A Metaphysics of Morality: Kant and Buddhism

Michael Berman


Immanuel Kant’s deontology seems to present a radically different approach to morality as understood in the Buddhist tradition (generally understood in the Mahāyāna perspective). Kant’s metaphysics relies on the application of pure practical reason, whereas Buddhism’s appeal is to compassion/karuna; thus the first is cognitive and the second affective, at least on a surface reading. I propose that the two can be brought into direct dialogue via an analysis and pragmatic critique of morality’s ideal of universality. First I outline the key components of Kant’s categorical imperative, and show that the kingdom of ends is a “natural development” from this moral command. Next I explore the impetus of the Buddha’s search for the alleviation of suffering/duhkha, and explain that the bodhisattva is a “natural development” from the Buddha’s insight/prajna. In both instances, the criterion of universality is an intrinsic and necessary feature for morality. Given this conclusion, I will endeavour to provide an affective element for Kant’s deontology and a rational aspect for Buddhist compassion, thus bringing both approaches together as a demonstration of emotional rationality.

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