Ethics in Mahayana Buddhism
Independent Project


Western Ethics

Western ethical views are usually summarized into three main theories: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics 1 2. The first, deontology, holds that ethics should be based on moral norms (categorical rules of prohibition or permissiveness) and not on the potential or actual consequences of an action. For example, deontologists would generally hold that the act of killing an inocent person is never right, independently of any "positive" effects that it might have (such as saving five other people). In this sense, "the Right is said to have priority over the Good" [3]. The second, consequentialism, holds that ethics should be based not on moral norms but on what maximizes the "greater Good" (for which definitions might vary). According to this system, moral choices should be weighed in a context-aware manner according their potential consequences; an action such as killing might be considered wrong in a given situation but right in another, depending on whether it has "positive" or "negative" consequences. Finally, virtue ethics holds that what matters for determinining the moral character of an action is not whether it follows "good" moral norms or leads to a greater ratio of "positive" vs "negative" consequences, but whether it is aligned with wholesome virtues such as compassion, honesty, etc.; an action such as killing might be considered wrong if it is arises from an unvirtuous attitude (e.g., hatred), but be right if it is motivated by an virtuous one (e.g., compassion).

Buddhist Ethics

In Buddhism, ethics take place in a much broader context than standard western ethics. Internal states such as thoughts and states of mind—which we would consider as having no direct effect on the other—now become very pertinent. For example, the thought of killing someone is considered unwholesome while deliberately putting such thought down is considered wholesome. Every action of body, speech, and mind is encompassed within Buddhist ethics. This makes it a very interesting topic.

This Project, Explained

This project addresses the classification of Mahāyāna Buddhism (MB) into the western subdivisions. This is a tricky subject because MB contains elements from all three categories—for example, deontology is present in the form of the five precepts (commitments to abstain from killing, stealing, etc.), virtue ethics is present in the form of the six perfections (generosity, discipline, etc.), and a consequentialist attiude is found in the bodhisattva goal of leading all sentient beings to enlightenment. This fact raises questions of compability, precedence, and interpretation: Are there virtuous actions that require breaking the precepts (such as lying in order to save someone's life)? Are virtuous actions always aligned with what leads to awakening of all sentient beings? How do we make sense of precepts in a virtue-ethics framework? How do we make sense of both precepts and virtue in a consequentialist framework? This project explores such questions.

When it comes to Mahāyāna Buddhism, the main debate is between the virtue ethics and the consequentialist classifications. Even the authors who claim that, in MB, precepts are absolute (i.e., inviolable) would not state that MB is deontological, but simply that violating the precepts is never compatible with virtue or an utilitarian goal. The virtue ethics position defines wholesome (virtuous) actions as those which are arise from wisdom, non-attachment, and non-aversion. Defenders of this classification argue that although virtuous actions have a natural affinity with enlightenment, they are valuable per se, and that a consequentialist classification of MB is not viable because in MB "the ends do not justify the means". On the other hand, the MB consequentialism position—as proposed in this project—defines virtuous actions as those that lead all sentient beings closer to enlightenment. This position is grounded in the four noble truths 3 and the bodhisattva vow—the commitment to become fully awakened in order to free all sentient beings from suffering. According to this framework, Buddhism is morally objective: that is, given a context C which takes into account all of the "variables" in a situation (the subjects involved, the environment, etc.), an action A|C is morally preferable to an action B|C if it gets all sentient beings closer to awakening than B|C. (The notation A|C here means "action A under conditions C", or "action A given context C".) Adapting to the context C is what skillful means 4 are all about.

In this work, I first discard the claim that, in MB, precepts—the deontological elements—are absolute by giving several examples from the Mahāyāna literature where explicit recommendations are made in favor of breaking the precepts when a different course of action is more beneficial for others; additionally, I explore accounts of occasions when highly-realized beings intentionally broke the precepts. Then, I turn towards the virtue ethics vs consequentialism discussion. I argue against the virtue ethics classification by highlighting the fact defenders of this position axiomatically define unvirtuous actions to be those that spring from the three poisons (ignorance, attachment, and aversion), and that, in doing so, they are obscuring the fact that the latter are actually the answer to the question of what causes suffering or dissatisfaction; in other words, they take the second noble truth (the truth of cause of suffering) and detach it from its original context which is connected to the first noble truth (the truth of suffering), therefore conceiling the soteriological function of Buddhist ethics. Alternatively, I propose a consequentialist classification for MB based on an utility function that is the cumulative progress of all sentient beings towards the elimination of the the roots of suffering (the three poisons). According to this framework, virtuous actions do not just have an affinity towards the consequentialist goal, they are actually fully compatible with it because what is virtuous is defined by what increases the utility function. Therefore, there is no need to worry about "ends justifying means", because no unwholesome means are conducive to wholesome ends and vice-versa 5. Finally, I refer to textual sources that clearly favor a consequentialist classification of MB over a virtue ethics one.

In the last section of this project, I use the consequentialist lens to clarify how the different aspects of MB—including the precepts and virtues—fit within this classification, and consider the role that skillful means and spiritual guides play in MB with regards to the navigation of the optimization landscape.


The following publication is a work-in-progress.


[1] There are theories which do not fit into this classification like ethics of care and pragmatic ethics.

[2] Each of the theories mentioned here encompasses several sub-theories. For the purposes of this piece, I will make a few rough generalizations.

[3] The truth of suffering, the truth of cause of suffering, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path.

[4] Methods or teachings that are tailored to a particular audience, taking into account their beliefs, level of understanding, and predispositions, in order to make progress towards awakening more expedient.

[5] But when it comes to the precepts—as stated before—some truly wholesome actions might require overriding them (e.g., lying, or even killing).