In Search of Buddhist Virtue: A Case for a Pluralist-Gradualist Moral Philosophy

Comparative Philosophy 12 (2):58-78 (2021)
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Classical presentations of the Buddhist path prescribe the cultivation of various good qualities that are necessary for spiritual progress, from mindfulness and loving-kindness to faith and wisdom. Examining the way in which such qualities are described and classified in early Buddhism—with special reference to their treatment in the Visuddhimagga by the fifth-century Buddhist thinker Buddhaghosa—the present article employs a comparative method in order to identify the Buddhist catalog of virtues. The first part sketches the characteristics of virtue as analyzed by neo-Aristotelian theories. Relying on these accounts, the second part considers three lists from early Buddhism as possible catalogs of virtue: the components of ethical conduct, the 37 factors that contribute to awakening, and the wholesome or beautiful mental factors. I then raise the question of why the Buddhist tradition developed several classifications of virtue, whereas the Western tradition of virtue ethics used a single category. Appealing to the connection between the virtues and living well in the eudaimonistic version of virtue ethics, I propose that one of the reasons why Buddhism developed multiple lists of virtues is its pluralistic acceptance of different modalities of living well and associated practices, in MacIntyre’s sense of the term. These modalities and practices are not equal, but are ordered hierarchically. Accordingly, I conclude that Buddhist ethics ought to be seen as a pluralist-gradualist system rather than a universalist theory.
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