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John Hare’s God’s Command, 5.3, “Barth and Our Access to the Commands”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the last section of chapter 5, Hare explores Barth’s view of our access to divine commands. In order to get a clear picture of how Barth thought about access, Hare thinks it will be helpful to use Kant’s view of conscience as a foil. To this end, Hare first discusses Barth’s view of Kant, then Kant’s view of conscience, and finally Hare lays out Barth’s view.

Barth is a careful interpreter of Kant, but his analysis does not always hit the target. Hare proposes that Barth has missed the mark in a couple of ways. First, Barth understands Kant as saying that God is a merely regulative idea and not a constitutive one. By Barth’s lights, Kant thought of God as just a useful (regulative) idea—it doesn’t matter if God actually exists. But a right reading of Kant will show that though Kant did not think we could have knowledge of God by pure rationality, through practical reason God becomes a constitutive idea. Kant needs God to exist in actuality for his moral theory to work.

Hare further thinks that Barth has misunderstood Kant’s view of divine revelation and grace. Contrary to many of his interpreters, Kant did think that divine revelation was possible, but that it must be justified from pure reason. Further, Kant held that divine grace was necessary for moral transformation. These misunderstandings of Kant are major reasons for Barth’s rejection of Kant. Barth did appreciate Kant’s recognition of radical evil, but Barth thought Kant’s acknowledgement of human depravity resulted in a contradiction and the complete failure of Kant’s system. Hare again thinks Barth has misunderstood. Kant begins with the reality of radical evil and works out from that point and so his system, when read charitably, is consistent with this reality. Hare works as a peacemaker, suggesting that many of Barth’s objections are mistaken and that the real difference between Kant and Barth is epistemological. Barth inverts Kant’s “concentric circles,” where pure reason lies inside the circle of revelation to reason. In this way, Barth takes up Kant’s role of “biblical theologian.” Where Kant thinks that divine revelation must be justified by pure reason, Barth thinks that revelation is fundamental and undergirds human reason.

Despite Barth’s criticism of Kant, both Barth and Hare agree that Kant’s account isn’t intended to be reductive; Kant wants to retain a “vertical” or theistic element. This non-reductive element can be seen in Kant’s view of conscience. In Kant’s discussion of the conscience, he argues that to make moral judgments, we must imagine that there is a third party (or parties) who serves legislative, executive, and judicial roles. These figures serve as our inner voice or conscience, prescribing the moral law, enforcing it, and omnisciently judging the heart. However, Kant held that these roles cannot be fulfilled by a mere human. As judge, he must scrutinize all hearts. As legislator, he must legislate all obligation, and as executive, he must enforce the moral law. These are not human capacities. Thus, Kant thinks we must imagine that this person speaking to us about morality is God, who is uniquely qualified to serve in all three roles. This imagining of an actual God who serves these roles is God as a regulative concept and makes morality accessible to us by reason. Phenomenologically, Kant holds that this view of morality is necessary to explain the weighty feeling of our moral duty. But Kant thinks that we must conclude that God actually exists in order for there to be the possibility of the highest moral good, which is the union of happiness and virtue. Reason requires God to exist as a constitutive principle.

hare god's commandFor Hare, the key difference between Kant and Barth with respect to our access to divine command is that Kant thinks our knowledge of the commands is discerned by pure reason and Barth thinks that they are given by revelation. Hare carefully nuances Kant’s view on this point. Kant did not think God could not give commands by way of revelation, only that we would never be justified in believing that these commands, if they are so given, were from God. The problem for Barth is to answer how we know when God has commanded us. People claim to be commanded by God when they are not and some divine commands, like the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, would be difficult to recognize as a divine command. To solve this dilemma, Hare argues that Barth provides phenomenological features of genuine divine commands.

First, the command will have a “certain kind of clarity or distinctness.” By this, Barth means that the command will have specific content. This does not mean we will always be able to discern the content easily. But the command will be persistent and will resist our effort to ignore it. Genuine commands, in a sense, pursue us and direct us in specific ways.

Second, the command will present itself as “having an external origin, either immediately or mediately.” Here Hare finds resonance between Barth and Kant. The command imposed on us must come to us from the outside; it is revealed and not invented.

Third, the command comes “in a familiar voice.” Barth’s central idea here is that we learn the “voice” of God through the practice of instruction, where instruction is grounded in both the individual meditation upon the Word of God and communally thinking together about God and his Word as is done in the church. The entire Christian tradition and one’s own history with God provide a knowledge of what God is like and shapes our expectations about what God will command and when he might do so.

Fourth, the command comes with “a sense of conviction or authority.” Barth thinks that genuine divine commands will carry a certain kind of weight. They make claims on us. Barth says that the divine command “must lay upon me the obligation of unconditional truth—truth which is not conditioned by myself. Its authority and power to do so must be intrinsic and objective, and not something which I lend to it.” Divine commands have the sense of obligation to a Person of immense authority. They are substantial, heavy things.

The fifth and most important phenomenological feature is that “the commands appear to be from a loving or merciful source.” For Barth, the chief exemplar of goodness and mercy is Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, God has both acted rightly for us and to us. Jesus demonstrates God’s grace and mercy, and in the teaching of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Golden Rule, God has clearly articulated the shape of the good. All of God’s commands should be ultimately consistent with the revelation of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, argues Hare, these phenomenological features of the divine command do not show that God has so commanded us. If one imagines he is commanded by a good God, her imagination may generate all the relevant phenomenology. However, on the assumption that God commands us, Barth’s five features of phenomenology can help us discern whether and when God has commanded us.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 5.2, “Three Pictures of Freedom”

 Summary by Jonathan Pruitt 

Having discussed the theme of particularity and universality in God’s commands in the previous section, Hare now sets his sights on Barth’s account of human freedom. Barth emphasizes the sovereignty of God throughout his work and, in the case of human freedom, Barth does not make an exception. For Barth, God elects man and this means God determines what he will be. But Barth simultaneously affirms the reality of human freedom. This has led many readers of Barth to take him as affirming a paradox (or even a contradiction) at this point.

However, Hare does not understand Barth this way. Hare thinks that when we apply Barth’s own distinctions to his writing, we can see how the freedom of God and man harmonize in a logically consistent way. On some conceptions of freedom, the freedom of God and man are thought to antagonize one another. But Barth rejects this notion. The Barthian solution to this notorious issue is to make an ontological point. God is the creator of humanity. It is God who places within man all of his capacities and powers, and thus human freedom supervenes on God’s freedom. Man has genuine freedom so that grace is not irresistible, but that freedom is derivative. By electing us, God has determined what we will be in Christ, but “we have to acknowledge this, or determine ourselves in correspondence to this” (p. 158).

In sketching out Barth’s view of freedom, Hare offers three different pictures. First, he asks us to imagine a mediocre piano player playing along with a master. They play a piece that requires two people. The master’s rhythm and artistry provides a context in which the lesser player can extend his skills beyond what he would be able to do on his own. The master does not force cooperation; her partner could stop at any moment. Still, the partner’s execution of the piece depends on the master. Her playing empowers his, but he must correspond to her artistry for there to be harmony.

