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Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Virtue Ethics” by Kallenberg

Summary by Jeff Dickson

What is virtue Ethics?

According to Kallenberg, virtue ethics considers deeds in relation to the telos of human life and what Kallenberg calls “thick descriptions” thereof—i.e. those descriptions that take into account all three components of ethical behavior: agents, actions, and outcomes. That said, virtue ethics, more than other moral theories, seeks to understand and appreciate the first of these components—agents. As a result, Kallenberg distills the goal of human living as follows: “doing the right thing for the right reason and having your friends never be surprised.” Such a system is employed in the Christian worldview to advance Jesus’ story on both a personal and corporate level. Ultimately, Kallenberg concludes that virtue ethics in general and Christian virtue ethics in particular is most concerned about understanding what kind of people we ought to be and then becoming just that so that Jesus’ story can progress.

Who are the “We?”

To rightly delineate this theory, one must come to terms with what is meant by “we” in the “we ought to be” statement. For Kallenberg, we, like Christ, are a sophisticated body that is learning, developing, and growing into a certain type of person by means of personal habits and subsequent character formation. This process, according to the author, is primarily biological and is fleshed out by means of practical reasoning. Unlike animals, humans endorse this practical reasoning and obedience toward second nature compliance through an intentional program of meditation (properly understood as “thinking about the real world with an eye to acting”) and real-life rehearsal/practice. Such behaviors and resulting habituation are being formed against the friction of pervasive physical and spiritual entropy. Thankfully, Kallenberg reveals that individuals and communities are assisted during this process by God’s grace, allowing them to progress, as Jesus did, toward becoming obedient moral agents.

What is “Ought?”

Obedient to what? Obedient to what one “ought” to do. Kallenberg believes, along with the other moral theories represented later in this volume, that this “ought” or “telos….is given, not chosen.” However, obtaining a clear understanding of the telos is difficult inasmuch as many remain morally untutored and, as a result, lack proper “moral eyesight.” Thankfully, the Savior provides his example and grace that clears this vision and allows for proper moral training to commence. Such training toward proper “oughts” comes by means of the following: 1) specific practices that, if endorsed, aid in moral maturation, 2) tradition that, if remembered, helps the Christian become conversant with appropriate “identity-constituting practices,” and 3) narrative that, if studied, helps the believer join the right story.

To illustrate his findings, Kallenberg applies his virtue ethic to the phenomenon of smartphones which are, in his estimation, tools that have unfortunately imbued the polis with a host of unethical implications. Everything from how they are manufactured to how they manipulate users into distracted pleasure-seekers suggests that these devices have changed the moral fabric of society. To combat these secular vices, Kallenberg offers a piece of ancient advice—fasting—inasmuch as fasting (both as a practice and tradition) aides people in general and Christians in particular in the rediscovery of the right set of virtues.


Natural Law Response

Natural law ethicist Claire Brown Peterson “defends the heart” of Kallenberg’s virtue ethic and recognizes that both of their views endorse the following: 1) an emphasis on both individual and corporate dimensions of morality, 2) “thick descriptions” of moral activities, and 3) references to the incarnation as support for a more robust understanding of the good. That said, Peterson believes that natural law theory provides the deeper explanatory context that virtue ethics is missing—context that explains “what makes a particular trait a virtue” and “how to flesh out specific virtues.” Without a robust context that can answer these inquiries, virtue ethics runs the risk of grounding moral behavior in what is pleasurable (Hume) or that which produces more good (Driver) and undermining certain Christian virtues like humility (Aristotle). Therefore, while Peterson agrees with many of Kallenberg’s points, she argues that virtue ethics is most successful when it is grounded in natural law.

Divine Command Theory Response

John Hare criticizes Kallenberg’s presentation on three major fronts. First, while Kallenberg argues that skilled moral judgment is developed by gradual bodily training, Hare reveals that often the kind of training or habituation that is required in such a pursuit is not bodily, but mental and/or spiritual. Second, though Kallenberg intimates that what one ought to do often goes against one’s inclinations, Hare reveals that this is not always the case. After all, on occasion, even the irreligious want to do something that they ought to do. Finally, while Kallenberg’s theory involves the pursuit of the human telos, Hare wonders if there is not also an individual telos or, to put it another way, if there are “different good ways to be human.” On a related note, though Kallenberg speaks of a single Christian tradition, Hare wonders if this is appropriate inasmuch as a plethora of appropriate Christian traditions exist for same purpose.

Prophetic Ethics Response

In his own response, Peter Goodwin Heltzel is appreciative of Kallenberg’s attention to habit-forming practices, his argument that virtues are best formed in the context of Christian community, and his identification of tradition’s impact on the ethical enterprise. However, Heltzel is alarmed by Kallenberg’s failure to acknowledge justice as a foundational ethical pillar. Heltzel also draws attention to Kallenberg’s failure to identify which virtues Christians are called upon to cultivate. Finally, in response to Kallenberg’s illustration of fasting, Heltzel would have appreciated a greater emphasis on how fasting (or any other ethical/moral pursuit) is connected to “liberating love and community-restoring justice.”

Image: Saverio Autellitano – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Introduction”


Summary by Jeff Dickson


Though most Christians concede that moral goodness is rooted in and revealed by God, these are also divided on moral theory, particularly as it pertains to how God communicates moral knowledge, anthropological conclusions, and how the body of Christ fits in the moral landscape. As a result, relatively clear distinctions can be drawn between moral theories depending on how they explain these considerations. These distinctions have established named ethical systems that Steve Wilkens believes deserve a properly nuanced introduction. Such introductions must be made before a compelling juxtaposition/debate between these general ethical systems can be entertained. This is the expressed purpose of the first chapter of this collaborative volume.

Virtue Ethics

Wilkens begins his introductions with virtue ethics and distills its essence down to that moral theory which is more concerned about achieving good character than good actions. According to Plato and Aristotle, virtue ethics is teleologically focused on reaching a moral and transcendent “Form” that is consistent with specific impeccable ideals (like moderation, courage, prudence, justice, etc.) in the context of the polis. The context of this enterprise shifted in the medieval period to the church and more divinely-rooted virtues (especially love) were introduced. However, in reaction to corruption within the church, many during the Renaissance wanted to return ethics to the secular and political world. These became more concerned about what was pragmatic for society building. In the 20th century, Anscombe and MacIntyre returned the moral enterprise to its transcendent and teleological foundations. Such foundations, according to Hauerwas and other more current Christian ethicists, are understood in the context of the church and, according to Zagzebski, appropriately rooted in divine virtue.

Natural Law

Like virtue ethics, natural law theory is teleologically focused. However, unlike virtue ethics, natural law theories are more concerned about adhering to an external and preexisting code than they are about developing personal character. Inasmuch as humans possess a nature, natural law is the guide leading to the highest good and subsequent flourishing. Though reason is championed as the way in which natural law is discovered and followed in the secular world, Wilkens acknowledges that natural law is arbitrary unless it is governed by an appropriate authority and people can be helped to it. Enter Aquinas and Suarez who argue (respectively) that God draws the human person to goodness via the laws that govern human life and serves as the originator of the natural law via his perfect will.

Divine Command Theory

Quite unlike virtue ethics and natural law, divine command theory, in one way or another, delimits morality to what is determined by the commands and prohibitions of God. What is moral depends on God’s sovereign will and this, according to Wilkens, is “opaque to reason and ,…most clearly known by revelation.” However, divine command theory must provide a cogent answer to the age-old euthyphro dilemma which tries to render the supposed commander either subservient to a higher moral code or capable of determining otherwise abhorrent acts moral by divine fiat. Thankfully, Wilkens highlights the work of Robert Adams which satisfies the charge of euthyphro in a way that preserves God’s sovereignty and staves off the criticism that his commands are arbitrary. Adams’ iteration of divine command theory argues that ethics is not grounded in God’s commands, but in his character. He and other more recent modified divine command theorists believe that moral law is a natural implication of God’s nature and, as a result, such a God would only command certain things.

Prophetic Ethics

The final introduction Wilkens makes involves what he calls prophetic ethics. The author concedes that while this particular ethical theory endorses the broadest range of expression, prophetic ethics does share several distinct characteristics. First, its foundation is built on ecclesiology and mission rather than divine commands (see divine command theory) or human flourishing (see virtue ethics and natural law ethics). Second, it pays closer attention to the problem of corporate sin than do the other theories represented in this work. Third, prophetic ethics is more interested in engaging the world, especially the world in need, than it is in theory and doctrine. The Anabaptist movement, the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, and liberation theology are mentioned as rough expressions of this ethical formula as each of these movements endorse these and other corresponding characteristics.51oNubO+DcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Inasmuch as this work is most interested in Christian ethics and the various theories appertaining thereunto, Wilkens is right to demonstrate how each of these systems finds support in the Scriptures. For instance, virtue ethics is consistent with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8 to dwell on that which is moral and the apostle’s call to mimic the character of Christ (see Phil. 2:5-11). That all possess at least some awareness of a natural law seems to comply with what Paul observes in Romans 2:14-15—“…They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their conscience also bears witness,…”. Divine command theory appears to enjoy the broadest scriptural support given the copious commands and ordinances that proliferate both testaments of the canon. Even prophetic ethics enjoys support in passages where the needy and “least of these” are being cared for (Lev.19:9-10; 25:10) and where the standard of judgment is connected to one’s response to those less fortunate (Matt. 25:31-46).

The short introductions provided in this first chapter not only give the reader a brief understanding of the salient features of each position, they provide a brief history of the evolution each theory has endured, elucidate a current expression of these systems, and demonstrate how every one of them enjoys Scriptural support. In so doing, Wilkens is successful at setting a sophisticated table for four in which a robust debate can be had between representatives for each of these theories.



Image: By Ib Rasmussen – Own work, Public Domain,

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism: The Victory of Christian Virtue (Part 5 of 5)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

By Jonathan Pruitt

Chapter Three

The Victory of Christian Virtue

In Chapter One, it was argued that for a particular worldview to be compatible with virtue ethics, it has to meet two kinds of criteria. First, it must be able to account for teleology of persons and the world. Second, it must have a view of man that allows for the narrative unity of a single human life.  Chapter Three will demonstrate two claims. First that experience and reason confront the Buddhism with facts that are difficult to explain away; these same facts naturally flow from the Christian worldview. Therefore, Christianity provides a better explanation for the nature of reality and human persons than Buddhism. The second claim is that Christianity can accommodate a virtue view of ethics.

The Foundations of Christian Ethics

The Nature of God

Any account of Christian ethics must begin with God. In Christian thought, God is metaphysically necessary: “The existence of God is a first truth; in other words, the knowledge of God’s existence is rational intuition. Logically, it precedes and conditions all observation and reasoning.”[1] Further, he is the “infinite Spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end.”[2] God is defined as the greatest conceivable or maximally great being. As such, he is said to possess all great making properties, like moral perfection and ultimate value.  By definition and ontological necessity, God constitutes the good of Christian ethics.

As a maximally great being, God exists with certain attributes. Strong divides the attributes of God into two categories: the absolute or immanent attributes and the relative or transitive attributes. The absolute attributes are those attributes that God possesses without reference to anything else. God possesses life, personality, aseity, unity, and moral perfection as ontologically necessary properties.  The life that God possesses is not biological life, but rather mental energy. He “lives” as a personal being, possessing “the power of self-consciousness and self-determination.”[3]  God, then, is fundamentally and necessarily a unified, conscious, and rational person who possesses libertarian free will. In addition, he constitutes the ultimate ground of all value and moral objectivity.

The Nature of Man

The imago Dei explained  

As a free being, complete within himself, God chose to create mankind in his image:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”[4]

While the Bible does not specifically explain the nature of the imago Dei, Erickson argues that there are at least six facts that can be inferred from what the Bible does say.  His first five facts explain that the image of God is something bestowed freely by God, without reference to any trait or merit within man, and that all humans possess the image equally. Each of these facts is vitally important to ethics, and the application of ethics in particular. However, his sixth point is especially important to demonstrating that Christianity meets the requirements of virtue:

“The image refers to the elements in the human makeup that enable the fulfillment of human destiny. The image is the powers of personality that make humans, like God, beings capable of interacting with other persons, thinking, and of willing freely.”[5] Essentially, possessing the imago Dei is what makes human beings persons; the absence of which makes animals merely animals.

J.P. Moreland has argued that as the imago Dei relates to persons, there are five principle parts: consciousness, free will, rationality, the soul, and objective moral values and the intrinsic value of a human being. If Christianity is true so that people are, in fact, created in the image of God, then there ought to be facts about human persons that are difficult for other worldviews to explain away. This provides an excellent opportunity to offer an apologetic toward Buddhism and a fuller explanation of what constitutes the imago Dei and how it is relevant to Christian ethics.

The recalcitrant imago Dei: human persons and the failure of Buddhism[6]

One of the criticisms made of the virtue view of Buddhism is that it is motivated for some reason other than obtaining an honest interpretation of the Buddha’s ethics. Some Buddhist virtue ethicists even openly admitted that they had ulterior motives.[7] It was suggested that Keown was a kind of “revisionist.” This raises an important question: Why would someone want to reinterpret the Buddha in favor of a virtue ethic? The answer seems to be that a theory of virtue ethics makes better sense out the world than the theories that the Buddha taught. While the insights of the Buddha are tremendous, they are nevertheless out of step with what human beings can know by experience and reason. In particular, Chapter Two pointed out that a virtue view of ethics was guilty of ignoring or distorting truths about the nature of a human person and the moral quality of reality. There are recalcitrant facts about the nature of man and morality for Keown and other Buddhist virtue ethicists. These are facts about the sort of world human beings find themselves in as well as the sort of lives they experience, facts about the apparent narrative unity of the human life and the teleology of the world in general. Specifically, the Buddhist will have trouble explaining the five parts of a person who possesses the imgao Dei.


