I was honoured to see Elisa Freschi’s post reviewing my recent article on Śāntideva’s metaphysics and ethics. I have a lot to say about both the post itself and the comment threads that followed it. I’ve said some of it in those threads already, but I’d like to pull them together and express a way they relate to more general ideas. 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
My friend Stephen Harris recently posted an interesting article on the question of whether Śāntideva’s ethics is “overdemanding”. I appreciate the article’s methodological approach. It engages Śāntideva’s ethics with the categories of analytical moral philosophy while moving beyond the relatively fruitless attempt to classify it: not “is Śāntideva’s ethics consequentialist?” but “is Śāntideva’s ethics vulnerable to the charges made against consequentialism?” The latter approach is more important because it allows engagement with Śāntideva’s ideas: asking the question “to what extent is Śāntideva right?” Continue reading
The new Journal of Buddhist Ethics has an interesting article up on Śāntideva, by Stephen Harris, a grad student at U of New Mexico. Harris is a colleague of Ethan Mills, who gave the APA talk about skepticism that I discussed in late December (and who has since made thoughtful contributions to this blog’s comments); Harris also gave a talk about Śāntideva on Mills’s panel.
Harris’s article returns us to the most famous passage in Śāntideva’s work: the meditation on the equalization of self and other in Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter VIII, in which Śāntideva takes metaphysical arguments for the nonexistence of self (Buddhist anātman) and uses them as a premise to argue for altruism, ethical selflessness. He asks: “Since both others and myself dislike fear and suffering, what is special about my self that I protect it and not another?” The self that I was three minutes ago is a different entity from the self I will be three minutes from now; the present self has as much reason to protect others as it does its future self. He adds: if you object that suffering should be prevented only by the one it belongs to, well, your foot’s suffering does not belong to your hand, so why should the hand do anything to protect the foot?
The Catholic Buddhologist Paul Williams has criticized this passage in depth, arguing that altruism makes no sense without selves. I’ve discussed Williams’s criticisms twice before, though I haven’t taken a position on the debate yet. I will note that several Buddhologists have already come to Śāntideva’s defence on these arguments – with varying degrees of success.
Harris is the first writer I’m aware of to defend Williams’s position (other than Williams himself). Continue reading