Hare thinks this picture helps illustrate two conceptions of freedom. There is mere freedom, which is the ability to choose between two alternatives. If we are offered the choice between the evil maxim and the good maxim, or the choice between self and duty, we will always choose the evil maxim, according to Kant. But true freedom is freedom to obey the good maxim. This feat can only be accomplished through divine grace, or when God empowers our abilities by inviting us to play along and correspond with him.

hare god's commandThe second picture comes from Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s concern is to say how it is that human beings can love as God loves. To answer, Kierkegaard offers a picture of a lake which is fed by a spring deep below the surface. Kierkegaard asks us to think of ourselves as the lake and the spring as God. In the same way the lake depends on the spring for its existence and status as “living water,” so we too depend on God. The dependence includes the moral dimension. If we are able to keep God’s commands, it is only because, beneath the surface, we are fed by God’s power and love, given to us as God condescends to us. Our will can cooperate with God’s because as the paradigm of love, God enters history and makes intimate, life-giving connections with human beings.

The final picture comes by way of Barth’s view of prayer, specifically invocation. In invocation, we ask God to help us correspond to his divine command. However, this prayer can only be made with God’s help because of the bending inward of our will. If we are going to pray as we ought, we need God’s help. Hare finds echoes of Paul’s teaching of the Spirit’s intercessory role in prayer in this Barthian view. Thus, prayer is a dynamic and real interaction between God and man, where God is both the agent (the one who prays in the person of the Spirit) and the one who hears the prayer. But a real condition of this sort of prayer is the cooperation of man.

In the final part of this section, Hare retells the story of the Canaanite woman. In this story, Hare sees Barth’s model of human and divine cooperation realized. The opportunity of the woman to interact with Jesus only occurs because of his deliberate act of seeking her out. When the woman requests that Jesus heal her daughter, Jesus does not immediately respond. And when he finally does, his answer is negative; he will not heal her daughter. In these tense moments, Hare sees Jesus as peering into the soul of the woman in order to help her see the truth about himself, herself, and their relationship to one another. Though it may not seem this way on the surface, each response from Jesus is intentional and for the woman’s good. Humility and repentance are required to experience healing and that is what Jesus wants the woman to see. Jesus does not simply want the woman to outwardly acknowledge him as Lord. Rather, he wants to transform and heal the woman and this can only be done if the woman cooperates with Jesus, if she conforms to his will for her. Jesus wants the woman to see that his blessing only comes by way of complete divine freedom and grace, but he also wants her to submit to what he is doing in her soul. Her cooperation with the will of Jesus can only occur when Jesus comes to her, sees the condition of her soul, and lovingly provides the opportunity for her to participate in what he is doing.


John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 5: Introduction and 5.1.

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the previous chapter, Hare argued that it is not possible to deduce the human good from human nature. But if the human good cannot be determined this way, then where should we look? Hare suggests that those who believe in God may find that God’s commands provide a rationally satisfying and sufficiently specific account of the human good. Therefore, in chapter 5, Hare takes a theological turn. Hare utilizes the insight of the prodigious theologian Karl Barth to flesh out some of the implications of God’s commands.

Hare emphasizes that though Barth is a theologian, he ably interacts with key philosophical ideas (especially Kant’s ideas) and he brings an awareness of the whole Christian theological and philosophical tradition to bear in his works. Barth thus provides Hare with a synthesis of exegetical, theological, and philosophical reflections on the commands of God.

Hare focuses on three themes in Barth’s treatment of God’s command: “the particularity of God’s commands, our freedom in response to the command, and our access to the command.” Barth suggests that the simple fact that we are commanded implies several things. First, God’s commands are given to particular people at a particular time. They are given to “responders,” who are “centers of agency.” Being commanded further implies that we can be obedient and bring about change in the world. We must also persist through time, through the hearing of the command to the realization of it. God’s command of us also suggests that we are sufficiently free to obey or not. And, if God commands us, we must be competent users of language to be able to understand the command.

The first Barthian theme that Hare explores is the particularity of the command (and this is the subject of section 1). Though there is a universal command to respect life, God commands specific persons. This respect begins with respect for one’s own life. But what does it mean to respect one’s own life? Barth rejects the notion that the substance of this command can be fleshed out through autonomous human reason. To attempt to establish what one must do on our own steam is both a denial of what we are (finite and fallible creatures) and a denial of who God is (utterly sovereign). Further, Barth holds that God’s has a highly specific form of life for every person. It is this form of life to which God calls us, and not to some merely general human good. Therefore, God’s plan cannot be captured in generalized statements about what humans ought to be. Rather, God has intimate and specific desires for each individual. We relate to God not only as a species, but person to person in the mode of “Thou-I.” Barth thinks we ought to allow God to completely determine for us what we are to do in every situation because of who he is and what we are in relation to him.

hare god's commandHare argues that in this regard Barth stands more in the tradition of Scotus than of Aristotle and Plato. Rather than think that all humans have the same essence, Barth holds that each human being is a unique essence and this distinguishes them from other human beings (each person is a “haecceity”). Humanity shares a common nature, but we each have a distinct essence. Hare quotes the passage from Revelation that teaches that God has a name for each human written on a white stone. Hare suggests this name is a representation of God’s purpose for our life and our haecceities. It is something only God knows and if we are going to live according to it, we must rely on God’s commands to us. For Barth, the end of man is to love God and others in a particular way as a reflection of the love in the Trinity.

Kant thought that all our moral obligations could be captured in terms of the categorical imperative, which is universally applied to all humans in all cases. No reference to particular people (either as subject or object) could be allowed or else the imperative could not be universalized.

Hare thinks this universal morality is too restrictive because there are clear cases where moral obligations rightly are limited to particular people in specific circumstances. To help support this point, Hare distinguishes four positions in moral judgment: addressee, agent, recipient, and action. Any of these elements may take on a specific, non-universal character. God may, for example, tell Joshua (the addressee) that the priests (the agent) should march around Jericho seven times (the action). Hare also points out Jesus’ greatest commandment, which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” is not universalizable in the recipient position. Jesus is not saying, “love whoever or whatever is God with all your heart.” He is saying, “Love this specific God, who has a historical connection with Israel, with all your heart.” Thus, there seem to be cases where we have moral obligations that cannot be captured in all universalist terms. Of course, if these are genuine moral obligations, then Kant’s formulation, that “we have to treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end in itself, and never merely as a means,” would need to be qualified.

To further support his case for qualifying the categorical imperative, Hare produces the hypothetical case of his friend, Elizabeth, who needs a bat removed from her house. Hare argues that he does have a moral obligation to help Elizabeth, but that this obligation is not generated by an appeal to Elizabeth’s humanity. In other words, it does not obtain by appeal to the Kantian maxim as stated above. If it did, then Hare would be obligated to help anyone who needed bats removed whoever they were. What grounds the obligation is Hare’s relationship to Elizabeth in her particularity. The obligation exists just because Elizabeth is Elizabeth and Hare stands in special relation to Elizabeth that he does not share with humanity in general. Hare adds that he loves Elizabeth for her haecceity (her unique essence), and not merely because she is human. And since loving another for her own sake is characteristic of a moral relation, then it would seem he does have an obligation to Elizabeth just because of who she is and his relation to her. Of course, the particularist nature of this moral obligation does not mean that morality reduces to particularities. Usually, universal moral judgments accompany the particular. For example, “One ought to help one’s friend” accompanies “Hare ought to help Elizabeth.”

