The superogatory acts are the ones that matter


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Last time I introduced the idea of supererogatory acts, those that are good beyond what duty and obligation require. The nature of supererogatory acts is sometimes referred to with the noun form supererogation. David Heyd’s Stanford Encyclopedia article makes a good introduction to the idea of supererogation. It also, I think, tells us what analytical moral philosophy gets wrong about the idea – specifically, when it claims that “the class of actions beyond duty is relatively small…”

Says who? Say contemporary ethicists, according to Heyd. But to my mind this does a lot to illustrate what is wrong with their way of thinking. The claim that relatively few actions go beyond the requirements of duty would certainly be true for Peter Singer and most utilitarians and consequentialists, who subject us to an effectively never-ending stream of demands in which little could be supererogatory short of altruistic suicide. Likewise, while I think it would not be hard to allow great room for supererogatory acts in a neo-Kantian position, as Heyd notes this was not Kant’s own view: there were perfect and imperfect duties, but the latter were duties all the same.

But this, I would argue, is one of the many things both utilitarians and Kantians get wrong – and therefore the majority of analytical ethicists, since most major analytical ethics descends from one or both of these sources. What recent conversations stimulated me to realize is that obligation plays and should play a significant but small role in our thinking about goodness and the good life – which is to say, in my view, about ethics. There’s nothing in the word “ethics” or its history that should require us to limit it primarily to duty and obligation. More substantively and importantly, though, our preexisting motivations and perceptions of what is good include many things beyond obligation – not just our own pleasure (though that counts) but the likes of aesthetic appreciation. The onus to prove that our obligations extend to nearly every action, it seems to me, is on those who claim it – especially when, as seems to be the case nearly always, they themselves refuse to live up to their own views.

The most notable finding described in Schwitzgebel’s Aeon article is that while ethicists’ behaviour is not significantly different from non-ethicists’, they nevertheless advocate more stringent norms – of the sort that Singer would advocate. They were much more likely to describe eating red meat as morally bad – even though they were no less likely to eat it themselves! This seems to be the general tendency of analytical ethics – to make one believe that morality demands more of us, without actually doing anything more whatsoever. What analytical ethics seems to do in practice is fill us up with what has often been called “Catholic guilt” – except that the analytic version is likely to feel considerably worse, since Catholics at least have a procedure to get forgiveness.

It is this extremity of analytical ethics’s demands, I think, that motivates much of the question “Why be moral?” (A friend of mine who did a degree in ethics once commented off the cuff that all it had done was leave her with an enhanced sense of guilt. My similarly off-the-cuff comment was “that’s why you need Nietzsche.”) For many premodern views, which to my mind take a far more sensible approach to ethics, the answer to that question is significantly easier. I don’t think utilitarians have ever come up with a satisfactory answer to the question of why one should do what their morality calls for, which is one of the reasons I stopped being one. (In this respect, at least, the differences between John Rawls and utilitarianism are not that important.) So to return to Betsy Barre’s original question, about how problematic the question “Why be moral?” is, I would reply: it’s extremely problematic for utilitarians, and that’s possibly the biggest reason I’m not one.

By contrast, a view like Aristotle’s or Mencius’s points out the way in which responses to obligation are already present in our everyday ways of thinking and being – even in terms of making us happy, but also in terms of preexisting states of empathy. Our responses to obligation are relevant, but they are far from the majority of what we should be considering in a good life. Our thoughts about justice – which, in Aristotle, seems relatively close to morality in the stricter sense – are a significant part of the good life, but only one part, and they gain their sense and salience from being part of that larger whole, a whole which is not constantly under pressure from the nagging claim that we are not doing enough.

Now I think in such approaches there still remains one sense in which we are not doing enough, which is the sense in Śāntideva that I described last time. Even with respect to what is good for ourselves, we do not do the good we want to do, but the evil we do not want to do. So human weakness and frailty remain essential to conversations about ethics. We undermine ourselves all the time; whatever our ideals are, the chances are sadly high we won’t live up to them. In Christian terms, we are always living in sin. There’s a reason Buddhists often assume that nirvana or bodhisattvahood is only attainable in a future birth; I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone in this world about whom I could confidently say they reached the ideal. Since I don’t believe in rebirth, I have needed to reject the Third Noble Truth. Being a good person is hard, really hard.

The key, though, is that this point does not apply merely to justice and obligation. It applies just as much to self-discipline, to mindfulness, to courage, even to zest. (Even when it does apply to justice, it could be that one habitually does less for oneself than one should.) And this is one of the many things I find valuable in Śāntideva’s approach, what I think Stephen Harris is right to call our attention to in his article on demandingness: being fully good may be beyond our reach. We still have reasons to strive for it, but the fact that we do not, does not mean we should be condemned or feel guilty. Being virtuous, with respect to most of the virtues, is supererogatory – and that’s what most of a good life consists in.

Of demands and obligations


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Aeon magazine recently published an excellent popularized version of Eric Schwitzgebel’s reflections on his research indicating that professional ethicists are no more ethical than anybody else. I’ve already blogged here both about the research and about the reflections. Betsy (Elizabeth) Barre shared the Aeon piece on her Facebook feed, leading to a lively conversation on Facebook which provoked me to think further about deeper issues around it.

In that conversation I shared my earlier reflection on the topic. In response, among other thoughts, Barre noted she was surprised that Schwitzgebel hadn’t presented the reflection in terms of the standard distinction between “what is moral?” and “why be moral?” And she asked me: “I take it that you think the latter question is not as problematic as some philosophers and ethicists do?”

