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The Nature of Ethics

When asking the question about the nature of ethics, it is hard to explain where they came from because not everyone has the same views or religions. Since religions have different standards, there are different sources to them and different reasons for why people should follow them. When trying to find answers to questions about the nature of ethics, it is impossible to know which religion’s view is correct. This paper will discuss the different views on the nature of ethics of three major religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism.

Before trying to explain ethics in Hinduism, one must first know the basic beliefs in it. The ultimate goal for Hindus is to achieve Moksha, which is basically stopping the cycle of reincarnation and ceasing to exist. Hindus also believe in Samsara, which means that the present life is the result of previous existences bound by the law of Karma (Exploring Religious Meaning, 198). Karma is basically the notion that what one does in their present lifetime determines how he/she will live in their next lifetime. Hindus believe in reincarnation, so death is basically another part of the endless cycle of rebirths.

Some compare Karma to the cycle of growth in crops. According to Katha Upanishad, “Like corn, man ripens and falls to the ground; like corn he springs up again in his season” (Burke, 22). As to what ethical principles or standards of behavior Hindus govern their lives around depends on the person. Since most believe in Karma, they tend to live their lives in manner that they feel they will be rewarded in their next life. It is said that a Hindu that is born into a low caste has been punished through the Law of Karma for something that they did in a previous life.

Those who are born into a prosperous family are being rewarded through the Law of Karma because of the good they did in a previous life. How a Hindu governs their lives also depends on which of the three Margas (paths to achieve Moksha) that they choose to follow. Jnana Marga is the path of knowledge, Karma Marga is the path of action, and Bhakti Marga is the path of devotion. Depending on which marga a Hindu follows, dictates how that person lives their life. If a Hindu does not follow the standards of his religion, he will be punished. He wouldn’t be punished in the sense of heaven or hell though like in Christianity.

Since Hindus believe in Karma, their next life will reflect how they live their previous life. He would probably be born into a lower caste and will suffer a lot in his lifetime. It is necessary to explain Buddhism’s background before trying to explain its ethics. Siddhartha Gautama is the person who is most revered in the Buddhist religion. As a child, he was kept from seeing/learning about many of the harsh realities in the world. According to Exploring Religious Meaning, “As a young man he ventured forth into that world only to discover and be staggered by the knowledge of extreme human suffering, disease, and death.

Resolved to find answers to these realities of the human condition, he began a quest” (Exploring Religious Meaning, 57-58). After six years on his quest, he was still unsatisfied. He then sat under the Bodhi Tree (the Tree of Wisdom) to meditate, determined not to leave until he had found a solution to the riddle of existence and human suffering. According to Exploring Religious Meaning, “Tradition says that during this “life and death” meditation, he received illumination. Thereafter he was called Buddha, the Enlightened One” (Exploring Religious Meaning, 58).

During his meditation, Buddha came to realize many things. He concluded that the reason for rebirth is that it is in the normal order of life. He came to realize that the reason for rebirth is because of the law of Karma. Buddha said that those who lead evil lives “in deed, word, and thought are reborn in a state of misery and suffering” and those who live good lives are “reborn in a happy state” (Exploring Religious Meaning, 58). He also came to realize what the (Buddhist) understanding of the nature of the world was… later described as the Four Noble Truths.

Buddha’s experience and all of the teachings that arose from it became the basis for Buddhism. Just like in Hinduism, the main goal in Buddhism is to achieve Nirvana. In this religion, Nirvana (enlightenment) is achieved through the Four Nobles Truths and the Eightfold Path. These are just two ethical principles and standards of behavior that govern Buddhist Life. One set of ethical principles and standards of behavior that govern Buddhist life is the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are Dukkha (suffering), the source of suffering, of the cessation of suffering, and of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

The first, of suffering, basically says that life is a continuous passage and that everything changes/nothing is permanent. The second Noble Truth, the source of suffering, basically states that the reason for suffering is because humans want things to be permanent. Everyone has desires, wants, and needs they will never be completely satisfied. The cessation of suffering, which is the third Noble Truth, can occur when one cuts off the desires, wants and needs. The path (Marga) leading to the cessation of suffering is the fourth Noble Truth.

