In Search of Buddhist Virtue: A Case for a Pluralist-Gradualist Moral Philosophy

Oren Hanner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Classical presentations of the Buddhist path prescribe the cultivation of various good qualities that are necessary for spiritual progress, from mindfulness (sati) and loving-kindness (metta) to faith (saddhā) and wisdom (paññā). Examining the way in which such qualities are described and classified in early Buddhism—with special reference to their treatment in the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) by the fifth-century Buddhist thinker Buddhaghosa—the present article employs a comparative method in order to identify the Buddhist catalog of virtues. The first part sketches the characteristics of virtue as analyzed by neo-Aristotelian theories. Relying on these accounts, the second part considers three lists from early Buddhism as possible catalogs of virtue: (1) the components of ethical conduct (sīla), (2) the 37 factors that contribute to awakening (bodhipakkhiyā dhammā), and (3) the wholesome (kusala) or beautiful (sobhana) mental factors (cetasika). I then raise the question of why the Buddhist tradition developed several classifications of virtue, whereas the Western tradition of virtue ethics used a single category. Appealing to the connection between the virtues and living well (eudaimonia) in the eudaimonistic version of virtue ethics, I propose that one of the reasons why Buddhism developed multiple lists of virtues is its pluralistic acceptance of different modalities of living well and associated practices, in MacIntyre’s sense of the term. These modalities and practices are not equal, but are ordered hierarchically. Accordingly, I conclude that Buddhist ethics ought to be seen as a pluralist-gradualist system rather than a universalist theory.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)58-78
Number of pages21
JournalComparative Philosophy: An International Journal of Constructive Engagement of Distinct Approaches toward World Philosophy
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021


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