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A New Buddhist Ethics

copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.

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Chapter 1: What is Buddhist Ethics?

For further material relating to the whole of the area of this chapter, also see A Theory of Moral Objectivity, 8.a&b

The need for ethics

Ethics, or morality, is the way in which we judge our actions. If we consider any action “right” or “wrong” we are making a moral judgement. If I make a decision to buy fairtrade coffee, or if I disapprove of President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, in either case my judgement is a moral one. If I think it is “good” to meditate regularly, or “unskilful” (when married) to have sex with someone other than my wife, I am making moral judgements. I do not have to think of these as moral judgements for them to be so, and whether I recognise it or not I am making moral judgements constantly.


We live in an age of great confusion about ethics. The modern philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre[1] has suggested that this confusion is rather as if we once knew what ethics really were about, but now we have been handed down bits of moral language which we continue to use, but do not really understand. At one and the same time we think of morality as being absolute, telling us what is right or wrong in some final way applicable to everyone, but also as relative, only reflecting our own opinions. People regularly seem to say things like “I don’t want to make a moral judgement” (as though to do so would be offensive in some way) but then proceed to make one. We have moral instincts, perhaps, but, if we can’t just appeal to God to back them up any more, we can’t see how to back up those instincts with any kind of rational justification which would be more than a personal “belief” or opinion.


This confusion seems to be a result of a loss of faith in traditional sources of ethics in the Western world. We cannot merely accept what our parents and grandparents tell us is right, nor accept that God’s absolute word has been revealed in the Bible or the Qur’an. Those who do continue to follow the traditional instructions often seem to do so in a blinkered, narrowed way that tries to block out awareness of anything that might threaten their certainty.


The attempts made by philosophers to address this situation may have helped to clarify it a little, but they have not provided us with an alternative source of ethics. They seem to end up either trying to provide new reasons to support the old ethics, or reinforcing our sense of having lost the ground beneath our feet. So ethics continue to haunt us, like a ghost from another age that will not go away. But what a ghost! One that has an influence over every area of our lives, and one that is vital to the whole direction of the human race.


Into this situation steps Buddhism, newly arrived in the Western world. In my view Buddhism brings with it one key idea that can help to resolve this problematic situation: the Buddha’s Middle Way. Perhaps the Middle Way could have been found in other ways (and perhaps it has), since it is a universal principle available anywhere at any time, but the Buddha and the Buddhist tradition give a particularly clear expression to this principle, even if they have also confused it or forgotten it at times. In this Middle Way, we are certainly offered an ethics, but not one based on old certainties of any kind. Rather we are challenged by the ideal of human enlightenment to shape our lives positively, whilst constantly remaining aware of the doubts, which lead us to pursue this ideal with humility. If we can hold the positive and the negative, the constructive and the sceptical, in creative tension like this, a wholly new view of ethics emerges. In this view of ethics the justification for “right” is gradually found in our own experience through the unification of our constructive and sceptical energies, giving us a capacity for judgement increasingly adequate to the conditions we encounter.


In this book I want to put forward the idea that Buddhism offers a completely new view of ethics which has the potential to creatively transform ethics in the West. I want to show this primarily in a very practical way, by applying central Buddhist insights to moral issues. However, before I get onto this, I will need to give some more general explanation of my overall approach.


What is “Buddhist” ethics?

We live in a time when there is great debate in the West over the meaning of “Buddhism”. A variety of traditional Buddhist schools that have been imported into the West each tend to see their own form of Buddhism as the true form. This does not mean that they deny that other Buddhist groups are Buddhists, but they are likely to understand what “Buddhist” means in their own terms. So, for example, for a Zen practitioner, “Buddhist ethics” primarily means how we should behave according to traditional Zen teachings. These ethics are normative, that is, they offer a way of judging good and bad, right and wrong. However, the teachings of different schools also conflict with each other at least to some extent. An example of a modern book that takes this approach is Hammalawa Saddhatissa’s book Buddhist Ethics[2]. This actually offers a Theravadin view of Buddhist ethics, based on the particular interpretation of Buddhist tradition found in that school.


From another point of view, academic scholars of Buddhism tend to think of “Buddhist ethics” as what Buddhists in fact believe and do. If you suggest that such and such an approach is “right” in Buddhism, they will challenge you to provide evidence that Buddhists in general actually tend to see it that way, or that their authorities (scriptures and teachers) tend to see it that way. This is descriptive ethics, because the scholars concerned are attempting to just describe, with a scientific detachment, what people believe in Buddhism. They do not necessarily believe themselves that the ethics they describe actually are right or wrong. An example of this approach is found in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics by Peter Harvey[3], the only real textbook for students available so far on the subject of Buddhist ethics. The ethics he offers are, however, entirely descriptive. One could characterise this as the “What people do in Thailand” approach to Buddhist Ethics.


Both of these approaches to Buddhist Ethics seem unsatisfactorily narrow to me. In the search for right and wrong, good and bad we are unavoidably seeking the universal, what is right or wrong, good or bad for everybody. We are most unlikely to succeed in coming up with a specific set of rules that define what is good for everybody, but we should at least try to identify broad principles and approaches that lead us in the direction of universal right. The Middle Way taught by the Buddha demands that on the one hand we recognise our ignorance, our limitations, and the fact that we will never get it quite right, but on the other that we should never abandon the quest for universal truth.


