Nicholas F. Gier, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy

Department of Philosophy, University of Idaho

Moscow, Idaho, USA 83844-3016


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Published in Indian Ethics, eds. Purusottama Bilimoria and Joseph Prabuhu (Springer, 2009). 


By the term dharma . . . I understand nothing short of moral virtue.


--Bimal Krishna Matilal[1]

     Alaisdair MacIntyre, the philosopher who has done the most to reintroduce virtue ethics, argues that utilitarianism cannot distinguish between the clear qualitative difference between the internal value of the virtues and the extrinsic value of ordinary pleasures, a difference crucial to what is called "character consequentialism."[2] Whereas it is virtually impossible to do the hedonic calculus for ordinary pains and pleasures, there is no question about the long term good consequences of the virtues and good character, as compared to the long term pain that the vices bring.  This means that attempts, such as Michael Slote's gallant effort,[3] at founding the value of the virtues on their own grounds fails, because one cannot deny that the virtues were preferred, very early in human social development, primarily because of their good consequences.


In my book The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi,[4] I have proposed that both Buddhist and Confucian morality be conceived as virtue ethics roughly similar to Aristotle and his doctrine of the mean.  In my book I interpret Gandhi's ethics of non-violence from a virtue perspective, but I was not sure, especially since Gandhi had so many non-Indian influences, if this would apply to any other aspect of the Indian tradition. Reading the collection of Bimal Krishna Matilal's essays Ethics and Epics was just the breakthrough that I needed to think about a more general dharma virtue ethics that includes Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Following an aesthetics of virtue, I will propose that the virtues are personal creations that are, as Aristotle maintains, "relative to us," and I also suggest that deontological or utilitarian readings of the ethics of the Hindu epics are not always supported. 


In the first section I will discuss the different roles that rules and virtues play in our moral lives, and I will demonstrate that the virtues have axiological priority.  The second section will present the outlines of a virtue aesthetics, which I will explicate in terms of Confucius and Gandhi.  In the third section I will demonstrate that dharma is best interpreted as virtue rather than duty. Drawing heavily on Matilal in the fourth section, I argue that there are good reasons to read portions of the Hindu epics as virtue ethics.  Matilal offers some wonderful insights about the true nature of karma, and in the fifth section I combine these with my own thoughts about Buddhism to offer a non-fatalistic interpretation of the motto "character is destiny." In the last section I use Matilal's acute observations about KŬªa to formulate a Hindu virtue aesthetics that parallels the Confucian-Gandhian view in the second section. 




     When one thinks of the question "Which came first--moral rules or virtues?" the obvious answer, I contend, is that virtues came first.  Moral imperatives are abstractions from thousands of years of observing loyal, honest, patient, just, and compassionate behavior, just as moral prohibitions have come from equally ancient experiences with the vices.  There is good evidence that the expression of moral rules requires a spoken language and one could argue just as persuasively that virtues manifested themselves in prelinguistic human beings. For example, strong circumstantial evidence for compassion among the Neanderthals can be joined with the hypothesis that their very high larynx made it impossible for them to articulate basic vowels. Michael Spangle and Kent Menzel state that "spoken language transformed our species and was a major factor in forging the human world as we know it."[5] They also argue for the existence of an "acoustic trigger to conceptualization" that gestural language obviously lacks.  While there is now a consensus that gestures are integral to all natural languages (remarkably, the blind gesture when they speak), it is generally agreed that they do not express abstractions very well.


It is even more clear that divine virtues precede divine law, because God's virtues would remain even if God chose not to create a world.  The doctrine of the Trinity (Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian) allows the possibility that the divine virtues are not exclusively self-regarding. The Pauline view that the Law was created only to manifest human sin further proves its contingency and confirms the idea of a "lawless" God before creation. For medieval nominalism the moral law characterizes what God has ordained (potentia ordinata) for a sinful world, and it is not part of God's absolute power (potentia absoluta). 


Philosopher Leslie Stephen describes virtue ethics as follows: "Morality is internal.  The moral law. . . has to be expressed in the form, 'be this,' not in the form  'do this.' . . . 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."[6]  In other words, people of good character and virtue require no reminder of what the rules are or what their duty is.  For John Stuart Mill the application of internal sanctions had much more moral value than the imposition of external sanctions, those that most often used by parents and societies to control human behavior. Mill's argument is persuasive: a society of mature virtues would require few police, judges, and prisons thereby maximizing utility and supporting character consequentialism.


