One of the more pressing questions in political philosophy is how to prevent the arbitrary use of power. I think Thomas Hobbes and Xunzi were sadly right to diagnose an abiding darkness in human nature: left to our own devices, human beings can easily degenerate into disastrous crimes. Primatology suggests a confirmation: among our closest (or nearly closest) living relatives, the chimpanzees, a jockeying for power and status can lead to vicious rivalries and even murder – even in the idyllic situation where all their material needs are provided for. The evidence of existing human history does nothing to suggest that language or other human capacities have made us better than that.
But Hobbes, as far as I can tell, offers the worst possible solution to this problem: to concentrate power in a single sovereign person. Then that one person becomes able to tyrannize everyone else in a way completely unrestrained, just as he pleases. (It is rarely a she.) The twentieth century gives us too many chilling examples of mass murder and terror from a sovereign given arbitrary power.
A more reasonable approach to the problem asks how we can contain the dark impulses of all people – and of the sovereign leader most of all. It is likely no mystery why I’m asking this question living in 2020 in the United States.Continue reading
Evan Thompson’s critique of my eudaimonistic and probabilistic approach to karma has two prongs: that it is not really karma, and that it doesn’t work on its own terms. I addressed the first criticism last time. Now I’d like to turn to the second, which I personally find to be the more interesting and important of the two.
Let us start with the word “probabilistic”, which I use in a non-technical way. My eudaimonism is a probabilistic claim (as opposed to a deterministic claim) in the same sense that “brushing your teeth will prevent cavities” or “running into the middle of a busy street will get you run over by a car” are probabilistic claims. That is, we assert that these causal correlations are likely, not certain. In the case of the busy street, I’m not sure we have a detailed statistical model of how likely you are to get run over by a car, but I don’t think we need one. Everyday observation is sufficient to determine that. In the case of virtue and happiness, I’ve mentioned a couple of ways that Śāntideva says one leads to the other, in this life; there is a lot more to say about it, and I intend to say it in my book – not with a statistical model, but again I don’t think that’s necessary. This is what I mean by “probabilistic”. I’m not wedded to that specific word: so far “probabilistic” has seemed the most appropriate word to express the concept in question and I haven’t been convinced that it isn’t, but I wouldn’t mind expressing the concept just described with a different term if a better one is available.
If I read Thompson’s objections on that point correctly, though, I don’t think they are about a statistical model or its absence. Rather, his bigger concern is this: Continue reading
It appears that the trolley problem is, as they say, having a moment. Possibly due to its newfound relevance to autonomous cars and other robots – a relevance that would have been entirely science-fictional when Philippa Foot formulated the modern version of the problem in 1967 – it is now making multiple appearances in popular culture. In that respect it is a notable counterpoint to the claim I made years ago that analytic philosophy doesn’t make for good visual media.
Two years ago I noted how the problem is the focus of an excellent episode of Michael Schur’s The Good Place. The Wikipedia entry on the trolley problem lists several other appearance from the past decade. Perhaps most entertainingly of all, the writers of the webcomic Cyanide and Happiness have released a hilarious party game (in the matching style of Apples To Apples or Superfight) called Trial By Trolley.
The Good Place, an American comedy-fantasy series created by Michael Schur and airing on NBC, is perhaps the most explicitly philosophical American television show in recent memory. I think it aims to do for moral philosophy what Breaking Bad did for chemistry. (This post speaks of the second season, but does not have spoilers – at least in the sense that it does not reveal any of the show’s twists.) Continue reading
I’ve been thinking further on the decision/capacity distinction first articulated by Andrew Ollett, and I want to take a further step. So far Andrew and I have merely acknowledged the existence of this distinction – identifying different thinkers on either side and exploring the distinction’s implications for philosophical methodology. But I am, at this point, ready to make a more substantive claim: the “capacity” approaches are better. In ethics, we should be “capacity” rather than “decision” thinkers. I had stressed before that we can and should address the “capacity” approach philosophically and not merely historically; now I want to actually do so, and say that it is correct. Continue reading
I’ve been fortunate in the past year and a half to meet Charles Goodman at three different conferences, and to have long and stimulating discussions with him. Since our researches have both focused on Śāntideva’s ethics, we can critique each other’s ideas at a highly detailed level – one that has often involved whipping out a physical copy of Charles’s excellent new translation of the Śikṣā Samuccaya to confirm our points.
Probably our central point of disagreement: Charles is known for presenting a consequentialist interpretation of Buddhist ethics, and especially of Śāntideva; in his talk at the IABS, referred to Śāntideva as “the world’s first utilitarian”. Since I discovered Buddhism in part as an alternative to an unsatisfying utilitarianism, this has not sat particularly well with me. Continue reading
I’m continuing to examine Justin Whitaker‘s interpretation of Pali Buddhist ethics as Kantian moral law. I argued last time that the concept of dhamma does not serve in these texts as a universal, trans-human moral law. Here I want to take a similar look at the concept of kamma – better known in English as karma.
Justin claims that for Kant “the Moral Law is universal, concerned with all (rational) beings, and is holistic in its conception of morality as a guarantor to a just realm of ends (supported by the moral argument for belief in God).” (47) I think this interpretation of Kant is missing something in that Kant does not view the moral argument as demonstrating that there actually is a guarantee of cosmic justice, only that we must act as if there is (it is a regulative ideal). But I’ll leave that aside here because I want to focus on the comparison to Buddhism. Continue reading
In his interesting recent Buddhism and Political Theory, Matthew Moore sums up current scholarly work on Buddhist ethics noting “There are several major debates ongoing in the field, particularly whether early Buddhist ethics are better understood as consequentialist or a version of virtue ethics (almost no one argues for deontology)…” (113)
My friend and fellow blogger Justin Whitaker is a major part of the “almost”. I once described him as a “voice in the wilderness” for interpreting Buddhist ethics in terms of Kantian deontology. But I was delighted to hear that he has recently completed his dissertation, in a way that should make that voice a little louder. And I was happy to have a chance to read it.
To say that I am delighted that the work exists is not, of course, to say that I agree with it. Continue reading
A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.
A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.
Haidt asks us: Did the people in either of these cases do something morally wrong? My reaction was, and is, to say yes in the first case but not the second. Continue reading