I admire Maria Heim‘s research on gift-giving in classical India. There’s one point that I think her work misses, however – a topic I had intended to cover in my dissertation on Śāntideva but never had room for. It’s not a constructive philosophical point – I’m not taking any ideas of my own from the ideas I discuss here – but it’s helpful to think about in order to understand philosophies like Śāntideva’s that I do draw significantly from. (And it will be relevant to next week’s post.) Continue reading
One of the first posts I made on this blog examined Dale Wright‘s methodological approach of naturalized karma. This is a way of continuing to use the concept of karma, and thereby remaining more closely in dialogue with classical Buddhist (and Jain and brahmanical) texts – without relying on the supernatural connections usually implied by the concept, especially rebirth. (By “karma” here I refer above all to the referents of Sanskrit pāpa and especially puṇya, best translated respectively as “bad karma” and “good karma”.) I’d like to explore this idea in more detail here.
Wright’s basic approach is to read karma as meaning something like an Aristotelian virtue ethic: good actions are rewarded with a good, flourishing life, in this life irrespective of future ones (and bad ones correspondingly punished). This much is not a Yavanayāna innovation; plenty of Buddhist texts make it clear that good action is rewarded in this life as well as in future ones. Continue reading
Judging by the comments, many readers found my diagnosis-prognosis post to be dark and pessimistic. Going back to the post, it’s not hard to see why. I endorse there the dark view of our existing human problems shared by Augustine, Marx and the Pali suttas; and yet I don’t think any of their solutions work. The essay effectively ends with a rejection of hope. The logical conclusion to draw from the essay might seem to be “life sucks.”
The understandable reactions to the essay’s pessimism nevertheless surprised me. For as I wrote it, I felt light, happy, life-affirming. Why? Continue reading
I generally agree with Aristotle that virtue is a mean between two vices – even in cases like justice, which are often taken as counterexamples. If one goes too far in one direction (say, cowardice or sense of entitlement), one misses the best way to be; the same applies in the other direction (foolhardiness or submissiveness), though it may sometimes be harder to see.
It’s easy, though, to misinterpret the idea of virtue as a mean. Virtue is not merely the middle ground. It is not a combination or a compromise between two vices. Virtue requires that the middle ground one occupy be specifically a good middle ground. It needs, essentially, to preserve what is best in each vice – to be a synthesis rather than a compromise. Continue reading
In a recent post linking back to an earlier one, I spoke of being “saved from politics.” Judging by the comments and incoming links, that phrase seems to have struck a chord with several readers. But several of those readers, notably Grad Student, also rightly asked: does that mean you are urging us to be apolitical, or even anti-political?
It’s a great question, and one I’ve asked myself a number of times. Being anti-political is a position I’ve flirted with a lot, especially over the course of writing my dissertation, and my personal views are closely entangled with the ideas I address there. In many respects I see the dissertation’s main contribution to Śāntideva scholarship as pointing out the strongly anti-political nature of Śāntideva’s thought, and the underlying reasons for his anti-politics. Śāntideva is, I think, often thought of as a great friend to the Engaged Buddhist program of Buddhist political activism, since he is probably best known as the favourite thinker of that noted activist Tenzin Gyatso, the present (fourteenth) Dalai Lama; I claimed in the dissertation that such a placing of Śāntideva is mistaken. Continue reading
By far the most famous portions of Śāntideva’s work are his meditations on the equalization and exchange of self and other, found in chapter VIII of the Bodhicary?vat?ra. They appear in Western introductory readers on ethics, and are considered the foundation for an entire genre of Tibetan literature, blo sbyong or “mental purification.” Personally, these are not generally my favourite parts of Śāntideva’s work; his arguments against the existence of the self do not convince me, and the meditative exercises strike me as potentially damaging. That said, they do contain one line that sticks with me, that strikes me as extremely profound and valuable: All those in the world who are suffering are so because of a desire for their own happiness. All those in the world who are happy are so because of a desire for the happiness of others. (BCA VIII.129, my translation)
I discussed this claim once before but want to return to it. The claim is, I think, overstated for rhetorical effect. Even in Śāntideva’s eyes, merely desiring others’ happiness will not make you happy – especially if you are misguided about the causes of their happiness, so that you try only to provide them with external goods rather than addressing the inner mental causes of their suffering. And yet from my experience, I would still say the claim is more true than not. There’s something self-defeating about searching after one’s own happiness itself. If one keeps one’s eye on this goal above all, one becomes too acutely aware of failures at it, too focused on one’s lack of happiness – “I’m trying so hard to be happy and yet I’m not; something must be wrong with me” – and the goal is inhibited. (In his book Power Sleep, psychologist James Maas noted a similar problem with respect to sleep: subjects offered $20 if they fell asleep quickly would take longer to fall asleep than subjects who were not offered the money.) Continue reading
In examining my previous question on internalism and externalism I’ve been trying to explore a powerful but complex and difficult answer: that this question is expressed in the very history of Western philosophy.
