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”: it is able to point out ways in which many of Nussbaum’s objections do not stand up against Śāntideva, but there are others it does not knock down, and ultimately it is not able to take a position between them. Over the past year I have been thinking a lot about how to advance something like the twenty-year project: a project that would resolve that cliffhanger and allow a genuine dialectical synthesis between the different worldviews, Buddhist and Western, that I find compelling. But such a project remains daunting; it is difficult to know where to begin. In the meantime it feels like I have only been generating more cliffhangers: most notably my final post on rights, which, at the end of a four-part series, did not actually take up any constructive position as to what a good reason for saying we have a right would be.
So where to go from there? It is on this question that I have recently been helped by encountering anew the works of Alasdair MacIntyre. Especially, I think, MacIntyre points out that the dissertation’s cliffhanger ending was inevitable because of the place it began. On MacIntyre’s reading, the reason my dissertation could not go far to resolve the disputes it identifies between Śāntideva and Nussbaum is effectively the same reason analytic philosophy fails to resolve its own disputes:
The resources of such philosophy enable us to elucidate a variety of logical and conceptual relationships, so that we can chart the bearing of one set of beliefs upon another in respect of coherence and incoherence and in so doing exhibit as the shared inheritance of the discipline of academic philosophy a minimal conception of rationality. But whenever and insofar as philosophers proceed to conclusions of a more substantive kind, they do so by invoking one out of a number of rival and conflicting more substantial conceptions of rationality, conceptions upon which they have been as unable to secure rational agreement in the philosophical profession as have Gifford lecturers in expounding their rival and competing claims concerning natural theology and the foundation of ethics. (Three Rival Versions pp. 11-12)
That is, analytic philosophy agrees only on a set of thin, formal, standards of rationality; securing further agreement requires thicker, more substantive standards: standards that themselves presuppose some of the metaphysical, epistemological and even normative commitments of the traditions arguing with each other. The dissertation, I realize, hits exactly this problem. It spends significant time in its second and sixth chapters identifying its approach to rationality. In order to make it easier for the reasons used by Śāntideva and Nussbaum to have cross-cultural applicability and speak to each other, I restrict my criterion of rationality to a thin and formal one, namely non-contradiction. In the dialogue between Śāntideva and Nussbaum I assess their arguments in terms of their formal validity; I don’t employ any thicker, more controversial criteria of what counts as rational or irrational actions. MacIntyre, in the above passage, is telling me that that’s exactly the problem. And I think he’s right.
The problem is that formal rationality only goes so far. At some point, MacIntyre rightly argues, you need to engage questions of substantive practical rationality. That is, what are one’s criteria for deciding what counts as a good and bad action? As an observed matter, people across traditions do employ criteria that vary widely. I have noted how they vary greatly in articulating what counts as a right. In the second chapter of the dissertation I noted Śāntideva’s own standards of practical rationality, how his arguments tend to go back to three main categories of reason: suffering (or unpleasant mental states), good and bad karma, and metaphysics. But I don’t bring these far enough into the comparative analysis for it to be productive.
In the dialogue with Nussbaum I refer to reasons based on suffering, and translate the ones based on karma back into those terms. That is fine as far as it goes, but it can’t bring the dialogue any further because it doesn’t ask: what does Nussbaum think of these criteria? Or, what would she think of them? Especially, what does she prioritize over suffering, and why? Perhaps even more important, on the other side, I explicitly bracket the reasons based on metaphysics, since Nussbaum herself makes few metaphysical claims and arguments. But as I have more recently argued, those metaphysical questions are essential to Śāntideva’s reasoning, and one cannot fully engage him in a debate without them.
But how can one engage in a debate with them? By the end of the dissertation I make some stabs at answering such a question, but they are only preliminaries. It does seem to me that for a really meaningful encounter of philosophies across traditions to take place, they must acknowledge their differences and debate with each other not only piecemeal, but in ways that go back to the complex of reasons that constitute their first principles and standards of practical rationality, and take that complex as a whole. What I think MacIntyre offers is some really valuable guidelines for taking such a holistic approach. I am now writing an article on what those guidelines are, and you can expect to hear more about them here in the near future.