Ethics of disposition, not decision

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I’ve been thinking further on the decision/capacity distinction first articulated by Andrew Ollett, and I want to take a further step. So far Andrew and I have merely acknowledged the existence of this distinction – identifying different thinkers on either side and exploring the distinction’s implications for philosophical methodology. But I am, at this point, ready to make a more substantive claim: the “capacity” approaches are better. In ethics, we should be “capacity” rather than “decision” thinkers. I had stressed before that we can and should address the “capacity” approach philosophically and not merely historically; now I want to actually do so, and say that it is correct. Continue reading

Unconscious illusions

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Buddhist texts frequently stress the liberating power of prajñā or paññā, metaphysical insight. It is one of the three major components of the path in early texts, one of the six perfections in Mahāyāna. To know the truth about existence – its nature as impermanent, essenceless, unsatisfactory – is to liberate one’s mind and be unattached. In the Pali Vinaya, the Buddha’s first disciples Sāriputta and Moggallāna attain liberation from suffering as soon as they hear the Dhamma Eye: the phrase “Whatever can arise, can also cease.” Śāntideva at Śikṣā Samuccaya 264 says na śūnyatāvādī lokadharmaiḥ saṃhriyate: one who takes the position of emptiness will not be attached to worldly phenomena.

But something seems odd about these claims – perhaps especially to a beginning student of Buddhist philosophy. We might well acknowledge the tradition’s supposed truths as truths – and yet still be just as mired in suffering as we were before. I know I didn’t get liberated upon hearing that what can arise can cease, and you probably didn’t either. David Burton in his Buddhism, Knowledge and Liberation puts the problem well:

I do not seem to be ignorant about the impermanence of entities. I appear to understand that entities have no fixed essence and that they often change in disagreeable ways. I seem to understand that what I possess will fall out of my possession. I apparently accept that all entities must pass away. And I seem to acknowledge that my craving causes suffering. Yet I am certainly not free from craving and attachment. (Burton 31)

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Ultimate and conventional truth in Wilfrid Sellars

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Let me begin with a guessing game, for those readers who consider themselves relatively widely read in philosophy. I am thinking of a text that examines two different views of human beings. It examines on one hand the view that humans are entities that act on the world of the sort that one can tell stories about, using language, living in communities, giving and taking. It juxtaposes this view on the other hand with the view that humans are collections of smaller imperceptible particles that operate strictly according to universal laws of causation. The texts comes to the conclusion that the latter view is the one that corresponds to reality, with the former simply an appearance or convenient way of speaking. Which text is this? Continue reading

Whose religion? Which science?

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A little while ago I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture on Buddhism to David Decosimo‘s class at the Boston University School of Theology. The students were a delight to teach – smart, actively engaged, asking many questions. One student’s question in particular stuck with me after the session. She had started to ask a long set of multiple questions, and then distilled it down to what she referred to as a simple question: “How would you describe the relation between Buddhism and science?”

My first response was: “That is not a simple question!” There is so much to say about it that there are now books written not merely on the actual relationship between Buddhism and science, but on the very idea of a relationship between Buddhism and science. I gave a relatively rambling answer. But after leaving the classroom it occurred to me that there was a relatively simple answer that I could have given – one that would have put a large part of the question’s complexity aside, but focused on something of particular relevance to students of Christian theology. Continue reading

Naturalizing Śāntideva’s eudaimonism

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My disagreements with Charles Goodman continue with his contribution to Jake Davis’s thought-provoking volume A Mirror Is For Reflection. (I’ve previously written about Jan Westerhoff’s chapter in the same book.) Just like Westerhoff, Charles is exploring the important question of naturalizing karma. He does so with particular reference to Śāntideva. He opens with a beautiful reading of Śikṣā Samuccaya chapter 4’s graphic descriptions of the punishments a wrongdoer will face in the hells, reading them in terms of the actions’ psychological effects on the wrongdoer.

The problem with this reading is that it doesn’t go far enough. Continue reading

Śāntideva vs. Singer

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I’ve been fortunate in the past year and a half to meet Charles Goodman at three different conferences, and to have long and stimulating discussions with him. Since our researches have both focused on Śāntideva’s ethics, we can critique each other’s ideas at a highly detailed level – one that has often involved whipping out a physical copy of Charles’s excellent new translation of the Śikṣā Samuccaya to confirm our points.

Probably our central point of disagreement: Charles is known for presenting a consequentialist interpretation of Buddhist ethics, and especially of Śāntideva; in his talk at the IABS, referred to Śāntideva as “the world’s first utilitarian”. Since I discovered Buddhism in part as an alternative to an unsatisfying utilitarianism, this has not sat particularly well with me. Continue reading

Verifying normative claims

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Several months ago I wrote a post defending scholars’ normative (“should”) claims, in response to Craig Martin’s attack on them. Craig responded right away on Facebook with what he described as “initial, provisional responses”. My reply to these replies is considerably more tardy, but here it is. First, Craig’s provisional replies (which he graciously gave me permission to quote):

1) I think you’re wrong that should statements are as intersubjectively verifiable as empirical statements. Even if you hate my politics you can see that, given a shared definition of “cat” and “house,” it’s clear that I have 3 cats in my house. Should they be declawed? How would answers to the latter question be equally intersubjectively verifiable?

2) Of course the methodological principle I advance is itself a normative claim. Two things can be said about this. Continue reading

The political path vs. the Buddhist path

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I presented about Disengaged Buddhism at the International Association of Buddhist Studies conference in August. My talk was paired with a presentation by Frédéric Richard on a topic that did not initially appear to be related: the Tibetan government in exile. As it turned out, the papers proved fascinating mirror images of each other. Continue reading

Beyond the removal of suffering

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Last time I discussed Jan Westerhoff’s potent objection to naturalized Buddhism: if there is no rebirth then we can end our suffering simply by committing suicide. Westerhoff takes this objection as a reason to accept rebirth. I do not. Rather, I take it as pointing to a deeper problem with some core Buddhist teachings as they are usually understood. Continue reading

In defence of Buddhism without rebirth

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A few years ago I wondered how a naturalized Buddhism could avoid advocating suicide. If our goal is the cessation of suffering, and death is not the beginning of a new birth but a simple ending, shouldn’t death itself be our goal? I didn’t go very far with this argument, in part because I didn’t identify as a Buddhist at the time – there was a certain way in which not being a Buddhist made it not my problem. But now I am a Buddhist. And an excellent recent chapter by Jan Westerhoff, in Jake Davis’s fine new edited volume on Buddhist ethics, brings the point back into uncomfortable focus. Continue reading

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