Generally speaking, the sanctions for virtue ethics are internal and self-regulating, whereas the sanctions for rule ethics, especially in its popular religious form, are external.  (Kant and contemporary Christian ethicists join virtue ethics in favoring internal sanctions.)  For the Greeks, the Roman Stoics, Buddhists, and the Confucians, virtue is its own reward, but popular Christianity appears to have made the incentive for good deeds eternal life in heaven, with eternal damnation for those who do not follow the rules.


 One of the problems with rule ethics is applying the rules to specific cases.  The imperatives of virtue ethics--be patient, be kind, be generous, 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 and the good life.  Virtue ethics may not have pat answers to specific cases--no ethical theory could offer this--but it does prepare the moral agent for adaptation, innovation, and self-discovery.


Martha Nussbaum, a major proponent of virtue ethics, states: "The good agent must therefore cultivate the ability to perceive and correctly describe his or her situation finely and truly, including in this perceptual grasp even those features of the situation that are not covered under the existing rule."[7]  Aristotle's practical reason is the ability to perceive "finely and truly" any situation, whereas Buddhists would call it the virtue of mindfulness and the Confucians would say that it is doing "what is appropriate" (yi).  I have developed a formula for Confucian ethics that articulates this concept in a simple way: ren +yi + li =ren*. Ren means the physical person, who, in the process of personally adapting (yi) social customs (li), becomes a virtuous person ren*, a homophone of ren with the number 2 added to the character ren. The literal meaning is therefore "two peopleness" and the ethical meanings are human excellence and benevolence.  The social-relational nature of the Asian self stands in instructive contrast to those Euro-American ethical systems built on strict personal autonomy.




Most Euro-American philosophy has unfortunately severed the time-honored connections between truth, goodness, and beauty.   A Chinese poet of the Book of Odes conceives of moral development as similar to the manufacture 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.  The ren* person is a work of fine art, something wholly unique and distinctive. Whereas the craft potter takes thousands of mugs from the same mold, the ceramic sculptor makes one singular work.  Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont's inelegant translation of ren* as "authoritative person" plays on the dual meanings of authority and creative authoring and leads to helpful translations such as "becoming authoritative in one's conduct is self-originating--how could it originate with others" (Analects 12.1).  Ames and Rosemont also observe that li as "propriety" is "profoundly different from law" because it can be personalized and stylized.[8]


 The Confucians were both dancers and expert musicians, and it is the performing arts that are the best model for a contemporary aesthetics of virtue. Confucian sages were moral virtuosos who used their yi to create their own unique style of appropriating the social patterns of their community (li). This achievement is both moral and aesthetic because it results in the embodiment of the good (li) and the personal creation of an elegant, harmonious, and balanced soul.  Confucius claimed to have the ability to read the character of composers by listening to their music.  It is also said that in his later years Confucius put the Book of Odes to music in the proper way, presumably based on a correlation between notes and virtues (9.15). 


 For Confucius the beauty of the sage kings lies in their virtue; the beauty of any neighborhood is due to the goodness of its residents; a person without ren* could not possibly appreciate music; and a society without li and music would not be just; indeed, li cannot be perfected without music.  Gandhi once said that he could not "conceive of an evolution of India's religious life without her music."[9] He would also have celebrated the fact that the Analects reports that the fusion of li and music first came with the commoners and then was adopted by the nobility (11.1).  One if reminded of the fact many of the most memorable melodies in European music came from folk (in many instances Gypsy) music.


 Although he was not at all as active in the arts as Confucius, Gandhi is committed to the same ancient unity of truth, goodness, and beauty.  More so than Confucius Gandhi is committed to prioritizing truth: "Truth is the first thing to be sought for, and Beauty and Goodness will then be added unto you."[10] Gandhi's focus was also more on the inner beauty of the pure heart rather than natural or artistic beauty. "Purity of life is the highest and truest art. . . .The art of producing good music from a cultivated voice can be achieved by many, but the art of producing that music from the harmony of a pure life is achieved very rarely."[11] Confucius would certainly have agreed with this statement.  Gandhi rejected the concept of art for art's sake and its amoral aestheticism and there is no question that Confucius would have agreed with the proposition that art must be an ally of the good life or it loses its value.  While in England Gandhi experienced the controversy surrounding Oscar Wilde and he joined Wilde's critics with the charge that he was guilt of "beautifying immorality."[12]


