Andrew Moon of the Prosblogion (probably the leading blog in the philosophy of Abrahamic traditions) was recently rereading Robert Adams’s The Virtue of Faith, and was intrigued by a passage that I also found intriguing. Adams is arguing that uncertainty is a central part of a good personal relationship:
Well, suppose we always saw what people were like, and particularly what they would do in any situation in which we might have to do with them. How would we relate to people if we had such knowledge of them? I think we would manipulate them. I do not mean that we would necessarily treat people in a selfish or immoral way, but I think we could not help having an attitude of control toward them. And I think the necessity we would be under, to have such an attitude, would be conceptual and not merely causal. If I pursued my own ends in relation to you, knowing exactly how you would respond to every move, I would be manipulating you as much as I manipulate a typewriter or any other inanimate object. And if at some point I refrained from pursuing my own ends, in order to defer to some desire of yours, I would be manipulating you in the service of your end that I had made my own. By the very nature of the case I could not escape from this manipulative role except insofar as I could forget or ignore what I knew about the responses you would make…
Our actual uncertainty about what other people will do makes it possible to depend on another person in a way that is much more personal. It enables the other person to be more truly other. To the extent that I realize that I do not know how he will respond to my action, I cannot regard him as an extension of my faculty of action, as I regard my typewriter.
Even in the actual world, with all its uncertainties, trust is often manipulative. If I trust the bus driver, it is to take me exactly where I expect her to take me, with no unpleasant surprises en route… In cases like these the trust, and indeed the whole personal relation, is not an end in itself, but a means to the individual ends of the parties involved.
There are other relationships, however, in which we open our lives to be influenced and partly shaped by the other person in ways that we cannot predict very precisely except that we have some confidence that they will be good. And even in that confidence we may be allowing the other person some part in defining our good. Uncertainty allows these relationships to be largely nonmanipulative, and I believe the relationships that seem most intensely personal are of this type. It is not easy to say exactly what is so good about the dependence–usually a mutual but often an unequal dependence–in these relationships. But I am sure that it is logically and not just causally necessary for whatever it is that we value so highly in the best personal relationships. (20-22)
What struck me most about this passage is how alien it is to Śāntideva’s thought. Most Buddhists believe that the buddhas are omniscient; and for Śāntideva, this omniscience does not get in the way of their relationship to other people, but enhances it. The bodhisattva does best when he can know others’ motivations, so he can help them escape from suffering: in this respect the highest end I can strive for is to “be manipulating you in the service of your end that I had made my own.” (The idea of skill in means seems to work on grounds like this: you tell people things that are not necessarily strictly true in order to help them escape their suffering.)
Moon, it turns out, objects to Adams on similar grounds in a Christian context. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to know God fully, or our relationship to him might be manipulative; but he knows us fully, he “manipulates” us in Adams’s terms, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed that’s what makes his relationship to us so good. Where Śāntideva and Moon would differ is on the question of whether we can or should ourselves try to become omniscient beings of this sort, whose relation to other people involves manipulating them for their own good. One might call it “playing God,” except that for those who believe Śāntideva’s account of bodhisattvas, it’s not about playing.
Now I wonder if there’s a further metaphysical upshot to Śāntideva’s take. When Adams brings up manipulation it reminds me of Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion in After Virtue of emotivism, the view that moral judgements are reducible to emotional expressions of approval and disapproval. For MacIntyre, every moral philosophy “characteristically presupposes a sociology,” and the key to emotivism’s social content is that “emotivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.” (23) He draws a contrast to Kant, for whom morality is all about treating people as ends and not merely means. To treat people as ends is “to offer them what I take to be good reasons for acting in one way rather than another, but to leave it to them to evaluate those reasons”; to treat them as means is to act on others “by adducing whatever influences or considerations will in fact be effective on this or that occasion.” (24)
For the bodhisattva, people’s suffering is urgent enough, and their delusions strong enough, that this kind of manipulation is exactly what they need. It’s not emotivism exactly; the bodhisattva acts only for one reason, and that reason is the benefit of others, not his own approval or disapproval. Still, I wonder if there might not be some sort of expression here of Śāntideva’s Madhyamaka metaphysics. If there is no absolute truth to speak of, does that mean that truth becomes significantly less of a value? While reading him for my dissertation, I noted how little Śāntideva speaks of honesty. The Five Precepts of the Pali suttas include refraining from false speech; but Śāntideva deemphasizes the criticism of telling falsehood, and rather praises skill in means. Coincidence? Perhaps.