Is it morally wrong to eat your dead dog?

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Jonathan Haidt opens his The Righteous Mind with two hypothetical examples, “thought experiments” as analytic philosophers would say:

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

And

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

Haidt asks us: Did the people in either of these cases do something morally wrong? My reaction was, and is, to say yes in the first case but not the second. Continue reading

Farewell to “Yavanayāna”

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Late last year I was delighted to see a post from Richard Payne retracting his earlier post on “White Buddhism”, motivated at least in part by my critique. It is all too rare to see a human being change his or her mind, especially on politically charged issues where passions run high and it is all too easy to develop attachment to views. I commend and thank Payne for his thoughtful retraction. On my end, he has provoked me to make a retraction of my own. Continue reading

Happiness from politics, or, mourning in America

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I will be taking a break from blogging as I travel in the next couple weeks. In the meantime I would like to leave you with this.

The results of the 2016 American election came as a surprise, and for many of us it was a horrifying shock. (One survey indicates “shocked” was the most common word Democratic supporters used to describe their reaction.) For me, though, this was not an unfamiliar shock. For the 2004 election had shocked me in a very similar way. In 2000 I had comforted myself with the idea that Bush didn’t legitimately win, and I was confident the people of the United States would reject him after horrors like Abu Ghraib. I was wrong. They did not. He even won the popular vote. Those results shook me to the core, filling my every moment with rage and frustration.

I had to learn ways of dealing with a world that so plainly rejected my values. A year or so after the fact, Goenka’s karmic redirection helped me a lot. But in the immediate aftermath of 2004, what helped was writing in my personal journals, thinking through ways to come to terms with the terrible situation. Just as reading can be a spiritual practice, so can writing.

What follows is the journal entry that, I think, helped me most to deal with the situation at the time. Continue reading

On wanting it darker

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Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008

Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008

2016 has taken many great musicians from us. Early in the year we lost Prince and David Bowie. Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip is still with us for now, but the band played its last concert. And then there was Leonard Cohen.

Cohen began his career as one of the long parade of 1960s singer-songwriters who temporarily changed the phrase “folk music” so that it now referred to the music of educated urban élites. He earned a place alongside Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan – many of whom he played with. In that context he developed his talent for enigmatic, evocative lyrics. But as far as I’m concerned, none of his real greatness comes from that period. If he had died as young as Janis Joplin (or Amy Winehouse), I wouldn’t be writing this tribute, and a few decades from now I’m not sure that he would be remembered.

Cohen’s real brilliance came out in the 1980s and early 1990s, when decades of whisky and cigarettes had lowered his sensitive folkie voice into a gravelly growl, and his music took a darker turn to match. Continue reading

Philosophical and historical uses together

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Last time I examined Andrew Ollett’s distinction between “decision-oriented” texts like Kant’s Grounding and “capacity-oriented” texts like Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, and the ways in which that distinction might suggest a “philosophical” versus a “historical” approach to those texts. I discussed what I found problematic about that application of the distinction, but noted Andrew’s quote that points beyond it:

Although these different uses of texts pertain to very different sets of questions, I’m not convinced that the “historical” use of texts is unphilosophical—which is a mild way of saying that attention to the ways in which ethical systems are constructed and lived in history is exactly what philosophy needs.

For me, this claim calls our attention to an important point, related to my recent methodological reflection on religious studies: Continue reading

Decision and capacity, philosophical and historical

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Andrew Ollett has recently taken up the point I made earlier this year that Buddhist ethics, in distinction from modern analytical ethics, is not primarily concerned with decision procedure. He identifies Indian non-analytic approaches as “capacity-oriented”: “They maintain that ethical decision-making and action always presuppose being formed as a subject with particular capacities, dispositions, habits, and so on.” That is not quite how I would put it, because for a Buddhist thinker like Buddhaghosa, we are not actually subjects, formed or otherwise; our systematic delusion forms an idea of ourselves as subjects, but this idea is false, and part of the goal of ethics is to un-form or at least de-form it. I do agree, though, that in Buddhist ethics there is an emphasis on the development of beneficial dispositions and habits – virtues – that stands in distinction to the analytical emphasis on a decision procedure. (It seems to me like this might not be the case in Mīmāṃsā, whose legalistic mode of ethical reasoning does seem oriented to a decision procedure, but Andrew knows more about Mīmāṃsā than I do.)

