The courage to change the things we can

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The Serenity Prayer, it turns out, has multiple versions. On the Alcoholics Anonymous website you’ll find the version I quoted before, though the site adds that the first person is often pluralized, “I” to “we”:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

However, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton in her memoir gives us a different version. She says that Niebuhr’s original version of the prayer was composed in 1943, was first preached by him in a Sunday sermon that year in Heath, Massachusetts, and looked like this:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

As Sifton notes on pp292-3, there are at least two major differences between these two versions. The first refers to grace and the second does not; the first refers to changing what I or we can change, the second to what should be changed. Sifton prefers the second; she says that AA “simplified” the text and her father “minded” the change but did not object.

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Health, wealth, time, and their purposes

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Sandro Galea, the dean of BU’s School of Public Health, recently wrote a wonderful (free) Substack post reflecting on the nature of health in the pandemic and post-pandemic era. I’m writing about Galea’s post here because the questions it raises are absolutely philosophical ones.

He closes with the important comment: “we do not live to be healthy—we aspire to be healthy so we can live.” In other circumstances this might seem a truism. But the past fourteen months have made it all too clear how much this needs to be said. For we have all become all too aware of just how much can be given up for the sake of health. Government restrictions already placed major limits on our activity. Most people I know, myself included, limited their activity considerably further than what was required by the government. And most of us also know others whose restrictions went even further than our own. A number of people effectively became voluntary shut-ins, losing all physical contact with the outside world out of fear of a dread disease.

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The path corrects the mind

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This week I continue my response to Patrick O’Donnell’s comments disputing my claim that in classical Indian Buddhism “the causes of suffering are primarily mental”. The discussion last time was abstract and theoretical, but it has practical consequences – which bring us back to Engaged and Disengaged Buddhism. Patrick has an interesting discussion here which I think is unfortunately confused by terminological problems. He says:

If the problem is in our heads, what about the story of the poisoned arrow? One removes the arrow without inquiring into who shot it, why, etc. Of course we may inquire into such things later, after the fact (the metaphysics and psychology if you will).

The thing is, the Shorter Māluṅkya Sutta’s story of the poisoned arrow is not a warning against seeking an understanding of “metaphysics”, let alone of psychology. The “questions that tend not to edification” in that sutta are largely cosmological questions: about the eternality or finitude of the cosmos, whether a Tathagata exists after death. The unedifying questions are described as “positions that are undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One” – which psychological questions pretty clearly are not. The craving and ignorance in our heads are the poisoned arrow that we have to get out first, before we can worry about the cosmological questions of who shot it.

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Suffering’s mental causes are not merely conventional

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Patrick O’Donnell makes several interesting comments disputing my claim that for most classical Indian Buddhists “the causes of suffering are primarily mental.” I think they’re worth responding to at length, so I’ll take two posts to do so: this week on the theoretical (metaphysical and psychological) claims about the causation of suffering, next week on their practical implications.

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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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