Moreland argues that “mental states require a subjective ontology–namely that mental states are necessarily owned by the first person sentient subjects who have them.”[8] According to Moreland, there are five states of consciousness and each is expressed in terms of a subject/object relationship.  A sensation is a state of awareness. One might have the sensation of “seeing red,” or “feeling pain.” A thought is a “mental content that can be expressed in an entire sentence.” “All fire trucks are red,” is a thought and so is “My favorite fruit is apples.” A belief is a “person’s view, accepted to varying degrees of strength, of how things really are.” A desire is a “certain felt inclination to do, or experience certain things or avoid such.” And finally, an act of will is a “choice, an exercise of power. . . usually for the sake of some purpose.”[9] The states of consciousness do not constitute some conventional person nor are these states aggregates of a whole. Instead, the five states are all properties of a mind (mental states), which is a unified whole and indivisible. Moreland further suggests that there is an I that stands behind and above these various states so that they belong to a particular individual: “the first person perspective is not a property persons have, it is the thing that persons are – centers of a personal kind of consciousness.”[10] On this point, Moreland agrees with Strong:

Self-consciousness is more than consciousness. This last the brute may be supposed to possess, since the brute is not an automaton. Man is distinguished from the brute by his power to objectify self. Man is not only conscious of his own acts and states, but by abstraction and reflection he recognizes the self which is the subject of these acts and states.[11]

Moreland’s view of consciousness as mental states stands in contrast to the Buddha’s.

The Buddha believed that there are five aggregates that constitute a conventional person:  form

(rupa), sensation (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formation (sankhara), and awareness[12]

(vinnana).   The last four of these aggregates are mental states,[13] similar to the ones utilized by Moreland, although the Buddha is clear that these mental states do not belong to anyone. An unnamed monk, in a dialogue with the Buddha, argued that human persons mistakenly assume that one of the skandhas might be identified as the self.[14] Later in the discourse, the Buddha explains that each of these assumptions is unfounded. The Buddha asks the monk concerning each of the skandhas, “Is this what I am?” The monk responds, with Buddha’s approval, “No, lord.” There is no unified self; there is only an aggregate of parts with an illusion of self.

However, the idea that a person is merely a collection of parts does not solve the problem that Moreland raises. For example, the Buddha suggests that awareness or vinnana is the “awareness of sensory and mental objects.”[15] But awareness, as a mental state, requires necessarily a subject and an object. There must be a subject who experiences awareness of a particular object or state of affairs. The other aggregates (with the exception of form which merely describes the physical body) have the same requirement. Perceptions will require both a “perceiver” and an object to be perceived.  Formations (sankhara), which are “a range of mental responses to objects,” also require a subject/object relationship.[16] By formulating the aggregates, the Buddha has not solved the problem of the I standing over and above the aggregates. Instead, he has merely described the conscious states that an I possesses.  Further, it is not likely that the doctrine of “no-self” and a belief in the aggregates as mental states can be held simultaneously. The only option would be to either affirm that a conscious self exists over and above the aggregates or that the five aggregates are not describing mental states.  The juxtaposition of the “no-self” doctrine and the strong sense of the reality of self creates a tension within the Buddhist worldview to such a point that the language employed must be understood as either being only conventionally  true (there is a self) or ultimately true (there is no self).

Besides the subject/object problem implicit within the aggregates, there is a kind of cosmological problem. How could consciousness arise when reality is fundamentally empty, non-personal, and lacking any causal powers? A monk asked the Buddha this question directly:  “Lord, what is the cause, what the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of form? What is the cause, what the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness?”[17] The Buddha responded:

Monk, the four great existents (earth, water, fire, & wind) are the cause, the four great existents the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of form. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of feeling. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of perception. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of fabrications. Name&-form is the cause, name-&-form the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of consciousness.[18]

According to the Buddha, consciousness arises as result of a material cause (earth, water, fire, and wind) intersecting with particular conditions, the reality of dependent origination. While the

Buddha refrains from metaphysical speculation, there is nevertheless another tension in Buddhism at this point: how does consciousness arise out of reality as the Buddha understood it?

The answer is not clear. Consciousness, for Buddhism is a recalcitrant fact.

The unity of human life (the soul)

If mental states are something possessed so that there is an indivisible I over and above them, then another issue presents itself: the concept of a substantial soul.  Moreland argues against naturalism, but his point can easily be adapted to a Buddhist view:

I. I exist, as does a particular arrangement of skandhas associated with me.

II. I am not identical with the skandhas associated with me.

III. I am not identical with any single skandha (like vinnana, for example).

IV. I do not have any proper part which is not part of the skandhas

V. Therefore, I have no proper parts: I am altogether simple entity.

The Buddhist would likely find (III) and (IV) uncontroversial. There would be no ultimate I to be identical to a set of skandhas and whatever an I is, it would consist totally of the skandhas. Clearly, there would a problem with (I). But, if Moreland is right about mental states necessarily requiring a “subjective ontology,” then (I) should be acceptable even if there is protest. If (I) makes it through, then so do (II) and (III). If there is a “subjective ontology” that possesses the five skandhas, then it follows that a person is not identical to the skandhas.  The result is that the self is an “immaterial, non-extended substance”[19] that has no necessary relationship with the skandhas. This would explain why “we have very strong, deep intuitions that we are enduring continuants even though we undergo various changes and… experience part replacement.”[20]

The Buddhist faces a problem here: if there is a self that exists over and above the skandhas, that self would, presumably, not be conditioned by the laws of dependent origination or karma since it stands outside the space where those laws would have causal powers. The self would create a kind of dualism within Buddhism: there is what is unconditioned and without self (nirvana) and there is the unconditioned self. To explain these phenomena, Buddhism would need to develop a doctrine of the soul. The apparent necessity of an unconditioned self, enduring over time, and being metaphysically simple, the apparent necessity of the soul, creates another recalcitrant fact for Buddhists.

Free will

The concept of free will creates another tension in Buddhist thought. In one of the most important suttas, responding to the question, “What is dependent co-arising?” the Buddha said,

From birth as a requisite condition comes aging and death. Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this regularity of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma, this this/that conditionality. The Tathagata directly awakens to that, breaks through to that. Directly awakening & breaking through to that, he declares it, teaches it, describes it, sets it forth. He reveals it, explains it, makes it plain, & says, ‘Look.’ From birth as a requisite condition comes aging & death.[21]

From the dependent co-arising of things come “dependently co-arisen phenomena.” These phenomena are the complex conjunction of several “lines” of dependent co-arising and result in events like birth, becoming, craving, and so on. [22] The Buddha summarized his teaching on causality by saying that “Where this is present, that comes to be; from the arising of this, that arises. When this is absent, that does not come to be; on the cessation of this, that ceases.”[23] The Buddha extended this kind of causality uniformly to explain “the evolution and dissolution of the world process…plant life… and [even] to human personality.”[24] However, the Buddha is said to be able to break this chain of causation so that he is free from the cycle of rebirth. This assumes that the Buddha is able to enact “top-down” causation, and that he is significantly free from prior causes.  In short, the Buddha possesses a form of libertarian free will.[25]

Once again, there is tension within Buddhism.  The Buddha has explained the universe in fully deterministic terms so that every effect has, at least theoretically, a detectable cause. The Buddha also wants to maintain that he and others like him are sufficiently free to break the chain of causation. However, he provides no means by which this is possible. Persons, in particular, are not a good candidate for the sort of top-down causation that is required as persons are themselves an aggregate of parts reacting according to the laws of karma and dependent-origination. The apparent existence of free will establishes another recalcitrant fact for Buddhism.




Buddhism faces a similar problem with the idea of rationality. The Buddha taught that the world was arranged in a rational way so that causes have predictable effects; he had a kind of process metaphysics. His teaching represents a “framework of thought that hinges on the ideas that sentient experience is dependently originated and that whatever is dependently originated is conditioned, impermanent, subject to change, and lacking independent selfhood.”[26] The Buddha consistently emphasizes that reality is a rational place in his teaching on Right View.  A disciple named Kaccayana Gotta asked the Buddha, “What is right view?” The Buddha said that

This world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence and nonexistence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one.[27]

Clearly, there is a twofold assumption here: first that reality is a fundamentally rational place and second that human persons are rational themselves so that they are able, at least potentially, to apprehend reality as it is. However, the Buddha does not provide reasons as to why reality and human persons would be arranged in just this way. Thomas Nagel suggests that the fact that humans have the ability to reason is only possible under two sorts of circumstances: either “we can reason in these ways because it is a consequence of a more primitive capacity of belief formation that had survival value when the human brain was evolving” or “the universe is intelligible to us because it and our minds were made for each other.”[28] In Chapter Two, it was shown that the sort of teleology presupposed Nagel’s second option is unlikely on the Buddhist view. Presumably, then, the Buddhist would have to accept some sort of naturalistic (naturalistic in the sense that it would arise out of the impersonal laws of dependent co-arising and karma) mechanism as the origin of rationality. But Nagel says that this answer is “laughably inadequate” and it would still not explain why reality itself is a rational place. In addition, Alvin Plantinga argues that naturalistic accounts of rationality are self-defeating; it seems likely that his argument would stand against Buddhist forms of naturalism.[29] Thus, once again, the Buddhist faces a recalcitrant fact.

Objective moral value and intrinsic human value

One final area of tension in Buddhism concerns the nature of morality and the intrinsic value of human persons. The ethics of Buddhism are “thought to be objectively true and in accordance with the nature of things.”[30] The dharma defines good and evil so that

Of paths, the eightfold is best. Of truths, the four sayings. Of qualities, dispassion. Of two-footed beings, the one with the eyes to see.  Just this is the path — there is no other — to purify vision. Follow it, and that will be Mara’s [the demon of corruption and desire]  bewilderment.[31]

This objectivity of ethics in Buddhism led Velez de Cea to conclude that Buddhism has characteristics of moral realism because “certain external actions are unwholesome or wholesome.”[32] As moral realists, Buddhists believe that “moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right.”[33] A statement like “murder is wrong” is objectively either true or false.

Karma serves as the foundation of moral value: “For the Buddha, the moral order of the universe is contained first and foremost in the doctrines of kamma and rebirth.”[34] Given its lack of belief in a personal God, it seems fair, then, to characterize Buddhism as “atheistic moral realists” who “affirm that objective moral values and duties do exist and are not dependent on evolution or human opinion, but they also insist that they are not grounded in God. Indeed, moral values have no further foundation. They just exist.”[35] The trouble here is that it is difficult to understand how moral values could exist independent of persons. Craig and Moreland suggest that the idea may be incoherent and that “Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions.”[36]

If moral values can exist as an abstraction that only raises another question: how is it that an abstract moral foundation would have any relevance to human persons? Even if moral value could exist as an abstraction, it would not provide moral obligation. The only way persons could be morally obligated to a set of values is if those values were grounded in a person: “A duty is something that is owed… But something can be owed only to some person or persons. There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.”[37]

Related to the existence of objective moral value is the intrinsic worth of human beings.

The value of the human person is often taken to be self-evident in Buddhism. For example, the

Dalai Lama begins Ethics for the New Millennium by stating that the proper goal of ethics is the “great quest for happiness,” a fact that “needs no justification and is validated by the simple fact that we naturally and correctly want this.”[38] According to the Dalia Lama, the natural and correct desires of human beings define what is valuable. Such a view seems to presuppose that human beings are, in fact, incredibly valuable. Keown points out that “compassion (karuṇā) is a virtue that is of importance in all schools of Buddhism” and that the Buddha serves as a primary example of this when he decided to delay returning to nirvana in order to teach others the dharma.[39]However, if persons only exist in the conventional sense, it is difficult to see how some ultimately impersonal, dependently arising, arrangement of parts could be said to possess intrinsic value. Further, given the questionable nature of the Buddhist moral universe, conventional persons may not be able to be moral agents in the first place. Thus the existence of objective moral values and duties, as well the intrinsic value of human beings, is also a recalcitrant fact for Buddhism.

These facts, the nature of consciousness, the soul, rationality, free will, the existence of objective moral values and duties, and the intrinsic value of human persons, are features not easily explained within the Buddhist worldview. However, these truths are central and fundamental to the Christian worldview. Alvin Plantinga makes this very point:

What is it to be a person, what is it to be a human person, and how shall we think about personhood? …The first point to note is that on the Christian scheme of things, God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood. God, furthermore, has created man in his own image; we men and women are image bearers of God, and the properties most important for an understanding of our personhood are properties we share with him. How we think about God, then, will have an immediate and direct bearing on how we think about humankind.[40]

God, as a unified, conscious, personal, rational, and ultimately valuable person, created man in his image. Man possesses these same traits, though to a different degree, because he is essentially made in the imago Dei. Given the Christian doctrines of God and man, it has been demonstrated that it can ably accommodate the necessary components of virtue: the narrative unity of a single human life and an explanation of teleology in man and the world.

Christ: The Ideal Man and Savior of Virtue

Aristotle argued that the good for man was to live a certain kind of life, a life characterized by the development and practice of the virtues. The driving question behind his ethic was, “What kind of person should I be?”  The ancient Israelites had an answer to this question: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).” Their “basic moral doctrine is the imitatio Dei, to be like God as much as is humanly possible.”[41] They were to do this by following God’s commandments. Primarily, the ethics of the Hebrew Bible were deontological. They were obligated to obey God in light of who God is and what he had done for them.  While the character of God provided the standard of right actions, it did not constitute the

good for man in the Aristotelian sense. However, with the incarnation of the Son of God, the ethics of the people of God shifted: “Christ is the Word made flesh, the perfect revelation of the Father, which means that, to the Christian, God is most perfectly revealed in a person, not a set of commandments or any written or spoken words, although Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law, not to destroy it.”[42] The absolute center of Christian ethics is the person and work of Jesus Christ.

One of the key texts on Christian ethics was written by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.