Finally, Hare wants to show how Barth’s view of God’s commands can be understood to be both particular and universal. So far, the discussion has emphasized the particularity of God’s commands to specific people, but Barth also thinks that many of God’s commands have universal validity.

To help show the consistency of Barth’s view, Hare lays out some important distinctions. First, Hare notes that Barth makes a distinction between instruction and reflection. By “instruction,” Barth has in mind something like the Ten Commandments. These commands give instruction and provide an opportunity and context for us to think through what we know about God and ourselves. After instruction comes reflection. In reflection, we take what he learned from instruction and apply to our own case; we hear God’s command to us in our place and time. Though the instruction is given to a particular people in a particular place, instruction provides the basis for our knowing what God is like and preparing ourselves to act as he wishes.

The narrative of the Bible in which the commands are embedded are to shape our moral sense. Hare clarifies Barth’s discussion of this by introducing the distinction between the good and the obligatory. All of God’s commands are good, but God does not command all that is good. So in every case of God’s commanding, he commands something good and this connection to goodness is universal. All of God’s commands are objectively and universally good. God’s commands as instruction show us what God values and they teach us the character of the good. The commands of God in the Bible, then, are not abstract laws that admit of no exceptions. Instead, they are didactic, shaping our moral sense. We can through instruction, know goodness in advance and that goodness is universally required, per Barth, but we cannot know what our obligation will be in a given case. This is because we need God to tell us “which good kind of thing we are now to realize, to which particular recipients.” Knowing what we are to do in a particular case requires reflection and dependence upon God and his Word. (One may wonder, given this dependence, what need we have for moral deliberation. Hare promises to address this later in the chapter.)

Hare sees some similarities between the morality of Barth and Kant. Both Barth and Kant agree that our obligations come to us independent of what we desire, though this does not mean desire and obligation are ultimately in conflict. But more importantly, both Barth and Kant have a “public” morality. For Kant, the formulation of the categorical imperative must be endorsable by all members of the kingdom of ends. For Barth, the act of obeying a divine command means making the claim that the “commander whose commands establish the covenant obligations for all human beings.” Further, Barth says that all divine commands are given to members of a body, humans in a community. This community provides accountability and a way to test the commands, through the communal hearing of the instruction and through reflection, whether the commands are from God or not.



Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 2: Aristotelian, Kantian, and Christian Accounts of Moral Knowledge)

Part I

By Jonathan Pruitt

Non-Trinitarian Accounts of Moral Knowledge

There are a variety of non-Trinitarian accounts of moral knowledge, but perhaps the most popular and viable are Aristotelian and Kantian accounts. Before briefly laying out these accounts and showing some of their short comings, we should note that Aristotelian and Kantian accounts have different targets. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is not primarily concerned with spelling out the conditions for right action or the framework for moral duties. Rather, his aim is to provide an explanation of the human good.[1] What will make human beings happy; what realizes eudaimonia? Kant, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with accounting for the existence of the moral law  and its applicability to us.[2] A rough way of seeing the difference is this: Aristotle is concerned with the good and Kant is concerned with the right.[3]

Aristotle’s Ethics 

Aristotle begins with the a priori premise “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.”[4] Any rational endeavor seeks some good. If human beings want to live rationally, they ought to seek after the good. But what is the human good? Whatever it is, it must be something chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Aristotle thinks that only happiness (eudaimonia) meets this requirement; “happiness is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”[5] But saying simply that “happiness is the chief good seems a platitude.”[6] Therefore, Aristotle seeks to specify exactly what characterizes happiness. Aristotle suggests that the human good consists in proper function according to a telos. What a human being is will determine what counts as proper function as well as the conditions and nature of happiness.

Aristotle thinks that the essential nature of human beings can be discerned by empirical means. Through observation, Aristotle thinks he can detect two kinds of proper function or virtue. First, one can see the difference between man and lower animals. Man possesses a rational element which beasts do not.[7] Aristotle argues that a life of contemplation is the highest good because it is “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] The virtues that allow for full utilization of the rational faculty (contemplation) are the intellectual virtues. But in addition to these, Aristotle says there are also the ethical virtues, or virtues of character.[9] Traditionally, the Greek virtues include, according to Thomas Aquinas, “temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude.”[10] Aristotle thinks that these virtues of character can be discerned through the “doctrine of the mean.” A virtue is the balance between two vices. Temperance, for example, is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility.[11]  Aristotle further thinks that the human good needs the right environment. Aristotle holds that it can be observed that man flourishes best when he lives in the Greek polis. The human good also requires certain material conditions, like physical health and monetary wealth. Happiness is not merely a matter of inward reflection and self-discipline; it also requires the right physical setting.

The upshot of Aristotle’s ethic for our purposes is this: Aristotle thinks that a full account of moral knowledge is available to us through the use of common sense and empirical observation. By considering the nature of human beings and their endeavors, and by observing how humans flourish, we can determine what the human good is.

Even in this brief sketch of Aristotle’s ethic, one can see how rich and multi-valent Aristotle’s account of the human good is. It strives to include all dimensions of embodied human life, and in this way, has some advantages over more Platonic accounts. The substantial nature of Aristotle’s conclusions along with his seemingly modest epistemological commitments may be why Aristotle’s model of ethics continues to be utilized. Philippa Foot, for example, argues for a naturalistic virtue ethic that attempts to justify moral realism and moral knowledge along Aristotelian lines.[12] Erik Wielenberg in his attempt to justify value and virtue in a Godless universe, suggests that Aristotle’s ethic provides “the most powerful response” to Christian morality.[13]  For many, an Aristotelian strategy provides a promising way to account for moral knowledge outside of the Bible.

While there is much to be commended in Aristotle’s approach, like his belief in the connection of facts and values, there are still some problems. One concern is whether Aristotle’s account of virtue actually follows from his insight about human beings. Kraut suggests that Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics may not establish the virtues, but merely shows a reason to be virtuous: “We may conclude that Aristotle proposes flourishing as the ‘ultimate justification of morality [why we ought to be moral].’”[14] In other words, Aristotle begins with the assumption that humans ought to be moral and his project, despite his intentions, only provides motivation to be moral rather than an explanation of morality itself.  Further, Aristotle’s project begs the question about the nature of the human good and the associated virtues; these values are assumed rather than demonstrated.

John Hare brings a similar charge against eudaemonist or Aristotelian ethics.[15] His contention, following Scotus, is that the moral law, or what humans ought to do, cannot be deduced from facts about human nature. Hare’s basic contention is that Aristotle’s account of moral goodness is too narrow. One piece of evidence Hare supplies comes in the contrast of Jesus and Aristotle’s view of “competitive goods.” Aristotle often thinks of the human good as requiring wealth and power; honor and magnanimity. For one to possess these qualities, others most have them in lesser degrees; they are competitive goods. Jesus, on the other hand, advocates for the virtue of humility. This is the inversion of Aristotle’s vision of the ideal man. As MacIntyre puts it, “Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St. Paul.”[16] This deep disagreement about the nature of the human good, argues Hare, highlights the inscrutability of ethical virtue from human nature.[17] What facts about human nature and how we flourish could be produced to settle the disagreement? This is one reason why Hare thinks special revelation with specific divine commands is necessary for justified moral beliefs. While Hare does not take his conclusion explicitly in this direction, one could extend his argument to say that the Word of God is necessary to supplement what we can know about the human good by reason.[18] For if divine commands are required, then the Bible would be a good place to look for those commands.

