The topic of Buddhist ethics has been sorely deficient in Buddhism. This shortcoming is now remedied with Harvey’s book. It is only one of a few books on Buddhist ethics that are of note, and is surely to be an asset to any university curriculum that adopts the text. It covers applicable teachings to ethics and the various schools of Buddhism before delving into applied ethics and how each Buddhist country or school has resolved the diverse applied ethical challenges.
In chapter one the reader is given sufficient in-depth coverage of Buddhist teachings and ideas that are foundational, not just to Buddhism, but also to its ethics — teachings such as the four noble truths or Mahāyāna’s skill in means. Key in the discussion of ethics is determining what is worth valuing. Chapter two enters directly into what Buddhism values in an all-inclusive manner. Values such as generosity (p. 61) and compassion (p. 103) are not forgotten among the values covered and play an important role throughout the book. In chapter three, the reader becomes privy to the unique contributions of Mahāyāna Buddhism that offer some interesting approaches to ethical challenges.
The remaining seven chapters discuss a range of the most controversial applied ethical topics: humanity’s place in nature; animal well-being; meat eating (ch. 4); “Economic ethics” (ch. 5); conflict and nonviolence (ch. 6); “Suicide and euthanasia” (ch. 7); “Abortion and contraception” (ch. 8); equality of women (ch. 9); and “Homosexuality” (ch. 10). A fantastic job is done in presenting the applied ethical topics from different Buddhist perspectives. Harvey’s coverage of these subjects is detailed and will challenge opinions, compelling you to think and draw your own conclusions.
The arguments regarding euthanasia and kamma (p. 303) made a particular impression. It is far too commonplace in Buddhism to ascribe undesirable life events to kamma from a previous life. It is quite clear in Buddhism that such speculation is not advocated and indeed has been heavily influenced by Brahmanism. Harvey calls such previous sentiments to task stating that, “… it is not certain that all illness or death is due to karma” (p. 303). A worthy addition to this topic would have been the theories put forth by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, whose contributions to Buddhism are often overlooked and undervalued. Though Harvey does mention Buddhadāsa’s position, it unfortunately is limited to the chapter “Economic ethics.” Buddhadāsa’s theories on kamma and rebirth would have provided the modern practitioner an invaluable understanding apart from the orthodox view represented and is an unfortunate exclusion.
When discussing nonviolence (ch. 6 “War and peace”) and the actions of monastics and Buddhist organizations he brings up a point that so many others fail to elucidate. The fact that though we use monastics as examples of how to behave, and occasionally it appears their behavior is not reflective of Buddhist values, we must realize that just because they are monastics they are still people — Buddhists at differing levels of the path who are still attached and not able to commit totally to nonviolence in all situations (p. 250). Thereby reminding practitioners that morality is not fixed and is instead a process of mental cultivation.
The only significant weakness with the work is in the chapters regarding applied ethics. When discussing topics, such as nonviolence for example, it is expected that certain questions be raised and addressed, such as, “Must we always obey the law?” or “Do the ends ever justify the means?” to name a couple.
I found myself quite anxious during some of the applied ethics chapters, wanting to get into the meat of the questions and issues surrounding such an argument and how the Buddha specifically addressed, or would have addressed, such issues, but was left wanting. In most of these chapters we are presented with solutions other Buddhist institutions have enacted, but do not really delve into the questions that matter. Though it must be said the foundational canonical references and how the various institutions interpreted them to resolve their challenges are of great value. Perhaps the best example of this would be the chapter on “War and peace” (p. 242), it is more about telling stories of successful and not so successful applications of nonviolent conflict resolutions. There is really no exploration as to the moral justification for nonviolence and the investigation of how to proceed when nonviolence clearly is not going to work. It does not address questions such as, “When is it okay to use violence?” He does touch on the fact that Buddhism values and strives to cultivate a mind of nonviolence (p. 249), but then the reader is again presented with stories of the violence Buddhists have committed as opposed to questioning the morality of such acts and the larger question of whether violence can ever be justified.
The closest to even a hint of resolution on the topic of when nonviolence fails is page 254, where he mentions intention and therefore that defensive violence would be the lesser evil than aggressive violence, but does not go into if Buddhism would consider a violent act to be immoral and unskillful in all situations. The author does concede (p. 255) that there is nothing in the canon to justify violence but that some later writings offer some guidance, but again just reiterates a story. Clearly, it is not difficult to surmise plausible Buddhist positions on issues even though the canon does not specifically deal with a particular topic. We need not resign ourselves to proclaiming all options are wicked, so we must thereby choose the lesser of them conceding that we are still behaving nastily.
One of the most powerful elements of Buddhism regarding ethics is its ability to cover and consider a whole span of normative ethical theories. Every ethical case differs, and this is where Buddhism excels. It provides a mental training that rids the mind of defilements, calms the mind, and produces the objectivity necessary for making decisions of morality.