Paul’s purpose in writing was to convey that God had begun “cosmic reconciliation” through his Son, Jesus Christ.[43] Given this wide scope, Ephesians is a good place to look for what is fundamental to Christian ethics. In the first three chapters, Paul explains the role that the individual, the church, and himself has within the plan of God for the world. In chapter two, Paul explains that the individual is “saved by grace, through faith.” Salvation is not given according to an individual’s actions, but because “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  Here Paul affirms that people have both intrinsic value and a teleogy. They are intrinsically valuable because they are “a product God’s making (αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα).” They possess a telos because they were made with a purpose: “created in Christ Jesus for good works (κτισθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ ἐπὶ ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς). On the basis of these realities, Paul formulates his Christian ethic throughout the rest of the book. But, Ephesians 4:22-24 is especially relevant: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds;  and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

In these verses, Paul teaches that the Christian life is a process of putting aside sinful habits and attitudes, replacing them with habits and attitudes that are reflective of who God is. This dynamic component also corresponds to Aristotle’s ethic.[44] Aristotle taught that the moral life did not consist merely in performing right actions, but also in becoming a certain kind of person through the development of character. Through this development, one can reach his telos.

The process of sanctification in Christianity is similar: “sanctification is a teleological concept. More specifically, sanctification involves the growth and transformation of oneself and one’s character toward a partially determinate picture of the human good or end.”[45] But what constitutes the telos of man in a Christian context? While not answering this question directly, Paul nevertheless provides the answer as he concludes his thought in 5:1-2: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

When Paul provides an example of the end goal of this process of sanctification, he says that Christians should “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us.” According to Paul,

Christ is the moral exemplar, the ideal man, and Christians should model their lives on the life of

Christ. The Christian answer to the Aristotelian question, “What sort of person should I be?” is

“You should be like Christ.” The gospels provide the fullest picture of the mission and life of Jesus Christ. According to Hauerwas, the key ethical feature of the life of Jesus was that he “did not direct attention to himself, but through his teaching, healings, and miracles tried to indicate the nature and immediacy of God’s kingdom.”[46]

The Aristotelian virtues were realized largely within a political context. The virtues were those goods that enabled the ideal kind of society, and individuals within that society, to flourish. Both Aristotle and Christianity agree on the social nature of human beings and that “human wellbeing and flourishing occur in various relationships where life is shared and common goods are realized.”[47] Aristotle argued that only within relationships between people of a certain class, gender, and social status can one achieve eudaimonia. Virtue was attained through relationships with people like one’s self.  However, in the Christian context, the kinds of relationships that allow moral development are the kinds of relationships found within the kingdom of God – relationships between God, the individual, and the kingdom community.

While Aristotle required a group of like individuals for moral growth, Christian ethics emphasizes the difference between God and man.[48] Moral development occurs when a person exists in right relationships, not only with other human beings, but also with God himself (Matt. 22:36-40). Jesus demonstrates how these relationships should be worked out when he “comes to initiate and make present the kingdom of God through healing of those possessed by demons, by calling disciples, telling parables, teaching the law, challenging the authorities of his day, and by being crucified at the hands of Roman and Jewish elites and raised from the grave.”[49] Jesus demonstrated that the ideal life is characterized by obedience and love for God as well as sacrificial love for other human beings, especially human beings that are considered unworthy of that sacrifice. This is why Jesus is the human paradigm of virtue; “he realized our full human potential. He resisted selfish temptations, identified with the weak and oppressed, made love his motivation and guide, responded in love to both friends and enemies, was obedient to God (even to death), and found self-fulfillment in relationship with God rather than in autonomy.”[50]

Reuschling makes an excellent point here:

Jesus himself is the exemplar of the virtuous life. It might be easy to attribute the virtuous life to Jesus based on his divinity. Yet the virtues that Jesus taught were demonstrated in the life he lived through his humanity and in his social and personal interactions. It’s Jesus’ humanity that gives us the window through which to view the quality and shape of a life that pleases God. Jesus did not just teach about the virtue of mercy. Jesus was merciful. Humility was not an abstract idea in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus himself was the model of humility. Jesus did not present theories of justice. Jesus was reconciling, securing justice and righteousness as marks of shalom.[51]


A Christian ethic of virtue, then, is well founded and superior to a Buddhist virtue ethic. The Christian worldview provides the necessary foundations, an account of teleology and the narrative unity of human life, while Buddhism does not. Christianity does more than merely allow for a theory of virtue ethics. It provides a rich, substantive, and attractive theory of virtue. The Christian account affirms what we all we want to affirm and know intuitively: that human life is immensely valuable and that we were meant for some incredible good. Jesus Christ provides the fully realized example of the human telos that affirms these intuitions and calls humans to the good for which they were originally intended. By contrast, the Buddha asks men to deny a substantive good and even the commonsense understanding of themselves in order to achieve the extinguishing of life:

Delight is the root of suffering and stress, that from coming-into-being there is birth, and that for what has come into being there is aging and death. Therefore, with the total ending, fading away, cessation, letting go, relinquishment of craving, the Tathagata has totally awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening, I tell you.[52]

In stark contrast, Jesus declares, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”[53] Jesus affirms what the Buddha denies, which is they very essentials of virtue. Therefore, I invite the Buddhist virtue ethicist, who correctly wants to affirm the goodness and value of human life, to identify with Christ, who, “in his full humanity and solidarity with us, became what we were created to be: the image of God.[54] The good life does not consist in the extinguishing of it, but in entering into the Kingdom of God, conformed to the image of his Son.

[1] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium and Commonplace-Book Designed for

the Use of Theological Students (Philadelphia: Griffith & Rowland Press, 1907),  52.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 251.

[4] Gen 1:26

[5] 158  Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 532.

[6] 159 This heading is adapted from Moreland’s The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure

of Naturalism

[7] 160  James Whitehill, “Buddhism and the Virtues,” in Contemporary Buddhist Ethics, ed. Damien Keown (Richmond: Surrey: Curzon, 2000), 17.

[8] James Porter Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (London: University of Nottingham, 2009), 20.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 133.

[11] 164  Strong, Systematic Theology, 252.

[12] 165  Typically, vinnana is translated as consciousness. However, this translation is not consistent with what is usually meant by consciousness, “the totality of conscious states of an individual.”

[13] 166 Peter Harvey, “Theravada Philosophy of Mind and the Person,” in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, ed. William Edelglass and Jay Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 265.

[14] 167  Maha-punnama Sutta: The Great Full-moon Night Discourse, trans. Thanissaro Bhikku,

[15] Harvey, “Theravada Philosophy,” 266.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Maha-punnama Sutta: The Great Full-moon Night Discourse

[18] Ibid.

[19] Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 120.

[20] Ibid., 115.

[21] Paccaya Sutta: Requisite Conditions, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[22] Kalupahana, Buddhism as Philosophy, 29.

[23] 176  Ibid., 66.

[24] Ibid., 30.

[25] 178  Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 50.

[26] Noa Ronkin, “Theravada Metaphysics and Ontology,” in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, ed. William Edelglass and Jay Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 14.

[27] 180  Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right View), trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[28] 181  Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 75.

[29] See Plantinga’s “Naturalism Defeated,”

[30] Keown, A Short Introduction, 25.

[31] Maggavagga: The Path, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[32] Velez de Cea, “The Criteria of Goodness,” 134.

[33] 186  Geoff Sayre-McCord, “Moral Realism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University, 2007). Par 3.

[34] 187

Gowans, Buddhism, 29.

[35] 188  James Porter Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 492.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 83.

[38] The Dalia Lama, Ethics, 5.

[39] Keown, A Short Introduction, 30.

[40] Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers (1984): 6.

[41] Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 316.

[42] Ibid., 316.

[43] D. A. Carson,  Ephesians: New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1994), 134.

[44] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 117.

[45] 198  Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University, 1996), 72.

[46] 199

Stanley Hauweras, “Jesus and the Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University, 2001), 117.

[47] Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, 116.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Hauerwas, “Jesus and the Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom,” 119,

[50] Kovak, The Christian Case, 80.

[51] Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, 123.

[52] 205 Mulapariyaya Sutta: The Root Sequence, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[53] John 10:10

[54] Kovak, The Christian Case, 80.

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism: Interpretations of Buddhist Ethics (Part 4 of 5)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

By Jonathan Pruitt

Interpretations of Buddhist Ethics

Utilitarian or Virtue Ethic

There are two primary interpretations of Buddhist ethics: utilitarian and virtue.[1] Keown is quick to point out that Buddhist ethics will not fit neatly into any one category in Western ethics. However, Buddhist scholars see many benefits to interpreting Buddhist ethics in Western categories. Western ethics provides a highly developed vocabulary and conceptual framework that was never developed in Buddhism. Because of this, there is a strong tendency to identify Buddhism in terms of Western ethical theories, even if there is not complete congruence.

It is relatively uncontroversial that Buddhist ethics is teleological, at least to a certain point. While scholars agree that Buddhist ethics is aimed at the goal of nirvana, what is controversial is whether the means to that goal are morally good. One of the key issues in this debate concerns the nature of nirvana. Those holding a utilitarian view understand nirvana in a straightforward way: it is the desired end in light of the circumstances. It is a place of peace and rest, an escape from suffering. Those holding the virtue view believe that nirvana is similar to the eudaimonia of Aristotle and that it constitutes the telos of man.

The Utilitarian Interpretation

The ethics of utilitarianism, broadly speaking, could be summed up like this: “Good actions are those actions that are instrumental to pleasure; evil actions are those actions that destroy pleasure.” If the means to nirvana are merely instrumental, then Buddhist ethics is a kind of utilitarian ethic, where the “good exists in pleasure” and the means to that good are not important.[2] Only the consequences count in terms of moral evaluation. Good and evil only exist relative to the predefined goal. While utilitarian kinds of ethical systems are objective in the sense that they provide objective criteria for evaluating good and evil, these systems are not objective in the ultimate sense, meaning that utilitarian systems are not able to give an objective account of what is ultimately good or valuable. Generally, the end is decided based on what the community already counts as valuable or good in itself.[3] As such, utilitarian forms of ethics are, at some point, transcended. They require a prior account of what is valuable or morally praiseworthy so that the goal selected is not arbitrary. This is exactly the condition in which many scholars have found the teaching of the Buddha.

One proponent of this view was Winston L. King, who held that Buddhism “aims at goals which completely transcend the ethical and always places its ethics in that transcendent context.”[4]  The Dali Lama himself seems to share the instrumental view. For example, he seems to suggest that an act like stealing is not wrong in itself, but wrong because of the resulting consequences: “As a result of stealing, one will lack material wealth.”[5] Those holding this view take the Buddha’s classifications of the criteria within the Path, wisdom (panna), the virtues (sila), and concentration (samadhi), in a straightforward way. The virtues of the Path (right speech, right action, and right livelihood) are said to be made possible with wisdom (right view and right intention). By having wisdom and virtue, the monk is able then participate in the

“higher” order goods of the Path, the development of concentration (right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration) that leads to nirvana.[6]

If ethical practice is merely the means by which one overcomes the suffering of this world, then, at the moment suffering is overcome, the practice of the virtues is obsolete.  In the sutta entitled “What is Purpose?” the Buddha explicitly addresses the reason for practicing the virtues:

Thus in this way, Ananda, skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, freedom from remorse as their reward. Freedom from remorse has joy as its purpose, joy as its reward. Joy has rapture as its purpose, rapture as its reward. Rapture has serenity as its purpose, serenity as its reward. Serenity has pleasure as its purpose, pleasure as its reward. Pleasure has concentration as its purpose, concentration as its reward. Concentration has knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its purpose, knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its reward. Knowledge & vision of things as they actually are has disenchantment as its purpose, disenchantment as its reward. Disenchantment has dispassion as its purpose, dispassion as its reward. Dispassion has knowledge & vision of release as its purpose, knowledge & vision of release as its reward. In this way, Ananda, skillful virtues lead step-by-step to the consummation of arahantship.[7]

In this text, the Buddha never mentions that the purpose of practicing the virtues relates to an inherent value in doing so. Instead, the virtues are practiced because they “lead step-by-step to the consummation of arahantship,” which is nirvana. Once nirvana is achieved, then there would no longer be a purpose in practicing the virtues: “The highest life seems to be a complete escape from, or transcendence from, the ethical sphere.”[8] Having achieved nirvana, terms like “moral” and “non-moral” no longer have any meaning.[9] The Reverend Saddhatissa also held this view, as he explained when outlining his two guidelines for understanding Buddhist ethics: “In the first place, according to Buddhist and other Indian thought, the highest state is one that lies beyond good and evil. In the second place, according to Buddhism there is no break between the moral teaching and that which pertains to the ideal state.”[10]

Given the instrumental nature of the virtues, they cannot be ultimately good: the “virtues are not sufficient in themselves. On the one hand, to be virtuous is not the ultimate goal of life… If there is any goal, it is freedom.”[11] They are described in a simile taught by the Buddha himself, like a raft that is to be abandoned once one has crossed the river:  “for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.”[12] They are only valuable insofar as they enable one to reach the goal of the ethical pursuit, nirvana.

The Virtue Interpretation

The outline of Buddhist virtue

Besides the utilitarian interpretation, the other major view is that “the virtue ethics tradition is the Western tradition most congenial to the assumptions and insights of Buddhist ethics.”[13]  Virtue ethics is also aimed at a goal, the good for man, which is objectively the best and most proper pursuit of mankind.  Good actions, or virtuous actions, are good because they correspond to and participate in the good for man.[14] Keown suggests that a utility view is a mere caricature and that a proper understanding of Buddhism will show that the Buddha has much more in common with Aristotle than John Stuart Mill.

