Is Buddhist ethics a form of utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which posits that “the good is defined independently from the right, the right is defined as that which maximizes the good (166)”, where the content of what is “good” is derived from the agent’s intuition or common sense that is regarded as increasing the total utility/happiness. However, following the analysis of different versions of utilitarianism, Keown is convinced that the nearest to Buddhist ethics is Negative Utilitarianism (NU). NU is a version of utilitarianism which prioritizes the exemption from pain before the increase of pleasure, in other words, for negation of suffering instead of maximizing happiness. This resonates with Buddhist soteriology in that both target at reduction of suffering as central to the system (176).

However, the kernel difference lie in their assumptions about suffering and its cause. Buddhism holds that suffering is inherent to existence, and death won’t end suffering. The only remedy to suffering is the attainment of enlightenment. NU, on the other hand, simply assumes suffering as a human condition without any ontological baggage. The Buddhist metaphysical notions like karma seem to be the driving force behind the need for reduction of suffering or distillation of karma which is the source of all suffering. If karma is the driving force of Buddhist ethics, then Buddhism can be argued as consequentialist, and Keown notes that it is tempting to categorize Buddhism as some sort of Negative Rule Utilitarianism (NRU). Buddhism also does a detailed analysis of suffering by dividing it into both mental and physical, encapsulated by the term dukkha. The Buddhist notion of suffering categorized into three: 1) pervasive suffering – as the inherent nature of suffering as a reality of human condition, 2) suffering of suffering – which is the case of suffering at dual-level when a suffering begets other kinds of suffering, 3) suffering of change – suffering as caused adventitiously due changes in external circumstances. The problem is, to classify Buddhist ethics utilitarianism, how would utilitarianism fit all these types of sufferings in its happiness calculus. It seems that utilitarianism won’t taken into account of certain types of suffering as described in Buddhist ethics.

Thus, there are “real” issues that are not apparent at first blush. Real considerations why Buddhist ethics cannot be utilitarian, and Keown argues that Buddhist ethics doesn’t distinguish the “right” independently of the “good“. In Buddhist ethics, the right and the good are inseparably intertwined in its soteriological program. “Nirvana is the good, and the rightness is predicated of acts and intentions to the extent which they participate in nirvanic goodness (177).” Rightness of an act is determined in its karmic account of merit (debit) and demerit (credit). Any act that contributes to the creation of positive karmic effect is the right act and vice-versa.

Furthermore,  the second issue of concern is the “ethical motivation” of Buddhism as opposed to utilitarianism. In Buddhist ethics, it is the motivation that precedes an act to determine its rightness (178). As stated in Abhidharma (chapter 3), the good or evil exists in human psyche, not in the consequences of actions in the world. However in utilitarianism, motive of an action is irrelevant as moral acts are judged in terms of productivity of utility or minimization of disutility. So, there are unresolvable problems to posit Buddhist ethics as consequentialist. Is it a misreading of utilitarianism to assume that it doesn’t not take into account of motive of an action? Or is there an element of attention to motive in utilitarianism? For instance in Rule Utilitarianism, where it seems to have certain motives involved beyond the sheer crude calculation of utilities. In this case, it is a matter of prioritizing one over the other.

Another yet a minor issue is the need to distinguish between internal (karmic consequences of the individual) and external (consequences that effect people) consequences of actions. Buddhism takes into account the both accounts of consequences while utilitarianism as secular ethical system that subscribes to no metaphysical accounts. While utilitarianism is already troubled by the epistemic limitations of calculating utilities of our acts, adding the karmic account further increases the burden. In Buddhism, it is assumed that  we are epistemically limited to determine the karmic consequences of our acts (181).

Work Cited:

Keown, Damien. 1992 The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, New York, Palgrave.


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