Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction
by Damien Keown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Most people, if they know anything about Buddhist ethics, have heard of the Eightfold Path (right + view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.) However, just knowing that can lead to the impression that Buddhist ethics are blurry and that it’s all a matter of doing as one pleases within one’s personal interpretation of rightness. This concise guide offers an overview of the Buddhist ethics and morality, focusing on issues of global and modern interest (as opposed to those issues only of interest in places where Buddhism is practiced or at the time in which Buddha was teaching – i.e. issues like abortion, vegetarianism, war, suicide, and cloning and not subjects like caste, traditional family roles, etc.)
The first two chapters present a broad overview, and the rest focus on particular ethical issues. I found the second chapter beneficial; it asks how Buddhist ethics fit in the categorization scheme employed by Western Philosophy. I considered it useful even though the answer was that Buddhist ethics aren’t neatly contained by this way of thinking, but rather can be seen as a mix of multiple approaches. (e.g. Buddhism has sets of precepts – ala deontology, has a karmic doctrine that is arguably consequentialist, and, also, has elements similar to the virtue ethics of ancient Greece.)
Chapters three through eight investigate specific issues: animal rights and environmental ethics (ch. 3,) sexuality and gender (ch. 4,) war and violence (ch. 5,) abortion (ch. 6,) suicide / euthanasia (ch. 7,) and upcoming technologies that will change what it means to be alive and conscious (i.e. cloning, artificial intelligence, cryogenics, and CRISPR.) As with chapter two, there’s often no tidy answer. For one thing, the author tries to contend with what is common across various sects, and this is often reflected in the laws of countries, laws which are only partially informed by Buddhist philosophy. Also, it’s not like the Buddha had anything to say on many of these issues, which either weren’t issues (e.g. cloning) or were considered radically differently (e.g. gender.) Still, one does get an idea of how these questions relate to ideas such as karma and dharma, and how contemporary Buddhist thinkers might begin to consider them.
One will note that there are ethical territories that aren’t addressed (e.g. justice / punishment, ethics of governance, business ethics, etc.,) but a brief guide needs filters, and this one chose to focus heavily on modern, individual ethical questions of broad international interest.
If you’re looking to better understand Buddhist ethics, this book is worth reading.
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