While there are several scholars who interpret Buddhism as a virtue ethic, Damien Keown’s work is regarded as the most developed. Most other accounts of Buddhist virtue take him as foundational.[15] Keown suggests that there are four points of convergence between Buddhist ethics and Aristotelian virtue ethics: the goal of ethics, the general psychology of each system, the particular psychology of moral choices, and the desire for the good.[16] Essentially, Keown is making two kinds of claims: (1) reality has certain moral properties (2) human beings, as agents within a moral reality, possesses a certain moral psychology. Since Keown’s discussion of moral psychology is primarily concerned with categories unique to Aristotle that are not directly relevant to this thesis and given his own statement that “the discipline of ethics only requires that one individual can be distinguished from another… to pursue the issue of ultimate ontological constitution of individual natures in this context is to confuse ethics with metaphysics,” only his first contention will be examined here.[17]

Key to (1) is the claim that nirvana is intrinsically and essentially good so that it serves as the good for man in a way similar to eudaimonia in Aristotle’s thought:

Nirvana is the good, and rightness is predicated of acts and intentions to the extent which they participate in nirvanic goodness. The right and the good in Buddhism are inseparably intertwined. If an action does not display nirvanic qualities, then it cannot be right in terms of Buddhist ethics whatever other characteristics (such as consequences) it might have.[18]

Keown takes it as being self-evidently true that nirvana constitutes the good for man: “Whatever else nirvana is, it is indisputably the summum bonum of Buddhism.” [19] Keown strongly emphasizes the difference between nirvana in this life and nirvana after death and narrows his discussion to accommodate only nirvana in this life.[20] In general, those holding to a virtue view of Buddhism draw some important limitations to their interpretations.[21]

Another key feature of Buddhism as a virtue ethic is the relationship of nirvana to the practices that the Buddha taught. While other interpreters of Buddhism, like King and Saddhista, understand the Buddha as teaching that the Eightfold Path reveals a hierarchal structure of practices, with moral virtue as merely the first step and meant to be discarded once it is mastered, the proponent of the virtue view disagrees. Instead, all practices taught by the Buddha are meant to be understood as equally important. If moral virtue is placed first on the list, it is not because it is a  merely a stepping stone to more advanced practice, it is because moral virtue constitutes what is foundational for other practices so that to cease practicing the virtues is to fail at all other practices. Moral virtue is both a means to then end of Buddhist practice and the foundation of it.

Moral practice exists on the same continuum as nirvana so that nirvana is not a transcendent, amoral state, but moral practices participate in and constitute nirvana. As Keown says, “In both Aristotelian and Buddhist ethics, an action is right because it embodies a virtue which corresponds with and ‘participates’ in the goal of human perfection.”[22] Even though he disagrees with the virtue interpretation, Kalupahana nevertheless agrees with Keown on this point: “Ultimate freedom [nirvana] is above the world, like the lotus that rises above the water without being severed from its root in the water.”[23] Moral practice is not merely a means because moral practice constitutes the good for man, nirvana. 

Further, the means of attaining nirvana is inherently good because “it is the only way to secure the utility sought. But for consequentialist views of morality like utilitarianism, no means can have inherent value.”[24]This is an important distinction because, according to virtue ethics for an act to be considered virtuous, it must both be good in itself, regardless of the consequences, and participate in the final good.

A Critique of Buddhist Virtue

The point of this critique will be to test for the criteria established for virtue in the first chapter: any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue view of ethics must have an explanation of teleology in the world and the narrative unity of a human life.

The Problem of Teleology

G. E. Moore claimed that one cannot move from observations about the world to conclusions about what constitutes the good.[25] Empiricism cannot be the foundation of a moral theory. Those guilty of this have committed the naturalistic fallacy, which is to “conflate the ‘is’ and the ‘ought.’”[26] However, a virtue view of Buddhism seems to make precisely this move.

The Buddha was one the world’s finest empiricists. In fact the Buddha’s teachings are entirely based on his observations and experience. It was a result of his observations about reality that he formulated his Four Noble Truths–truths which were confirmed through his own experience and the experience of his disciples: “Monks, I have known two qualities through experience: discontent with regard to skillful qualities and unrelenting exertion. . . From this heedfulness of mine was attained Awakening. From this heedfulness of mine was attained the unexcelled freedom from bondage.[27]

The challenge that Keown and other virtue ethicists face here is the challenge of understanding the Buddha’s empiricism as teaching robust metaphysical concepts like eudaimonia and intrinsic goodness. In other words, they want to understand the Buddha as arriving at an “ought” from an “is.” Keown suggests that nirvana is sufficiently similar to Aristotle’s eudaimonia so that nirvana can be said to serve as the human good just as Aristotle’s eudaimonia does.[28] To make his point, he describes eudaimonia as being “desired for its own sake; everything else that is desired is desired for the sake of it; it is never chosen for the sake of anything else.”[29] He concludes that the same criteria can be applied to nirvana so that nirvana constitutes the good for man just as eudaimonia does. According to Keown, the fact that nirvana is desirable explains its role as the good for man.

However, the fact that eudaimonia is desirable is only part of the reason why Aristotle saw it as constituting the good for man. According to Aristotle, the first and most important claim about the good for man was not a claim about its desirability, but teleology: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good.” Given this teleology, Aristotle continues his argument: “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.”[30] Aristotle’s argument rests on a metaphysical reality: human beings, like all other things, have a particular end or function. There is, in fact, a telos for all things. Given this fact, Aristotle uses observation about desires and their objects to arrive at eudaimonia as the appropriate goal for man. Keown does not have a means of explaining a telos prior to defining nirvana as the good for man.  The result is that Keown works backward, making observations about reality and then formulating metaphysical truths. Sallie King explains the problem:

There seem to be two non-reducible foundations of morality: (1) natural law, the Dhamma (conditionality); and (2) an empathetic, caring, compassionate response to the suffering of sentient beings; empathy, caring, compassion, fully manifest in Buddhas, are implicit in the whole enterprise of Buddhism. The first foundation, the claim that conditionality and interdependence universally characterize samsara, Buddhist thought extensively strives to demonstrate (though, of course, whether or not it succeeds is a separate issue). The second, the perception that suffering is bad, Buddhism assumes, but few would probably want to challenge this assumption. It is the second foundation—the assumption that suffering is a problem and the caring response to that problem—that takes us from is to ought, from metaphysics to ethics.[31]

Aristotle is making a distinction between eudaimonia and what is ontologically good that Keown does not. While equating nirvana with eudaimonia Keown argues that “Nirvana is the good, and rightness is predicated of acts and intentions to the extent which they participate in nirvanic goodness. The right and the good in Buddhism are inseparably intertwined.”[32] However, “Aristotle identifies eudaimonia with the highest human good of human flourishing, but not with the moral domain of the good.”[33]  What Keown conflates, Aristotle keeps separate and by doing so, Aristotle avoids committing the naturalistic fallacy. What Keown needs to avoid this trap is to provide an explanation of nirvana as the good for man and the pursuit of nirvana as being morally his telos. He must provide a metaphysical account of both the existence of a moral domain and human teleology prior to formulating his ethical framework.

Another problem faced by a virtue view of Buddhism is an interpretive one. The Buddha described reality as it is and made recommendations about changing aspects of that reality in light of the circumstances. However, to understand the Buddha as introducing metaphysical concepts like “the good for man” in the Aristotelian sense seems to be more the result of idealization and eisegesis than an honest reading of his teachings. In one famous example, the Buddha is questioned by one of his disciples regarding the nature of the soul, the universe, and nirvana. The disciple wanted a statement by the Buddha on each of these subjects, but the Buddha responded by reminding his questioner that he has left such statements undeclared on purpose. They are undeclared because they “are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.[34]

The Buddha explains what he has declared and why:

And what is declared by me? ‘This is stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, selfawakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are declared by me.[35]

Given these statements by the Buddha, it seems like an anachronism to read concepts like teleology and “the good for man” into his teaching. However, Keown suggests this is not the case.

Providing man with a telos might solve the is/ought problem since possessing a telos means having a certain purpose, direction, and design. However, the telos brings up other difficult metaphysical questions. In particular, if a person has a function, design, or purpose, such a claim seems to presuppose a personal agent that can bestow such qualities. However, Buddhism does not allow for such an agent or any other means of accounting for teleology in human beings. Further, it seems completely foreign to Buddhism to suggest that there is a “good for man” in the Aristotelian sense. Without an adequate account of teleology present, the virtue view of Buddhism fails the first criterion established in chapter one. This leaves the criteria of the narrative unity of the human life.

The Problem of Unity

The concept of the self is critical to any account of ethics. This is a point that even Buddhist scholars appreciate. For example, Jones beings the New Social Face of Buddhism by asking, “What is the self?” and “Who am I?” to which he responds, “These are the questions around which the whole argument of this book revolves.”[36] In virtue ethics, the nature of the self is even more important since it is an agent centered ethic: “in any account of virtue ethics, the self must play a prominent role.”[37] However, Keown seems unwilling to define and engage the nature of the self in his argument for Buddhist virtue. He limits the scope of his argument to nirvana in this life[38] and then adds that “I do not address directly the problem of the apparent albescence of a moral subject in the light of the no-self (annata) doctrine. It seems to me that Buddhism provides sufficient criteria for personal identity to allow the identification of subjects within the moral nexus.”[39]

This seems like a strange omission give the importance of the conception of self to most other forms of ethics.  Why would Keown put such a crucial issue aside? One clue comes from the suggestion of Whitehill, who himself takes a virtue view of Buddhism. Whitehill calls Keown a “revisionist.”[40] Whitehill himself does not seem particularly interested in understanding historical Buddhism in its context, but rather as a means for expanding Western ethical “horizons.” [41] Perhaps Keown is motivated by reasons other than understanding the Buddha in his own context. Given the discussion of the no-self doctrine earlier, there is apparently no possibility for understanding a human life as a unified whole.  All language regarding the self is mere convention, not referring to any substantive “person.”

Buddhist scholars who are willing to comment on the nature of the self paint a picture that is not compatible with MacIntyre’s requirement of narrative unity. Persons are only “persons” in terms of convention and not substance. They are a collection of parts, loosely associated with previous arrangements of other parts. This leads Siderits to conclude that, in light of the Buddhist no-self doctrine, “I should continue to identify with the past and future stages of this causal series. But I should not do so as the hero of the story that is my life.”[42] But it is just such an identification that is necessary according to MacIntyre. As a result, Buddhism fails the second criteria for a virtue ethic: the narrative unity of a single human life.



[1] Siderits, Philosophy, 77.

[2] Julia Driver, “The History of Utilitarianism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University), par 3.

[3] 114

Goodman, Consequences, 23.

[4] 115  King, In the Hope of Nibbana,  4.

[5] 116

Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho and Donald S. Lopez, The Way to Freedom: Core Teachings of Tibetan Buddhism (India: Indus, 1996), 100.

[6] David J Kalupahana, Ethics in Early Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaiì Press, 1995), 93.


[7] Kimattha Sutta: What is the Purpose? trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[8] 119  King, In Hope of Nibbana, 30.


[9] Harvey, Introduction, 44.

[10] Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics, 4.

[11] Kalupahana, Ethics, 72.

[12] 123 The Middle Length Discourses, 229.

[13] 124

James Whitehill, “Buddhism and the Virtues,” in Contemporary Buddhist Ethics, ed. Damien Keown (Richmond: Surrey: Curzon, 2000), 17.

[14] Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University, 2010), par. 6.

[15] Whitehill, “Buddhism,” 18.

[16] 127

Keown, Nature, 195-222.

[17] 128  Ibid., 19.

[18] Ibid., 177.

[19] Ibid.,199.

[20] Ibid., 19.

[21] For example, Whitehill limits his interpretation by suggesting that his virtue interpretation is only for the sake of building bridges between Eastern and Western ethics, and not necessarily an attempt to offer a straightforward rendering of Buddhist ethics.

[22] Keown, Nature, 50.

[23] Kalupahana, Ethics, 86.

[24] 135 Damien Keown, “Karma, Character, and Consequentialism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 24 (1996), 346.

[25] 136  Michael Ridge, “Moral Non-Naturalism,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University, 2010), par. 9.

[26] Christopher Ives, “Deploying the Dharma: Reflections on the Methodology of Constructive Buddhist Ethics.,” The Journal of Buddhist Ethics 15 (2008): 25.

[27] 138  Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[28] 139  Keown, Nature, 197.

[29] 140  Ibid.,199.

[30] Book I, Nichomachean Ethics.

[31] Sallie B. King, “From Is to Ought: Natural Law in in Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Phra Prayudh Payutto,” Journal of Religious Ethics 30, no. 2 (2002): 284.

[32] 143  Keown, Nature, 199.

[33] 144 Abraham Velez de Cea, “The Criteria of Goodness in the Pali Nikayas and the Nature of Buddhist Ethics,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 11 (2004): 129.

[34] 145 Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ken Jones, The New Social Face of Buddhism: A Call to Action (Boston: Wisdom, 2003), 2.

[37] 148  R. Scott Smith, Virtue Ethics and  Moral Knowledge: Philosophy of Language after MacIntyre and Hauerwas (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003),  145. 

[38] 149  This move seems arbitrary and unsupported by the Buddha’s early teachings. The Buddha did not draw

a sharp distinction between nirvana in this life and nirvana without remainder. However, Keown’s distinction is so great that he divorces his ethic from the ultimate goal of Buddhism, nirvana without remainder. Why would he want to do this? The answer seems to be, as argued later, that Keown is revising Buddhist teaching to be compatible with a virtue ethic.

[39] 150  Keown, Nature, 19.

[40] Whitehill, “Buddhism,” 19.

[41] 152  Ibid., 17. “My purpose in this chapter is to speculate about the optimal, future development of Buddhism

in the West.”

[42] Siderits, Philosophy, 77.

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 3 of 5)

Part 1

Part 2

By Jonathan Pruitt

The Case for Buddhist Virtue

The first step in evaluating Buddhist ethics will be to understand the Buddhist worldview.

Ethical systems are always intimately tied to a worldview, but this is especially the case for Buddhism. The Buddha’s teaching was in response to an ethical problem, the problem of suffering. Through much effort and insight, the Buddha was able to perceive reality as it really is; he saw the Four Marks of reality. The solution the Buddha offered was also ethical: the solution to suffering is to live a certain kind of life, a life characterized by the virtues of the Eightfold Path.