In these circumstances we cannot possibly simply adopt the teachings of one Buddhist school or tradition, which is most unlikely to have discovered the complete truth, even if it is rich in glimpses of it. Traditional schools also all compete with each other, with no reason to choose between them other than the traditional authority each claims in its own region. So, although we need a normative ethics, we cannot just adopt a traditional form of normative ethics. We also cannot adopt a descriptive ethics, which just gives up on the question of what is actually right. A Westerner will get about as much guidance on how to live from academic books on Buddhist ethics as from reading a randomly-selected train timetable: in either case you just get facts, which in certain circumstances may be relevant to your life, but in most cases are not. What people do in Thailand is actually quite interesting, but there is no particular reason why I should act as they do.


However, there is a third way of approaching Buddhist ethics which has been developed to some extent in the West, even though it is still in its infancy and suffers the hostility of both the traditional Buddhists and the academics. This is to attempt to identify basic principles of Buddhism that are universal, and to apply these in all the circumstances of modern life. Any attempt to identify the universal must also be provisional and arguable, so it should also invite argument. Sangharakshita (the founder of the Western Buddhist Order, to which I belong) has pioneered this approach in the West, and his Ten Pillars of Buddhism[4] is the best book I know on Buddhist ethics: but it is an interpretation of the Ten Root Precepts and a discussion of their value rather than of the still more basic principles which these precepts give practical training in applying.


In this book I wish to follow in the footsteps of Sangharakshita in the sense of clarifying, developing and applying some of the important work he started, but also give a rather different emphasis in discussing ethics. I would like to offer an account of how Buddhists can go about ethical thinking in a way which is true to the most basic principles of the Buddha’s dharma, without being bogged down by the many different subsequent interpretations of that teaching which have occurred in other times and places. These principles should be so universal that they do not depend on the appeal to any authorities in the Buddhist tradition, and they become self-ratifying when tested through practice and experience. I would like to explain these principles in a relatively brief and accessible way, and then apply them to the issues that we actually find in our lives today.


So, I make no apology for writing a book on Buddhist ethics that has little to say about what some will consider the fundamentals of the subject. I will have very little to say on karma and rebirth, very little about the monastic rules, and relatively little to say (compared to what might be expected) even on the precepts. None of these necessarily always capture the distinctive and universal basis of balanced moral judgement in Buddhism, because they have grown up as expressions of ethics in particular contexts, not as universal principles of moral justification. Karma and rebirth is a large issue which I will not attempt to do justice to in this book[5], but it will suffice to say here that I think it a product of the Buddha’s specific cultural background, and irrelevant to resolving moral issues. The Monastic Rules were developed for the very specific circumstances of monastic life, and were never intended to be universal. The precepts, whilst universal in scope, are training principles, useful tools to help one practise Buddhist Ethics, but they are a summarised reminder of that ethics, not themselves a justification for one moral course being right or another wrong. To simply say that, for example, violence is wrong in Buddhism because the first precept forbids it, tells us nothing either about why it is forbidden nor how the precept should be interpreted.


Nor will the quotations or references from the Pali Canon or other scriptures which litter most books on Buddhism be found here. This is not because inspiring and helpful approaches to ethics cannot be found in these scriptures: they can. However, I do not believe that the reasons we should follow Buddhist ethics are demonstrated by appealing to the authority of scriptures: rather they are shown practically through interpreting and applying central principles and seeing their effects on our lives. The interpretation of scriptures in their remote historical and cultural context and their application to modern life can also be a massive distraction, a distraction that takes us away from the more urgent and important task of interpreting and applying core Buddhist principles.


Instead of relying on these old crutches of Buddhist Ethics, I have attempted to think through each issue from the beginning using the Middle Way as a guide, since the purpose of Buddhism is to address the conditions in our lives, not to satisfy traditional expectations. I will be explaining later in this chapter how the Middle Way can fulfil this purpose when other more traditional Buddhist categories do not.


Whenever anyone writes about normative ethics, it is no more than theory: but some theories are more convincing and more potentially useful than others. I do not claim to have got it all right, but I do believe that I am asking the right questions in the rest of this book, and am at least not saddled with many of the dogmatic assumptions with which many other writers seem to approach this subject. In particular, I believe it is important to recognise the distinctive nature of Buddhist ethics and not just (either consciously or unwittingly) think of it in a framework derived from other approaches to ethics, whether these are Christian, utilitarian, Aristotelian, Kantian, postmodernist or whatever. This does not mean that comparisons with these other ways of thinking are not valuable, but it does mean that Buddhist ethics should be understood in its own terms and not either consciously or unwittingly subsumed into other categories. Curiously enough, in my experience it is those writers on Buddhism who rely most on constant scholarly appeals to the Buddhist tradition, and do not examine their basic assumptions, which tend to have more of such non-Buddhist assumptions lurking in the background, and tend to miss the important practical insights that Buddhism has to offer. The reasons for this should become clearer as we go on.


