What Is Ethics?

Ethics is a system of moral values that shape our behavior to bring about a happier life. With ethics, we live honestly, leading to trust and friendship with those around us. Ethics is the key to happiness.

Ethics in Buddhism

In Buddhism, ethics is based on discriminating awareness: we use our intelligence to discriminate between what brings enduring happiness and what causes recurring problems. It’s not about blindly obeying a list of rules, but about being convinced that following ethical guidelines makes logical sense.

If we really care about ourselves, it makes sense to make intelligent decisions about how we behave. Everyone wants and deserves to be happy, and that includes ourselves (See What is Happiness?). Low self-esteem leads to an attitude of moral indifference, while a sense of self-worth leads to self-dignity. With self-dignity, we have such deep respect for ourselves, that we’d never stoop to act in an unethical manner: it just doesn’t feel right.

As a bee gathering nectar does not harm or disturb the color and fragrance of the flower; so do the wise move through the world. - Dhammapada: Flowers, verse 49

An attitude of “whatever” only leads to feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression. With a sense of ethics, we overcome such an attitude. We build trusting, stable friendships, the basis for having a happy and successful life.

Ethics and Vows Based on Reasoning

Buddhist practice is based on common sense. If we are selfish, angry and arrogant towards others, how can we expect a peaceful and happy life for ourselves?

In Buddhism, there are different levels of vows one can take. For instance, fully ordained monks in the Tibetan tradition have 253 vows to follow. Many lay Buddhists take the Five Lay Precepts, which are to:

    • Abstain from killing living beings
    • Abstain from taking that which is not given
    • Abstain from sexual misconduct
    • Abstain from telling lies
    • Abstain from intoxicants

These are taken voluntarily by Buddhist practitioners in order to create a life conducive to practice. These rules help us stay on the right direction, and also create the causes for developing a happy and successful life (See Refuge: A Safe and Meaningful Direction in Life).

Ethics for a Successful Life

Some people think that a successful life is one where we have enormous material wealth and power. Even if we gain such things, we’re never satisfied and are always paranoid about losing them. The more we have, especially when gained at the cost of others, the more enemies we create. No one would say that a successful life is one where people don’t like us. A successful life is one where we’ve created many friends and people are happy to be in our company. Then it doesn’t matter how much money or power we have; we’ll have the emotional support that gives us the strength to deal with whatever might happen.

Humans are social beings: we need the support of others just to survive. Not only when we’re helpless newborns and frail old people in nursing homes, but throughout our lives we need the help and care of others. The emotional support we gain from loving friendships creates a fulfilling life. A strong sense of ethics enables us to create friendly relations with everyone we meet.