Buddhist ethics: categorical imperative or utilitarian morality?

I have been reflecting on one of the precepts and this made me think of some philosophical notions from my days at school (many years ago :thinking: :wink: ) where I learnt the distinction between kantian ethics (or deontology) and utilitarian morality.
It’s easy to find information on this on the internet, but basically Deontological ethics is an ethics system that judges whether an action is right or wrong based on a moral code ‘written’ somewhere (for example given by God or by a categorical imperative). By contrast utilitarian ethics state that a course of action should be taken by considering the most positive outcome.
I got the impression that Buddhist ethics belonged to the second kind. For example I saw a video by @sujato in which he noted that the Buddha, in order to dissuade children from hurting animals, would explain to them why it was wrong since it caused suffering , and suffering is not a desirable outcome (as opposed to saying that it’s wrong because it’s wrong and they had to follow the rule).
So in this context one should practice right speech (I think the Buddha was a genius in describing what constitutes right speech so simply and yet with such wisdom) for example not just because the Buddha said so and we should do what the Buddha said. Instead, it’s a good idea not to gossip and have divisive speech because the consequences can be unhappy and even nasty, as illustrated by the recent diplomatic incident involving the world leaders at the NATO meeting in London. :wink:
Then if I got this right, this means that lying is generally bad because it destroys trust; but that there are occasions in which it’s actually good (for example if you are lying to Nazi police to protect someone’s life).
Will be interested in the input/comments of others who have reflected on this in the light of EBT.


Indeed, I think Buddhist ethics is closer to the western utilitarianism than to deontology. In Buddhism, ethical precepts are generalizations inferred from real world situations, rather than fundamental. For example, see how in the start of the Vinaya, the Buddha refused to lay down Vinaya rules until there were actual transgressions that needed addressing. He also gave the Sangha the right to abolish rules if it saw fit. In this way the Dhamma contrasts with the Vedic system, which claimed that rules are handed down from a divine decree.

Buddhist ethics expands on the utilitarian approach in a few ways, though.

  1. The great advantage of utilitarian ethics is that it ties ethics to an empirical reality, namely the experience of pleasure and pain. However it struggles with understanding what those actually are, since there is no substantial concept in Western psychology of different kinds of pleasure and pain. For Buddhism, there is a clearly articulated hierarchy of values when it comes to pleasure and pain: some pleasure leads to pain, other pleasure leads to an end of pain.
  2. Buddhism is not tied to the idea of one way conditionality. Thus goodness is approached not just from its consequence, but also from its intention. In this way we can learn the quality of intention (Is it motivated by greed, hate, delusion?) and can infer the ethical quality of an action, even when we do not directly know the consequence. Such inference is not absolute (as the deluded mind can always be mistaken) but is regularly checked against consequences as they are known.
  3. Since western utilitarianism is typically bounded by this life, there is no accounting for the leaking of past intentions having consequences in the present, nor for present choices affecting the future. The Buddhist concept of rebirth expands this scope, and since it is an empirical teaching (i.e. it can be checked) it further supports the universality of the utilitarian thesis (See MN 136 Mahakammavibhanga Sutta).

Thank you for these excellent points :anjal: In particular point 2. addresses precisely a question I was beginning to wonder about, so you have anticipated me by dealing with it in advance :smiley:


I think utilitarianism and absolutism are two extremes if we overlook the interdependence between them. For example, treating the precepts as absolutes produces a positive utilitarian impact while utilitarianism serves to produce predictable behavior which is a form of absolutism.

There are aspect of relativism and pragmatism to Buddhist ethics as well. Respecting the laws of the land as well as having different rules for monastics and lay people show that reducing Buddhist ethics to the duality of absolutism vs utilitarianism might be an oversimplification.

I see what you mean, thank you for pointing this out. However there is a world of difference at least for me between, on the one hand, being given a categorical order that I am told I have to obey - because that’s how things are, and on the other hand being advised to follow a rule because the outcomes will tend to be beneficial.
It is the difference between obeying a master and having a loving person who gives you advice with wisdom.
From what Sujato said above the rules laid down by the Buddha were not a priory and were made to address specific problems, and the Buddha considered that they were not to be treated rigidly and blindly as absolutes, because

he also gave the Sangha the right to abolish rules if it saw fit.

I think if we go one step back and examine the rationale behind human ethics, we can provide a basis for contemplating different approaches to ethics, and then, attempt to understand the Buddhist approach to moral issues:

1- Physicality: the ability to feel pleasure and pain is what provides meaning to ethical questions. The Buddha said that he taught the Dhamma to those who “feel”.

