Last time, I observed Peter Singer’s proposed radical revision of our moral views – the claim that, when we keep money that we could give to help the starving or diseased without major sacrifice, we are doing something as bad as if we let a drowning child drown. Is Singer right?
At the heart of Singer’s argument, by his own reckoning, is this principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” He explicitly states that the implication of this “ought” is duty and obligation, not merely charity and generosity. It is not just that sacrificing one’s own comfort and pleasure to help those in need is good, but that any refusal to do so is bad, something deserving of one’s own guilt and shame and others’ condemnation.
Now on what grounds should we accept this principle, if indeed we should? (continue reading…)
The image of a drowning child is a vivid one – enough to make it a key example in two very different traditions of moral philosophy. In ancient China, Mencius used the image to illustrate humans’ natural inborn moral benevolence: we would all “have a feeling of alarm and compassion” at such a sight, and not out of any form of self-interest. Thousands of years later, in the early 1970s – when Chinese philosophy was known to the West but it would rarely have occurred to a Western philosopher that he should study it – the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer used the same image. In his famous article “Famine, affluence and morality”, written in 1971 and published 1972, Singer says this:
if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
But Singer puts the image to a very different use than Mencius. (continue reading…)
It seems to me that the concepts of ascent and descent allow relatively easily for intermediate positions between them, compromises that attempt at a synthesis. I suspect that in this respect they are different from the related binary of intimacy and integrity. Thomas Kasulis tries to argue that intimacy and integrity are incommensurable – one may experience elements of each at once, but it is difficult to take a moderate position between them, let alone to establish a synthesis. I am not convinced that Kasulis is right about this, but I do think that at least middle grounds on intimacy and integrity are harder to establish than on ascent and descent.
For relatively few seek the pure transcendence of the Yoga Sūtras, abiding in a pure universality outside the changing world. It is an uncompromising and drastic ascent that demands we act and be with a higher universal, leaving the particulars of the world behind us. Jain monks, following a similar path, deliberately renounce dependence to all particulars up to and including food – they often end their lives through sallekhanā or santhara, intentional slow starvation. (continue reading…)
This week’s post follows the previous one and should be taken in the same light: namely, that while my views expressed in it have developed in response to a thoughtful and valuable exchange between me and Chris Fraser, it should not be taken to imply any views on Fraser’s part that are not already expressed in his published works.
I have long noted how for a philosopher, the most productive way to examine a text from another time is to examine the mind behind that text – so that one can follow Thomas Kuhn’s advice to “ask yourself how a sensible person could have written” that text with all of its apparent absurdities. This approach runs into trouble with composite texts, which are not the work of a single author. In thinking about the composite work attributed to Śāntideva, I had found it quite satisfactory to instead identify a single redactor. Last time, however, I noted how such an approach may be problematic for a text like the Zhuangzi, where the redactor of the edition known to us, namely the commentator Guo Xiang, has a Confucian agenda that appears to be at odds with some of the statements in the text itself.
Last year, I made several posts criticizing Chris Fraser‘s interpretation of the Zhuangzi, supported by a previous post on interpretive method. Fraser was kind enough to reply at length to my posts by email, for which I am very grateful, and his replies have provoked my own thoughts further. I have not received his express permission to quote my exchange with him, however, so what follows should not be taken to imply any views or lack thereof on his part – beyond what is in his published papers. Rather, it should be taken solely as a description of how my own views on related subjects have developed and evolved.
Where my views have shifted above all is on the question of how one may best interpret a text – and especially a composite text. The approach I previously outlined for approaching such a text stems from my dissertation on Śāntideva. While it may well be that the works we now associate with Śāntideva are the product of multiple authors, it seemed to me that we can plausibly use the name “Śāntideva” to name the redactor who put them together in the forms we now know through the tradition. I still believe that to be the case. I am, however, far less confident now that that approach can be generalized to other composite texts – most notably the Zhuangzi itself. Is it appropriate to describe that text as the work of an author (or redactor) named Zhuangzi? (continue reading…)
One of the key debates in Indian philosophy is what counts as a pramāṇa: an instrument of knowledge, a “reliable warrant”, a means of knowledge reliable enough that one can be reasonably confident to take its conclusions as true. What counts as a pramāṇa? Many Indian philosophers will provide a numbered list of them.
In the empiricist tradition that remains popular in the West, boosted by the discoveries of natural science, only experience is admitted as a pramāṇa: to a full-blown empiricist, nothing counts as knowledge if it doesn’t ultimately have its roots in experience, based in some sort of direct perception. (Ken Wilber’s thought has come to take this position more and more over the years, to its detriment.) The debate over pramāṇas in modern Western philosophy is often framed as one between empiricism and rationalism. That is, where empiricists admit only experience as a pramāṇa, rationalists also allow reasoning an independent validity: some things can be rationally known a priori, independently of sense experience.
Some Indian philosophers have agreed with these views. (continue reading…)
There followed a discussion back and forth between Justin and myself. The discussion has moved away from anything to do with trans* issues, which is fine with me because my point, and I think Justin’s too, was about something bigger: the role of justice and activism in Buddhist tradition. I won’t try to recap the discussion here because the link is available for those who haven’t seen it. I’ll just refresh your memory by quoting Justin’s most recent comment: (continue reading…)
Jonardon Ganeri, the renowned scholar of Indian philosophy, has recently posted an online blueprint for an “Institute for Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Culturally Polycentric World”. He suggests an institute with autonomy from the traditional academy’s disciplinary and area-studies boundaries, structured as a network spanning different cultural locations.
Ganeri is reflecting on what sort of institution would best encapsulate the ambitions and promise of the cross-cultural approach in philosophy, and is openly seeking discussion – whether privately (his email address is on the blueprint), or publicly in a blog forum like this one. I’m posting it here to spread the word; he and I would both like to hear your thoughts.
On his American Buddhist Perspective blog, my friend Justin Whitaker recently posted an interesting interview on the experience of trans* people in American Buddhism. Justin uses “trans*” as a shorthand for “transgender”, “transsexual”, “transvestite” and similar terms – to denote people who have become or attempted to become, in some respect, a gender different from the one associated with their biology at birth. It is clear to me that trans* people in the US face various forms of unjust discrimination. Where the tricky questions get raised is when the struggle against that injustice intersects with Buddhism – as, for that matter, when the struggle against any injustice intersects with Buddhism. Justin and I began a conversation about this in the comments to that post, and I’d like to continue that conversation in more detail here. (continue reading…)
I have recently welcomed the corrective force of books like Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, which remind us that modern appropriations of Indian tradition have their own continuity with the evolving past tradition. I now find myself regularly reminded just how much such a corrective is needed. I have noted plenty of examples before, as with respect to Gregory Schopen and Donald Lopez. But I recently found perhaps the most striking example in the works of the contemporary Sanskrit scholar Herman Tull. (continue reading…)