A while ago I referred to Śāntideva’s thought as “ethics without morality” – a deliberately provocative formulation based on Shyam Ranganathan’s eccentric definition of morality as that which conduces to anger. (I don’t agree with Shyam’s definition myself, but putting matters in those terms for the sake of argument helps us to make an interesting and important point.) The idea for Śāntideva is that because everything has a cause, no one is truly to blame for their actions, and therefore we should not get angry at them.
Mark Siderits, in a 2008 article in Sophia, has called this view “Buddhist paleo-compatibilism”: “compatibilism” meaning roughly that while Śāntideva thinks it morally significant that everything has a cause, he still thinks it appropriate to blame people for bad actions.
I don’t think that that is what Śāntideva means, based on a reading of the Sanskrit text of Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter six. I think Siderits reads a great deal into verse 32 that is not actually there, and that is at odds with Śāntideva’s explicit argument in verses 22-33. But I won’t expand on that particular point here, because overall I find the detailed textual argument less interesting than the more general constructive argument. (And in a blog post, as opposed to a journal article, I can take this approach.)
On my reading (as on Charles Goodman’s), Śāntideva is not a compatibilist but a hard determinist. When he says we shouldn’t ever get angry at people for their actions, he means it; and I think he does mean, in a strong sense, that people should not be held morally responsible for their actions.
Siderits seems to find the hard-determinist reading implausible because Śāntideva throughout his text speaks of anger and other problematic emotions, whoever they belong to, in clearly negative and critical terms:
Śāntideva heaps scorn on those who respond to provocation with anger. He thus appears to believe that those who fail to engage in Buddhist practice are blameworthy. The self-determination argument seems to show that there can be no responsibility, yet one can be blameworthy only for that for which one is responsible.
But I don’t think this follows. I understand Śāntideva’s position as working similarly to that of another hard determinist, Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza. Spinoza’s major work was called the Ethics, and some commentators have said it is not his ethics but his metaphysics, because it seems to be primariy descriptive of how the world is. But to say that is arguably to misunderstand Spinoza.
Spinoza opposes the idea of free will, and in so doing it almost seems like he abolishes the “ought”, the idea that we should do anything. For we no longer really make decisions and have choices, we just follow deterministic causal chains. In so doing, he introduces a new idea of what “ethics” would mean. As I understand it, Spinoza’s metaphysics abolishes not only free will but possibility: everything either happens or it doesn’t. And so it is not meaningful to speak of what we should do – only what the effect of our reflection will be.
But it is on this latter point that Spinoza’s ethics remains ethical in some sense. For he does say some things are good and others bad – and I think he can do so consistently. The same, I suspect, is true of Śāntideva. Spinoza claims that the highest good (summum bonum) is knowledge of God, which comes with blessedness (beatitudo). Words like “good” can then be defined in terms of this summum bonum.
Such a claim departs from common usage of the term “good”, of course, but Spinoza is not aiming to represent common usage. Rather, he descriptively articulates a highest good that is defined as it is at least in part because (so he argues) it is the ultimate aim of human desires when those desires are correctly viewed. If this is accepted, then “good” and “bad”, and even “should” and “should not”, mean no more and no less than “conducing to the ultimate good”. They can then be reduced to entirely descriptive terms, possibly even terms that are entirely empirically falsifiable. (Most consequentialist ethical positions could probably allow for a similar reduction, if one wished to make it.)
I think it is fruitful to understand Śāntideva in a way very similar to Spinoza. In his eighth chapter he famously claims that everyone wants to prevent suffering, and the only mistake involved is when we try to end only our own rather than else’s. The good then becomes understood in terms of preventing suffering. This seems particularly plausible when one notes that the most common words connoting good and bad in Śāntideva’s work are puṇya and pāpa, which is to say good and bad karma. (I have previously argued that the concept of puṇya has a great deal in common with Greek eudaimonia, human flourishing.) So to say bad things about angry people (“heap scorn” on them) is just to say that what they do conduces to suffering. And to say that we should do something is just to make the claim that it will conduce to ending suffering.
