The term “deontology” is said to be derived from Greek deon “obligation, duty” and logia “discourse.” Deontology (or deontological ethics) is said to be “the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’ or ‘rule’-based ethics, because rules ‘bind you to your duty.’ Deontological ethics is commonly contrasted to consequentialism, virtue ethics, and pragmatic ethics. In this terminology action is more important than the consequences” (Wikipedia). The question for me is whether we can speak of “Buddhist deontology.” I feel that we can speak of “Buddhist deontology,” particularly in the Mahāyāna context, insofar Buddhism accepts that the rightness or wrongness (or perhaps better, in the Buddhist context, the wholesomeness or unwholesomeness or neutrality) of one’s verbal and physical conduct is determined by the wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral character or nature of the behavior itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct. Two related arguments seem to support the fact in Buddhism even if the action carried out out of a compassionate motive or intention turns out to harm other people, it would nonetheless be considered wholesome.
We are told by some that Kantanism (or Immanuel Kant’s theory of ethics) is deontological for at least two different reasons: First, Kant has argued that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon). Second, Kant has argued that it was not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives of the person who carries out the action.
Kant’s first argument that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon) is said to be based on the argument that the highest good must be both good in itself and good without qualification. Does this argument makes any sense from the perspective of Buddhist axiology? Not being sure if Kant’s position has been represented accurately, it is difficult to to say. What does seem questionable is the idea of “duty” in Buddhism. Does it exist in Buddhism and what does it mean? On the one hand, prima facie, at least, we might get an impression that in Buddhism no one is obliged to do anything for anyone, and thus the idea of duty in the sense of obligation simply makes no sense. Such an impression is perhaps created by the fact that Buddhism proposes karmic mechanism and presupposes what Srinivasan has once called Heilsprivatismus (“Salvific Privatism”), which means that each person is responsible for his or her this-worldly or other-worldly mundane destiny and also for one’s soteriological destiny. Whatever one does, one does so out of self-responsibility and not on account of one’s obligation or responsibility towards others. What about one’s duty towards one’s parents, family, and the like? One may perhaps state that this is nothing specifically Buddhistic but rather a societal norm accepted by the society at large. One might thus argue that duty is akin to a penalty and it robs one’s personal freedom to choose and decide. Thus the very word “duty” sounds somewhat contrarious to the Buddhist pattern of thinking. On the other hand, it should be emphasized that Buddhist axiology does prescribe ethical-moral-ascetical commitment and responsibility. Although “duty” or “obligation” may be synonymous to “commitment,” the latter term seems more appropriate in the Buddhist context. The basic idea here is that although one is not obliged to do anything for anyone, one does have the complete freedom to commit oneself to do something or not to something. But once one has taken a commitment upon oneself, one is usually bound by one’s commitment. Even here, one take full responsibility for keeping or breaking one’s commitment. This distinction, in my view, seems crucial. For a person who has not committed himself or herself to refrain from killing, abstaining from killing a human being out of maliciousness is not a duty. For a person who has committed himself or herself to refrain from killing, abstaining from killing a human being out of maliciousness is a duty.
Kant’s idea of “good in itself and good without qualification” seems to be reconcilable with the Buddhist idea of certain mental factors/associates (caitta: sems las byung ba) that are by nature wholesome (ngo bo nyid kyis dge ba). By the way, its opposite, those that are by nature unwholesome (ngo bo nyid kyis mi dge ba), too, is possible in Buddhism. If to (re)formulate Kant’s argument in Abhidharmic terms, it would be thus: “To act in the ethically-morally right way, people must act with wholesome mental factors (dge ba’i sems byung).” Better still: “Any action carried out with wholesome mental factors (dge ba’i sems byung) is ethically/morally right.”
Kant’s second reason, in my view, seems to be ad sensum same as the first argument and thus both arguments seem readily acceptable from a Buddhist perspective. This is also the reason why I think Buddhist axiology proposes deontological ethics.
What would a Buddhist philosopher think of Kant’s categorical imperative? “Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.” I think it would be found laudable and endorsable. I have a feeling that the Mahāyānic values crystalized in the six kinds of perfections (pāramitā: pha rol tu phyin pa) imply categorical imperative.
Does Buddhist axiology propose “moral absolutism,” according to which certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of the intentions behind them as well as the consequences? From a Buddhist perspective, it would seem that the very idea of “moral absolutism” (i.e. if what I read is what it says) seems to be based on the presupposition (or rather on the misconception) that there is an intention-free action. Action, deed, or exertion in Buddhism must be volitional. Action is not a motivation-free or intention-free motion. The rustling of dry leaves in the wind is not an action. One may, however, conceive of a Buddhist version of “moral absolutism,” according to which certain mental actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of their consequences. In other words, a unwholesome mental action is always and absolutely wrong, and a wholesome mental action is always and absolutely right.
On the one hand, the so-called “Divine Command Theory,” according to which “an action is right if God has decreed that it is right” would be deprecated by a Buddhist philosopher as utterly nonsensical because it would be tantamount to stating that “an action is right if the Son of a Barren Woman (or Rabbit’s Horn) has decreed that it is right.” On the other hand, Buddhist sources classify misdeeds that are considered by nature unwholesome and thus by nature reproachable (prakṛtisāvadya: rang bzhin gyi kha na ma tho ba) and those that are reproachable in virtue of prohibition or decree (pratikṣepaṇasāvadya, also rendered into Tibetan as bcas pa’i kha na ma tho ba). The question here is to find something to be “reproachable” by whom? The answer is: a wise person (e.g. the Buddha). A fool’s judgement of something as “reproachable” or “irreproachable” is not valid.