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?”
There is much that is thoughtful and valuable in Harris’s article, and I can’t engage with all of it. It raises important points that go beyond anything I can say here. I’m going to focus on one narrow point that I think Harris doesn’t develop enough, but I don’t want that to detract from the wider issues at stake here. If what I say here is correct, I think much of Harris’s overall argument would survive, though its terms would likely be significantly altered.
The point that nags at me is the focus in the article – a focus inherited from the analytic categories Harris employs – on obligation, or duty or demand. (I’ve previously noted Christine Korsgaard’s argument that the move from virtue to obligation is a characteristically modern one, and that is quite relevant here.) The overdemandingness objection, as Harris describes it, “arises when a moral theory makes unfair demands on its adherents.” (my emphasis) This is a common objection made against the likes of Peter Singer. It is not just that Singer tells us that we should give up all possible comforts in order to feed and clothe the starving; he adds, as well, that doing so is not merely a charity but a duty:
It follows from what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable, or generous. Nor is it the kind of act which philosophers and theologians have called “supererogatory” – an act which it would be good to do, but not wrong not to do. On the contrary, we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.
Singer’s theory, then, demands that we give our money away. But what I want to suggest is that Śāntideva is not making a demand in the same way – so that something is missed when one describes his theory as “overdemanding”. The point I am making here has to do with the significant Spinozist or even Nietzschean element to be found in Śāntideva’s thought. In chapter VI of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Śāntideva argues hard against the very idea of blame, and in so doing, I think, moves his emphasis away from Singer’s idea of moral wrongness. Those who do wrong are not targets for blame but for compassion. Śāntideva thinks it better that we follow the path he lays out for it – but it is not clear to me that he demands it, or that we are obliged to do so.
Harris’s seventh footnote rightly notes: “In addition, early Buddhist traditions hold the bodhisattva path to be an optional supererogatory commitment and so would not face the overdemandingess objection.” My suggestion here is that we should likely view Śāntideva himself (and possibly most Indian Buddhist thinkers, Mahāyāna and otherwise) in the same way.
Nietzsche tells us that beyond good and evil does not mean beyond good and bad; and I think Śāntideva’s ethical vocabulary is closer to the latter pair of categories. Likely the most common normative terms in his writings, one might note, are puṇya and pāpa: good and bad karma (or karmically good and bad). If we in the 21st century are going to try to apply an ethic of karma we will likely need to naturalize it; I do think it is fruitful to do so. But I have argued that when we do, we are best off identifying good karma with something like Greek eudaimonia – a concept having far more to do with virtue than with obligation. In Śāntideva himself it has a close connection with the absence of suffering – and not, I have argued, with moral blame.
Now as Harris rightly notes, Śāntideva’s claims about what is good are quite extreme – an ascetic monastic life far removed from the everyday world, committed to the well-being of all other beings. But as I read him, his theory does not demand that we take up this life. Rather, it recommends that we take it up if we know what is good for us. To avoid this life is to commit ourselves to that very suffering we wish to avoid; we are doing something wrong in that we are making a mistake. It is in the nature of the world’s phenomena that they are not only empty but lead us to suffering. To avoid the bodhisattva path is not forbidden so much as unwise.
So to the extent that there are supposedly unfair demands made on the agent, these demands are not made by the theory, but by the world. the theory merely describes those demands inherent in the nature of things. If that is the case, its unfairness seems much less of a problem, for one cannot expect the world to be fair. (Except, perhaps, if one is a monotheist, as Śāntideva is not.) One can of course object that the world is not in fact as Śāntideva describes it. But to the objection that what the world demands of us is unfair, it is quite reasonable to respond: tough luck. That is how the world is, and my theory merely reports it. It would be really nice if the world’s demands were fair, but they aren’t, and we will just have to live with that.