According to the form of ethics called deontological, which is related to the notion of duty or obligation, certain acts should not be committed under any circumstances, no matter what the consequences might be. Immanuel Kant is the most eminent advocate of this “categorical imperative,” which sometimes can have unacceptable implications. For example, Kant affirmed that we should never lie, even to a criminal who is asking us where his intended victim has fled to. By lying, according to Kant, we strike a blow against one of the foundations of society, the belief in the given word, especially within the framework of contracts. Thus by lying, in Kant’s view, we commit an injustice against humanity as a whole.
Another vision of ethics consists in deciding whether an act is justified by considering its consequences. Main proponents of this utilitarian point of view are John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. More human than Kant’s outlook because closer to reality as we experience it, utilitarianism can nevertheless lead to excesses and deviations. It aims to bring about “the well-being of the greatest number” by aggregating the well-being of individuals, and thus as eminent Greek thinkers of old pointed out, can bring us to conclusions such as that it would be good to enslave a hundred people in order to make a thousand free citizens happier. We see what extremes this attitude can take us to, if it is not tempered by other factors such as justice, wisdom, and compassion.
The ethics of virtue is the ethics proposed by Buddhism and some ancient Greek thinkers. It is based on a way of being that, confronted by different situations, spontaneously expresses itself either through altruistic or egoistic acts. As the neuroscientist and philosopher Francisco Varela wrote, a truly virtuous person “does not act out of ethics, but embodies it like any expert embodies his knowledge; the wise man is ethical, or more explicitly, his actions arise from inclinations that his disposition produces in response to specific situations.
A purely abstract ethics that is not based on a manner of being and does not take into account the specific aspects of circumstances is of no use. In real life, we always work within a particular context that requires an appropriate reaction. According to Varela, “the quality of our availability will depend on the quality of our being and not on the correctness of our abstract moral principles.”
We may remark along with the Canadian Charles Taylor that a good part of contemporary moral philosophy “has tended to focus on what it is right to do rather than on what it is good to be, on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of the good life . . . . “ Ethics must be concrete, embodied, and integrated into experience as we live it. It must reflect the unique character of each being and each situation. In our time, the movement toward concern and care for others that has recently been on the rise, especially in the English-speaking world, provides us with an example of the ethics of virtue.
According to Buddhism, ethics is part of the general project of seeking to relieve all forms of suffering. This process requires us to renounce whatever kinds of egoistic satisfaction that come at the expense of the suffering of others and to make every effort to bring about the happiness of others. To fulfill its ethical contract, altruism must, from this point of view, free itself from blindness and illuminate itself with a wisdom that is free from malevolence; it must enrich itself with altruistic love and compassion. Here, Buddhism agrees with Plato, who said, “The happiest man, then, is one who does not have evil in his soul.”
Reprinted here with permission.