That question came as a surprise. Continue reading

On tradition and observation in Tibetan medicine


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Two disclaimers are required for this week’s post. First, Janet Gyatso was on my dissertation committee and before that served as my doctoral advisor. Second, Columbia University Press offered to send me a free copy of her new book if I would review it on Love of All Wisdom, and I accepted on condition that the review could be critical. This is that review. Take it as you will.

Sometime during my doctoral studies I recall a student asking Prof. Janet Gyatso what she was currently researching, and she mentioned Tibetan medical literature. That couldn’t have been any later than 2007, when I graduated, and was probably before. Only now, at least eight years later, has Gyatso’s book on Tibetan medicine come out – and one can see why it took so long.

Being Human in a Buddhist World cannot have been an easy book to write. It is a detailed study of several different Tibetan works on medicine, none of which have been translated into a Western language, and all of which deal with highly technical questions of biology using a set of concepts very different from those familiar in the modern West – some in the form of “a dark, incomplete, and frequently illegible third-generation photocopy of a manuscript that is itself rife with spelling mistakes and smudges.” One does not find oneself eager to replicate such a study.

The title of this book is well chosen. Most Buddhism tends to be what I have called an ascent tradition; it is about transcending the condition of our everyday particular humanity, detaching oneself from what the texts Gyatso studies call “the horrible world”. But even if we were to grant that its most advanced practitioners have become in some sense superhuman (say Thich Quang Duc, who, eyewitnesses say, was able to remain perfectly at peace while setting himself on fire), the fact remains that everybody else is still human, all too human. Continue reading

New site options


I’ve been tinkering on the back end of Love of All Wisdom a little bit. I thought it might be worth alerting readers to two of those changes. First, there’s now a “related posts” option at the end of each post, automatically suggesting other posts that might be of interest. (I had a similar plugin installed years ago which wound up slowing down and crashing the site, but this one is part of the official WordPress Jetpack suite, so I’m hoping it works better.) Second, you should now be able to write comments by signing in with a Facebook, Twitter or acocount, which should hopefully make commenting easier. Enjoy!

Strange bedfellows to save the humanities


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The assault on the academic humanities in the United States continues apace, and not only the humanities. North Carolina governor Pat McCrory is putting into practice his previous assertion that the government should only subsidize those fields useful to capitalism: the North Carolina government is eliminating 46 degree programs in the state, including even human biology at its flagship institution.

McCrory is far from isolated in this. Continue reading

New article on Śāntideva’s metaphysics and ethics



I have just published a new article published in volume 22 of the excellent free and open-access Journal of Buddhist Ethics.

The article is entitled “The Metaphysical Basis of Śāntideva’s Ethics“. Buddhists do a lot of theoretical philosophy that sometimes seems irrelevant to the project of freeing ourselves from suffering, and this article aims to show why it isn’t. I’ve been wanting to probe the theoretical foundations of ethics more, and this article is one exploration into that. I presented it at the SACP a few years ago and have now finally made it available. Have a look!

Does Śāntideva’s theory make demands?


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My friend Stephen Harris recently posted an interesting article on the question of whether Śāntideva’s ethics is “overdemanding”. I appreciate the article’s methodological approach. It engages Śāntideva’s ethics with the categories of analytical moral philosophy while moving beyond the relatively fruitless attempt to classify it: not “is Śāntideva’s ethics consequentialist?” but “is Śāntideva’s ethics vulnerable to the charges made against consequentialism?” The latter approach is more important because it allows engagement with Śāntideva’s ideas: asking the question “to what extent is Śāntideva right?” Continue reading

New blog theme



Longtime readers may recall a review of this blog that expressed dismay at my white-on-black visual theme. My commenters generally agreed and I had intended to change it. (It looked great to me because I grew up with DOS, but I’d rather not limit the blog’s appeal to people who share my technological quirks.) In the intervening time I tried a number of times to find an alternate theme, but never quite found one I was happy with.

Today, my friend Craig Martin also mentioned he found the theme hard to read, and I offered the usual excuses of why I hadn’t changed it yet. I then realized with some embarrassment that it’s been five years since I originally said I’d change the theme.

So I decided it was time to do it. My apologies to those who have had trouble reading the old theme over the years through my delays, but I think an apology is less important than fixing the damn problem. The new theme of the blog is called Château. There are some things about it I’m still not happy with – but le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. Better to have it out there and leave the possibility of another change at a later date. The various features of the old theme should work, except for the old blogroll, which was getting way out of date anyway. Besides the white on black, the most obvious change should be something I’d always wanted as part of a new theme: the banner with a picture of very different philosophers, from very different times and places, all of whom I admire. (I’ll leave it to commenters to say who they are!)

My Buddhist practices


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Buddhist practice of various sorts has helped me greatly in trying to deal with the frustrations of cancer care. I wrote already of the role of prayer to Mañjuśrī and Buddhist reading. Now I’d like to say more about what I learned from that reading – and how these practices all fit together. Continue reading

The practice of reading


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Calling myself a Buddhist, it turns out, was only the beginning. Buddhism was there for me in this dark time, not only as a way of focusing prayer, and certainly not merely as the resource for a hypothetical chaplain. The Buddhist ideas that taught me so much before were still there and a great comfort. And there was more still: I have now begun to practise Buddhism as I see it, on a far deeper level than I ever had before. Continue reading

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