I wanted to reflect a bit more on my debate with Charles Goodman at Princeton this November. (If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the video of the debate and our handouts.) I don’t think either of us would consider the debate conclusive. Indeed, following the debate, our conversations that afternoon indicated that the issues we were really concerned about lay elsewhere.Continue reading
This November, Charles Goodman and I had a wonderful debate at Princeton’s Center for Culture, Society and Religion, on the interpretation of Śāntideva’s ethics: Charles claims that Śāntideva is a utilitarian, I claim that he is a eudaimonist. You can now watch the video of the debate on the Center’s website; I hope you enjoy!
Charles and I refer a lot in the debate to the handouts we created; I’m attaching them here.
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
In the Śikṣā Samuccaya‘s chapter on patient endurance, Śāntideva urges aspiring bodhisattvas to attain a meditative state (samādhi) called the Sarvadharmasukhākrānta, which Charles Goodman translates as “Everything is Covered with Happiness.” Śāntideva makes truly extraordinary claims about what is possible for a bodhisattva who has attained this state. In Goodman’s translation:
Bodhisattvas who attain this feel only happy feelings toward all objects they are aware of, with no feelings of suffering or unhappiness. Even while feeling the pains of the torments of hell, they think only happy thoughts. Even while suffering all the harms of the human condition, such as having their hands, feet, or noses cut off, they think only happy thoughts. Even while being beaten with canes, half-canes, or whips, they have only happy thoughts. Even when thrown into prison… or while being cooked in oil, or pounded like sugarcane, or flattened like reeds, or set on fire like an oil lamp, a butter lamp, or a yogurt lamp, they think only happy thoughts. (ŚS 181-2)
The passage is surprising, and modern readers often approach it with deep skepticism. We cannot imagine someone feeling this way; we think it must be impossible. Surely these are exaggerations? Surely it is psychologically unrealistic for anyone to attain such a state?
I think there is at least one significant empirical reason to believe that these claims are not exaggerated, and his name is Thich Quang Duc. Continue reading
My disagreements with Charles Goodman continue with his contribution to Jake Davis’s thought-provoking volume A Mirror Is For Reflection. (I’ve previously written about Jan Westerhoff’s chapter in the same book.) Just like Westerhoff, Charles is exploring the important question of naturalizing karma. He does so with particular reference to Śāntideva. He opens with a beautiful reading of Śikṣā Samuccaya chapter 4’s graphic descriptions of the punishments a wrongdoer will face in the hells, reading them in terms of the actions’ psychological effects on the wrongdoer.
The problem with this reading is that it doesn’t go far enough. Continue reading
I’ve been fortunate in the past year and a half to meet Charles Goodman at three different conferences, and to have long and stimulating discussions with him. Since our researches have both focused on Śāntideva’s ethics, we can critique each other’s ideas at a highly detailed level – one that has often involved whipping out a physical copy of Charles’s excellent new translation of the Śikṣā Samuccaya to confirm our points.
Probably our central point of disagreement: Charles is known for presenting a consequentialist interpretation of Buddhist ethics, and especially of Śāntideva; in his talk at the IABS, referred to Śāntideva as “the world’s first utilitarian”. Since I discovered Buddhism in part as an alternative to an unsatisfying utilitarianism, this has not sat particularly well with me. Continue reading
I’m continuing to examine Justin Whitaker‘s interpretation of Pali Buddhist ethics as Kantian moral law. I argued last time that the concept of dhamma does not serve in these texts as a universal, trans-human moral law. Here I want to take a similar look at the concept of kamma – better known in English as karma.
Justin claims that for Kant “the Moral Law is universal, concerned with all (rational) beings, and is holistic in its conception of morality as a guarantor to a just realm of ends (supported by the moral argument for belief in God).” (47) I think this interpretation of Kant is missing something in that Kant does not view the moral argument as demonstrating that there actually is a guarantee of cosmic justice, only that we must act as if there is (it is a regulative ideal). But I’ll leave that aside here because I want to focus on the comparison to Buddhism. Continue reading
Last time, I observed Peter Singer’s proposed radical revision of our moral views – the claim that, when we keep money that we could give to help the starving or diseased without major sacrifice, we are doing something as bad as if we let a drowning child drown. Is Singer right?
At the heart of Singer’s argument, by his own reckoning, is this principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” He explicitly states that the implication of this “ought” is duty and obligation, not merely charity and generosity. It is not just that sacrificing one’s own comfort and pleasure to help those in need is good, but that any refusal to do so is bad, something deserving of one’s own guilt and shame and others’ condemnation.
Now on what grounds should we accept this principle, if indeed we should? Continue reading
In the past few years, especially since the publication of Damien Keown’s The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, there has been a small academic cottage industry devoted to the question of how one might best classify Buddhist ethics. Which of the three standard branches of analytical ethics does it fall under: consequentialism (à la J.S. Mill), deontology (à la Kant) or virtue ethics (à la Aristotle)? The debate has generally been a tussle between virtue ethics (Keown’s position) and consequentialism (Charles Goodman). My friend (and contributor to this blog) Justin Whitaker suspects that a deontological interpretation of Buddhist ethics is possible, but he’s a voice in the wilderness so far.
At the SACP, Michael Barnhart proposed a way of sidestepping this debate entirely. As far as ethics itself goes, he says, Buddhism is particularist; it doesn’t adhere to any real theory, it just responds to particular situations. Where it does have a theory isn’t in ethics at all, but in something else entirely: the question of what we care about, or should care about. (Specifically, he argues, Buddhists claim we should care above all about suffering.)
Barnhart based this idea on Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “The importance of what we care about.” I didn’t comment on his paper right after the SACP, because I wanted a chance to read Frankfurt’s piece first. Having read it, I would now say that Barnhart and Frankfurt both run into a common problem: an unreasonably narrow definition of ethics. Continue reading
There’s been a debate in the past couple of years between Mark Siderits and Charles Goodman over Śāntideva’s attitude toward free will. In his chapter condemning anger, Śāntideva says a number of things that sound completely determinist:
Even though my stomach fluids and so on make great distress, I have no anger toward them. Why do I have anger toward sentient beings? Even their anger has a cause…. Certainly, all the different crimes and vices arise out of causes; we can’t find an independent one…. Therefore, when one sees an enemy or a friend doing unjust acts, one should think “it has causes,” and remain happy. (Bodhicary?vat?ra verses VI.22-33) Continue reading