In The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, Damien Keown argued that Aristotelian virtue ethics is the closest Western analogue to Buddhist ethics, and this interpretation is now widely accepted. However, it has recently been challenged by writers, such as Charles Goodman and Barbra Clayton, who argue that Buddhist ethics should be understood as a type of universalist consequentialism. Specifically, they argue that Buddhist ethics corresponds to what Philip Ivanhoe refers to as "character consequentialism"--a type of consequentialist ethics in which the cultivation of character takes center stage. In what follows, I defend a version of the aretaic interpretation, arguing that Buddhist ethics corresponds to an act-centered virtue ethics. This interpretation finds textual support in the Pali canon and in the writings of Indian Mahayana thinkers, and so provides a general framework for understanding both Theravada and Indian Mahayana ethics. Against Goodman and Clayton, I argue that although consequentialist considerations play an important role in Buddhist moral thinking, this does not show that Buddhist ethics is consequentialist. The task of normative theory is to give an analysis of right action, and this should be distinguished from providing a justification for living morally and from formulating practical criteria for reaching a moral decision.
Virtue ethics is often presented as an alternative to deontic or "duty-based" ethics--a category that includes both consequentialism and deontology. Deontic ethics is concerned with the concept of moral obligation. It is, in this sense, "act-centered." Virtue ethics takes a different approach; it is not primarily concerned with how we should act but with what sort of people we should be. It is not "act-centered" but "agent-centered." As Goodman describes it, "A practitioner of virtue ethics ... takes her own virtue as her central ethical goal; she is to develop the skills, habits, and attitudes of mind necessary to be the best agent she can be" (42). Understood in this way, virtue ethics is essentially egoistic or, at best, agent-relative. For the virtue ethicist, the overarching goal to be sought in all we do is our own good, understood as virtuous character. To the extent that our own good is tied to that of others, virtue ethics includes others within our circle of concern, but only a select few. It is in this sense "agent-relative." According to Goodman, "Such a view gives each agent the aim of that agent's own flourishing, where the flourishing of each agent involves the flourishing of the small group of people that the agent cares about" (43).
There are, however, a number of problems with this characterization. First, although virtue ethics is commonly described as an ethics of "being" as opposed to an ethics of "doing," this is somewhat misleading. We use the language of the virtues and the vices not only to describe people, but to describe the things that people do. There are kind people and there are acts of kindness. There are cruel people and there are acts of cruelty. In fact, "doing" precedes "being." We become kind by acting kindly and we become cruel by acting cruelly. Keown ("Karma" 344) refers to this as the "intransitive" effects of moral action. According to Buddhism, moral action has a transformative effect upon the actor, registered in the form of samskaras or "mental formations." Samskaras explain our mental dispositions, habits, or tendencies, and hence our tendencies to act virtuously or viciously. Every virtuous or vicious deed leaves a samskaric imprint on the actor's mental stream, which accounts for the actor's tendency to repeat the same type of action. (By acting on an angry impulse, I reinforce my tendency to experience anger and hence to act angrily.) Insofar as character traits are stable dispositions to act, speak, think, and feel in certain ways, people create their characters--over innumerable lifetimes, Buddhists believe--through their moral conduct. …