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The online Journal of Buddhist Ethics has recently begun an online conference on an interesting pair of articles dealing with Buddhism and the natural environment, by David Loy and my former grad-school colleague Grace Kao. (Both articles were originally presented at the 2010 AAR conference in Atlanta.) While the conference is oriented toward comments on the JBE website, I’m posting my response here because my thoughts are long enough to be a full blog post of their own.

The different backgrounds of the two writers are evident from their pieces – but that itself makes the dialogue between them more interesting and fruitful. Loy is writing as a Buddhist. In a sense Loy’s arguments come in two pieces: first a dialectical argument to a certain conception of Buddhist first principles, especially based on the idea of non-self, and then a demonstrative argument from those principles to a sense of environmental concern. The first section makes the article more than a piece of “Buddhist theology”; unlike Glenn Wallis’s manifesto, Loy’s article is written as if it is intended to persuade non-Buddhists to a Buddhist point of view.

The substance of Loy’s demonstrative argument is similar to one that I have criticized in the past: that Buddhism is environment-friendly because it tells us to acknowledge our interdependence with other life on the planet. Loy’s argument is a bit more sophisticated than the view I criticized, and might arguably stand up to some of those criticisms. But I’m not going to focus on that point here. Rather, I’m more interested in the dialogue between Loy and Kao, and its implications.

Kao is not a Buddhist nor a Buddhologist, but a scholar of cultural diversity and the issues it poses for global politics. Partially for that reason, Kao’s article does relatively little to engage Loy’s Buddhist claims directly. Instead, she raises interesting and important questions about the proper connection between cross-cultural philosophy and global politics.

While Kao doesn’t say whether she has been convinced by Loy’s dialectical arguments for non-self, it seems unlikely that she has; if she were, it would have serious implications for the opening section of her article, where she continues to identify as a Christian and not a Buddhist. As I understand her article, this raises the question, for Kao, of what to do with the demonstrative (“practical and political”) arguments when she is not persuaded by the dialectical (“conceptual and metaphysical”) arguments.

One might think that the answer should be nothing: if you don’t agree with the principles and premises of an argument, why would you care about its conclusion? But, Kao is right to point out, this is not how things work in global politics. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was crafted specifically as an attempt to find common ground at a more pragmatic level, among people who did not share metaphysical first principles. Jacques Maritain, a Catholic thinker involved in the early stages of planning that document, was convinced that even people of “violently opposed ideologies” could agree on a list of basic human rights — “only on condition that no one asks us why.” This point is telling. Maritain was convinced that his Catholic path of justifying human rights was the only one “with a firm foundation in truth.” But as it turns out, other people happened to believe in the same rights, though their belief was based on what Maritain would likely consider falsehoods. One “agrees to disagree” on the foundations, and works together on pressing practical issues.

Kao rightly interprets Loy’s perspective as being far from Maritain’s. Loy’s article implies that an understanding of self more like the Buddhist one “points the way to” solving the ecological crisis. Kao responds with what I think is a correct (and Maritainian) pragmatic assessment of the situation:

any environmentalism that is conditional upon human civilization becoming “awakened” from its illusory worldviews is going have to wait a dreadfully long time before becoming actualized, if ever. For however ultimately false the socially-constructed distinctions between selves and others, egoism and altruism, and nature and culture are or may be, these ways of thinking are firmly entrenched and dominant today. On this side of (spiritual or secular) nirvāṇa, then, I submit that environmental campaigns will stand a greater chance of success if they strategically work within those paradigms, even if by appealing directly to people’s selfish desires and “illusory” assumptions, than if they insist upon first trying to liberate us all from them.

I suspect that Loy would in fact agree with this claim. For his article is not a practical piece about the most efficacious methods of convincing others to solve environmental problems; it is a philosophical argument for why we should be trying to solve those problems in the first place. In Maritain’s terms, Loy is trying to find an environmental worldview that has a “firm foundation in truth.” And, while I tend to disagree with the particulars of Loy’s approach, I do think it is in many respects the right approach to take.

For when one attempts to find common ground – whether on human rights, environmental issues or any others – without finding common ground in metaphysics or first principles, that common ground is and must invariably be superficial. In the battlefields that constitute politics, superficiality may well be perfectly appropriate. The point here is similar to my recent discussion of doubt and certainty: one cannot wait to establish the truth, individually or collectively, before one acts. There is not enough time for that. In the short term, one must simply act as best one can, and pragmatic acts of superficial compromise may well be the best acts available.

Such compromises are nevertheless a second-best approach. For they are mere shifting alliances, an attempt to exercise power without getting to the truth of the matter. Kao closes her article with an approving quote of feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether to this effect: ““an ecological crisis of global proportions can mean nothing less than a true dialogue and mutual enrichment of all spiritual traditions.” But such dialogue and enrichment is exactly what is denied by a focus on political compromise. One doesn’t learn anything of substance from the other tradition, for (given the urgency of the impending crisis) one doesn’t bother taking its arguments seriously and sorting through them. True dialogue and mutual enrichment are all about an understanding that is deep rather than superficial, one that “asks why” in a way that goes against the Maritainian compromise.

Moreover, the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, the American Academy of Religion and this blog are not intended as fora for pragmatic political compromises. Their influence on global politics is slight enough that they make extremely poor places for such compromises. Rather, they are fora for scholarly discussion and thought. As such, what they do best is go deeper, attempt to establish what is genuinely true and what is false.