Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system

On this page and the next, I will argue that traditional Buddhism has no ethical value for liberal, educated Westerners. There is no “ancient wisdom of the Buddha” to draw on when constructing a modern Buddhist ethics. That is why modern “Buddhist ethics” has nothing in common with the tradition.

These two pages may seem like an attack on traditional Buddhism, but my intent is only to dispel a modern illusion. The myth of “Buddhist ethics” has obscured, for Westerners, most of what Buddhism has to offer. It needs to be cleared away to make Buddhism visible again.

These pages might be misunderstood, at this point, as the core of the series on “Buddhist ethics.” They’re not; the uselessness of traditional Buddhist morality is just a background fact. We need it to understand why modern “Buddhist ethics” had to be invented as a replacement.

Summary of the two pages

This summary is all you need as background to understand the rest of the series. If you accept what I say here, you can skip ahead. Otherwise, you can read on for details.

There is no such thing as Buddhist ethics

This assertion relies on a distinction between “ethics,” which involve justifications, and “morals,” which are statements about right and wrong that are given without explanations. Traditional Buddhism has only morality, not ethics, in this sense. Some modern academic Buddhist ethicists attempt to supply the missing justifications, by borrowing Western ethical principles.

Supposed Buddhist ethical principles

Karma and compassion are often said to be the fundamental principles of Buddhist ethics. However, neither of these actually supplied systematic foundations for Buddhist morality. Most traditional moral teachings aren’t justified in terms of either one. In fact, it’s rare for them to claim any justification at all.

Karma and compassion are also utterly inadequate as bases for a modern ethical system. Acting to improve your karma, in hope of a better next life, is just self-interest. Compassion is a transitory subjective feeling; if people only acted ethically when they felt compassion, wrongdoing would be far more common.

Supposed Buddhist moral systems

Traditional Buddhism has various codes of conduct, and lists of virtues, that are semi-moralistic. This section discusses the lay precepts, vinaya, the bodhisattva paramitas, and samaya. These are rules or ideals for conduct.

None of these seems to have been intended as a systematic code of morals. In each code, some rules have no moral content. None of them gives broad coverage of moral topics. They are incoherent lists, without any explanations for why things are right or wrong. That means they give no guidance when rules conflict.

None of them contains anything that would come as useful news to Westerners. Traditional Buddhist moral teachings that are correct are all found in other religions, including Christianity.

The bodhisattva practices may have distinctive value, however.

Buddhist morality is Medieval

Much of the specific moral content of traditional Buddhism is abhorrent to liberal Western values. The next page in this series discusses traditional Buddhist sexual morality, the absence of any concept of human rights, and Buddhism’s support for slavery, patriarchy, and wars of conquest.

“No ethical value” is relative

Traditional Buddhist morality is better than many traditional alternatives. It’s better than many systems elsewhere in the world today, too. That’s not the relevant standard of comparison, though. Does it have anything to offer contemporary Westerners? No.

There is no such thing as Buddhist ethics

This is stated explicitly by some leading authorities. One is Damien Keown, who founded the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and wrote one of the two standard English-language textbooks on the subject. In the section “On the absence of ‘ethics’ in Buddhism” in his Buddhist ethics: A very short introduction, he writes:

[Buddhism contains no] treatises on ethics. There is not even a word for ‘ethics’ in the early Indian texts – the closest approximation to it is śīla, often translated as ‘morality’ but closer in meaning to disciplined behaviour or self-restraint. In the course of Buddhist history there never arose a branch of learning concerned with the philosophical analysis of moral norms. (p. 27)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Ethics in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism agrees:

It’s not clear that Buddhist thinkers have a concept of moral obligation at all. … Many statements that can be read as being about ethics can also be understood in a non-normative way, as descriptions of how a spiritually developed being actually behaves.

These authors are using “ethics” in a specific sense. As the SEP article observes:

Buddhism [does] attach considerable importance to systems of rules that codify moral discipline.

Keown draws a distinction between “morality” and “ethics.” Buddhism has “morality”: lists of Thou-Shalt-Nots and of virtuous character traits. It has little or no “ethics”: broad principles which explain why particular actions and traits are good or bad.

There seems to be a remarkable lack of interest or curiosity about the concepts and principles that underlie Buddhist moral teachings. (Keown, p. 28)

What’s missing is justifications: the “whys” and “wherefores” that are the substance of Western ethics. Mostly, Westerners take the “whats” as given; we don’t need to be told not to kill, steal, and lie. That’s kindergarten stuff. What we want to know is how to use principles to resolve conflicting moral considerations.