Another concern with Aristotle’s approach comes from his view of God. As mentioned above, Aristotle thought that greatest possible ways of human flourishing were intimately connected with the divine. It is not altogether clear how Aristotle conceives of this relation, however. Is contemplation the highest good simply because it is the full realization of the highest element in humanity, or because it resembles the activity of God? In support of the latter possibility, Aristotle says that the value of all things is judged by reference to “God and the good.”[19] Aristotle frames this dilemma rather directly:

It is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.[20]

Aristotle seemingly wants to gloss over the relation of God and the human good, but this relation is critical to his theory in at least two ways. First, it raises the question of the nature of goodness itself to human goodness. If God is the highest good, then should not he be the telos of humanity? If all rational endeavors pursue the good, then this question is not trivial. Second, if the human good is God-given, then what does this imply about the connection of the human telos and God’s intentions for human beings? If God is both the standard of the good and the one who gives goodness or happiness to humanity, then it would seem that the question of human virtue would be primarily theological and not philosophical (assuming there is a sharp distinction between these disciplines). Investigation into morality would be a question of who God is, what he is like, and whether or not he has revealed himself and his intentions for human beings.[21] In sum, Aristotle’s approach to ethics does not actually succeed at what it sets out to do and it leaves important theoretical questions about the nature of the good, specifically the relation of the good to God and the human telos, unanswered.

Kantian Ethics 

Kant’s approach to moral knowledge is different both in its method and its goal. Kant’s epistemology assumes a split between the phenomenal and the noumenal. There is a way that things appear to us which is determined by the mind and there is a way things actually are. We do not know external objects as they are, but only as they appear to us, as they are shaped by the categories of the mind. On the other hand, Kant says, “other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).”[22] God exists in the noumenal realm and is not directly accessible to us. Considering our epistemic situation, Kant thinks that the basis of moral knowledge must be established based on “pure reason.” Moral knowledge would not be knowledge of the Platonic forms, but knowledge of the entailments of reason. Pure reason operates only the analytic and a priori; it utilizes only those things known prior to experience and that are internal to the person. Kant thinks that one can postulate the existence of noumenal objects on the basis of practical reason. If some concept known analytically requires the postulation of some noumenal object to explain its existence, then this postulation is warranted. Seemingly, Kant thinks that the notion of the moral law is an a priori concept for in The Critique of Practical Reason, it is on the assumption of existence of the moral law that Kant, by use of practical reason, establishes the reality of human free will.[23]

Kant, like Aristotle, has an important role for God. But also like Aristotle, Kant’s search for moral knowledge does not begin with God. Rather, since God is in the realm of the noumenal, Kant says he “must, therefore, abolish knowledge [of noumenal objects like God], to make room for belief [in these objects]. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.”[24] Despite this move, Hare rightly argues that for Kant, God has three specific roles, the legislative, executive, and judicial so that for Kant “God gives us the assistance required to live according to the law. And God sees our hearts, as we do not, knows whether we are committed to obedience, and rewards us accordingly.”[25] It is based on God’s necessary judicial function that Kant develops a moral argument for God by means of practical reason. Kant held that a person was always obliged to keep the moral law. However, one’s self-interest or happiness and keeping the moral demand can seemingly conflict so that it would not be rational to follow the law. To keep this seeming contradiction from becoming actual, Kant, as a postulate of practical reason, thought that God must exist to make sure that the moral law and happiness coincide.

Kant’s understanding of human epistemological limitations shapes how he thinks of morality in general and moral knowledge in particular. The full extent of our moral obligations must be discovered a priori, without appeal to any external authority or empirical observation. According to Johnson, Kant’s method is to begin with analyzing our moral concepts, like “good will,” “moral agent,” and “obligation” and their logical relationship to one another.[26] Since the moral law should be necessary and absolute, it cannot consider any contingent features. It is these analytic considerations that lead Kant to his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”[27]

This brief sketch of Kant’s account of moral knowledge does create some concern. One problem has to do with Kant’s understanding of the epistemic starting point. Hume may have awoken Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, but Kant seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. Hume’s skeptical challenge leads Kant to embrace epistemological and ontological dualism, when he should have rejected the skepticism.[28] The result is the Kant believes an implicit contradiction. He says he cannot have knowledge of God, except by practical reason. But this is an a priori theological belief which is no better established than the alternative. A better response can be found in the work of Alvin Plantinga, which takes seriously the implications of the Christian worldview.[29] Kevin Diller suggests that Plantinga and Barth have similar positions on this front. When faced with the problem of skepticism, Diller argues that traditionally philosophers have seen the problem as a dilemma. Either one can embrace the skepticism or change the definition of truth and knowledge (anti-realism). Diller argues that both Barth and Plantinga “chart an escape through the horns of this dilemma by rejecting certain core epistemological assumptions of modernity. Plantinga identifies its origins in the unreasonable deontology associated with classical foundationalism. Barth heralds the pre-engaged givenness and self-grounding of divine self-revelation.”[30] They, instead of buckling under the weight of modernism, opt for a critical realist position of knowledge that “strongly affirms the possibility of theological knowledge.”[31]

Here is a related problem to Kant’s view. If his ethical theory ends up affirming the necessity of God, then why would God be left out of the epistemic story? Surely, if God exists and he is personal in the way that Kant’s view requires, then perhaps he might, as Plantinga suggests, create us to know him, perhaps even in a properly basic way. Considering the earlier argument that all epistemology is inherently theological, it would seem to make Barthian and Plantingian accounts at least prima facie more plausible because they at least acknowledge the determinate relation of epistemology to worldview.

A Trinitarian Account of Moral Knowledge

Having now shown some reasons to be skeptical of Aristotelian and Kantian accounts of moral knowledge, we will now see how a Trinitarian and biblical account is superior. But first we must sketch out this Trinitarian account. A significant difference between a Trinitarian account and the other accounts concerns their respective starting points. We begin with theology rather than epistemological method (particularism over methodism). The first theological assumption relevant to moral knowledge is that God is the good and that, therefore, any moral knowledge we might have will in some way be dependent on him. That God ought to be identified with the good is widely held Christian belief shared among theologians from Augustine to Robert Adams.[32] If goodness is identified with God, then the goodness of all other things must be explained in terms of resemblance to God. Moral knowledge, then is a kind of knowledge of God, either of himself directly or derivatively in his creation. That moral knowledge would be available to us given the existence of God is internally coherent and plausible. Plantinga, in a discussion of the availability of knowledge of God in general says this: “[If it is true that God exists, then] the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on. And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief.”[33]  The other assumption is that the God in view is the Trinitarian God of the Bible who is revealed primarily by his Word, Jesus Christ.

Considering these assumptions, the obvious concern given our aim is to say what moral knowledge God has revealed in his Word and how he has done this. God’s modes of revelation can be divided into two categories: general and special and God has made moral knowledge available through both means, though to varying degrees. God the Father, through his Word, who made all things, reveals some of morality in his creation (Col. 1:15-16; Rom. 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is suppressed because of sin. Some limited amount of moral knowledge is available by this route, but it is fragmentary and clouded by what Plantinga calls “the noetic effects of sin.”[34] This means that the only ultimately reliable and full source of moral knowledge must come by way of divine grace and special revelation.

