Guest Post: Dr. Michael Jerryson on Buddhist Ethics

The Growth and Vicissitudes of Buddhist Ethics

Michael Jerryson


The two oldest academic disciplines devoted to the study of ethics and morality are philosophy and religion. Although scholars of religion have examined ethics for quite some time, the majority of their work draws from Abrahamic religions. To address this lacuna in Buddhist Studies, the Journal of Buddhist Ethics was formed in 1994. Modeling its ethical focus, the founding editors decided to make the journal a free online publication. Since its launch, the editors solicit a wide variety of subjects that includes human rights, vinaya (Buddhist scriptures on monastic traditions) and jurisprudence, and medical ethics.

In 2015 two of the journal’s editorial members, Daniel Cozort and James Mark Shields, expanded the project by taking on roles as editors for the Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics. In tandem with their decision, the four-member editorial committee decided to start a Buddhist Ethics Conference. Selected scholars who published in the journal, the edited volume, or who were well known for their contributions on the subject matter were invited to attend. In the early summer of 2016, the inaugural Buddhist Ethics conference was held at Dickinson College. Two dozen faculty participated in the three day conference, looking at the themes of violence, the environment, and ideal society. But what became incredibly important was not simply the themes, but the format of the conference.

The conference committee took care to balance regional specializations, time periods, disciplinary approaches, gender diversity, and faculty status. They also decided to veer away from the formulaic model for most academic conferences. There was no book or special journal issue paired with the conference. The participants did not deliver papers, but instead met in collective and groups, discussing and debating the issues. These decisions produce a very diverse and incredibly collegial gathering. It was decided that the conference would meet bi-annually. The second conference was held at University of Southern California in the summer of 2018. The themes for this second conference were on class, race, and resistance (focusing on Buddhist concepts of correct speech). The format was similar to the first conference, but with 34 faculty this time.

With such widespread specializations and expertise, there was once again rich discussions and debates. However, a very strong divide persisted throughout the first and second conference. One division argued about the need for explicit normative stances in discussing Buddhist Ethics; the contrasting side pushed for more descriptive stances for Buddhist Ethics. What became apparent in the many discussions and debates between these two sides were two central questions: what are the parameters for the study of Buddhist Ethics and who is a Buddhist? Scholars in favor of more robust forms of normativity considered the inquiry into social issues, such as race, gender, and class, not Buddhist issues, but rather sociological inquiries. They pointed to the traditional method and means of Buddhist scholarship over the last hundred years that mirrored the practices of monastic traditions; namely, the exegesis and philosophical inquiry into Buddhist scriptures and doctrine. Some scholars in this cadre also argued that people engaged in acts such as violence were not Buddhist due to the nature of their actions. Contrasting these views were scholars in favor of a more descriptive style and advocated for greater attention to social issues. These scholars argued that the role of academic scholars is not to judge or determine who is a Buddhist, but instead to learn about the lives and practices of those people who identify as Buddhist.

Due to the collegial atmosphere, group-based work, and active use of civil discourse, scholars at both ends of the ideological divide exhibited growth. The pedagogical structure reinforced the importance of dialogue, listening, and sharing viewpoints. This model of exchange serves as a helpful reminder of what we stand to lose as we invest more time in online communication. No longer discussing different ethical viewpoints with our neighbors, we now turn to social media forums such as Twitter and Facebook groups, which attract like-minded participants. The art of dialogue and compromise becomes irrelevant in such environments; in its place growths the mistaken view that one’s ethical views are communally shared and correct. Perhaps the Buddhist Ethic Conference offers more than simply insight into Buddhist Ethics, but healthy ways for us to maintain our investment in a pluralistic and civil society.

The Slow Professor: Rethinking the University

How should we conceive of the work of professors and the goals of the university? Maggie Berg, a professor of English at Queen’s University in Canada, and Barbara K. Seeber, a professor of English at Brock University, also in Canada offer a compelling arguement for universities to reduce their emphasis on speed and productivity, in favor of time for thinking and reflection.

Slow Professor book image

CBC Interview with the authors

SEAC 2016: Dr. Insoo Hyun

Insoo Hyun

Dr. Insoo Hyun is Associate Professor in the Department of Bioethics and Director of the CWRU Stem Cell Ethics Center. Dr. Hyun was a plenary speaker at the 18th International Conference on Ethics Across the Curriculum in October of 2016 in Salt Lake City Utah.1 His talk is titled “Ethics at the Edge of Science”.

  1. The conference was hosted by Utah Valley University and co-sponsored by the Dale Ethics Center. ↩︎

Students Recreate Life-Saving Malaria Drug

Just How Much is a Life-Saving Drug Worth?

A group of Australian high school students recently created 3.7 grams of the active ingredient in a life-saving malaria drug for around $20. The same amount of that drug would cost about $110,000 in the US.

“It seems totally unjustified and ethically wrong,” student James Wood said. “It’s a life-saving drug and so many people can’t afford it.”

Read the entire BBC article here

SEAC 2016: Dr. Mario Capecchi

[The following talk was given at the 18th International Conference on Ethics Across the Curriculum. The Dale Ethics Center was a co-sponsor of the event.].

Dr. Mario Capecchi is Distinguished Professor of Biology and Human Genetics at the University of Utah. The author and co-author of numberous publications, in 2007 Dr. Capecchi shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Martin Evans and Oliver Smithies for discovering a method to create “knockout mice” – mice in which a specific gene is turned off.

SEAC 2016: Dr. Leslie Francis

The Significance of Injustice for Bioethics

[The following talk was given at the 18th International Conference on Ethics Across the Curriculum. The Dale Ethics Center was a co-sponsor of the event.]

FullSizeRender Dr. Leslie Francis holds joint appointments as the Alfred C. Emery professor of law and professor of philosophy, and adjunct appointments in Family and Preventative Medicine (in the Division of Public Health), Internal Medicine (in the Division of Medical Ethics), and Political Science). The title of her talk is “The Significance of Injustice for Bioethics”.

Reminder: We the People 2.0

We the People 2.0

Wednesday October 19, 2016 7 p.m.

Cushwa B100

Screening followed by Q & A with Tish O’Dell and Doug Shields (both from the movie)

“We the People 2.0 confronts its viewers with the ravages of mine tailings and leaky containment ponds, of sludge and ooze and grue, all of which, the film documents, are killing people, particularly in the cancer-blighted small towns of North America. The film’s brief is laudable: Alongside documenting grassroots activism, including the kayak flotillas that protested Shell Oil in Seattle, the film focuses on legal challenges presented to corporations by granting rights to ecosystems. Talking heads come from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that helps small towns draft laws against fracking, factory farming, and water privatization.”

Series Website

Co-sponsored by the Dr. James Dale Ethics Center

CRISPR – Genome Editing

What is CRISPR? CRISPR an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, you are not alone. But the moral importance of understanding this new technology is extremley important to bioethicists, and should be important to the rest of us. In this recent TED talk, Ellen Jorgensen explains CRISPR in a way the non-scientist can understand. 

The ethical implications of CRISPR, and related genetic technologies, was recently discussed in talks presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum in Salt Lake City. We will be posting the audio of these presentations soon.