From the standpoint of Heaven the Confucians would have agreed with Gandhi that its truth [cheng=sincerity] is most important, and its beauty and goodness follows second and third.  Gandhi may have subordinated beauty to both truth and goodness so as to forestall any philosophy of life that would place the acquisition of artworks before basic needs of the people.  Gandhi believed that for the masses to appreciate beauty it must come through truth.  "Show them Truth first and they will see beauty afterwards.  Whatever can be useful to those starving millions is beautiful to my mind.  Let us give today the vital things of life and the graces and ornaments of life will follow."[13]  In this passage Gandhi's passion for justice appears to have led him to reduce beauty to utility.  He may, however, have a more sophisticated aesthetics in mind, one in which form follows function, one that is manifested in the exquisitely beautiful and simple Shaker furniture.  Gandhi relates asceticism to aesthetics in the following way: "Asceticism is the highest art.  For what is art but beauty in simplicity and what is asceticism if not the loftiest manifestation of simply beauty in daily life, shorn of artificialities and make-believe?  That is why I always say that the true ascetic, not only practises art but lives it."[14] In a personal conversation with Gandhi's grandson Ramachandra, a creative writer and philosopher in his own right, he described the way that Gandhi led his daily prayer services as a form of minimalist art.


 Gandhi once asked a disciple if a "woman with fair features was necessarily beautiful?"  The initial affirmative answer was quickly withdrawn when Gandhi followed with "even if she may be of an ugly character?"[15]  For Gandhi beauty is always "an index of the soul within."  He also observed that although they say that Socrates was not a handsome man, "to my mind he was beautiful because all his life was striving after Truth. . . ."[16] M. Kirti Singh has remarked that Gandhi was perhaps as ugly as Socrates, "yet there was a rare spiritual beauty that shone in his face."[17]  This is a moral beauty that comes from the courage of being true to one's self and being true to others.  Gandhi's virtue aesthetics is best summed up in this passage: "Life must immensely excel all the parts put together.  To me the greatest artist is surely he who lives the finest life."[18]



The Sanskrit word dharma is generally understood as strict duty, a set of obligations by which all good Hindus, Jainas, and Buddhists must live.  But, even with this traditional understanding, there are important distinctions that are sometimes overlooked. Brahmins, for example, have different duties than vai¶yas do, and the Jaina householder and the Buddhist layperson have less strict obligations than the monks. Beyond the relativism of caste duty, there is also the fact that different virtues will be required for each of the a¶ramas, and, furthermore, a particular virtue dominates each of the cosmic ages.  


In most instances caste duties are explained as virtues, as in this list for brahmins from the Par¹¶ara ˜mÅti: "Assiduous work, the bridling of the passions, compassion, liberality, truthfulness, . . . discipline, generosity, righteousness, . . . [and] wisdom. . . ."[19]  This dharmic virtue ethics is further explained by the development of character traits (lak¬aªa) by which a person's virtues can be known. In the Vanaparva of the Mah¹bh¹rata King Nahu¬a asks Yudhi¬­hira what dharma is, and he defines it as the virtues of truthfulness, generosity, forgiveness, goodness, kindness, self-control, and compassion.[20] Going completely against caste determinism, Yudhi¬­hira contends that a ¶Ødra having these qualities would actually be a brahmin, and if a brahmin lacks them he would be a ¶Ødra.


Some passages of The Laws of Manu define dharma as customs not duty. The righteous king "should ordain (as law) whatever may be the usual custom of good, religious twice-born men, if it does not conflict with (the customs of) countries, families, and castes."[21] The king was to honor local custom even though it might contravene smÅti. This analysis supports the theory that laws are indeed abstracted from customs and the practice of the virtues, and only if this axiological priority was honored could a healthy flexibility and tolerance of different customs and virtues flourish. Stanley Tambiah has discovered this type of moral polity ancient Sri Lanka: "The polities modeled on mandala-type patterning had central royal domains surrounded by satellite principalities and provinces replicating the center on a smaller scale and at the margins had even more autonomous tributary principalities."[22] Tambiah gives this type of polity the engaging name "pulsating galactic polities," and he believes that this form of political organization is better in integrating minorities and respecting their customs.