Ethics in the broad and narrow senses

So, what is Buddhist ethics, more positively? Well, there are really two levels at which one can think about ethics in a Buddhist way. Here I will introduce a useful pair of terms coined by Sangharakshita. He talked about “ethics in the broad sense” and “ethics in the narrow sense”[6]. Ethics in the broad sense is nothing other than the whole Buddhist Path: how we should live according to Buddhist ethics is following the path of morality, meditation and wisdom. This covers every aspect of our lives, including our ways of thinking, our beliefs, and our habitual mental states as well as our behaviour. Ethics in the narrow sense focuses only on our behaviour and ways in which we should control it directly. So, to take a simple example, it is (probably) right that I should meditate regularly; it is according to Buddhist ethics in the broad sense. It is also wrong that I should shoot cats that come into my back garden for sport, which means that according to Buddhist ethics I should refrain from this kind of behaviour. Shooting cats is wrong in the narrow sense as well as in the broad sense.


It is not always clear where the boundaries lie between the broad and narrow senses, but this doesn’t matter. The important point is that Buddhism does recognise ethics in the broad sense as well as in the narrow sense. What we ought to do is not just “morality” as people often think of it: not just about whether to be nice to my neighbours or whether or not it would be right to have an abortion. Morality in this narrow sense is certainly part of morality more generally, but every single action or decision I make about anything is also ethical. If I decide whether to brush my teeth, if I try to make another effort to return to the object of meditation, if I choose a book off the bookshelf: all of these are moral acts in the broad sense.


This is one point where, to begin with, Buddhism seems to have a much wider vision than most Western philosophy. Many Western philosophers would follow the eighteenth-century thinker Kant in assuming that, whilst there are some kinds of actions that can be moral or immoral, there are also others that are morally neutral, where it is not relevant to talk about morality. But one of the starting points of Buddhism is the complete inter-connectedness of all phenomena. Nothing is entirely separate; nothing can be rigidly distinguished from anything else. It is our minds that impose such distinctions on our experience. Although we must use some distinctions, we must always do so with an eye to the effects of doing so. So, if we are trying to overcome the limitations of our minds and their delusions, we should try to recognise that there are no such things as morally neutral acts, only acts that are of relatively more or less moral significance. Yes, it does matter more whether I start World War 3 than whether I brush my teeth, but that doesn’t stop both of these being moral matters. We are never let off the hook, and there are no moral holidays.


In this book I shall be concentrating almost entirely on ethics in the broad sense. Although “ethics in the narrow sense” describes how people often see ethics and describes one way in which the Buddhist tradition speaks of it, it is ethics in the broad sense that really deals with how we should live. I cannot resolve questions about ethics in the narrow sense without considering ethics in the broad sense. However, at the same time this does not mean that I am describing the entire Buddhist path, because in this book I will be focussing on areas of moral discussion. In the Buddhist Threefold Path there are two other major aspects of human development, which fall under the headings of “meditation” and “wisdom”, alongside “ethics”. Though meditation and wisdom will not be excluded here where they are inextricable from ethics, I am not attempting to do justice to them in the same way that I will be attempting to do justice to ethics.


The inextricable relationship between ethics and the rest of the Path is also one reason why we can never make absolutely valid moral rules. Every decision about how to behave also depends on beliefs and states of mind. Supposing I was wondering whether to lie to my aunt when she asks me if I liked the horrible socks she gave me for my birthday. Well, if I lie this has the virtue of being kind, whilst if I tell the truth it has the virtue of honesty and might stop her giving me horrible socks in future. What the right course of action would be depends on my state of mind and beliefs as well as my aunt’s. How offended is she going to be? Will she actually benefit from honesty? Am I too much in the habit of being either brutally honest or timidly kind? I really cannot resolve this one without thinking in a much broader way about ethics.


The Starting Point: the Middle Way

At this point a common reaction is to give up, assuming that we could never really know what’s right if we really try to take everything into account. It’s too complicated! The temptation is simply to fall back on some simple moral rules which some authority figure has given us, or give up on there being any real right action at all. But this would be the easy way out. If we really want to help the world, and help ourselves, we have to face up to how complex things really are. There are no simple yes or no answers. This is the starting point of the Middle Way, which I take to be the most fundamental principle of Buddhism: we must stay in that complex, unclear middle ground and avoid premature judgements. Though there’s another over-simple answer to avoid even in this, that we should never make judgements! Judgements are still necessary but should be based on as much clarity, patience and understanding as we can reasonably manage.


So, let’s try to understand how we can go about doing ethics in the broad sense. How can we really deal with all this complexity? Well, if we are to deal with a very complex, inter-related reality as far as we can, we need to understand the truth as far as we can. Our understanding of the truth depends on many factors such as awareness, openness, wisdom, reflectiveness, and decisiveness, so we can try to cultivate these through meditation, study and reflection.


Our progress with these will vary, but there is one thing we can all do from the start to avoid handicapping ourselves unnecessarily in our brush with reality: we can avoid dogmatic assumptions or prejudices which make us constantly interpret the world in certain skewed ways. So, the first step towards doing ethics in a broad sense, taking into account all the conditions, is to avoid dogmatic beliefs.