2- Metaphysics: The physical phenomena of experiencing pleasure and pain is transformed into the metaphysical concepts of “good” and “bad” . One can consider the metaphysical aspect to be the “emotional” aspects of feelings. For example, i feel pain (physical) and pain is bad (emotional/metaphysical)

3- The law: the aim of the law is turning the ambiguity caused by the interactions of the physical and the metaphysical into a comprehensible rules to create predictability and uniformity between social beings who experience feelings and emotions.

Getting back to Buddhism which is a religion, akin to a law, providing a common framework of references for the followers of the Lord Buddha. The ultimate aim of the teachings, as i understand them, is not to teach a moral system to be clung to, but to understand how wrong views creates suffering to both the individual and society.

As such, both categorical imperatives and utilitarianism can be used skillfully or otherwise. For example, a categorical imperative would provide an objective moral criteria that eliminates any possibility of individual’s whims and desires when making moral decisions. The hypothetical question of “would it fit to be a universal law” provides a good basis for addressing moral questions. Aversion to the rigidity of a categorical moral system can be a form of attachment to a strong sense of individuality and a reflection of the spirit of our age, which gives too much value to individual preferences by associating it with human well-being. Conversely, a rigid moral system can be misused by associating rigidity with virtue. Devadatta tried to utilize this wrong view by introducing new vinaya rules and which caused schism in the Sangha at that time.

Same thing can be said about utilitarianism. The subjectivity surrounding what constitutes “the greatest good” makes it vulnerable to individual whims and desires. Once a categorical rule becomes negotiated based on utilitarianism, the door becomes wide open for human subjectivity, and the line defining what is good or bad becomes increasingly blurred. On the other hand, utilitarianism allows the individual, on the spot, to assess what is right and wrong in a certain context of which following a rigid rule would be a sub-optimal choice.

As an example of the inherent complexity of moral issues, the debate between Ven Thanissaro and Ven Bodhi over Buddhist pacifism is a good case in hand. For me, its not about which moral system is more correct or Buddhist, but more of a chance to reflect on how our existence is irreparably flawed. After 2500 years of the Buddha’s teachings, two respectable and knowledgeable monks are still arguing about the first precept, which makes you wonder if this will ever come to a conclusion, or if its meant to be intrinsically ambiguous for us to see.

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Take care not to conflate ethical guidelines given by the Buddha and Vinaya rules. His allowance to abolish Vinaya rules should not be carried over to his ethical guidelines.

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good point thank you; indeed as I was typing that message I was wondering about this question. However, if we consider the example of lying, I am pretty sure that I read in a book by Mathieu Ricard, a Tibetan monk, that lying is fine if you do it for a greater good (like saving someone’s life). So those rules can and should be broken as well, depending on the circumstances. I hope I am remembering correctly and not misquoting Ricard; will try to find the book.

Lots of very interesting points here, thank you. I did not know about the debate you are mentioning; I am going to Google it. [quote=“Bundokji, post:6, topic:14492, full:true”]

Lots of interesting points here thank you; will do a Google search on the debate you mention. :pray:

The other day I was getting a bit depressed on this forum; whereas today I am fascinated by all the things that can be learned here! :grinning: This probably also shows how changeable the human mind and moods are - at least mine…

I am not sure if the notion of destiny has any role to play in Buddhist Metaphysics. Abolishing minor rule never materialized because Ven Ananda forgot which are the minor rules. The Arahants, who met the Buddha and taught by him first hand, kept the rules as they are out of respect of the Buddha’s authority.

What conclusions can modern Buddhists make based on that?

I consider SN42.8 key to make sense of the purpose and workings of what we can call Buddhist ethics.

In short, it shows how what the Buddha taught was different from the Jain simplistic views on the topic (“‘You’re led on by what you usually live by’).

This discourse is important because gives us parameters for the self-evaluation of how we develop ethics ourselves via what could be called ‘free won’t’ (to paraphrase Ajahn Brahm) born or a realistic and down to earth reflection.

‘In many ways the Buddha criticizes and denounces killing living creatures, saying: “Stop killing living creatures!” But I have killed living creatures to a certain extent.
That’s not right, it’s not good, and I feel remorseful because of it. But I can’t undo what I have done.’ Reflecting like this, they give up killing living creatures, and in future they don’t kill living creatures. That’s how to give up this bad deed and get past it.
‘In many ways the Buddha criticizes and denounces stealing …
‘In many ways the Buddha criticizes and denounces sexual misconduct …
‘In many ways the Buddha criticizes and denounces lying, saying: “Stop lying!”
But I have lied to a certain extent.
That’s not right, it’s not good, and I feel remorseful because of it.
But I can’t undo what I have done.’
Reflecting like this, they give up lying, and in future they refrain from lying. That’s how to give up this bad deed and get past it.
They give up killing living creatures.
They give up stealing.
They give up sexual misconduct.
They give up lying.
They give up divisive speech.
They give up harsh speech.
They give up talking nonsense.
They give up covetousness.
They give up ill will and malevolence.
They give up wrong view and have right view.
That noble disciple is rid of desire, rid of ill will, unconfused, aware, and mindful.
They meditate spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. Suppose there was a powerful horn blower.
They’d easily make themselves heard in the four directions. In the same way, when the heart’s release by love has been developed and cultivated like this, any limited deeds they’ve done don’t remain or persist there.


