In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism and Ethics

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Anthologies
  • Nature of Buddhist Ethics
  • Foundations
  • Early Buddhism
  • Vinaya
  • Madhyamaka
  • East Asian Traditions
  • Tibetan Traditions
  • Buddhist Modernism
  • Phenomenology of Buddhist Moral Judgments
  • Buddhist Ethics and Cognitive Sciences

Buddhism Buddhism and Ethics
Daniel Cozort
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0235


Inasmuch as the Buddhist ideal is human perfection, ethics are a particularly important area. Ethics (śīla) is one of the three trainings (with insight and meditation) that lead to enlightenment. Ethics can be approached in several ways: many of the following works are “normative,” seeking to establish which ethical principles are foundational and what conclusions one might draw from that concerning specific ethical problems (see Foundations, Early Buddhism, Madhyamaka, East Asian Traditions, and Tibetan Traditions). Some are “meta-ethical,” reflecting on the overall nature of Buddhist ethics or the meaning of moral terms (see Nature of Buddhist Ethics). Some are examples of “applied ethics,” focusing on specific rules (see Early Buddhism and Vinaya). Some are “descriptive,” telling us how people actually behave (see especially East Asian Traditions and Tibetan Traditions and the works under Perspectives on Contemporary Issues). Finally, some are “comparative,” reflecting on what Western psychology or cognitive science can tell us about Buddhist moral judgments (see Phenomenology of Buddhist Moral Judgments and Buddhist Ethics and Cognitive Sciences).

Overviews and Anthologies

Cozort 2015 is an 8,500-word overview; Keown 2005 is a short but comprehensive book. The best overview is still Harvey 2000. Gowans 2015 views Buddhist ethics through a Western lens and would be best for readers with a grounding in Western philosophy. Keown 2000 and Powers and Prebish 2009 are wide-ranging anthologies.

  • Cozort, Daniel. “Ethics.” In The Buddhist World. Edited by John Powers, 171–185. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

    Brief summation of the main features of Buddhist ethics, using Buddhism and the environment as a case study.

  • Gowans, C. W. Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2015.

    The most comprehensive effort yet to examine Buddhist ethics with a Western philosophical lens. The author compares Buddhist moral philosophy with families of Western moral philosophies and in sections on “well-being,” “normative ethics,” “moral objectivity,” “moral psychology,” and “freedom, responsibility, and determinism” juxtaposes Buddhist presentations with contemporary Western philosophical debates on these matters. A final section highlights socially engaged Buddhism and Buddhist stances on human rights, violence and war, and environmental protection. For advanced undergraduates and beyond.

  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800801

    Highly accessible textbook that uses Pali and Mahayana sources to explain foundational ideas of Buddhism, key Buddhist values, the bodhisattva path, and Mahayana schools. Special attention is paid to Buddhism’s attitude toward the natural world, economic ethics, war, suicide and euthanasia, abortion and contraception, sexual equality, and homosexuality.

  • Keown, Damien, ed. Contemporary Buddhist Ethics. The Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism Series. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000.

    Chapters on Buddhist ethics as virtue ethics, on monastic ethics, human rights, animal rights, ecology, abortion, euthanasia, and economics. Still useful, but most of the authors have written more recently on these topics elsewhere.

  • Keown, Damien. Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192804570.001.0001

    A concise presentation with chapters on fundamental Buddhist morality, comparison to Western ethics, animals and environment, sexuality, war and terrorism, abortion, and suicide and euthanasia.

  • Powers, John, and Charles Prebish, eds. Destroying Mara Forever: Buddhist Ethics Essays in Honor of Damien Keown. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2009.

    A fine collection including essays on Śāntideva’s consequentialism, whether Buddhist ethics is a type of virtue ethics, Buddhist perspectives on crime and punishment, questionable behavior by Western Buddhist teachers, socially engaged Buddhism, the value of suffering, and ethics in Thai Buddhism and the Chinese Pure Land traditions.

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