So why would Śāntideva even bother composing a text like the Bodhicaryāvatāra that praises what ends suffering and criticizes what conduces to it? Because it so happens that the causal chains to date have awakened his mind and made him the sort of person who acts with the goal of ending suffering. (The idea of acting with a goal is hardly incompatible with determinism – only the idea of independently choosing a goal. A bacterium’s actions are causally determined, but it acts with the goal of reproducing itself. It may not have first-person reasons, but it does have dative reasons.) And the fact that he is the sort of person who now has that goal causes him to compose a text which, he thinks, will cause other people to become that sort of person as well. Since the text seems like it has some chance of causing others to prevent suffering, it seems likely that composing it will help prevent suffering. And we may therefore speak of this text as good.
So too, we may speak of those who get angry as bad, because their anger conduces to suffering. But that does not mean assigning them responsibility; it only means understanding the way in which the chains of causation have led them to be the sort of people who cause suffering. Since we are the sort of people who prevent suffering, which is to say good people, we will want to act against such bad people, but we do not assign them responsibility for their badness any more than we assign responsibility to the bile that causes a stomach ache – though it too is bad because it causes suffering. And it is because he gets all of this that Śāntideva knows not to get angry at anybody – even when he points out that their actions are bad, which is to say they lead to suffering.
Thanks for referring to my work. But I have to say, that you got my view backwards. Ethics isn’t what conduces us to anger, it’s just the kind of thing we get angry about when it isn’t taken seriously. I figure the latter is uncontroversial: pick any ethical issue you care to consider and you will find that people tend to get annoyed if you do not take it seriously. I called it the “anger inclination thesis” not because ethics causes us to be angry, but because we identify values as ethical if we are inclined to get angry about such things.
Why have such a thesis? It’s an empirical way to distinguish between the ethical stuff and values that people do not take seriously as a matter of ethics—that’s all. The question of which side of the road to drive on, for instance, is not ethical—that is, until an official decision is made, and then it would be a matter of ethics as to whether we follow the rule or not. Moreover, people would get ticked-off if they found you to be driving on the wrong side of the road, though prior to the institution of a rule on the matter, it would be difficult to treat it as an ethical issue or as something to get upset about. Notice, prohibitions against anger are not counterexamples: these too can be things we are upset about if they are not taken seriously. This is what makes these prohibitions ethical. Also, nothing about the thesis entails that we must approve of anger. Actually, one reason to think that our ethical values will not promote anger is that we really want to not be angry about such things: we want others to take our ethical values seriously.
Art and aesthetics, for instance, are cases of value that people tend to be relaxed about. There is no obvious sense that people are inclined to get angry if you violate their aesthetic values—that is, unless there is also an ethical element. Art that glorifies something ethically objectionable occasions this angry response, though bad art in and of itself does not. Logical values (preservation of truth etc.,) are also examples of values that we don’t treat as ethical for the same reason.
Any ways, this thesis was not meant to be a comment about the content of ethics, but just a suggestion for identifying other people’s ethical values that you don’t share: find out what they are, on reflection, inclined to get annoyed about and you are getting close to their ethical theory.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks for this, Shyam. Perhaps the best way for me to respond then is to ask: what are the implications of such a model when we examine Indian thinkers like Śāntideva, who urge us to reject anger entirely? Does that mean then that, on your view, Śāntideva is telling us to have no ethics? To treat all value as aesthetic, or something similarly nonethical?
Shyam Ranganathan said:
So I take it that anger is an emotional response to evil, either perceived or real. Moral theories that reject anger are rejections of this response from within moral discourse, that usually point out something pathological of self-defeating about anger. Shantideva’s causal view provides a reason for this: whatever we are angry at (a cause) is gone by the time we get around responding.
Amod Lele said:
So if I’m reading you right, it sounds like your point strongly emphasizes the inclination in “anger inclination thesis”: we can identify as moral those judgements which, other things being equal, we would most likely tend to be angry about – even if we don’t actually. So that an anti-anger approach is not anti-morality, but may suggest that morality has us walking a potentially dangerous path. (Which I think Śāntideva’s criticism of blame does suggest.)
