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

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Fri May 27 21:05:39 MDT 2005

On Sat, 2005-05-28 at 08:51 +0700, Randall Jones wrote:

> So what would be misguided in making use of Western discussions or 
> critiques of consequentialism and so forth in a Buddhist's (and therefore 
> Buddhist I would think) consideration of what to do or at least of how to 
> think about what to do?

It depends on whether one is trying to be an historian or a wholesome
person (which I do not take to be mutually exclusive categories). 

If one is striving to be historically accurate about Buddhist thinking,
then it is somewhat misleading to describe Buddhist theories in terms of
constructs that were alien to the settings where Buddhism evolved. I do
not see much evidence that Indian Buddhists had ethical theories of any
kind. They were, when compared to their European counterparts, quite
theoretically naive about ethics. I am reminded, in this context, of one
of the philosophers who attended Alexander of Macedonia in his campaigns
in the Indus valley. His observation was "The Indians actually live the
kind of life we Greeks spend all our time talking about living." Perhaps
the Indians were so successful in being well-behaved precisely because
they were not preoccupied much with the theoretical niceties of what
good behavior consists in. Perhaps they practiced precisely because they
knew better than to preach. (But now I am waxing Romantic, like the
doddering old fool that I am.)

If one is striving to live a wholesome and productive life, then I
applaud using whatever resources one has available. Then one might agree
with Richard Rorty that the only philosophical question that is still
fully alive is the ethical question of what kind of society ought we
strive to have. His answer, which I like as much as the question, is
that the only kind of society really worth having is one in which
everyone feels free to state his or her views and in which no one is
silenced, provided that an air of basic respect for others is
maintained. Rorty thereby thinks of himself as an ethical relativist, a
position that he is fully aware is repugnant to others, many of whose
positions are equally repugnant to him.

One could, I suppose, try to make the case for classical Buddhism being
somewhat like Rorty's style of pluralistic Pragmatism, but I think doing
so would be a bit of an intellectual tour de force. Perhaps a more
honest approach for a Western person who has decided to pretend for a
while to be a Buddhist would be to say "when it comes to ethics, I get
more mileage out of John Stuart Mill and Bernard Williams and Peter
Singer than out of classical Buddhist theory of karma."

> Lately I'm looking again at communicative ethics (toward which I lean), and 
> right speech.  Mistake?

The part of me that constantly impales the politicians of my country for
their many failures to speak plainly and with integrity can only applaud
anyone who leans to ethical acts of communication. Of all the precepts
of Buddhism, none have preoccupied me more than the speech precepts.
There is, to be sure, a behavioral congruence between communicative
ethics and Buddhist speech precepts. That notwithstanding, I think it is
a mistake to see Buddhist speech precepts as a subset of what in the
West we call ethics. But I'm willing to be shown wrong. In fact, I have
a graduate student right now who may do an excellent job of showing just
how wrong I am.

Richard Hayes
"Above all things, take heed in judging one another, 
for in that ye may destroy one another...
and eat out the good of one another."-- George Fox

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