The philosophies of Buddha and Aristotle are vastly different and have origins in opposite sides of the world. Aristotelianism is a very practical form of philosophy, focusing on why things are the way they are; using this as the basis for how one should live to achieve an excellent character. Whereas, Buddhism is less fascinated about how the world works, instead, how to self-navigate through life and reach nirvana. However, both philosophies have firm beliefs about what is considered to be ethical and what is not. Abortion is a philosophically interesting issue as it surrounds a large moral debate; therefore, as Aristotelianism and Buddhism put a large emphasis on ethics, abortion is a topic which is highly relevant in understanding the two different philosophical thoughts, how they differentiate from each other, and how they coincide with modern ethical values. (Baker, 1985). This essay will discuss the core values of Aristotelianism and Buddhism including, how Aristotle used the ‘Golden Mean’ to find a balance between two vices within the abortion debate; the utilitarian approach to ethics given by Aristotle which values the greatest outcome for the greatest number of people over individuals, and how this ethical stance influenced his position on abortion. Furthermore, Buddhism views ethics as a way to encourage followers to live a noble life, suggesting if one behaves morally and follows the Buddhism doctrine, nirvana will be reached; this essay will outline how the desire of reaching nirvana, and how one gets there, influences Buddhists opinion towards abortion. Lastly, this essay will explore the impact Buddha and Aristotle have on ethics in the modern world and how modern stances on abortion align with the philosophies.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE) born in the Macedonian region of north-eastern Greece, was largely influenced by Greek philosopher Plato after studying at Plato’s academy in Athens when he was 17; however, Aristotle went on to be known as one of the greatest philosophers of all time (Shields, 2016). His writings span a wide range of disciplines, including logic, metaphysics, biology, philosophy of mind, ethics, and political theory (Shields, 2016). Aristotle was fascinated by how things work, and what makes a human life and a whole society go well; he answered questions such as, what makes people happy? How to have a good life or not to have a good life? Suggesting, good and successful people possessed distinct virtues which can be attained by following the ‘Golden Mean’ which declares that one can be virtuous if they place their thoughts and behaviour in the middle of two vices (Samuel and Tay, 2018).
‘Buddha,’ holding the traditional name Siddhartha Gautama is the founder of Buddhism whose teachings have impacted the lives of many (Tomalin, 2007). Scholars suggest that Buddha lived around the period of 560-480BCE, having an estimated lifespan of 80 years (Siderits, 2019). Gautama was born into a rich and powerful family in Nepal; and therefore, was sheltered from seeing or experiencing any form of pain or suffering (Siderits, 2019). This was until he went on four different trips, each where he discovered truths about our existence. According to Hughes (2016), on the first trip he met a very ill man; on the second trip a very old man; the third trip, he came across a corpse; and the fourth trip he met a very happy, yet poor man. It is said that this is when Gautama came to the realisation that life is full of pain and suffering; and thus, began philosophising how to live a good life, despite the inevitable presence of misery and hurt. According to Siderits (2019), Buddha’s teachings aim to help individuals understand how to live a good life which will ultimately lead them to enlightenment. Buddhism suggests if you follow and understand the four noble truths; Dukkha, the truth of suffering; Samudaya, the truth of the origin of suffering; Nirodha, the truth of the cessation of suffering; and Magga the truth of the path the cessation of suffering; in addition to following the Eightfold Path of right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration, you will reach nirvana (Tomalin, 2007).
Across global society laws and policies are influenced and decided upon through moral justification (Folger et al., 2005). Similarly, Aristotle commonly applied ethical thought to justice and political theory. For example, Aristotle’s ‘Golden Mean’ is one of his most notable theories of ethical thought; suggesting that virtue is the mean between two vices, and to be good is to find the middle ground (Samuel and Tay, 2018). An example of how to behave morally in accordance with Aristotle’s Golden Mean is to not be greedy or extravagant; instead, one should display a balance between the two extremes, which is generosity (Samuel and Tay, 2018). Aristotle applies this same rule to politics; however, instead of an individual following the Golden Mean, it refers to how the state should find the middle ground in relation to establishing laws and policies. To illustrate, one may consider that abortion is unethical as it is taking an unborn life; on the opposite end of the spectrum is the other side of the debate which suggests that abortion is ethically justifiable. Aristotle’s approach to the ethics regarding abortion took the Golden Mean approach, with the first vice being taking an unborn life, and the second having children in a state with no resources. For Aristotle, taking the middle ground meant establishing when it was ethically justifiable to condone abortion and when it was not. “Let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation” (Aristotle, Politics. Book 7, part 17). Here, Aristotle is suggesting that there are lawful and unlawful abortions; it is dependent on if the fetus is considered living (Carrick, 2001). This middle-ground approach is justified through stating when the fetus becomes alive, suggesting that any time before the point of life is acceptable, however, any point after is unethical. Aristotle claims life begins at different times for males and females. “In the case of male children, the first movement usually occurs on the right-hand side of the womb and about the fortieth day. But if the child be a female then on the left-hand side and about the ninetieth day” (Aristotle, The History of Animals. Book 7, part 3). Overall, Aristotle believed that in the case of abortion, the Golden Mean was allowing abortion only before the fetus could be considered living.
