January 22 2018

Wider Moral Communities: A Framework for Teaching Comparative Religious Ethics

by Mark Larrimore, Eugene Lang College




I was once part of a discussion of the applicability of the category of “religion” in Japan. After a while, my host, a Tendai priest, said that nothing we’d been discussing fit the largely funerary ritual of the temple he inherited from his father. Rather than “religion” (shukyo), it might be better described as “ethics for the dead” (shisha ni tai suru rinri). This observation hit me like a thunderbolt. What he proposed as a way of interpreting a particular practice, for me raised general questions. “Ethics for the dead” has shaped my understanding of religion ever since. And also of “ethics,” whose default secularity it threw into dramatic question.

I recount this experience in my course Exploring Religious Ethics, a comparative course which brings materials from Buddhist and Christian traditions into conversation, with some “secular” moral philosophy along the way. I tell the story to help the class briefly understand the widespread Japanese practice of mizuko kuyo. But it also marks the appearance of what has become one of the course’s foundational questions: what are the limits of the moral community?

The Limits of Moral Community

Mizuko kuyo is a ritual memorialization for those who (to borrow a phrase from a temple in Kamakura) are not able to be born—primarily but not exclusively aborted fetuses. Our discussion begins with William LaFleur’s (1994) influential and somewhat romanticized account of the practice in Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan, before exploring other accounts of the practice in Japan and beyond. It winds up in our first major comparative confrontation, with the expansive “culture of life” outlined in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

LaFleur’s account of a “Buddhist” awareness of the inescapability of sorrow on the frontiers of human life—frontiers which are never clear despite the efforts of what he calls western “definitionism” to evade them—has inspired more Americans than Japanese. Arguably it's in America that “water baby” (mizuko) ceremonies may have become a “Buddhist” practice. Learning to see the western desire and projection in LaFleur’s account and its reception is a useful warning of too easy comparativism as well as an intriguing example of religious ethical change.

In fact Mizuko kuyo raises two sets of questions which are important to initiating students in the enterprise of comparative religious ethics. The first concerns the limits of the moral community: Who belongs to the sphere of our concern and responsibility? Where are the boundaries? And who decides? The second relates to the varieties of agency involved as people play their part in communities understood to extend beyond the currently living human: Can ritual be a form of ethical agency? Are there different ethical roles in human communities? Is human agency the only kind at play in the wider moral community?

The larger category of kuyo rituals of which mizuko kuyo is part force these questions. Kuyo ceremonies, which define a terrain of affect extending from gratitude to apology, are performed for tools like needles and eyeglasses, for dolls, for laboratory animals, and for animals for eating, too. These ceremonies signal intimate relationships beyond the human as constitutive of human life, and appropriately mark them as constitutive of our humanity.

LaFleur’s account of fluid boundaries at the beginning (and ending) of human life and the capacity of ritual to acknowledge them animates vigorous discussion, but my classes are flummoxed by the variety of other kuyo rituals. This produces just the right mix of excitement and discomfort for a productive engagement with the moral tradition of others. Perhaps more keenly than earlier generations, today’s students feel that all life lives at the expense of other life (and nonlife), and the discussion gave us terms to talk about this. The moral maximalism of Evangelium Vitae took on a new charge in this setting, too. Students appreciated it not just as dogmatic legislation of human life but also as a serious religious response to realities of human existence papered over by definitionism.

Wider Moral Communities

Exploring Religious Ethics is taught at a progressive liberal arts college with an open curriculum. We have no distribution requirements, no general education program. All of our courses are seminars. Every student has a personal reason to be in each class, but most students also arrive without having encountered any formal education about religion. For many students, Exploring Religious Ethics is their first exposure to religious studies, and maybe their last. It is often their only academic exposure to ethics as well. The course must not only introduce the traditions we are comparing, Christianity and Buddhism, but teach what religion, ethics, and comparison are—and aren’t. I suspect many courses in religious ethics bear a similar burden.

It surprises me sometimes that we aren’t as suspicious of the claimed autonomy of “ethics” as we are of the putatively secular state, the nation, the gendered body, race, art. In my theory of religion courses I remind students that the modern category of religion is a member of the same litter as these others. An ethics which privileges (when not confining itself completely to) the relationships and responsibilities of adult humans to each other occupies pretty much exactly the same space as the liberal state with its domesticated faiths. It’s no wonder religion can seem no more than “morality touched with feeling”—a fifth wheel to an ethics itself effectively depoliticized.

