I’d like to now envision the book I am working on. This post is something like a proposal for the book, both to clarify my thoughts on it and (more importantly) to hear yours. As I write it I keep in mind the wise advice of my dissertation advisor, Parimal Patil, that fundamentally a dissertation proposal is telling a lie. You don’t actually know what the final result is going to be, or you would have already written it; the act of researching it will necessarily make it something different from the proposal. You just don’t know how it will be different. With that in mind, let me attempt to say some more, in a nutshell, about what the book will be.Continue reading
Possibly the biggest philosophical question on my mind is this: why should we do anything at all? Or, why should we do one thing and not another? What is it to have a reason for action, a reason to do anything? It’s difficult to have a coherent ethics without answering this question in some respect; but in some ways it’s even more difficult to answer the question itself.
There are, I think, two basic classes of answer to this question, which analytic philosophers classify as internalism and externalism with respect to ethical motivation. On an internalist view, to have a reason to do something is to have a motivation, perhaps even a desire, to do it. If you don’t at some level want to do something, or at least feel or believe that you should do it, then you shouldn’t do it. On an externalist view, by contrast, reasons are independent of us. There are things we just should do, period, whether or not we have any desire or other motivation to do them.
Each position faces wrenching difficulties. The externalist view is always subject to the laughing, scathing criticism of a Nietzsche. If you can’t tell me why I would want to do something, then bollocks to your “should.” I’ll do what I want instead. External reasons don’t feel like real reasons; Bernard Williams, indeed, has argued that they only really become reasons for action if we acquire motivations to do them. Yet the internalist view seems to collapse into relativism and conservatism. If our existing motivations are the only source of reasons for action, then how can those motivations ever be criticized? On what grounds can you tell Pol Pot he’s doing the wrong thing by killing his citizenry? You run, effectively, into the problems with classical relativism, which show up in a variety of ways, such as the political problems of postmodernism, or the problems of contradiction for spiritual growth.
Some way of reconciling internalism and externalism, without the problems of each, seems necessary. But what way?
What makes the question of ethical internalism and externalism still more intriguing is that it seems to parallel a very similar theoretical question about truth. Could there be a truth we can’t know? Say, a kind of knowledge only achievable by gods and not humans? If so, on what grounds can we say that something really is a truth, if we can’t know it? If not, do we not collapse back into the problems of relativism, where everything is subjective, since knowledge is reducible to our own minds?
In the past few years, especially since the publication of Damien Keown’s The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, there has been a small academic cottage industry devoted to the question of how one might best classify Buddhist ethics. Which of the three standard branches of analytical ethics does it fall under: consequentialism (à la J.S. Mill), deontology (à la Kant) or virtue ethics (à la Aristotle)? The debate has generally been a tussle between virtue ethics (Keown’s position) and consequentialism (Charles Goodman). My friend (and contributor to this blog) Justin Whitaker suspects that a deontological interpretation of Buddhist ethics is possible, but he’s a voice in the wilderness so far.
At the SACP, Michael Barnhart proposed a way of sidestepping this debate entirely. As far as ethics itself goes, he says, Buddhism is particularist; it doesn’t adhere to any real theory, it just responds to particular situations. Where it does have a theory isn’t in ethics at all, but in something else entirely: the question of what we care about, or should care about. (Specifically, he argues, Buddhists claim we should care above all about suffering.)
Barnhart based this idea on Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “The importance of what we care about.” I didn’t comment on his paper right after the SACP, because I wanted a chance to read Frankfurt’s piece first. Having read it, I would now say that Barnhart and Frankfurt both run into a common problem: an unreasonably narrow definition of ethics. Continue reading
There’s been a debate in the past couple of years between Mark Siderits and Charles Goodman over Śāntideva’s attitude toward free will. In his chapter condemning anger, Śāntideva says a number of things that sound completely determinist:
Even though my stomach fluids and so on make great distress, I have no anger toward them. Why do I have anger toward sentient beings? Even their anger has a cause…. Certainly, all the different crimes and vices arise out of causes; we can’t find an independent one…. Therefore, when one sees an enemy or a friend doing unjust acts, one should think “it has causes,” and remain happy. (Bodhicary?vat?ra verses VI.22-33) Continue reading