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A while ago I referred to Śāntideva’s thought as “ethics without morality” – a deliberately provocative formulation based on Shyam Ranganathan’s eccentric definition of morality as that which conduces to anger. (I don’t agree with Shyam’s definition myself, but putting matters in those terms for the sake of argument helps us to make an interesting and important point.) The idea for Śāntideva is that because everything has a cause, no one is truly to blame for their actions, and therefore we should not get angry at them.

Mark Siderits, in a 2008 article in Sophia, has called this view “Buddhist paleo-compatibilism”: “compatibilism” meaning roughly that while Śāntideva thinks it morally significant that everything has a cause, he still thinks it appropriate to blame people for bad actions.

I don’t think that that is what Śāntideva means, based on a reading of the Sanskrit text of Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter six. I think Siderits reads a great deal into verse 32 that is not actually there, and that is at odds with Śāntideva’s explicit argument in verses 22-33. But I won’t expand on that particular point here, because overall I find the detailed textual argument less interesting than the more general constructive argument. (And in a blog post, as opposed to a journal article, I can take this approach.)

On my reading (as on Charles Goodman’s), Śāntideva is not a compatibilist but a hard determinist. When he says we shouldn’t ever get angry at people for their actions, he means it; and I think he does mean, in a strong sense, that people should not be held morally responsible for their actions.

Siderits seems to find the hard-determinist reading implausible because Śāntideva throughout his text speaks of anger and other problematic emotions, whoever they belong to, in clearly negative and critical terms:

Śāntideva heaps scorn on those who respond to provocation with anger. He thus appears to believe that those who fail to engage in Buddhist practice are blameworthy. The self-determination argument seems to show that there can be no responsibility, yet one can be blameworthy only for that for which one is responsible.

But I don’t think this follows. I understand Śāntideva’s position as working similarly to that of another hard determinist, Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza. Spinoza’s major work was called the Ethics, and some commentators have said it is not his ethics but his metaphysics, because it seems to be primariy descriptive of how the world is. But to say that is arguably to misunderstand Spinoza.

Spinoza opposes the idea of free will, and in so doing it almost seems like he abolishes the “ought”, the idea that we should do anything. For we no longer really make decisions and have choices, we just follow deterministic causal chains. In so doing, he introduces a new idea of what “ethics” would mean. As I understand it, Spinoza’s metaphysics abolishes not only free will but possibility: everything either happens or it doesn’t. And so it is not meaningful to speak of what we should do – only what the effect of our reflection will be.

But it is on this latter point that Spinoza’s ethics remains ethical in some sense. For he does say some things are good and others bad – and I think he can do so consistently. The same, I suspect, is true of Śāntideva. Spinoza claims that the highest good (summum bonum) is knowledge of God, which comes with blessedness (beatitudo). Words like “good” can then be defined in terms of this summum bonum.

Such a claim departs from common usage of the term “good”, of course, but Spinoza is not aiming to represent common usage. Rather, he descriptively articulates a highest good that is defined as it is at least in part because (so he argues) it is the ultimate aim of human desires when those desires are correctly viewed. If this is accepted, then “good” and “bad”, and even “should” and “should not”, mean no more and no less than “conducing to the ultimate good”. They can then be reduced to entirely descriptive terms, possibly even terms that are entirely empirically falsifiable. (Most consequentialist ethical positions could probably allow for a similar reduction, if one wished to make it.)

I think it is fruitful to understand Śāntideva in a way very similar to Spinoza. In his eighth chapter he famously claims that everyone wants to prevent suffering, and the only mistake involved is when we try to end only our own rather than else’s. The good then becomes understood in terms of preventing suffering. This seems particularly plausible when one notes that the most common words connoting good and bad in Śāntideva’s work are puṇya and pāpa, which is to say good and bad karma. (I have previously argued that the concept of puṇya has a great deal in common with Greek eudaimonia, human flourishing.) So to say bad things about angry people (“heap scorn” on them) is just to say that what they do conduces to suffering. And to say that we should do something is just to make the claim that it will conduce to ending suffering.

So why would Śāntideva even bother composing a text like the Bodhicaryāvatāra that praises what ends suffering and criticizes what conduces to it? Because it so happens that the causal chains to date have awakened his mind and made him the sort of person who acts with the goal of ending suffering. (The idea of acting with a goal is hardly incompatible with determinism – only the idea of independently choosing a goal. A bacterium’s actions are causally determined, but it acts with the goal of reproducing itself. It may not have first-person reasons, but it does have dative reasons.) And the fact that he is the sort of person who now has that goal causes him to compose a text which, he thinks, will cause other people to become that sort of person as well. Since the text seems like it has some chance of causing others to prevent suffering, it seems likely that composing it will help prevent suffering. And we may therefore speak of this text as good.

So too, we may speak of those who get angry as bad, because their anger conduces to suffering. But that does not mean assigning them responsibility; it only means understanding the way in which the chains of causation have led them to be the sort of people who cause suffering. Since we are the sort of people who prevent suffering, which is to say good people, we will want to act against such bad people, but we do not assign them responsibility for their badness any more than we assign responsibility to the bile that causes a stomach ache – though it too is bad because it causes suffering. And it is because he gets all of this that Śāntideva knows not to get angry at anybody – even when he points out that their actions are bad, which is to say they lead to suffering.