A seemingly innocent question about Hindu Ethics was raised elsewhere. Ram kindly referenced the Handbook that I edited. I wanted to respond the original context, but as I started writing it grew and I thought it would be more fitting to post here.
One of the outcomes of this project, I think, is that it shows not only that ethics or moral philosophy is one of the most basic differentia of Indian philosophy but that “Hindu ethics” is better treated as a mass term, than as a kind term. So there is no single Hindu ethics, but virtually all options of moral theory are also Hindu options. I also think the volume sheds light on the role of literature such as the epics in Hindu ethics that makes the question of whether it was taken seriously as history or myth a false dichotomy. Rather such literature was presented and taken seriously as an exploration of truths of moral theory. But, before we get there, I want to say something general about Indian ethics.
What made this collection possible for me was that I started thinking about the topic of ethics philosophically, and not as a matter of comparison with the Western tradition. Ethics concerns the right procedure or good outcome and theories of ethics attempt to explain this basic concept (the Right or the Good) from some vantage. A theory of ethics will explain a perspectives employment of moral terms (terms such as “ethical” or “moral”) as entailments of the moral theory. The common concept of ethics (the Right or the Good) is what such theories converge on while they disagree. I think this is how philosophers approach moral philosophy and I think that if we study Indian thought this way, we see that “dharma” is a term that is best explained by a perspective’s theory of dharma (the theory entails the perspective’s employment of the term) and the common concept is what such theories disagree on: the Right or the Good.
There are at least four basic theoretical possibilities. The first to prioritize the good in moral explanation and hence are teleological. The second two prioritize the right in moral theory and are hence procedural.
Virtue Ethics: The good (character) leads to or produces the right (procedure)
Consequentialism: The good (outcome) justifies the right (procedure)
Deontology: The right (procedure) justifies the good (actions).
Bhakti: The right (the approximation of a procedural ideal, i.e., the Lord) produces the good (outcome) when perfected.
With respect to Indian philosophy I think putting the matter this way shows that some major lines are moral philosophical. The volume shows for instance that Jainism is a paradigm version of Virtue Ethics (See Jayandra Soni’s paper on the issue for this). Consequentialism is thought to be exemplified by Buddhism (cf., Goodman, Consequences of Compassion). But Kisor Chakrabarti’s article on Nyāya shows that it too is a version of Consequentialism. Francis Clooney’s paper shows that the Mīmāṃsā tradition is not only Deontological but Particularist. If you are interested in the Dharmaśāstra-s and Manu, file that in here. My papers on Yoga and Vedānta show that they emphasize Bhakti, but also a general proceduralism that attempts to persuade us to abandon teleological reasoning (Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism) in favour of procedural ethical theories, such as Deontology and Bhakti.
Already it is quite difficult to talk about Hindu ethics: which version? Add to this Neo Hindu options (for those interested, please see Ashwani Peetush’s scholarly paper on the topic) and it’s quite clear that the options within the Hindu tradition are practically continuous with the options of moral theory. (Virtue ethics seems to be relatively understated in the Hindu tradition, but I suspect that this impression will seem implausible when you start delving more deeply in the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika traditions, and also when one considers the role that Virtue Theory plays in Madhva’s Vedānta—something I talk about in my paper on Vedānta).
Literature (the Hindu Epics)
What impressed me as I was thinking about a submission on the Rāmāyaṇa (it was never published) and the early draft of Edeltraud Harzer’s paper on the narrative ethics of the Mahābhārata, is that what these texts have in common is that the main characters exemplify moral theories either in what they explicitly profess or in terms of how they ruminate on practical matters. The plot then is an exploration of the dialectic of moral theories, cast as characters. I provide an account of how this plays out in the Rāmāyaṇa (p.119-120), and Harzer’s paper does a wonderful, scholarly job of zooming in on this dialectic in exemplary portions of the Mahābhārata.
Is this history, or myth? In so far as it is about moral theory, I think it is neither.
One further observation I might add is that history will be very important for teleological moralists in the way that it would not be for bhaktas for the following reasons. If you are a Virtue Ethicist, you think that moral guidance and knowledge follows from the goodness of paradigm moral agents, so if these paradigm moral agents don’t exist historically you will not be able to account for moral knowledge. I think this is why the historical reality of the Pathfinders for Jains is important: it explains how their teachings came to be. I think this is also why in Nyāya tradition so much effort is poured into proving God’s existence: for theists, who are virtue ethicists (God, on their account, is the paradigm good agent) the historical reality of God is important otherwise they would be at a loss to explain their teachings.
But for bhaktas, whose Lord is a procedural ideal, there’s no such pressure. Rather on the bhakta’s account, one has to engage in a relational approximation of a regulative ideal to bring about a good outcome (the merging with or instantiation of this ideal) and this does not presume pre-existing teachings. Rather, it’s a kind of generative act that involves the devotee engaging in an intense meditation on the regulative ideal of practice: the Lord. The literature of this tradition is a supplement to this practice. And moreover the Lord as a regulative ideal is displayed in vividness in this literature, and hence the literature serves to facilitate this direct vision of the procedural ideal.