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Chapter 11:  Ethics:  Patterns of Moral Action

All religious communities embrace and transmit a moral tradition that consists of codes of conduct, taboos, rituals and understandings of right and wrong. In this unit, we explore these ethical traditions and discover both similarities and differences among the major religions of the world.

Virtues and Obligations

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex subject, we can classify ethical systems as either ethics of virtue or ethics of obligation. An ethics of obligation is based on duty, rules and outward actions: "This is what you ought to do!" On the other hand, an ethics of virtue is less concerned with principles and rules; rather it encourages individuals to imitate the good or ideal person who embodies qualities such as love, fidelity, justice, etc.: "This is what you ought to be!" The ethics of virtue thus focuses on the motives and inner disposition of individuals based on the belief that virtuous action derives merit from virtuous motives - not from the simple performance of virtuous deeds.

This kind of ethics of virtue characterizes Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. In Christianity, for example, believers are encouraged to "imitate Christ" or to "have within you the mind of Christ." Paul often encouraged his readers, "become imitators of me." Christianity basically teaches ethics through example (Saints, martyrs) and mentors. In Buddhism - especially the Mahayana school, the example of virtue that one is to follow is the bodhisattva or “being of wisdom” (from the Sanskrit – Bhodi – “enlightenment” and sattva – “being”). While Theravada Buddhism  emphasized liberating oneself through enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism, which emerged around the 1st Century CE, emphasized obtaining enlightenment and then working to lead others to enlightenment. In other words, individuals could decide that even if they achieved enlightenment, they would postpone entering Nirvana for the sake of others. A wealth of stories emerged about these enlightened beings – the bodhisattvas and their heroic feats of compassion for the sake of others. Many of these bodhisattvas were celestial/heavenly beings who heard the cries of human beings for help and mercy. The most important was one by the name of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of mercy. This same celestial being appears in Chinese Buddhism as Kuan-yin and in Japanese traditions as Kannon. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is considered to be an incarnation of Avalokitesvara. The important thing to note is that these bodhisattvas were not only types of gods/goddesses who could help mortals; they were moral examples. Anyone could take a vow to become a bodhisattva.

 Sources of Moral Authority

Cosmic/Natural Law

Cosmic or natural law reflects the belief that human moral action is in some way based on the essential structure of reality itself. If one follows one’s essential nature, one is following what is ordained by Heaven, a natural, moral law. Confucianism: incorporated the belief in a universal, natural law as the basis of moral and social action. The most important moral philosopher of Confucianism was Meng-Tzu (391-308 BCE) also known as Mencius. Meng-tzu argued for the existence of a natural, innate capacity for moral discrimination. This characteristic, existing in all human beings, was called hsin. According to Meng-tzu, when human beings are left to their own, natural feelings, they will do what is good and honorable.

The same reasoning was followed by St. Thomas Aquinas in Roman Catholic Theology in the 13th century C.E. Aquinas argued that the moral law of God’s divine plan for human beings is impressed upon their own natural reason. According to Aquinas, the rational guidance of creation by God is the “Eternal Law.” This Eternal law gives all beings (rational or not) the inclination to actions and goals that are appropriate to them. Rational creatures (human beings), however, share in divine wisdom and thus can discern the actions and goals that are appropriate to them. This discernment of and participation in the Eternal Law is what Aquinas called Natural Law. Ultimately, this participation in the recognition of the Natural Law leads to precepts and principles that provide moral guidance.