Sunday, September 20, 2009

Morality is not relative

It astounds me every time when I encounter someone who, despite saying they are Buddhist, will assert that morality is relative. I don’t believe that assertion one bit. But I do have an understanding of how that assertion arises.

Wow, I’m sounding like a know-it-all right now, aren’t I? Let me explain.

Morality is not relative – the Buddha never taught that. At least, I cannot find any place in the Tipitika where he succinctly stated such a premise.

The Buddha, as I understand the teachings, did, however, instruct that morality was conditional. In fact, he taught that all things/phenomenon were conditional.

“Umm, if something is conditional, as in dependent on the conditions which surround it, doesn’t that make it relative as well?”

Umm, no, it does not. Let’s take the Third Precept as an example, which is, “To refrain from sexual misconduct.”

In the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith, from the Anguttara Nikaya (AN 10.176), the Buddha is explicit in his description of sexual misconduct. Speaking of a skillful man, the Buddha says:

“He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.”

So let’s parse this out. “He does not get sexually involved with …” The Buddha never said that sex per se was wrong, or even that sex out of wedlock was wrong or immoral. He places a condition upon sexual behavior to identify when it may be immoral or lack virtue. And the circumstances that defined unskillful sexual activity varied dependent on the Buddha’s audience.

So if the Buddha was speaking to monks, as in the Vinaya, then he would present a specific set of sexual prohibitions. When speaking to lay people he would provide another.

Does that mean that sexual mores are relative in the Buddha’s point of view? Of course not. What defines sexual activity as unskillful is dependent on the circumstances, and that has nothing to do with cultural relativity. A cultural more may define what is skillful sexual behavior, but that doesn’t mean what constitutes skillful sexual behavior is relative.

And the Buddha was quite clear that there are some sexual behaviors that are simply immoral under all circumstances, such as forced sexual activity, I.e. rape (“those who entail punishments…”).

We define relativity. Our minds define relativity. And our minds, by nature, are deluded.


  1. I agree that relativity is a sloppy way to approach morality in Buddhism. It's a tricky leap from relative to conditional - and those of us living in "the West" are more familiar with relativity than we are with conditionality and interdependent co-arising. Maybe this will change in the future, or maybe this will be a stumbling block for us North Americans and Europeans that we face for generations.

  2. i agree totally with your idea of morality.

    dwell happy in the dharma.