Western moral philosophy is built on the works of thinkers such as ancient Greece’s Aristotle and modern Germany’s Immanuel Kant. But in recent decades, many scholars have turned eastward, looking also to Buddhist thought to enlighten important moral and ethical issues.
The scholarship that has followed is copious, but disjointed, said Fordham Professor of philosophy Christopher Gowans. His solution is Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction (Routledge, 2014).
“There has been a lot of work lately interpreting Buddhist thought in terms of Western moral philosophy, and there is no book that brings this together in a single volume,” said Gowans, who specializes in contemporary moral philosophy and Buddhist philosophy.
“Since there is little that can be considered moral philosophy in the [Buddhist] tradition, this is really a new field. I’m trying to introduce the reader to it.”
He explained that the Buddhist tradition does not approach the subject of moral philosophy like the West does. Although Buddhist thought centers on ethics (namely, how we should live our lives), its philosophical reflections are primarily metaphysical and epistemological—not explicit, how-to guides to morality.
Nevertheless, contemporary scholars find value in examining Buddhist works through a Western lens, drawing on the likes of Aristotle and Kant. But because this scholarship is still evolving, the upshots of uniting Buddhist and Western moral traditions remain unclear.
“An optimistic response might envision these two enterprises as partly overlapping circles… Despite significant differences, there is enough common ground to generate a reasonable expectation that something valuable will come from examining Buddhist thought through the perspectives of Western moral philosophy,” Gowans writes in the book’s introduction.
“A more pessimistic response may [say]any such examination is, in the end, basically a futile effort to fit square pegs into round holes… Readers are invited to determine which of these responses is most appropriate.”
Broken into three sections, the book:
- presents the teaching of the Buddha and developments in Buddhist traditions (mainly the early Mahayana schools);
- examines the main areas of Buddhist moral philosophy (such as well-being, the problem of free will, normative ethics, issues about moral objectivity, and moral psychology) and the concerns that many Western thinkers have concerning karma, rebirth, nirvana, and related topics; and
- introduces readers to a contemporary movement known as socially engaged Buddhism, which delves into ethical issues such as human rights, war and peace, and environmental ethics.
Buddhist Moral Philosophy comes out today.