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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). His article goes at length over the defences mounted by Mark Siderits and John Pettit, and concludes that neither adequately escapes the basic dilemma Williams has pointed to: if the self does not really exist in any sense that implies it should be privileged over others, then why should we think suffering is really bad in any sense that requires it be prevented?

Harris does finally part company from Williams, but only in his final remarks, which I think deserve additional scrutiny. Having argued that Śāntideva’s arguments in BCA VIII are not convincing, he now claims that Śāntideva’s arguments here are not supposed to be convincing; instead they are to be meditated on. He says that it is the Bodhicaryāvatāra’s ninth chapter, dealing with the virtue of theoretical understanding (prajñā), in which Śāntideva openly considers his opponents’ views and refutes them; the altruism argument is in the previous chapter, which is explicitly about the virtue of meditative concentration (dhyāna). The point isn’t to persuade people of the value of a Mahāyāna Buddhist path; it’s a meditative aid for those who are already on the path. In such a context, a contradiction doesn’t matter so much. One may switch back and forth between a perspective where suffering selves are real and their suffering should be prevented, and a perspective where they aren’t and we need to diminish our attachment to them.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that Harris is right, and Śāntideva’s arguments about altruism don’t need to stand up to rational scrutiny because they are primarily meditative aids. If that’s so, here’s the problem: what makes these verses interesting and valuable is precisely their status as potentially persuasive arguments. Arguments for particular ethical positions, perhaps especially for Mahāyāna altruism, are relatively unusual in Buddhist tradition. This is why Damien Keown has argued in Buddhist Studies from India to America (falsely, in my view) that there is no such thing as Buddhist ethics. Śāntideva’s argument appears as one of the most preeminent counterexamples, though not the only one.

That this argument is taken as an argument is the reason – it may be the only reason – it has attracted so much attention in recent years. A 1998 reader in ethics includes BCA verses VIII.89-140 alongside readings from Aristotle’s Ethics and Kant’s Grounding – and Xunzi, Aquinas and Epicurus – precisely because it makes an argument for a Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophical ethics. David Cooper, the reader’s editor, says: “Although both authors [Śāntideva and Tsong kha pa, who also has a selection in the book] speak of ‘methods’ for inducing a compassionate attitude, we might instead think of these as arguments for why one ought to adopt such an attitude.”

So if Harris is right and Śāntideva didn’t intend the arguments to be taken seriously as arguments, this is quite a sad thing. If Harris is correct, the likely lesson to be taken is that we should stop paying such close attention to this part of Śāntideva’s work, for it isn’t really worthy of it. Better to look at parts of the BCA that make a genuine contribution, such as its sixth chapter’s beautiful thoughts on anger. If this section is worth our taking seriously at all as cross-cultural philosophers, it is because it offers an argument for Mahāyāna altruism, and is not merely a guide for meditation.