A simple example of this which everyone will be familiar with might be racism. Supposing I have a neighbour who is (to take a nationality at random) Turkish, and my moral issues are about how to treat him. Now, there are obviously many better and worse ways to relate to him, but a good starting point is to avoid racial prejudice. If I approach all my interactions with him with the idea that he’s a Turk and Turks are somehow inferior to my own race, then I will not get to grips at all with what he’s really like. What he’s really like may be anything from a saint to a mass-murderer, but I will never find out if all I think when I see him is “Turk”. It may be right to treat him in any of a variety of ways, but I will never determine what these are at all if I don’t start to see him as a complex human being rather than just a “Turk” to begin with.


This is an obvious point to most reasonably civilised people in the modern world. However, the same point applies more subtly in lots of other areas. My dogmatic belief may not be a positive one, but a negative one. Here are some examples of positive and negative dogmatic beliefs:

“There’s no such thing as morality”

“The world was created by God”

“I’m free to do what I like”

“We are reborn after death, so I can aim for a better rebirth”

“There are many ‘truths’ and therefore no truth”

What makes these statements dogmatic is not the fact that no evidence is given for them. It is impractical, and sometimes counter-productive, to try to back up everything we say with evidence (and of course the statements are also taken out of context). No, what makes them dogmatic is the fact that there could never be any evidence to back them up. Any reasons you could give to support them could just as easily be interpreted the other way, as any student of philosophy knows.


To give an example from the Buddhist tradition, there are many pieces of evidence which have been put forward to support belief in rebirth, (such as the inexplicable memories of infant prodigies[7]), but all of these can be interpreted in other ways too, (such as that there are impersonal stray strands of consciousness floating around which are sometimes picked up by children). To insist on one kind of explanation when there are equally probable alternatives is to make a metaphysical claim which is not a response to that evidence, but rather is an absolute and prior assumption which you would stick to whatever the evidence, fitting the evidence to the assumption rather than the other way around. It is to act in some ways as a critic of Galileo’s did when Galileo first used his telescope to observe mountains and craters on the moon: since his observations went against the accepted Aristotelian belief that the moon must be a perfect sphere, the critic insisted that there must be a transparent substance filling in all the gaps between the lunar mountains. Metaphysical claims tend to be accepted on faith, or because everyone else in your group or society accepts them. Since no one can ever challenge these dogmatic assumptions, they become unquestionable positions even when they seem to be increasingly at odds with reality.


The Buddha’s Middle Way is first and foremost a way of disencumbering ourselves of these dogmatic positions. In the Buddha’s life we first of all see a young prince in a palace surrounded by one kind of dogmatic assumption: the nihilistic idea that there is no morality in our lives beyond seeking our own pleasure or following the ways of people around us. He breaks out from this kind of dogmatic assumption, renouncing his restricted life as a prince in a quest for the right path. However, then he runs into the opposite type of dogmatic assumption, that of the eternalists with fixed ideas about the kind of beliefs and practices they should follow to reach a state of absolute goodness or salvation. These are represented by the five ascetics, who practised austerities in order to achieve a greater reward in the end. In seeing the limitations of this approach, too, the Buddha had to find a new way forward beyond both these types of human illusion, so he adopted the Middle Way.


The Middle Way as the basic principle of Buddhist ethics, then, is strongly symbolised by the Buddha’s life and the method he is said to have used to make progress towards enlightenment. It is not, however, dependent on the historical truth of the Buddha having ever actually lived such a life, or having ever actually gained enlightenment; for insisting on this (even though it may well be true) is likely to lead to another sort of eternalist dogmatism. The Middle Way can never be true because of some article of faith, only because it works in helping us to understand the causes of suffering and to overcome them. We only know it to be true insofar as we have experienced this, and up to that point it is just theory (though potentially very useful theory).


So, to practice the Middle Way in relation to a moral problem, we first need to become aware of the two extremes of illusory belief we might fall into in relation to it, then follow a path between them which seems to be most adequate to all the conditions at work.


It would be possible to give a more detailed philosophical account of the Middle Way here: for example, exploring the idea of “evidence” and the exact nature of eternalism and nihilism. However, I have done this elsewhere[8] and do not want to go into too much theoretical detail here. For everyday purposes it may be much better to think in terms of the symbolic power of the life of the Buddha and to try to apply the central insight it represents to moral issues.


The Middle Way and virtue

In Western philosophy there are basically three ways of going about thinking of how to live: considering rules or principles by which to act, considering consequences, and considering virtues of character. These are known as deontological ethics, consequentialist ethics and virtue ethics respectively. There has been much consideration in Western thought of how to apply these three broad approaches, but philosophical discussion has remained inconclusive on the more basic question of which we should follow and why. I will be arguing here that all three of these ways of thinking come into Buddhist ethics based on the Middle Way, but it is not wholly dependent on any of them and must not be simply identified with any one of them. So, before we launch into a discussion of specific moral issues, it will be very useful to clarify our overall approach in relation to these three traditional Western ways of seeing normative ethics.


