The Ideas of Free Will and Responsibility in Buddhist Ethics

By Khai Thien

            The concepts of free will and karma in Buddhism both address the same issue—individual potentiality and ethical responsibility—although neither developed in the same way. The Buddhists interpret their ethical teaching through concepts of karma in a special direction of spiritual discipline, whereas free will emphasizes the problems of human ethics in particular and, to a certain extent, focusing on metaphysics, as noted by C. A. Campbell in his “In Defence of Free Will.”[1] However, the current paper will discuss a few basic ideas common to both free will and karma—namely, the common sense of human ethics—by exploring the similarities and difference between the two theories.

Similarities between Karma and Free Will

Both karma and free will mention the foundation on which human ethics is developed in all aspects, including psychological formations, thoughts, actions, behaviors, virtues, and moral responsibility. In Buddhist ethical teaching, karma is the familiar concept that generally covers three dimensions of a person: body, mouth, and mind—or the physical, the verbal, and the mental. Based upon these three aspects, a person directs his or her own life in spiritual vocations. However, according to Buddhism, the most important factor that is always at the forefront of the three karmas is the mind. The mind of each individual, as always, takes the essential role in determining one’s destiny (karma)—either happiness or suffering. In the Dhammapada Sutta, the Buddha portrayed that essential role of the mind in building up or pulling down the virtues of a human being through several verses: “Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox” (Dhammapada verse 1); and “Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow” (Dhammapada verse 2). In this context, the mind is considered the architect who subjectively designs the specific life for each person through his or her individual volitional actions. As such, the path leading to the life of happiness or even that of enlightenment is nothing more than the process of the purification of the mind—thus identifying the special teaching of Buddhist humanistic ethics focused on individual potentiality and the moral responsibility of each person.

Similarly, the theory of free will directly emphasizes the moral responsibility of humanity through the potentiality and freedom of the will. The debate between Determinists and Libertarians on the subject of free will led to the central problems of human ethics, which related not only to human values, but also to religious values. The question as to whether or not an existence called free will that influences all human conduct and shapes the so-called “human destiny” directly governed by moral responsibility, both personally and individually, exists. According to the doctrine of Libertarians, “human beings possess free will and have the potential to think and to act freely.”[2] However, the Determinists completely denied the possibility that human choice is never self-initiated, asserting that free will is an egotistical illusion—no more, no less. Yet the theory of the Libertarians has retained a special position in modern society. According to Burton, “the view [of Libertarians] seems far more acceptable since it is not fraught with logical flaws and is in keeping with our common sense attitude toward our actions.” Moreover, “we are essentially free to choose our own paths, and we bear a burden of personal responsibility for the paths we choose.”[3]

The main idea of free will, as developed by Campbell, is that it consists of two essential factors: the self-determined and the environment. “Every historic self has an hereditary nature consisting of group of inborn propensities, in range more or less common to the race, but specific to the individual in their respective strength…and, the self-choices that manifest the influence of his hereditary nature… the choice is determined at least in part, by factors external to the self” (Campbell). Libertarians clearly do not deny the fact that a personal choice or moral responsibility relies, in part, on the individual’s basis of biology, sociology, and psychology; however, they absolutely claim that the individual retains the freedom to choose or decide between alternatives of external forces. In addition, they argue that this environment or external forces are in fact influences and not determinants. Thus, a person will always have the ability to choose or reject his or her own influences. The crucial question here, however, is the element of human consciousness: Are we aware or unaware of the operation of influences in our lives? Burton answered this question:

Once we are aware of the various forces operative in our lives, these forces are disarmed of power over us; we then empowered to decide which influences to accept and which to reject. The influences are only determinants when we are unconscious of their existence and the way in which they affect us; once we are aware of them, we can become free of their control.[4]

Clearly the theory of free will advocates self-determinedness as the most important agent in creating individual morality and responsibility. Although both elements—self-cause and the environment—are equally important in shaping ethical personality, self-cause or self-determinedness is considered the primary element, establishing the true value for moral responsibility within each individual. Without self-determinedness working as the basis as well as the background for developing individual personality, the external elements alone would not be able to produce a personality or an ethical responsibility as such. As Erich Fromm asserted, “As man approaches maturity he gradually frees himself from instinctive and compulsive behavior and he develops his powers of self-reliance and choice.”[5]

