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Experience and morality : Buddhist ethics as moral phenomenology


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Aitken, DT (2016) Experience and morality : Buddhist ethics as moral phenomenology. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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This dissertation comprises two main sections. The first section, comprising Chapters 2
and 3, addresses the methodological problems with seeking to understand Buddhist ethics
through categorizing it into a Western ethical system. Since Buddhist ethics has often been
interpreted as either a type of consequentialism or a type of virtue ethics, Chapter 2 is devoted to
addressing the problems with a consequentialist reading of Buddhist ethics, and Chapter 3 to
highlighting the structural differences that inhibit a faithful reading of Buddhist ethics as a type
of virtue ethics. In the second section, consisting of of Chapters 4 and 5, I argue that when
Buddhist ethical writings are considered on their own terms, there emerges a recurrent and
dominant emphasis on the phenomenology of moral acts. Chapter 4 draws on Buddhist
psychological texts to elucidate the Buddhist explanation of the foundational components of
experience and the way in which these are ethically significant. Chapter 5 looks at Buddhist
ethical texts to demonstrate that mental states are prioritized in ethical discussions and that both
the Buddhist moral problem and moral solution pertain to the way we see and experience the
Since Goodman has argued most extensively that Buddhist ethics is best understood as a
kind of universalist consequentialism, Chapter 2 begins with an examination of Goodman’s
methodology and arguments. Goodman identifies an agent-neutral approach as the central
characteristic of a consequentialist ethical system, the characteristic that differentiates it from
systems of virtue ethics, which are agent-relative. He interprets themes within Buddhist texts
such as the promotion of self-sacrifice and the dedication of merit as evidence of the agent
neutral approach of a consequentialist ethical system. I aim to demonstrate that these examples
should be read as moral instructions for the agent’s motivational state rather than evidence
supporting that Buddhist ethics is a type of consequentialism. In doing so, I intend to
demonstrate that Goodman’s methodology of confining the inquiry into Buddhist ethics to its
categorization as one of two Western ethical systems based on the criteria of Western ethical
thought limits the possibility for a comprehensive understanding of Buddhist ethics.
I then turn to arguments made by Goodman, Williams, and Siderits specifically in regard
to Śāntideva. These scholars each contend that Śāntideva’s metaphysical position commits him
to a universalist consequentialist ethics and point to his discussion of the ethical meditative
practice of equalizing and exchanging self and other in Chapter 8 of How to Lead an Awakened
Life as evidence. I will contest the claim that the Buddhist doctrine of selflessness entails the
agent neutrality that characterizes consequentialism. I will argue that Śāntideva’s use of the
metaphysical doctrine of selflessness within an ethical context does not aim to demonstrate a
moral obligation based on agent neutrality, and thus is not a form of consequentialism. Instead, I
will argue that he uses it to effect a psychological shift in the agent for the purposes of moral
I argue that, in Chapter 8, Śāntideva is simply pointing out the irrationality of
distinguishing pains based on their owners, together with the possibility for taking on the
concerns of others as our own, because of the malleable boundaries of the conception of identity.
I contend that, in this section of his treatise, Śāntideva is instructing the practitioner to harness
the powerful psychological forces that already exist within our experience, such as the aversion
to our own pain or attachment to our future selves, and extend their scope through expanding the
conception of self, transforming our experience and moral conduct from one motivated by selfconcern
to one centered on concern for others.
After arguing that the emphasis on the mental domain of the agent fatally undermines a
consequentialist interpretation of Buddhist ethics, in Chapter 3, I address the virtue ethics
interpretation. While it might seem that an emphasis on the mental states of the agent could
accord with a form of virtue ethics, I argue that there are structural differences between the two
systems that preclude this classification. It is Keown who offers the most detailed account of
this position, so using his arguments I engage in a comparative analysis of the structures of virtue
ethics and Buddhist ethics. I identify five critical structural features of virtue ethics and argue
that they do not characterize Buddhist ethics. I will argue that neither the Buddhist account of
the relationship between virtues and nirvana nor the Buddhist explanation of moral choice and
agency are consistent with a virtue ethics.
In the second section, I begin the inquiry into Buddhist ethical writings on their own
terms. To argue that moral phenomenology is foundational to Buddhist ethical thought, in
Chapter 4, I turn first to the Buddhist psychological treatises of Vasubandhu, Asaṅga, and
Buddhaghosa, highlighting the fundamental mental processes that shape experience with the intention of demonstrating that these Buddhist psychology texts provide the foundation for
understanding that the way we construct our experience of the world is ethically significant.
In Chapter 5, I turn to Mahāyāna Buddhist ethical texts to demonstrate how this
psychological foundation is used in these texts in the formulation of a moral phenomenology. I
use primarily the works of Āryadeva and Śāntideva; I call attention to the fact that these texts
prioritize mental states in their ethical discussions and present a division of two types of moral
perception: the confused way of seeing the world that is characterized by vice and the accurate
way of seeing the world that characterizes virtue. These texts identify the moral problem with
confusion about reality, and the moral solution as a transformation of the way we experience the
world through the cultivation of a metaphysically accurate understanding. In the final stage of
making the case for moral phenomenology as central to Buddhist ethical thought, I turn to the
Prajñāparamitā literature, focusing on the Heart Sūtra and Diamond Cutter Sūtra to
demonstrate that in these sūtras we can find the seeds of the ethical system of Āryadeva and
Śāntideva since they also stress the importance of a transformation of vision as the basis of
ethical activity.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Buddhist Ethics, Moral Phenomenology, Buddhist Philosophy
Copyright Information:

Copyright 2016 The author

Date Deposited: 31 Mar 2017 00:34
Last Modified: 12 Aug 2017 17:00
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