“Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics

So-called “Buddhist ethics” is just contemporary American leftish secular morality.

By “Buddhist ethics” (with scare quotes) I mean what is taught by Consensus Buddhism.

For several years, I have repeatedly asked:

Is there any significant issue on which “Buddhist ethics” disagrees with contemporary Western leftish secular ethics?

So far, no one has said “Yes, if you are an American Buddhist, you should do so-and-so, whereas leftish secular Americans think you should do the opposite.”1

Doesn’t that strike you as remarkable?

Emaho! How wonderful! The Buddha validated everything we believe, 2500 years ago. He was ★ENLIGHTENED★, so it must be true!

But what an astonishing coincidence… Long, long ago, in a land far, far away—Siddhartha Gotama discovered the very same correct ethics that was only rediscovered in America a few decades ago!

Well, obviously I am being snarky. My point is that Consensus “Buddhist ethics” couldn’t possibly be Buddhist ethics.

And, indeed, it isn’t. If Buddhism has any ethics at all—which is debatable—it is nothing like “Buddhist ethics.” Consensus Buddhists would loathe the morality of traditional Buddhism, if they had any idea what it was.2

This contrast isn’t controversial among academics. My next few posts explain the differences between “Buddhist ethics” and Buddhist ethics in detail. Obviously Joe Bloggs Buddhist doesn’t want to hear that, though, and may react with hostile incredulity.

How can Joe believe in “Buddhist ethics” when a moment’s reflection reveals it could not possibly have existed in Asia? Because “Buddhist ethics” is—or was, until recently—a successful strategy for making Joe look good within leftish Western culture. More on that in another upcoming post.

Because I am making fun of modern “Buddhist ethics,” you might assume that I advocate traditional, “authentic” Buddhist ethics instead. I don’t; as will become obvious, I am even more opposed to the tradition.

Instead, I am pointing out that if “Buddhist ethics” is identical to current secular ethics, there’s no point pretending it is Buddhist. I mostly agree with secular ethics, and I am a Buddhist; unfortunately, I don’t think these two things have any useful connection.

I would welcome a modern Buddhist ethics, if it were genuinely different from secular Western ethics. I’d find that really exciting, because I am a Buddhist, and I spend a great deal of time thinking about ethics. However, there doesn’t seem to be any such thing. I think that is not a coincidence: traditional Buddhism has few, if any, resources of use for modern ethics.


  1. A month after I posted this, Amod Lele pointed out one: the ethics of righteous anger. I think he’s correct about this one. If he finds more, I may need to rethink my thesis! 
  2. There are some non-Consensus white Buddhist leaders whose ethical teachings are much closer to tradition. For example Thanissaro Bikkhu advocates genuine Buddhist renunciation. That is definitely unacceptable to nearly all American Buddhists, though. 
Advertisements

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

11 thoughts on ““Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics”

  1. Nice, David.

    Consensus Buddhism seems to imagine that a secular ethics is consistent with Buddhism despite its moral prescriptions being the fruit of revelation.

    I wonder if it is in part because we moderns tend to conflate morality and ethics.

    An ethos is a way of life; a mood, a spirit, a tone. Buddhism, as any ontology, naturally suggests one. But this remains distinct from morality, and certainly from scripture, however much modern language (and culture) would like to conflate the two.

    .

  2. David, I seem to have an ethical blindspot.

    Implicit in your analysis there seems to be an assertion that an ethical system is something you’d except a religion / culture based on it to provide. At least the fact that you find the fact noteworthy that Buddhism lacks an ethical system suggests this to me.

    However, what distanced me personally from Judeo-Christian/Western culture of conduct were exactly phenomena like you describe in context of Buddhism: a) list of moral rules that are either obvious or arbitrary (Ten Commandments…) b) the motivators are pragmatic considerations based on the metaphysical consensus (don’t do the bad things or you’re gonna burn in Hell for eternity). These do not make up an ethical system.

    So I miss the positive example of a religion / culture providing an ethical system. Thinking more into it, I also fail to know of a coherent secular ethical system. Closest what I can recognize is PC, which seems much rather to be a desperate effort of sweeping disturbing facts under the rag in the hope that it will have an effect of changing those facts, than a coherent ethical system in the sense you described it. PC as a stance might as well work out in some case (after all the US has a black President) and break down badly in some other (see Germany’s confused statements about how many refugees would it take on board). Still its logic — unlike 100 years before, it’s not acceptable to say bad things of Jews, and not because Jews would have themselves changed so much on the course of that 100 years but because horrible things happened to them and we want to prevent that happening once more — sounds more like a stop-gap measure of emergency than a well argumented system of conduct.