Andrew’s post gets particularly interesting when he maps the decision/capacity distinction onto “disciplinary and methodological differences, or perhaps better, differences of outlook.” I think there is something to this point. I am not entirely in agreement with it, but I’d like to parse out that disagreement, as I think it points to something of deep methodological importance. Continue reading

In memoriam: Claude Vipond

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My maternal grandfather, Claude Vipond, died peacefully last Tuesday. His life was long – he reached 95 years. Claude was a doctor and a World War II veteran, but I knew him entirely as a grandfather – an often larger-than-life figure at family gatherings, delivering corny jokes with an enthusiasm that made them hilarious. At large Christmas gatherings he would read to the grandchildren, not some sentimental Victorian Christmas story but Stephen Leacock‘s marvelously tongue-in-cheek Caroline’s Christmas.

The irreverence of Leacock’s self-subverting story left a strong impression on me as a boy – much like the movie The Princess Bride, which came out when I was the age of its child narratee. In a different way from my father, “Caroline’s Christmas” helped teach me the pleasures of being an outsider, with an ironic detachment expressed in humour – in ways perhaps more profound than I realized at the time. In many ways I think that story really sums up my grandfather’s spirit. Continue reading

Why the study of religion shouldn’t be about studying religion

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My undergraduate degree was in sociology and geography, with a focus on urban studies. That world often seems far away from the cross-cultural philosophy that drives me now – but not always.

Since “urban sociology” existed as a subfield and seemed to be the one I was trying to study, I once did a term-paper project asking the question: what is urban sociology? The answer I found most interesting and compelling was provided by the Australian sociologist Peter Saunders, in his Social Theory and the Urban Question. Continue reading

On al-Ghazālī and the cultural specificity of philosophy

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A little while ago, responding to Garfield and Van Norden’s call for diversity in philosophy, I argued that we should fight for the inclusion of non-Western thought in philosophy programs on the grounds of its intrinsic worth as philosophy, not merely on the grounds on geographic diversity. Now Fordham’s Nicholas Tampio has made an argument far more diametrically opposed to Garfield and Van Norden’s: philosophy departments should continue in their current habit of not teaching non-Western thought at all. Or at least, they should make no special effort to bring it in. (“Let philosophy departments evolve organically…”) Why not? Because, Tampio says, many of the leading non-Western thinkers we might consider philosophers – such as Confucius – really aren’t.

In my experience, many who take such a position do so from a standpoint of ignorance at best and apathy at worst: they don’t know non-Western philosophy and they don’t care to learn it. Sometimes they will argue for such a position; more often they simply rely on the departmental inertia that allows them to get away with such ignorance and apathy. It is the great virtue of Tampio’s piece that it is no such thing; Tampio writes out of a long engagement with medieval Islamic thought and one of its leading figures. And while it seems pretty obvious to me that medieval Islamic thought should be considered part of Western intellectual tradition, the fact remains that it usually isn’t. Not only does Tampio know at least this one (supposedly) non-Western tradition, he is basing his argument on that tradition and the self-understanding of its own thinkers.

al-ghazaliTampio calls our attention to something very important which is often neglected in debates about philosophy: in medieval Muslim thought, one finds perhaps the most explicit and articulate rejection of philosophy in the intellectual history of the world. Continue reading

Does it matter what we call Buddhist?

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Does it matter whether something is or isn’t Buddhist? Or whether it is “distinctively” Buddhist? I was asked these related questions in two blog discussions from last year, both involving Justin Whitaker. Justin raised the latter question here in response to my replies to David Chapman; Jayarava Attwood raised the former on Justin’s blog.

Regarding what is “distinctively” Buddhist I want to start with what I said to Chapman himself: I don’t think there’s much value in looking for that which is found in Buddhism and nowhere else. Many Buddhist tenets (including the rejection of righteous anger, at issue there) can be found in Jainism too, for example. But that wasn’t what I meant when I had asked, at the beginning of that post, “what might be distinctively Buddhist about a modern Buddhist ethics.”

Rather, I was asking: what difference does it make (within a modern context) that your ethics, or for that matter your way of life, is Buddhist? In Chapman’s context this meant “not already understood by (say) a non-Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Californian.” Suppose you already are a college-educated left-leaning Californian or Bostonian or New Yorker or Vancouverite. Does it then mean anything if you add the descriptor Buddhist? If we describe a person as a Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Bostonian, are we saying anything whatsoever that is different about that person than if we describe the same person as a college-educated left-leaning Bostonian and we leave out the adjective Buddhist? Continue reading

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