Differences between Karma and Free Will

Both karma and free will concentrate on the active and dominant nature of the “mind” and the “will” in establishing the ethical responsibility of each individual. However, the two theories seek different purposes, at least in certain religious aspects. Buddhism, from its viewpoint of reincarnation (samsara), has pointed to the circle of time, in which an individual is born and reborn—not into one life, but multiple lives—depending on his or her karmas of the past. Even a Bodhisattva still has to cultivate good karma on his way to enlightenment. Thus, we cannot simply put the concept of karma into the frame of human ethics. At a higher level, the life of a Bodhisattva for instance, we cannot interpret or explain karma using only ordinary knowledge or human language since the realms between humanity and that of the Divine are not identical. For example, we may say that God absolutely knows the whole process of human karma or human free will; however, no ordinary person can claim that he or she knows precisely what the realm of God or that of the Buddha is. In this regard, D. T. Suzuki said:

We are too much of a slave to the conventional way of thinking, which is dualistic through and through. No “interpenetration” is allowed, there takes place no fusing of opposites in our everyday logic. What belongs to God is not of this world, and what is of this world is incompatible with the divine […] This is the way things or ideas go in this universe of senses and syllogisms.[6]

Therefore, the karma about which we are talking is the karma that is explainable and applicable to the human domain only. As such, karma is the way in which the Buddhists cultivate and develop their sense of moral responsibility. Consequently, the effort to purify negative karmas in Buddhism is the most essential discipline not only for issues of human ethics, but also for practicing and cultivating the spiritual life.

Meanwhile, the theory of free will focuses on issues of both human ethics and the metaphysical structure of human heredity. Although the theory mentions elements of preconditions–prior causes, it does not indicate any meaning related to religious purposes; rather, it describes the human potentiality from a humanistic viewpoint. As Porter mentioned, “The libertarian is not saying that human behavior is capricious and independent of all natural laws but that the particular laws that are brought into play are decided by the self-aware person.”[7] The self-aware person here is in fact the determined element in all aspects of human existence: activities, conduct, behaviors, and ethical responsibility. Thus, it is reasonable to say that the view of free will is very humanistic, if humanism is not free will.

The truth is that all concepts of morality are changing, always and everywhere. For instance, abortion can be either right or wrong depending on the different traditions and societies; for those who believe in the benefits of modern science, abortion is necessary in certain cases, but it is absolutely not an evil. In contrasting, the Roman Catholic Church definitively views abortion as an evil—no more, no less. For this reason, the doctrine of free will does not accept any prediction based on the so-called prior cause, but it accepts the self-determined and the external forces. The fact is that the concepts of ethics are products of human beings, and moral responsibility itself is not identical in different traditions and societies. Therefore, according to Libertarians, if human beings are controlled by prior causes as a mechanistic system, then human behaviors can be predicted with the same degree of certainty. Yet human conduct is in fact non-mechanistic and exists in a biological system—that is to say, human beings possess free will. Therefore, human life, in the ethical sense, is governed not by external environments or by any prior causes, but by the inner free will of each individual.

In brief, both free will and karma share a common ground in the ethics of humanity while each also maintains its own development. The teachings of karma emphasize a religious base on which people cultivate their lives through the path from the purification of ethics to the enlightenment of the spiritual realm. The teachings of free will focus in particular on the nature of human ethics and human potentiality in being “free.” Both theories—karma and free will—can be considered the base of humanistic principles. Interestingly, both theories consider the element of awareness as the essential factor for controlling human life and directing that life to the end goal of all values.

 



[1] Oliver A. Johnson, ed., Ethics Selection from Classical and Contemporary Writer, 8th ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999) 448.

[2] Burton F. Porter, The Good Life: Alternatives in ethics. 2nd ed. (New York: Ardsley House, 1995) 63.

[3] Ibid. 79.

[4] Ibid. 74.

[5] Ibid. 75.

[6] D. T. Suzuki, Essay in Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1961) 269.

[7] Porter 77.