    So, TL;DR, I miss it altogether what you call ethics. Would you mind providing positive examples — preferably, both religion based and secular — before finding delight in the finicky details of how Buddhism fail to deliver one?

  3. Csaba — Thanks for the comment!

    It’s not that I think it’s a problem that Buddhism fails to provide a coherent ethical system. It’s a problem that other people claim it does, and in fact that ethics is half of Buddhism (the other half being mindfulness meditation). This view has come to define “Buddhism” for most Westerners.

    That’s a problem because anything that isn’t ethics or mindfulness has been deliberately buried by the Consensus. In particular, as I’ll explain in an upcoming post, they suppressed Buddhist Tantra in the name of Buddhist ethics.

  4. David, you said,

    “If Buddhism has any ethics at all—which is debatable—it is nothing like “Buddhist ethics.” Consensus Buddhists would loathe the morality of traditional Buddhism, if they had any idea what it was.”

    So, are you using the words “ethics” and “morality” differently? Are you saying traditional Buddhism had a morality but no ethics? Traditional Buddhism had a list of rights and wrongs, but no coherent system explaining how to decide other cases?

    Thanx.

  5. So, are you using the words “ethics” and “morality” differently? Are you saying traditional Buddhism had a morality but no ethics? Traditional Buddhism had a list of rights and wrongs, but no coherent system explaining how to decide other cases?

    Yes; the next page explains that.

  6. David, while your reply is an appropriate answer to the first paragraph of my comment, I’m afraid you missed my point (which we can blame on my excess verbosity).

    This post series is a negative one in the sense that it focuses on pointing out there is no such thing as Buddhist ethics. However, before / besides delving into why that is not, it might be beneficial to clarify what that is which is not. At least for me — the distinction between moral and ethics is new to me. To see more clearly, it would be good to investigate a counterexample; in our case (the main topic being a negative statement), a positive one. How does an ethical system look like? How does it work? How is it possible to set up an ethical system (which is more than just a moral code) on a religious base? How is it possible to set up an ethical system on a secular base? You have some hints towards this, making references to “contemporary Western ethics” but it’s not quite clear to me how to dereference that pointer without going astray (eg. not mistaking it for PC).

    This would probably deserve a metapost, but I’m also happy if you give a heads-up here in the comment section.

  7. Hi, Csaba,

    It looks like I’ve been unclear in more than one way! I would like to clarify these issues, but I’m still not quite sure what you are asking. I’ll try to answer and then you can ask again if I got it wrong.

    it focuses on pointing out there is no such thing as Buddhist ethics

    Yes; in two different ways, though:

    1. Traditional Buddhist morality is not “ethics,” in the sense that it does not provide justifications for most of its moral claims.
    2. Modern Buddhist ethics is not “Buddhist,” in the sense that it has no connection with traditional Buddhist morality and no distinctively Buddhist moral claims.

    How does an ethical system look like? How does it work?

    Well, liberal Christian ethics was the prototype for modern Buddhist ethics, and also (with modifications) for contemporary secular ethics. It asks “why did God/Jesus say we should/shouldn’t do this specific thing?”, and develops general principles based on its answers. Those can be applied to problems for which the Bible had nothing to say. The principles involve concepts like “human rights” and “procedural justice”, which are not found in the Bible (nor in traditional Buddhism). Liberal Christian ethics is universalist, justified on the basis of the importance of agapé. For example, it condemns slavery for this reason (which the Bible does not).

    Any ethical system gives reasons for its claims, using general principles. The reasons and principles vary from system to system. An alternative to Christian ethics is utilitarianism, for example, which uses very different ones.

    How is it possible to set up an ethical system (which is more than just a moral code) on a religious base? How is it possible to set up an ethical system on a secular base?

    Christian ethics is based on the Bible, and on people’s claims of religious experience, as well as on philosophical reasoning and factual knowledge. Utilitarianism is secular; it does not depend on scripture or religious experience.

    I am guessing that part of what you are asking is “how is it possible to create an ethical system that provides total certainty because it is firmly based on something unquestionable?” And the answer is, in my opinion, that it’s not possible. Ethical systems can’t actually do what they want (i.e. provide certainty). But they can still be a big improvement on traditional moralities that involve no reasons or principles at all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s