The Buddha often spoke in parables. In one famous parable, he explained that a man struck with a poison arrow does not demand that someone explain the origin of the arrow to him before it is removed by a physician with the antidote.[1] Here the Buddha is represented by the physician; humankind is represented by the warrior so unfortunately wounded. According to the Buddha, it is not so important why humanity is in this injured state, as the fact that the Buddha has provided a solution – a solution that is entirely ethical.  Early Buddhism was an orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. But, practice is always related to belief. There is a fundamental relationship between reality as it is (Dharma) and ethics. The Buddha himself explained this using another parable:

Just, oh Gotama, as one might wash hand with hand, or foot with foot, just even so, oh Gotama, is wisdom purified by uprightness, and uprightness is purified by wisdom. Where there is uprightness, wisdom is there, and where there is wisdom, uprightness is there.[2]

In this context, the Buddha is equating wisdom with insight into the true nature of existence (Dharma). Thus, according the Buddha, living a moral, upright life is necessarily tied to understanding the universe as it really is. That being the case, understanding Buddhist ontology will be the first step in understanding Buddhist ethics.

The Four Marks of Reality

The Buddha taught that there are four essential properties of reality. One early sutra records the Buddha’s teaching: “Whatever is phenomenal is impermanent. Whatever is phenomenal is suffering. Whatever is phenomenal is devoid of self. Nirvana is eternally tranquil.”[3] Reality is, at its most basic level, characterized by impermanence, suffering, the absence of self, and the existence of nirvana.


The Buddha taught that “all things are transitory [anitya].”[4] This is a straightforward point that is apparently confirmed by everyday experience: every material thing human beings encounter will, soon or later, pass out of existence. People will eventually die, so will flowers. Even mountains will eventually be brought down. Some of the early discourses draw out the implications of the Buddha’s idea, suggesting that everything that exists is changing moment by moment so that, as Heraclitus suggested, one can never step in to the same river twice.[5] Even

something as apparently static as a rock changes from moment to moment so that it is not identical to the rock that existed a moment before and will be different from the rock that will exist in the next moment. One way of understanding this point is to think of the Buddha as denying the existence of something like the Platonic forms, which are permanent and unchanging.

Another implication of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is that all conditioned things are ultimately contingent, the result of an endless series of other causes. Whatever arises, arises co-dependently with a multitude of other causes and will pass from existence sooner or later. One of the most famous illustrations of this concept is the Wheel Dharma which shows how each effect is dependent on a previous cause, which itself is dependent on another cause. Each effect also serves as the cause for the other effects.[6]


The second characteristic of reality is that “All created beings live in sorrow [duhkha].”[7] Usually, duhkha is translated as suffering. However, as many authors have pointed out, suffering is not an adequate translation. When the Buddha said that all things suffer, he did not mean that existence in the world would always be uncomfortable; rather, he meant that phenomelogical existence would always be conditioned by states of ignorance, greed, and hatred.[8] Reality that is conditioned is called “samsara.”[9] Because people exist within samsara, they are never able to have their desire for what is ultimate or eternal satisfied. They will always be disappointed with the temporary, fleeting happiness derived from the phenomenal world and are destined to be continually reborn so that suffering will never cease.[10]

The ideal sort of existence is an existence that is completely unconditioned, free from the vicious cycle of dependent co-arising resulting from ignorance, greed, and hatred. People suffer “because we take too seriously the useful fiction of the person.”[11] When a person is ignorant of reality as it is characterized in the Four Marks, then suffering arises as a natural result. Life based on the assumption that the world is permanent and that selves exist causes clinging to the cycle of samsara and thus there is rebirth.[12] To cease suffering is to cease being conditioned by external factors; this is nirvana. The doctrine of dukha teaches, simply, that the kind of existence that human beings experience is not the ideal. [13]


No Self

The third and most controversial of the Four Marks is the doctrine of no-self. The Buddha taught that “all states are without self [anatman].”[14] In affirming this doctrine, the Buddha was denying that composite entities, like rocks, people, and animals, exist in the commonsense way they are normally understood to exist. Instead, objects and people only exist as collections of parts, aggregates of other, more basic elements.[15]  Persons, in particular, are composed of five

parts called the skandhas: form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness. As the Buddha taught, “The body is composed of the five skandhas, and produced from five elements. It is all empty and without soul.”[16] However, the Buddha emphasized the importance of composite objects as they relate to themselves and to other objects. This tension in Buddhist discourse has resulted in a distinction between the conventional and ultimate existence of an object. A Buddhist might refer to an individual as a single, distinct person that exists through time; however, he does this only as a convention of language and not in reference to the person’s ultimate, ontological condition.[17]

“The Discourse of the Not-Self Characteristic” from the Pali Canon provides an excellent record of the Buddha’s argument against a persisting self. Within this narrative, the Buddha answers questions from five of his disciples. The Buddha explained that each of the five skandhas cannot be identified as the self. Each of the skandhas are subject to change, inconstant, and give rise to suffering. At the end of the analysis of each skandha the Buddha asks, “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”[18] The disciples responded, “No, lord.” In response to this the Buddha gave his approval. The discourse concludes with an explanation of how to achieve freedom from the suffering arising through the skandhas:

Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’[19]

The argument the Buddha makes here has at least two presuppositions: there is not an I that stands behinds the skandhas–the skandhas are all a person is–and if there were an ultimate self, it would be permanent.[20] From those two assumptions, he proves that since the skandhas are impermanent and cannot be identified with the self, then there is no ultimate self. The perception that a person possesses a substantive identity that endures over time is incorrect.

Instead of “substance-selves,” the Buddha argues that people are “process-selves” that exist only momentarily and only “in a dependent sense.”[21] The “self” is dynamic so that a new self arises and departs each moment.[22] However, there is a causal connection between these moments, so there is a loose relationship between past, present, and future “selves” in a single collection of parts. This conclusion should be understood as a middle way between the sort of egoism taught in other Indian schools of thought and a complete denial of the existence of self in any sense.[23] Clearly, the Buddha wanted avoid the sort of clinging that results from egoism, but he also acknowledges that there is at least a conventional self even if there is no ultimate self. Sideritis sums up the matter: “The Buddhist view of non-self says that a person just consists in the occurrence of a complex causal series of impermanent, impersonal skandhas.[24] “The person who lives at 9 a.m. this morning is the result of the person who lived at 7 a.m.”[25]



The final mark of reality is nirvana and it the most difficult of the Four Marks. The term nirvana literally means “‘extinguishing,” and in its broadest sense nirvana is the extinction of samsara: “This is the peaceful, this is the sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion cessation, Nibbana.”[26] Nirvana is the cure for what ails humanity.[27] However, it is not merely the proper goal of all conditioned beings, it also the ultimate reality in Buddhism: “‘Nibbana is supreme,’ say the Buddhas.”[28] So in addition to being the foundation of reality, it is also the soteriological goal of Buddhism.

Buddhist doctrine teaches that the solution to suffering is the attainment of nirvana: “It signifies soteriologically the complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and fundamentally delusion, the forces which power saṃsāra.”[29]As the soteriological goal, there are two elements: “the Nibbana-element with residue left and the Nibbana-element with no residue left.”[30][31] The element with “residue left” refers to the kind of nirvana that was available to arahants[32] that still exist in their composite form. The Buddha described the arahant in this condition as a person who has

The holy life fulfilled, who has done what had to be done, laid down the burden, attained the goal, destroyed the fetters of being, completely released through final knowledge. However, his five sense faculties remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable and feels pleasure and pain. It is the extinction of attachment, hate, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbana-element with residue left.[33]

On the basis of this text and others, there are several conclusions that can be made about nirvana in this life. First, the Buddha takes it as self-evidently true that nirvana is the appropriate goal in light of impermanence, no self, and suffering. Second, it is clear that the arahant lives without ignorance concerning the way things really are. He lives in light of the fact that all is impermanent, there is no ultimate self, and that all conditioned states are full of suffering. He exists in contrast to the unenlightened who still suffer from greed, hatred, and ignorance. Whereas the unenlightened might despair over his home being destroyed in a flood, the arhant recognizes that the home destroyed is not his and that clinging to material possessions only results in more suffering. He is able to face such disaster with steadfastness and a kind of aloofness, not because he is apathetic, but because he views the disaster as if it happened to someone else far away. He feels concern that such destruction results in more suffering, but he is not overwhelmed and he does not experience it as a personal disaster.[34]

Some might object that this kind of existence would create a lack of empathy for others or even an unhealthy lack of concern for one’s self. The Buddha himself is said to have been living in a place called Atuma when “two people were killed, being struck by lightning, but the Buddha, who was seated under a tree close by, did not hear a sound.”[35] However, Buddhists argue apathy is not the result of attaining nirvana. Instead, it is the realization of what is actually important: the destruction of suffering which arises out of ignorance. The Buddha himself is the greatest example of a person who achieved nirvana in this life, and though he seemed aloof in the example of the lightning strike, he nevertheless reacted appropriately. Even though he was passive in this incident, there are other examples of the Buddha taking an active role in bringing about the cessation of suffering, the greatest example of course being his commitment to teach the dharma. So, Buddhists argue, while an arahant might have behavior that seems apathetic to the ignorant, his behavior is nevertheless justified in light of the dharma. They are illuminated so that they act appropriately in light of all the facts. The arhanant becomes liberated from selfishness and an unfounded concern for his own well-being to the freedom of experiencing “delight and enjoyment at whatever happens in the present moment.”[36] Only through this sort of liberation is one able to have peace.

The Buddha further taught that nirvana with remainder was not the ultimate goal of life. Nirvana without remainder, nirvana after this life, was the desired destination. The Buddha describes this element of nirvana: “Here a bhikkhu is an arahant. . . completely released through final knowledge. For him, here in this very life, all that is experienced, not being delighted in, will be extinguished. That, bhikkhus, is called the Nibbana-element with no residue left.”[37]

This aspect of nirvana is notoriously different to articulate. One of the reasons for this is that the concepts and definitions derived from conditioned reality do not apply to nirvana which is unconditioned. The Buddha illustrated this point in a conversation he had with a disciple named Vacchagotta. Vachhagotta asked whether an arahat would exist after death. In response, the Buddha asked Vachha whether, once a fire was extinguished, it made sense to ask, “to which direction did it go: to the east, the west, the north, or the south?”[38] The answer, of course, is that the question does not apply. In the same way, concluded the Buddha, the question of whether an arahat exists after death does not apply. In the Udāna, the Buddha gives his most complete teachings on nirvana.[39]At the end of his first teaching on the subject he says

There is, bhikkhus, that base [sphere of reality] where there is no earth, not water, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkus, I say there is no coming, no going, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not moving, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.[40]

The point is that the question of existence beyond the conditioned does not fall into easy to understand categories. Nirvana is both not static and not dynamic The arahat does not exist but he also does not cease to exist.  This is not a contradiction of logic, as some naïve interpreters have understood it to be. Strictly speaking, the Buddha does not teach something like “A and not A.” Such a claim would violate the law of non-contradiction. What he actually suggests is “Not A and not B,” while offering distinctions between what is, apparently, not distinct.[41] The Buddha is expressing that nirvana is not comprehensible while trapped in samsara and conditioned by ignorance. To achieve nirvana is to transcend conventional ways of understanding the world; it is to understand the world as it really is, without conditions. The extinguishing that takes place in nirvana is not the destruction of an individual; the individual never really existed anyway.

Instead, it is the extinction of all conditioned states. The illusion of self is destroyed.



Intimately related to the Four Marks is the law of karma since “in the moral order, Dharma is manifest in the law of Karma.”[42]  Karma is the mechanism that allows present actions to have effects on future states of affairs.  In this way, karma is like the law of cause and effect.  Gowan suggests that karma “is an impersonal feature of the causal relationships in the world, and there is no prospect of deviation from the causal effects of kamma on the grounds of mercy.”[43] According to Keown, “Karma is not a system of rewards and punishments meted out by God, but a kind of natural law akin to law of gravity.”[44]  Karma is a moral arithmetic. Certain actions have certain effects.  Karmic actions are like a seed that will ripen into a specific fruit.[45] The Buddha explained it this way:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draw the carriage. All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.[46]

Thus, according the Buddha, karma has at least two important aspects. First, it is objective. It operates according to predefined, constant values. If one performs action X, it will have result Y. However, there is no set way that consequences are dispensed.[47] The consequences of a particular action may appear immediately, in the next life, or even several lives from now.[48] Second, while the law of karma cannot be changed to suit one’s needs, it can be used to bring about desired consequences. The Buddha makes this clear when he says that by performing actions with “pure thought,” one will, as a matter of fact, be rewarded with happiness. The Dali Lama states this rather explicitly: “To suppose that karma is some sort of independent energy which predestines the course of our lives is incorrect. Who creates karma? We ourselves. What we think, say, do, desire, and omit creates karma.”[49] Therefore, as Harvey states, “Good actions are thus encouraged because, through their goodness, they lead to pleasant, uplifting effects for the doer.”[50] Karma is the rudder that allows one to steer from suffering to liberation in nirvana.

Karma is typically understood as having a moral dimension. There are differing interpretations regarding just how karma is related to morality. There are proponents for understanding karma as a deontological moral law, although this view is not widely held.[51] There are others who suggest that karma is a means to a desired end, nirvana. Another option is to understand karma as rewarding actions that are good in themselves. Keown has proposed that at this point Buddhism faces its own version the Euthyphro dilemma:  Is an action good because it generates good karmic results or does an action produce good karmic results because it is good? If actions generate karma because they are good in themselves, like the virtues of Aristotle, then Buddhist ethics might be a kind of virtue ethic. If an action is good because it generates the desired consequence, then Buddhism is more similar to utilitarianism.[52] Which of these interpretations is most likely will be discussed later in this chapter.

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Marks represent that which is most fundamental to Buddhism, the Dharma.[53] When the Buddha received enlightenment, it is these Four Marks that he perceived. From these marks, he assembled his Four Noble Truths: (1) suffering arises, (2) the origin of suffering is desire, (3) suffering ceases when desire ceases, and (4) the Eightfold Noble Path is the way to bring desire to an end.[54] Many have pointed out that the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are like a doctor’s diagnosis and prescription. In the first two truths, Buddha gives his diagnosis. In the third he provides the cure. In the fourth he gives a prescription.

