Somewhat vague worries about classification and Indian Buddhist ethics   

Mary is a doctor who volunteers often.  She works in low income clinics, and travels to foreign nations to treat epidemics.  If you ask her why she’s willing to sacrifice her time, she might grip your arm while a look of intensity enters into her usually gentle eyes.  “What could be more important than lessening suffering?” she would say.  “Pain is the worst thing that can happen to us.  We have an obligation to eliminate as much of it as we can.”  If I said these kinds of things I wouldn’t deeply mean them, but I don’t doubt Mary’s sincerity since she has risked her life on more than one occasion to volunteer during highly contagious epidemics.

It’s temping to say that Mary is a consequentialist with proclivities towards a hedonistic position about well-being.  A consequentialist claims that we should maximize good consequences, and a hedonist believes pain and suffering are ultimately what makes a life go better or worse.  So we might at least want to say there’s a deep consequentialist and (negative) hedonic strand in Mary’s beliefs.  I think this is probably wrong.  Elements of foundational normative theories, like consequentialism and hedonism, mark out the deepest conceptual elements of a theory of right action and a theory of well-being.   These conversations take place in a particular region of philosophical space, and it’s not clear to me that Mary has ever entered that region.

One way to make this point is to see what Mary’s reactions are to the traditional thought experiments used to challenge consequentialism.  Since I know my hypothetical subject better than you, you’ll have to take my word that a look of horror enters her face when she’s asked about cutting up a patient to save lives by dividing his organs.   I think this is not so much evidence of her implicit deontic commitments, but suggests she has not yet moved reflectively into that conceptual territory where consequentialisms and deontologies can be distinguished.

There is an easy confusion between intrinsic value and importance that, I think, can cloud our thinking about cross-cultural classification.  Something can have intrinsic value, that is value of itself, and not be very important.  This is the case when something has very little intrinsic value; the pleasure of eating a tic-tac has just a bit of intrinsic value for the average hedonist.  (It has a bit more for me, since I really enjoy orange tic-tacs!)  On the other hand, something can have only instrumental value, but be so important that we would give our lives for it.  A hedonist might believe a revolution is worth dying for, not because of the intrinsic value of freedom, but because of the pain tyranny causes.

When we turn to Buddhist ethical texts, there is no doubt that they place enormous importance on ending suffering.  Via the last paragraph, it’s less clear to me what (if anything) this tells us about what things they hold possess intrinsic value.  But I’m also trying to motivate a more general worry via the Mary example.  We might point to certain passages in Buddhist texts that seem to have consequentialist (or whatever) under/overtones.  But it seems to me that when we do foundational normative theory, marking out at the deepest conceptual level what makes an action right or wrong, or what makes a life go well, we might need more than this.  It seems as though we need some evidence that the authors in question had moved into that peculiar philosophical space where we speak carefully enough, and mark certain conceptual distinctions that allow us to pry apart the mere valuing of pleasure (for instance) from the philosophical claim that pleasure alone, at the deepest level makes a life go well. Often, we talk about pleasure and pain, satisfying goals, consequences, obligations and other moral terms without moving into the space of foundational moral theory.  This invites the question of what counts as evidence that Buddhists (etc.) had entered into that space, or should enter it, or how they would react if they did enter it and so on.

None of this is to disparage the insightful and pioneering work done by contemporary authors like Damien Keown and Charles Goodman, who at times raise the question of classifying the foundational structure of Buddhist ethical texts.

I raise some more developed worries against classifying Śāntideva’s ethical thought in a forthcoming Philosophy East and West article (Jan 2015).  Relevant here as well is, Michael Barnhart’s “Theory and Compassion in the Discussion of Buddhist Ethics” (Philosophy East and West 2012) and Jay Garfield “What is it Like to be a Bodhisattva?” (Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 2012).

Also relevant is Martin Adams article below:

The Consequences of Consequentialism: Reflections on Recent Developments in the Study of Buddhist Ethics.” In Wading into the Stream of Wisdom: Essays Honoring Leslie Kawamura. Edited by Sarah Haynes and Michelle J. Sorensen. Berkeley: Institute of Buddhist Studies (Forthcoming 2012).

Two (incredibly insightful) works that develop somewhat systematic interpretations of the structure of Buddhist ethics are:

Damien Keown: The Nature of Buddhist Ethics.

Charles Goodman: Consequences of Compassion.

