Buddhist ethics has been an area sorely deficient in Buddhism. This shortcoming is now remedied with Peter Harvey’s book, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. It is only one of perhaps three 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.
Immediately 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 skillful means stressed in the Mahāyāna tradition. Key in the discussion of ethics is determining what is worth valuing. Without hesitation, chapter two enters directly into what Buddhism values in an all-inclusive manner. Values such as generosity (pg. 61) and compassion (pg. 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, there are ten in all, 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 (pg. 303) made a particular impression. It’s far too commonplace in Buddhism to ascribe undesirable life events to kamma from a previous life. It’s quite clear in Buddhism that such speculation isn’t 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” (pg. 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” starting on page 217. 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 isn’t reflective of Buddhist values, we must realize that just because they’re 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 (pg. 250). Thereby reminding practitioners that morality isn’t 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 don’t 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” (pg. 242), it’s 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 doesn’t 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 (pg. 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 doesn’t go into if Buddhism would consider a violent act to be immoral and unskillful in all situations. The author does concede (pg. 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. Here’s a scenario to consider: You, a male, are in an enclosed room with a female and another male. The other male begins brutally beating the woman and will not stop until she has been beaten to death. For the bystander male to do nothing would be morally deplorable, but to intervene would be committing to violence at some level. To say the intervening male is committing an evil act, albeit the lesser of the two, is to not only potentially dissuade some people from doing anything in such scenarios, but to downplay the Buddhist values of compassion and well-being, which would clearly point to a definitive moral stance in the scenario. 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 needn’t resign ourselves to proclaiming all options are wicked, so we must thereby choose the lesser of them conceding that we are still behaving nastily.
The Buddhism the Buddha left us with was structured with the ability for change in mind. Indeed, one of the most powerful elements of Buddhism regarding ethics is its ability to cover and consider a whole span of normative ethical theories. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that our morals are not irrevocable. Harvey does a fantastic job of providing the reader with relevant information and presentation of that information in various ways from a host of institutions and schools of Buddhism. Every ethical case differs, and this is where Buddhism enters the picture and 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 and justifiability. This is destined to become a Buddhist classic.