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.
The terms neoliberal and neoliberalism have become ubiquitous in left-wing discourse of the past few years, ranging from discussions of government policy to critiques of mindfulness meditation. They merit a closer look.
Credit for the terms usually goes back to Michel Foucault, in his lectures collected as The Birth of Biopolitics. What is extraordinary about these lectures is that they took place in early 1979 – before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would take office and implement the sweeping right-wing libertarian-capitalist economic reforms to which the term “neoliberal” is now most often applied. So while 21st-century writing about neoliberalism aims to describe an ideology that shapes the actions of government and social institutions, Foucault was merely writing about an ideology found in the writings of mid-20th-century German and American economists (most notably Friedrich Hayek). For this reason, Foucault now comes to look prescient – but his writing on the subject takes on a very different cast from 21st-century writers, since he is only describing a theory, and they aim to describe a practice.
There are many things to be said about the concept of neoliberalism. First off, it is an unfortunately confusing term, in the North American context at least. It probably makes sense in Australia, where the Liberal Party is the right-wing party. And the ideas and practices described as “neoliberal” do occur on both sides of the political spectrum. But the opposition to neoliberalism comes largely from people on the political left, people whom the vast majority of ordinary Americans and Canadians would still describe as – liberal.
Still, the term is in widespread use on the left now, and however confusing the term is, the bigger question is the phenomenon the term claims to describe: a phenomenon which is supposedly a new (neo) transformation of the market-oriented political ideas that have in the past gone under the name “liberal”. So we may ask of neoliberalism: is it liberal – at least in the broad sense in which Reaganite right-wingers are liberal? And is it neo – what about it is new?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
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
Last time I introduced the idea of supererogatory acts, those that are good beyond what duty and obligation require. The nature of supererogatory acts is sometimes referred to with the noun form supererogation. David Heyd’s Stanford Encyclopedia article makes a good introduction to the idea of supererogation. It also, I think, tells us what analytical moral philosophy gets wrong about the idea – specifically, when it claims that “the class of actions beyond duty is relatively small…”
Says who? Say contemporary ethicists, according to Heyd. But to my mind this does a lot to illustrate what is wrong with their way of thinking. The claim that relatively few actions go beyond the requirements of duty would certainly be true for Peter Singer and most utilitarians and consequentialists, who subject us to an effectively never-ending stream of demands in which little could be supererogatory short of altruistic suicide. Likewise, while I think it would not be hard to allow great room for supererogatory acts in a neo-Kantian position, as Heyd notes this was not Kant’s own view: there were perfect and imperfect duties, but the latter were duties all the same.
But this, I would argue, is one of the many things both utilitarians and Kantians get wrong – and therefore the majority of analytical ethicists, since most major analytical ethics descends from one or both of these sources. Continue reading
Aeon magazine recently published an excellent popularized version of Eric Schwitzgebel’s reflections on his research indicating that professional ethicists are no more ethical than anybody else. I’ve already blogged here both about the research and about the reflections. Betsy (Elizabeth) Barre shared the Aeon piece on her Facebook feed, leading to a lively conversation on Facebook which provoked me to think further about deeper issues around it.
In that conversation I shared my earlier reflection on the topic. In response, among other thoughts, Barre noted she was surprised that Schwitzgebel hadn’t presented the reflection in terms of the standard distinction between “what is moral?” and “why be moral?” And she asked me: “I take it that you think the latter question is not as problematic as some philosophers and ethicists do?”
That question came as a surprise. 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
The image of a drowning child is a vivid one – enough to make it a key example in two very different traditions of moral philosophy. In ancient China, Mencius used the image to illustrate humans’ natural inborn moral benevolence: we would all “have a feeling of alarm and compassion” at such a sight, and not out of any form of self-interest. Thousands of years later, in the early 1970s – when Chinese philosophy was known to the West but it would rarely have occurred to a Western philosopher that he should study it – the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer used the same image. In his famous article “Famine, affluence and morality”, written in 1971 and published 1972, Singer says this:
if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
But Singer puts the image to a very different use than Mencius. Continue reading
Last time I explored how James Doull – from a Hegelian perspective – understood the world in the century or two after Hegel, up to the fall of fascism and Communism. This week I’m following up with his analysis of the world he lived at his death in 2001 – still the world we live in today.
In reading Doull’s discussion of post-1989 politics I keep thinking back to Benjamin Barber‘s splendidly evocative title, Jihad vs. McWorld – originally a 1992 Atlantic Monthly article, expanded into a bestselling 1996 book. Doull’s staid prose would never feature such popular terms as “Jihad” and “McWorld”, but it seems to me that his analysis nevertheless rests on roughly the same contrast: a particularist embrace of divisions based on language, culture and “religion”, which emerges stronger as a response to a universalistic globalized technological capitalism. Continue reading