About Stephen Harris

Stephen Harris currently teaches at the Institute for Philosophy and the International B.A. program at Leiden University. He has also taught philosophy at the University of New Mexico and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He specializes in Comparative and Indian philosophy, with a particular interest in Buddhist ethical texts.

16 Replies to “Somewhat vague worries about classification and Indian Buddhist ethics   ”

  1. Stephen, are you saying that we should not try to systematise Buddhist ethics, since this is more likely to be a pragmatic and causalistic approach than a systematic theorethical construction holding independently of its consequences?
    This leads to the more general problem of how much speculation is allowed while reconstructing an incomplete theory (and theories are usually always incomplete, given that they could not answer our objections)…

  2. I’m looking forward to your article, Stephen. Where is Martin Adam’s “The consequences of consequentialism”? I both browsed JBE 20 and searched the site, and could not find it.

    More substantively, I’m pretty sympathetic to this approach. Consequentialism is a twentieth-century English-language category; so are deontology and virtue ethics. Though with the former it’s at least reasonably clear what it means, which makes it easier to apply it retroactively; the latter are stabs in the dark.

    Moreover, I am concerned with what we lose when we view Buddhist ethics through the lens of these categories. The temptation for comparative philosophers is to look to other traditions for answers to existing philosophical questions, but I find we learn the most when reading other traditions teaches us to ask new questions. (Or perhaps old questions that are new to us.)

  3. Thanks for this, Stephen. Your concerns are well put, and important to consider for all of us who do this sort of work in Indian thought informed by contemporary philosophy.

    Following Elisa, what’s unclear to me is whether it is the backward projection of fundamental normative ethical theories that is the only problem, or is the struggle to systematize Buddhist ethics (or the ethics of this or that Buddhist) into a single theory a problem too? Do you think it may be possible to attempt a ground-up theory of ethics for this or that Buddhist thinker, while trying not to project the western views, or is such an attempt problematic from the outset (maybe they weren’t doing such systematic-styled work, either.)

    Amod, I’m sure I’ve mentioned it here before, but your comments remind me of Mohanty’s great line that we should go to Indian thinkers not merely for possible solutions to our questions but also to learn new questions.

  4. It’s certainly understandable that those trained in Western philosophical traditions or familiar with its ethical theories (such as those from the fields of Religious Studies, Buddhist Studies, etc.), would in the first instance look to them to make sense, as it were, of Buddhist ethics. Over time, in other words, as we become deeply acquainted with Buddhism in toto, and much like the first resort to analogical reasoning in order to understand something unfamiliar, novel or foreign, we may come to see the limits or undue constraints of such approaches, suggesting that Buddhism has a truly unique perspective on the “domain of the ethical.” Similarities or overlap with existing ethical traditions or moral theories help ease our way into the tradition: at which point we can begin to account for interesting differences or fresh insights. Moral philosophers and ethicists have only recently begun to appreciate (afresh?) questions of moral psychology and the related but distinct role of “the passions” or “the emotions” (the latter a bit broader in scope than the former and realizing there is no equivalent term in Buddhism for the latter concept). An examination of Buddhist ethics in this regard seems promising (pioneered in some measure by Padmasiri de Silva). And at this point we might be prepared to do a comparative accounting of the strengths and weaknesses of these moral philosophies and ethical traditions.

  5. I think “systematization” as a desideratum here would not do justice to Buddhism from (so to speak) the inside looking out. The tradition itself would seem to suggest we have a more modest epistemic goal along the lines of “coherence” (as filled out by philosophers like Nicholas Rescher). This issue reminds me of Raghavan Iyer’s brilliant response to Arne Naess’ attempt at systematization of Gandhian norms, which I think is worth examining for its implications for understanding Buddhist ethics. It is found in the appendix of the second edition of his book, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1983): 387-400.

  6. I should have noted that for Rescher, “systematization” is essential for philosophy as such and thus the contrast I made above with coherence would not work for him, although I intended more by way of appreciating the extent to which Buddhism does not seem amenable to robust systematization as we take it to be in the history of philosophy, while Rescher’s criteria for or parameters of same appear designed to justify his coherentist criteria of truth in contrast with that of a foundationalist form of systematization.

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone! Apologies in advance for a quite long reply!