Lately I’ve slowly been making my way through Philosophy and Freedom, a collection of essays by and about the neglected Canadian Hegelian philosopher James Doull (rhymes with towel). Doull, like Socrates or George Herbert Mead, never published a book during his lifetime; his reputation derives almost entirely from being spread by his students and their students, mostly through the classics department at Dalhousie University and the great-books program at its affiliated University of King’s College. (I myself know Doull’s work only because a lifelong friend of mine is one of Doull’s “grand-pupils,” a devoted student of Doull’s students at Dalhousie and King’s.)
Doull’s work is difficult, both in the density of its prose and in the wide range of the texts it expects familiarity with – the chapter on ancient Greece covers not only philosophy but the full range of history, tragedy and comedy, viewing their scope all together through a Hegelian philosophical lens. Moreover, because Doull’s concerns are so wide-ranging, a study of his work does not immediately repay the reader with direct application to particular philosophical questions and problems. If ever there was a big-picture thinker it is this man, at least when it comes to Western philosophical traditions.
And yet studying Doull closely has ultimately paid off for me in thinking about the big question I’ve addressed above. I realize that this question of ethical motivation has, in its way, been central to Western philosophical tradition, not merely in the works of individual thinkers but through its history. Continue reading
My philosophical awakening occurred in Thailand in 1997; but it has been over the past decade, “the ohs,” that I’ve really had the chance to develop my thoughts. As that decade closes, I would like to note how my thoughts were shaped by their time.
I spent almost the entire decade living in the United States, except for two three-month stints in Toronto in 2001 and India in 2005. It was not the ideal decade in which to do this, for the US of this decade was the US of George W. Bush: a man who opposed almost everything I had ever stood for, whether substantively (torture, wars of choice, gutting environmental regulations), procedurally (incompetent patronage appointments for natural disasters, governing unilaterally without respect for other branches of government) or symbolically (insisting on suits and ties in the White House). I had grown up despising Ronald Reagan, but Reagan now looked like a saint compared to W – Reagan at least was competent. And in the face of all this, Americans returned him to office in 2004.
For my many American friends – the vast majority of them left-wingers like me – this decade was a time of powerlessness and rage. But they at least could vote, could contribute to political campaigns, could do something about it. Continue reading
Heath White of PEA Soup has an interesting new post up called The Ethics of Santa. White argues that parents and educators should not teach their children the myth of Santa Claus, for three major reasons:
- It involves a lot of lying and deception practiced on credulous people.
- It tends to foster greed in children and contributes to their false impression that one’s happiness is determined by one’s material possessions.
- In telling children that the quantity and quality of one’s gifts are a function of one’s behavior, when actually they are a function of one’s socio-economic standing and parental temperament, it induces moral complacency in well-off children and false feelings of moral inferiority in less well-off children.
One of 2009’s more interesting developments in philosophy is the publication of John Rawls’s Princeton undergraduate thesis, entitled A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith. In the past thirty-five years we have known Rawls as an eminently secular political philosopher, trying first (in A Theory of Justice) to work out a political philosophy without any “religious” ideas, and then later (in Political Liberalism) leaving “religious” views at the margins of the theory, where they’re only allowed in insofar as they agree with each other, forming an “overlapping consensus.”
Turns out it wasn’t always so. The title of Rawls’s thesis would have appeared a little drab at the time, but it’s striking to those who have read Rawls’s later philosophy. While the thesis deals heavily with questions of community and interpersonal relations, it says very little about Rawls’s later concern for the organization of the state. And soon after he wrote it, Rawls would go off to fight in World War II, and the horrors he saw would turn him agnostic. But what’s far more striking in the thesis is the continuity between the old (devout, pious) Rawls and the new (secular, political) Rawls. For my part, I have previously thought of Rawls as a philosophical foe – associating him with the utilitarianism that I rejected – and the thesis confirms to me that, in the most important respects, Rawls was thinking in all the wrong directions. Continue reading