Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction

Damien Keown


Three Sentence Summary

The author manages, in a very short amount of space, to give an overview of the complexity of a Buddhist ethical style. He stresses that the stereotypical Western view of the Buddhist monk as an progressive humanitarian is overly simple and reductionist. While Buddhist principles can often align progressive movements and Buddhism, many Buddhists hold what we might consider conservative views and ethical questions are not universally decided.

Chapter Summaries

1. Buddhist morality

The author begins with a condensed overview of the foundation of “mainstream” Buddhist morality. Some of this is familiar to Western readers:

Other concepts such as karma are more novel and their nuance can be easily misunderstood.

2. Ethics East and West

The author gives a summary of some Western ethical schools, namely:

Each of these contain similarities with what we might codify as “Buddhist ethics”, but fail to capture it completely: this is also true of what we might call “Christian ethics”. The concept of “rights-based ethics” is also touched on, namely that it is a controversial topic in a religion which rejects the concept of the self.

3. Animals and the environment

Buddhist prohibitions against violence and causing suffering seem to make the religion a natural ally to the modern environmental movement. However, Buddhism has a clear hierarachy which places humans above animals (anthrocentrism), and there are certain exceptions made around e.g. eating meat and domesticating livestock. The author stresses the philosophy's complexity: it is a mistake to paint a simple rosy picture of Buddhists as enlightened environmentalists, or to assume that a Buddhist would agree with all concerns of the modern environmental movement.

4. Sexuality and gender

While there is a view in the West that Buddhism is more sexually permissive or progressive in Christinaity, the reality is that sex is commonly seen as “for procreation” by religious leaders and is generally considered a taboo topic. The Third Precept outlaws some sexual acts, but is not proscriptive: it is usually interepreted as covering sex crimes, incest and in some cases polygamy. The view on homosexuality & trans issues seems in line with the modern Church of England, for example: tolerant but not supportive, and forbidding “practice” amongst monks.

5. War, violence and terrorism

Most classical Buddhist sources advocate non-violence, either as:

The author notes that the latter more pragmatic reading normally applies to states and authority figures: Buddhist states have laws, prisons, and armies, all of which exercise force and violence. Which Buddhism has been weaponised, it has been as part of an effort with the state to promote “religio-nationalism”, e.g.

6. Abortion

The classical view on abortion is quite clear-cut:

The reality, however, is that monks who served as medical advisers would perform or procure abortions — although they would often be sanctioned for doing so. The status of abortion is quite restrictive in some Buddhist countries, although there is little protest or condemnation from monks as in Christian nations — partly due to compassion for people seeking abortions, and partly out of societal embarrassment.

7. Suicide and euthanasia

Buddhsim seems the clearly prohibit suicide, with the third monastic rule prohibiting taking human life explicitly mentioning suicide and assisted suicide. Thus Buddhism would prohibit euthanasia too, since it is generally accepted that death is karmically determined and euthanasia would therefore cause needless death. There is an acception made in the case that deah in inevitable: in the case of long, terminal illnesses it may be considered acceptable to not prolong suffering at great societal cost.

8. Clones, cyborgs and singularities

Unlike Christianity, Buddhism does not per se have a problem with cloning (there is no God in whose image we are made), although it does raise interesting questions about where karma is allocated. Likewise, Buddhists might be quite sympathetic to transhumanist ideas of extending life, relieving pain and connecting consciounesss through technological means. However, the author reminds us that it is brevity that can give meaning to human life, as well as the contemplation of death, and that many historical techologies have failed to deliver on their promises of stopping the suffering that Buddhists consider a vital part of human life.