Stephen Harris on Suffering and Buddhist Ethics

I just found out through Philpapers about a forthcoming article by “our” Stephen Harris, who perhaps might want to elaborate a little bit more about it here?

The title is: Suffering and the Shape of Well-Being in Buddhist Ethics and it has been already published on line (under a paywall) on Asian Philosophy.

The following one is the abstract:

This article explores the defense Indian Buddhist texts make in support of their conceptions of lives that are good for an individual. This defense occurs, largely, through their analysis of ordinary experience as being saturated by subtle forms of suffering (duḥkha). I begin by explicating the most influential of the Buddhist taxonomies of suffering: the threefold division into explicit suffering (duḥkha-duḥkhatā), the suffering of change (vipariṇāma-duḥkhatā), and conditioned suffering (saṃskāra-duḥkhatā). Next, I sketch the three theories of welfare that have been most influential in contemporary ethical theory. I then argue that Buddhist texts underdetermine which of these theories would have been accepted by ancient Indian Buddhists. Nevertheless, Buddhist ideas about suffering narrow the shape any acceptable theory of welfare may take. In my conclusion, I argue that this narrowing process itself is enough to reconstruct a philosophical defense of the forms of life endorsed in Buddhist texts.

In sum, it looks like a stimulating article, both because of its content (the thought-provoking idea that a “good life” might be a life in which one has abandoned everything, including family and friends) and because of the cross-cultural enterprise it attempts. Chapeau!

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

5 thoughts on “Stephen Harris on Suffering and Buddhist Ethics

  1. Hi Stephen,

    I’ve just looked through your paper quickly, but I’ve read another version of it more carefully (from your dissertation). Here is something I thought of though:

    On p. 13 of your article, you consider the possibility that “welfare consists in mental states that lack suffering.” It seems strange to me, though, to say that I am “faring well” just by avoiding suffering. Does the absence of pain (broadly construed) really make a positive contribution to the intrinsic value of a life for the person whose life it is, or does it merely eliminate a source of negative value/disvalue? I remember that Feldman talks about this in his Pleasure and the Good Life – which I don’t have on hand.


  2. Thanks very much for the notice Elisa. On occasion it’s been pointed out that there are relatively few explicitly stated and developed normative arguments in Indian Buddhist ethical texts. One of my questions when reading these texts is what else might be bearing the argumentative weight, if you will, of some of the positions these texts endorse. I’ve believed for a while that Buddhist conceptions of suffering (duḥkha) do a lot of philosophical work in these texts, even though these insights are often not explicitly formulated as premises in arguments. So this paper (originally a dissertation chapter as Chris points out) is an initial attempt at cashing out that idea. In the first section, I attempt a philosophically inclined reconstruction of the three kinds of suffering explained (or sometimes just referred to) in many Buddhist texts. In the second, I develop a connection between these forms of suffering and contemporary philosophical work on well-being.

    One of my guiding questions in the last couple years has been thinking about what some of the natural intersections between certain Indian Buddhist texts and contemporary ethical theory are. I’ll write a blog post on this soon—sorry I’ve been absent lately! I think one natural point of contact is the contemporary philosophical work that’s being done on well-being. I’m also skeptical that Buddhist texts are likely to provide a theory of well-being, in the sense of explicating at the deepest level what makes a life go well. So this paper tries to think out a connection between the two bodies of knowledge without claiming Buddhist texts fit into one or another contemporary category. Anyway, that’s a bit about my motivation in writing the essay and what I tried to do in it.

    • Stephen, once again, there is nothing to be thankful for. The blog has, among its many purposes, also that of enabling interesting discussions among us, including discussions about our published work.
      More in detail, I am sorry to admit that I will only be able to read the article when the physical issue of Asian Philosophy is delivered to our library, but meanwhile I hope you will forgive me a further general question, namely, I recently read Jay L. Garfield’s claim (in a 2006 article available here: that there is no general ethical theory in Buddhism (casuistic being rather the case). Would you agree? Or do you think that the elaborations on duḥkha arise to a general level?

  3. Chris, thanks for the comment. In the section of the essay you refer to, I claim that although the Buddhist texts I consider in the essay are compatible with a mental state theory (well-being is constituted by certain mental states), it’s not clear that they are committed to it. In the line you cite, my intention was to point out that part of a Buddhist mental state theory of well-being would obviously be specifying absence of suffering. If this was the only quality mental states must possess, then the theory would be a negative hedonism (absence of pain as well-being), but in the paper I’m not claiming that this is the form a Buddhist mental state theory would take. My intention was to leave this open, and in addition to argue that other theories of well-being are also compatible with Buddhist commitments. But as you point out, I probably could have expressed this better!

  4. Hi Elisa. First of all, anyone who wants to read the article and can’t access it is welcome to email me at Asian Phil. let’s me give a certain amount of users access to the article.

    Regarding your question, I have an article about classification of Śāntideva’s ethical thought coming out in Philosophy East West in January. In addition to the Garfield piece you mention, Martin Adam has a piece, “The Consequences of Consequentialism: Reflections on Recent Developments in the Study of Buddhist Ethics,” that’s relevant, as well as Michael Barnhart’s “Theory and Compassion in the Discussion of Buddhist Ethics” in Philosophy East West. Charles Goodman’s Consequences of Compassion of course makes the most systematic argument for classification, as a consequentilaism in his view.

    But to give the basics of my own position, I think it depends what’s meant by general level, but (like Jay) I’m doubtful that Indian Buddhist authors give us the material to classify their thought as a particular kind of ethical theory like consequentialism, deontology etc. It’s been pointed out occasionally (by Peter Harvey in his book An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics for instance) that Buddhist ethical texts contain elements of all the major theories—emphasis on virtues like patience, deontic elements like the bodhisattva’s vow, emphasis on the consequence ending suffering. But even more important is the fact that emphasis on a moral item emphasized by a particular moral theory doesn’t, I think, provide a lot of evidence that the author/text in question ascribes to that moral theory. The reason is that there are different levels at which these moral items operate, and we would also need evidence that the author believes the moral term operates at the deepest level.

    To provide an example, a robust consequentialism will probably give a lot of importance to virtue and particular rules. The virtuous dispositions are those qualities that allow us to best promote the good (or, in Charles Goodman’s Consequences of Compassion, they are themselves one of the items to be promoted). Particular rules are endorsed because they over the long run help promote the good. So it’s perfectly natural for a consequentialist text to praise the virtue of patience, for instance, and doing so doesn’t provide evidence that it’s a virtue ethics.

    The same, however, is true of the other moral theories. A virtue ethics, claiming virtue is the deepest moral term (for instance claiming the right act is the one a virtuous person would do when acting habitually), could emphasize the importance of certain consequences, since ending suffering etc. are what a virtuous person would do, or praise certain rules since these again are commitments a virtuous person would make. After all, trustworthiness itself is a virtue. So the question we have to raise is do Buddhist texts provide us evidence that one set of moral elements is deeper than the rest? I’m not sure they do.

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