Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhist Practice as Play: A Virtue Ethical View

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhist Practice as Play: A Virtue Ethical View

Article excerpt

"Only what is fruitful is true" (Goethe, Legacy). (3)


For more than thirty years a debate has been going on about which Western ethical theory is most suited to Buddhist ethics. Many good books and articles have been written on this subject. Highlights are Keown's The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, which makes a strong case for virtue ethics, and Goodman's Consequences of Compassion, which argues for a form of consequentialism. It is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on the hermeneutical aspects of the matter. I think that the point of this debate is that by putting the Buddhist tradition in the context of a theory like virtue ethics or consequentialism, questions are asked of it that were never asked before. In this way, connections and correspondences within Buddhist ethics itself come to the fore that were implicitly there but never quite visible. This increases our understanding of Buddhist ethics.

I want to contribute to this greater understanding of Buddhist ethics by engaging in this debate. I will do so by presenting a virtue ethical interpretation of Buddhist ethics. The notion of praxis/practice as it was given by Aristotle and further elaborated on by Alasdair MacIntyre will be the main focus of my interpretation. I will continue on the path of Keown, and try to expand and deepen it; however, in my view, virtue ethics should be seen as depending less on its Aristotelian roots than in Keown's interpretation. While remaining in debt to Aristotle's formal notions, virtue ethics has taken many other valuable forms.

My concern is not to which ethical theory Buddhist ethics "belongs" according to this or that text or body of texts. I think this can never be definitively established as if it were a matter of fact, because it is not. It is a hermeneutical matter, and as such there is more than just one way to look at it. As Goethe notes with the words I quoted above, the truth of a certain interpretation is not determined by whether or not it corresponds to the "facts" but by whether it is fruitful. My purpose is to show that a virtue ethical interpretation of Buddhist ethics is possible and that it is a fruitful interpretation. It is fruitful in the sense that it integrates many, if not all, aspects of Buddhist ethics into a coherent whole, thereby increasing our understanding of it. I believe Goodman and others have shown convincingly that a consequentialist interpretation is also possible. However, I think that a consequentialist interpretation is less fruitful than a virtue ethical interpretation. It does not give room to important aspects of Buddhist ethics because ethical practice in general, and specifically in Buddhism, is done for its own sake and not for the sake of some external goal. This will, I hope, become clearer in the article.

I will elaborate on the notion of praxis /practice in several "rounds," and in each round I will point out the way in which it fits in with Buddhist ethics. In the first round (the next two sections), I will show the core of the notion of a practice--its teleological and autarkic formal structure and how this hangs together with the notion of virtue. In the second round (the following two sections) I will go into how this view relates virtue ethics to consequentialist and deontological ethics. In the third round I will indicate how such a view can be grounded in a tradition with a view on reality and human nature. I

I think that the basic question of all ethics is the Socratic question: "how should one live?" (Plato 352d; Williams 2). Other important ethical questions as "What is a good deed?" "How can we be happy?" or "What is our obligation towards other people?" are derived from this question. With ethics I mean the broad discourse that arises as an answer to this basic question. Ethics understood in this way does not have to make a distinction between ethics in the sense of morals and other practical aspects of life such as health. …

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