If special revelation is required for this sort of moral knowledge, which is a species of the genus “knowledge of God,” then written Word of God, the Bible, would be the place to turn. But if God primarily reveals himself in and through his Word, who is Jesus Christ, then this could create a problem. The problem arises if there is a disconnect between God’s primary and supreme mode of revelation, his Son, who is the Word, and the Bible, for as John writes, “No one has ever seen God. The only one [Who is the Word of God], himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18, NET). Carson concludes from this text that “the Word was simultaneously God and with God—has broken the barrier that made it impossible for human beings to see God, and has made him known.”[35] If this separation between written Word and Word of God were actual, then the implication would be that the only special revelation to which we have ready access would be inferior to the ideal revelation of God in Jesus Christ. To put the problem another way: If in the Bible we do not encounter the Word of God, who is the only one to make the Father known, then the Bible cannot be a reliable or full source of moral knowledge. The only sure source of moral knowledge is encounter with the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, if our moral knowledge is going to be the best kind possible for us, it must find its source in the Word of God; the Bible must be a revelation of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Barth shows us the way to understand the Written Word and the Word as intimately connected.

Barth contends that Holy Scripture is composed of the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. In the Written Word, the Church is given “the promise of God’s mercy which is uttered in the person of Him who is very God and very Man and which takes up our cause when we could not help ourselves at all because of our enmity against God.”[36] The promise of the Written Word is “Immanuel;” it is the working out of John 1:18. Barth adds that the Bible is the word of men “who yearned, waited and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it. And by its declaration, attestation and proclamation it promises that it applies to us also and to us specifically.”[37] For Barth, then, the Bible functions on two levels. First, its subject is Jesus Christ. All of the Bible either looks forward or back to the revelation of God in his Son. Second, God is at work in the Bible. The Bible is not a static object, but has the character of “event.” God speaks in and through the Written Word and what he speaks is his Word, who is the Son. Thus, the content of the Written Word points to the Son, and in the Written Word, we encounter the Word of God. In this way, the Bible can serve as the best possible ground for moral knowledge. It is this sure ground that allows the Bible to not only supplement the limited moral knowledge available via general revelation, but also to correct misunderstandings. What is implicit in creation, is made explicit in Jesus Christ and his Written Word.

Barth’s comment about the person of Christ being “very God and very man” also shows why the Bible is especially fit to be our source of moral knowledge. Jesus as “very God,” possesses the right kind of authority to place upon us binding moral obligations for, plausibly, God as the creator of humanity would ipso facto have moral authority over them.[38] If Jesus were not God himself, then God’s revelation of himself in Christ would be deficient and not self-authenticating. On the other hand, the fact that Jesus is “very man” is also relevant, for in the life and person of Jesus, we find the ideal moral exemplar.[39] Jesus authoritatively as God not only tells us what we ought to do, but he also shows how humans ought to function. He gives us a clear picture of the human good. It is Jesus’ status as both “very God and very man” that puts him in a position to set forth authoritatively and completely moral knowledge with respect to the right and the good. And the fact that he communicates through and encounters us in the Written Word means this knowledge is accessible to us. The Written Word, as Barth says, is the concrete realization of Immanuel.

What the Written Word says about the right and the good also provide reason to prefer the Trinitarian account over the alternatives considered. With respect to the good, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deficient in two ways when compared with the ethic of the Bible. First, Aristotle’s account of the virtues is both incomplete and in error at certain points. The cardinal virtues, discoverable by general revelation according to Thomas Aquinas, are supplemented by the Written Word. The theological virtues are beyond “the capacity of human nature” to apprehend and therefore it is “necessary for man to receive [knowledge of them] from God.”[40] Second, Aristotle’s vision of the good life is inferior to the biblical vision. Aristotle’s conception of life in in the polis is based on a truncated view of the good for man. Fully realized human flourishing only occurs in shalom, where God and man live in love with one another and harmony with the whole of the created order (cf. Zeph 3:15;19-20; 8:3-12). With respect to the right, we also see that Kant’s account is inferior. While Kant argues that one ought to always treat others as ends and never merely as means, Jesus commands that we “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). While Kant may have intended to arrive at a conclusion like Jesus’, his insistence on basing moral knowledge of the deliverances of pure reason deemphasizes the central role that love ought to play in the working out of our moral obligations. One advantage of a Trinitarian account should already be evident: a Trinitarian account takes seriously the finitude of man and the inescapabilty of making theological assumptions (either implicitly or explicitly) in our quest for moral knowledge, but the other primary advantage is this: The central place of love in the Christian ethic and its deep, natural connection with the Trinity shows that the biblical ethic is both internally coherent and that it confirms our highest possible vision of what the ethical life  should be. This should count as evidence in favor of the credibility of the Bible as the source of moral knowledge for us.

However, we must not forget the kind of objection raised by Peter Enns at the beginning. Throughout Christian history, readers of the Bible have found certain elements of its moral vision to be abhorrent and incompatible with their understanding of a loving God. Some have seen the picture of God in the Old Testament to be the opposite of loving; they instead seem him as violent and vindictive. If the Bible presents an ultimately incoherent vision of ethics, then this would count as a defeater for thinking of the Bible as the source for moral knowledge. Therefore, some response to this charge must be made. Here are two suggestions. First, it may be that many of the objections to the ethics of the OT are simply based on hermeneutical error. For example, Copan and Flanagan argue that texts claiming the complete destruction of the Canaanites are hyperbolic and that all that God actually commands is that Israel drive them from the land.[41] The language of “total extermination” is an ancient idiom that should not be read literally. Second, we should not expect that our moral beliefs match univocally with what is actually the case about morality. There is also no reason to think our natural moral knowledge should be totally equivocal, either. Rather, we should expect that our knowledge of the good and the right is analogical and open to revision, but not that it would be totally overturned.[42] Lewis argues this view:

Divine “goodness” differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning. This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent – a call which would be meaningless if God’s standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice.[43]

If the Bible did not challenge, expand, and correct our moral beliefs, then would it would be superfluous to moral knowledge, but as we have seen, there are good reasons to think it is necessary. So, while this objection should be taken seriously, there are at least two promising ways of responding that will preserve the coherence of the Bible as our source of moral knowledge.



The aim was to show why the Bible is necessary for moral knowledge. It was shown that two of the most popular alternative accounts for moral knowledge beg theological questions, have internal inconsistencies, and present a relatively truncated vision of the ethical life. For this reason, these alternate accounts do not provide the best explanation of moral knowledge. However, the Trinitarian account is internally coherent, has considerable explanatory power, and presents an ethical vision that exceeds our highest expectations. This vision is communicated to us by the Word of God in and through the Written Word, which means that moral knowledge is readily accessible to us. In view of the possibilities considered, the Bible as the source for moral knowledge for us is the best explanation available.


[1] Gavin Lawrence, “Human Good and Human Fuction ” in The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Richard Kraut (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006). 50.

[2] John E. Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History (Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007). 138.

[3] Of course, pressing these distinctions too far would be a mistake. Aristotle’s account of the virtues is an account of right action, and Kant emphasizes the role of the “Supreme Good” in his ethic.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. W. D. Ross (MIT, 1994).Book 1 chapter 1.