I will start with Virtue Ethics, because this is really the oldest form of ethics in the Western tradition, being the dominant way of understanding normative ethics amongst the ancient Greeks and most systematised by Aristotle. Virtue Ethics, generally, says that what is morally good or bad is not particular ways of acting, but the qualities of a person. For example, we can’t say that abortion as a kind of human action is right or wrong: instead we should ask about the qualities of character of the people involved. If the woman involved has a well-developed character, including wisdom, compassion and good judgement, she is likely to make the right decision about whether or not to have an abortion. She is likely to make the right decision because of the qualities of her character, such as the wisdom and compassion with which she will consider the problem, not because anyone could work out a “right decision” in the abstract apart from this.


Virtue ethics has an obvious relationship with Buddhist practice. Buddhists who meditate, practise ethics and study the Buddha’s teachings are primarily trying to become better people, the Buddha being a symbol of the ideal person. The Buddhist tradition provides many tools for “working on oneself” in this way, as one might work on a piece of art. By meditating regularly over a period of time, for example, I may develop greater awareness as a matter of habit. So, in this sort of case it is not that I decide to have awareness because it is the right thing to do, it is just that my character has developed to include a stronger habitual awareness. This is what is meant by “virtue”: in this case awareness is a virtue which meditation has helped me develop. There are many other virtues which Buddhist practice may help us develop: a useful basic list in traditional Buddhism is the Five Spiritual Faculties: wisdom, confidence, energy, mindfulness and concentration.


This sounds good so far. However, there are some basic difficulties involved in just seeing Buddhist ethics as a kind of virtue ethics. The first is how we decide what is virtuous. Should we try to cultivate the virtues appreciated in the financial world of the city of London, or in a group of Catholic nuns, or in a group of traditional tribes-people in Borneo? Is it virtuous to be ambitious? To be humble? To have great respect for traditional customs? Opinions are obviously divided on this.


This is not just an abstract question, because we have to decide what virtues to cultivate and what priority to give one kind of virtue over another. If we are to follow the Middle Way here, it is not enough at this point just to quote the kinds of virtues developed by Buddhist masters or discussed in the scriptures. Believing that these are right, far beyond our own experience, depends on dogmatic assumptions. What counts here is not what virtues were considered admirable for a past great Buddhist master, but what virtues I, in my current situation of limited understanding, should cultivate.


Aristotle’s answer to this is effectively to appeal to his observation of the virtues in his society. He wants people to accept his account of the virtues because it fits in with what they basically believe, but he wants to bring it to their attention and make them think more systematically about it. But why should we accept what people in our society believe? If we think about the virtues inculcated in Nazi Germany, for example, it becomes obvious that we can’t just take the virtues of our society for granted as right without having some kind of higher perspective on them.


This problem can’t really be resolved without also thinking about another one. When I decide to meditate in order to develop the virtue of mindfulness, say, aren’t I making a decision about a right sort of action? It’s fine to say that I should develop a good character, but how much priority should I give that compared to other kinds of good? If I go on a retreat to work on my meditation, this may develop my character very well, but there are other people I might help in that time whom I am not helping. What justifies my decision to concentrate on meditation? If I had an ideal character already, perhaps I could be trusted to always make the right decision, but since I haven’t, it seems I still need some way of knowing the right kind of action to do. In the present moment we always have choices, regardless of what our character is like, whether these are choices about developing our character or choices about other things.


So, it seems that we can’t just trust virtue ethics by itself. To do so would not be in accordance with the Middle Way because it would involve dogmatic assumptions either that I know what virtues to cultivate or that I have the right virtues already. If the Buddha had simply cultivated the “virtues” that fitted his role in the palace, or the “virtues” of the ascetics, without a critical perspective, he would not have got far in his quest. Instead, he used his own judgement to make crucial choices: first to leave the palace and then to give up asceticism.


In order to understand how virtues might fit into a bigger picture we need to look at the other two main ways of approaching ethics in Western thought. However, after this we will also need to return to the nature of character and suggest a Buddhist model for virtue which is psychological (and therefore universal) rather than depending on social conventions.


The Middle Way and principles

An alternative approach to ethics is to find and follow principles which one takes to be absolute and universal. This is known as deontological ethics. In the West this approach has often taken the form of Christian Ethics. If Christianity offers rules to live by (whether these take the form of the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, other Biblical rules, or rules developed by the Church) these rules are accepted on faith and followed.


This raises the obvious problem of the origin of the rule. If you believe that God exists and that he has given out a particular moral rule in this way, you have given a reason why people should obey it, but only one completely dependent on faith. If you don’t believe in God, or don’t believe that God gives out moral rules, or think that people may have misinterpreted them, you will have a problem. Obviously the dogmatism found here in believing in a revealed rule is completely at odds with the Middle Way.


The philosopher Kant came up with a more rationally based deontological ethics based on consistent universal rules. He claimed that if you could come up with a rule that you could consistently believe everyone should follow without exception, that would be an example of an absolute moral rule. For example, if you don’t think anyone else should drop litter, you shouldn’t do it yourself, and “People should not drop litter” is a universal rule. There is something compelling in Kant’s idea that we make our own universal moral rules when we are being consistently objective in our thinking. This does seem to get over some of the problem of credibility in Christian ethics, but he still seems attached to the idea that morality consists in rules as such, ones that we should follow in all cases. In one famous example in his writings, Kant insisted that because “People should not lie” is a universal rule, you should not lie even to a murderer who you knew was coming to kill your friend and who asked where he was[9].


