Karma, Moral Responsibility and Buddhist Ethics

In Manuel Vargas & John Doris (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 7-23 (2022)
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The Buddha taught that there is no self. He also accepted a version of the doctrine of karmic rebirth, according to which good and bad actions accrue merit and demerit respectively and where this determines the nature of the agent’s next life and explains some of the beneficial or harmful occurrences in that life. But how is karmic rebirth possible if there are no selves? If there are no selves, it would seem there are no agents that could be held morally responsible for ‘their’ actions. If actions are those happenings in the world performed by agents, it would seem there are no actions. And if there are no agents and no actions, then morality and the notion of karmic retribution would seem to lose application. Historical opponents argued that the Buddha's teaching of no self was tantamount to moral nihilism. The Buddha, and later Buddhist philosophers, firmly reject this charge. The relevant philosophical issues span a vast intellectual terrain and inspired centuries of philosophical reflection and debate. This article will contextualise and survey some of the historical and contemporary debates relevant to moral psychology and Buddhist ethics. They include whether the Buddha's teaching of no-self is consistent with the possibility of moral responsibility; the role of retributivism in Buddhist thought; the possibility of a Buddhist account of free will; the scope and viability of recent attempts to naturalise karma to character virtues and vices, and whether and how right action is to be understood within a Buddhist framework.

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Bronwyn Finnigan
Australian National University


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