Master of Arts (MA)


Fred Smith

Primary Subject Area

Religion, General; Theology


Buddhism, Christianity, Ethics, Keown, MacIntyre, Virtue


The heart of Buddhism is ethics. This is evident even in the legendary accounts of the Buddha's life. The Buddha first encountered the problem of suffering after he finally escaped the isolation of the palace he had grown up in. His father, a powerful ruler, wanted to force his son into a life of politics and war. He had been warned that if his son was exposed to the kind of life people experience every day, a life marked by suffering, that his son would likely become a great teacher instead of a ruler. However, despite his father's best efforts, the Buddha eventually ventured outside the palace walls. There he was faced with illness, old age, and death. As a result, the Buddha became a renunciate; he gave up his royal lifestyle and began searching for a way to bring an end to suffering. In his search, the Buddha tried all the available philosophies and religions; whether they be hedonistic or ascetic. Whatever he tried, the Buddha excelled beyond his teachers, but in each case, he found that suffering still remained. Eventually, while under the Bodhi tree, and after much effort, the Buddha attained enlightenment. He saw reality as it really is and was able to formulate a solution.

The solution he came up with was an entirely practical one: cultivate happiness. This was to be achieved by taking "the appropriate action: seeking nirvana." This emphasis on action means that Buddhism is primarily an orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. What is important is "the harmony of behavior, not harmony of doctrines."

What this means is that Buddhism as a worldview is in a unique position. Since it is primarily a particular set of practices, essentially an ethic, the validity of the Buddhist worldview rises and falls on whether or not Buddhism succeeds as an ethical system. This provides an opportunity to test Buddhism to see whether it is a coherent worldview.

There are two leading interpretations of Buddhist ethics. The first and most popular interpretation understands Buddhism as a kind of utilitarianism. Proponents of this view argue that Buddhist ethics are merely provisional and ought to be disregarded once nirvana is attained. Damien Keown, as well as several others, suggests that Buddhism is a kind of virtue ethic, very much similar to the kind taught by Aristotle. A Buddhist version of virtue ethics offers the possibility of a complete, substantive account of ethics. Whether or not virtue ethics can be meaningfully understood in a Buddhist context is the first problem that thesis will seek to solve.

The second problem concerns whether a Christian worldview might accommodate a virtue view of ethics better than a Buddhist one. Increasingly, Christians are adopting a blended approach to ethics, usually holding to a combination of deontological and virtue ethics. This thesis will put the possibility of a Christian virtue ethic to the test. If it turns out that Christianity can, in fact, provide a more robust context for a virtue ethic, then in order to be a fulfilled virtue ethicist, one ought to abandon the Buddhist worldview and adopt a Christian one.