Rather than being abstract and deontological, dharma is, as Paul Häcker proposes, "radically empirical" and it can be conceived only through experience.[23] Even though social customs stand third behind ¶ruti and smÅti on many Hindu textual lists, it could be argued that they are actually the true source of dharma.  For example, this passage from the Mah¹bh¹rata gives priority to customs: "Dharma has its origin in good practices and the Vedas are established on dharma."[24] Furthermore, ¸pastamba's DharmasØtra begins: "And we shall explain the accepted customary laws, the authority for which rests on the acceptance by those who know the law and on the Vedas"; and "he should model his conduct after that which is unanimously approved in all regions by ¸ryas who have been properly trained."[25] Häcker contends that "this is the most concrete and most precise definition of the Hindu concept of dharma that I know."[26] In The Laws of Manu (12.110-111) Matilal discerns the same "rational-democratic" principle in the provision that a jury of ten men would convene and resolve disputes about the law.[27]


Just as we have proposed a functional equivalence between Chinese li and Greek ethos, we can now see dharma as the Indian ethos. Dharma is like li in two other respects: it starts as religious rite ("rituals, study of scripture, and austerities"), and grew to pertain to every aspect of daily life. For the Aristotle ethos becomes ethos ethik when the virtues are developed according to practical reason operating in the context of multifaceted experiences. According to Bangalore Kuppuswamy, "dharma does not consist in blind conformity to customs; a man's behaviour should based on reasoning, should contribute to the welfare of humanity and should be guided by conscience."[28]


 Frank Edgerton defines dharma as "propriety, socially approved conduct, in relation to one's fellow man or to other living beings."[29]  We have already seen that the best translation of the Chinese li is also propriety, and Ames and Rosemont draw a good point from the Latin proprius, "'making one's own' as in property."[30] This parallels the Indian tradition where one is expected to match one's own nature (svabh¹va) with one's own dharma (svadharma).  As Austin Creel phrases it: "One's dharma is the total situation in which he finds himself; it is the law of his own being, the proper function of nature or constitution. . . . It is his appropriate function; it is the manifestation in social existence of his actual capacities.  Dharma in this sense is deemed not an external code but the inner law of a being."[31] This inner law, however, is not something akin to Kant's rational autonomy, which as J. N. Mohanty observes, is far too abstract and impersonal compared to "the innate characteristics of the individual,"[32] which is designated in Sanskrit as svabh¹va.


Just as every Chinese makes a personal appropriation of li by means of yi, so may every Indian do the same with dharma. Such a proposal has obviously gone beyond the confines of traditional Hinduism, even the revised caste system envisioned by Gandhi, where a son, although free from discrimination, would stay within the vocation of his father. Gandhi's challenge to his satyagrahis, however, appears to inspire the freedom of the Hindu ascetic, whose dharma, according Purushottama Billimoria, "is the correlate of his own innate constitution of which he is master," and "what he should do and not do . . . is left entirely to his own determination."[33] This is certainly the best example of developing one's svadharma according to one's svabh¹va. Within Gandhi's circle of disciples, however, it was clearly only the Mahatma who did, not within considerable controversy, allow himself this much liberty.



If dharma is duty then Hindu ethics should conform to something like Kantianism, but Matilal maintains that is not really the meaning of dharma, a point that we have already argued in the previous section.  Matilal quotes Robert Lingat favorably when he maintains that dharma is never "imposed" but simply "proposed"; and he paraphrases Louis Dumont idea that dharma "reigns from above without actually governing the world."[34] Both of these descriptions are intriguing but vague, but Matilal proposes that dharma is "open ended," a crucial aspect of rules in virtue ethics.


Matilal finds a caricature of Kantianism in R¹ma, whose inflexibility with regard to duty leads to absurd and/or harsh decisions.  As Matilal quips: "R¹ma's dharma was rigid; KŬªa's was flaccid."[35]  Even though he was encouraged to do so by the sage J¹b¹li, R¹ma was not going to break a promise, even if it meant that he could regain his kingdom and avoid 14 years of exile. One of R¹ma's lame excuses for shooting V¹lin in the back was that a person has no duties to animals, V¹lin being a member of Hanuman's monkey army. (Kant held that mistreatment of animals was blameworthy at least as a reflection of the person's character.) R¹ma's extreme interpretation of a wife's duty to her husband has led generations of Indian women to conform to an impossible ideal. Following S»t¹'s example, Indian women are required to stay with their husbands no matter what they ask of them and no matter how much they are abused.


As Matilal easily demonstrates, Kant's absolute duties to tell the truth and keep a promise come in for some severe criticism in Hindu literature. Kant too easily assumes that there is a rational harmony among our duties and that they cannot conflict.  Matilal notes the significance of the fact that both Kant and Indian ethics recognize an intimate connection between truth telling and promise keeping, explaining the latter as "protecting the truth" (satya rak¬¹).[36] Matilal analyzes KŬªa's use of the story of the hermit Kau¶ika as a response to Kant, but I will use a similar story that I found effective in my ethics classes.


