Sagaing Hills, Myanmar, 2010. Photograph: Martin Kovacic

Martin Kovacic

Martin Kovacic, ‘The Buddhist Ethics of Killing: Metaphysics, Phenomenology, Ethics’ (PhD in Philosophy, 2020)

Significant media interest and academic scholarship has in recent years brought attention to the normative status of killing in Buddhism, concurrent with the worst genocidal event since the last century, committed by apparent Buddhists, in Rakhine State in Myanmar, in August-September 2017. This event, the culmination of some five years of Buddhist aggression, was preceded by a concerted trend in academic Buddhist Studies to reframe the textual, historical and cultural-anthropological account of violence and killing in classical and modern Buddhist sources. A normative schism appeared to be one of the results of this revisionary project, summarised by the question: are some cases of intentional killing actually or conceivably permissible in Buddhism?

Popular media and academic specialists appeared to belie the orthodox claims of senior Buddhist representatives, contributing to a possibly equivocal understanding among Buddhists themselves, as well as the general public. While working in 2011 in humanitarian contexts in Thailand-Myanmar, I became concerned to engage this question on a properly philosophical footing. Seeking to provide a robust account of the normative status of killing in Buddhism, this study theorises on relevant Buddhist philosophical grounds the metaphysical, phenomenological and ethical dimensions of the distinct intentional classes of killing, in dialogue with some elements of Western philosophical thought.

The thesis pursues this philosophical explanation and justification for the Buddhist-ethical prohibition of killing in two main sequential stages. First, in Part I, Foundations, I examine and assess canonical modes of reasoning and criteria for the ethical evaluation of lethal acts, available in canonical Nikāya, Vinaya, Theravāda, and some classical Mahāyāna texts, and their modern commentaries. Second, in Part II, Constructions, with reference to these and other early Buddhist sources, including those available in Abhidhamma/Abhidharma, Sautrāntika and Pramāṇavāda texts, I analyse four major intentional categories of lethal action.

This engages the domains of killing as (1) preventive, deterrent and retributive punishment; (2) as a form of mercy-killing (including relevant cases of euthanasia, suicide and assisted-suicide, and abortion); (3) as ideological-religious contestation (relevant to terrorism, religious and political violence, and ideological militarism among other forms of symbolically-constituted action); and (4) as existential self-defence.

In sum, the study engages a broad theoretical spectrum of lethality in the Buddhist-textual and cultural context, with a view to establishing a philosophical groundwork for the Buddhist-ethical theorisation of the many intellectual quandaries that emerge around killing in the different domains of Buddhist normative and applied ethics. In doing so, the study offers explanation for why killing in these domains is fundamentally wrong, by exposing what specifically in each intentional domain makes it so. In accounting for these differentiated cognitive-affective causes of killing, we come to understand how the acquisition of philosophical insight into such causes cognitively enables the Buddhist-ethical project of the extirpation of human-caused suffering.

Supervisors: Professor Jay L. Garfield, Dr Laura Schroeter

Martin is also a published writer (in fiction, non-fiction and poetry). His recent novel, K. the Interpreter, was shortlisted for the 2020 Dorothy Hewett Award. His writings can be read on his website, Whispered Lineage.

Feature image: Sagaing Hills, Myanmar, 2010. Photograph: Martin Kovacic