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
I struggle with the Buddhist concept of non-self. I am not sure whether I accept it. But I am confident that Buddhists are able to demolish one of the more influential Western accounts of the self, that of René Descartes.
Descartes, recall, is worried that he cannot be certain of anything. Like Plato before him, he knows his senses are often wrong; he could be dreaming, he could be in the Matrix. Unlike Plato, he is not satisfied to take even mathematics as a certain foundation. It could be that an evil demon (or the creators of the Matrix) had deceived him such that there was no shape or place, and the real world was far stranger. Geometry isn’t certain enough. Arithmetic? Here he comes to real uncertainty:
I sometimes think that others go wrong even when they think they have the most perfect knowledge; so how do I know that I myself don’t go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square?
I think Descartes’s reasoning is right up to this point (as many Buddhists would not). Continue reading
There followed a discussion back and forth between Justin and myself. The discussion has moved away from anything to do with trans* issues, which is fine with me because my point, and I think Justin’s too, was about something bigger: the role of justice and activism in Buddhist tradition. I won’t try to recap the discussion here because the link is available for those who haven’t seen it. I’ll just refresh your memory by quoting Justin’s most recent comment: Continue reading
Last week I attended an interesting talk by Harvard PhD candidate (and fellow Canuck) Rory Lindsay, through the graduate Workshop in Cross-Cultural Philosophy – a workshop I’m proud to have played a part in founding (and I’m happy to say that its current leaders have made it exponentially more successful than it ever was under my stewardship). Lindsay was exploring the skepticism of the Indian Buddhist thinker Candrakīrti; he compared Candrakīrti to the Hellenistic capital-S Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who held similar views, and examined the arguments made against Sextus by Myles Burnyeat. I want to discuss Lindsay’s talk by first giving some background to it, then recounting it, and finally offering a few of my reflections that came out of it.
Lindsay’s talk – I hope I will be interpreting it correctly – delved far enough into the technical details of Buddhist theoretical debates that some introductory remarks are in order. Those familiar with these debates should feel free to skip down a couple of paragraphs. Buddhist teaching deliberately and thoughtfully attacks certain aspects of common sense and common linguistic usage, and yet nevertheless needs to make some use of that linguistic usage. Continue reading
Lately I’ve been noting a pattern that seems to pop up across in the history of philosophy. Once philosophers deconstruct either the thinking human subject – the self – or nonhuman objects, new generations of philosophers will shortly come to deconstruct both together. The classical Buddhist thought of the Pali suttas and Abhidhamma says there is no atta or ?tman; by this it means only that there is no human or divine self. The continuity of human identity is an illusion; what we think of as ourselves is really just a collection of smaller physical and mental atom-like particles, momentary events that make it up. But – in this early Buddhism – these particles and events, unlike the self, are ultimately real.
Within a century or two, however, along comes the great Nāgārjuna and his Madhyamaka philosophy. Madhyamaka thinkers take the no-?tman doctrine much further. Now the ?tman isn’t just the thinking subjective self; it’s the self-ness in everything. Objects, including the atomized particles and events so dear to the Abhidhamma, are just as unreal as the subject. The deconstruction of the subject leads historically to the deconstruction of the object.
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre once said that “it is the lawyers, not the philosophers, who are the clergy of liberalism.” That is, in modern societies – liberal in the broad sense – it is lawyers who do the work, and have the status, once given to the medieval European Christian priesthood.
On this point I think MacIntyre is half right – or perhaps three-quarters right. He is quite right to note the low status that the modern West accords philosophers; but he overemphasizes the role of lawyers, because his concept of the good is (to my mind) overly political. Lawyers do play the role of medieval clergy as the rulers’ intellectual assistants in determining what a good state will be in practice. When it comes to the good life itself, however, the intellectual heavy lifting is done by a very different group: namely doctors, and medical researchers. It is medicine, not law (and certainly not philosophy), that plays the greatest role in telling moderns how they should live.