    A couple people asked about what I think re systemization and Buddhist ethics. I think we can examine the connections between various concepts in Buddhist moral philosophy, and in that sense begin to systematize/ reconstruct elements of moral theory for particular texts or groups of texts. For instance, an aspect of Mahayana virtue ethics that’s particularly intriguing to me is the claim that emptiness perfects the virtues, so that patience etc. is very closely connected with the insight into the selflessness of phenomena. So we can and should think about how patience and emptiness connect for these authors. Likewise, we can look at the various kinds of virtuous mental qualities they distinguish, examine how these relate to Aristotelean (etc) notiongs and so on. We could also do this for non-virtue elements, like the bodhisattva’s vow, Buddhist claims about the value of pleasure etc. So I don’t think Buddhist is radically particularistic in a way that prevents examining and reconstructing the interconnections various Buddhist authors seem to draw.

    I also agree with Patrick that it’s natural to begin looking at Buddhist texts with the particularly influential categories developed in systematic contemporary ethical theory, and see where (if anywhere) this gets us. An aspect of Charles Goodman’s Consequences of Compassion that I’m sympathetic to is his claim that we find a number of commonalities between consequentialisms and certain Buddhist ethical thinkers like Śāntideva, including the (at least apparently) demanding nature of their moral systems and their claim that we can weigh harms and benefits. My forthcoming Phil East West article argues that this isn’t enough to classify it as consequntialist, but I’ll leave that aside for now.

    One of the things that’s struck me lately is how moral terms are part of our ordinary language, are employed meaningfully by almost everyone, can be used in various arguments by non-philosophers etc. And (vs unfortunate stretches of Western intellectual history) non-philosophers can have meaningful and carefully considered discussions about what is right and wrong, employing these terms. Part of the reason this happens is that there’s relatively broad agreement that many of these moral terms are important—most of us agree keeping promises is important, as is respecting autonomy, being generous, lessening suffering etc. And we’re (at least fairly) sure we’re right about this even if we haven’t explained what at the deepest level justifies these beliefs.

    It’s an achievement of (relatively recent) contemporary ethical theory that we have been able to frame particular questions in such a way that we can consider whether some of these terms are deeper than others; whether a commitment to good consequences explains why generosity is important, for instance, and so on. But one of the things I’m wondering about is whether (at least certain) Indian Buddhist authors made the kind of conceptual moves to let these questions arise, whether they would have wanted/needed to do this and so on. And I think this is an area where it’s particularly easy to make mistakes as comparative philosophers, at least partially because these moral terms are used at various levels of conceptual depth.

    So when someone says for instance, ‘you should never break a promise’ I don’t think this is yet evidence of any foundational deontological commitments, since the conceptual moves haven’t yet been made that would require a precise enough use of language for the speaker to have made this kind of commitment. To do this we’d have to bring up example like ax murderer’s at a the door, or talk about Kant, or so on. Ordinarily a virtue theorist and a film director who doesn’t think about philosophy can agree with Kant that we shouldn’t break promises, and all three can be firmly committed to the importance of honesty. So I’m not sure how much it tells us about whether Buddhist authors are virtue ethicists (or whatever) when they talk about the importance of honesty.

    Anyway, this post if more about my questions that any answers I have at the moment. Thanks for the comments, and thanks to Patrick for the reading suggestions.

  8. Also apologies for the faulty reference, but here’s what I found for Martin Adams article. Although I had thought this was also included in the 20th edition of JBE—but now that I look I can’t find it.

    The Consequences of Consequentialism: Reflections on Recent Developments in the Study of Buddhist Ethics.” In Wading into the Stream of Wisdom: Essays Honoring Leslie Kawamura. Edited by Sarah Haynes and Michelle J. Sorensen. Berkeley: Institute of Buddhist Studies (Forthcoming 2012).

  9. Hi Stephen,

    This is not an issue that necessarily goes to the heart of your thesis in the post, but I’m not clear how a person could value something instrumentally enough to die for it. In your example of dying for the revolution, you stipulate that the person does not die for the intrinsic value of freedom. But it’s hard to see how he or she does not die for the intrinsic value of something – perhaps the revolution itself, or resistance against tyranny? What is his or her final goal in fighting/dying?


    • It seems straightforward enough on utilitarian grounds: i.e. the revolution is only instrumentally valuable for the goal of others’ happier or less painful lives, which will be provided by the post-revolutionary state. I imagine Peter Singer would happily say people should have died for the French or Haitian Revolutions, even though those revolutions would be only instrumentally valuable. Or for that matter, dying as a soldier in World War II. One values others’ happiness/desire satisfaction/lack of suffering.

      • Hi Amod,

        Stephen stipulates that the person does not die for for the intrinsic value of freedom. I assume he would say the same thing about “others’ happier or less painful lives” or the “post-revolutionary state” (your examples). I do follow Stephen’s reply below though, and I think I agree.