Aristotle’s ethics were highly utilitarian, suggesting that everything must be done for the ultimate good, “Choose everything for the sake of something else” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. Chapter 1, part 7). In relation, to Aristotle’s ethical and philosophical understanding and viewpoint of the abortion debate, this same approach is given. For example, Aristotle holds a utilitarian approach to abortion; suggesting abortion can be used for the “ultimate good of the state,” due to a limited supply of resources (Carrick 2001). Here, Aristotle suggests that the best outcome for the state, for the greatest number of people, should be valued higher than the lives of individuals. While some may consider the termination of a fetus to not be a good outcome, Aristotle does in hope that it is the preferred outcome considering the circumstance of the state having a limited supply of resources. Overall, as Aristotle describes abortion as a form of population control for a society with limited resources, it would be unsustainable if rapid procreation occurred. Thus, limiting the number of births will constitute the greater good, being the best outcome for the largest amount of people; in this example the state and its citizens.
Embedded in Buddhism are the ‘Five Precepts;’ to abstain from killing, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, speaking falsely, and consuming intoxicants (Ariyabuddhiphongs and Jaiwong, 2010). Essentially, the Five Precepts are notions for how to behave morally, focusing on the value of life, respect for other people’s property, honesty, modesty, and admiration for the purified mind (Harvey, 2000). Furthermore, they are ways in which people can accumulate the good Kama, in hope to reach the desired Buddhist destination of enlightenment. Contrary to the beliefs presented by Aristotle, Buddha does not condone abortion; aligning with the first doctrine of the Five Precepts, “to abstain from killing.” While Aristotle believes that abortion before a certain point after conception (forty days after conception for males, ninety days after conception for females), is not considered taking a life because the fetus is not regarded as living; the philosophy of Buddhism suggests that life begins at the point of conception (Aristotle, The History of Animals. Book 7, part 3;). Damian, 2010). Therefore, in the eyes of Buddhism, to abort a fetus would be to take a human life, thus an unethical act. Buddhism suggests that life begins at conception based on the ideal of ‘re-birth.’ To substantiate, according to Buddhism, if one does not achieve Moksha, a form of enlightenment, they enter a cycle called ‘samsara’ This cycle, is determined by Karma and the actions of one throughout their life; for example, if one craves materialistic items or things they do not possess, then they are unable to reach enlightenment and therefore will enter or remain in samsara. Consequentially, when a woman falls pregnant, the fetus is already a person at the stage of conception, and aborting would result in a violation of the first Buddhist precept (Damian, 2010). Despite abortion being an action, which violates the first precept of not killing, the ideal of ‘re-birth’ and the samsara cycle suggests that there is no end to life if enlightenment is not found. Thus, can “killing” a fetus be that detrimental according to the Buddhist doctrine, as if aborted the fetus will again enter the cycle of re-birth?
However, not all Buddhists believe that life begins at conception. Instead, some Buddhists suggest that the five aggerates which constitute life and makeup “oneself,” are developed over time (Damian, 2010). The five aggerates include material form, such as the physical body; feelings, perception, volition, and sensory consciousness; the conflicting Buddhist belief suggests that without all five, the embryo does not possess all means to be defined as human life (Karunamuni, 2015). Therefore, as this means the violation of the first precept, to abstain from killing, is no longer being violated, abortion could be ethically permissible (Damian, 2010). Furthermore, according to Damian (2010), some Buddhists allow abortion in cases where it is needed to save a mother’s life; suggesting an elder person’s life to be considered more valuable as it is certain they would possess the five aggregates and contain “oneself.”
In the contemporary world, the abortion debate has two distinct sides. The first being “pro-abortion,” which commonly emphasises the value of choice and right a woman should have over her own body. The opposing argument, “pro-life” suggests it is unethical to terminate a fetus as it is taking a human life. The philosophies of Aristotle and Buddha both sit on opposing sides of the abortion debate. For example, Aristotle takes the position of “pro-abortion.” However, the Aristotelianism moral justification for defending abortion differs from those of modern times. According to Healey (2016), in the contemporary world, those who are “pro-abortion,” wish to prevent discrimination against women, encouraging their right to have a child or not. Whereas, Aristotle condoned abortion as a means for population control; thus, suggesting his ethical philosophy on the debate had little influence on the position people take in the modern world. However, according to Freeman (1972), in the modern United States, abortion can too be a useful tool for population control, arguing that the United States uses a vast majority of the world resources. Thus, as Aristotle believed, abortion is a means to prevent resource depletion. Furthermore, Buddhism commonly takes the position of “pro-life,” meaning, anti-abortion. The ideal that taking a human life is wrong and a fetus is to be considered a human life is a belief still very much prominent today.
The philosophies of Buddhism and Aristotelianism are vastly different, so is the way they apply ethics to the abortion debate. The philosophy of Buddhism is a guide for finding enlightenment. Whereas, Aristotle’s philosophy concerns practical thought. Both philosophies respond to the ethics of abortion in different ways based on the morals and reasoning embedded in their philosophical doctrines. Aristotle commended abortion as a form of population control; however, believed there to be unlawful and lawful abortions based on the amount of time since conception (Carrick, 2001). Traditionalist Buddhist views are against abortion as it is seen as a violation of the first precept and a fetus is considered alive at the stage of conception (Damian 2010). These philosophical and religious perspectives both align and challenge modern views on abortion as it is a highly complex moral debate with numerous factors which could influence which side you take. Overall, the philosophies of Buddha and Aristotle together possess diverse views surrounding ethics; which is to be considered the superior philosophy is dependent on how one can align their morals with the ethics of each philosophy as ethical thought is a significant aspect of both Aristotelianism and Buddhism, despite their differences.