Occasionally Buddhist texts give one-step explanations like “adultery causes suffering, so don’t do it”; that’s about as sophisticated an explanation as you get. Multi-step ethical reasoning is absent,1 and there’s definitely no overall system that makes sense of the moral details.

The Buddhist texts that are now interpreted as “ethical” are typically lists, which often seem miscellaneous, with no apparent structure. Often they mix, on an equal basis, items that seem “moral” and ones that don’t. Modern academic “Buddhist ethics” tries to infer principles from these texts, but this seems artificial and forced.

The Mangala (“Blessings”) Sutta and the Parabhava (“Downfall”) Sutta are central for “lay Buddhist ethics.” They are only a page each. If you don’t know them, I recommend following the links and reading them now.

Keown describes the Mangala Sutta as an “extensive and rambling list of good things.” Mostly everyone would agree that these are “blessings,” but there seems to be no order to the items, no logic to the list, no explanations, no underlying principles. The Parabhava Sutta is a similar list of random bad things. Neither relates in any obvious way to the Eightfold Path, the Ten Lay Precepts, the Ten Kleshas, or any of the other well-known quasi-moral lists.

Modern Buddhism interprets the Mangala and Parabhava lists as having moral force: “to support mother and father” is a “blessing” because you ought to do that. But some items seem merely pragmatic, not moral: “to be skillful in handicraft” is a good thing, but it’s hard to view it as an ethical issue. It seems more consistent to simply take the Suttas’ titles at their word: these are just lists of things that are likely to make you happy or unhappy.

Even though it’s not clear these texts concern morality, much less ethics, they are major resources for modern Theravada’s “lay Buddhist ethics.” This is out of desperation: they are among only a handful of Pali texts, out of thousands, that could possibly be relevant.

Supposed Buddhist ethical principles

This section is about karma and compassion, often said to be the fundamental principles of Buddhist ethics.


For most Asian Buddhists, monastic and lay, the main reason to conform to Buddhist moral rules is fear of hell. Śīla is often formulated as “I undertake to refrain from…”; you choose to not-do certain things in order to avoid punishment in your next life.

In the mid-1800s, Christians pointed out, correctly, that this is not an ethical stance at all. It’s just pragmatic and self-interested. Karmic morality is “a vast scheme of profit and loss… downright selfishness, which abhors [wrong-doing] not because of its sinfulness, but because it is a personal injury, … merely a calamity to be deprecated, or a misfortune to be shunned.”2

In terms of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, karmic morality is stage 1, the “obedience and punishment orientation.” In the West, most children grow out of it during the first few school years. As an ethical system, karma is literally juvenile.

Karma can motivate you to do the right thing—so long as the rules are correct and clear—but it is useless in figuring out what to do when rules are unclear or conflicting. It gives no explanations for the rules, so you have to take them on faith; and (as we’ll see) most Westerners would reject much of traditional Buddhist morality. And, of course, there’s zero reason to believe that karma works as advertised; particularly since literal, physical heavens and hells are its traditional mechanism.


Many modern Buddhists claim that Buddhist ethics flows from compassion, which makes it superior to other leading moral brands. Compassion-based morality is certainly a step up from karmic rewards and punishments, so this may seem more promising.

Compassion is a primary virtue of most ethical systems; there is nothing distinctively Buddhist about it. Some might say that Buddhist ethics are distinctive in that everything flows from compassion. This is simply false. Most Buddhist morality texts don’t justify their rules on the basis of compassion. Not only are the rules not justified via compassion, it’s hard to see how some could be. As a random example, oral sex is forbidden in most discussions of sexual morality. It’s not just that this seems uncompassionate to us, it’s hard to imagine that compassion was considered relevant by the people who forbade it. That is, they didn’t mistakenly think that oral sex was contrary to compassion; compassion simply wasn’t a consideration.

Compassion is the desire to end others’ pain. A desire is a subjective feeling. That is not a workable basis for ethics, because your actions, and their outcomes for others, should be more ethically important than how you feel. Like fear of hell, compassion can motivate ethical action. However, it doesn’t give reliable guidance about what to do.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche coined the term “idiot compassion.” His student Pema Chödrön said:

It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of “I can’t bear to see them suffering.” In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.

