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

Part 2

By Jonathan Pruitt

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Statement of the Problem

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

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

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

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

Statement of the Importance of the Problem

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

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

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

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

Statement of Position on the Problem

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

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

Limitations

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

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

Methodology

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

[2] 2

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

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

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

[5] Keown, Buddhism, 3.

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

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

[8] 8 Keown, Buddhism, 33.

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

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

of Chicago Press), 97.

Image: CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=202801

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