The larger communities to which different traditions pay witness, extending beyond the (currently living) human in many and distinct directions, raise questions that are at once “religious,” “ethical” and “political.” Comparative study can deepen awareness of the questions while suggesting new answers. The traditions we study and compare have long suspected that the question “How shall I live?” cannot be answered without reference to wider communities.

Exploring Religious Ethics looks not only at precepts and virtues, but at monastic codes and lay/monastic symbioses, animals, economics and war; even a little interreligious dialogue. We also consider the agency of saints and bodhisattvas, and of bodhisattva vows and relics. (A course engaging different traditions would doubtless have different examples and emphases.) Ethics language emerges as a way of articulating the particular responsibilities and capacities of human beings within wider communities of interaction and care—especially as these interact in environments of pluralism.

For many of my students, coming (as the majority of young people now do) from religiously plural backgrounds, establishing an identity includes understanding how to position oneself within, among, or outside various “religious” traditions. But, aware of the Anthropocene, they also wonder how to develop decent and sustainable relationships with the nonhuman. I’m a little suspicious of those who claim to find ready-made ecological consciousness within the “world religions,” but there’s no question that the resources of the traditions we explore can help us here, and possibly better than the default humanism of “ethics.”

The Language of Morals

The framework of “wider moral communities” emerged out of the particular teaching context of Exploring Religious Ethics and Eugene Lang College’s student body. I have not had opportunity to take it beyond the Buddhist-Christian context of my class or a student body romantically tempted by the former and politically suspicious of the latter. I don't know how it would fly with students with different proclivities. I imagine it would have taken different form had my course focused on, say, Judaism and Confucianism. I don’t know how it would work outside a seminar setting, where students can feel the emergence of a shared language of inquiry.

However, my experience suggests that it can take us beyond the limits of unexamined secular categories such as “religion” and “ethics,” as well as the impasse of calling all categories in question at once. Approaching specific traditions as ways of articulating and participating in communities beyond the (currently living) human brings the ethos of the study of religion to students in a way that speaks to their emerging sense as agents in a complicated and changing cosmos in which the human is not alone.

At the end of the most recent iteration of Exploring Religious Ethics, students were invited to contribute to a freewheeling wiki discussion of the broad questions of the syllabus, including the question about wider moral communities. (I used the wiki Piratepad, which initially distinguishes but later anonymizes voices.)  Here are some excerpts:

… I don’t think that the dead and the unborn can participate in the moral community; however they definitely influence our moral codes. They're definitely members because they are things we come into contact with throughout all of our lives, but these things cannot socialize with us. Religious influence and cultural values change how we regulate and react to things like abortion, death and wildlife which makes them a part of our moral communities. They don’t, however, contribute actively to the morals of the communities because they don’t talk. Someone help me.

… The way we react to animals and things show how one's moral character is like. In the moral agent's placing of value and subsequent reaction to them, we can make sense of them participating actively in the moral community, and so it would seem that they are members of the moral community.

… I think there is a cross cultural understanding that you have to be good to the dead and the unborn, they're on the other sides of where we are, and maybe we're just doing it to keep our minds at ease, but it's very much a part of our system. And I don't think they need to talk, just like Gods don't talk to us directly but they influence us none the less.

References to Christian and Buddhist traditions appear elsewhere in the wiki (mizuko kuyo in a question about ritual). Much of the discussion is, like the excerpts above, at a more general level. This is the shared space in which “ethics” and “religion” language live, one that is opened up by (and to) questions of membership in wider moral communities. It’s also the space of liberal arts students who have chosen to take a class in comparative religious ethics.


LaFleur, William H. 1994. Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hardacre, Helen. 1999. Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wilson, Jeff. 2009. Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Noddings, Nel. 1993. Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Shulman, Lee S. 2004. Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

photo of Mark LarrimoreMark Larrimore (PhD, Princeton) directs the religious studies curriculum at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, where he teaches courses such as Theorizing Religion, Exploring Religious Ethics, Lived Religion in New York, Buddhism and Modern Thought, and Religion and Theater (with Cecilia Rubino). He is the editor of The Problem of Evil: A Reader (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001), The German Invention of Race (with Sara Figal, SUNY Press, 2006), and Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (with Michael Pettinger and Kathleen Talvacchia, NYU Press, 2014) and author of The Book of Job: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2013). His areas of interest include modern manifestations of religion and the politics of their study, the history of ethics, interfaces of religion and the arts, lived religion, and the future of the liberal arts.