Compassion-based morality is stage 3 of ethical development. It’s appropriate for adolescents. In the West, many adults outgrow it, moving into stages 4 and 5. In a later post, I will suggest that modern “Buddhist ethics” may actively hinder moral development, holding people back at stage 3 instead of encouraging them to mature into later stages.

Because compassion is purely subjective, people disagree about what is compassionate. Prominent Buddhist authorities have justified torture on the basis that is compassionate. Maybe they do feel great compassion toward the people they have ordered tortured; but I think torture is wrong, however they feel about it.

Compassion does not, by itself, help resolve conflicts, which are where ethics gets difficult. For an individual, there are conflicts between considerations. If someone you care about has taken up a self-destructive habit, should you point out the harm they are doing? In the short run, they will find that upsetting; in the longer term, it might help them make better decisions. Or it might distance them from you, making it harder to help. Compassion does not help weigh these concerns.

Compassion does not, by itself, help resolve conflicts between people, either. Consider a child custody case in which the parents will live thousands of miles apart. Regardless of the outcome, all parties will suffer. A decent judge will feel compassion for all; and if compassion is equal for all parties, it may provide no basis for decision. Perhaps the judge feels more compassion for one parent than the other, based on superficial personal likes and dislikes. Then what? How the judge feels about it should not be relevant.

A modern Buddhist may say “the judge should find a solution that is compassionate toward all,” but that is meaningless verbiage. People can be compassionate; “solutions” cannot. A ruling may be motivated by compassion, but that does not necessarily make it the right or best one.

Compassion is also inadequate as a basis for ethics because people don’t reliably feel each other’s pain. If everyone stopped acting ethically when their compassion stopped, we’d be in deep trouble. At the more primitive end of the ethical scale, we need fear of punishment to ensure basic morality when compassion breaks down. At the more sophisticated end, people do the right thing because it is the right thing, regardless of how they happen to feel.

An example: you are a doctor, caught in a brutal civil war. Your city has been invaded, and as you operate in the emergency room, you are terrified about what may be happening to your spouse and children. You haven’t heard from them in two days because the telephone network is down, and there are rumors of hideous atrocities. Casualties from both sides arrive constantly—and you treat them equally. You do the best you can for an enemy soldier with a bullet in his thigh, even though he may have slaughtered your children an hour ago. While you stitch him up, you may hate him. His side is wrong and barbaric, and you may feel no compassion for him at all. You save his life because it is the right thing to do. You don’t do it because of how you feel, or because it’s your job, or because it’s required by the Geneva Convention. You do it because it’s right.

Buddhists sometimes admit that compassion does not always help them know what to do. Often then they talk about what an enlightened being with perfect compassion would do. This replaces actual compassion with theoretical speculation. And how would we know what the ideal bodhisattva would do? This has to be reasoned out in some way, often using rules (deontology) rather than compassionate feeling.

In Western Buddhism, compassion-based ethics often slides into utilitarianism, without anyone noticing. Compassion is for “the suffering of all sentient beings”; so in cases of conflict, it seems reasonable to compare the magnitude of suffering. The action that minimizes overall suffering is the best one. That is an exact statement of negative utilitarianism. This is not at all a compassion-based ethics, because it is based on quantities of suffering of others, rather than your own feelings. It’s possible that you would feel compassion exactly in proportion to the amount of others’ suffering, but this is rarely true in practice, and the two are entirely different in principle.

It’s hard to argue that utilitarianism is the central principle of Buddhist morality.3 There are passages in Mahayana scripture that seem to use basic utilitarian reasoning, under the rubric “upaya,” for example to argue that lying and even killing is right when it prevents greater suffering. These are scarce and ambiguous, however.

In any case, utilitarianism is certainly not distinctively Buddhist. And the negative version (which considers only suffering, not enjoyment) is generally considered wrong. It implies that the best possible action would be to kill all sentient beings, thereby permanently ending all suffering. (Whatever suffering this might cause in the short run is tiny compared to the total amount of suffering that would otherwise occur over the next few billion years.) Most people would consider destroying all life on earth unethical.

Supposed Buddhist moral systems

This section discusses traditional lists of rules or ideals of conduct upon which modern Buddhists have tried to build “Buddhist ethics.” These are vinaya; the lay precepts; the bodhisattva vows, paramitas, and practices; and samaya.

For each, I will point out that the overall intent of the list is not moral at all; each includes rules that have nothing to do with morality. Each, also, includes rules that would be repellent to liberal Westerners. (The paramitas are an exception.) To the extent that they are morally acceptable, they are not distinctively Buddhist.