So, even if we could be sure that a rule has the right origins, there still seems to be something wrong with it being inflexibly applied. But if rules are the whole source of your morality, you’ve got nothing else to go on, and no justification for disobeying the rule even in extreme circumstances. Rules might be useful as general guides in our lives, but we need some flexibility in applying them, and a more basic standpoint to appeal to beyond the rules themselves.


At times I shall be employing a Kantian approach in discussing some of the issues in this book, because it provides a compelling way of bringing oneself to think objectively, not making an exception of oneself. Such a way of thinking carries the dangers of being idealised and/or rigid, as we only think about how one should act consistent with an ideal world rather than the consequences of one’s actions in the world we actually inhabit. Nevertheless it is a very useful tool to prevent us from thinking of ourselves and our interests in too limited a way. By focussing on how everyone ought to act, I can often identify how the best or most progressive part of myself, not arbitrarily separated from others, ought to act.


The appeal to how everyone ought to act at their best is also where Precepts have a role in Buddhism. Often the Five Precepts (which involve undertaking to avoid violence, theft, sexual misconduct, dishonesty and intoxication) are seen as the most basic expression of Buddhist ethics. Sangharakshita also argues that the Ten Root Precepts (which add further undertakings to the first four of the five: to avoid harsh speech, useless speech, slanderous speech, covetousness, animosity and wrong views) offer a more comprehensive and demanding, but still basic, account of how a Buddhist should live[10]. To simply appeal to the precepts and say that a good Buddhist should obey them, however, is an unhelpfully simplistic approach to Buddhist ethics. It relies on dogmatic acceptance of the Precepts and confuses the very idea of a precept with that of a rule.


A precept may be distinguished from a rule in two specific ways: it is voluntarily adopted and it is flexibly applied. If it is voluntarily adopted, an independent decision must be made that it would be good to follow the precept, and an undertaking made to follow it, at least to oneself if not in public. If it is flexibly applied, one attempts to follow the precept as a means to fulfilling the more basic reasons why one took it up. It does not become an end in itself, automatically overriding other considerations in the manner of Kant’s rule about lying.


In making use of precepts, then, one gives specific form to the quest for the universal good found in the Middle Way. The Precepts may come from any source provided they are in accordance with the Middle Way. Indeed the source is irrelevant. The Buddhist tradition offers precepts that have been shown by experience to be broad and useful ones, but the reason why they are useful is not because they come from the Buddhist tradition. If one could adopt the Ten Commandments in the same spirit (which would in practice be rather difficult, I think, since they begin with dogmatic assumptions about God), they would do just as well as precepts.


One can also see the Middle Way itself as a principle, though of the broadest kind. One could take up following the Middle Way as a kind of precept, on the grounds that it should help one to overcome illusion and get closer to reality.  There is no other reason to adopt it than the gathering experience of it being right through the process of practice. However, the Middle Way by itself is very broad and certainly needs more specific kinds of expression in the form of moral precepts. These moral precepts need to be interpreted in relation to the Middle Way and held in balance with it.


The adoption of principles of this kind can also be reconciled with the cultivation of virtue. In order to cultivate virtues and improve my character I may decide to voluntarily adopt a principle or a precept. This might be a broad moral precept, such as not being violent to others, or a very specific precept, such as getting up at 6.30 every day in order to meditate. I might even adopt precepts that help me to balance the competing demands of different needs. So, if I am trying to do my job well and also give enough attention to my daughter, I might make a principle for myself that I will always devote certain hours of the week to each.


What justifies any such principle as good is not that it has come from any particular authority, but that it is a genuine and voluntary attempt to take into account the different conditions of my life, and thus develop virtue through the practice of positive habits. If I had simply adopted an absolute rule from outside which was inflexible and not adequate to the situation, I would be being too eternalist, and if I did not attempt to live by any rules or principles at all, I would be being nihilist. The Middle Way here helps to give structure and specificity to my cultivation of virtue.


Rules, principles and precepts of various kinds are probably a necessary part of human life. They help to regulate individual behaviour and social life, and by doing so create a degree of order out of what would otherwise be chaotic. However, rules should not be too absolute and have to be kept under regular review. This raises another issue: on what sort of grounds do we review them, and when do we know that it is right to break them? This is where we can bring in a connection to the third type of theory, the consequentialist.


The Middle Way and consequences


A consequentialist approach to ethics is one that attempts to judge an action according to its consequences. For a consequentialist, one should act so as to bring about good consequences regardless of what rules one may be breaking. For example, if I needed to kill one person in order to save two others from certain death, a consequentialist would probably argue that this was justified despite the fact that I was doing what many would consider a fundamentally immoral act, namely killing.


The most common type of consequentialist theory in Western ethics is utilitarianism. Utilitarians claim that we should act in the way that brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Emerging in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this approach to ethical judgement has had an important effect on the shaping of modern society. There may be many different needs and desires impacting on a situation, and the people in it may have very different values, but utilitarianism offers a way of trying to meet most people’s needs and desires as far as possible.


