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.)
In philosophy as in any other field, one sees further by standing on the shoulders of giants. I have tried to engage in detail with contemporary thinkers whose work seems like it might be helpful in advancing the inquiries that most interest me. The first such was Ken Wilber. I’ve said before that I think he asks the right questions but gets the wrong answers, and I think a key reason for that is that he has an unsustainable method, a perennialist method that refuses to acknowledge genuine diversity. I have learned a lot from my engagement with him, but I cannot take up his approach.
More recently I have turned in detail to the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose thought I’ve already juxtaposed against Wilber’s a number of times (often in MacIntyre’s favour). I had expected that I would engage MacIntyre much as I had engaged Wilber: seeing him as a source of important and productive ideas, but ultimately wrong. Now I am not so sure. Continue reading
David Chapman has on his blog a provocative new series of posts about Buddhist ethics. You can get a strong sense of the tenor of these posts from their titles: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud, “Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics, Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system, Buddhist morality is Medieval, and How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics. Continue reading
Last time I introduced the idea of supererogatory acts, those that are good beyond what duty and obligation require. The nature of supererogatory acts is sometimes referred to with the noun form supererogation. David Heyd’s Stanford Encyclopedia article makes a good introduction to the idea of supererogation. It also, I think, tells us what analytical moral philosophy gets wrong about the idea – specifically, when it claims that “the class of actions beyond duty is relatively small…”
Says who? Say contemporary ethicists, according to Heyd. But to my mind this does a lot to illustrate what is wrong with their way of thinking. The claim that relatively few actions go beyond the requirements of duty would certainly be true for Peter Singer and most utilitarians and consequentialists, who subject us to an effectively never-ending stream of demands in which little could be supererogatory short of altruistic suicide. Likewise, while I think it would not be hard to allow great room for supererogatory acts in a neo-Kantian position, as Heyd notes this was not Kant’s own view: there were perfect and imperfect duties, but the latter were duties all the same.
But this, I would argue, is one of the many things both utilitarians and Kantians get wrong – and therefore the majority of analytical ethicists, since most major analytical ethics descends from one or both of these sources. Continue reading
Aeon magazine recently published an excellent popularized version of Eric Schwitzgebel’s reflections on his research indicating that professional ethicists are no more ethical than anybody else. I’ve already blogged here both about the research and about the reflections. Betsy (Elizabeth) Barre shared the Aeon piece on her Facebook feed, leading to a lively conversation on Facebook which provoked me to think further about deeper issues around it.
In that conversation I shared my earlier reflection on the topic. In response, among other thoughts, Barre noted she was surprised that Schwitzgebel hadn’t presented the reflection in terms of the standard distinction between “what is moral?” and “why be moral?” And she asked me: “I take it that you think the latter question is not as problematic as some philosophers and ethicists do?”
That question came as a surprise. Continue reading
The article is entitled “The Metaphysical Basis of Śāntideva’s Ethics“. Buddhists do a lot of theoretical philosophy that sometimes seems irrelevant to the project of freeing ourselves from suffering, and this article aims to show why it isn’t. I’ve been wanting to probe the theoretical foundations of ethics more, and this article is one exploration into that. I presented it at the SACP a few years ago and have now finally made it available. Have a look!
My friend Stephen Harris recently posted an interesting article on the question of whether Śāntideva’s ethics is “overdemanding”. I appreciate the article’s methodological approach. It engages Śāntideva’s ethics with the categories of analytical moral philosophy while moving beyond the relatively fruitless attempt to classify it: not “is Śāntideva’s ethics consequentialist?” but “is Śāntideva’s ethics vulnerable to the charges made against consequentialism?” The latter approach is more important because it allows engagement with Śāntideva’s ideas: asking the question “to what extent is Śāntideva right?” Continue reading
We have seen over the past few posts that while the idea of individual rights is not just a modern invention, it also is far from a universal one. Rights are not obvious or commonsensical. Contra the American Declaration of Independence, they are not self-evident.
Rather, rights need reasons. If one wants to get to the truth of the matter (and not merely to achieve an expedient political deal), it is never good enough to say something should be done for, or not done to, a person “because he has a right to it”. The right itself requires a justification. Sometimes one’s interlocutor already agrees that the person has this right, but in many cases – the most important cases – they do not in fact agree.
This point is easy to lose sight of, perhaps especially in the contemporary United States where the opposing political sides rarely speak to each other. Each side insists it is defending rights: the employee’s right to contraception, Hobby Lobby‘s right to refuse to provide contraception on religious grounds, the fetus’s right to life, the woman’s right to an abortion. But what is in question here – assuming we acknowledge the existence of rights in the first place – is who has which rights. And then we need to provide reasons.
On Leif Wenar’s modern definition, a right is an entitlement. Historically, when William of Ockham articulated a concept of rights that would get increasingly taken up in the years following, it was a potesta licitas: a legal power, a power of licence. Key to a right is an entitlement or licence that implies an obligation of others to respect it.
But who grants the licence, the entitlement, the permission? Continue reading
Last time I began exploring the history of the concept of rights (as in human or civil rights), through the works of Michel Villey and Brian Tierney. I noted that the concept as we now understand it has its roots in Latin ius, which had a meaning more like law and one’s proper share than like rights. How did this concept become the concept of individual rights that we now have today?
Villey lays the blame (and for him it is blame) on one key thinker, William of Ockham (or Occam). Continue reading
Few concepts are more ubiquitous in our political vocabulary today than rights – human rights, civil rights, equal rights. It is a widespread concept even in non-Western thought about politics, let alone Western. We could try to reject the concept, but that would require great effort, intellectual as well as political – for it would necessarily be reactionary, an innovation through conservatism. A literal conservatism would have to accept the idea of rights, given how intricately woven it is into the fabric of our political discourse. We cannot do without it lightly.
Yet few concepts are also so difficult to defend. Rights-based arguments often get nowhere, because the rights asserted are typically in obvious diametrical contrast: the fetus has a right to life, the pregnant woman has a right to control her body, now what? Rights are typically supposed to be something different from utility; they are not the sort of thing one can trade off and weigh. (That is the role they play in the thought of John Rawls, for example, where protecting individual rights takes “lexicographic” priority – that is, always comes first – over maximizing the welfare of the worst off.) So when competing rights are asserted, too often it leads not to reasoning but to combat. Sometimes the combat is judicial, as over the rights declared in the American Constitution; but those only happen to be the rights articulated by one country’s laws at one point in time. The force of the concepts of civil rights or human rights can only derive from them being something higher, truer, than what happens to be one existing state’s law. Continue reading