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Buddhist Ethics, Moral Perfection and Modern Society

Prof. P.D. Premasiri

Buddhist Publication Society, Newsletter No. 49, 2002, Sri Lanka


Criteria of rationality laid down in the methods of modern science and the materialist outlook associated with it, are the most dominant influences on the intellectual life of modern man. A large section of modern intellectuals subjected to these influences have rejected metaphysics and dogmatic religion along with a host of traditional moral values. Scientific rationality has undoubtedly resulted in tremendous material progress. It cannot, however, be claimed that human beings in the modern world live more contented lives, feeling safe and secure, and that their interests will not be unjustly harmed by fellow human beings. Armed conflicts are rampant in the modern world. Acts of terrorism, violation of human rights, racial and other types of discrimination, violence against innocent human beings are some of the horrendous moral crimes that we frequently witness in many parts of the world. Poverty and destitution are not uncommon.

In Buddhist terms, scientific and technological progress has in no way resulted in the reduction of the unwholesome roots of human behaviour, namely, greed, hatred and delusion. As long as these roots of unwholesome behaviour are not drastically reduced or are kept within reasonable limits, it would not be possible to think of peace, harmony, happiness and contentment in society. The relevance of Buddhism to the modern social context lies in the fact that it offers a philosophical middle way that recognizes in principle the norms of scientific rationality, while rejecting both the extreme materialist world-view of modern science and the metaphysical and dogmatic fundamentalism of traditional religion.

Modern science does not provide us with the knowledge of what is morally right or wrong, good or bad. When human beings are not concerned with such knowledge, and do not care to pursue the principles of a morally good life, social interaction among humans is not likely to become very different from that among brutes. One of the most important features that distinguishes life among humans from life among brutes is that human beings desire not only to live, but also to live well. They search for meaning in life, and seek to attain rationally justifiable moral ideals and goals. In this respect Buddhist morality has much to offer to modern man.

Buddhism can be considered as a path of moral perfection. The entire path is comprised of gradual stages of ethical purification. This is the reason why it was traditionally described as a visuddhimagga. The goal of Buddhism is a modification of a person�s behaviour and a transformation of a person�s emotive and cognitive constitution. The consequence of this modification and transformation is that the person concerned overcomes the ills of existence and ceases to produce suffering to others. The goal of Buddhism is defined purely in psychological terms. It is not merging with God or Brahman or surviving to eternity in some incomprehensible realm of Being, but becoming free from greed, hatred and delusion.

The ethical teaching of Buddhism advocates an ideal of moral perfection as its ultimate goal. Moral perfection is attained when the unwholesome psychological roots of human behaviour, namely, greed, hatred and delusion are eradicated. They are described as unwholesome roots (akusalamula) because it is through their influence that people are motivated to commit unethical acts such as destruction of life, causing harm or injury to other living beings, misappropriation of the belongings of others, indulgence in sexual misconduct and the wrongful enjoyment of sense pleasures, the use of false, harsh, frivolous and slanderous speech, etc. Buddhism recognizes a valid basis for the distinctions people make between what is morally right or wrong and good or bad. According to the Buddhist teachings, a valid basis for making moral judgements has to be discovered with reference to human experience, but not with reference to any metaphysical reality. The conditions under which human beings become happy and contented and the conditions under which they find life miserable are generally the same. Factual information about those conditions are directly relevant to our moral life. They are to be discovered by means of observation and experience. To live morally is to live paying due regard to the moral point of view, which involves the avoidance of the creation of misery to oneself and others as well as the alleviation of the suffering of others. As long as people pay attention to human experience itself they need not lose faith in the importance of morality. To be concerned with morality is to be concerned with human good and harm, happiness and unhappiness, ill and well-being.

The significance of Buddhism to modern society is that it does not seek to determine the issue of what is right and wrong by tying the moral life to a set of metaphysical dogmas from which moral precepts are derived, or to the moral commandments of a sectarian God. People who have given up metaphysics and religious dogma in preference to the modern scientific, materialist and deterministic view of existence have moved towards a sceptical stance on the nature of moral values. They tend to associate morality with metaphysics and religion. The consequence of this attitude is the creation of a moral vacuum in their lives. Under such circumstances greed, hatred and delusion become the motivating forces of their behaviour.

The materialist and determinist ideology associated with modern science, which is seeking to displace metaphysics and religious dogma, attempts to transform society by effecting changes in the material conditions of living. The scientific world-view attaches no significance to the importance of morality. Morality is considered as a matter of attitudes and emotions. Moral values are considered to be relative and subjective. According to this view, only empirical facts have objectivity. Man is considered merely as a stimulus-response mechanism. Man�s capacity to understand and control the inner motivational roots of behaviour appears to gain little recognition in terms of the mechanistic world view of material science. Human behaviour is explained in terms of the external conditions that determine it. If external factors alone determine human behaviour, people cannot be responsible for their moral failings. They cannot be blamed for what they do. Such a view of the nature of human action encourages the renunciation of personal responsibility for what people do.

The problems of modern society may be explained from the Buddhist standpoint as a consequence of the separation of scientific knowledge and technological skill from moral wisdom. There is ample evidence of the proliferation of greed and hatred at all levels of social interaction in modern society. It has created economic disparity, poverty and destitution. The lack of concern for the cultivation of sympathetic concern for the well-being of others is leading to increased social conflict and tension. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist way of life is the eradication of greed, hatred and delusion. If much of the psychological insanity that produces moral crises in modern society is the consequence of the proliferation of greed, hatred and delusion, then the Buddhist ideal of moral perfection can be said to be directly relevant to the social life of modern man.

Prof. P.D. Premasiri


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updated: 28-10-2002