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Theory and Comparison in the Discussion of Buddhist Ethics

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 62, Number 1, January 2012
pp. 16-43 | 10.1353/pew.2012.0001



Comparisons between the ethical views of Western and non-Western thinkers have been a staple of comparative philosophy for quite some time now. Some of these comparisons, such as between the views of Aristotle and Confucius, seem especially apt and revealing. However, is it really so obvious that Western “ethical theory”—virtue ethics, deontology, or consequentialism—is always the best lens through which to approach non-Western ethical thought in general and Buddhism in particular? The existence of more indigenous accounts of Buddhist ethics raises other questions. Does Buddhism bring something unique to the table, perhaps stretching the way in which we think about ethics generally? Or, does Buddhism represent a variant, perhaps a unique and informative one, of a cluster of approaches? Does it stand alone or in a theoretical family? This essay attempts to answer these questions by examining some of Buddhism’s more unique elements as well as the nature of the various standard ethical theories to see whether they at least exhibit the same spirit of approach endemic to Buddhism. I argue that, by and large, they do not.

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