After Buddhist Ethics

The Preface

Buddhism’s remarkably enlightened ethical system attracts many Westerners. Teachers often explain Buddhism as consisting, really, just of ethics and meditation. It’s free of the claptrap, dogma, and ritual of more primitive religions.

Unfortunately, “Buddhist ethics” isn’t Buddhist at all. It’s simply Western liberal morality. That is why it seems remarkably enlightened to liberal Westerners.

After Buddhist Ethics begins by demonstrating this seemingly-implausible fact. It contrasts actual traditional Buddhist morality with modern “Buddhist ethics”; they disagree on essentially every point.

Then I trace the history of how this fraud was perpetrated: as a collusion of Asian modernizers (who wanted to import superior Western ethics without admitting they were doing that) and Western romantics (who wanted a mythological basis to justify secular Western morality, which otherwise lacks any foundation).

Finally, I ask whether we could construct an ethics that is both relevant to current conditions, and which has some bite—by contradicting mindless modern morality—because it is genuinely Buddhist. I offer some possible approaches.

After Buddhist Ethics includes “Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence,” which is one of my most-read essays. It stands alone, too; there’s nothing specifically Buddhist in it.

I wrote After Buddhist Ethics in 2015, when “Buddhist ethics” was a hot topic, much mooted in mainstream middlebrow media. Writing this preface in 2020, I can’t remember the last time I heard the phrase. “Buddhist ethics” seems to have expired. Maybe I killed it: maybe it died of embarrassment when the perpetrators realized they’d been exposed. Maybe it vanished under the rubble as Consensus Buddhism collapsed. Maybe everyone just got bored with it and moved on.

It’s not like ethics is a solved problem, though. We should all hope for better ways of addressing ethical problems. Buddhism may, after all, be able to help.