The Virtue of Nonviolence: A Buddhist Perspective

First appeared in Seikyo Times (February, 1994), pp. 28-36; and reprinted in Living Buddhism 6:1 (January, 2002), pp. 18-30.


Let me begin with the following definition: ethics is the art of making the soul great and noble. I have chosen the word “art” carefully, and I mean it in the sense of the fine arts. It was Confucius who conceived of moral development as similar to the production of a precious stone. At birth we are like uncut gems, and we have an obligation to carve and polish our potential in the most beautiful ways possible. Confucius’ simile allows us to recapture an essential feature of Plato’s philosophy: the unity of reality, the good and the beautiful.


Most Euro-American philosophy has unfortunately severed these time‑honored connections between fact, value and the aesthetic. Agreeing with his Greek contemporaries, the Buddha established an essential link between goodness and truth on the one hand and evil and untruth on the other.[1] Of all the contemporary forms of Mahayana Buddhism it is the Soka Gakkai that is most aware of the aesthetic dimension of being moral. Even though its founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi substituted benefit for truth in his trinity of benefit, good and beauty, he still agreed with the Greeks’ view that beautiful deeds are performed by beautiful souls.[2]

For the ancient Greeks the word arete, which we translate as virtue, literally meant function or more aptly excellence. So the virtue of steel is its strength—and an additional virtue of modern stainless steel is that it does not rust. The virtue of a knife is to cut well, and the virtue of a racehorse is to run well. Human excellence is found in rational and moral activity, and the specific virtues, such as courage, temperance, justice and wisdom, are cultivated so that we function well within society.


Virtue ethics has been described as follows: “The true moral law says ‘hate not,’ instead of ‘kill not.’... The only mode of stating the moral law must be as a rule of character.”[3] In other words, people of good character and virtue require no reminder of what the rules are or what their duty is. A society based on good character will have few policemen or judges, for virtuous persons serve as their own police and judge. Ideally, people of character need no external authority to guide their moral lives.


One of the problems with a rule‑based ethics is applying the rules to specific cases. The imperatives of virtue ethics—be patient, be kind, be compassionate, be courageous—better equip an individual to negotiate the obstacles of the moral life. The virtue ethics approach is not to follow a set of abstract rules, but to develop an ensemble of behaviors, dispositions and qualities that lead to human excellence. Virtue ethics may not have pat answers to specific cases, but it does prepare the moral agent for adaptation and innovation.


Virtue ethics’ great flexibility can be seen in Aristotle’s special form of relativism. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle states that “virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle….”[4] If the mean were an arithmetic one—such as six as a mean between two and ten—it would be the same for all people.


Aristotle used the legend of Milo to show the absurd consequences of this view. Milo was a strong man who was said to have pressed a calf over his head every day as he was growing up. The impressive thing about this feat, of course, is that the calf grew into a full‑grown ox, which Milo continued to press over his head. If I am going to avoid the vice of gluttony, for example, my mean for eating the right amount is going to be very different from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. We each have a mean relative to us, so Arnold can eat much more than I can before becoming a glutton.


When I ask my students what they think about virtue ethics, most of them are very positive about it. (In fact, it is the most popular unit in my beginning ethics course.) This shows that Greek humanism is still an important, but usually hidden, part of American intellectual culture. When I press my students about what might be missing from virtue ethics, some respond that it is also important to obey moral laws. Most of my students specifically formulate this response in terms of the laws of God.


These students have failed to distinguish between two types of ethics: an ethics of aspiration and excellence—the virtue ethics of the Greeks and the Buddha; and an ethics of obedience, duty and obligation—the ethics of Judeo‑Christianity and Immanuel Kant, its foremost philosophical representative. Virtue ethics exhorts us to “Be this sort of person” rather than “Follow this rule” or take the consequences.


Generally speaking, the sanctions for virtue ethics are internal and self‑regulating, whereas the sanctions for duty ethics, especially in its popular religious form, are external. (Kant and many Christian ethicists join virtue ethics in favoring internal sanctions.) For the Greeks and the Roman Stoics, virtue is its own reward, but for most Christians, the incentive for good deeds is eternal life in heaven, with eternal damnation for those who do not follow the rules. A religious ethic such as this does not give sufficient reason for true aspiration and excellence. If simply following God’s laws gets you into heaven, then why try to do anything greater?


