University of Tasmania
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Experience and morality : Buddhist ethics as moral phenomenology

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posted on 2023-05-27, 10:04 authored by Aitken, DT
This dissertation comprises two main sections. The first section, comprising Chapters 2 and 3, addresses the methodological problems with seeking to understand Buddhist ethics through categorizing it into a Western ethical system. Since Buddhist ethics has often been interpreted as either a type of consequentialism or a type of virtue ethics, Chapter 2 is devoted to addressing the problems with a consequentialist reading of Buddhist ethics, and Chapter 3 to highlighting the structural differences that inhibit a faithful reading of Buddhist ethics as a type of virtue ethics. In the second section, consisting of of Chapters 4 and 5, I argue that when Buddhist ethical writings are considered on their own terms, there emerges a recurrent and dominant emphasis on the phenomenology of moral acts. Chapter 4 draws on Buddhist psychological texts to elucidate the Buddhist explanation of the foundational components of experience and the way in which these are ethically significant. Chapter 5 looks at Buddhist ethical texts to demonstrate that mental states are prioritized in ethical discussions and that both the Buddhist moral problem and moral solution pertain to the way we see and experience the world. Since Goodman has argued most extensively that Buddhist ethics is best understood as a kind of universalist consequentialism, Chapter 2 begins with an examination of Goodman's methodology and arguments. Goodman identifies an agent-neutral approach as the central characteristic of a consequentialist ethical system, the characteristic that differentiates it from systems of virtue ethics, which are agent-relative. He interprets themes within Buddhist texts such as the promotion of self-sacrifice and the dedication of merit as evidence of the agent neutral approach of a consequentialist ethical system. I aim to demonstrate that these examples should be read as moral instructions for the agent's motivational state rather than evidence supporting that Buddhist ethics is a type of consequentialism. In doing so, I intend to demonstrate that Goodman's methodology of confining the inquiry into Buddhist ethics to its categorization as one of two Western ethical systems based on the criteria of Western ethical thought limits the possibility for a comprehensive understanding of Buddhist ethics. I then turn to arguments made by Goodman, Williams, and Siderits specifically in regard to ‚âàv¿¿ívÖntideva. These scholars each contend that ‚âàv¿¿ívÖntideva's metaphysical position commits him to a universalist consequentialist ethics and point to his discussion of the ethical meditative practice of equalizing and exchanging self and other in Chapter 8 of How to Lead an Awakened Life as evidence. I will contest the claim that the Buddhist doctrine of selflessness entails the agent neutrality that characterizes consequentialism. I will argue that ‚âàv¿¿ívÖntideva's use of the metaphysical doctrine of selflessness within an ethical context does not aim to demonstrate a moral obligation based on agent neutrality, and thus is not a form of consequentialism. Instead, I will argue that he uses it to effect a psychological shift in the agent for the purposes of moral development. I argue that, in Chapter 8, ‚âàv¿¿ívÖntideva is simply pointing out the irrationality of distinguishing pains based on their owners, together with the possibility for taking on the concerns of others as our own, because of the malleable boundaries of the conception of identity. I contend that, in this section of his treatise, ‚âàv¿¿ívÖntideva is instructing the practitioner to harness the powerful psychological forces that already exist within our experience, such as the aversion to our own pain or attachment to our future selves, and extend their scope through expanding the conception of self, transforming our experience and moral conduct from one motivated by self concern to one centered on concern for others. After arguing that the emphasis on the mental domain of the agent fatally undermines a consequentialist interpretation of Buddhist ethics, in Chapter 3, I address the virtue ethics interpretation. While it might seem that an emphasis on the mental states of the agent could accord with a form of virtue ethics, I argue that there are structural differences between the two systems that preclude this classification. It is Keown who offers the most detailed account of this position, so using his arguments I engage in a comparative analysis of the structures of virtue ethics and Buddhist ethics. I identify five critical structural features of virtue ethics and argue that they do not characterize Buddhist ethics. I will argue that neither the Buddhist account of the relationship between virtues and nirvana nor the Buddhist explanation of moral choice and agency are consistent with a virtue ethics. In the second section, I begin the inquiry into Buddhist ethical writings on their own terms. To argue that moral phenomenology is foundational to Buddhist ethical thought, in Chapter 4, I turn first to the Buddhist psychological treatises of Vasubandhu, Asa¬¿œÄvñga, and Buddhaghosa, highlighting the fundamental mental processes that shape experience with the intention of demonstrating that these Buddhist psychology texts provide the foundation for understanding that the way we construct our experience of the world is ethically significant. In Chapter 5, I turn to Mah¿ívÖy¿ívÖna Buddhist ethical texts to demonstrate how this psychological foundation is used in these texts in the formulation of a moral phenomenology. I use primarily the works of ¿ívÑryadeva and ‚âàv¿¿ívÖntideva; I call attention to the fact that these texts prioritize mental states in their ethical discussions and present a division of two types of moral perception: the confused way of seeing the world that is characterized by vice and the accurate way of seeing the world that characterizes virtue. These texts identify the moral problem with confusion about reality, and the moral solution as a transformation of the way we experience the world through the cultivation of a metaphysically accurate understanding. In the final stage of making the case for moral phenomenology as central to Buddhist ethical thought, I turn to the Praj‚àö¬±¿ívÖparamit¿ívÖ literature, focusing on the Heart S‚âଥtra and Diamond Cutter S‚âଥtra to demonstrate that in these s‚âଥtras we can find the seeds of the ethical system of ¿ívÑryadeva and ‚âàv¿¿ívÖntideva since they also stress the importance of a transformation of vision as the basis of ethical activity.


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