Notes on Comparative Religion: Ethics

Ethics refers to the "good life", and this can be defined in terms of good versus bad (good versus evil); virtue versus unvirtue; dutiful versus undutiful, and so on. Although all of these pairs as well as others can be found in any religion or society, there is often on main ethic, with others standing in a secondary or derivative role to the main ethic. For example, one can have an ethic of virtue as the main principle, but there may still be lists of rights and wrongs. Or, duty to a higher principle or to God may define an ethic, but that doesn't mean the cultivation of virtue can't also have a secondary role to play. In some Western religions, the idea that the ethical struggle between good versus evil is hardwired into the universe stands at the fore.

Four Western Theories of Ethics:

Virtue (Aristotle: virtus: such as: honesty, courage, kindness, that contribute to a person's moral character)
Duty (Kant - deontological ethics: duty to a higher reality, being, or principle, like Kant's 'categorical imperative')
Consequentialism (John Stuart Mills - utilitarianism: "greatest good for the greatest number")
Ethics of Care (Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings: emphasis on a particular relationship, such as mother-daughter, as the foundation of ethics)

In looking at Asian religions, we can see that often, there is one main ethic although other forms of ethics may also play a role. Here are some examples:

In the Vedas, knowledge (Skt. jnana) of the absolute (Brahman) is the guiding ethical principle, leading to liberation (Skt. moksha) from rebirth in the realm of illusion (maya)
In the Bhagavad Gita, duty to one's social station versus failure to carry out duty forms the primary ethical axis. Doing one's duty without attachment to outcomes leads to liberation.
Buddhism: suffering (Skt. duhkha) versus liberation (moksha) from suffering, or the attainment of peace, nirvana.
Daoism: harmony with the Way (Dao) versus disharmony with the Way.