoid absolute assumptions either about them being persons or not being so. I have already written a book, A New Buddhist Ethics, which attempts this type of Middle Way account of Buddhist ethics. I can only refer readers interested in further positive development of this topic to this source.


Continue to Chapter 11 'The meditation bazaar' (index page)

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