The prescription suggested by the Buddha is the most critical part of his Four Noble Truths for ethics. One might rephrase the fourth truth like this: ethical practice is the way to reach nirvana. The Eightfold Path consists of eight criteria for reaching nirvana: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. One might further clarify the purpose of the Path as having the purpose of helping those who practice it to understand reality as it really is: “The principal cause that allows us to overcome our cyclic existence [samsara] and the basic misunderstanding that underlies it is familiarizing ourselves with the dependently existing nature of things.”105 The way to escape suffering is to act appropriately in light of the true nature of reality (impermanence, not-self, and [55]suffering) both practically and intellectually. This moves one closer to achieving nirvana.  According to the Buddha, it is the Eightfold Path that “opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind.”[56]

Therefore, the Fourth Noble Truth should be understood as defining the goal of Buddhism: to extinguish the conception of self, to remove the clinging to this world that causes samsara in order to achieve liberation. Karmic merit, accumulated through adherence to the Eightfold Noble Path, is instrumental in achieving the liberation, nirvana, that the Buddha saw as the solution.[57] Indeed, all of Buddhist thought and practice is designed to aid in the obtaining of nirvana. It is because nirvana is described as the goal that it is sometimes as seen the telos and meaning of Buddhism. As Keown argues, “Nirvana is the perfection of these virtues [listed in the Eightfold Path].”[58] However, others are more reserved in ascribing a telos to Buddhism. For example, Siderits argues that “there is no one whose life either has or lacks meaning. There is just the life.”[59]

This Fourth Noble Truth reveals how ethics is related to ontology in Buddhism. The way a person ought to live is determined by the certain desired outcomes; in this sense, Buddhist ethics is teleological. Ethical practice in Buddhism is at least partially motivated out of soteriological goals. Harvey points out that “from the perspective of the Four Noble Truths, ethics is not for its own sake, but is an essential ingredient on the path to the final goal.”[60] Keown agrees and says that “It is the purpose of the Eightfold Path to bring about the transition from saṃsāra to nirvana.”[61] The question that remains for a virtue view of Buddhism is whether Buddhism is merely teleological. Is the Eightfold Path merely a means to an end or is it good in itself? Is Buddhism a utilitarian or a virtue ethic?


[1] See the Majjhima Nikaya.

[2] “Sonadanda Sutta,” in Dialogues of the Buddha , trans. T. W. Dīghanikāya, Rhys Davids, and Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids. Sacred books of the Buddhists (London: Luzac,1956.), 157.

[3] Ekottara-agama               

[4] Magandiya Sutta, in In the Buddha’s Words, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Somerville: Wisdom, 2005), 205.

[5] 56  David Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy  (University of Hawaii, 1984), 36.

[6] Tich Nhat Hahn, The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching (New York, Random House, 1999),  229.

[7] Magandiya Sutta, 206.

[8] 59  Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (London, Routledge, 2000), 42.

[9] 60  Ibid., 51.

[10] Kalupahana, Buddhist,  37.

[11] Mark Siderits, Buddhism As Philosophy: An Introduction (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 76.

[12] 63  H. Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethic: Essence of Buddhism (New York: G. Braziller, 1971), 21.

[13] 64  Some, like Tich Naht Hahn , have suggested that second mark of existence is nirvana. In a sense, nirvana

and duhkha are, as Hahn suggests, two sides of the same coin. Nirvana is the state of being without duhkha and dukha is existence in anything but nirvana.

[14] Magandiya Sutta ,206.

[15] 66  Charles Goodman, Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 11.

[16] “The Skandhas and the Chain of Causation,” in Anthology of Asian Scriptures, ed. Robert E. Van Voorst (Belmont: Wadsworth), 89.

[17] Siderits, Philosophy, 56.

[18] 69  Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[19] Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic.

[20] Siderits, Buddhism,  39.

[21] 72  Christopher W Gowans, Philosophy of the Buddha. (London: Routledge, 2003), 23.

[22] 73  Winston L King,. In the Hope of Nibbana; an Essay on Theravada Buddhist Ethics (LaSalle: Open Court, 1964), 15.

[23] 74  Kalupahana, Buddhism, 39.

[24] 75  Siderits, Buddhism, 69.

[25] 76  Gunapala Dharmasiri, Fundamentals of Buddhist Ethics (Antioch: Golden Leaves, 1989), 13.

[26] Bodhi Ñāṇamoli, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima NikAya (Boston: Wisdom, 1995), 540.

[27] Gowans, Philosophy, 135.

[28] 79

Buddhavagga: The Buddha, trans. Acharya Buddharakkhita

[29] 80 Williams and Tribe, Buddhist Thought, 49.

[30] 81  The Nibbana Element, trans. John D. Ireland,

[31] x.irel.html#iti-043

[32] An arahant is a person who has achieved nirvana.

[33] The Nibbana Element.

[34] Gowans, Philosophy,  144.

[35] Kalupahana , Buddhism, 76.

[36] Gowans, Philosophy, 142.

[37] The Nibbana Element,

[38] The Middle Length Discourses, 593.

[39] Gowans, Philopshy,148.

[40] Nibbana Sutta: Parinibbana, trans. John D. Ireland,

[41] Although, the Buddha is not really offering distinctions. He is pointing to the fact that distinctions made on the basis of conventional reality are not valid. In reality, the categories of “existence” and “non-existence” just do not apply.

[42] Damien Keown, Buddhist Ethics A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) Kindle Edition, location 294.

[43] 93 Gowans, Philosophy, 105.

[44] Keown, A Very Short Introduction, locations 308-19.

[45] Dale Stuart Wright, The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 53.

[46] “Wisdom of the Buddha,” in Anthology of Asian Scriptures, ed. Robert E. Van Voorst (Belmont: Wadsworth), 98.

[47] Lynken Ghose, “Karma and the Possibility of Rebirth: An Ethical Analysis of the Doctrine of Karma in Buddhism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 35, no. 2 (2007): 286.

[48] Dharmasiri, Fundamentals, 37.

[49] Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 186.

[50] 100 Harvey, Introduction, 28.

[51] 101  Charles Goodman, Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 23.

[52] Keown, A Very Short Introduction, locations 652-63.

[53] 103  Williams and Tribe, Buddhist Thought, 7.

[54] 104 Ibid., 41-46.

[55] Sonam Rinchen, Ruth Sonam, Nāgārjuna, and Tsoṅ-kha-pa Blo-bzaṅ-grags-pa. How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising : An Oral Teaching (Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 2006), 27.

[56] “The Sermon on the Four Noble Truths,” in Anthology of Asian Scriptures, ed. Robert E. Van Voorst (Belmont: Wadsworth), 88.

[57] 107 Tribe, Buddhist Thought, 47.

[58] Keown, Nature, 107.

[59] 109  Siderits, Philosophy, 77.

[60] Harvey, Introduction, 41.

[61] Keown, Nature, 107.


The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 2 of 5)

By Jonathan Pruitt

Part 1

The Foundations of Virtue

Given the goals of this thesis, the first and most important task is to establish just what virtue ethics is and what it entails. A survey of the literature will show that the field of virtue ethics is both broad and deep. Its history extends back to the Homeric epics and into current, cutting-edge moral philosophy. There is also a wide variety of virtue ethics. There are Aristotelian, feminist, and “agent-based” virtue ethics, among many others.[1] Each of these accounts of virtue has slightly different and often apparently contradictory conceptions of what virtue is. So while the amount of information about virtue ethics is not lacking, the vast number of voices in the field does create another problem: discovering what is universally true, if anything, about virtue ethics.

Contemporary virtue ethicists are quick to give broad definitions of virtue ethics. For example, Hursthouse says that

Virtue ethics has been characterized in a number of ways. It is described (1) as an ethics which is ‘agent-centered’ rather than ‘act-centered’; (2) as concerned with Being rather than Doing; (3) as addressing itself to the question, ‘What sort of person should I be?’ rather than to the question, ‘What sorts of action should I do?’; (4) as taking certain areteic concepts (good, excellence, virtue) as basic rather than deontic ones (right, duty, obligation); (5) as rejecting the idea that ethics is codifiable in rules or principles that can provide specific action guidance.[2]

Schneewind adds that virtue ethics is a theory of ethics that “requires an acceptable view of the human good which will enable us to show how morality can be explicated in terms of character traits that are indispensable or useful for the attainment of that good.”[3] Unfortunately, these definitions are too broad for the purpose of this thesis. The terms they use are largely, often intentionally, undefined. Schneewind’s definition only raises the question, “Acceptable to whom and under what criteria?” while Hursthouse’s definitions highlight just how important the construal of “agent” or personhood (and the ideas presupposed by the concepts) will be to a virtue ethic. While these broad definitions help to give the contours of virtue ethics, in order to test both Buddhism and Christianity for their compatibility to a virtue view, what is essential to virtue must first be drawn out. In order to get a first approximation of the core of virtue ethics, it makes sense to start with Aristotle, who was one of the first virtue ethicists and still widely considered “its finest exponent.”[4]

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethic

Examining Aristotle’s writing on the virtues, and in particular the Nichomachean Ethics

(NE), it is clear that he had at least three key concepts in his ethic: virtue (ἀρετή), moral wisdom (φρόνησις), and eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία).[5]  Aristotle begins the NE with a discussion of teleology. He argues that “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[6] He takes this same line of reasoning and applies it to man, saying that just as all things aim at some good, so does the life of man. The aim of man’s life is to achieve and maintain eudaimonia. Thus the telos of man is eudaimonia. 

Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” which is unfortunate because that only confuses his meaning. In contemporary culture “happiness” is something subjective, totally dependent on the state of mind a person at a given time. However, Aristotle’s eudaimonia, is not a subjective state, but an objective one with clearly defined criteria.  To possess eudaimonia is to be a certain kind of person and living within a certain kind of society.[7] A person who possesses eudaimonia is a person who embodies the virtues “throughout an entire lifetime.[8]”  The telos of man for Aristotle was not an end of man, in the sense that the life of man ended when he achieved eudaimonia. Instead, it was the goal and purpose (the aim) of man. Eudaimonia is an active and continuous state where man continues his life, but fulfilling his telos. Further, for the state of eudaimonia to be complete, this person must live within a society of people who are also practicing the virtues and who are also moving toward their telos.

Virtue, for Aristotle, is bound up in his teleology. He views “the acquisition and exercise of the virtues as means to an end,” but, the virtues are not merely a means.[9] Eudaimonia itself is a continuation and perfection of the virtues so that when one practices a virtue, he is not only brining about a desired end, but also participating in the good in a more immediate sense. If Aristotle is right and there is some “chief good” at which all things aim, then he must also be right that an act is good in itself whenever it corresponds to that chief good. For example, when a solider practices the virtue of courage, his action corresponds to the chief good so that in the moment he is courageous, he participates in the good and also helps to bring about a state of eudaimonia for himself and the society he lives in. In this way, the virtues are both a means to an end and good in themselves.

Another implication of the relationship of eudaimonia and virtue in Aristotle’s system is that in order for a person to achieve eudaimonia, he must actually possess the virtues as states of his character, “The virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.”[10] This means that he must have a certain kind of character, a character that has been transformed by the practice of the virtues to the point that he is spontaneously generous or courageous.

The final element of Aristotle’s virtue ethic is moral wisdom (φρόνησις). Moral wisdom has two aspects: “the rational choice (prohairesis) on which a person acts, and the process of

deliberation or reflection by which a rational choice is formed.” [11] Essentially, moral wisdom is the ability to choose the best action in light of the circumstances by drawing on one’s experience. For example, a person might have the virtue of generosity, but lack moral wisdom. Such a person might give his fortune away to an unworthy cause, like a fraudulent TV preacher for example. If a person possesses both moral wisdom and generosity, then he will take into account that TV preachers are often frauds, and even though they have apparently good intentions it would be best to give his money to some other cause that has a proven record of integrity and effectiveness. Hutchinson provides an excellent summary here: “All in all, practical wisdom is an appreciation of what is good and bad for us at the highest level, together with a correct apprehension of the facts of experience, together with the skill to make the correct inferences about how to apply our general moral knowledge to our particular situation.”[12]

Given this brief sketch, it is clear that there are already certain assumptions lurking in the background of Aristotle’s thought. For example, Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia presupposes that there is, in fact, a chief good for man, that man has a particular function or purpose. Man has a certain function (ergon) that he is meant, in some sense, to fulfill and this function is morally good so that it grounds the virtues. How eudaimonia itself is good is an important question and part of the solution for Aristotle seems to be that “the supremely happy life is the life which most closely imitates God’s life.”[13]  Aristotle’s conception of the virtues further presupposes a certain view of man, namely that individuals exist as unified persons over at least the period of their lifetime. In fact, Aristotle thought that “a man who made no effort to make a unity of his life, being free, was very foolish.” [14] Moral wisdom also presupposes that humans are certain kinds of moral agents. It supposes, for example, that a person has access to past experiences in order to make the best decisions.  In short, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deeply imbedded within his own worldview.

A Universal Account of Virtue

Given all the presuppositions mentioned here, as well as others that are not (like

Aristotle’s metaphysical biology) it is clear that his account of virtue will not translate easily into other cultures or worldviews. On the surface, Aristotelian virtue ethics and Buddhism appear to be irreconcilable because Buddhism strongly denies the commonsense understanding of a self, something critical to Aristotle’s system.  But it is not fair to discount Buddhist virtue ethics at this point because there might be ways of understanding virtue ethics that are compatible with Buddhism. Besides, many modern accounts of virtue ethics try to avoid making the kinds of assumptions Aristotle does. Slote, for example, specifically states that he wants a virtue ethic distinct from Aristotle’s, an ethic that is totally agent-based and avoids some of the Aristotelian ontology.[15] Such a move brings up an important question: is a virtue ethic only possible within an Aristotelian framework? Clearly, philosophers have answered this question negatively, but if the Aristotelian framework is not necessary to virtue ethics then the next step is to discover just what is necessary. What is needed is to separate virtue ethics, as much as it possible, from the components that are only cultural artifacts or only contingent to virtue and find out what is necessary for a successful account of virtue. In order to test different worldviews for their compatibility with virtue ethics, there must first be a way to understand virtue ethics that can be more universally applied.