An effective and fun critique of duty ethics uses the example of the couch potato. (This is especially apt because I come from a state known for famous potatoes!) Let us say that there is a man who essentially lives and works on his couch. His job is entering data via a modem attached to his computer. It does not take much thought to enter the data, so he is able to view his favorite TV shows all the time. His refrigerator and microwave, of course, are handy for snacks, drinks and frozen dinners. Let us also say that he is a very religious person. He tunes into his favorite TV preachers on Sunday morning and sends in his tithes by mail. Finally, let us say that this man has never broken a law or committed a major sin in his life.


According to Aristotle, such a life lacks virtually everything that counts as human excellence. Our couch potato obeys all moral laws, but he does not aspire to cultivate the virtues of the good life. To Confucius our couch potato remains an uncut gem. According to duty ethics and traditional religion, however, this man’s moral life is complete, and, assuming divine favor, his salvation is also assured. Bernard Mayo clearly sees the implications of this example: "People might well have no moral qualities at all except the possession of principles and the will (and capacity) to act accordingly."[5]  This appears to be a severe indictment for much rule-based ethics.


Another problem with duty ethics is the question of ethical motivation. As we have seen, the sanctions of a duty‑based ethics, in its religious form, are primarily external: rewards for those who do good and punishment for those who do evil. This may lead to a mere moralism rather than a genuine morality based on internal functions and the view, drawn from the Greeks, that virtue is its own reward. Most people would agree that the latter is a more admirable form of ethical motivation.


Traditional religious ethics teaches us the wrong reasons to be moral. We should become moral so as to become better persons and be an example to others, rather than for the purely selfish reason of avoiding punishment. Moral action should flow naturally from the self; we should not have to be bribed to be moral. Justice will not be achieved by following rules; it will only be attained, as Plato and the Buddha envisioned, by people with balanced and harmonious souls and the just action that comes from such harmony.


Another concern about duty ethics is the problem of legalism. True morality should be the foundation of law, and virtue should precede moral rules. If we think about the origins of morality, it seems clear that moral rules are abstractions from the practice of virtue. Humans acted courageously, justly, beneficently before they laid down rules regulating human behavior. A duty‑based ethics reverses this order. It begins with law, usually divine law, and moral rules come directly from the mind and mouth of the lawgiver. But true morality must always serve as a check for the possibility of unjust laws.


If law and morality are the same, then this crucial idea of morality as the guardian of just law is undermined. For example, most of my students are able to condemn Zeus as an immoral deity because of the basic intuition, central to virtue ethics, that virtue precedes law. The king, earthly or heavenly, is not always right, and we must always guard against the false identity of the legis­lator and the source of the Good.


Another problem is the issue of freedom. For Kant a duty is whatever one is forced to do according to the moral law, so the moral will lives by the dictates of reason. This does not sound like freedom at all. If the will is truly free, it must be free from reason as well. For Kant the consistently autonomous person would be one who can no longer choose the wrong and must always choose the right. Virtue ethics, however, is free from these conundrums of moral rationalism. For Aristotle the virtues are dispositions that we freely choose to develop, and every day we have to fine tune the moral means that are relative to us and our situations. It is true that after a short while the virtues become habits (ethike), but we are still fully responsible for actions that proceed from them.


Duty ethics recognizes no middle way and no variation on an absolute right. Virtue ethics always aims at a personal mean that is a creative choice for each individual. Such an approach engages the imagination and personalizes and intensifies moral responsibility. While there can be no process of self‑discovery in duty ethics, virtue ethics requires us to confront a growing, dynamic self in ever changing conditions.




To my mind the ethics of Gautama Buddha can best be interpreted as a virtue ethics. Both the Buddha and Christ, however, would have asked for two major changes in Greek virtue ethics. In both Buddhism and Christianity pride is a vice, so the humble soul is to be preferred over Aristotle’s great soul” (megalopsychia). Aristotle’s megalopsychia is too close to megalomania for the comfort of most contemporary persons.


