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Rick Repetti

The main point in your (excellent) keynote address was that while there are plenty of ethical teachings in Buddhism, there is no ethical theory. Let me first make an analogy with the fact that there is theory or account of the free will and determinism problem in Buddhism. I think one of the main reasons for this, among many others, is that it has been presupposed from the start of Buddhism that causation is essentially deterministic (or close to it, in the doctrine of dependent origination), and that we have sufficient elements of the free-will-like abilities (rational, voluntary, volitional, etc.) necessary for us to be able to choose to follow the Buddhist path, in which case whatever comes close to free will and determinism in Buddhism has been presupposed all along, in which case they have been taken as compatible, or seen as compatible. Also, the focus on free will in the West that fuels the worry places greater emphasis on individuality, self-expression, and the spontaneous expression and satisfaction of the individual's desires -- the ability to act on whatever desires one has, to do as one pleases, and so on. But these abilities and the activities that ensue from their unregulated exercise are at the very core of the central soteriological problem in Buddhism, for unrestricted expression of desires is one of the three poisons in Buddhism, something to be regulated, reduced, and eventually eliminated. Thus, that sort of free will is not valued positively, is not something to protect from any kind of threat (such as determinism or anything else), but rather something to conquer. Moreover, the agent or self whose will it is has only conventional validity, if that, and is also something to be transcended in Buddhism. So, there is no philosophical problem in Buddhism of how to reconcile free will with determinism, but rather there is only a practical problem of how to regulate and control this quasi-illusory ego's tendencies to express its desires freely. Since there is no philosophical problem, there is no need to formulate an answer to it, an account or theory. Since there is a practical problem of how to regulate the free-will-like agent and its desires, there is a wealth of practical advice and theoretical wisdom to scaffold the practitioner's understanding and efforts. OK. Likewise, since Buddhists almost unanimously (like yogic, Vedic, and other Indian seekers before them) believe very deeply in (various versions of) karma (a blended causal/moral theory about the fabric of the universe that explains everything in a theodical sense), know enough what good and bad deeds are, and know that good deeds produce good karma and bad ones bad karma, there is no theroetical or philosophical need for a theory of morals, but rather only a practical need for advice on how to handle and cultivate oneself in such a way that one will be more likely to actually be able to do what one knows is good and avoid doing what one knows is bad. That is, the problem is not "What makes something good?", but "How can I make myself more inclined to do what is good?" Of course, the eigthfold path and such provide the tools for transforming oneself into an ethical agent increasingly capable of kusala (skillful action), and the theoretical supports for that series of moral psychology prescriptions to be found in the Abhidharma are superior to any theoretical support for any rival moral psychology possibly to date. To the extent that ethics is about the blended moral/soteriological imperative, this strategy is arguably superior to the Western one. Is this a sufficient answer to the question why Buddhism lacks an ethical theory, but is not at all lacking from an ethical perspective?

Martin Adam

Damien - In chapter 3 of The Nature of Buddhist Ethics you make a point which I think is fundamental for any study of Buddhist ethics, namely, that the Abhidharma understanding of moral qualities is that they are objective in nature; they are natural qualities (kuśala and akuśala) that actually inhere in dharmas. Given the fact that the early Buddhist outlook thus involves a kind of moral realism, wherein values are regarded as facts, wouldn't this provide an important part of the explanation for the non-development of "Ethics" as a field of study in the western sense? Rather than the doctrine of non-self, I would suggest that it is this aspect of the early Buddhist ontology which might have impeded any tendency towards the sort of speculative reflection and thought experimentation that leads to formulations of rational principles governing moral conduct. The important concern for the early Buddhist would simply have been to experientially recognize kuśala and akuśala qualities within oneself, and to respectively cultivate or discourage them.

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