A Note about Eastern Ethics, Religious Ethics, and Non-Western Ethics

I do not claim to be an expert on non-Western philosophy and religion. African and Native ethical traditions were not covered at all in the many courses on ethics offered at the University of Toronto, where I completed my doctorate, so the lack of diversity reflected on this website is a flaw that I would like one day to remedy given further study. However, there are some Oriental philosophies and religions that I have studied to some extent that I will briefly comment on. There is the system of Confucius of China which is oriented towards what it calls “the way of Heaven,” thus invoking religious ideas, and in general is a system of respecting elders and established rules. In following rules it is similar to the Western “Father of Rights,” Immanuel Kant, who, like his followers John Rawls and Alan Gewirth (whose theories are briefly summarized in the page on standard rights views) emphasized duties in ethics. Confucius’ main ideas are collected in his Analects compiled by a faithful student. Taoism is another Chinese philosophy based in the writings of Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu; the latter wrote the famous Tao Te Ching. The Tao is Nature, an all-encompassing concept and Taoists point out that reason is often flawed (as Western skeptics emphasize), and that sometimes it is better to do nothing rather than to busy oneself frenetically promoting this or that good or according with this or that rule. For example, it points out the usefulness of the emptiness or "nothingness" of a cup, or the space for an axle in a wagon wheel. In India, Jainism originated the principle of non-violence or ahimsa which Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu, later adopted. Hindu ethics like Jain morality is a religious philosophy based not least of all in compassion for all beings, and many Hindus are vegetarian, although more Jains are because they strictly go by their law of non-violence. Buddhism originated in India and again stresses compassion: that there is suffering in the world, and we must try to find release from suffering by seeking to abstain from grasping after things with greed and desire, and instead going partly by the flow of nature (an idea similar to going by Nature or the Tao in Taoism). This emphasis on compassion in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism has strong affinities with the Western feminist ethics of care and perhaps utilitarianism, but not with many other kinds of Western ethics which do not rely extensively on compassion. Buddhist and Jain monks may be very strict about avoiding harm to any living being. Many Buddhists are also vegetarian, and in general, vegetarianism or strong respect for animals belongs more to Eastern than Western philosophies, although newer Western ethics may be open to animal rights, utilitarian consideration of animals, or caring about animals. As more students contribute to the Kipling Peace Project, perhaps more cultural diversity in thinking about ideals of peace will emerge.

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