The need for substantive standards of rationality


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I ended the last post with the question of how to put together the insights I have found from Western philosophies like Hegel’s, on one hand, and Buddhism on the other. That question is the twenty-year project that animated my dissertation, though it could not be the dissertation. There it was Martha Nussbaum rather than Hegel whom I juxtaposed with Buddhist thought, because she had engaged with key Buddhist ethical questions and taken opposed answers. (Engaging with Hegel at any length, on the other hand, would have required a whole ‘nother dissertation.)

But the dissertation, as noted before, ends on a “cliffhanger”: Continue reading

Bibliography and podcast



Taking a brief break from the posts on MacIntyre to let you know about two other things I’ve published recently. I now have an online bibliography on ethics available with Oxford Bibliographies Online, as part of their bibliography series on “Hinduism”. Most of the bibliography is behind a pay wall; I have less objection to this than in some other cases because Oxford Bibliographies actually pays its writers.

I’ve also finally restarted the podcast interviews I have done for the New Books in Buddhist Studies series. The first interview I’ve done there in years is up with Maria Heim, about her recent book on Buddhaghosa. It’s free, so check it out!

My first encounters with Alasdair MacIntyre


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In philosophy as in any other field, one sees further by standing on the shoulders of giants. I have tried to engage in detail with contemporary thinkers whose work seems like it might be helpful in advancing the inquiries that most interest me. The first such was Ken Wilber. I’ve said before that I think he asks the right questions but gets the wrong answers, and I think a key reason for that is that he has an unsustainable method, a perennialist method that refuses to acknowledge genuine diversity. I have learned a lot from my engagement with him, but I cannot take up his approach.

Alasdair MacIntyre More recently I have turned in detail to the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose thought I’ve already juxtaposed against Wilber’s a number of times (often in MacIntyre’s favour). I had expected that I would engage MacIntyre much as I had engaged Wilber: seeing him as a source of important and productive ideas, but ultimately wrong. Now I am not so sure. Continue reading

The rejection of righteous anger


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Last time I began to propose an answer to David Chapman’s questions about what might be distinctively Buddhist about a modern Buddhist ethics. I mentioned the classical Buddhist critique of politics and activism, and noted that I agree with some of that critique. Let me now say more about what I mean by that.

What first excited me about Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra was not the widely read eighth chapter (with its meditations on self and other and the deconstruction of the body that repulses many). Rather, it was the sixth chapter, on anger and patient endurance – when I responded to a student’s question about the text by saying “in this text, there’s no such thing as righteous anger.”

I do not think this is a message a typical secular North American liberal is likely to accept. Continue reading

Is “Buddhist ethics” Buddhist?


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David Chapman has on his blog a provocative new series of posts about Buddhist ethics. You can get a strong sense of the tenor of these posts from their titles: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud, “Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics, Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system, Buddhist morality is Medieval, and How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics. Continue reading

The second Axial Age



In his 1953 work The Origin and Goal of History, Karl Jaspers created one of the more enduring concepts in the study of cross-cultural philosophy: the Axial Age (Achsenzeit). With this concept, Jaspers was pointing to the stunning outpouring of human creativity between 800 and 200 BCE. This was the era of ancient Greek philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the Hellenistic schools; of the Upaniṣads, the Buddha and Mahāvīra in India; and of the great Warring States philosophers in China (Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Mencius, Mozi, Xunzi, Han Feizi), to whom nearly all discussions of Chinese philosophy return. Somewhat more controversially, Jaspers identified it as the age of Zoroaster and most of the Hebrew prophets.

The arising of the Axial Age is all the more striking because it would appear to be coincidence. Continue reading

Reading the deconstruction of the body


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I was honoured to see Elisa Freschi’s post reviewing my recent article on Śāntideva’s metaphysics and ethics. I have a lot to say about both the post itself and the comment threads that followed it. I’ve said some of it in those threads already, but I’d like to pull them together and express a way they relate to more general ideas. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

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