Let us say that I am over at my best friend's house and we are watching a football game in a back room. There is a knock at the door, and, as luck would have it, I am the one to answer. Standing at the door is a crazed man, armed head to foot, who demands that my friend come out so that he can kill him.  Silence is not an option, as was also the case with Kau¶ika. The bandits would have tortured a confession out of the hermit, and the terrorist would interpret my silence as assent that my friend is indeed home, and he would barge right in. Therefore, I tell the terrorist, as convincingly as all my mental and emotional energy can muster, that my friend is not home.


In this case Kant would allow that prudence might dictate that I lie, but because I always have a moral duty to tell the truth, my action has no moral worth.  The virtue ethics response is very different: my action does have moral worth, primarily because, in this instance, I did the right thing and I could successfully challenge anyone who said I did not. I have always been a truth teller, and the fact that I have lied in this situation in no way destroys my habit of virtue; and it certainly does not mean that I have now become a liar rather than a truth teller. Furthermore, I feel guilt and remorse about my actions and I rededicate myself to a life of virtue.


Matilal's answer is very much the same.  He maintains that Kau¶ika's "dharma is at least dictated by the constraints or contingency of the situation."[37] And, although ¸pastamba states that all perjurers go to Hell, Matilal notes that the DharmasØtras of Gautama and Manu make an exception when one lies to save a life.  Matilal states that the dharma "cannot be known as universally fixed," and that "our practical wisdom has a sort of malleability" so that it can adjust to changing situations and circumstances.[38] Furthermore, Matilal recognizes the necessity of genuine remorse as a sign of a temporary lapse from virtue.  "The feeling of guilt must be genuine, and it must be distinguished from the feeling of simple regret."[39] Finally, virtue ethics response allows for genuine moral conflict and supports the truth of tragic heroes caught in irreconcilable ethical dilemmas.  


The principle of utility is implied in KŬªa 's justification of immoral means to prevent the evil Kauravas from winning the war. Yudhi¬­hira once said that there are many dharmas and the only way to find the correct one is to follow the mah¹jana, which can be translated as "the conduct of the good people." In this term Matilal finds a "primitive proto-utilitarianism," which is very clearly expressed in the common phrase "for the sake of the happiness of many people, and for the sake of the good of many."[40] Matilal acknowledges that the greatest attraction of utilitarianism is its monism, i.e., its assumption that all moral problems can be solved with a single principle.  He claims, however, that "dharma-morality is pluralistic,"[41] and he proposes that this view can be held without succumbing to irrationality. Matilal's frequent mention of "practical wisdom" as the deciding factor in moral decision-making suggests that we should look at Hindu ethics from a virtue perspective.  I propose then that "the conduct of good people" be read as a call to emulate the virtuous among us. It is, therefore, character consequentialism that we see in the Hindu epics, not a hedonic consequentialism.


In an essay entitled "Dharma and Rationality," Matilal discusses the story of the king who decrees that a lake of milk should be constructed for the good of his people. He argues that that even though a sovereign, using the principle of utility, could order that everyone make sacrifices for the greatest good, people would be tempted, as this story shows, to empty a pail of water into the lake of milk under the cover of darkness.  Again, there is an instructive parallel to Confucian virtue ethics in the Confucian critique of the Mohist doctrine of universal self-sacrificial love, based as it is on a Chinese utilitarianism. 


The Confucian Mencius argued that people would always love those closest to them and that it was not immoral for them to do so.  People would not love benevolence—indeed they would begin to hate it—if it were forced on them in a way that did not conform to their natures and their circumstances.  Rather, benevolence would start by modeling family members and teachers and then spread with understandably less intensity to all people and animals.  The Mohists commit the error of the Farmer of Song, who, so eager that his rice would grow more quickly, went out at night and tugged on the shoots with disastrous results.  Mencius' "virtue sprouts" require specialized care and develop at their own rate in their own soil.


As I have argued above, it was the virtues that came first and only afterward moral rules. This means that moral rules are actually abstractions from the practice of the virtues, just as moral prohibitions are abstractions from the practice of the vices. Therefore, no moral rule could "reign from above" nor could it even "propose" without the specific moral content that action and the virtues provide. Interestingly enough, moral rules, even as abstractions, still preserve their normative force. Therefore, dharma can indeed "propose" as a general guide for action, but it must always be contextualized and individualized.  In other work I have argued that one can support a world ethic of respect for cultural values and virtues of rich variation—a world-wide version of Tambiah's "pulsating galactic polities— and at the same time enforce the Declaration of Human Rights in instances, such as honor killing and female genital mutilation, where we can determine that certain customs can be banned.