The Buddha and Christ would also not accept Aristotle’s elitism. For him only a certain class of people (freeborn Greek males, to be exact) could develop the virtues and attain the good life. In stark contrast, the Dharmakaya and the body of Christ contain all people, including the poor, the outcast, people of color and women.


The Buddha, therefore, would have changed my definition of virtue ethics to “the art of making the soul balanced and harmonious.” The Soka Gakkai would have its own unique but related definition: ethics is “the art of making value‑creating beings.” As Makiguchi said in 1930: “Creating value is, in fact, our very humanity. When we praise persons for their ‘strength of character,’ we are really acknowledging their superior ability to create value.”[6]


Like Greek virtue ethics, Buddhist ethics is also humanistic and thoroughly personalist. The Buddha started with individual people and the condition of their souls. Society can set the rule “kill not” and threaten punishment as a deterrent, but people, said the Buddha, ‘will not stop killing until they learn to “hate not.” The Buddha focused on hate and other disturbances of the soul more than any ancient philosopher. The Buddha believed that most people do evil out of fear; in other words, evil is primarily done defensively, not offensively. Such a personalist ethics concludes that external peace will not happen unless there is internal peace.


The Buddha’s virtue ethics is also as flexible as Aristotle’s. If David J. Kalupahana is correct in describing early Buddhist ethics as a contextual pragmatism,[7] then the traditional translation of the moral imperatives of the eightfold path is wrong. Translations that render the words as the “right” thing to do make them sound like eight commands of duty ethics. Instead of eight universal rules for living, they should be seen as virtues, i.e., dispositions to act in certain ways under certain conditions.


A more appropriate translation of each of the imperatives would be “suitable or fitting” view, “suitable or fitting” conception, “suitable or fitting” speech, “suitable or fitting” action, “suitable or fitting” livelihood, “suitable or fitting” effort, “suitable or fitting” mindfulness, and “suitable or fitting” concentration. It is only fitting for example, that a warrior eat more and more often than a monk, or it is suitable that the warrior express courage in a different way than a monk would. Both are equally virtuous, because they have personally chosen the virtues as means, means relative to them.


A.J. Bahm’s more literal translation as “middle‑wayed” view, “middle‑wayed” conception, etc., brings out the parallel to Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean even better. Bahm observes that the Buddha’s mean “is not a mere, narrow, or exclusive middle [limited by strict rules or an arithmetic mean], but a broad, ambiguous, inclusive middle.”[8] Therefore, the virtues of the eightfold path are seen as dispositions developed over a long time, and they are constantly adjusted with a view to changing conditions and different extremes.


Neither the Buddha nor Aristotle, however, gives up objective moral values. They both agreed, for example, that it is always wrong to eat too much, although “too much” will be different for each individual. It is also impossible to find a mean between being faithful and committing adultery or killing and refraining from doing so. But even with this commitment to moral objectivity, we must always be aware that the search for absolute rightness and wrongness involves craving and attachment. Besides, developing the proper virtues will make such a search misdirected and unnecessary.


Bahm also finds the meanings “evenness,” “equilibrium,” “balance” and “equipoise” in the words of the eightfold path. This means that the Buddha’s Middle Way will always bring equanimity to the virtuous soul. This allows us to correct a common understanding of Nirvana as complete emptiness or quiescence. Buddhist Nirvana is more like the contentment of Aristotle’s eudaimonia, the inner peace of Epicurus’ ataraxia (lit. “unperturbedness”), and Stoic indifference. The cessation of craving does not mean extinguishing all wants and desires. Good Buddhists can still desire all that can normally be attained. Craving is a desire for things that cannot be attained: unlimited power, wealth and sexual conquest of all those whom we find attractive.


Before we turn to the virtue of nonviolence and other virtues of “right” action, let us look at some issues regarding “right” speech. The Buddha explained that this means not to lie or slander, but this is not to be taken as an absolute prohibition. Obsession with lying in Judeo‑Christian ethics culminated in Kant’s moral absolutism, in which even white lies were not allowed.


