I am not my race

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My previous points about colour-blindness are important because I don’t want to be misunderstood on a larger issue. I believe the critique of colour-blindness in the current context is well founded. Mellody Hobson, for example, rightly points out that colour-blindness too often means we act as if race isn’t a problem now, and thereby ignore the many ways in which it is. There is a studied ignorance in comments like those of Chief Justice John Roberts, that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Ignoring the current problem is the approach of American conservatives who take Martin Luther King’s words out of context to pretend that he opposed affirmative action, when he clearly and visibly supported it. Yet there is one thing those conservatives do see accurately. And that is that King did express a hope for colour-blindness in the future, “one day”. This is the part that contemporary left-wing critiques of colour-blindness often leave out – with awful consequences. Too often, these critiques refuse even the ideal of colour-blindness. In so doing, they effectively work to condemn us forever to the prisons of our socially constructed skins.

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How to reach a colour-blind society

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Perhaps the best-known quote from Martin Luther King Jr. is: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The kind of society that King dreams of in this sentence is often called “colour-blind” – in a meaning referring not literally to the disability, but to skin colour being irrelevant to people’s lives and the way society judges them. Prince Ea’s wonderful “I am not black, you are not white” video, which I cited as an exemplar of qualitative individualism, further expresses the ideal of colour-blindness: race is just a label that diminishes who we really are. For my own qualitative individualist reasons, it is an ideal I endorse.

In recent years, though, the concept of racial colour-blindness has come under attack. And I do believe that one strand of this attack is entirely justified.

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Let us not define ourselves by biological categories

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In my mind, one of the most important implications of qualitative individualism is that we human beings should not be defined by bodily or biological categories. I think that point has done a great deal to underlie various liberation movements of the past century. I think it is perhaps most visible in Simone de Beauvoir, who detached gender roles from biological sex and warned us against an “essentialism” that tied sex and gender so closely together. The increased acceptance of people being transgender, I think, is the next step in a process that began with Beauvoir: my biological genitalia do not define my gender identity. I view the struggle for racial equality in the light of this ideal as well, as Prince Ea does: skin colour or related phenotypical characteristics should not define who we really are. Continue reading

Is the problem in our heads?

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A key idea that I’ve stressed from the Disengaged Buddhists is that the causes of suffering are primarily mental – especially the “three poisons” or “unwholesome roots” of craving (rāga), aversion or hostility (dveṣa/dosa) and delusion (moha) – and that therefore changes in material conditions of life will do relatively little to solve them. Engaged Buddhists reject this latter idea, since they take changing the material conditions as essential. What has struck me recently, though, is that they reject the idea in ways that are different, and sometimes even opposite – each of which still, surprisingly to me in some ways, seems to accept that rāga, dveṣa and moha are indeed where the key problems of human existence lie. I see this point especially in comparing the different views expressed by Ron Purser and Sallie King. Continue reading

Rejecting Śāntideva’s ethical revaluation

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The key goal of my dissertation was to understand Śāntideva’s thought as it was and how it could be applied in a contemporary context. Now, for my book, I want to actually apply Śāntideva’s thought, which requires asking where he is right and where he is wrong. And that, it turns out, changes my understanding of some of the dissertation’s key concepts – especially the one in its title.

The dissertation is entitled “Ethical revaluation in the thought of Śāntideva”. In its third chapter, I describe “ethical revaluation” as a consequence of Śāntideva’s ideals of nonattachment (aparigraha) and patient endurance (kṣānti). I explain the idea of ethical revaluation as follows:

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Why philosophy needs history

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After writing my previous post about history and the love of literature, I realized there’s a lot more one could say about the way history can deepen our appreciation of a work of literature – and perhaps even more so of philosophy, where I’ve thought about the question a lot more. I noted Herder’s recognition of the differences between eras, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that. It’s a particularly important point to make within philosophy, since it’s at the heart of the analytic-continental divide: analytic philosophers typically appreciate the truth of philosophical texts but without reference to their historical context, and continental philosophers typically learn about the historical context of texts without reference to their truth.

I am not satisfied with either of these approaches, because I think learning the historical context of a text is directly relevant to assessing its truth. And I think it’s time to unpack what I mean by that a bit more.

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No opposite for the ultimate

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I have considerable sympathies for nondualism and have started in recent years to think that it might be true. But there is an important qualifier to any such view. Namely: I do not think that there could possibly be an omnipotent omnibenevolent God. The problem of suffering is just too intractable.

Many nondualists, especially Sufis, would identify the nondual ultimate with that God. And I cannot accept that view. For similar reasons I am skeptical of a Vedānta view where the ultimate is sat: both being and goodness. There is too much being that is not good.

For this reason I have been inspired by a wonderful passage in Nishida Kitarō’s “The logic of nothingness and the religious worldview”:

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The reasons for nondualism

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I said previously of nondualism, “I’m not sure I can think of any other major philosophical idea that flowered so much in so many different places, more or less independently. I think that gives us prima facie reason to think the nondualists were on to something important.” Nathan reasonably took me to task for this claim in a comment: “Amod seems to overlook that ideas can be successful without being true.”

I don’t think it’s fair to say I overlooked that point: I said the pervasiveness gave us reason prima facie – at first glance – to say think the nondualists were on to something. That doesn’t mean nondualism is true, and I didn’t say that it was. Second glances might reveal something different. And where I think Nathan is right is in asking us to take those second glances. Is nondualism widespread for a reason other than its being true?

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History and the love of literature

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Many years ago, as a master’s student in development sociology, I took a course on nationalism with the late Benedict Anderson, renowned for his idea that the nation is an imagined community. The topic and the professor attracted a cross-disciplinary audience; about half of us students were in programs of sociology and political science, the other half in programs of literature. The distinction between the two, as I recall, became apparent when, from theorists and philosophers of nationalism, our reading turned to a work of literature, the sentimental anti-slavery novel Sab by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. We wrote brief papers articulating our reactions to and thoughts about the work. The social scientists were moved by it; one fellow sociologist said she cried while reading it. But the literary theorists, as I remember, all thought it was (in Anderson’s words) a “dreadful” novel, worthy of study merely as something symptomatic of its historical period, at best. I had taken other classes with several of them, and become friends with some, and it occurred to me that I had never heard one of these literature students express love for any work of literature, with the sole exception of Joyce’s Ulysses.

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Emotions are not primarily judgements

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I was struck by two things when I read Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness. On one hand, as I noted previously, I’m excited by Nussbaum’s new, and more Śāntidevan, normative approach to anger; it seems like she and I have moved toward the same position there. On the other, though, I realized that I have moved away from Nussbaum’s general descriptive theory of emotion. Nussbaum articulates this theory at length in Upheavals of Thought, and I don’t think her theory has changed much by the time we get to Anger (she offers a summary of it in the appendix). What has changed, in the roughly fifteen years since I read Upheavals cover to cover, is that I agreed with her theory then, and I no longer do – and reading the short summaries of the position in Anger helped me realize that.

Nussbaum’s theory (derived primarily from the Stoic thinker Chrysippus) is that emotions are fundamentally cognitive judgements of value, with a content directed at an object believed to affect our well-being. So fear, for example, is primarily a judgement that something could be harmful to us in the future; grief is primarily a judgement that something of value has been lost to us. I found this account plausible when I first encountered it. I no longer do.

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