This philosophy has the strength of being very practical and adaptable. No belief about principles of right or wrong is absolutely inviolable for a utilitarian, but all such beliefs are part of the totality of facts that we should take into account before making a judgement about what sort of action would lead to the best consequences. For example, utilitarianism could be used to justify free speech to allow challenging debates that help society find the best solutions and progress. On the other hand, it could also be used to justify constraints on free speech to prevent terrorism[11]. It could be used to justify suppressing religion because it is assumed to have backward attitudes, or alternatively making use of the power of religion to help motivate actions that create more happiness. It all depends on the situation, the facts, and what would create happiness given those facts and that situation.


The chief drawback of utilitarianism is that it encourages us to rely on our own imperfect judgements about what will happen in future. Although in theory utilitarianism teaches us to take into account all the facts of a situation, which would include facts about our own limitations, in practice it seems that there is often a danger of arrogance when utilitarianism is used. This especially seems to be a danger when utilitarianism is used to justify the destruction of complex and valuable things for what is believed to be some greater good.


For example, I could coldly calculate that it would be better to destroy my marriage in order to gain greater happiness in a different relationship, and even genuinely believe that it would be better in the end for all concerned to do so, yet that calculation might be the product only of a particular mood when I was not actively appreciating the complex benefits of the marriage relationship that already exists. Or a government could order a huge dam project involving the flooding of a large area of forest and the evacuation of several villages, for the sake of hydro-electric power. The number of people who benefit may be very much greater than the number disturbed, but does this really take into account the richness and complexity of the communities being destroyed, and the complex ecological effects of destroying the forest? Utilitarianism encourages us to make rational calculations, which is often necessary, but those rational calculations may be based on narrow assumptions that are simply due to the limitations of our understanding and experience.


If my understanding of the future is limited, so is my understanding of what is good for myself or for other people. I judge from the vantage point of my current likes and dislikes, my current view of myself and others. Yet I am continually changing and growing, as are others. What is good for us in the future is likely to be different. The Buddhist doctrine of anatta or non-substantiality emphasises the limitations of my view of myself compared to the possibly more developed “I” of the future, which may become something much greater and more integrated. Often presented as a metaphysical claim, this doctrine is actually just a dismantling of metaphysical claims we might make about ourselves: that we are fixed in any way, that we are permanent, or on the other hand that we do not exist. We are left only with a fluctuating experience and an ego that wants to exist, to possess and to delimit itself. The doctrine of anatta requires me to avoid thinking in fixed terms about myself (or others) or what would be good for me (or others), yet at the same time not to give up that sense of identity which we need for practical purposes and basic self-esteem.


It is this realisation about the limitations of our self-view which seems to have led many Buddhists into strong dependence on relationships with spiritual teachers, whom they believe have a higher level of wisdom and know better what is good for them. Yet this kind of dependency can be just as arrogant as the utilitarian reliance on one’s own rational judgement if taken too far. How do we know that we have found the right teacher and that the teacher knows all the answers? Most spiritual teachers turn out to be flawed human beings, even if they are also often wise and inspiring. We cannot give up on our own judgement and pass it over to somebody else, but we can use the teacher to help us understand the limitations of our own judgement so that we can judge more wisely.


So, when we are led to re-examine our rules or precepts, we cannot get away from the responsibility of needing to use our own judgement. That judgement will probably be wiser if it is based on careful reasoning about the consequences than if it is done without thought, but reasoning is always based on limited assumptions. Part of our thinking, then, needs to involve a recognition of the limitations of our own understanding. This may mean that we decide to stick to the rule or precept that we originally adopted, or it may mean that we consult a teacher or other person we believe to be wise to help in the decision. Ultimately, however, the decision must be acknowledged as our own.


This has brought us back full circle to virtue, for in order to make wise decisions we need to have developed the right habits and the right character. So we need precepts to help us develop good character, and reasoning about consequences to help us interpret precepts, and good character to help us reason about consequences. The three traditional ways of judging ethics in Western thinking have turned out to be inter-dependent. We need to practise all of them together, but not any of them alone without the others.


How do we practise all three kinds of ethics at once? This is rather like asking how, when playing the piano, one plays the right notes with the left hand and with the right hand and pedals correctly all at the same time. It is obviously only practice that makes it clear how this is possible. However, I hope that more will emerge about how Buddhist ethics can be done in practice through the discussion of practical moral problems in the rest of this book.


Where the three kinds of ethics appear to conflict, as they often will, we must go back to the basic principles of the Middle Way and avoid the temptation to reach easy answers based on one at the expense of the others, for this will involve neglecting some of the conditions involved. Moral problems are always complex and always specific to a particular person and situation, whilst in that situation they also require deliberateness and decisiveness. There are limits to how clearly any course can be prescribed in advance, but on the other hand we can more easily point out some of the more obvious rocks and reefs to be avoided, even from some distance off (perhaps more easily from far off than from near at hand).


In the discussion of various moral issues that follows in the rest of this book, then, I will at times be drawing attention to virtues, principles or consequences; but none of these should be judged as the key to correct judgement of the issue by itself. Rather we need to take as broad a picture as possible and begin by eliminating common dogmas which tend to restrict people’s view of each issue. We will also need a general view of the factual situation, but I have tried to make this a broad and general description of a moral situation rather than a collection of specific facts and figures which would quickly be outdated. In the light of this general situation I shall suggest some ways forward into a more objective view of the issue (using all the tools of the ethical toolkit that I have been considering above), and suggest some judgements which can begin to resolve it. I think it is important to be unafraid to reach judgements, for ethical decision-making requires us to do so before we act, but at the same time all the judgements I shall be offering in the rest of this book are provisional and subject to revision, for there are many conditions which I may have been unable to take into account.


