It has taken me far too long to read Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice – long enough that, in characteristic Nussbaum fashion, she has already authored or coauthored at least three more books since it came out. I say this is too long because Nussbaum’s views on anger were a topic important to my dissertation, which Nussbaum read and thought highly of while she was at Harvard. (The footnotes of Anger and Forgiveness make a couple offhand references to Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, and I strongly suspect that it was through my diss that she learned about the text.) And what is most striking to me when I read the book now is that Nussbaum’s views on anger have taken a startling turn in this book – one that brings them much closer to Śāntideva’s. 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 the previous post I discussed why academic philosophers have usually focused on the West, and pointed out reasons why some amount of Western focus remains valuable. Above all, I noted: “we are always already formed by some sort of philosophical tradition, whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not. And a great deal of what forms us is Western.” So exploring Western philosophy is important to understand our own thought better, where we are coming from.
There are at least two important objections to be made to that claim as I have phrased it. Continue reading
Last time I began to propose an answer to David Chapman’s questions about what might be distinctively Buddhist about a modern Buddhist ethics. I mentioned the classical Buddhist critique of politics and activism, and noted that I agree with some of that critique. Let me now say more about what I mean by that.
What first excited me about Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra was not the widely read eighth chapter (with its meditations on self and other and the deconstruction of the body that repulses many). Rather, it was the sixth chapter, on anger and patient endurance – when I responded to a student’s question about the text by saying “in this text, there’s no such thing as righteous anger.”
I do not think this is a message a typical secular North American liberal is likely to accept. 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
Last fall in my house we had some serious bad news: my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. (There have been a number of ways in which I have hoped to emulate Ken Wilber, but this sure wasn’t one of them.) The good news is it was not a particularly severe variety as cancers go; with proper treatment it would not be life-threatening. But those treatments have been rough, with an extended recovery period.
It has, as you may imagine, been a difficult time for both of us. I am happy to say that things are much better than they were, but the hard times are not yet over. My wife’s story is hers to tell, and she has told it magnificently. On my side, something major has happened that I did not expect: for the first time, I have come to consider myself a Buddhist. 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
On his American Buddhist Perspective blog, my friend Justin Whitaker recently posted an interesting interview on the experience of trans* people in American Buddhism. Justin uses “trans*” as a shorthand for “transgender”, “transsexual”, “transvestite” and similar terms – to denote people who have become or attempted to become, in some respect, a gender different from the one associated with their biology at birth. It is clear to me that trans* people in the US face various forms of unjust discrimination. Where the tricky questions get raised is when the struggle against that injustice intersects with Buddhism – as, for that matter, when the struggle against any injustice intersects with Buddhism. Justin and I began a conversation about this in the comments to that post, and I’d like to continue that conversation in more detail here. Continue reading
I’m really enjoying my new job at the intersection of academia and technology, and it’s made me want to improve my technology skills. So I’m now preparing for a Master’s degree in computer science, learning to program in modern computer languages. I’ve been trying to think about how to be a good programmer, and looking up some advice on the web. Of course people’s assessments of good programmers are widely different, but there’s one surprising claim that comes up quite a lot: a good programmer is a lazy programmer.
This is the point where programming becomes philosophically interesting. Continue reading
There’s been a great discussion going on in the comments to last week’s post on humility and science. This week I’m going to focus on only one of the themes mentioned, which takes us in a different direction from that post but is interesting in its own right.
My post recounted Carl Sagan’s claim that although “religions” claimed an ideal of humility, science was actually more humble; I argued that the two were in fact very similar. A comment from Ben acutely pointed out something I had been missing, a way in which Sagan was right that the tradition was different. Sagan, Ben points out, is defending “not the humility of individuals, but the humility of the whole tradition.” Science as a whole is able to admit when it is wrong, in a way that Christianity and Buddhism are not. In a following dialogue, Ben and I agree that science maintains an institutional humility that “religious” traditions do not, though those other traditions likely do a better job of promoting individual humility.
Other commenters took issue with this agreement, however. If you follow the comment threads on this site with any regularity, you will know that Thill and Jim Wilton do not usually agree on very much. But this time, they unanimously condemn the point shared by Ben and myself: “There is a category mistake here,” says Thill. “Traditions cannot be said to be humble or arrogant. Only individuals can be said to be humble or arrogant.”
And this is a question that well deserves further philosophical exploration. Can an institution or a tradition possess a virtue? Can a government be courageous? Can a corporation be honest? Can a tradition be humble? Continue reading