Criteria for Moral Judgment, from a Buddhist perspective

By New Lotus, Buddhistdoor Amritananda
Buddhistdoor Global | 2012-01-01 |
It is axiomatic that every religion accepts the existence of morality and immorality. But, when we come to the point of how to judge an action either as moral or immoral, each religion and philosopher has postulated various theories. And each theory is so substantially different from one another that it almost precludes us having a unanimous decision as to the question, “What is a moral act?”
A theist religion, such as Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, would enthusiastically quote the so called commandment of God/gods found in their sacred religious texts the Quran, Bible, or Veda and Bhagavatgita etc., as the criteria to judge an action. Therefore, sometimes, gruesome acts like killing or torture are justified as moral to propitiate their God/gods.  
Modern Sociologists are of the view that ethical actions are those actions that are conducive to the survival of humankind. To a moral absolutist, morality and immorality are based on the thought of human beings. The relativist would state that the notion of ethical and unethical is subjective and differs from society to society. (Precisely) These divergent views of moralism persuade us to examine the criteria of moralism from a Buddhist prospective.
Buddhism is a geocentric religion whose pivotal concern is the peace and harmonious co-existence of human beings on earth and their spiritual development. However, this does not mean that Buddhists disparage the existence of gods altogether. Buddhist literatures do contain references of the gods, perhaps much more than any other existing religious documents on earth.
But, the references to the gods in Buddhist literatures are completely different from other religious texts. The gods were assigned a new dimension in Buddhism. In this dimension, gods have lost most of their privileges, such as status of creator and controller of the universe and its beings, immortality etc. They are no longer paid reverence, offered sacrifices, neither flattered with praise nor invoked in prayer; unlike each god associated with some kind of moralism. And the most astonishing thing to observe is that the gods are depicted as paying respect to the human beings on earth who uphold the morality in life.     
Moralism is pivotal to Buddhism. Buddhist practice starts with morality and becomes gradually perfected throughout the journey of Buddhism. Moralism becomes a natural perfected morality in the final stage of the Buddhist path — becoming Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Arahants. 
According to Buddhists, moral teachings are not injunctions, commandments or draconian laws, but guidelines for moral actions. They are more descriptive than prescriptive. The sole purpose of Buddhist ethics is to show the way and not to coerce. From a Buddhist prospective, morally good and bad actions are neither rewarded not punished but simply have their corresponding consequences.
 Now let us come back to our main point, the criteria for judging an action as either moral or immoral. The Buddhist definitions of moral and immoral actions are predominantly linked with human psychology. All actions that we perform as routine are not judged either moral or immoral; only those that are performed with clear intention are evaluated as moral or immoral. 
In early Buddhist discourses, there are many pairs of evaluative terms such as punna and p?pa (meritorious and de-meritorious), kus?la and akus?la (skillful and unskillful), dhamma and adhamma (righteous and unrighteous), sevitabba and asevitabba (what should be cultivated and what should not be cultivated), kaly?na and p?paka (good and evil), and sukkha and kanha (bright and dark). Among them, kusala and akusala (skillful and unskillful) are more widely used in the early Buddhist texts.
Buddhism evaluated an action as either ethical or unethical not with reference to Buddha or any other higher beings, but on a pragmatic scale— how a consequence of an action affects either the performer or others. If an action is beneficial for oneself and others that is definitely good, irrespective of whatever faith he/she may possess.  
In the Ambalatthika Rahulavada Sutta of the Majjhimanik?ya, the Buddha categorized all actions into four types;
i.               The actions whose consequences are harmful to performers.
ii.              The actions whose consequences are good for the performers, but harmful for others.
iii.            The actions whose consequences are  neither good for  performers nor for others
iv.            The action whose consequences are good for performers as well as others.
The last category of the actions is recommended as ethical and moral. 
Secondly, a doer of an action has to make a self-comparison before performing an act; he/ she should reflect on whether the consequence of an action he/she is going to perform will be pleasant to himself/herself.   The Buddha made this explicitly clear in Dhammap?da;
“All fear tremble at punishment, all fear death. Comparing to oneself, let one refrainfrom killing others, let one refrain fromtormenting others”
This is further elaborated in Samyutta Nik?ya, as follows:

“Here a noble disciple reflects thus; ‘I do not like to die. I desire happiness and dislikesuffering. Suppose someone should kill me, since I like to live and do not want to die, it would not be pleasing and delightful for me. Suppose I too should kill another who does not like to die, desire happiness and does not desire suffering, it would not be pleasing and delightful for other person either. How could I inflict on another what is not pleasing to me? Having reflected thus, he/she refrains from killing and praises non-killing.
These two instances clearly eliminate any possibility of considering the animal sacrifice that is widely practiced in some of the world religions such as Islam and Hinduism as ethical in any sense of the term. This also explicitly rejects the possibility of considering moral any acts of terrorism, indoctrination, fanaticism and so called holy wars or righteous wars for any cause.
Apart from above, the Adhipateya Sutta of the Anguttaranikaya advises us to consider two more factors, namely:      
i.               Public opinion— this advises the individual to examine whether what he is going to commit would be censored, particularly by the wise people in the society.
ii.              Correct moral reasoning— it advises an individual to examine whether what he is going to do is in accordance to moral norm and to avoid all actions, which deviate from it.
In the K?l?masutta of the Anguttaranik?ya, the Buddha taught the most pragmatic criteria to judge an action as either ethical or unethical. Here, the Buddha advised a group of people who were in confusion to decide what is moral and what is not, as they were exposed to different religious systems at that time and each was claiming his way as the best and ethical while disparaging others’ teachings. In response to their question, the Buddha advised the audience neither to accept nor to reject anything merely relying on revelation, tradition, sacred scriptures, possibilities, respect for teachers, or rumour. Then he pointed out how to decide an action either as moral or immoral.  He said, “O! Kalamas, when you know for yourself, certain things are unwholesome (akusala), wrong give them up… And when you know for yourself that certain things are good and wholesome, then accept them and follow them.”
He did not stop there; he went on to show clearly the method. He questioned the audience on whether greed, hatred, delusion etc., when arising in an individual brings about happiness for himself/herself and others; the audience unanimously stated negative. Then the Buddha advised them to avoid such actions. Then he asked the audience, when an individual has thoughts of non-greed, love, compassion and non-delusion, are these thoughts good for oneself and others. The audience obviously responded positive. The Buddha declared them as ethical and advised to uphold them. 

Without going further, I would like the draw the conclusion here that the Buddhist criteria of judging an action has no interference of any higher beings, including the Buddha himself, nor is there any involvement of praying, religious observations etc.  The criteria are based on a pragmatic approach paying due consideration of the well-being and happiness of the performers and all human beings. Thus, the Buddhist criterion of moral judgment has universal acceptability. 
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