Owen Flanagan in this podcast argued while Buddhism has an extremely well developed notion of compassion, it doesn't have a significant notion of justice. He contrasts this with ancient Greek philosophies which he states have a strong notion of justice and weak or absent notion of compassion.

So is this correct? Does Buddhism really not have decent (or any) notion of justice. Can anyone perhaps provide examples of justice from the texts (Pali Canon, Mayahana etc..). Or is Owen right - no justice in Buddhism?

  • What's Greek "justice"? Ref: philosophy-index.com/terms/dike.php Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 14:32
  • @MatthewMartin to be honest i don't think my notion of justice is hugely precise. My understanding just derives from a justice system i.e. something leading to a political institution and i know the Greeks discussed these things. But I'm no philosopher. The question could be at home in Philosophy SE but i was keen for some discussion or references to the Buddhist texts. See how we go Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 17:46

2 Answers 2


While I can relate to this somehow, it overlooks one striking and most basic fact of Buddhism: that justice is a law of nature.

In contrast to Greek thought, this means, that the Greeks, since their concept of "the world" or "the universe" was rather empiro-scientific and unrelated to moral (=human) values, had to look for "human" justice or even "define" justice.

In Buddhism (and India in general), the very law of nature is a moral law, the law of kamma/karman. Consider for example the Paṭiccasamuppāda/Pratītyasamutpāda, which can be viewed as a formulation of the Buddhist law of nature or the kosmos, the universe etc.: everything here is treated as subject to cause/condition and effect, without beginning and end. The important thing to notice is that causation is moral causation by good and bad deeds.

To conclude: since the kosmos is just and takes care of retribution, the religio-philosophical thinkers did not have to elaborate differing visions of justice. It is not the humans, that have to take care of it. Seen from this angle, justice is (implicitly maybe) at the very core of Buddhism.

  • That's a really good answer. I think that Owen F was reflecting that Buddhism doesn't have a concept of justice at the political level whereas other religious/ethical frameworks do. Could Paṭiccasamuppāda be effective at the political level? Apologies if I have misunderstood something Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 14:41
  • Since the concept of karmic retribution permeates all worldly matters, of course it has the selfsame validity in political matters. But again, this is a very personal, individual-centered concept of justice (as voiced in Paṭiccasamuppāda). A ruler has to be just for the same reasons and without difference as other beings. Owen F may be right in this, for it is volition that determines bad/good kamma and not the effect of deeds. So, if the intention is the same, big (political) scope of outcome is (kamma-wise) not worse. I faintly remember though a Buddhist concept of a just king. I'll dig and
    – zwiebel
    Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 14:58
  • 1
    Got it. What I was looking for is the Cakravartin, compare the Cakkavatti-sīhanāda Suttanta in the Pali canon (DN 26) and maybe this paper: buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/…
    – zwiebel
    Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 15:03

in the discourses the Buddha is often quoted as giving similes whos employed allegory is punishment for crimes with the latter often described as being very harsh and cruel much in accordance with ancient customs

to be sure, in using similes the Buddha's interest was to convey certain messages and not pass judgement on the then practised legal system

still it's noteworthy that on these occasions the cruelty of punishments is never criticized even in passing implying that it's maybe well deserved

and for the perpetrator, from the ethical perspective, which the Buddha's teaching is characterized with, the cruelty of the state punishment is in fact a blessing as a means of deterrence from acting immorally and spoiling their kamma

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