The Middle Way and integration

One other general matter needs at least a broad explanation before I plunge into more specific moral issues. This is the correspondence between psychological integration and the Middle Way which I shall be assuming throughout. This also adds some clarification as to how one can understand virtue in a specifically Buddhist (rather than Aristotelian) way. This will be a brief summary of helpful material which is explained in much more detail elsewhere[12]. It could perhaps be skipped at this stage if you are eager to get on to the moral discussions (especially if it seems difficult), but you may want to refer back to it later for clarification when terms like “ego”, “integration” and “identifications” come up.


If one asks why following the Middle Way (and thus overcoming illusions and facing up to conditions) is good, the best answer is probably that it leads to an incremental experience of fulfilment or happiness, and of the resolution of conflicts that existed before. The fulfilment or happiness we may experience in the future may not exactly be what we conceive happiness to be now, because in the process of following the Middle Way we will change our expectations. But how does this relate to the resolution of conflicts? Here we need a psychological model.


One position basic to Buddhism is that we are subject to desires of a type which lead to frustration, because these desires, based on an illusory model of conditions, are not desires for things we can in fact achieve. This is a paraphrase of the First and Second Noble Truths. However, we keep having these desires because what we see as ourselves, our very identity, consists in them. Our ego, or the sum of what we identify with, consists of a bunch of desires attempting impossible fulfilments. This usually consists of pleasurable experiences that I want to have, which, even if they occur to some degree, are not going to be precisely like I think they are. This ego constructs a whole world for itself in which these fulfilments which are not in fact achievable can be seen as achievable.


This sounds like a bad position to be in. However, if we follow the Middle Way, we can haul ourselves out of it. This is possible because the ego isn’t all there is to us: there are other kinds of desires and forces too, which involve identifying with other things and recognising other conditions. Some of these other desires may be unconscious, others simply not identified with. If this were not the case we would never be able to develop beyond the rigidities of what we desire and believe now, or make sense of the development we have all already made since childhood.


In psychological language, the ego is not the whole psyche. The ego, however, defines itself against the rest of the psyche, as it has to see itself as separate to maintain its illusions and stop them being challenged by the recognition of any wider reality. To escape, the ego simply has to gradually realise that it does not need to be in opposition to the rest of the psyche, and that losing its current identity is not a threat. In doing this, it also ceases to block off recognition of conditions in the world which it had previously refused to recognise. By recognising a wider set of conditions it also gradually comes to change its desires to ones that can be fulfilled, and simultaneously understand how to fulfil them by addressing the conditions that were previously frustrating.


Following the Middle Way, then, allows us to avoid illusions (metaphysical dogmas) which prevent us from reaching fulfilment because they limit us to an egoistic type of belief and stop us recognising conditions beyond those accepted by the ego. By an open-minded engagement with these conditions which we realise are beyond our current conceptions, we gradually gain integration of the ego with the rest of the psyche. Such integration reduces conflicts between opposed desires that we identify with at different times (e.g. the conflicts of the slimmer or the person giving up smoking) and thus creates a stronger character more capable of moral action: in other words a more virtuous person. It also reduces conflicts in the world because we gain a better understanding of (and compassion for) other people’s desires and beliefs.


The extremes of eternalism and nihilism do not produce integration because they adopt strategies which only increase the barriers between the ego and the rest of the psyche. Eternalism generally requires the ego to conquer the rest of the psyche (e.g. the ascetics in the Buddha’s life), simply resulting in endless warfare against an unconquerable foe who is in fact oneself, whilst nihilism only recognises the ego (nothing beyond it) and indulges it, leading to endless cycles of frustration when the ego does not fulfil its desires.


A successful integration of the ego with the rest of the psyche both recognises that the ego’s world is not all there is, and extends the ego’s identifications beyond that world. So, far from annihilating the ego, the Middle Way encourages it to grow bigger but at the same time weakens its boundaries. This is what I shall mean throughout by “extending ego identifications”, a particularly important concept in the first chapter on personal relationships, as providing a realistic alternative to the confusing and unhelpful moral language of “selfishness” and “selflessness”.


[1] See After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre, pub. Duckworth, chapters 1 &2

[2] Published by Wisdom Publications

[3] Published by Cambridge University Press

[4]The Ten Pillars of Buddhism Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications

[5] See Robert Ellis A Buddhist Theory of Moral Objectivity for discussion of this issue

[6] See The Ten Pillars of Buddhism Sangharakshita, Windhorse Publications

[7] For a good example of this see Lama Anagarika Govinda The Way of the White Clouds pub. Rider, p.131-136

[8] In my book (and Ph.D. thesis), A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity.

[9] See Immanuel Kant The Metaphysics of Morals

[10] See Sangharakshita The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, pub. Windhorse

[11] At the end of chapter 11 below, I offer an argument against such political censorship.

[12] In A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity

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