[5] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 7.

[6] Ibid.Book 1, chapter 7.

[7] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 9.

[8] Ibid. Book 10, chapter 7.

[9] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Aristotle’s Ethics.”

[10] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New Advent, 1920). First Part of the Second Part; Question 61. However, Aristotle in Rhetoric, extends the list: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

[11]Aristotle. Book 2, chapter 1.

[12] See Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[13] Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 31.

[14] Richard Kraut. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (p. 344). Kindle Edition.

[15] John E. Hare, God’s Command (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2015). 99.

[16] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). 181.

[17] Hare, God’s Command. 118.

[18]This does not mean that fact and value come apart, however. The problem is epistemological and not ontological. And Hare does think that some ethical facts can be discerned, but they are more limited than many Aristotelians tend to think.

[19] Aristotle. Book 1, chapter 7.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Naturalist versions of virtue ethics do not escape this problem. All virtue theories require a realist account of teleology. That is, a necessary condition of a virtue ethic is that human beings have purpose or telos. Teleology is irreducibly mental. For a thing to have a telos just is for someone in appropriate relation to that thing to have intentions or purposes for that thing. In other words, any account of virtue ethics would require a Creator. I have argued for this position in more detail here:

[22] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (Project Gutenberg, 2003 ). Chapter III.

[23] Immanuel Kant, The Critque of Pratical Reason, trans. Thomas Abbot (Start 2012). Kindle Location 13.

[24] Kant.

[25] Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History. Kindle Locations 1739-1742.

[26] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.”

[27] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals ; with, on a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, trans. James W. Ellington, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1993). 12.

[28] For a discussion of this see Morrison., 38-39.

[29] See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[30]Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma : How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014). 169.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Though I take this as an assumption, that does not mean the view cannot be supported. For example, Adams ably argues that identifying God with the good has considerable explanatory power and makes sense of our moral language. See Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods : A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). David Baggett and Jerry Walls also contend successfully that this view best explains all the moral facts in question. See David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[33] Plantinga. 189.

[34] Ibid.146.

[35] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press 1991). 134.

[36] Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1). 108.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Mark C. Murphy, An Essay on Divine Authority, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002). 18.

[39] See Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 247.

[40] Aquinas. First Part of the Second Part, Question 62.

[41] Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? : Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014). 76.

[42] Baggett and Walls. 48.

[43] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). 86.

Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 1: Epistemology and Worldview)

By Jonathan Pruitt 


Humanity can have some moral knowledge without encountering the written Word of God. People throughout the world know that the proposition, “it always wrong to torture children for fun” is true. The Bible itself says that at least some moral knowledge is available through general revelation (Romans 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is deficient in several ways and requires the Bible for completion. I will argue that though there is natural moral knowledge, that it is deficient in its scope and authority and that the Bible, as the written Word of God, meets the conditions required for moral knowledge. And finally, I will specify how the Bible supplements the moral knowledge available through general revelation. My suggestion is that the Bible confirms what is properly known by nature and “pure’ reason, it corrects moral misunderstandings in moral knowledge, and it calls humanity to go beyond what can be naturally known to a complete vision of the moral life in Christ. The moral knowledge available in the Bible has the power it does precisely because it is the written Word of God under Jesus Christ for he is Lord and thus has the power to impose upon us moral duties and because as man he reveals, enacts, and makes possible eudaimonia or the good life. So why is the Bible necessary to compete our knowledge of the human good and human moral obligations?

Epistemology and Moral Knowledge

Though this question seems straightforward, it raises difficult and complex issues in epistemology. The question assumes that the Bible is a source of a particular kind of knowledge, moral knowledge, and that it is a superior source than any other available to humankind. This claim is controversial because many doubt the Bible’s credibility as a source of knowledge in general (the claim is that it is merely the work of men or that is has been severely compromised in its transmission), but many more doubt that adopting the ethics of the Bible would count as a gain in human moral knowledge. For example, Peter Enns argues that the morality of the Old Testament does not reflect the will of a good God, but merely adapts the “accepted cultural norms of the day.”[1] The Bible teaches a Bronze Age ethic which should be discarded in light of human moral progress. Not only is the Bible merely the work of men, it is the work of morally unenlightened ones; that is the idea. I will return to assess this claim later, but Enns’ view serves as an important and popular foil for the thesis I am proposing. What sort of argument can be given to support the idea that the Bible is a source of moral knowledge? Here the work of Karl Barth will provide some illumination.

Karl Barth argued that the “The Bible is the Word of God.”[2] Often, Barth is interpreted as meaning that the Bible becomes the Word of God only when God elects to use it as it is proclaimed in the Church. Further, the Bible itself does not communicate the Word of God, but rather, it is merely the vehicle by which divine encounter occurs (a view called “occasionalism”). However, John Morrison suggests that this view fundamentally misunderstands Barth. According to Morrison, Barth holds that the Word of God “always has the character of an event, and Scripture thus ‘becomes’ in/as an event.”[3] The “event” is God’s decision to speak in and through the Bible; this speaking is the result of divine decision and is “ever present.”[4] It is in this way that Barth identifies the Bible with the Word of God. But why should we think Barth’s account is correct?

Barth does not think that the veracity of the Bible can be established on the basis of authority external to it. Man does not grasp the Bible, “the Bible has grasped at man.”[5] What Barth is proposing is a Trinitarian worldview where God the Father speaks through his Son, the Word, and this Word is applied or realized by the power of the Holy Spirit. Man is a finite and limited creature and so knowledge of God comes only by divine grace. If this worldview is assumed, it does not make sense to try to establish the authority and veracity of the Bible as the Word of God on the basis on anything outside of the Bible.[6] Any endeavor like this would be contradictory to Barth’s view. More specifically, Barth’s answer to the question of how can know that the Bible is the Word of God is that he can know this because it is actually the case: “The possibility of revelation is actually to be read off from its reality in Jesus Christ. Therefore at bottom the individual explanation to which we now proceed can be only a reading and exegesis of this reality.”[7]

A superficial reading of Barth might lead to his dismissal as a fideist, but this would be a mistake. Showing why this would be a mistake will require the defense of another contentious thesis: all epistemological positions are inherently theological. If, for example, we adopt a view like Cartesian foundationalism, then we have made certain assumptions that have theological significance. Anthropologically, we have made assumptions about the kinds of things we are, along with the limits of our cognitive powers, and our relation to the world. Cosmologically, we have assumed that world is the sort place that is knowable and comprehensible, even if the comprehensibility extends only to our own thoughts. Morally, we have assumed that we have certain intellectual duties that must be fulfilled, namely we must establish all our beliefs on the basis of what can be deductively ascertained from within the mind of a human individual. In other words, epistemological methods imply a worldview or a view about ultimate reality and human nature. This is perhaps why Calvin argues that “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”[8] These issues are inherently theological and so one cannot help but beg the question for a worldview to some extent. Considering this, Barth should not be understood as a fideist, but as person who takes seriously the connection of epistemology and worldview. Barth has an honesty and clarity about his assumptions and their implications that few alternative views could claim.

