MetaEthics and Buddhist Ethics

May I ask why you say that? Is it just that metaethics isn’t your cup of tea or do you think there’s some flaw in Keown’s understanding of Buddhist ethics? Or was it the (perhaps unavoidable) dullness of a book that was originally published as a doctoral thesis?


I know this was addressed at Bhante @Khemarato.bhikkhu, but I think I feel the same way about that book. I’m not saying that there is anything fundamentally wrong with saying that the ethical life is the absence of greed, hatred, and delusion, which I feel is Keown’s basic point (although I read this book 10 years ago, but I read it about three times, so it was memorable). Although if it was just his thesis, that does make it very forgivable. And I could also accept the possibility that I might just be a defective reader.

From what I remember, the thing that bothered me about Keown’s book was the lack of…other people…in it?

Or the fact that maybe the reason why I’m reading a book on Buddhist ethics is that my life is full of difficult choices and unsolvable problems, like, if someone ties a monk up with living vines, should they break the vines if it’s necessary to escape? You can’t really get from the definition that ethics is the absence of greed, hatred, and delusion, to whether you break the vine or not…so maybe metaethics wasn’t what I was looking for.

In the end, I was just truly lucky to meet a specialist in Indian customary law, who was able to answer all my questions and introduce me to Indian law as a flexible, adaptive, forgiving, diverse, and sometimes even…liberal…tradition, in all of its narrative and linguistic detail, in a way that I just couldn’t get from the Buddhist sources alone (although which I would dare to say, later significantly improved my understanding of Buddhist sources). Maybe I was just looking for the wrong things from Keown’s book. It’s possible.


You could say that, yeah. The entire enterprise strikes me as colonialist propaganda.

If you believe in karma, the artificial distinctions metaethicisists make between e.g. “consequentialism” and “virtue ethics” etc collapse. The question “which Western theory of ethics does Buddhism belong to” presupposes Buddhism’s philosophical inferiority and refuses to take seriously its actual tenets when those are at odds with their approach, and so they end up not studying Buddhism but some mangled contrivance they’ve invented.

Yes. For example, he rejects that nirvana transcends good and evil, and he understands paññā as a purely “intellectual quality.”


Are there any works that turn this question on its head and ask "Seeing as Buddhism has got it right, which Western theories of ethics line up with it to some extent, and which not at all?

For those not trained in Western ethics this probably isn’t an interesting question, but there there are some who are so trained and who might like to interrogate their assumptions and straighten out confusions.


You can see this especially plainly in Charles Goodman’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Now on a traditional Buddhist view, the Law of Karma says that those of our actions that are intended to harm others will evolve into misery for us, whereas those of our actions that are intended to benefit others will evolve into happiness for us. Moreover, the highest states of well-being we can attain are also characterized by lovingkindness and compassion for others. In all or nearly all cases, then, the action that is best for the agent and the action that is best for all beings will coincide, on this view. There is no deep conflict between self-interest and morality.

This is wonderful, if true, but it makes our theoretical task much harder.

!! :man_facepalming:


I don’t want to deny that this is what happens, as I haven’t read the book. But I don’t think there’s no point to metaethics in general.

The point of metaethics is to find more general principles that underlie specific instances. This has a number of purposes. In theory, it can help us to understand contradictions in our ethical responses. Although to be honest, I’m not sure how useful this really is.

In the case of Buddhist and Western philosophy, though, the more general question would be, how do they relate? How can they inform each other. Of course, if you’re trained in Western philosophy you’ll tend to read it in that light, creating the kinds of problems you point out. But that just means its bad philosophy.

Ideally, someone well versed in Buddhist and Indic philosophy would discuss with someone from a Western background, and together work out what seem to be differences and similarities. There are few with the patience, alas.

On a practical note, I think such an enterprise might be useful, not so much for personal ethics, but for the language and ideas used in global ethical frameworks, such as “human rights”.

In a way, I think the language of dhamma especially as used by Ashoka is perhaps the first meta-ethical language. It avoids the specifics of moral precepts of particular religions or teachers, and focusses attention towards something they all agreed on: that there is a natural order and that we ought to live our lives in accord with it.