Shyam Ranganathan said:
Yes. If you want to know what someone thinks is food, figure out what they are inclined to get hungry about. It doesn’t mean that what they get hungry about is good for them, or that it makes them hungry. Good food has the opposite effect: it quells the inclination to feel hungry.
Ethics seems to me to be the analogue to this question of diet. We want values that are satisfying, and ones that quell our vindictiveness and anger. This is completely reasonable: as reasonable as the search for satisfying food is as a response to hunger.
Criticizing anger may be an analogue to criticizing the veracity of our hunger pans: on a diet, you should probably ignore them.
Amod Lele said:
OK, thanks, that’s clearer. I wonder if one could go further with this analogy. Typical monastic philosophers will effectively say you shouldn’t get hungry: you should take whatever people offer you out of their own esteem, and if you don’t get any it shouldn’t bother you. You may “need food to survive”, but you can cancel out this need by cancelling out the survival instinct. (See here.)
If we applied this to ethics-as-object-of-anger-inclination? Some interesting political consequences: even if we need just social institutions in order to survive, we shouldn’t depend on that either.
Shantideva certainly raises a number of arguments against anger. But the principal, overarching argument is that anger is confusion. It is not that anger is evil. The equation with hunger is misplaced because anger doesn’t need to be satisfied — it doesn’t even need to be countered with something that is the opposite of anger (although on the level of relative truth there are plenty of Buddhist teachings about accumulating merit through patience or other antidotes to anger. But, from the perspective of absolute truth, anger simply needs to be seen clearly. Then, as they say: “confusion dawns as wisdom.
A case can be made that there is no Buddhist ethics.
In the context of relative truth, actions generate karma — but that is not an ethical judgment, it is simply cause and effect. Saying “control your anger, practice patience” is like saying “don’t put your hand on a hot stove”. The only difference being that putting your hand on a hot stove only causes yourself to suffer. Anger causes suffering for yourself and others.
Amod Lele said:
Jim, this is a very important point. I think much of Buddhist thought lends itself to being read in this way, like a detached scientist examining matter-of-fact causation. The Spinoza comparison above points to such a view. Śāntideva in particular seems to suggest it, both with this discussion of will and with his discussion of suffering in BCA VIII.
There’s one big issue that prevents it all from being a fully adequate description of Buddhist thought, though. Namely: what do we do with people like Nietzsche or even Penelope Trunk, people who embrace suffering as constitutive to a good life? People who don’t want to see an end to suffering or dissatisfaction, because that sounds boring and stultifying? (We’ve talked about this a bit before.) To the extent that we classify Buddhist thought as solely a matter of cause and effect, it seems to me, the answer must be: well that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with them, Buddhism just isn’t for them.
That consequence may be quite satisfying for a modern post-’60s Western Buddhist, raised in a milieu of cultural relativism. But it would horrify Śāntideva, Buddhaghosa or any other premodern Buddhist. To them it could only be read as a prasaṅga, a reductio ad absurdum undesirable consequence of their position. They take it as given that the Buddhadhamma is the right way to live.
So, I think we do need to understand them as saying something stronger than if-A-then-B – especially, that there is something intrinsically bad about duḥkha, whether or not you think there is. Śāntideva’s “if you ask why suffering should be prevented, no one disputes that!” would need to be read as: “even if you think duḥkha should not be prevented, at a deeper level you don’t really believe that.” (I suspect Spinoza needs to make a similar move with respect to the beatitudo that he takes as the end result of his proposed path; I think this was roughly where your previous response went as well.) And I think that goes further than cause and effect; at this point we are talking about reevaluating our fundamental ideas about what is good and bad, not just about what causes them or doesn’t.
Shyam Ranganathan said:
Nagarjuna answers this worry that Buddhism is nihilism (lacking ethics). His response: (1) this is like holding a snake dangerously, (2) Emptiness has to be understood by dharma. He might not be right, but it is a traditional response to this criticism that shows that Buddhists themselves took their ethics seriously.