According The Major Religions, “Buddha spells out a concrete way of living which, he maintains, if followed conscientiously, will eventually lead to the goal of Nirvana” (Burke 63-64). This path is the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is another ethical principle that Buddhists follow. The first two paths, having the right views and the right intentions, fall under Prajna, which means wisdom. The next three paths, the right speech (i. e. no lying, gossiping or talking idly), the right conduct (behavior that causes no harm), and the right livelihood (avoiding earning a living in which have the effect can cause harm…. e. selling intoxicants) all fall under Sila, which means Morality.

The last two paths, right mindfulness (becoming aware of oneself) and the right concentration (deep meditation) both fall under Samaathi, which means Concentration. The common elements of each of the paths are that the path has a single ultimate goal: freedom. “It is indeed the ultimate goal, which is not a constituent of the moral path, that serves as an incentive to follow the path. It serves the function of an imperative” (Kalupahana, 82). With no absolute law to guarantee results, however, constant effort and mindful vigilance are necessary.

Another ethical principle that Buddhists follow is the Five Precepts, which in many ways are similar to five of the “Ten Commandments” in Christianity. The precepts prohibit Buddhists from taking a life, taking what is not given to them, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants. The Five Precepts play an important role in the way that Buddhists govern their way of life. Buddhists follow the ethical principles and standards above because, as mentioned before, their main goal is to achieve Nirvana. Like Hindus, Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma also.

They follow (or at least try to) follow the previously mentioned ethical principles and standards because they are trying to achieve Nirvana or at least position themselves so that they will be rewarded when they are reincarnated. When explaining Buddhist belief in karma and its effects, David J. Kalupahana, author of Ethics in Early Buddhism states: Certain actions are seen to have pleasant or unpleasant bad karmic results because they are, by other criteria (their motivating roots, and whether they are intended to benefit or harm beings) seen as good or bad.

Their goodness or badness is not determined by what karmic results they have, though reference to such results may be used to help motivate others, or oneself, to act in a good way more often, and a bad way less often. Kalupahana, 137. In essence, Buddhist ethics aims at the welfare of self and others. Buddhism supports a culture based on human interests, but not on individualistic, possessive greed. Moreover, the ideal of compassion and non-violence to all living beings requires the recognition that the natural environment belongs to all such beings, not just humans.

Christians believe that there is one God with personal attributes characterized by love and justice (which is often conceived of as triune unity – the Father, Son, Holy Spirit). The goal of Christians is to reach salvation. Salvation, according to Exploring Religious Meaning is, “Freedom from alienation to participation in the Divine Love through relationship to Christ presently and eternally” (51). The nature of Christian ethics is easy to explain because they are all derived from the notion of attaining salvation. Every Christians wants to attain salvation so they follow certain ethical practices, standards, and rules.

These principles, standards, and rules all come from their higher being (God) and are written in the Bible. The major principles that Christians practice come from the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were spoken by God and delivered to Moses who then delivered them to the people of Egypt. Christians must follow these commandments along with other rules in the Bible. Even people that are not devout Christians still practice these ethical principles and standards. Some of them have been incorporated into everyday law in most countries.

In the United States alone, one is not allowed to steal or murder. Those two laws were derived from America’s religious background, more specifically Christianity and the Ten Commandments. Christians want to achieve salvation and spend everlasting life with God in Heaven. They do this because it is their ultimate goal but also because they are afraid of the consequences of not following God’s will. Christians believe that if they do not achieve salvation, they will spend all of eternity burning in the Lake of Fire in hell. As described in the Bible, it is a punishment no one would ever want to suffer.

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