Fortunately, MacIntyre tackles this precise problem in After Virtue. He examines a wide array of different accounts of virtue ethics, from those of Homer to Benjamin Franklin. Each of these accounts is just as embedded within a culture or worldview as Aristotle’s. MacIntyre points out that at first glance each account of the virtues is contradictory to the next. After his initial survey of these many systems, he asks, “Are we or are we not able to disentangle from these rival and various claims a unitary core concept of the virtues of which we can give a more compelling account than another of the other accounts so far?”[16] MacIntyre responds: “I am going to argue that we can in fact discover such a core concept.”[17]

MacIntyre suggests that in order to understand the virtue ethic of a particular culture or worldview, it must be examined against three background factors: the concept of a practice, the concept of the narrative order of a human life, and the concept of a moral tradition.[18] Each of these factors is related to and dependent upon the previous factor so that MacIntyre’s conception of a “practice” becomes foundational to his account of virtue. Of course, by “practice” MacIntyre means something largely different than its common meaning:

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. [19]

Key to understanding this definition is the concept of “internal goods.” MacIntyre uses the practice of chess playing as an example. Goods external to playing chess might be a monetary reward earned in a tournament or the notoriety gained from being an exceptionally good chess player. These goods are contingently related to playing chess and could be achieved by other means. Goods internal to chess are “the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity.”[20] These are the sorts of goods that can only be achieved by playing the game of chess or some other game that is sufficiently similar. Further, these goods are both utilitarian and teleological. They are utilitarian in the sense that possessing these goods will help one to excel at the practice. They are teleological in the sense that possessing these goods constitutes what it means to be excellent at chess. In this way, goods internal to a practice both help to achieve the aims of that practice and constitute excellence within the practice.

The other key component of MacIntyre’s definition of a practice is his contention that a practice must be a “socially established cooperative human activity.”  By this, MacIntyre means that to enter into a practice is to enter into a community with established rules and standards of excellence.[21] For example, a painter will be subject to the standards and rules of excellence within the artistic community. Being an excellent painter will mean meeting the expectations and standards of the artistic community.

The second background issue for MacIntyre is the narrative order of a human life. MacIntyre suggests that it is only when a particular action is understood within the context of a single, unified human life that the action becomes intelligible. An agent’s actions are understood only when the reasons for his actions are understood.[22] Simply describing an agent’s actions is not sufficient for understanding her behavior.  MacIntyre argues that “behavior is only characterized adequately when we know what the longer and longest-term intentions invoked are and how the shorter-term intensions are related to the longer.”[23] An accountant entering information into a spreadsheet may, in the short term, only be trying to finish his current project. In the longer term, he may be trying to get a promotion. In the longest term, he is trying to make sure his family is well provided for. The only way to make sense of his action is to examine it within the narrative order of his life. Further, the narrative of human life has an ideal “genre:” the quest. According to MacIntyre, the good for man, the teleology, is to live his life as quest for the good.

The last piece of background information MacIntyre says is needed is an account of a moral tradition. Unless there is a kind of telos that “transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.”[24]In a sense, what MacInytre means by a moral tradition is simply an extension of what he means by the narrative order of a single human life. A moral tradition is the context within which the good for a human life must be understood: “Within a tradition, the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual’s search for his or her good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual’s life is a part.”[25] What this suggests is that, as the individual has a telos, so does society itself. It is in society’s moving towards its telos through traditions that the good for man is to be found.  It is only within a society aimed at its telos that “the virtues matter.”[26]

With these background features explained, MacIntyre’s preliminary definition of virtue makes sense: “A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.”[27] However, he argues that such a definition introduces too much arbitrariness and that the foundation of virtue must extend beyond mere practices. A full definition of virtue must account for all three of the background factors: an account of practice, the narrative unity of a human life, and an account of moral tradition. When such factors are considered, MacIntyre’s definition of virtue becomes much more nuanced. A virtue is more than a human possession enabling one to achieve goods internal to practice; virtue is the both the means and the end to the good for man and for society as a whole.  Further, when

one practices the virtues, he is participating in not only the narrative of his own life, but the narrative of his tradition. By practicing the virtues, one both participates in the telos for himself and society as a whole; he helps to bring about the good.

The goal so far has been to arrive at conception of virtue ethics that goes beyond the broad, vaguer definitions of virtue ethics.  The account that MacIntyre offers is unique in that it provides a substantive way of understanding virtue ethics that is not bound to a particular culture or worldview. Such an account is exactly what is needed to allow for fair analysis between Buddhist and Christian conceptions of virtue. However, before moving into that analysis, what this account presupposes in terms of a worldview ought to be drawn out. There are at least two presuppositions underlying this account of virtue: a particular view of man and a particular view of the world.

Virtue ethics is an agent centered ethic. The result is that, as Smith points out, “in any account of virtue ethics, the self must play a prominent role.”[28] Further, any account of virtue ethics will require a certain kind of self, a conception of self that has several minimum criteria. MacIntyre’s account requires that the self must be able to “learn, acquire knowledge, be rational or irrational, understand concepts… and even co-author their own narratives.”[29] If there is a self with these abilities, that self must further be able to “maintain their personal identity through time and change, since they, and not someone else are the subjects of their own ongoing narratives.”[30] This unity of a single human life is critically important to a theory of virtue ethics. MacIntyre argues that apart from this unity, the actions of a moral agent become utterly meaningless.

In MacIntyre’s account, the narrative unity of a person’s life allows the agent to ask,

“How ought my story to turn out?”[31] Essentially, this is the same question Aristotle asked, “What is the good for man?” [32] only framed slightly differently. The unity of a human life allows for the actions within that life to have significance and to be directed to a certain teleological end. On this point, he remains compatible with Aristotle. Aristotle strongly emphasized that the good for man, eudaimonia, was something that must persist throughout an entire lifetime.[33] Aristotle further thought that “a man who made no effort to make a unity of his life, being free, was very foolish.” [34] Both MacIntyre and Aristotle believe that for virtue ethics to succeed, a human life must be understood as a whole and aimed at particular end. This confirms that a substantive account of self will be required of any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue ethic.

The telos for man also presupposes that man has certain ontological features. In particular, it presupposes that he actually does have a particular function or purpose. Man is meant for something. While Aristotle argues that the telos or purpose is eudaimonia, MacIntyre suggests the good for man is to participate in a certain kind of quest, a quest for the good.  He argues that “the good life for man is spent in seeking the good life for man.”[35] This is not in contradiction to Aristotle, who saw eudaimonia as a state of affairs, that even when attained must be continually pursued. Both MacIntyre and Aristotle agree that the good for man is not a static end of virtue, but the continuation and perfection of virtue.  The significance here is that man’s telos does not constitute a fundamental change in the nature of man, but rather the ideal realization of it. Therefore, the telos of man in any account of virtue should preserve man as he essentially is, only in a perfected or ideal state.[36] Such a conclusion is in line with the criteria Devettere gave for the end of man:

We can note that virtue ethicists emphasize three major defining characteristics of happiness: (1) happiness in life is mostly, perhaps totally, a result of our choices, (2) happiness thus requires deliberation and reasoning so we can make good choices, and (3) happiness also requires good character because only people of good character are able to reason well and make good choices.[37]

If moral value is essential to human nature, the telos ought to be a context where man, as essentially man, continues and perfects his moral nature so that the virtues are practiced in their most excellent form once telos is attained.  Further, this kind of good for man that is presupposed by MacIntyre and Aristotle must possess intrinsic value so that it is worth pursuing for its own sake; it must serve as a kind of ground for moral value. It must also exist in an objective way, that is, it cannot be something subjective–it must actually exist. Thus any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue ethic must have the sort of metaphysics that allow for concepts like objectivity, intrinsic goodness, and ultimate value.

Another way that the unity of a human life is important is in how it incorporates Aristotle’s concept of phronesis or moral wisdom.  For Aristotle, moral wisdom “is an appreciation of what is good and bad for us at the highest level, together with a correct apprehension of the facts of experience, together with the skill to make the correct inferences about how to apply our general moral knowledge to our particular situation.”48 With his concept of narrative unity, MacIntyre introduces the same idea. A person should act in light of the [38]narrative of her life. Doing so, a person will take into account her past experiences (her narrative past) as well as the possible future outcomes (her narrative future).

Even the concept of character, a key element in virtue ethics, presupposes the unity of a human life. The virtues are understood as human possessions or qualities that modify or develop one’s character towards it telos.[39] The only way it makes sense to talk about “development of character” is if the character of an individual is identical (in the strict, logical sense) to the character possessed in the past and will be identical in the future. If there is no unity of human life, then it remains to be seen how the virtues can be intelligibly practiced.

In addition to the unity of a human life, MacIntyre’s account further presupposes a certain kind of a world: a world that contains multiple, distinct selves that relate to each other in meaningful ways and that itself possesses a telos. MacIntyre constructs his account of virtue ethics in three stages. The first stage concerns the role of activities within the life of a person. The second stage concerns the relationship of a person’s actions within the whole of that person’s life. The final stage explains the relationship between a person’s life and a historical community.[40] It is only when the individual human life is placed within the larger context of a society that a human life becomes intelligible.  MacIntyre further argues that the virtues themselves will depend on society: “One of the features of the concept of a virtue which has emerged with some clarity from the argument so far is that it always requires for its application the acceptance of some prior account of certain features of social and moral life in terms of which it has to be defined and explained.”[41]

In light of all of this, there are at least two sorts of criteria for any possible account of virtue ethics. First, the account itself ought to conform to the expression of virtue that MacIntyre has developed. That is, it should be able to be expressed in terms of practices, narratives, and moral tradition. If it cannot be expressed in these terms, then there ought to a reason why other accounts of virtue, whether Aristotle’s, Homer’s, or Eyre’s, fit MacIntyre’s account but not this particular account. Second, the worldview assumed in the account should be able to accommodate the presuppositions about man and the world he inhabits. If the account of virtue fails either of these criteria, it is not an adequate account of virtue.



[1] Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 3.

[2] 12  Rosalind Husrthouse, On Virtue Ethics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 26.

[3] 13  J.B, Schneewind, “Virtue, Narrative, and Community: MacIntyre and Morality” Journal of Philosophy 79, no. 11,  653.

[4] Peter Simpson, “Contemporary Virtue Ethics and Aristotle,” in Virtue Ethics: A Critical Reader, ed. Daniel Statman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997),  245.

[5] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 27.

[6] Book I, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross.

[7] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 9.

[8] D.S. Hutchinson, “Ethics,” in the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 203.

[9] Alasdair MacIntryre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2007) 147.

[10] Book II, Nichomachean Ethics

[11] 21  Sarah Broadie Ethics with Aristotle (Oxford University Press, New York, 1991), 179.

[12] 22  Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 207.

[13] Howard Curzer, “The Supremely Happy Life in Aristotle’s Ethics,” Aperion 24 (1991), 51.

[14] Stephen Clark, Aristotle’s Man: Speculations upon Aristotelian Anthropology (Toronto: Clarendon, 1983),  26.

[15] Michael Slote, “Agent-Based Virtue Ethics,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 20 (1995): 20.

[16] 26  Macintyre, After Virtue, 149.

[17] 27  Ibid.

[18] 28  Ibid., 178.

[19] Ibid., 187.

[20] Ibid., 179.

[21] Ibid., 180.

[22] 32  Schneedwind, “Virtue,” 656.

[23] MacIntyre, After Virtue,  192-3.

[24] Ibid., 203.

[25] 35  Ibid., 222.

[26] 36  Greg Pence, “Virtue Theory,” in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 251.

[27] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 221.

[28] R. Scott Smith, Virtue Ethics and  Moral Knowledge: Philosophy of Language after MacIntyre and Hauerwas (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003),  145. 

[29] Smith, Virtue, 148.

[30] 40  Ibid., 148.

[31] Shneedwind, “Virtue,” 657.

[32] 42  Richard Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 6.

[33] 43  Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 203.

[34] 44  Clark, Aristotle,  26.

[35] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 219.

[36] There could be an objection here that man, in his current state, finds himself in a state where he is estranged from who he essentially is. However, it is rather inelegant to suggest that at any point man could be separated from what is essential to man. To make such a separation would be the end of man.

[37] Raymond Devettere, Introduction to Virtue Ethics: Insights of the Ancient Greeks (Washington, Georgetown University, 2002) 53.

[38] Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 207.

[39] Hursthouse, “Virtue,” par 3.

[40] Schneewind, “Virtue,” 655.

[41] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 179.

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 1 of 5)

Part 2

By Jonathan Pruitt


Aristotle, the great teacher of Greece, once asked, “What is the good for man?” This is a question that every worldview seeks to answer. The Israelites said that good for man consisted in living a life of holiness to God, as a separate and distinct people. The Greeks said that man was meant for the polis.[1] Christ taught men were for his kingdom. The Buddha held his own view.

The heart of Buddhism is ethics.[2] This is evident even in the legendary accounts of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha first encountered the problem of suffering after he finally escaped the isolation of the palace he had grown up in. His father, a powerful ruler, wanted to force his son into a life of politics and war. He had been warned that if his son was exposed to the kind of life people experience every day, a life marked by suffering, that his son would likely become a great teacher instead of a ruler. However, despite his father’s best efforts, the Buddha eventually ventured outside the palace walls. There he was faced with illness, old age, and death. As a result, the Buddha became a renunciate; he gave up his royal lifestyle and began searching for a way to bring an end to suffering. In his search, the Buddha tried all the available philosophies and religions; whether they be hedonistic or ascetic. Whatever he tried, the Buddha excelled beyond his teachers, but in each case, he found that suffering still remained. Eventually, while under the Bodhi tree, and after much effort, the Buddha attained enlightenment. He saw reality as it really is and was able to formulate a solution.

