Buddhist Contributions to Contemporary Moral Reflection: Selflessness and Moral Responsiveness (2020 Chao Lecture)
Jay Garfield (Smith College)

April 15, 2020, 5:00pm - 6:30pm
Center for Buddhist Studies, University of California, Berkeley

370 Dwinelle Hall
Berkeley 94720
United States


  • Center for Buddhist Studies

Topic areas


We expect our partners in dialogue to share our broad concerns but to bring distinctive insights to the conversation. Without a shared purpose, there is no motivation for dialogue; without differences in perspective, there is no value in dialogue. When the topic is ethics, we will find that the Western and Buddhist traditions are excellent dialogical partners. Scholars of each community and members of respective communities informed by their reflection are concerned to understand what it is to lead a good human life, to understand the relationship between individual and community, and to articulate the conditions for human flourishing. And each can recognize the importance of the moral values emphasized by the other. Nonetheless, there are significant differences between the ways that Buddhist and Western ethicists and moral psychologists have approached these issues, differences that transcend the considerable variety of approaches within each tradition. And so they can enrich one another’s reflection. I will address three aspects of ethical thought in which such dialogue can be expected to be beneficial.

First, with few exceptions, Western moral philosophers–whether deontological, consequentialist or areteic in their approach–focus on the cultivation of what we might call the “output side” of ethics. That is, they focus on the principles or motives that guide action. Buddhist philosophers, on the other hand–regardless of the particular Buddhist tradition in which they work–focus on what we might call the “input side” of ethics. They are concerned not so much with what we do, but with how we experience ourselves and others, pursuing ethics as moral phenomenology. This approach encourages us to think that ethical cultivation begins with the cultivation of perceptual skills, not with the adoption of principles or of habits.

Second, Western ethical thought is generally grounded in the view that we are relatively autonomous moral agents with some kind of agent freedom grounding moral responsibility. This gives ethical thought a rather individualistic cast, and suggests that moral agency and autonomy go hand in hand. Buddhist reject the idea that we are autonomous, or that we are agents in the sense assumed by most Western theorists. This suggests grounding ethics in interdependence rather than autonomy, and in a more naturalistic framework than those that dominate Western moral theory.

Finally, as a consequence of this individualism, most Western ethical theorists take egoism to be a prima facie rational default position, and take the moralist to bear the burden of proof in convincing us that it is in fact rational to be good. Buddhist moral theorists think that egoism is clearly irrational, and that moral persuasion begins by showing the egoist that her position has nothing to recommend it, and that it is in fact irrational on its face.

In this talk, I will focus on what Buddhist moral reflection can contribute to the West. There is much to say about what the West can contribute to Buddhist moral thought, but that is for another day.

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