    Matilal's greatest contribution to our understanding of Indian thought is his discussion of karma and how it has been misunderstood: "The karma doctrine requires that man's own 'character' be his own 'destiny.'"[42] This statement supports an Indian virtue ethics and also allows us to confront the challenge of fatalism. Matilal makes a strong case for separating karma from caste and suggests that the concept of karma is compatible with both reason and individual responsibility.  He argues that karma was originally introduced to solve the problem of evil and to answer the fatalism found in the ¸jivaka school.[43]  The law of karma appears to be fatalistic only because it was linked to caste heredity.


 The Buddha once said that "they who know causation know the dharma,"[44] a great example of how dharma, as J. N. Mohanty observes, connects "what one ought and what in fact is."[45] This happy violation of the Humean prohibition of deriving an Ought from an Is demonstrates how virtues are derived from the facts of our personal histories and how this contextualizes all moral decision-making. The famous "mirror of dharma" is not a common one in which individual identities are dissolved, as some later Buddhist believed, but it is actually a myriad of mirrors reflecting individual histories. The truths they discover in their mirrors will be very personal truths, moral and spiritual truths that are, as Aristotle says of moral virtues, "relative to us."


Mohanty argues that the law of karma allows an "interplay of freedom and determination" in which the agent is neither totally free nor totally determined.[46] In short, karma does not prevent one from doing otherwise. Matilal also holds that that karma supports moral freedom and responsibility, mainly because karma looks like fate only if we are ignorant of all the causal threads. Following the Buddha, those who know their own causal web of existence, especially noting how their actions affect themselves and others, will be able to develop the cardinal virtue of mindfulness.  If they know the truth (i.e., the true facts of their lives), then they will then know what to do. We can now see how character is destiny, and as long a compatiblist justification for moral freedom is accepted, we can say that those who are unmindful and do not develop the virtues are destined to experience the truth that the vices are their own punishment.


Seeing the law of karma as a psychological law allows us to avoid the both the extravagance and absurdities of the common view of it as a cosmic law with inscrutable laws of retribution. It also means that we may also see, as some Buddhists do, the six realms of existence as metaphors for the "animal," "angelic," and "demonic" moments of one single life span. Therefore, the law of karma can be conceived as the rather trivial truth that all actions have consequences. If we conceive of karmic causality as conditionality, we can now state the following conditionals concerning moral responsibility: "If we act motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion, we are planting the seed of suffering; but when our acts are motivated by generosity, love, or wisdom, then we are creating the karmic conditions for abundance and happiness."[47] Again, we see, in a way that supports moral responsibility, that character is destiny.


 For the Buddhists, karma works at two levels--one immediate and one delayed. In any of our acts we can immediately experience the results depending on whether they were done, for example, out of love or hatred. (Only the truly obtuse person will claim to be unaware.) Later on, these seeds of our actions will produce their inevitable fruits and, following the principle of interdependent coorigination, these fruits will finally ripen. The ripening of karmic action is a pervasive metaphor in all Buddhist literature, and it supports very well the non-fatalistic motto that character is destiny.



     Matilal summarizes very well my argument thus far: "A moral agent exercises his practical wisdom, and also learns from the experiences he passes through during his life.  He has an enriched practical wisdom when it is informed by his experiences of genuine moral dilemmas.  A moral agent needs also a character which is nothing but a disposition to act and react appropriately with moral concerns."[48] This is precisely how Aristotle's relative mean operates (right time, right place, right manner, etc.) and also how the Confucian concept of yi works as a personal appropriation of the norms of li. 


Matilal's insights now allows me to do something that I thought that I could not do in my own comparative virtue ethics--namely, to add KŬªa to the Buddha, Confucius, and Aristotle. The problem of course is that KŬªa appears to be the least virtuous person in this list and can hardly be seen as practitioner of the Middle Way.  Nonetheless, Matilal declares that his "dark Lord" as a "paradigmatic person . . . in the moral field," who "becomes a perspectivist and understands the contingency of the human situation,"[49] both necessary elements of virtue ethics.  He also describes him, as opposed to the rigid R¹ma or Yudhi¬­hira, as an "imaginative poet" in the moral realm: "He is the poet who accepts the constraints of metres, verses, and metaphors.  But he is also the strong poet who has absolute control over them. . . . He governs from above but does not dictate."  This guarantees that KŬªa 's "flexibility never means the 'anything goes' kind of morality."[50]