The concept of right speech as “suitable” speech is found in Confucian ethics as well as in Buddhism. Confucius once told his servant to get rid of an especially irritating visitor by saying that he was not home. In Mahayana Buddhism the idea of fitting or appropriate speech is found in the doctrine of “expedient means.” The loving father in the Lotus Sutra found that he had to lie to his children in order to get them to leave a burning house, symbolic of the fire of craving.


Those who insist on an absolute prohibition against lying are those who are secretly craving that the world should be different from what it is. As Bahm states: “Unwillingness to accept things as they are is the basis of lying, and any expression of that unwillingness is wrong speech.”[9] This is one of the subtlest forms of self‑deception—lying to oneself about the nature of the world—which is obviously a deeper and more profound lie than the father’s white lie in the Lotus Sutra.


Acceptance of the world as it is and not craving that it can be radically changed is fundamental for the pragmatism found in Buddhist ethics. This is one way of understanding the Mahayanist’s provocative claim that Samsara is Nirvana and Nirvana is Samsara. Nirvana is not simply personal extinction at the end of life, but Nirvana, as freedom from craving, allows full commitment to this world as the focus of the spiritual life.




As the fourth imperative in the eightfold path, “right” action means to abstain from taking life (ahimsa) and from stealing. Again these are not to be taken as absolute prohibitions, because “suitable” action may mean that sometimes we must steal. A poor man may steal to feed his starving children, for the same reason that a father may deceive his children in order to save them from spiritual death. A Buddhist may also in some instances take life. Buddhist farmers can eliminate pests who are destroying crops, but they must perform atoning rites afterwards.


While pacifism is the ideal, Buddhists may kill in self‑defense. Buddhist monks have not only served as soldiers, but have raised and led armies especially in Japan and Korea. Finally, some Mahayanists believe that Bodhisattvas may kill persons who will, if not stopped, murder others in the future.[10] These Buddhists defend such “preemptive strikes” as follows: Bodhisattvas accrue merit that they then can bequeath to others, and the would‑be murderers are saved from the horrors of Hell.    


As a contrast, let us look at the Jain response to Buddhist pragmatism. Jains are generally scandalized by what they see as a crass rational­ization of violence in Buddhist ethics. They totally reject the argument that Buddhists may eat meat as long as they are not involved in animal slaughter. They also believe that violent actions, such as the Bodhisattva’s preemptive strike against murderers, can never be justified on the basis of future consequences.


A Buddhist response would be that the Jains’ moral absolutism is based on a craving that the world be radically different than it is. This results in, at least for the life of Jain monks, extreme acts of asceticism and withdrawal from the world. In contrast to the Jains’ impractical idealism about the complete elimination of violence in the world, the Buddhist is content with a practical realism that accepts the inevitability of some violence.


Many scholars have observed that the word ahimsa, literally non‑injury, occurs only rarely in Buddhist scripture and commentary. Compared to the Jains, the Buddhists conceive of ahimsa as a positive virtue or, as we shall see, an enabling virtue for higher virtues. As a result Buddhists usually speak of these other virtues rather than ahimsa itself. In a major work entitled The Ethics of Buddhism the word is used only once, and then only as one of seven Sanskrit words meaning benevolence or compassion. Nonviolence, however, comes out very clearly in the author’s formulation of the Buddhist “categorical imperative, “We ought not to hurt mentally and physically our fellow creatures as well as our fellow men, but to love and protect them.[11] The Jain formulation of ahimsa is almost always negative, while the Buddhist expression is almost exclusively positive.     


One Jain scholar sums up the contributions of the two religions by suggesting that Jainism concentrated on ahimsa but Buddhism emphasized friendliness and compassion.[12] One sutra describes a monk as “pervading one direction of the universe... with his mind accompanied by friendliness, with vast, great, undivided, unlimited and universal freedom from hatred, rivalry, narrow‑mindedness and harmfulness.”[13] In another sutra the Buddha tamed serpents by rays of friendliness emanating directly from his body. (While Gandhi conceded that it might be necessary to kill poisonous snakes that threaten human life, the Buddha, in response to a monk’s being killed by a snake, commanded friendliness toward all snakes!) While friendliness‑is emphasized in early Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism makes compassion the highest virtue, along with generosity, patience, courage and wisdom.


