I return today to my correspondence with Justin Whitaker on the Sigālovāda Sutta, taking off from his response to my previous post. The question at issue between us, I think, is what constitutes a good Buddhist life for a layperson or householder, a non-monk. We can get more specific by asking: should the layperson’s life be one that aspires to emulate the monk’s? I don’t think that it should, and I continue to suspect that Justin doesn’t either.Continue reading
I find myself repeatedly returning to the question I asked earlier this year: “Is the problem in our heads?” That is: for Buddhists, especially classical ones, is the fundamental human problem located in our minds, or in the world? I have found that my thinking on this question has already changed even just since my posts on the topic last month.Continue reading
The Serenity Prayer, it turns out, has multiple versions. On the Alcoholics Anonymous website you’ll find the version I quoted before, though the site adds that the first person is often pluralized, “I” to “we”:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
However, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton in her memoir gives us a different version. She says that Niebuhr’s original version of the prayer was composed in 1943, was first preached by him in a Sunday sermon that year in Heath, Massachusetts, and looked like this:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
As Sifton notes on pp292-3, there are at least two major differences between these two versions. The first refers to grace and the second does not; the first refers to changing what I or we can change, the second to what should be changed. Sifton prefers the second; she says that AA “simplified” the text and her father “minded” the change but did not object.Continue reading
Sandro Galea, the dean of BU’s School of Public Health, recently wrote a wonderful (free) Substack post reflecting on the nature of health in the pandemic and post-pandemic era. I’m writing about Galea’s post here because the questions it raises are absolutely philosophical ones.
He closes with the important comment: “we do not live to be healthy—we aspire to be healthy so we can live.” In other circumstances this might seem a truism. But the past fourteen months have made it all too clear how much this needs to be said. For we have all become all too aware of just how much can be given up for the sake of health. Government restrictions already placed major limits on our activity. Most people I know, myself included, limited their activity considerably further than what was required by the government. And most of us also know others whose restrictions went even further than our own. A number of people effectively became voluntary shut-ins, losing all physical contact with the outside world out of fear of a dread disease.Continue reading
The key goal of my dissertation was to understand Śāntideva’s thought as it was and how it could be applied in a contemporary context. Now, for my book, I want to actually apply Śāntideva’s thought, which requires asking where he is right and where he is wrong. And that, it turns out, changes my understanding of some of the dissertation’s key concepts – especially the one in its title.
The dissertation is entitled “Ethical revaluation in the thought of Śāntideva”. In its third chapter, I describe “ethical revaluation” as a consequence of Śāntideva’s ideals of nonattachment (aparigraha) and patient endurance (kṣānti). I explain the idea of ethical revaluation as follows:Continue reading
I originally wrote this week’s post in a handwritten journal at age 21, more than half my life ago, in 1997 – possibly before at least a few of my readers were born. It was a reflection on my travels backpacking around Thailand and Laos, in the middle of the life-changing experience where I was learning to break with utilitarianism and move instead toward Buddhism. I have not made major edits, because I wanted to preserve the in-process nature of my learning at the time, so it retains the somewhat disjointed style of a first draft. I think it gives a very accurate picture of who I was at that time: someone who had discovered some very important things, perhaps even the most important things, but still had a long way to go.
The piece begins by exploring Stan Rogers‘s wonderful song The Mary Ellen Carter. (If you’re not familiar with the song, I would recommend first listening to it or at least reading the lyrics for the post to make sense.) I’ve been delighted to learn that this year’s youth craze – among people who are now the age I was when I wrote this – is sea chanteys and other sea ballads, so this seemed an ideal time to share this long-ago reflection with the world.
Utilitarianism is self-contradicting. The more time you spend trying to “maximize” happiness through sensual pleasure, fame and fortune, the less happy you will eventually be.
I think of this because I was just humming “The Mary Ellen Carter”. A utilitarian would think the narrator crazy: he digs up the boat not in order to be on a boat again (presumably he could get other work fairly easily), but because of a sense of gratitude, to an inanimate object: “She’d saved our lives so many times, living through the gale.” The utilitarian would agree with the owners: “Insurance paid the loss to us, so let her rest below.” The first thing they teach you in management school is to ignore sunk costs. What we have here is literally a sunk cost – and for its sake alone the narrator spends the whole spring diving, catching the bends twice.
