[Buddha-l] Re: Karma and ethics [was: angels]

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Fri May 27 12:26:24 MDT 2005

On Fri, 2005-05-27 at 13:37 -0400, Eric Nelson wrote:

> > Ethics are supererogatory. 
> > 
> is this statement true of all ethics or only of Buddhism?

I suppose this depends entirely on one's view of ethics. I meant this
statement to apply to Buddhism, which does have, I think, a somewhat
different view of ethics than some other systems of thought and
practice, and especially has a different view from those systems that
see precepts as a duty or obligation on people imposed on them from the

In Buddhism almost all discussion of behavior puts reflection on how one
acts in the context of reducing pain. No one has any obligation or duty
to reduce pain. But if one does wish to reduce pain, then Buddhists have
some advice on how one might go about doing that. So discussions of
behavior are framed in language like "If you wish to avoid pain for
yourself and others, then avoid doing X." This is importantly different
from saying (and then pretending it was actually God who said it) "Thou
shalt not do X." 

> Even if this is true of Buddhism, most ethics include obligation /
> duty as well as the supererogative.

Right, and this is what makes Buddhism importantly different from most

> Can the Bodhisattva be thought as awakening to a deeper obligation
> which is freely and spontaneously assumed?

You may think of bodhisattvas any way you'd like. As a matter of record,
this is not how bodhisattvas are usually talked about in the literature
that discusses, well, bodhisattvas.

> Does this mean there are no obligations at all or that they are
> conditional given one's ends?

As I understand the term, obligation refers to a binding relationship
one has with others. One can, of course, enter into obligations
voluntarily, through contracts, making promises and the like. In
Buddhism one can take vows, such as those of a bhikkhu, and these oblige
one to act in certain ways so long as one is receiving the benefits of a
mendicant. It seems to be a kind of social contract. In this respect, it
is importantly different from other undertakings, which do not take the
form of contracts with anyone else at all. If I undertake to, say, do
aerobics training for my health, I am under no obligation of any kind to
anyone. Buddhist precepts are just like that; they are voluntary
undertakings done for the purpose of being well and feeling well.

>  Isn't the latter the basis of those "Buddhism as utilitarianism" arguments? 

I don't know. Who made such arguments?

> Does this mean that Buddhism has no ethics or that it is more of a
> descriptive ethic? 

I would say it has no ethics at all, unless you wish to define ethics in
such a way that it includes observations about the psychological effects
of cultivating certain habits of thinking, speaking and acting.

> Perhaps more analogous to virtue ethics than modern European
> prescriptive systems? 

One can see Buddhist discussions of habit as having elements in common
with eudaemonianism. One chooses a goal (telos) and acts in ways that
enable one to realize it.

> As far as vows are concerned--if vows involve intentions, then don't
> they involve "ethics" in the sense of prescriptions (even if
> conditional)? Doesn't karma involve some kind of responsibility for
> one's actions?

The way Buddhist texts discuss karma, there is no talk of anything like
responsibility. If someone says "If you step off the roof of a ten-
storey building, you will fall to your death," one is making an
observation about how things tend to go in the physical world. If
someone says "If you deliberately harm others, you yourself will
probably feel pain," one is making an observation about how things tend
to go in the psychological realm of subjective experience. In neither of
these claims--the one about gravity and the one about intentions--is
there any discussion of responsibility. If you say "You have a
responsibility or an obligation not to step off the roofs of tall
buildings," then you are saying much more than if you simply say that
stepping off the roof of a tall building will probably hurt or kill you.
This something more that is said in statements about obligation and
responsibility is not said by most Buddhists texts of which I am aware.

> Any comments would be appreciated.

That, it seems to me, is a descriptive statement about your personal
relationship with comments, and not a statement about obligation or
responsibility. Now if you could see most Buddhist discussions about the
psychological results of action in the same way, you would see clearly
what the Buddhist discussion of karma is all about.

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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