But if epistemology and worldview share this deep connection, then how can we discern what account of our moral knowledge is correct in light of the challenges coming from scholars like Peter Enns? What I propose, then, is that the way to determine whether the Bible is necessary to complete our knowledge of the good and the right, is to apply two kinds of tests. First, is the worldview which claims to account for moral knowledge internally coherent? Does it make any assumptions that conflict with each other or its conclusions? Second, what account of moral knowledge best explains our most deeply held moral intuitions? If, for example, we find that the biblical vision of shalom more deeply resonates with us than Aristotle’s vision of the polis, then that is a reason to think that the biblical account is more likely the correct one.

[1] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation : Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). Kindle location 601.

[2] Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1), ed. Geoffrey William & Torrance Bromiley, Thomas Forsyth and Geoffrey William Translator: Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). 513.

[3] John Douglas Morrison, Has God Said?, The Evangelical Monograph Series (Eugene: Pickwick, 2006). 155.

[4] Ibid. 156.

[5] Barth. 110.

[6]Though this does not mean that one could not confirm the veracity of the Bible in other ways. The point is that the Bible has its own authority as a source of knowledge; its has this authority both ontologically and epistemically. Ontologically, that authority cannot be supplemented by anything else. Epistemically, nothing else is required, but arguments that corroborate the Bible would be appropriate.

[7] Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,2), ed. Geoffrey William & Torrance Bromiley, Thomas Forsyth and Geoffrey William Translator: Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). 31.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Christian Classics Ethereal Library 1845). Chapter 1, section 1.


Image: “Grandma’s Bible” by Andrew Seaman. CC License. 

Three Reasons Christmas Matters for Morality

By Jonathan Pruitt 

At this time of year, Christmas images are everywhere. As we walk into the grocery store, we see Santa and his reindeer painted in the window, adorned by the phrase, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” As we drive by a neighbor’s house, we notice a brightly lit nutcracker. Close beside, a nativity. These decorations go up right after Thanksgiving, and by the first week in December, they just blend into the background. I think the lack of attention we pay to ornaments often extends to Christmas itself. We hear the sermons and sing the carols, but the reality they point to, we often overlook. The preacher says, “One of Jesus’ names is ‘Emmanuel.’ That means ‘God is with us.” We nod our heads, and we know that is a good thing. But why is it a good thing, exactly? And what is this business about “peace on earth and good will to men?” That’s a question I aim to answer at least partially by giving three reasons Christmas matters for morality.

  1. Jesus’ birth reveals the metaphysical nature of human beings

Many atheists today think that human beings are merely biological machines. For example, Richard Dawkins has famously said, “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. … This is exactly what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.” A similar idea is expressed by Daniel Dennett who thinks of humans as “information processing machines” created by mindless natural forces. Now, Dawkins and Dennett are likely quick to affirm the dignity and value of human persons. But difficulty arises when we ask, “How is it that a machine could have such value?” It does not seem the bare matter could ground real value. Besides that, what follows from such a view is that humans have no genuine free will. Instead, their actions are determined by physical necessity. Not everyone agrees this precludes free will, but the views of such compatibilists strain credulity and common sense. Another problem is that on such reductive materialist views, humans as humans don’t even exist. Instead what we have is a pile of parts arranged human-wise. Humans are, when we take the view seriously, a collection of elements hanging together due to natural forces. “Human” is just the term that human-shaped piles call other human-shaped piles. With a view like this, it easy to see why ethicists like Peter Singer have argued that very young babies or the mentally disabled are justifiably euthanized.[1]

Consider the contrast presented in the Christmas story. For one, there is a certain metaphysical view of human persons at work. God became a man.  We’ve got to keep in mind that God did not just appear to become a man. He really did become a man. If this is true, then humans could not possibly be mere machines. As Jesus tells us, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Something that is essentially and necessarily spiritual cannot become only material and retain its identity. If God, who is spirit, became a pile of parts arranged human-wise, he could no longer be called God. Therefore, there must be something more to man than his physical parts. But what kind of thing must humans be for God to become one of us? It seems that, at the least, humans need to be souls.

Why is this so? First we must realize that the Second Person of the Trinity existed as a person prior to his incarnation. This person is a person without any physical parts. If this person continues to be a person in the incarnation, his personhood cannot depend on any physical parts or else he would not be identical with himself prior to incarnation. That is to say, the material parts of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God must be only accidental properties and not essential ones. If they were essential, it would mean there was an essential difference between Jesus incarnated and Jesus prior to his incarnation. The person incarnated would not be the same person as the Second Person of the Trinity. But, Jesus, who is an essentially spiritual person, became an actual human person. Consider what this must means for humans in general. If Jesus really became a human, humans must also be essentially spiritual persons. Humans, then, must essentially be non-material substances; humans must be souls.[2]

If humans are souls, everything they do is not determined by the physical laws of the universe. Having a soul also provides the “metaphysical goods” to ground a human nature. If humans are souls, they are not piles of parts. Instead, they are a unified substance endowed by God with personhood. These powers include the power of volition so that humans are able to direct their lives toward one end or another. So when we see Jesus laying in manger, one of the things we ought to perceive is a rejection of the reductive view of human persons proposed by Dawkins and Dennett. The incarnation tells us that humans are body and soul. As such, they have the capacity to transcend the determinative laws of nature and become agents, capable of directing their own lives.

  1. Jesus’ birth demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings

Jesus’ birth also demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings. It does this a couple of ways. First, as we read in John 3:16, God sent Jesus into the world because he loved the world. God loved humanity and so he made a way for us to be saved from our sins. And he did this at very great cost. God could have loved us, but only a little. In that case, he might refrain from sending his Son, but feel very bad about doing so. Suppose you have a friend who you loved only half-heartedly. Unfortunately, some malicious criminals take your friend hostage. They are the kind of criminals that will slowly torture and kill your friend just for the fun of it. And then these criminals send you a ransom note saying that, if you agree, you can take her place. Now, only loving your friend half-heartedly, you feel empathy for her, but you don’t make the trade. You would have to love your friend deeply and fully if you were to trade your life for hers. And this is what Jesus has done for us.

For humans, though, we often love what we should not. We love things that are not good. However, God, who is maximally good, has no misplaced affections. When God loves us, he does so because we are his children and made in his image. We have intrinsic value and are therefore worth loving. Notice, though, that this worthiness is not autonomous from God, as if we could make ourselves worth loving. Instead, we are only worth loving because God graciously made us in his image, investing us with the worth we possess. As Mark Linville puts it: “God values human persons because they are intrinsically valuable. Further, they have such value because God has created them after his own image as a Person with a rational and moral nature.”

The fact that Jesus came as a man is another way his birth shows the value and dignity of humans. Not only were humans worth saving, it was also worth becoming a human to do it. Consider this proposition: “Being a human is good.” How could we know whether this was true or false? A reductive atheist would have real trouble here because (1) there are no such things as human beings, only human shaped piles, and (2) there is no clear way to make sense of “good.” David Bentley Hart, with his characteristic confidence and cadence, writes, “Among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics.” However, as Christians we know both that humans exist and that God grounds the good. We also know that God, being maximally great, only ever does what is good. Therefore, if God became a human being, being a human being must be good. That may sound like a trivial idea, but consider the implications. If being human is good, it means that our lives have meaning. We do not need to progress to the next stage of evolution, we only need to live as humans as God intended. It also means, contra the worldview of many, that there’s nothing inherently bad about the body; salvation includes the redemption of the body, not deliverance from it. If being human is good, all humans have dignity and value.

