Classical Indian Buddhist texts rely a great deal on two concepts: puṇya (Pali puñña) and pāpa. The former is good, something to pursue; the latter is bad, something to avoid. They have something to do with our actions and their results: punya comes out of our good actions and brings good results for us, pāpa comes out of our bad actions and brings bad results. We find these concepts all over the place in pretty much any Indian Buddhist text we might pick up. Next week I’ll explore in more detail what they are and how we might best think about them. This week I want to start with something more basic: how should we translate them into English? Absolutely not, I would argue, with the two words that Buddhism scholars most commonly use for them: namely “merit” and “sin” respectively. Continue reading
I’ve been delighted to take up my new full-time job as educational technologist at Boston University. It’s been great to use my background in scholarship and teaching in a way that, unlike faculty work, actually makes a living.
My specialty as a technologist has been to help faculty adopt ePortfolios – electronic collections of student and faculty work, typically with the intent of making student learning visible to an outside audience. There are a variety of purposes to ePortfolios, but one of the most common is assessment – figuring out whether students are really learning what they’re supposed to be learning.
Educational institutions have come to emphasize assessment more and more in the past decade. Assessment is sometimes resisted in the humanities because of an emphasis on quantification – often with good reason, as in the case of the UK’s catastrophic RAE and its relentless insistence on quantity over quality of scholarship. But there’s no reason for humanists to be opposed to assessment in principle. We always claim that our students come out of our classes better than they were when they began – better writers, more careful readers, more thoughtful, more critical, more knowledgeable, more engaged citizens, whatever. If they didn’t improve in some such ways, there would be no point in our teaching them. And surely at least some such improvements can be observed, even if we resist attaching numbers to that improvement beyond the grades we give. Moreover, some of those who have tried to observe whether students do indeed improve in these ways in their college classes – notably Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa – have found that in many cases, in the US at least, they don’t. This fact, if true, would be disastrous, considering that US students typically go tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for their educations. Surely we cannot merely assume that this is money well spent. And so assessment of some sort seems to me quite a valuable task.
Working professionally with assessment has led me to think more about the question: how do we assess philosophy? It is this question, I think, that may have contributed the most to the notorious divide between analytic and “continental” philosophy. Continue reading
A decade or so ago, in David Hall‘s graduate class on method and theory in the study of religion, Hall asked the class why the study of religion in recent years had focused so much on particular historical details in individual places rather than larger issues that characterized or crossed traditions. I responded that the competitive job market and publish-or-perish tenure system require that people take an ever narrower focus, in order to carve out a niche for themselves. Hall replied, “Er, well, yes, that’s the cynical explanation.”
And I thought: cynical? Hall made his name studying the material conditions that gave rise to American “religion,” the economics of printing and text production. Much of his career was about the (often wise) materialist advice to explain the popularity of certain ideas by following the money. And yet suddenly, when that same mirror was turned on his own intellectual environment, of the 21st-century North American university – somehow it became “cynical”? Somehow, unlike all those thinkers we study, we have magically managed to escape the pressures of money-making and live in a world of pure ideas? Continue reading
The momentous yet mixed results of this week’s Canadian election were overshadowed on the global scene by the killing of Osama bin Laden. Though the first event riveted me more, the second has more philosophical significance – or rather, not the event itself, but the reaction to it.
Americans have typically greeted bin Laden’s death with jubilation and celebration, often waving American flags and chanting “U.S.A.” But some minority voices, such as Linton Weeks at NPR radio and Pamela Gerloff of the Huffington Post, have raised questions about this celebration. Is it really a good idea to celebrate a human death, even the death of one’s enemy? Continue reading
Suppose a trolley is hurtling down a track, on which are placed five innocent people with no chance to escape in time. You are standing beside a switch that will redirect the trolley onto a track where stands one innocent person, who also has no chance to escape. Should you flip the switch, and thereby kill one to save five?
