Selfless Ethics: The Equality of Non-Existence
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Selfless Ethics:
The Equality of Non-Existence

A number of scholars have attempted to situate the Buddha’s teachings within the primary Western ethical theories, namely consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. One challenge that each has confronted is Buddhism’s emphasis on the ultimate non-existence of the self. In his writings, Charles Goodman has put forward an account of how the realization of the ultimate non-existence of the self would lead a practitioner to consequentialism. The present comment challenges the account offered by Goodman, and argues that an ethical-particularist account better squares Buddhist ethics with Buddhist metaphysics. This comment also shows how Goodman’s more recent work, while constituting a significant retreat from his earlier argumentation, still fails to motivate a consequentialist reading of Buddhist ethics.


A central challenge for those attempting to square Buddhist ethics with Western systems of ethics is the former’s emphasis on the ultimate non-existence of the self. In response to this challenge, some Buddhist scholars have simply defined away the problem. For instance, in his defense of reading Buddhism as a form of virtue ethics, Damien Keown has argued that a prerequisite for ethics is a distinction between individuals and, as such, that thinking about whether the self ultimately exists only confuses our analysis.

Other scholars have attempted to address this issue head on. Specifically, Mark Siderits (2003), John Pettit (1999), and Charles Goodman (2009) have argued that the ultimate non-existence of the self lends support for interpreting Buddhist ethics as consequentialist in nature since, under their reasoning, it leads us to altruism and universal compassion. One facet of Goodman’s account that distinguishes it from Siderits’s and Pettit’s is that Goodman maintains that the self is the ultimate bearer of value. My present comment will critically examine the connection that Goodman articulates between the “no-self” doctrine and consequentialism.1 Specifically, it will argue that the ultimate non-existence of the self is inconsistent with the distinction Goodman attempts to draw between his first and second stage of Buddhist compassion. If what we are truly interested in is a reading of Buddhist ethics that is consistent with the ultimate non-existence of the self, my comment argues that we will be better off looking to ethical particularism, which eschews the conceptual categorization of Buddhist ethics altogether.

This comment will also analyze Goodman’s more recent work, in which he seems to shift his justification for a consequentialist reading of Buddhist ethics away [End Page 627] from the ultimate non-existence of the self toward a construction of a “conventional self” based on the “existential human condition.” Although this latter strategy is consistent with the no-self doctrine, it is an explicit renunciation of the connection between the non-existence of the self and consequentialism, and leaves open the question of why we could construct a “conventional self” in the first place.

From Parfit to Śāntideva

In the introduction to his Consequences of Compassion, Charles Goodman outlines the three stages of Buddhist compassion, a framework he borrows from Edward Conze, to illustrate the connection he sees between the no-self doctrine and consequentialism. In the first stage of Buddhist compassion, which Goodman believes corresponds to Theravada ethics, a bodhisattva is compassionate toward living beings. In the second stage, the bodhisattva realizes that living beings do not exist, and the result is compassion toward “the impersonal events which fill the world” (2009, p. 6). In the third and final stage of compassion, Goodman says a bodhisattva’s compassion “operates within one vast field of emptiness” (p. 6).

The transition from the first to the second stage of Buddhist compassion is the focus of my comment. What leads one to this transition, in Goodman’s view, is the realization that “the boundaries between the lives of sentient beings are conventional, and do not reflect any really existing unity of an individual life, or separateness of distinct lives” (2009, p. 6). Goodman believes that the “connection between the doctrine of no self and the universal character of compassion” is a “crucial mark of a consequentialist outlook. … An experiential realization of the truth of no self,” he...