  1. Jesus’ birth means it is possible for humans to live the moral life

If we consider the possibility of living the moral life on reductive atheism, we end up with some dim prospects. One worry is that there is no objectively good moral life. This is why so many atheists talk of making one’s own meaning in life. Though the universe is cold and dark, human ought to nevertheless pull themselves up by the bootstraps and choose to live a life of meaning. I am inclined to think this is just wishful thinking. Besides this, if humans are machines and have no free will, it seems impossible to live a moral life. It seems that for a choice to be moral, it must be chosen by an agent. We don’t think our computers are immoral when they crash (despite the temptation); neither are human biological machines when they do something destructive.

Further, unless the universe just happens to cause us to live a moral life by accident, we will have to work at becoming a virtuous person. We must act as agents who are capable of making moral progress. Atheist Sam Harris agrees and makes this suggestion: “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”[3] But of course, to say that we can steer ourselves in any sense is to discard the idea that humans are machines. In order to steer ourselves, we must be something more than that. So reductive atheists seem to have no hope for living the moral life, whatever that might be. And the way Harris in such sanguine fashion affirms a contradiction as if doing so makes sense doesn’t eliminate the incoherence.

The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, suggests a very different outcome. To see why, we must go all the way back to the creation account in Genesis. There we see that God made man in his image and to rule and reign as his representatives on the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). Adam and Eve were, in a very real sense, responsible for realizing the kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is what humans were made for, a place where God, humans, and creation live together in peace. It is important to understand here that peace means much more than we modern readers might normally think. We tend to think of peace as the absence of violence. But for the Jews, peace was much more robust than that. Peace, for them, was happiness and human flourishing—shalom. If we live in peace, we live according to the created order, enjoying and appreciating God and all that he has made, especially other humans.

However, humans chose to disobey God and thus sin entered the world. The effects of sin were so dramatic that humans could no longer live as God intended; the kingdom of God could not be established by these fallen humans. However, God did not leave us in this predicament. God set into motion a plan that would restore the kingdom of God to the earth and the story of the Bible is very much this story. God called Abraham and promised that through him, all the people of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Then, from the descendants of Abraham, God formed the nation of Israel. God promised Israel a King who would restore peace to the earth. God says this King will take away punishment and take great delight in his people. He will “rescue the lame” and “gather the exiles”; he will restore their fortunes (Zeph 3:15;19-20).  Zechariah records for us what God says it will be like when this King comes (8:3-12):

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’ This is also what the prophets said who were present when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty. Before that time there were no wages for people or hire for animals. No one could go about their business safely because of their enemies, since I had turned everyone against their neighbor.  But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty.

“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.

The takeaway from this passage should be that this King will restore the robust, Jewish notion of peace to the world. Without this King, humans would be left without hope and the possibility of ever flourishing as humans. But, under the reign of this King, the effects of sin will be done away with and human flourishing will once again be possible.

We are also told by Micah that this king would be born in Bethlehem and from the tribe of Judah; his origin will be “from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). So when Jesus, Son of God and from the family of Judah, was born in Bethlehem, we know this must be the King about whom we were told. We should understand that God has kept his promise to make the world right again. Now, while Jesus was still laying in a manger, how this would happen had not been made clear. That would come later. But we should be very happy indeed to know that God, our King, was born on Christmas some 2000 years ago because with his birth came the promise that humans can live as God intended – in peace.



[1] Singer thinks that the only thing that counts as a person is a rational, self-conscious person. Babies and the mentally disabled are therefore not persons and do not deserve the same rights as other persons. See for example his Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (1988), Oxford University Press.

[2] This is not to say that having a body is not the ideal way for humans to exist. However, humans can apparently be separated from their bodies at least for a short while. Paul, for example, was caught up to the third heaven. Also, prior to the Second Coming, humans will apparently exist sans bodies while they await the resurrection. J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae defend this view in Body & Soul (2000) IVP Academic.

[3] Sam Harris, Free Will. Simon & Schuster.

Photo: “Nativity” by Jess Weese. CC License. 

Inspiring Kids to Become Christian Gumshoes : A Review of Cold Case Christianity For Kids by J. Warner Wallace

Review by Jonathan Pruitt 

J. Warner Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective. As a detective Wallace was well respected and earned the nickname “the Evidence Whisperer.” At the age of thirty-five when Wallace was still an atheist, he turned his honed and careful mind toward the claims of Christianity. What Wallace found in his investigation surprised him; not only did the claims of Christianity appear plausible, but they were the best explanation of a variety of important facts, like the origin of the cosmos, the reality of the moral law, and the New Testament claims about the resurrection of Jesus. Wallace laid out his case for Christianity methodically as a homicide detective would in his book Cold Case Christianity, which has received numerous accolades, not least from my wife who, though acquainted with many well-known Christian apologists, found Wallace to be the most engaging and accessible. Wallace and his wife, Susie, have now translated that book into Cold Case Christianity: For Kids.

51qib5depwl-_sx332_bo1204203200_In this new book, Wallace aims to illuminate two ideas for children: how to think critically and the evidence for Christianity. Wallace tells the story of several young cadets who have entered cadet training under the supervision of wise Detective Jefferies. Wallace illustrates principles of critical thinking as the detective guides the children through the mystery of a missing skateboard.  Wallace breaks down tough concepts like abductive reasoning and induction masterfully. One might doubt that children could understand abstract concepts like these, but as Wallace applies them concretely to the skateboard case, they are easy to understand and ought to be within the grasp of most children. But Wallace does not talk down to his audience, either. Wallace employs terms that many adults would need a dictionary to understand. How many of us know what “abduction” is off the top of our heads? And yes, the term is actually in the book! Wallace also shows that discovering the truth is often not a simple process. It will take time to gather evidence and think through all the implications. This reticence to water down the content while simultaneously making the ideas understandable to children is the greatest strength of the book. Wallace expects his young audience to rise to the occasion of thinking deeply and critically about some of life’s most important questions. That’s not an easy balance to strike, but Wallace does it well.

Though the theistic arguments are not the focus of this book, one of the highlights is Wallace’s simple but effective summary of the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments. The book also provides entertaining and informative pictures that will keep children engaged as well as provide clarity for them. Wallace further provides a simple but clear overview of some the primary issues relating to the resurrection of Jesus, and this is his main focus. Topics like “the chain of custody” of the New Testament documents, which I personally did not hear about until I was an undergraduate at a Christian college, are introduced and explained with ease.  Children who have read this book will be more prepared and aware of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than even many adults.

But it is the synthesis of critical thinking and the presentation of the evidence which deserves the most commendation. In a world that is increasingly pluralistic and challenges the central claims of Christianity, children will need more than simple articulation of Christian beliefs. They will need to learn to think critically, like Detective Jeffries. This book does not merely provide the evidence for the resurrection in a way that children can understand, it provides a model of intellectual virtues which its young readers will feel called to emulate.

This combination is the reason I will read and reread this book with my young son as he grows up. Wallace has provided parents an excellent tool that any parent concerned about teaching their children critical thinking and the truth of the resurrection should not overlook. Cold Case can help our children provide a reasoned defense for the hope that they have, and gives it our highest recommendation.


Image: “Junior Detective” by Jessica Lucia. CC License.

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.