Paññāsikhara wrote:Buddhist ethics are not a form of "legal" system, wherein some actions are sanctioned and others punished, a kind of "may" or "may not".
They are normative statements about skillful actions leading to the goal.
I agree with the 1st sentence.
But what did you have in mind by "normative"? Not a Kantian "categorical imperative", I trust, as it does seem to be mutually exclusive from the "hypothetical imperative" that are skillful actions.
I take it you are a "consequentialist" when it comes to Buddhist ethics?
Thanks for this question, which makes me stop and think a little.
Recently I've been teaching a series of classes on Buddhist Ethics which is part of a Uni Diploma course in Buddhism. It's in Chinese, and so I've been talking about 規範行為, with English "normative..." in the back of my mind.
There are a number of aspects: One is the kind of actions that would fit most closely with those considered to be ideal for following the path; Another has a social element, where that is in a Buddhist social context. There could be more, too.
And reflections about Schopen's comments on the Vinaya texts, often taken by previous scholars to be "descriptive" of the behavior of the Sangha, as opposed to perhaps "ideals" (for want of a better word at present). Something prevents me from using "proscribed" (or "prescribed" for the opposite cases), because that seems to be moving into the legalist sense I'm trying to avoid.
As for consequentialist: Well, recent lecture series by Prof Keown which included asking whether or not Buddhism is virtue ethics, deontological, or consequentialist, had me thinking for a bit. He did make a point that Buddhism has elements of all of them, but mainly virtue and consequentialist (if I recall correctly). He seemed to think that this was maybe a bit contradictory, as though it should be either / or. Perhaps in some systems this would be the case, as there could be examples that clash with both. But, for me, believing in the law of karma which says that a wholesome (= virtuous) act can only have pleasant consequences, and unvirtuous actions unpleasant consequences, I don't see such a great disparity or distance between the two. By my understanding of the Buddhist law of karma, it's almost as though the virtue and consequentialist gap seems to close.
However, I'm no expert on modern philosophical takes on ethics, so I may just be making a great big blotch out of things!
Whatever the case, there is still a problem with either of these approaches when it comes to the fifth precept, because most Buddhist schools take the stance that drinking alcohol is not a nonvirtue itself, unlike the first four precepts which necessarily have at least some amount of unwholesome mental state behind them. In the northern traditions, this precept is called a "precept of avoidance" (something like that!), and the others "precepts by nature".
So this case is trickier than most. (The next tricky one is so-called "sexual-misconduct", but that is for quite different reasons, and disappears vis the celibacy version of "sexual conduct" in toto.)