Sila is usually translated as “virtue” or “ethics”, but we need to be careful not to confuse it with Western ideas of virtue and ethics. A traditional foundation of Western ethics is commandments and values often handed down from a god. These values include ideas about right and wrong, good and evil, and absolute rules that we have to live by. This approach to ethics leads easily to guilt, an emotion that is pervasive in the West, but which is considered unnecessary and counterproductive in Buddhism.
Buddhism understands virtue and ethics pragramatically, based not on ideas of good and bad, but rather on the observation that some actions lead to suffering and some actions lead to happiness and freedom. A Buddhist asks, “Doe this action lead to increased suffering or increased happiness, for myself and others?” This pragmatic approach is more conducive to investigation than guilt.
The Issue at Hand, Essays on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice, by Gil Fronsdal