I have noted that those modern Westerners who learn from South Asian philosophy are usually looking for Ascent while those who learn from East Asian are usually looking for intimacy. Given that my own doctorate was specialized in South Asia, with little East Asian component despite my eventual focus on Buddhism, you might easily guess what my own orientation has been on this score – and you’d be right. I’ve often insisted on correcting those who portray Buddhism as an intimacy-oriented tradition – not just to set the historical record straight, but because I think it’s important to emphasize the value of integrity. When I was thinking in terms of three ways of life, the integrity-oriented “ascetic” and “libertine” approaches, for all their contrasts with each other, both appealed to me far more than the intimacy-oriented “traditionalism”.
But then in recent months and years I’ve been reading significantly more East Asian thought myself – and I’ve also been a bit startled to find myself leaning more toward an intimacy orientation. No doubt the East Asian readings have been part of this, but they’re not the only thing. My first wife had a very strong integrity orientation, where now my wife leans much more strongly to intimacy. Also important has been seeing more of my adorable five-year-old nephew and nieces, who help me appreciate the joys associated with having children (without any of the work!)
While those matters of personal autobiography are important to me, they are less important to a philosophy blog and its readers. More relevant here, I have also started to notice more clearly the reasons why an intimacy orientation to life is important and valuable. As I’ve been writing this post, the number of backlinks to previous posts makes me realize that it’s a realization I’ve been coming to for quite a while.
The reasons in question are above all the ones I began to discuss last week. Above all, it seems to me, an integrity approach lends itself strongly to maximizing, and an intimacy approach to satisficing, and the latter makes one happier.
The point ties deeply to the paradoxes of hedonism. For one of the most common forms of integrity viewpoint has to do with the maximizing of happiness – the hallmark of utilitarianism. But it has been my experience that striving to maximize happiness is often counterproductive. One strives for the external goods associated with happiness, and even to perfect the virtues associated with it, but in that very striving can be found dissatisfaction, discontent, unhappiness – a hatred of the way things are now, hating the real world. For me this is an insight key to East Asian tradition, namely sudden liberation: at some point, one must forget about the striving to be happy or even to be virtuous, and just be happy and virtuous. Julia Annas plausibly sees this wise view in ancient Greek ethics as well.
Where one usually does not find this deemphasis on striving is in the integrity viewpoint of modern analytical ethics, where consequentialism – maximizing by definition – is highly valued. Those consequentialists who notice the paradox of hedonism, like Peter Railton, often offer ways out of it that seem quite unconvincing to me. By contrast, the other main stream of analytical ethics – quasi-Kantian “deontology” – deems happiness unimportant. It is no coincidence to me that both streams are highly mathematical, consequentialism in the obvious way of adding up beneficial consequences (going back to Bentham’s hedonic calculus), deontology in the subtler form of Boolean logic (is it permissible? yes or no.) John Rawls is one of the most successful in combining the two – his political theory sets categorical limits on what is permissible, then maximizes within those limits – and often the first thing one notices in reading his major work is how full it is of diagrams. This emphasis on mathematics and formal logic is central to an integrity approach; it may not be a coincidence in that regard that Julia Annas begins her history of Greek ethics with the more intimacy-oriented Aristotle rather than the integrity-oriented Plato (whose academy is said to have been signed “let no one inept at geometry enter”).
Now I don’t believe that happiness – understood as inner contentment, long-term stable pleasure – is the sole purpose of life; it might not even be the main one. It’s very important, for sure. But it’s also important to be able to think beyond happiness, and examine intimacy and integrity from a wider perspective. I hope to say more about these matters next week.