Though the three religions reviewed and critiqued in this paper -- Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam -- have very different histories and quite original approaches to ethics, there are also a number of startling similarities when comparing them. One can easily find the differences, and this paper does indeed point to the differences. And yet, when it comes to the philosophical ingredients that go into each of the three and the values that each present as important, there emerges a tapestry of goodness and ethical beliefs as well.
Buddhist Ethics -- Background Information
It should be understood at the outset of any discussion of Buddhism that there are many approaches to practicing Buddhism. Philosophy Professor Michael G. Barnhart points out that there are "deep similarities" between various approaches to Buddhism -- for example Buddhists universally share a "reverence for the personal history of the Buddha" -- but there are obvious contrasts as well (Barnhart, 2012, 18). The "Hau-yen" Buddhist tradition focuses on issues apart from what the Buddha said or did, Barnhart explains. In fact the Hau-yen believers -- using the texts of their "Pali canon" -- take the position that at the time of his death Buddha "urged his followers to figure things out for themselves" and not to rely solely on his words and deeds (Barnhart, 18).
That said, on the other hand nearly all who follow Buddhism in any context believe in the Four Noble Truths, and nearly all Buddhist traditions focus on "…existential suffering" even though a clear understanding of what suffering is not the same in every approach to Buddhism (Barnhart, 18). Suffering ("dukkha") is distinguished from pain in the early Buddhist texts, but newer approaches to Buddhism (like "Engaged Buddhism") view both suffering and pain in the same way, Barnhart continues (18).
More to the point of this research, Barnhart points out that very few scholars have made arguments that Buddhism expects followers and believers to be obligated or duty-bound in any way. Unlike Catholicism, for example, which places a number of obligations on practitioners, Buddhism does not list duties that believers must adhere to or follow unfailingly (Barnhart, 19). When it comes to ethics and values, Buddhism does make clear the "normative force of principles" through the "Five Precepts" -- which is similar to the "Ten Commandments" in Christianity -- albeit nowhere does Buddhism offer an "overall principle that provides structure and definition to moral deliberation," Barnhart asserts on page 19.
The point made by professor Barnhart is that through an observance of the Five Precepts (they will be fully delineated later in this section) there is an imprecise sense of obligation and duty. The reason many Buddhist followers observe the Five Precepts "…stems more from philosophical anthropology and psychological insight" than it does from any "systematic appraisal of normative judgment" (Barnhart, 19). In other words, Barnhart and other scholars believe that in Buddhism there are no powerful deontological ethical standards that must be believed and obeyed.
A deontological ethic is one that is "…morally required, forbidden, or permitted," according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Moreover, deontology is based on moral theories that "guide and assess our choices" of what we should and should not be doing, the Stanford reference explains. An example of how some approaches to Buddhism skirt deontological demands is in the fourth of the Five Precepts. "Avoiding false speech" -- or always being truthful -- is very clear and easy to grasp. "Truthfulness…is therefore essential in an ethical life" (The Buddhist Centre).
Indeed, according to Buddhist precepts people who believe in Buddha should always tell the truth, but if telling the truth contradicts other obligations, or betrays a "trust," maybe the truth can be postponed or deferred (Barnhart, 20). In the process of moral reasoning -- Buddhist style -- there is a kind of "…reconciling of duty with reality," Barnhart explains, which is linked to Buddhism's tendency to "modify its initial list of duties and obligations" in order to fit well within certain changing circumstances (20). In other words, one shouldn't lie, but falsehoods that help others can "escape the stain of lying" -- which is a convenient way of saying, the Fourth Precept is to be followed unless telling the truth will bring harm to another person (Barnhart, 20).
