The Dalai Lama and the Nature of Buddhist Ethics

By de Cea, Abraham Velez | Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

The Dalai Lama and the Nature of Buddhist Ethics


de Cea, Abraham Velez, Journal of Buddhist Ethics


Although His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama matters for a number of political, religious, and cultural reasons (Thurman), his ethical ideas remain unappreciated by most professional philosophers. Although the Dalai Lama does not write as an expert in philosophical ethics, this should not be used as an excuse for ignoring his ethical thought.

The purpose of this article is to clarify the nature of the Dalai Lama's ethics and determine the moral theory most helpful for appreciating its depth and complexity. The underlying thesis of the article is that the Dalai Lama's ethics is best understood as a pluralistic form of virtue ethics.

The article has two parts. The first part challenges Charles Goodman's interpretation of Mahayana Buddhist ethics as an instance of universalist perfectionist consequentialism. I do this indirectly, that is, not by questioning his reading of Santideva and Asaiga, but rather by applying to the Dalai Lama's ethics the same test Goodman uses to justify his reading of Mahayana Buddhism. The application of Goodman's test demonstrates that the Dalai Lama's ethical theory is closer to virtue ethics than consequentialism. Thus, if it is the case that the Dalai Lama's ethics belongs in the Mahayana tradition, then Goodman's consequentialist interpretation of such a tradition cannot be correct, or at the very least it does not apply to Mahayana ethics in general.

The second part examines the Dalai Lama's ethics in comparison to Christine Swanton, a representative of a sui generis approach to virtue ethics in contemporary analytic philosophy. By comparing the ethics of the Dalai Lama and Swanton, I do not wish to suggest that her pluralistic approach to virtue ethics is the closest western analogue to Buddhist virtue ethics as a whole. My main concern is to provide a consistent interpretation of the Dalai Lama's ethics and facilitate understanding of another sui generis approach to virtue ethics. In other words, I use comparison, not to understand the Dalai Lama's ethical ideas from the perspective of Swanton's ethics, but rather to highlight what is unique about the Dalai Lama's approach to virtue ethics.

Some people may object that comparisons of Buddhist and Western ethical traditions are not the best way to understand Buddhist ethics on its own terms. I find this objection questionable. First, whether we like it or not, the truth is that most moral philosophers are unable to read Buddhist texts in their original languages and cultural contexts. Unless Buddhist scholars facilitate understanding through comparative studies of Buddhist and non-Buddhist ethical traditions, Buddhist approaches to virtue ethics, which I characterize as pluralistic and gradualist, will continue to be misunderstood and virtually ignored. Second, it is not the case that comparisons of Buddhist ethics and other ethical traditions are hermeneutically unhelpful. Quite the contrary, comparative studies not only refine our interpretations but also generate new insights and new perspectives that otherwise would not arise. Third, it is a bit naive to think that particular studies and monographs on Buddhist ethics in English or in other western languages do not involve comparisons at least with terminology that originates in western ethical traditions. The point is not that particular studies and monographs are equally bad to understand Buddhist ethics on its own terms. I am simply suggesting that comparative studies of Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions can also be a respectable way of learning about Buddhist ethics, a way that supplements what we can learn through particular studies and monographs. We need both, not one or the other.

Is The Dalai Lama's Ethics A Form Of Perfectionist Consequentialism?

In his article "Consequentialism, Agent-Neutrality, and Mahayana Ethics," Charles Goodman contends that Mahayana Ethics "involves some kind of universalist consequentialism" (18). …

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