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There’s been a debate in the past couple of years between Mark Siderits and Charles Goodman over Śāntideva’s attitude toward free will. In his chapter condemning anger, Śāntideva says a number of things that sound completely determinist:

Even though my stomach fluids and so on make great distress, I have no anger toward them. Why do I have anger toward sentient beings? Even their anger has a cause…. Certainly, all the different crimes and vices arise out of causes; we can’t find an independent one…. Therefore, when one sees an enemy or a friend doing unjust acts, one should think “it has causes,” and remain happy. (Bodhicary?vat?ra verses VI.22-33)

Goodman takes these passages at face value, reading Śāntideva as a determinist. Siderits instead calls Śāntideva a “paleo-compatibilist,” arguing that Śāntideva still makes room for “moral responsibility.” Siderits tries to derive this claim from a peculiar reading of BCA VI.32, one that adds a great deal of interpretation to the Sanskrit (and doesn’t appear to be supported by the Tibetan commentarial tradition either). But this isn’t the place to get into the details of interpreting the Sanskrit; I’m starting to write an article where I take that point on in more detail.

Here, instead, I want to call more attention to the implications of what I (with Goodman) take to be Śāntideva’s “hard determinism.” Unlike Siderits, I think that in many respects the whole idea of this passage is to reject the idea of moral responsibility and of blame, as part of his larger project of rejecting anger. What intrigues me here is that in some sense, Śāntideva may in some sense be rejecting morality per se.

Shyam Ranganathan‘s book argues for an “anger inclination thesis” of moral claims: that “moral statements are things that there is a tendency to get angry about, if the evaluative force of the statement is violated.” (pp. 53-4) Similarly, comparative studies of moral anthropology like those of Jonathan Haidt tend to find a close correlation between moral claims and the desire to punish. On such a view, given Śāntideva’s sweeping opposition to anger and his willingness to absolve blame and responsibility, it would seem that he is in a serious sense opposed to morality.

I think we can indeed see Śāntideva as opposing morality – on one very serious condition, which is that we make a sharp separation between morality and ethics, as Bernard Williams has done (and Haidt and Ranganathan do not do). Williams wants to take seriously Nietzsche’s withering critique of “morality,” while still (like Nietzsche) making claims about what is good and bad, claims that can reasonably be called ethical. And what strikes me here is the similarity between Śāntideva’s and Nietzsche’s critiques: “Wherever responsibilities are sought, it is usually the instinct of wanting to judge and punish which is at work.” (Twilight of the Idols, “The four great errors,” section 7) On ethical grounds – grounds of gentleness, of patience, of mercy, of resisting anger – one fights against morality, because of its tendency to anger and punishment.

Damien Keown (using very different definitions, of course) once proposed that Buddhism offers “morality without ethics.” In Śāntideva’s work I see the opposite: ethics without morality. And it strikes me as a very powerful ideal.

I’ll be out of town for about two weeks after today, with very spotty Internet access. Posting will be infrequent during that time, if I can manage it at all. I’ll try to find some time to reply to comments, though it might come slowly.