Buddhist Religious Ethics
Barnhart reviews the emphasis that Buddhism places on nirvana (freedom from suffering) and suggests that nirvana (among the best-known Buddhist concepts) is reached through "…the dissolution, perhaps deconstruction, of selfhood" (30). And the way one dissolves selfhood -- or gets out the way of his or her own consciousness and self-image -- is through wisdom and compassion; and that in turn comes intellectually and through the "…practical transcendence of grasping" (30). That said, Barnhart wonders, "Where is the ethics in all this?"
The ethical question that is most pertinent to understanding Buddhism, as far as Barnhart is concerned, is not "What should I (specifically) do?" But rather, "What should I care about?" (30). And if that seems a little vague, it is because the author believes there are no "specific rules [or] principles, exactly," in Buddhist ethics. Instead of rules to govern how Buddhist followers should behave, Buddha offers "a case-based approach"; to wit, ethical reasoning is found in the cases presented by the Buddha because Buddhism is "…simply blind to moral considerations generally" (Barnhart, 30). Saying a universally practiced denomination like Buddhism is "blind to moral considerations" is not the same as saying Buddhism has no morality.
Rather, the emphasis in Buddhism is on "…achieving a state of enlightenment" which has little if anything to do with "moral or ethical conduct in itself," Barnhart continues (30). And enlightenment has to do with relieving "…existential suffering" (i.e., suffering that is the consequence of one's behavior), but not because relieving suffering is the right thing to do, Barnhart asserts (30). Relieving suffering in Buddhism is about achieving a desirable state of mind, but to what end? Barnhart spends a considerable amount of his narrative trying to pin down specific ethical ideas within the Buddhist ideology and he ends up suggesting that there are no principles to which Buddhism "…unequivocally subscribes" and hence Buddhism should be viewed as a "moral phenomenon" (30). Buddhism is not deontological, it is not "consequentialism," and it has no "overriding commitment to…the general welfare" either, Barnhart continues on page 31.
Since Buddhism says little or nothing about human obligations, or the consequences of human actions, or the actual meaning of life, then, Barnhart wonders, "what does it say?" Despite its flowery precepts and case samples of how people behaved in certain situations, Barnhart asserts that Buddhism "…appears unprincipled" -- and this brings up the question of whether or not "principles are necessary to successful moral deliberation" (31). On the subject of morality and principles, the author quotes scholar Jonathan Dancy (from Dancy's book Ethics Without Principles):
"There is no reason whatever to suppose that morality stands or falls with a supply of principles capable of doing the job required of them.
I suggest that morality can get along perfectly well without principles, and that the imposition of principles on an area that doesn't need them is likely to lead to some sort of distortion" (Barnhart, 31).
Thai Buddhists Sell Out Buddhism for Money
Meanwhile, not all members of any denomination are always able to stand up for what's ethical and right when money is on the line. Indeed, Thai Buddhists are known to have violated the Five Precepts, according to a peer-reviewed piece in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. The research that the author put into this scholarship was based on the fact that "…large amounts of money are capable of motivating people to commit unethical behavior," and with that in mind, questions were posed to eight hundred Thai Buddhists revolving around large sums of money (Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2007). One study referenced by Ariyabuddhiphongs reflected that men are far more likely to engage in unethical behaviors for "a million dollars" (39). Another research result referenced by the author showed that 76% of males and 58% of females would "have one-time sexual relations with a stranger" (39). This research indicates that males more than females are willing to break the Ten Commandments and the Five Precepts for money and pleasure. Twenty-one percent of men and just 10% of women "would steal something" and 22% of men and 10% of women would "tell a lie about a business associate" (Ariyabuddhiphongs, 39).
With that data as background, Ariyabuddhiphongs discusses the Thai Buddhists that apparently were perfectly willing to be unethical -- and sell out their Buddhists beliefs -- for big money. This is not to say that Buddhists in Asia are alone in abandoning their faith for cash, but it is interesting and worthy of mention in a paper about religion and ethics.
To wit, each the 800 members of Buddhist congregations in Thailand were given a 14-page questionnaire which presented this question (followed by five scenarios, each of which…
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