Skip to main content

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.

Leave a Reply