If KŬªa is not omnipotent in the Judeo-Christian sense, then Matilal cannot claim that KŬªa has "absolute control over the metres"; nor is it advisable to have him governing them from above.  Nonetheless, the fine arts, I believe, give us a very rich analogue for the development and performance of the virtues. Most significantly, this analogy allows us to confirm both normativity and creative individuality at the same time.  Even within the most duty bound roles one can easily conceive of a unique "making one's own."  Even though the Confucians must have had a set choreography for their dances, one can imagine each of them having their own distinctive style.  The score for a violin concerto is the same for all who perform it, but each virtuoso will play it in a unique way.  The best judges have the same law before them and yet one can detect the creative marks of judicial craft excellence. Even the younger brother who defers to his elder brother will have his own style of performing this duty, his own dharma (svadharma).


It is the virtues and practical reason that allows us to navigate the river of law with its constant flow and identity but also its shifting banks and channels. Not only does practical reason guide us in choosing a mean relative to us, it also allows us to suspend the law when it is in danger of "becoming an ass" à la Dickens. Matilal observes that dharma "gets fulfilled in novel and mysterious ways,"[51] so it may be expressed in violation of law or duty.  For example, the Pandava brothers were so concerned about retrieving some sacrificial sticks that they were punished for their ritualistic rigidity by a yak¬a (disguised as a stork and symbolizing dharma). (Significantly enough, Yudhi¬­hira, the only brother not punished, then discovers that dharma is the "conduct of good people" discussed above.) One of my favorite examples comes from the Confucian Mencius who said that li forbids any man from touching woman not directly related to him; but if your sister-in-law is drowning, then by all means you should extend your hand to save her.  When we look back at the KŬªa's suspension of the rules of war, his justification, compared to these examples, does not appear, at least for me, very compelling at all. I am particularly reminded of the incident in which KŬªa tells Arjuna that he can attack Kuru Karna even though his chariot is stuck in the mud. In contrast to the Buddha, Confucius, and Gandhi, I contend that we find more creative dynamism and less virtue in KŬªa's actions.




In this chapter I have argued that the best option in this time of great moral crisis is a return to the virtue ethics of the ancients.  Moral rules are too abstract and too rigid, and it is difficult to apply them to complex situations and decisions.  They, however, still retain their normative force in the application of national and international law. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, fails to distinguish between qualitative values of the virtues and external quantities of pleasure, and sometimes the hedonic calculus produces unrealistic and even absurd moral obligations. 


As opposed to a rule based ethics, where the most that we can know is that we always fall short of the norm, virtue ethics is truly a voyage of personal discovery. Ancient virtue ethics always aim at a personal mean that is a creative choice for each individual.  Virtue ethics is emulative--using the sage or savior as a model for virtue--whereas rule ethics involves conformity and obedience.  The emulative approach engages the imagination and personalizes and thoroughly grounds individual moral action and responsibility.  Such an ethics naturally lends itself to Matilal's moral poets and a virtue aesthetics: the crafting of a good and beautiful soul, a unique gem among other gems.



[1]The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal: Ethics and Epics, ed. Jonardon Ganeri (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 50. Hereafter cited as Ethics and Epics.

[2]The phrase "character consequentialism" comes from Philip J. Ivanhoe, although he gives credit to Peter Railton for initiating the idea.  See Philip J. Ivanhoe, "Character Consequentialism: An Early Confucian Contribution to Contemporary Ethical Theory," Journal of Religious Ethics 19:1 (Spring 1991), pp. 55-70.

[3]Michael Slote, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[4]Nicholas. F. Gier, The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004).  This essay began as a review of Matilal's Ethics and Epics in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (June, 2003), and then rewritten, without the third section, as "Toward a Hindu Virtue Ethics" in Contemporary Issues in Constructive Dharma, eds. R. D. Sherma and A. Deepak (Hampton, VA: Deepak Heritage Books, 2005), vol. 2, pp. 151-162. The first two sections are adapted from The Virtue of Non-Violence.

[5]Michael L. Spangle and Kent E. Menzel, ASymbol, Metaphor, and Myth: the Origin and Impact of Spoken Language,@ Seventh Annual Meeting of the Language Origins in DeKalb, Illinois, 1991; http://baserv.uci.kun.nl/~los/Meetings/Dekalb/Articles/ 24‑MENZEL.htm. Studies have shown that deaf people do not score very well in some areas of abstract reasoning (see Helmer R. Mykelbust, The Psychology of Deafness [New York: Northwestern University Press, 1966], pp. 85-89).  I am indebted to Shane Sheffner, student in my senior seminar on virtue ethics, for these references.

