Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

On Compassionate Killing and the Abhidhammas "Psychological Ethics"

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

On Compassionate Killing and the Abhidhammas "Psychological Ethics"

Article excerpt


Previously I discussed a Vinaya case in which certain monks out of compassion encourage a sick colleague to commit suicide (Bioethics 57-64). Rupert Gethin disagreed with my interpretation of the case and criticized aspects of the methodology (2004). (2) Reviewing the commentarial literature and relevant scholastic teachings, he reiterated the Abhidhamma position that "the intention to kill is understood as exclusively unwholesome, and the possibility that it might ever be something wholesome prompted by thoughts of compassion is not countenanced" (Gethin 175).

This article is divided into four sections. The first revisits the Vinaya case and argues that the commentarial interpretation of the incident is contrived; section two critically reviews arguments based on general Buddhist teachings which are thought to support the Abhidhamma position that killing is incompatible with compassionate motivation; (3) section three examines the Abhidhamma theory of action; and section four discusses problems with the classification of actions "by root" (CBR).

Some methodological clarification may be in order. This is not a comparative study: it does not argue for the equivalence (or otherwise) of Buddhist and Western psychological or ethical concepts. While the issues discussed can be situated in the context of Western metaethical debates, the article does not pursue such comparisons. Rather than a contribution to comparative ethics, it is primarily a critique of the Abhidhamma's psychological reductionism, in other words, the attempt to explain ethical values solely in terms of psychological phenomena. (4) The focus is thus exclusively on an indigenous theory of Buddhist ethics, and we will be concerned with two central axioms of this theory: (5)

Axiom 1: The moral status of an intentional act is determined by its motivational roots.

Axiom 2: There is an a priori correlation between specific immoral acts and the motivational roots.

Theorems derived from these axioms (such as the alleged impossibility of compassionate killing) are asserted by the Abhidhamma as dogmas or necessary truths. The first axiom is a postulate of Abhidhamma action theory (to be discussed in section three) and asserts that the moral valence of an action (the property that makes it kusala or akusala) is predominantly a function of mula, or the motivational roots. These motivational roots are greed (lobha), aversion (dosa), and delusion (moha) and their opposites, liberality (alobha), benevolence (adosa), and wisdom (panna). Contrary to axiom 1 it will be suggested that it is cetana (intention) rather than mula (the motivational roots) that plays the central role in moral evaluation. (6) The second axiom is the basis of the Abhidhamma classification of actions "by root" (CBR), which will be discussed in section four. There I will suggest that this axiom is an erroneous inference from the moral teachings of the Nikayas. In short, the aim of the article is to show that axioms 1 and 2 are false and that as a consequence the Abhidhamma's "psychological ethics" fails as an interpretation of Buddhist ethics.

Motive and Intent

By way of terminological clarification, throughout the discussion a distinction is made between motive and intent. Motive is understood as that which moves a person to act, whereas intent denotes the specific aim or purpose in acting. As Maria Heim observes, "one's motivation can be money or love, for example, whereas one's intention is always to perform some particular action" (28). In the Abhidharma, these psychological functions are associated with the mental factors of mula and cetana, respectively. (7) Heim reserves the term motivation "primarily for the motivational roots (hetu, mula), which prompt intentional action" (27f). Nyanaponika describes the roots as "the motive powers and driving forces of our deeds, words and thoughts" (Roots xvi). Conditioned by these wholesome or unwholesome motivational roots, the mental factor of cetana formulates a purposive intention directed towards a particular goal or end. …

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