The solution he came up with was an entirely practical one: cultivate happiness.[3] This was to be achieved by taking “the appropriate action: seeking nirvana.”4   This emphasis on action means that Buddhism is primarily an orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.[4][5] What is important is “the harmony of behavior, not harmony of doctrines.”[6]

What this means is that Buddhism as a worldview is in a unique position. Since it is primarily a particular set of practices, essentially an ethic, the validity of the Buddhist worldview rises and falls on whether or not Buddhism succeeds as an ethical system.  This provides an opportunity to test Buddhism to see whether it is a coherent worldview.

Statement of the Problem

There are two leading interpretations of Buddhist ethics. The first and most popular interpretation understands Buddhism as a kind of utilitarianism. Proponents of this view argue that Buddhist ethics are merely provisional and ought to be disregarded once nirvana is attained.

The well respected Saddhatissa takes a utilitarian view and argues that the moral teachings of the Buddha “were never ends in themselves, confined to a mundane life, but were the essential preliminaries, and the permanent accompaniments, to attaining the highest state.”[7]  However, a system that is merely provisional will not do if it is agreed that ethics must account for what is ultimately good or valuable. But there is another interpretation. Damien Keown, as well as several others, suggests that Buddhism is a kind of virtue ethic, very much similar to the kind taught by Aristotle.[8] A Buddhist version of virtue ethics offers the possibility of a complete, substantive account of ethics. Whether or not virtue ethics can be meaningfully understood in a

Buddhist context is the first problem that thesis will seek to solve.

The second problem concerns whether a Christian worldview might accommodate a virtue view of ethics better than a Buddhist one. Increasingly, Christians are adopting a blended approach to ethics, usually holding to a combination of deontological and virtue ethics.[9]  This thesis will put the possibility of a Christian virtue ethic to the test. If it turns out that Christianity can, in fact, provide a more robust context for a virtue ethic, then in order to be a fulfilled virtue ethicist, one ought to abandon the Buddhist worldview and adopt a Christian one.

Statement of the Importance of the Problem

A prima facie look at this thesis might cause some readers to think it is relevant only to Buddhists who hold to a virtue view of ethics–the subject matter here ought not concern the average Buddhist, much less anyone else. However, this is not the case. To understand the importance of this thesis, one must first understand just how the topic falls within contemporary scholarship. First, there is the current state of Buddhist ethics as a scholarly discipline. Many writers on the subject have been quick to point out that serious study of Buddhist ethics from a theoretical standpoint is a rather new phenomenon.

So far, there have been primarily only two theoretical accounts of Buddhist ethics offered: utility and virtue. If one agrees that a utility view is not a satisfactory account of ethics, then there is only one other viable option: the virtue view. Of course, there can also be new interpretations and revisions to old ones, but that is why this thesis is significant: the best contemporary interpretations of Buddhist ethics may need to be adjusted.  Second, since Buddhism is primarily a system of ethics, then whether or not it succeeds as an ethical system is vitally important to the entire worldview. If the Buddhist worldview does not succeed as an ethic, it does not succeed at all.

Foundational questions of worldviews are always weighty, so it is hard to overestimate the importance of engaging the foundations of a religion, especially a religion as influential as Buddhism. While it has been shown that the discussion in this thesis will be relevant for more than just a few, it also needs to be understood that a goal of this thesis is to be part of a wider conversation about the nature of Buddhist and Christian ethics and not the final word. The topics discussed are immensely important; the thesis itself is only part of that vital conversation.

Hopefully, it will contribute to a greater understanding of both systems.

Statement of Position on the Problem

As stated above, this thesis seeks to discover whether a virtue ethic interpretation of

Buddhist ethics is viable. This thesis addresses the question both negatively and positively. Negatively, the position taken on this problem is that a virtue view is inadequate for multiple reasons. Positively, this thesis holds that a Christian view of virtue ethics succeeds and is superior to the Buddhist view. Consequently, if one wants to be a satisfied virtue ethicist, one ought to abandon the Buddhist worldview and become a Christian.


Since the label “Buddhism” covers a wide array of beliefs and practices, this thesis will be limited specifically to early Buddhism. All Buddhist scriptures are taken from the Pali Canon, a set of scriptures considered authoritative by nearly all Buddhists.  Further, the clarification needs to be made that Buddhist cosmology or metaphysics itself is not under scrutiny. It is specifically the relationship between worldview and ethics that is being examined. This means that questions like, “How can it be the case that these are the four marks of existence and not three others?” will not be addressed. Also, this thesis will be limited to metaethical concerns.

Issues of practice will not be discussed. Primarily, the goal will be show that foundational issues in early Buddhism prevent Buddhist ethical practices from being applied in a way consistent with a virtue view of ethics.


Comparative ethics can be a difficult endeavor. There are two primary pitfalls. The first is to presume the truthfulness of one view at the start. The result is that opposing viewpoints are inadequate due to mere definition and no understanding is gained. A Buddhist, presuming Buddhism to be correct, might say that Christianity is inadequate simply because it does not further progress toward nirvana. The other danger is to assume that there can be no conclusions. Systems may be compared, but each one is right in its own context. The best we can hope for is greater understanding. This produces unsatisfactory results as well. There ought to be resolution: one view demonstrated to be superior to another. To avoid these dangers, a neutral framework is needed. The first component of this framework is a shared assumption: the fundamental relationship between ethics and reality. This is the same assumption as made by Geertz:

It is the conviction that the values one holds are grounded in the inherent structure of reality, that between the way one ought to live and the way things really are there is an unbreakable inner connection. What sacred symbols do for those to whom they are sacred is to formulate an image of the world’s construction and a program for human conduct that are mere reflexes of one another.[10]

The second component needed is an account of virtue ethics that is neutral to both Christianity and Buddhism. Alasdair MacInytre has established such a view of virtue ethics. His view presupposes at least two features that are required of a worldview in order to accommodate a virtue ethic: an account of teleology and the narrative unity of a single human life.

The next step will be to take these criteria and their necessary conditions and apply them to Keown’s interpretation of Buddhist ethics. If it turns out that Keown has adequately accounted for these in his system, then perhaps it is correct to characterize Buddhism as a kind of virtue ethic. However, if Keown does not succeed, then he has not saved Buddhist ethics from the other primary interpretation: Buddhist ethics is merely utilitarian. The final step will be to apply the criteria to the Christian worldview in order to determine whether the Christian worldview provides a superior account of virtue.


[1] Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 6.

[2] 2

Damien Keown, Buddhism A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1.

[3] 3  Christopher W Gowans.  Philosophy of the Buddha (London: Routledge, 2003), 25.

[4] Mark Siderits, Buddhism As Philosophy: An Introduction (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 22.

[5] Keown, Buddhism, 3.

[6] 6 Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000),  99.

[7] 7  H.  Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics: Essence of Buddhism ( New York: G. Braziller, 1971), 81.

[8] 8 Keown, Buddhism, 33.

[9] This is the position of Reuschling, Moreland, and Craig .

[10] Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia(Chicago: University

of Chicago Press), 97.

Image: CC BY 2.0,

Summary of Second Half of Chapter 3, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations

Summary by David Baggett

In the latter half of this chapter, Evans explores whether divine command theories of obligation are consistent with virtue ethics. Virtue ethics (or theory—thus VT), understood broadly, is an ethical theory that emphasizes the central role played in ethics by long-term dispositional states of character of moral agents. Evans points out that it’s easy to answer the question of consistency if he’s right to have argued that DCT is consistent with a natural law ethic, since the greatest natural law theorist, Thomas Aquinas, was himself also a virtue ethicist. If A is consistent with B, and A entails C, then B must also be consistent with C. If a natural law ethic is consistent with a DCT, and a natural law ethic logically requires a virtue ethic, then DCT is consistent with virtue theory.

Of course there are some versions of VT that clash with DCT. Hursthouse, for example, describes VT as an alternative to ethical theories that emphasize moral rules or principles and ones that emphasize consequences. In some cases it’s not clear whether a particular thinker sees VT as an alternative to an ethic of duty—like Stanley Hauerwas. Arguably, though Hauerwas has focused almost exclusively on issues of character, his target is not the existence of moral obligations, but the claim that an ethic of obligation by itself captures all that is important in the ethical life.

What kind of VT constitutes a genuine alternative to the kind of DCT Evans is defending? One such variant of VT would deny the importance of moral duties, as prescribing or forbidding types of actions, altogether. Such a view is linked to some versions of “moral particularism.” Moral particularism emphasizes the idea that moral judgments are a response to the particular features of a situation, rather than being derived from general principles, and it comes in different forms. A strong form of moral particularism would be one that claims that there are no true moral duties that are general in form; at best a principle that we regard as expressing our moral duty gives us only a general guide or rule of thumb. But we can never deduce what we should do in an actual situation from such a general rule. This comports well with VT idea that correct moral judgments will be those made by virtuous people, people who possess “practical wisdom.”

Evans thinks this view is mistaken. It’s one thing to maintain that good judgment is required to apply moral principles correctly; quite another to assert that moral judgments do not rely on principles at all.

But there are weaker versions of moral particularism that are much more plausible. For example, one might suggest there are some moral situations in which moral principles do not determine any unique right answer, and there are some moral situations in which it may be unclear how to apply our moral principles and thus difficult to apply them. Both situations would imply that there are some particular judgments that can’t simply be deduced from general principles. DCT can admit this. Some situations do fall outside the scope of the principles of duty, and sometimes moral principles are hard to interpret and apply. In any case, VT need not be committed to the strong version of moral particularism. Aquinas, for example, doesn’t seem to have been committed to it. Only the strong version conflicts with DCT.

The second way a virtue ethic could come into conflict with DCT is by claiming that moral obligations can be adequately explained in terms of the virtues, thus making any appeal to God’s commands unnecessary. Michael Slote, for example, has defended a VT that he calls “agent-based,” as opposed to being simply “agent-focused,” which is the kind of view associated with Aristotelian-type virtue ethics. According to an “agent-based” ethic, it is the fact that a virtuous agent would act in a particular way x that makes it true that x is actually the correct way to behave. Slote pretty  much leaves reference to moral duties out of his theory altogether, preferring talk of “caring” instead.

Linda Zagzebski appears to argue that our moral duties are simply those types of acts which a virtuous agent would feel guilt or shame for not doing. The type of VT that Slote and Zagzebski defend is one in which the virtuous agent is the “truth-maker” for normative truths. Evans thinks this inverts the way things actually are. We don’t regard courage as a good thing because it is the kind of trait we find in virtuous people. Rather, we believe courage is a good thing, and so when we find someone who is courageous we have a reason to think that this person is virtuous, at least in that respect.

Another possible version of VT offers an epistemic relation between duties and virtuous persons. On this view, it’s by looking to exemplars that we come to know what our duties are—epistemically speaking. So far as Evans sees it, though, a proponent of DCT could affirm this.

So, on Evans’ view, giving an account of moral duties and giving an account of the characteristics of virtuous people are both important but they are answering different questions about different aspects of our ethical lives. Yet there remain vital links between them. First, our moral duties may include duties to cultivate various virtues. Many of God’s commands are commands to acquire or cultivate particular virtues, such as the command to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Indeed, it is arguable that the fundamental commands of God are, at least in part, commands to acquire virtues—loving God with all our hearts, souls, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. From the other side, an account of the virtues may be valuable in giving us an understanding of what motivates moral agents to live in accordance with their duties. If DCT is right, fulfilling our moral duties can be at the same time an expression of devotion to God, thus linking the life of duty to such “theological virtues” as hope and faith. To live morally is not to be done with gritting of teeth, but joyously. This is a recurring biblical theme—and tied to the recurring biblical motif of blessings that accompany loving God.

Finally, the deepest link between virtues and duty requires us to reflect on the telos of duty. Kant thought that duties apply to human beings but not God, because God has a “holy will,” and thus there’s no possibility that God will ever follow any principles that are wrong. But Evans pushes this point to suggest that the more perfected a saint becomes, the smaller a role duties play. Moral duties might have as part of their function the goal of assisting us to become such persons, or at least to move in this direction. Kierkegaard seems to suggest this in his Works of Love. After spending a lot of his time focusing on the moral law rooted in God’s authority, he discusses the command to love, nothing that eventually it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t need to be commanded, once someone becomes at one with the commandment. Love is the fulfillment of the law—which is far beyond doing duty for duty’s sake. It is radical transformation—the goal of the moral life. So Slote’s right in a sense—there is a life that goes beyond duty. But he’s wrong to think we can go straight there without a process of transformation first, that may well require obedience to duty. Kierkegaard saw duty as a “schoolmaster” helping us to be changed and transformed. But we’re still in need of this transformation at this point, rendering leaving duties behind too quickly a mistake.

Find the other summaries of this book here.

Podcast: Mark Foreman on Faith, Reason, and Natural Law

On this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. Mark Foreman. Dr. Foreman is a professional philosopher who specializes in both Christian apologetics and bioethics. The main topic of this episode is theism as a natural law ethic. Dr. Foreman will explain what a natural law ethic is, why we should prefer it, how it can be applied in moral dilemmas, and  how to use it in apologetics. But before we get to that, we’ll also get to hear some thoughts from Dr. Foreman on the relation of faith and reason.


“Good Persons, Good Aims, and the Problem of Evil,” A Lecture by Linda Zagzebski

Philosopher of  religion, Dr. Linda Zagzebski, gave a lecture at the Contemporary Moral Theory and the Problem of Evil Conference held at the University of Notre Dame. In this lecture, Dr. Zagzebski analyzes the nature of the problem of evil and how it is usually framed. She discusses what makes some state of affairs intrinsically evil and suggests that perhaps we should use a virtue theory to explicate goodness and badness instead of considering states of affairs in isolation from the agents that bring them about. It’s a very creative and insightful lecture; well worth your time if you’re interested in the problem of evil or the application of virtue ethics.


Photo: “Untitled” by S. Zamani. CC License.