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

Eric Nelson esnels at gmail.com
Fri May 27 16:37:46 MDT 2005

It seems important to distinguish between (1) having a different or
different kind of ethics (non-theistic, non-rule based, etc) and
having no ethics and (2) rejecting unconditional prescriptions or
obligations and rejecting all prescriptive language.
Following a recipe or precepts has a prescriptive element, even if it
is conditional or as one philosopher calls it "hypothetical", in that
it proposes "do x in order to achieve y!" based presumably on the
descriptive statement that "doing x achieves y". In this sense,
therapeutic and pragmatic statements about better health and
mindfulness are not without their own "ought." Some Buddhists seem to
think that they have obligations not to harm, support the sangha,
etc., or apparently that karma is the basis of morality
(recall http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=8,1227,0,0,1,0)
Also, does it necessarily follow from the lack of divine obligations
that there are none (to other sentient beings perhaps)? This seems
like a theistic argument that assumes all non-theisms are nihilistic.

I might be mistaken but didn't earlier generations from Paul Carus to
David Kalupahana suggest that Buddhist ethics is utilitarian?

On 5/27/05, Richard P. Hayes <rhayes at unm.edu> wrote:
> 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 outside.
> 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 ethics.
> > 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
> _______________________________________________

Eric Sean Nelson

More information about the buddha-l mailing list