I agree, excellent point. When studying ethical philosophy, it turns out that certain kinds of ethical theories handle some problems well, but fail at others, while another theory has different strengths and weaknesses. This points to limitations in the notion of an ethical theory.

As you point out, we can still disagree as to the application of even the first precept (in that debate, I feel more affinity with Ven Bodhi’s reasoning, but agree with Ven Thanissaro’s conclusion :man_shrugging:)


Where can I find the debate between Ven Bodhi and Thanissaro? I googled without much success.

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Hi irene,

You can find the original article of Ven Bodhi on this link


From this link you can download the rest of the discussion between the two venerables as a PDF



Buddhism is weird in that respect. On one hand Buddhist ethics is in effect quite ‘deontological’ or prescriptive. I assume Buddhists have little doubt that all former Buddhas basically taught the same ethics. Thus, Buddhist ethics represents eternal truth, repeatedly discovered by Buddhas (not unlike the Eightfold Path).

On the other hand there is the (psychologically valid) ‘discover for yourself’. But the result of the discovery can only be a confirmation of the truth of the Buddha! Imagine for example somebody on the forum would post “I lied today and felt pretty good about it. And I did what the Buddha recommended, I investigated deeply and found no flaw”. I don’t think it would go down well with the majority of active Buddhists. The conclusion would be “Well, investigate again - until you realize that lying is wrong, as the Buddha said”.

So while I see an honest core to “See for yourself” there is also a religious double-bind which prohibits a different conclusion than the prescribed ethics of the Buddha (by which I mean the ‘sutta-Buddha’).

Thanks Bhante :anjal:

These kind of discussions is what makes Buddhism rich and intellectually stimulating in my opinion. The same kind of discussion, in my mind, takes different forms such as: between wisdom and compassion (mind and heart), conservatism and liberalism, the individual and the group. Maybe all these ethical, social and political problems are a result of the human mind and how it works (being in the world and at the same time separate from it).

In my attempt to understand what makes humans lean towards one side over the other, maybe its our attempt to be coherent, which is the result of the cognitive dissonance we experience as a result of the same divided psyche. I hope one day i can go beyond that.

Yes, even in the 8 fold noble paths, the right speech - samma vaca
The word samma actually means equal, harmony

Because there is no one absolute right thing or one absolute wrong thing in the world. Everything is built upon perspective. So whatever our choice, pick the most harmonious ways

The precepts is also built upon this harmony ways of living. It is not some rule or commandment, nor creating more conflict. Then it will be conducive for everyone to reach unbinding state.

If we live in so many conflicts daily, where is the possibility to achieve Nibbana then. So everybody who practice seriously can have a chance to live in solitude, purifying the mind and destroy all fetters. That’s why precepts must be treated as protection rather than imprisonment. It is the most essential thing in Buddhism and should be emphasized more.

It probably depends on the individual as well. For example if you tell people that eating meat (red meat particularly) is bad for their health and that animals suffer enormously in most modern farming facilities, some might stop eating it but some will not. If you tell them that God forbids you to eat pork for example, this commandment will work better for a number of people. (However, since the person who invented that rule and said that it was an injunction from God lied, they were themselves acting unethically when laying down that rule…).

Generally speaking, perhaps if you are more mature and intelligent, and tend to question things, you’ll respond better to utilitarian ethics. If you like authority and are are more military minded, you’ll probably respond better to categorical imperatives.

ok, but one could still say that the rules and precepts are good if you want to be more and more at peace and ultimately achieve nibbana. So if you want to achieve power instead, you can say that lying and deceiving and acting shamelessly is probably good for you.
Likewise, you can say that drinking wine makes your mind less alert and probably is not good if you want to go into deep meditation; however it might help prevent some diseases so if your aim is not to achieve nibbana but to minimize the odds of getting some illnesses, a glass of wine might be the smart thing to do (with this last sentence I do not want to restart the discussion on a thread that has been locked; I just want to illustrate the understanding to which I have arrived).
So it all depends on your aims and goals.

My hypothetical example was meant in a strictly Buddhist sense. To make it clearer, if someone was to say “After investigating I found certain lying/drinking/stealing/killing to be good for meditation, peace and spiritual development” Buddhists would probably reply “then look again”. So the “find out for yourself” is not an open investigation but actually means “investigate until you come to the same conclusion as the Buddha” - which is IMO a paradoxical ‘open investigation’.