One of the most radical and attractive things about Buddhist ethics is that the rightness or wrongness of an action is not to do with some arbitrary set of rules developed by a deity, but is based on the intention behind the action.
If an action is fueled by craving, hatred, or delusion, then it’s considered to be unskillful, and if it’s not based on those qualities, but instead is based on qualities such as “renunciation” (which would include contentment and generosity), kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, then it’s considered skillful.
For this reason, Buddhism is often said to have an “ethic of intention.” This, however, can be misleading. What determines the ethical status of unskillful mental states, after all, is the results they produce! For example, in an important teaching the Buddha described how, before his Awakening, he came to recognize that there were some mental states that were skillful and some that were unskillful:
As he observed his mind, he noticed:
Thinking imbued with craving [or ill will, or cruelty] has arisen in me, and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Awakening.
It’s because unskillful states of mind cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both, that they are unskillful.
The idea that Buddhist ethics is an ethic of intention sometimes acts as a “get out of jail free card” for certain Buddhists. For example, they repeatedly say things that give offense to others, and say, “Well, I didn’t mean to give offense. It’s your fault if you get offended. That’s your choice. It’s not something I’m doing.”
But there’s another important teaching in which the Buddha undercuts this argument. In talking to his son, Rahula, who had been ordained as a monk, the Buddha made the important point that we need to look at our actions, words, and thoughts before they arise and see whether we think they are likely to cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both. Further, we’re to look at the effects of our actions, words, and thoughts in retrospect, and to see whether they caused suffering. If they did, then we’re to consider what we did as unskillful.
The point that’s implicitly being made is that often we aren’t clear about our intentions. We want to see ourselves as good, and to be seen as good by others. We may therefore believe, or want to believe, that we don’t mean to cause offense, but if offense repeatedly happens then it’s likely that we have an unacknowledged desire to do so.
Because we’re deluded, we often don’t understand our own motivations. Sometimes we don’t even want to understand them. The Buddha’s teaching to his son helps us escape from the apparent paradox of a deluded mind trying to become aware of its own delusions. How do we become aware of unconscious volitions? By observing their effects. The results of our actions reveal to us our hidden volitions—if we’re prepared to look.