Haphazard bits of moral discussion, not clearly relating to any of the systems, also appear here and there in standard Buddhist texts and in local and oral tradition. The Mangala and Parabhava Suttas are examples. This miscellaneous moralizing lacks coherence, and it is often difficult to see how it relates to Buddhist principles at all.


Vinaya is the code of conduct for monks.4

Vinaya is by far the most developed quasi-moral code in Buddhism. Compared with the Mangala and Parabhava Suttas, for example, it is much more extensive (227 to 366 rules, depending on the version), and also has some structure. Like them, though, it’s highly miscellaneous and jumbled. Most of it is pragmatic, or just arbitrary, rather than moral. (There are many rules about what monks should wear, for instance.) Vinaya mainly lacks principled explanations. It is structured by the degree of transgression, from worst to least bad, rather than by topics.

Based on the specifics, you can try to guess what the underlying principles are, to give it some structure. My summary is:

  1. No sex. This is the most important thing. Don’t even think about it! Also, don’t do anything else fun. Enjoyment makes revulsion impossible, and revulsion is the basis for all non-tantric Buddhist practice.
  2. Don’t do anything that would make monks as a class look bad to laypeople, because then they might give us less money.
  3. Don’t get in fights with other monks. (Jeez!)

Vinaya regulates a specific training discipline; it is not an ethical system. As ethics, it would be severely inadequate. It does not address most ethical issues; its fundamental principle (renunciation) is irrelevant unless you are doing hardcore practice; and most of its rules have no moral content at all.

Modern Buddhism frequently quotes traditional texts on the importance of “ethics,” but these usually are actually talking about vinaya. The word they use is śīla, “discipline”; vinaya is the main referent, although it does cover the lay precepts as well.

The lay precepts

There are ten lay precepts. Most Western Buddhists only know about the first five. They are to refrain from (1) killing, (2) stealing, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) lying, and (5) drinking.

As a moral code, the five precepts are elementary, kiddie stuff. They are also not distinctively Buddhist. All moral codes share the first four, and many (including Islam and some Christian sects) also forbid drinking.

The first precept is unusual (not unique) in abjuring killing non-human animals. Perhaps this is a distinctive, valuable Buddhist ethical principle? No; it is unworkable. Anyone who farms unavoidably kills worms when digging. This causes Buddhist laypeople—mostly farmers until recently—much needless trouble and worry. (Conveniently for monks, laypeople provide their food, and vinaya forbids monks to dig.) Mahayana Buddhism recognizes that killing even people is sometimes better than alternatives. (I’ve discussed that at length in “Buddhists who kill.”)

Are the lay precepts actually about morality?

Unlike the lists we’ve looked at earlier, the five precepts all address unambiguously moral concerns. Except maybe the fifth, against drinking… is it moral or merely pragmatic? Buddhist authorities disagree about the reason for it. Most discussions boil down to “if you get drunk enough, you’re liable to do something else that’s wrong.” That is a pragmatic, not moral, argument. In many Buddhist cultures, it’s considered fine to drink, so long as you don’t get so drunk as to do stupid things—although the wording of the Precept, and most canonical discussions, suggest that any amount of alcohol is a violation.

The Sigalovada Sutta explains that drinking causes:

present waste of money, increased quarreling, liability to sickness, loss of good name, indecent exposure of one’s person, and weakening of one’s wisdom.

Quarreling is a moral issue, perhaps; the others, probably not. “Weakening of wisdom” is consistent with some authorities who say that the point is that alcohol interferes with meditation practice—a spiritual, not moral, concern.

The five precepts are the first of ten. More pious laypeople take either eight—considered the minimum needed to actually practice Buddhism—or all ten. When taking more than five, the sexual precept is changed to one of complete celibacy. The others are: not eating after noon; not listening to music or watching dancing or theatre; not wearing jewelry, perfume, or nice clothes; not sleeping on a bed, but only on the floor; not handling money.

These additions are not moral rules at all. “Not eating after noon” hardly seems to go with “not stealing.” So what’s the point? They are vows of renunciation, meaningful only if you are on the renunciate path. They are transitional between lay and monastic practice.

In fact, the lay precepts (whether five, eight, or ten) are simply the first, most important rules of vinaya, slightly modified to make them more practical for lay people. This suggests that the first four were originally only moral by accident. The lay precepts are phrased “I undertake the rule of training to refrain from…”, not “I promise not do harm by…”. Their very wording suggests they are not about morality.