And yet the sense of pride, contentment and satisfaction the narrator radiates in his quest is undeniable. This seemingly useless quest gives his life a purpose, brings him to sing some of the most inspiring lines ever written:Continue reading
Following from his distinction between freedom and necessity, Martin Hägglund tells us that “The rational aim, then, is to reduce the realm of necessity and increase the realm of freedom.” (223) The rational aim of politics, perhaps. But the Disengaged Buddhists remind us how many of life’s problems politics cannot solve. And these problems go right to Hägglund’s own core concepts of freedom and necessity.
Hägglund misses the point expressed in Ashleigh Brilliant’s wonderful epigram: freedom is not the goal, but you need freedom before you can decide what the goal is. Freedom itself, as the simple ability to do what one finds fulfilling, is empty of content. The most important thing is not merely to have room to pursue our ends, but to actually pursue them, which requires we think about which ends are really ours, which are really worth pursuing – and then actually do so. Free time is not the end, it is a means to the end. Alessandro Ferrara puts the point well in his Reflective Authenticity. Ferrara articulates the distinction that I have referred to as quantitative versus qualitative individualism, referring to each as autonomy and authenticity respectively – and he makes the key point that “authenticity presupposes autonomy.” (6, emphasis his) Without the ability to self-determine, a Hägglundian freedom, we cannot be our true selves. But that freedom is only a necessary condition for true self-expression, not a sufficient one!Continue reading
Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, published in 2019, has already become a minor academic sensation – being reviewed in the New Yorker and Guardian as well as being the subject of a day-long conference at Harvard. I recently had a chance to read the book. There is much that I disagree with in it, but I see what all the fuss is about. I think the book is worthy of several posts, and will examine it in detail in the coming weeks.
I will begin with what I appreciate about the book. Above all, I appreciate that Hägglund is a philosopher in the true sense: he is a genuine lover of wisdom, and a seeker of it. Hägglund is asking questions that Socrates and Plato and Aristotle asked, about what a good human life is. I am not sure how much wisdom he has actually found, but just seeking it is rare enough in this age of technical specialization. It is a sad but unsurprising irony that this most deeply philosophical author – like the subjects of Examined Life – teaches in a department of literature and not philosophy. This Life is not a work of analytic philosophy, and I do not think it could have been. Hägglund’s arguments are not perfectly rigorous, nor are his definitions exactingly precise; one could find logical holes in them, and many will. But it seems to me that these lacks are necessary for a book like Hägglund’s, which is so wide-ranging in scope. Analytic philosophers typically make careful, exacting refutations of their foes – who tend to be other analytic philosophers. Hägglund, by contrast, is engaging with a wide swath of the Western philosophical tradition, from Augustine to Adorno, and he reads the philosophers of the tradition in careful depth, trying to understand them in their own terms even when he disagrees.Continue reading
I’ve been thinking a lot on a recent exchange I had with Seth Segall, in the comments on my post about terminology to use for karma. Seth’s comment specified a distinction that is important elsewhere in my exchange with Thompson, on how eudaimonism works. This is a distinction between external goods, on one hand, and on the other – what exactly?
The term Seth used in contrast to “external goods” was what one might take to be its obvious opposite, “internal goods”. I used the exact same term, “internal goods”, in my own later post. Yet in response to Seth’s comment I told him we had to be really cautious about using that term. This indicates to me that my own thought on the topic has not yet been sufficiently clear, and I want to take some time to clarify.Continue reading
Evan Thompson’s critique of my eudaimonistic and probabilistic approach to karma has two prongs: that it is not really karma, and that it doesn’t work on its own terms. I addressed the first criticism last time. Now I’d like to turn to the second, which I personally find to be the more interesting and important of the two.
Let us start with the word “probabilistic”, which I use in a non-technical way. My eudaimonism is a probabilistic claim (as opposed to a deterministic claim) in the same sense that “brushing your teeth will prevent cavities” or “running into the middle of a busy street will get you run over by a car” are probabilistic claims. That is, we assert that these causal correlations are likely, not certain. In the case of the busy street, I’m not sure we have a detailed statistical model of how likely you are to get run over by a car, but I don’t think we need one. Everyday observation is sufficient to determine that. In the case of virtue and happiness, I’ve mentioned a couple of ways that Śāntideva says one leads to the other, in this life; there is a lot more to say about it, and I intend to say it in my book – not with a statistical model, but again I don’t think that’s necessary. This is what I mean by “probabilistic”. I’m not wedded to that specific word: so far “probabilistic” has seemed the most appropriate word to express the concept in question and I haven’t been convinced that it isn’t, but I wouldn’t mind expressing the concept just described with a different term if a better one is available.
If I read Thompson’s objections on that point correctly, though, I don’t think they are about a statistical model or its absence. Rather, his bigger concern is this: Continue reading