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A New Buddhist Ethics
copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.
The ethical condition for human beings is the condition of needing to make judgements in order to act, but having no absolute basis on which to make those judgements. Throughout the ten chapters on practical ethics above, I have attempted to offer judgements on each topic, of a kind which I hope will offer a way forward for those who have previously either been confused at how Buddhism could engage with such issues, or blanched at swallowing the dogmas of tradition. My main purpose in making judgements, however, is to model the process and to show how judgements could be made, not to offer definitive answers. The method as demonstrated through the judgements is far more important than their precise content, the precise content being of a provisional nature. It is thus subject to revision if further conditions are pointed out that I have neglected.
In reaching for judgements I have at different times taken out different tools from the toolbag of objectivity. I have justified my judgements in terms of personal virtues, consequences, the “Kantian test” of rational consistency, the avoidance of eternalism and nihilism, integration, overcoming egoistic limitations, openness, addressing conditions, objectivity, and sublimity. In my view all these tools operate so as to aid a similar goal: spiritual development. Taken narrowly and out of a wider context, any of these tools can potentially come into conflict with one another, but when put into a wider context they should help us to see the option which is least limited by our ignorance. It may be, though, that in some cases I have selected the wrong tool for the job, or used that tool in the wrong way. It is then up to the reader to work out which would be a better tool.
Such an approach by its very breadth and provisionality is unlikely to satisfy those who want definite answers. This is often a temperamental matter. Those who want definitive answers are likely to place much less importance on having really justified answers, and to them my approach will seem vague and impractical. To me, however, any other option will seem hasty and dogmatic. These two types of temperament involve different strengths, but I am convinced that this does not mean that we need different types of ethics (ethics need to be universal or we may as well not bother with them). My own temperamental type will point out all the conditions that need addressing, but the judging type needs sharp tools for specific judgement. I think the tools I have used can probably be sharpened much further to help satisfy them.
Others will probably suspect that so much breadth and vagueness opens the door for rationalisation and abuse. This is undoubtedly true, and the only guard against it is our own critical awareness. No one single human being can grasp all the conditions that need to be grasped, but we can try to make allowances for our limitations, and consult others to throw a more objective light on one’s judgements. For many Buddhists this will mean consulting their teacher, who is the font of objectivity. Very well, I will respond, but how did the teacher reach his/her judgements? We need at least some idea why we are accepting the teacher’s words, and what differentiates them for those of other authorities.
So, whatever the limitations of provisionality, it is all we have to go on, and undoubtedly better than dogma. It is, of course, quite possible to claim to be offering provisional judgements and yet communicate in a dogmatic and/or polemical style which belies this claim, for it is one’s habitual psychological state which creates provisionality, not a mere appendix to one’s argument. If my own real lack of provisionality is revealed in my style, despite it being peppered with terms like “suggest”, “may” and “perhaps”, then it will be as a result of the limitations of my spiritual development. On the other hand, there are some who will feel this for whom any moral judgement at all will seem dogmatic, and they I think need to appreciate that dogmatism can be negative just as much as positive.
Finally, I would like to express the hope that this book be only one small part of a wider process that needs to take place, a process of the development of a Buddhist ethics that is truly universal and yet unapologetically normative. The world needs such an ethics, both theoretically understood and, of course, practised.
Theoretically, we need a new Buddhist ethics because of the confusion about ethics which I outlined in the introduction. This is primarily because discussion remains dominated by the assumption of the fact-value distinction (discussed in chapter 7), and the central advantages which Buddhist ethics offers cannot be clearly seen whilst that false distinction remains unchallenged. Buddhist ethics remains off most people’s agendas altogether, not even considered as an alternative alongside other types of ethics in Western discussions, because most people assume it’s just what funny people in Thailand do. Neither the Buddhist teachers who put Buddhist ethics in such restrictive traditional terms, nor the academics who merely describe those traditional beliefs and practices, are doing very much to dispel this impression. Buddhist ethics needs clear but universal formulation, as well as application to a wide variety of issues. There are very many more issues of public interest than I have even managed to discuss briefly in this book. These need far more in-depth discussion from a Buddhist perspective.
Practically, the application of Buddhist ethics is extremely patchy. Whilst there are Buddhist practitioners who take ethics extremely seriously, they often do so only in a very personal way in relation to their own practice. This is an approach which encourages the impression that Buddhist ethics is mainly about personal purity, yet the basic principles of Buddhism are completely at odds with such an emphasis. If Buddhism is concerned with the universal conditions of humankind, it should be addressing those conditions.
In recent years, though, there has been a growth in “engaged Buddhism”, and of Buddhists becoming involved in issues such as war and the environment. This is an excellent development. However, the basis on which they engage with these issues often remains unclear. One needs to know on precisely what grounds one is protesting, and, if one is doing so as a Buddhist, what is distinctively Buddhist about one’s position. For example, very often Buddhist positions on the environment are indistinguishable from those of Deep Ecology or other ideologies which appeal to “Nature”. This is where Buddhist ethical practice needs to be clarified by better theory. This means primarily theory which begins with a recognition of the central importance of the Middle Way as the most distinctive Buddhist position.
There are also many other issues in public discussion on which Buddhist voices are rarely, if ever, heard. On medical ethics, for example (as well as much general theory), the chief public exponent of Buddhist Ethics in the UK is an academic (Damien Keown) who is not a Buddhist. It is hardly Keown’s fault if he has stepped into a breach which Buddhists themselves have left open, but it is hardly imaginable that in any other religion this would be considered acceptable. If Buddhism is, indeed, a practical path, one of the central realisations of which involves the interaction of philosophical positions with the psychological states which form them, we cannot expect those who do not practise it to represent its ethics adequately.
The problem is not a shortage of intelligent and passionate Buddhist practitioners, but that few of them are really clear what “Buddhist Ethics” is. They have left a lacuna in which academics can explain it for them, and the academics are generally far more conservative in their way of explaining it than any Buddhist who actually tried to practice Buddhist ethics in the modern world would ever be. No other religion would allow their ethics to degenerate into a mere series of anthropological observations and scriptural commentaries, but Western Buddhists have done so, without any real challenge. The result is sometimes alienation and bewilderment from Western Buddhists who conclude that wider ethics have nothing much to do with their lives, and get on with their meditation and perhaps a limited practice of the precepts.
So, Buddhist Ethics need a profound rethink, a clarification for Buddhists, application to a much wider range of issues, and communication to a wider public. It is Buddhists themselves, at least in the sense of those who are trying to apply core Buddhist principles in their own lives, who need to do this. This book aspires only to be a contribution to what I hope will be a much wider process of renewal.
 For example, see Keown’s books The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (Macmillan), Buddhism and Bioethics (Macmillan), and the popular introduction Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford).
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