Buddhist ethics as virtue ethics
To my mind the ethics of Gautama Buddha can best be interpreted as a virtue ethics. Confucius' view of the moral person as an artistic creation resonates well with Plato's view of the unity of reality, the good, and the beautiful. Agreeing with his Greek contemporaries, the Buddha also established an essential link between goodness and truth on the one hand and evil and untruth on the other. Both the Buddha and Christ, however, would have asked for two major changes in Greek virtue ethics. In both Buddhism and Christianity pride is a vice, so the humble soul is to be preferred over Aristotle's "great soul" (megalopsychia). (Aristotle's megalopsychia may even be too close to megalomania for the comfort of most contemporary persons.) Both the Buddha and Christ would also not accept Aristotle's nor Confucius' elitism. For Aristotle only a certain class of people (free-born Greek males, to be exact) could establish the virtues and attain the good life. (Greek eudaimonism has been called "an ethics of the fortunate.") In stark contrast, the Dharmakaya and the body of Christ contain all people, including the poor, the outcast, people of color, and women. For Buddhism we will perhaps have to change the definition of virtue ethics from "the art of making the soul great and noble (megalopsychia)" to "the art of making the soul balanced and harmonious."
Like Greek virtue ethics, Buddhist ethics is also humanistic and thoroughly personalist. The Buddha started with individual people and the condition of their souls. Society can set the rule "kill not" and threaten punishment as a deterrent, but people, said the Buddha, will not stop killing until they learn to "hate not." The Buddha focused on hate and other disturbances of the soul more than any ancient philosopher. The Buddha believed that most people do evil out of fear; in other words, evil is primarily done defensively, not offensively. Such a personalist ethics concludes that external peace will not happen unless there is internal peace.
The Buddha's virtue ethics is also as flexible as Aristotle's. If David J. Kalupahana is correct in describing early Buddhist ethics as a contextual pragmatism, then the traditional translation of the moral imperatives of the eight-fold path is wrong. Translating the Sanskrit stem samyak- that appears in each of the words as the "right" thing to do makes them sound like eight commands of duty ethics. Instead of eight universal rules for living, they should be seen as virtues, i.e., disposition to act in certain ways under certain conditions.
A translation of samyag- more appropriate to Buddhist pragmatism would be "suitable" or "fitting." So we would have "suitable or fitting" view (samyagdristi), "suitable or fitting" conception (samyaksankalpa), "suitable or fitting" speech (samyagvak), "suitable or fitting" action (samyakkarmanta), "suitable or fitting" livelihood (samyagajiva), "suitable or fitting" effort (samyagvyayama), "suitable or fitting" mindfulness (samyaksmriti), and "suitable or fitting" concentration (samyaksamadhi). It is only fitting, for example, that a warrior eat more and more often than a monk, or it is suitable that the warrior express courage in a different way than a monk would. Both are equally virtuous, because they have personally chosen the virtues as means, means relative to them.
A. J. Bahm's more literal translation of samyag- as "middle-wayed" view, "middle-wayed" conception, etc. brings out the parallel with Aristotle's doctrine of the mean even better. Bahm observes that the Buddha's mean "is not a mere, narrow, or exclusive middle [limited by strict rules or an arithmetic mean], but a broad, ambiguous, inclusive middle." Therefore, the virtues of the eight-fold path are seen as dispositions developed over a long time, and they are constantly adjusted with a view to changing conditions and different extremes. Bahm acknowledges that the translation of "right" is acceptable if, as it is in both Buddhist and Greek ethics, it means
that which is intended to result in the best [i.e., the summum bonum]. . . . However, right, in Western thought, tends to be rigorously opposed to wrong, and rectitude has a stiff-backed, resolute, insistent quality about it; right and wrong too often are conceived as divided by the law of excluded middle. But in samyag- the principle of excluded middle is, if not entirely missing, subordinated to the principle of the middle way."
Neither the Buddha nor Aristotle give up objective moral values. They both agree, for example, that is always wrong to eat too much, although "too much" will be different for each individual. It is also impossible to find a mean between being faithful and committing adultery or killing and refraining from doing so. But even with this commitment to moral objectivity, we must always be aware that the search for absolute rightness and wrongness involves craving and attachment. Besides, developing the proper virtues will make such a search misdirected and unnecessary.
The Buddha's famous statement "a person who sees causation, sees the Dharma" implies that we know how to act, not because of abstract rules, but because of our causal past and circumstances. The "mirror of dharma" is not a common one that we all look into together, but it is actually a myriad of mirrors reflecting individual histories. Maintaining the essential link between fact and value, just as Greek virtue ethics did, the Buddha demonstrated that the truth about our causal relations dictates the good that we ought to do. As Kalupahana states: "Thus, for the Buddha, truth values are not distinguishable from moral values or ethical values; both are values that participate in nature." This is the same ethical naturalism that we find in contemporary virtue ethicists such as Philippa Foot.
Bahm also draws on the meanings of samyag- as "evenness," "equilibrium," "balance," and "equipose" to emphasize another Buddhist insight: viz., the Middle Way will always bring equanimity to the virtuous soul. This allows us to correct a common understanding of Nirvana as complete emptiness or quiescence. Buddhist Nirvana, however, is more like the contentment of Aristotle's eudaimonia, the inner peace of Epicurus' ataraxia (lit. "unperturbedness"), and Stoic indifference. The cessation of craving does not mean extinguishing all wants and desires. Good Buddhists can still desire all that can be attained. Craving is a desire for things that cannot be attained: unlimited power, wealth, and sexual conquest of all those whom we find attractive.
Let us look at some issues regarding "right" speech. The Buddha explained that "suitable" speech means not to lie or slander, but this is not to be taken as an absolute prohibition. Obsession with lying in Judeo-Christian ethics culminated in Kant's moral absolutism, in which even white lies were not allowed. The concept of right speech as "suitable" speech is found in Confucian ethics as well as in Buddhism. Confucius once told his servant to get rid of an especially irritating visitor by saying that he was not home. In Mahayana Buddhism the idea of fitting or appropriate speech is found in the doctrine of "expedient means." The loving father in the Lotus Sutra found that he had to lie to his children in order to get them to leave a burning house, symbolic of the fire of craving.
Those who insist on an absolute prohibition against lying are those who are secretly craving that the world should be different from what it is. As Bahm states: "Unwillingness to accept things as they are is the basis of lying, and any expression of that unwillingness is wrong speech." This is one of the subtlest forms of self-deception--lying to oneself about the nature of the world--which is obviously a deeper and more profound lie than the father's white lie in the Lotus Sutra. Acceptance of the world as it is and not craving that it can be radically changed is fundamental for the realism and pragmatism found in Buddhist ethics. This is one way of understanding the Mahayanist's provocative claim that Samsara is Nirvana and Nirvana is Samsara. Nirvana is not simply personal extinction at the end of life, but full commitment to this world as the focus of the spiritual life.