It’s useful to think of vinaya as the disciplinary code of an overseas military base. Military regulations may forbid killing, stealing, sex, lying, and drinking, but not because they are immoral. The code preserves the unit’s ability to fight, by maintaining good relations with local civilians, preventing conflict between soldiers, and making sure soldiers are psychologically prepared for combat (vipassana).5

Killing or stealing from other soldiers creates divisions that interfere with the unit’s ability to fight the enemy. Killing or stealing from local civilians can make them turn hostile; you may need their support, or at any rate you don’t want them supporting the enemy. Sex between soldiers is prohibited because “it can create jealousy and tensions in the unit; it can be a distraction from the job, which is fighting a war.” Sex with civilians is also often prohibited for various practical, non-moral reasons. Lying to superior officers obstructs their ability to coordinate the unit; lying to other soldiers creates conflicts within the unit. Alcohol is prohibited or tightly regulated to keep discipline and because it interferes with the ability to fight effectively.

As far as the Precepts are concerned, lay people are simply defective monks. If you are going to practice Buddhism properly, you maintain vinaya. The Lay Precepts are a half-assed approximation. They don’t have a distinct principle or justification.

This point is important because almost all Western Buddhists reject renunciation. Unlike lay Asian Buddhists, we do not even aspire to that path. It does not point in the direction we want to go.

Because humans are naturally moral creatures, the first five precepts were interpreted as a code of morality; but that was probably not their original intended function.

An inadequate subset of a code of training rules intended to accomplish something we don’t want: this is an unpromising basis for Western Buddhist ethics!

Paramitas and their practices

The paramitas are Buddhist virtues. Different lists of six to ten appear in different scriptures.

These virtues are not distinctive; many or most other ethical codes include them. The exceptions, such as dhyana (meditation) and bala (spiritual force) are not moral virtues. In fact, meditation is not really a virtue at all; and “virtue” is not really a good translation of paramita. “Accomplishments” might be closer.

Consideration of virtues can sometimes provide ethical insight, but it’s not possible to build a workable ethical system on them. They are too vague to provide specific guidance, or to resolve ethical conflicts. (This is acknowledged by most Western ethicists.)

Buddhism includes specific methods for developing moral virtue, such as mettā bhāvanā, lojong and tonglen, and chöd. I have personally found these valuable. I don’t know of anything closely analogous in other systems. I think if Buddhism has anything distinctively valuable to offer ethics, it is this.

These practices don’t count as either “ethics” or “morality,” exactly, though. That is, they are not a system of principles that provide justifications for morality; nor are they moral rules or virtues.

The paramitas are often discussed together with the Bodhisattva Vow, which is basically to help everyone else get enlightened. This is supposed to be the highest expression of compassion, but it is not clearly moral, and the vow is certainly not a basis for a broad ethical system.


Samaya is sometimes described as “tantric ethics”—wrongly.

Samaya is the set of training rules for Tantric Buddhism, analogous to vinaya for Sutric Buddhism. As with vinaya, many rules have nothing to do with morality, and the set does not address most ethical topics.

Some of the samaya vows might be elaborated into ethical principles. Samaya is more sophisticated than vinaya, and there are moral resources in Tantra that I suspect could be useful in modern Buddhism. (More about this in a later post.) It can’t be a comprehensive foundation, though.

  1. The work of Shantideva is a notable exception. 
  2. The quote is from Ernest J. Eitel, Buddhism: Its Historical, Theoretical, and Popular Aspects, 1884, p. 84. Many other examples, going back to at least 1852, are cited in Theravada Buddhism & The British Encounter, p. 57 et passim
  3. Some academics have tried, but most are skeptical. The main proponent of Buddhist utilitarianism recently has been Charles Goodman. He defends the interpretation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Ethics in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism,” which he wrote. However, his article is reasonably even-handed, and he discusses the evidence against as well. In later work, he argues for non-utilitarian consequentialism. Other academics have argued that Buddhist morality can be characterized in terms of other overarching Western theories. For example, Damien Keown has argued for a virtue ethics interpretation, and against consequentialism. Some (for example Jay Garfield) argue that no overarching theory can capture Buddhist morality; I agree. 
  4. There’s also versions for nuns, but nobody cares about them
  5. Vinaya’s similarity to a military discipline code has led some historians to suggest that monasticism originated (among the kshatriya, or military caste) as a modified version of military training.