Should justice be sought for its own sake, or is it a means to other goods? Mr. Spock, dying in one of the Star Trek movies, when saving him means endangering the crew, says, “The good of the many outweighs the good of the one.” That’s a consequentialist perspective, in which an action, allowing the death of Spock, is chosen as a means to other goods, in this case the survival of the crew of the Enterprise. Most of us have a pretty easy time seeing how that works. The other perspective, seeing justice as a good to be sought for its own sake, is harder to understand. When I’ve taught this in the States, I’ve sometimes used the story of the Dutchman hiding Jews in his basement. A Nazi officer knocks on the door and says, “Are you hiding Jews in your basement?” If the Dutchman says, “yes,” the Jews all get killed, so the consequentialist would argue that the Dutchman should lie. But if he lies, he’s doing something immoral, so the hard and fast defender of the idea that justice is a good which should be sought for its own sake, a deontologist, would argue that the Dutchman should tell the truth. This perspective is hard to present persuasively, but it’s associated with some big names in moral theory, like Kant, and some big names in religious thought, like Jesus of Nazareth.

This semester I’m teaching in Sri Lanka, a largely Buddhist country, and I thought my students here might have some interesting perspectives on this distinction. One student, using common sense, affirmed a strongly consequentialist perspective when I shared the Jews in the basement story, and that’s what my American students usually do. It’s hard to imagine that the Dutchman has any moral duty to an SS officer, and Kant’s idea that he has a duty to the moral law itself is a stretch. As we struggled to see why anyone would argue that the Dutchman shouldn’t lie, another student said that she knew a similar story from the Buddhist tradition. A monk was friends with a butcher, whom he visited often. One day, the butcher handled a precious gem with bloody hands and left the soiled stone on the counter in front of the monk to go into the back room. In the butcher’s absence, his pet bird devoured the gem, thinking it to be a piece of bloody meat. The monk observed this. When the butcher returned, he saw that the gem was gone and accused the monk of theft. The monk, however, did not tell the butcher of his pet bird’s meal, for he feared that the butcher would kill the bird to retrieve the stone. The monk preferred to be thought a thief, even by his friend the butcher, than to cause the death of the bird. As it turned out, the butcher had occasion to kill the bird anyway. He discovered the stone in the bird’s gullet and realized that the monk had accepted the guilt for a crime he did not commit, rather than be the cause of the bird’s death.

The tale of the monk and the butcher’s bird strikes me as wonderfully deontological. It shows a moral agent refusing to perform an action which would have a consequence favorable to himself, and it has him doing so for the sake of an apparently insignificant creature. If it is hard to see the Dutchman having a moral duty to the SS officer, it is equally hard to see the monk having a moral duty to the bird. Partly, this Buddhist tale depends upon the notion of a moral duty toward non-human beings, and it gets its zing from the monk’s surprising respect for avian life.

This all took place in a class on Plato’s Republic. At my home institution in the States some students, but not many, read ancient texts from the Pali canon of Buddhist literature, and some of those students have read Plato. In an American class on Plato, however, I can’t assume a broad knowledge of Buddhist literature, and I don’t possess such knowledge myself. Here in Sri Lanka, I can assume a knowledge of Buddhist literature. So teaching Plato in Sri Lanka puts me in the enviable position of learning from my students. I often learn from my students in the States. One knows about musical theory and makes a comparison between poetic meter and musical rhythm; another knows about African history and draws a connection between Rhodesia and the Roman Civil Wars. But such moments are unsystematic; maybe they happen, maybe they don’t. Teaching outside my accustomed culture, in a land where most everyone is familiar with a set of ideas different from those I know, lets me be a learner in a more vivid and consistent way.

I’m not sure who’s getting the better deal here, me or my students. They need to develop skills of critical thinking and of composition in English; I can help with that. For my part, I want to get new ways of thinking about things I’ve been teaching for thirty years; they can give me that. All in all, it seems beneficial for both parties.