'Who, now, Lord, is it who craves?'(excerpted from fn.2 of W. S. Waldron's 2002 article on Cognitive Unconscious in Buddhism and Science in Contemporary Buddhism)
'Not a fit question', said the Exalted One.
"I am not saying [someone] craves. If I were saying so, the question would be a fit one. But I am not saying so. And I not saying so, if you were to ask thus: 'Conditioned now by what, lord, is craving?' this were a fit question. And the fit answer there would be: 'Conditioned by feeling is craving.'" (S II 13)
Such teachings, based on the radical Buddhist concept of anatta (or non-self, no-soul), cannot be ignored as we examine Buddhist ethics - even though many would discount them as unimportant to the action-guiding principles of the precepts or the cultivation of virtues (paramitas).
We should begin here with the idea that Buddhism is (like the Brahamanism, Jainism and other teachings of its day) most fundamentally a soteriological system, that is one that is constructed to teach a transformative path from point A to point B. We should also follow the realization or assertion that Buddhism is ethical through and through (somewhere in Gombrich 1988?).
Thus we come to the conclusion that all of Buddhism is Buddhist ethics. The metaphysics is ethics, the psychology is ethics, the practices are ethics. Ethics, for the Buddhist, are not a set of rules or commandments, or even training principles isolated from her total understanding of herself and reality.
That is to say that when we run up agains a teaching such as that on anatta, we must ask not whether this fits in to the Buddhist moral system, but how it fits in.
Such a wholistic orientation may dissapoint the Western mindset, which is so accustomed to parsing, to 'divide-and-conquor' methods of learning. But it is necessary if we wish to hold true to what Buddhism is, as opposed to what we would like it to be.
Who craves? "You crave, I crave, we all crave." Such is the whole Western understanding of Buddhism and life. But for the Buddha a more radical change took place and is needed in his disciples, to remove the underlying unwarrented assumption of the self or ego.
Kant described this problem of unwarrented assumptions in his writings on the Antinomies (in the Critique of Pure Reason). Yet, Kant did allow the key rationalist assumptions: in a soul, God and freedom as "regulative ideas." None of these could be known to us, but they act to organize our inquiry into life and our activities.
In Buddhism we find corrolaries in the pudgala (or conceptual person), dharma (as totality of being, like Kant's God), and karma, as a personal law which implicitely suggests freedom and the possibility of moral improvement.