Gandhi allowed even more exceptions to ahimsa than the Buddha did. He based these exceptions on very realistic considerations, and ended up alienating many Hindus and Jains. Although Gandhi acknowledged that Buddhism had a profound influence on his thought, his pragmatic application of nonviolence is most likely his own creation. His most controversial exception to ahimsa was his conclusion that it is sometimes better to fight an aggressor than to be a coward.


Throughout October 1928, Gandhi carried on a lively debate with various respondents in his journal Young India. Gandhi defended his decision to euthanize an incurable calf, and even went on to list the conditions for human euthanasia. He also thought that tigers, snakes and rabid dogs might have to be killed if they threaten human life. The vow of ahimsa is indeed absolute, but the exigencies of human finitude force us, tragically, to violate this vow every day. Unlike the Vedic tradition, which cleverly transformed the violence of animal sacrifice or military conquest into the highest forms of ahimsa, Gandhi insisted that we must accept all the injury we do as culpable.




Philosophers have generally distinguished between two types of virtues: “enabling” virtues and the “substantive” virtues. The enabling virtues include optimism, rationality, self‑control, patience, sympathy, foresight, resoluteness, endurance, fortitude and industry. The substantive virtues are wisdom, courage, justice, truthfulness, temperance, loyalty, benevolence and compassion. The substantive virtues have moral content or “substance,” i.e., the right desire to tell the truth or help the needy, whereas the enabling virtues simply help us resist one temptation or another. The substantive virtues require proper motivation toward the good, while the enabling virtues require sufficient willpower to counter evil.


This distinction tests true when we think of a thief who is persistent, resolute, patient, and has fantastic self‑control. (Thieves without these virtues are usually the ones that get caught!) The fact that we can think of a loyal and courageous villain has persuaded one philosopher to move these two virtues to the enabling category.[14] Another psychological test by which one can distinguish the two is Aristotle’s requirement that one must take pleasure in the virtues. This criterion must apply only to the substantive virtues, because it is clear that one is not required to enjoy a courageous act of persevering torture. As one philosopher notes: “A person who enjoys enduring dangers is better called daredevilish than brave.[15] On the other hand, it makes no sense that a person must dislike being truthful or compassionate.


It seems appropriate that nonviolence be classified as an enabling virtue. We all need a nonviolent disposition if we are to overcome desires to injure, retaliate, and to verbally abuse. We also need good self‑control and patience. These virtues are obviously part of the will to resist rather than a direct desire for the good. Using the tests above, we can see that a nonviolent thief is not only possible but also probably the most successful. Using Aristotle’s test of taking pleasure in virtue, we see that this is not required of nonviolent action. Resisting the temptation to retaliate while enduring the attacks of an aggressor would obviously not be a pleasant activity.


Our discovery that ahimsa is an enabling virtue explains why it is not listed among the major Buddhist virtues. Ahimsa, therefore, joins patience, sympathy and self‑control, three other enabling virtues in Buddhist ethics. Buddhists are not supposed to enjoy being patient or controlling their passions, but these are necessary conditions for the pleasures of the substantive virtues. The enabling virtues are not done for their own sake but for the sake of the higher virtues. A person can feed the poor out of compassion, but acts of self‑control are not done for the sake of self‑control.


Similarly, the Buddha did not extol ahimsa simply for the sake of noninjury, but for the sake of love and compassion. Like the Buddhists, Gandhi believed that ahimsa without compassion is nothing, just as gold is an amorphous material without the goldsmith’s artistic shape or the root is nothing without the magnificent tree.[16] The enabling virtues are the roots, but the flowering tree of the substantive virtues is the true goal of the good life. One is reminded of the Confucian view that the virtues exist as potentials within the soul, and, like seeds, they must be nurtured for the good life to flower.




The criticism of duty ethics, summarized at the beginning of my remarks, is directed at both its religious and Kantian expressions. We saw that duty ethics offers the wrong motivations to be moral and also transforms morality into legalism. Although Kant is exempt from the first criticism, he is still subject to the second. We also found Kant’s view of freedom problematic.