Now suppose there is no track onto which the trolley can be redirected; the five innocents will be in its path no matter what happens. Instead of being beside a switch, you are standing on a bridge over the tracks, beside a very fat man looking down over the action. You can push the man over the bridge, knowing his enormous girth will stop the trolley’s movement before it hits the innocents. Should you push the man, and thereby kill one to save five?
Michael Sandel begins his famous course on Justice with this action scene, and it’s a great way to start such a course. This trolley problem, ingeniously introduced by Judith Jarvis Thomson and the late Philippa Foot, is a wonderful way to shock beginning students out of their ethical complacency. For nearly all people faced with this problem agree they would kill one to save five in the first situation but not the second. After hearing one case they think there’s an easy principle by which to decide the right action; after hearing the second, they are forced to admit that there isn’t. 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
Michael Sandel has long been fond of a certain eccentric position on the Kantian ethics of lying. Kant, as I’ve noted before, takes an absolute prohibition against lying, even in the most extreme cases: you may not even lie to a murderer seeking a fugitive. If Anne Frank is in your attic, it is wrong to tell the Nazis that she isn’t. The position is deeply counterintuitive, to say the least, but I think it does follow from Kant’s ethics of unconditional duty.
Sandel, however, claims that Kant’s position is not quite as counterintuitive as it seems. Sandel regularly makes this claim in his Justice course, which I taught for as a teaching fellow, and which Sandel has now made available to the public as a course as well as in a book. While Kant brooks no lies, Sandel says, he is quite happy with misleading truths. As evidence Sandel points to Kant’s own life:
Kant found himself in trouble with King Friedrich Wilhelm II. The king and his censors considered Kant’s writings on religion disparaging to Christianity, and demanded that he pledge to refrain from any further pronouncements on the topic. Kant responded with a carefully worded statement: ‘As your Majesty’s faithful subject, I shall in the future completely desist from all public lectures or papers concerning religion.’ Kant was aware, when he made his statement, that the king was not likely to live much longer. When the king died a few years later, Kant considered himself absolved of the promise, which bound him only ‘as your Majesty’s faithful subject.’ Kant later explained that he had chosen his words ‘most carefully, so that I should not be deprived of my freedom… forever, but only so long as His Majesty was alive.’ By this clever evasion, the paragon of Prussian probity succeeded in misleading the censors without lying to them. (Sandel, Justice, p. 134)
There’s an unfortunate tendency in contemporary religious studies to widen the word “ethics” so much it loses its meaning. I once was the teaching assistant for a very enjoyable course taught by Anne Monius on Indian stories: the R?m?yana and Mah?bh?rata, of course, but lesser-known works as well. The course introduced the great variety of ways people read and perform these texts throughout South and Southeast Asia. I learned a lot from it: about Southeast Asia, about Indian aesthetics, about theatrical performance, about regional identity, about the anthropology of contemporary India, about lesser-known Indian stories.
What I didn’t learn from that course, though, was ethics. Continue reading
I’ve found Thomas Kasulis’s distinction between intimacy and integrity to be one of the more helpful ways to think through the significance of culture in philosophy, especially when dealing with East Asia. To help Westerners understand East Asian thought, Kasulis portrays it as having an “intimacy” orientation, as opposed to a more familiar “integrity” orientation.
Now Kasulis is aware enough to realize that there are exceptions to all such generalizations, and some of his examples of “intimacy” come from the West too. The distinction is supposed to function more like one of Max Weber’s ideal types. That is to say: one may never encounter intimacy or integrity orientations in their pure forms; any actual culture or person or book will probably contain some mix. Nevertheless, by thinking of the two as relatively coherent extremes, one is better able to understand what’s going on in the middle.
When applied to ethics and politics alone, the distinction is not particularly original and could even come across as something of a cliché: basically, the modern West is individualistic and oriented toward individual rights and the integrity of the individual, while East Asia focuses on the intimacy community and the ensuing responsibilities of interdependence. Where Kasulis’s work gets interesting is when he applies the distinction to theoretical philosophy. Continue reading