[6]Leslie Stephen, The Science of Ethics, quoted in Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1990), p. 114. I am indebted to Pojman for the insights of the next two paragraphs.

[7]Martha Nussbaum, "Non-Relative Virtues" in Midwest Studies in Philosophy , vol. 13,  eds. Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling, and Howard K. Wettstein (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University, 1988), p. 44.

[8]Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), p. 51.  All translations cited come from this work.

[9] Cited in Madan Gandhi, A Gandhian Aesthetics (Chandigarh: Vikas Bharati, 1969), p. 266.

[10]Gandhi, Young India 12 (September 11, 1930), p. 386.

[11]Gandhi, Harijan 6 (February 19, 1938), p. 10.

[12]Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 13, 1924), p. 377.

[13]Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 20, 1924), p. 386.

[14]Cited in Madan Gandhi, A Gandhian Aesthetics, p. 69.

[15]Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 13, 1924), p. 377.


[17]M. Kirti Singh, [The] Philosophical Import of Gandhi

sm (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1994), p. 136 note 3.

[18]Cited in ibid., p. 135.

[19]Cited in Soosai Arokiasamy, Dharma, Hindu and Christian according to Roberto de Nobili (Rome: Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 1986), p. 25.

[20]Cited in Matilal, Ethics and Epics, p. 54.

[21]The Law of Manu, trans. Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1999), 8.46; p. 156.

[22]Stanley J. Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 175.

[23]P. Häcker, "Dharma im Hinduismus," Zeitschrift für Missionwissenschaft und Relgionswissenschaft 49 (1965), p. 99.

[24]The Vana Parva 27.107, cited in Bangalore Kuppuswamy, Dharma and Society (Columbia, MO: South Asia Books, 1977), p. 17.

[25]The DharmasØtras: The Law Codes of ¸pastamba, Gautama, Baudh¹yana, and Vasi¹­ha, trans. Patrick Olivelle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1.20.8, p. 31.

[26]Häcker, "Dharma im Hinduismus," p. 99.

[27]Ethics and Epics, p. 78.


[28]Kummuswamy, Dharma and Society, pp. 51-2.

[29]Frank Edgerton, The Beginnings of Indian Philosophy (Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 30.

[30]Ames and Rosemont, pp. 51-52.

[31]Austin B. Creel, Dharma in Hindu Ethics (Columbia, MO: South Asia Books, 1977), pp. 4-5.

[32]J. N. Mohanty, "Dharma, Imperatives, and Tradition: Toward an Indian Theory of Moral Action" in Indian Ethics: Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges, eds. P. Billimoria, J. Prabhu, and R. M. Sharma (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2007), vol. 1, p. 53.

[33]Purushottama Billimoria, "Introduction to Part A: Early Indian Ethics--Vedas to the G»t¹; Dharma, Rites to Right" in Indian Ethics, vol. 1, p. 39.

[34]Ethics and Epics, p. 42.

[35]Ibid., p. 47.

[36]Ibid., p. 26.

[37]Ibid., pp. 26-27.

[38]Ibid., p. 50.

[39]Ibid., p. 33.

[40]Ibid., p. 68.

[41]Ibid., p. 68.

[42]Ibid., p. 414.

[43]Ibid., p. 412.

[44]˜alitramba SØtra, trans. N. Ross Reat (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), §3, p. 28.

[45]Mohanty, "Dharma, Imperatives, and Tradition," p. 66.

[46]Ibid., pp. 73-74.  For more on conditionality, karma, and freedom see Nicholas F. Gier and Paul K. Kjellberg, "Buddhism and the Freedom of the Will" in Freedom and Determinism: Topics in Contemporary Philosophy, eds., J. K. Campbell, D. Shier, M. O'Rourke (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 277-304.

[47]I am indebted to Joseph Goldstein for this statement and this insightful way of redefining karma.  See his “Cause and Effect” in Radiant Mind: Essential Buddhist Teachings and Texts, ed. Jean Smith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), pp. 291.  The definition of karma as volitional action is not only good P¹li Buddhism but it is also the position of the great Mahayanist philosopher Vasubandhu: “karma is will (cetana) and voluntary action (cetayita karanam)” (cited in Theodore Stcherbatsky, The Central Conception of Buddhism [New Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidass, 1974], p. 32).

[48]Ethics and Epics, p. 33.

[49]Ibid., p. 34.


[51]Ibid., p. 42.