Kant’s answer to the problem of ethical motivation was the concept of autonomy, the ability for each rational agent to acknowledge and act in accordance with moral law. The autonomous person acts solely out of respect for the law, as opposed to the heteronomous person who acts out of inclination and fear of punishment. For Kant only autonomous acts can have moral value.


Kant’s concept of autonomy is a species of social atomism, a modern view of the self modeled on scientific atomism. Just as the atom is self‑sufficient and self‑contained, completely independent from its neighbors, so is the autonomous self similarly self‑sufficient and self‑contained. The analogy soon breaks down, but in a way that provides further insights. As opposed to the physical atom, the personal atom can consciously choose to rule itself (thereby being autonomous) or let another rule it (thereby becoming heteronomous). Such a view, emphasizing autonomy as the ideal, would be thoroughly pluralistic and egalitarian, respecting individual lifestyles and beliefs and allowing optimum freedom within the framework of basic laws. Autonomy is so important in this view that some of its proponents, such as Thomas Jefferson, sanctioned a right to rebel against the “social contract” and a right to form a new society.


Kant and his fellow modernists rejected the traditional view of the self, which they viewed as thoroughly heteronomous. The Greek or Christian self was modeled on an organic analogy rather than a mechanistic one. The self was seen as a member of the living body of society, each self performing functions appropriate to it. Most selves would be obligated to serve and obey a central authority, the “mind” of the body politic. In such a view there would not only be no right to rebel, but it would be the sovereign’s prerogative to ask that some members of his “body” sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole. (This of course is analogous to amputating a gangrenous arm to save a physical body.) For modernists the organic view is hierarchical, authoritarian, and intolerant of individual rights and beliefs.


Contemporary virtue ethicists, particularly Alasdair MacIntyre, are critical of the modern concept of the self. They contend that social atomism is the main cause of the alienation and fragmentation in contemporary society. The autonomous self, they claim, is actually an abstraction. Our selves are products of social relations, so much so that Kantian heteronomy is unavoidable and as such it is to be celebrated not condemned. Indeed, my personal identity is just as much constituted by others as it is by my own action. No one has said it better than Martin Buber: “There is no I as such but only the I of the basic word I‑Thou”; and “I require a Thou to become; becoming I, I say Thou.”[17]


In another work I have argued that the Buddhist relational self and its comprehensive relational ontology is a much better framework for the practice of nonviolence.[18] Sympathy and reciprocity, along with equality, must be necessary conditions for ahimsa. I believe that true sympathy and reciprocity are possible only in a system of interdependent relations. Interestingly, both Jain and Kantian atomism is based on external relations, i.e., the possibility of the soul to become completely independent from everything else. It is therefore difficult to see how these autonomous souls can be truly sympathetic (“feeling with” is the literal meaning) with one another. In Buddhism, on the other hand, we find that relatedness and interdependence are the very essence of reality, so that there is a near perfect match between ontology and an ethics of sympathy and compassion.




With regard to the practice of virtue, Aristotle thought that there were three types of persons. First, there is the sophron, one who naturally and without effort lives in the mean. Such people represent the embodiment of the Greeks’ great virtue sophrosyne, moderation, self‑mastery, or literally “having a sound mind.” Such people have “natural” virtue, and they are not even tempted to do wrong. Second, there is the enkrates (lit. “having the will”), who does not naturally live in the mean and is always tempted. Such people always have sufficient will to overcome temptation, but rather than having natural virtue, these people have what I call “duress” virtue. Third, there is the akrates (lit. “no will”), who is never in balance and does not have the will to overcome temptation. The akrates has no virtue, either enabling or substantive.


Let us look at a story about Jack and Jill, who work in a bank at the same position.[19] Each has the same opportunity to embezzle money from their tills. Jill never thinks about doing it, and thus she can be said to have natural virtue. However, Jack is always tempted to take some money for himself, but he always overcomes the temptation. Jack can be said to possess “duress” virtue. Jill is a beautiful example of Aristotle’s sophron, and Jack is an embodiment of the enkrates.


