An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics
Foundations, Values and Issues
Cambridge University Press, 2000
In recent years there has been a growing public debate on such issues as abortion, ecology, euthanasia, genetic engineering and animal experimentation. The latest topic to hit the headlines is one that 20 years ago would have belonged to science fiction: the cloning of human embryos. These issues raise questions for practising Buddhists: how does one apply basic Buddhist ethical principles?
The most recent offering on Buddhist Ethics comes from Peter Harvey, Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Sunderland. In his Introduction, Harvey tells us that ‘This book aims to be an integrative over-view of ethics in different Buddhist traditions ... [and] addresses issues which are currently of concern in western thought on ethics and society’. Chapters 1-3 deal with traditional Buddhist ethics (Theravada, Mahayana and Tantra), and Chapters 4-10 cover issues arising from the growth of western science, and explore how Buddhist ethics might deal with these. The breadth of these topics makes this a rather fat book of some 478 pages.
Chapters 1-3 are a good overview of traditional Buddhist ethics. One often hears that Buddhism teaches that all that happens to us is a result of our karma. But, as Harvey points out, according to the Pali Suttas this is not what the Buddha taught. He also points out that actions are wholesome not because of their effects, but rather that wholesome actions produce certain effects because they are wholesome. ‘Action’ or karma, as the Pali Suttas tell us, is ‘intention’ [cetana]. And we are reminded that ‘The law of karma is not regarded as rigid and mechanical’, but is ‘flexible, fluid and dynamic’. For example, regretting an unwholesome action can lessen its consequences. And we are reminded that ‘the full details of [the] working out [of karma] are said to be ‘unthinkable’ (acinteyya) to all but a Buddha’.
Comparing Buddhist ethics to western ethical systems, Harvey argues that while he agrees with aspects of the Utilitarian (reduction of suffering), Aristotelian (cultivation of character), and Kantian (good motivating will) models, unlike these systems Buddhist ethics is ‘gradualist’. What precepts are taken depends on the practitioner’s level of development. (However, I would argue that this ‘gradualist’ approach is inherent in the Aristotelian model).
When we enter the world of ‘Mahayana emphases and adaptations’, we come across what appear to be very un-Buddhist ideas. For example, it is stated in early recensions of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, that ‘while it is a fault to kill an ant, it is not a fault to kill an icchantika’ (someone who is said to have no ‘good roots’ and therefore can never ever enter the spiritual path). Harvey adds that ‘Fortunately this rather disreputable idea ... is absent in the later versions of the sutra’. However, simply editing texts does not remove the problem, and raises the question of how we are to judge texts once we know they have been ‘revised’! In this chapter we also enter the troublesome area of whether Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can kill beings for ‘good’ reasons.
Readers are presented with more concrete, topical, and therefore more engaging ethical problems when we turn to modern issues. What is the Buddhist stance on abortion, suicide, euthanasia, ecology, war, meat-eating, animal experimentation, economics, sexual equality and homosexuality?
In each case Harvey begins with a general principial discussion, after which he considers how various Buddhist schools and modern Buddhist cultures deal with them. For example, the traditional view on abortion is that, as a human being is present from the first moment of conception, in aborting a foetus a human being is thereby killed. Thus it is a highly unskilful act, even though it is less unskilful than killing an adult. But what about the very real ethical dilemma that arises when having the child would mean the death of the mother, whereas aborting will save her life? Such topics are not discussed in the Vinaya, its commentaries, or the various Abhidharmas.
From Harvey’s survey, in the case of a direct choice between saving the child or the mother most Buddhists think abortion would be the right choice. But on other issues, such as conception through rape or malformation of the foetus, there is no agreement on how to proceed ethically. Modern science and technology present us with situations where Buddhist ethical principles do not produce unambiguous answers. We are still confronted with difficult choices.
On the critical side, at times I found an underlying Theravada bias, especially in the first three chapters. To imply that the modern Theravada reaches back straightforwardly to the ancient Sthiviravada school, and therefore contains a more ‘ancient’ teaching is simply to ignore modern critical scholarship. Perhaps connected with this, I also found Harvey on occasions leaning to a somewhat formalistic approach to ethical issues; for example in the discussion of meat-eating, rather than engaging with them from basic Buddhist principles: a case of relying on the ‘letter’ rather than the ‘spirit’. Such criticisms aside, this is an stimulating work, and an ideal starting point for anyone interested in Buddhist ethics and their application to the modern world.
Sagaramati is the author of Buddhism and Nietszche: a Study in Ironic Affinities