This is a language that stems from the West, and non-European people often find it alienating. A better mutual understanding of ethical frameworks and how they come to be expressed in language could offer a more universal kind of moral language.


Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what ethics/morality means in Buddhism. Since what is “right” or “wrong” in Buddhism ultimately boils down to whether or not thoughts/speech/actions are harmful to anyone, does it make sense to ever use the words right/wrong, good/bad, or good/evil? It seems like we should really only talk about things being harmful or…unharmful? Helpful? Those seem like very generic, universal terms people of any religion can relate to, as well.


Interesting, I don’t know if I see it the same way. To me it seems that it boils down to intention. Do you intend to harm or intend toward love. Do you intend to greed or toward generosity. And it’s not a judgment but a classification of a thought or action.

Another interpretation that works for me is “skillful” vs “unskillful” which feels less judgey and more neutral so it doesn’t smell like fire and brimstone :joy:

Yeah, you can definitely take it step further and that say since kamma is intention, that’s what ethics ultimately equates to. Skillful and unskillful are good terms, certainly much better than good and bad. Personally, I find those terms rather abstract, though. For example, I think the feeling of a statement like “Divisive speech is unskillful” is quite different from “Divisive speech is harmful.”

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My problem with harmful or unharmful is that it can ignore intention. Sure, taking an extra serving of food when nobody is looking doesn’t harm anyone in the traditional sense of the word, but it is unskillful because there is intention to take what is not offered.

Maybe… Intention to harm vs blamelessness?

Hmm there is another use of skillful that’s not about ethics per se but about purification, e.g. it is skillful to not think about D&D while meditating :joy: one wouldn’t necessarily say that thinking is bad intention itself, just a more gross state.

I guess I was thinking in terms of actions that are considered unskillful by the nature of the act, like killing , stealing, lying, as opposed to drinking alcohol, for example.

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I can understand easily +/- intention effects kamma.
I an understand the relationship between nonharming and sīla.
I don’t think sīla and kamma are are quite commensurate, but I don’t know how to argue the case.


Personally, I avoid the word “intention.” I think it’s closer to “motivation” as we can lie to ourselves so easily about the intention (e.g. “to make sure it doesn’t go to waste!”) but it’s… slightly more difficult :joy: to delude yourself about your motivations (e.g greed).

In either case, the harm isn’t to others (directly) in Buddhism, it’s the harm to your own mind. By giving in to our cravings and aversion and all the rest we’re strengthening those habits and deepening our own pit of suffering. Even if no one else is around, acting with integrity builds us up.


There’s plenty of ways to approach or think about it, to be sure. To clarify, I’m not saying anyone’s interpretation of Buddhist ethics is wrong, or even that what I opined is correct. It’s just an interesting way to consider morality. For me, it seems like my thinking shifts when I consider morality strictly in terms of harm/non-harm. However, that could just be me discovering a lingering influence of the Christian morality that was beaten into me as a child, lol.

I wonder if it’s appropriate to think of kamma as a superset of sila?


It feels difficult /inappropriate to be always prioritising the purity one’s own mind over concern for the wellbeing of others.

That doesn’t mean that we can ignore the effects of our actions. As the Buddha told Rahula, we have to ponder the consequences of what we do before, during, and after the act. But we do so as a mirror not as a kind of utilitarian accounting.

[Perhaps this whole conversation should be split off into a new thread? :joy:]

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Happy to split it … can you show me where " this whole conversation " starts please Bhante?

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It just happens I was reading this sutta earlier today, and thought it spoke to your question :slight_smile:

SN47.19 At Sedaka (acrobat)

And how do you look after others by looking after yourself? By development, cultivation, and practice of meditation. And how do you look after yourself by looking after others? By acceptance, harmlessness, love, and sympathy.


Oh :joy: I was hoping you’d tell me! :joy: Perhaps from Bhikkhu Dhammanando’s question about metaethics? as it seems we’re dancing around the point of Buddhist ethics. Thanks!

Are there any acrobats in your story? …

Indeed, I typed before checking the reference. :rofl:

I paused my reply to Bhante K, to find out where he suggests splitting the thread.