Now, which person has higher moral worth? The Kantian answers Jack, because we are sure that he is doing his duty not to steal. We are not sure about Jill, because of her natural inclination to be honest. (As Kant reminds us, we do not praise people for preserving their lives when they have every inclination to do just that.) Kant’s view seems unsatisfactory, because we definitely want to give Jill moral worth. Let us say that, after a probationary period, the bank managers have to decide whom to keep—Jack or Jill. Let us also assume for the sake of argument that Jack has confessed his daily temptations to one of his superiors. It is obvious that the managers will not want to hire Jack.


One might argue that Jack’s “duress” virtue is not virtue at all. One could say that we praise Jack for his efforts in overcoming temptation, not for his virtue. Using our distinction above, Jack has an enabling virtue but not a substantive one; he has the will to resist, but not the desire to be honest. If the virtues are habits, as Aristotle believes, then it is clear that honesty is not yet completely ingrained in Jack, as it seems to be in Jill. If virtue is a “corrective” disposition, as Philippa Foot claims, then Jack has not completely corrected his desires to steal. Our conclusion about denying Jack substantive virtue is proved rather decisively by looking at some extreme cases. For example, let us think of a homicidal maniac who resists at every moment the temptation to murder, or a rapist, who is tempted to rape every woman he meets, but controls himself in every case.


In terms of moral development, however, it seems that duress virtue is a necessary condition for the substantive virtues. As one of my bright ethics students once wrote: “Duress virtue is the father of natural virtue and must be praised as such.” This is certainly true if you think of how children learn the virtues: their natural disposition is to think of themselves before others, and the virtues are taught as correctives to “nature.” So “natural” virtue does not turn out to be so natural after all. What we learn first are the enabling virtues, which we use to oppose our natural inclinations, and then we are ready to establish the substantive virtues.


On this account an act is more praiseworthy the more it is done out of the substantive virtues than the enabling virtues. We should, contrary to Kant, praise Jill for her honesty and praise Jack only for his self‑control. Thomas Aquinas was right when he said: “By its very nature virtue is concerned with the good rather than the difficult.”[20] This means that doing one’s duty does not always involve substantive virtues. Kant admits this when he praises the duty‑bound, unsympathetic philanthropist, but is suspicious of the philanthropist who cares deeply about the subjects of charity. Foot is certainly right in criticizing Kant for not realizing that sympathy is a necessary enabling virtue for true charity.[21] Kant’s unsympathetic charity is deficient in not being motivated by the right desires.


Our example about the honest man who finally steals to feed his starving children also proves another point. The fact that a person is tempted, or even falls to temptation, is not necessarily a sign of a lack of substantive virtue. The fact that I have to lie to save the life of a friend does not mean that I now lie as a matter of course; no, I still maintain the ingrained habit of truth telling and regret deeply my momentary lapse. Again we should be struck by both the amazing flexibility and integrity of virtue ethics. Conditions and circumstances do make a difference, and that is why the Buddha said: “A person who sees causation sees the Dharma.”[22]


What the Buddha is saying there is that, every act has a history. And because every act has a history, one cannot place that act under an abstract, universal rule. In most instances, it won’t fit. So he who knows causality, that is he who knows the exact history of his or her life, will then know the right thing to do.   ADD MORE HERE, TOO




Let us now look at the lives of Christ and Buddha as models for the practice of virtue. Instead of following moral laws, virtue ethics asks us to emulate the ideal person instead. It will be interesting to determine what sort of role “duress” virtue played, if at all, in these two lives. Of course, if there is an assumption of sinlessness, as in the orthodox view of Christ, then we obviously have a case of natural virtue from birth. In my short analysis, however, even though I will be taking their biographies at face value, I will assume that Gautama and Jesus were mortal, fallible beings.


There is another thing that I admire about the Soka Gakkai if President Ikeda reflects the entire movement. In his biography of the Buddha, he’s very honest about the humanity of the Buddha. He comes through in a sterling way. That is, this man was not a god and should not be seen as a god. He was a thoroughly human person. And that’s what makes him great. If he were god, then, of course, god would act that way. But he was a human person.        EDIT


I will choose two events from the lives of Christ and Buddha—their temptations and their deaths. The temptations of these great figures are contained in two dramatic stories that are more fiction than fact. Daisaku Ikeda, in his The Living Buddha: An Interpretive Biography is most likely correct that the story of the Buddha’s temptation is an allegory about the Buddha’s own inner turmoil.[23] If the doctrine of Christ’s sinlessness were not such an obstacle, many Christians would be willing to say the same about the Temptation of Christ.


