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
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
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)
Buddhism: suffering (Skt. duhkha) versus liberation (moksha)
from suffering, or the attainment of peace, nirvana.
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.
Daoism: harmony with the Way (Dao) versus
disharmony with the Way.