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Andrew Ollett has recently taken up the point I made earlier this year that Buddhist ethics, in distinction from modern analytical ethics, is not primarily concerned with decision procedure. He identifies Indian non-analytic approaches as “capacity-oriented”: “They maintain that ethical decision-making and action always presuppose being formed as a subject with particular capacities, dispositions, habits, and so on.” That is not quite how I would put it, because for a Buddhist thinker like Buddhaghosa, we are not actually subjects, formed or otherwise; our systematic delusion forms an idea of ourselves as subjects, but this idea is false, and part of the goal of ethics is to un-form or at least de-form it. I do agree, though, that in Buddhist ethics there is an emphasis on the development of beneficial dispositions and habits – virtues – that stands in distinction to the analytical emphasis on a decision procedure. (It seems to me like this might not be the case in Mīmāṃsā, whose legalistic mode of ethical reasoning does seem oriented to a decision procedure, but Andrew knows more about Mīmāṃsā than I do.)

Andrew’s post gets particularly interesting when he maps the decision/capacity distinction onto “disciplinary and methodological differences, or perhaps better, differences of outlook.” I think there is something to this point. I am not entirely in agreement with it, but I’d like to parse out that disagreement, as I think it points to something of deep methodological importance.

The post argues, rightly I think, that differences in genre suggest differences in use: a “decision-oriented” text (like, say, Kant’s Grounding) lends itself to a different use than a “capacity-oriented” text, like Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga or like the interesting nīti text Andrew is reflecting on, the Nītidviṣaṣṭika of Sundarapāṇḍya. Andrew suggests that “decision-oriented” texts lend themselves to a use he calls “philosophical”, while the “capacity-oriented” texts suggest more of a “historical” use – though he is rightly aware that this way of putting it does not exactly capture the idea. This distinction in use is best expressed in the questions we ask of the texts. The “philosophical” use asks questions like: “What is the argument here? Does the argument work?” The “historical” use asks questions like: “Who are the subjects addressed here? What are they supposed to actually do? How do the social, the ethical, and the aesthetic relate to each other? How would these texts have been used?”

Now this use of this sort of distinction makes alarm bells go off in my mind. Far too often, it tends to set up the sort of unfortunate distinction – Orientalist in the pejorative sense – that has characterized venues like the Journal of Religious Ethics (JRE), at least in the 20th century. That is, it sets up Western texts to be taken as works of normative ethics that we can learn from now, and Indian texts to be taken as the mere objects of ethics studies – texts that might help us understand those people out there, but that have nothing to say to us about the way we live. We do not identify its content as a candidate for truth.

I single out JRE as an example of this problematic approach because some of its own authors, in a 1997 symposium (issue 25(3)), identified what the problem was without really realizing that it was a problem. James Gustafson noted that JRE began entirely with work in normative Christian ethics, but then progressed to incorporate other traditions and move “from normative ethics to descriptive, comparative, and analytical ethics.” But the two changes, unfortunately, were closely linked: insofar as JRE dealt in non-Christian ethics, the work was no longer normative – no longer about what we readers of the JRE should do, but about those curious and interesting weird people on the other side of the world. Ronald Green in the same issue listed eight ethical thinkers who had been the subject of JRE symposia on their contemporary relevance – and every single one of those thinkers was a Christian, a point that Green somehow managed to avoid even mentioning. The message, whether intended or not, is clear: we, the readers of JRE, are Christians. Christian texts apply to us; non-Christian texts don’t. We ask normatively whether the ideas in Christian texts are correct; non-Christian texts are treated, at best, with the kind of patronizing contempt that doesn’t even ask whether they could be right. (The thinkers in that 1997 symposium who show the sharpest understanding of the journal’s situation are those, like Stanley Hauerwas, who have no problem with taking a purely Christian approach.)

Now of course Andrew’s post does not follow JRE’s approach of taking a philosophical approach to Christian texts and a historical approach to everything else. My reason for bringing up JRE’s unfortunate recent history is to highlight a problematic way in which the distinction is too often applied. The study of philosophy in general is too ready to follow a similar methodology without Christianity: we think with Western thinkers (typically in philosophy departments) but only about non-Western ones (typically in religion departments). So I am concerned more generally about this distinction and its application and uses. Fortunately, Andrew’s post does not hew too closely to the distinction, as it makes this vital point:

Although these different uses of texts pertain to very different sets of questions, I’m not convinced that the “historical” use of texts is unphilosophical—which is a mild way of saying that attention to the ways in which ethical systems are constructed and lived in history is exactly what philosophy needs.

I think this last claim of Andrew’s helps point us to a way to transcend the distinction, and that it is essential for us to do so. I will take that point up next time.