Against Mara and his forces the Buddha waged a great struggle, which required substantial aid from the earth goddess and serpent gods, but Christ remained unflappable throughout Satan’s wagers in the desert. In facing death, however, the roles are reversed: the Buddha was calm, trying his best to comfort his emotional disciples, but Jesus cried out in despair that his God has forsaken him. (One reason might be that Jesus died a much more horrible death than Gautama did.) Duress virtue ruled in the Buddha’s temptation and Christ’s death, but natural virtue described the Buddha’s death and Christ’s temptation. The fact that we have found duress virtue in the lives of these great figures simply proves their basic humanity. It also demonstrates another truth: virtues are for human beings, not the gods.


The Buddha and Christ are clearly our foremost ancient practitioners of nonviolence. Christ’s message that we are to love even those who hate us is essentially the message of the Buddha. Both knew that hate literally burns a hole in the heart. Nowhere in human history have we found such exercise of patience, self-control and sympathy as in these two men. Nowhere have we found such an emphasis on love and compassion as in Buddhism and Christianity. Each day, as each of us attempts to overcome the temptation to injure—both mentally and physically—let us take Christ and/or the Buddha as our models of virtue. Let us practice the virtue of nonviolence until it becomes as natural as taking a breath.


[1] See David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1976), p. 63.

[2] Dayle M. Bethel, ed., Education for Creative Living: Ideas and Proposals of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, trans.

Alfred Birnbaum (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989), pp. 75, 82.

[3] Leslie Stephen, The Science of Ethics, quoted in Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1990), p. 114. I have borrowed both insights and examples from Pojman’s excellent chapter on virtue ethics.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomacbean Ethics 1106b36 (W. D. Ross trans.).

[5] Bernard Mayo, Bernard Mayo, “Ethics and the Moral Life,” excerpted in Christina and Fred Sommers, eds., Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), p. 199.

[6] T. Makiguchi, Soka Kyoikugaku Taikei, p. 19, quoted in Dayle Bethel’s “Introduction” to Education for Creative Living, p. 6.

[7] David J. Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1992), pp. 101‑2. Kalupahana stays with the translation of “right” for samyak, but reminds his readers that it does not have an absolutist meaning.

[8] A. J. Bahm, The Philosophy of the Buddha  (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958), p. 82.

[9] Ibid., p. 86.

[10] See Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 145.

[11] S. Tachibana, The Ethics of Buddhism (London: Curzon Press, 1926), p. 184.

[12] N. H. Samtani, “Non‑Violence vis‑a‑vis Maitri: Buddhist and Jain Approach” in The Contribution of Jainism to Indian Culture, ed. R. C. Divivedi (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975), p. 135.

[13] Arthavinishcaya‑sutra, quoted in ibid., p. 139.

[14] Robert C. Roberts, “Will Power and the Virtues,” Philosophical Review (April, 1984), pp. 227‑247. Excerpted and extensively revised in Christina and Fred Sommers, eds., Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), pp. 236‑7.

[15] Ibid., p. 236.

[16]Gandhi, Navajivan (March 31, 1929), trans. in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Government of India Publications, 1959), vol. 40, pp. 191–2.

[17] Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner’s, 1970), pp. 54, 62.

[18]Ahimsa, the Self, and Postmodernism,” forthcoming in International Philosophical Quarterly 35:1 (March, 1995).

[19] This story is adapted from Louis Pojman, op. cit., p. 114.

[20] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2a2ael23.12.

[21] Philippa  Foot, Virtues and Vices and other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 14.

[22] Maijbima‑nikaya 1.190‑1, quoted in Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 64­.

[23] Daisaku Ikeda, The Living Buddha: An Interpretive Biography, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Weatherhill, 1976), p. 59.