        • I think I agree with it too. I suppose at some level it may be simply a semantic question: is the person dying for the intrinsically valued happiness that the revolution will instrumentally produce, or for the revolution that is instrumentally valued for producing that intrinsic happiness? I am not sure that that is a difference that makes a difference. And to take it back to Stephen’s comment, that is a reason why most revolutionaries probably wouldn’t have thought to clarify that difference one way or the other.

  10. “Ordinarily a virtue theorist and a film director who doesn’t think about philosophy can agree with Kant that we shouldn’t break promises, and all three can be firmly committed to the importance of honesty. So I’m not sure how much it tells us about whether Buddhist authors are virtue ethicists (or whatever) when they talk about the importance of honesty.”

    This is a perfect illustration of your point, and to further drive it home, might I add that “promising” is understood rather differently in both (Anglo-American) philosophy, law, and ethics: so, one might distinguish between promising as the embodiment of a social convention, an illustration of Humean “artificial virtue,” or the expression of a Kantian-like moral principle. Hume appears to take the notion of a promise outside of ethics or morality proper: the promise is not a “natural” rule of morality but rather an “artificial virtue” owing to its origin in human conventions that have, in turn, arisen from the “necessities and interests of society.” Philosophers from Kant to Searle (for whom almost all speech acts have an element of promising) have been intrigued by Hume’s enchantment with and puzzlement over promises, over the mysterious manner in which each act of promising gives rise to a (freely willed) obligation, in which each act “may even be compar’d to transubstantiation, or holy orders….” Searle would simply say that it is through “speech acts” that conventions or institutions are created. Promising as a performative utterance or magical verbal formula binds the promisor to the (future) performance of an action. Or, as Searle would say, promises are by definition creators of—nonmoral—obligations, and obligations are by definition reasons for action, the binding force of promises is here, contra Rawls (as a neo-Kantian of sorts), internal to the convention of promising.

    In contract law, performance as promised assures others of your trustworthiness, whereas failure to perform is a sign of the converse. The keeping of promises reinforces the social bonds of mutual confidence and security. According to Annette Baier, this is what in fact makes promises the philosophically provocative things they are, for “we can at will accept this sort of invitation to trust, whereas in general we cannot trust at will.”

    Rawls’ discussion of promises pays homage to both Hume and Kant, while bringing us closer to the spirit of contract law. He notes the Humean-like benefits that accrue from promising as a social convention, but views the moral obligation to keep a promise as a consequence more strictly of the “principle of fairness,” for promising involves the invocation of the rule of a constitutive convention, and “Once a person says the words ‘I promise to do X’ in the appropriate circumstances, he has made a bona fide promise.” But the moral obligation to keep one’s promise does not follow from the rule of promising as such, but rather the “principle of fidelity” which holds “bona fide promises are to be kept.” Assuming the just convention of promising exists (as a Humean artificial virtue), the act of promising simultaneously entails invoking the aforementioned rule and accepting the benefits intrinsic to a just convention or social arrangement. Nonetheless, it is our awareness of those benefits, and our desire to communicate such awareness to others, that prompts us to undertake the obligation in the first place: “promising is an act done with the public intention of deliberately incurring an obligation the existence of which in the circumstances will further one’s ends. We want this obligation to exist and to be known to exist, and we want others to know that we recognize this tie and intend to abide by it. Having then, availed ourselves of the practice for this reason, we are under an obligation to do as we promised by the principle of fairness.”

    References will be found in this post from several years ago:

  11. I posted a comment with a link, so it may need approval to appear (that is, if it did not go into a spam folder). Thank you.

  12. Hi Chris. One possibility is that the person’s commitment derives, ultimately, from the intrinsic source of value. So the revolutionary is willing to die for the sake of the revolution, as a means to ending suffering. But that intrinsic value might remain in the background; all her focus, writing, speech etc might be directed towards the instrumental goal, and she might say things like “I am glad to give my life for this revolution.” Relevant to comparative ethics, if all we have is her manifesto for revolution we might mistake her foundational commitments. (Just as if all we have is a bodhisattva manual we might mistake Santideva’s commitments).

    But I think a further complication is that it’s probably possible to have thought carefully about the value of something and be deeply committed to it without getting conceptually all the way down to intrinsic value (if depth is even a good way to describe this). So when you ask why I’m willing to die for the revolution, I can tell you that I value freedom, want to end suffering, believe in courage and solidarity, and keeping my word etc. I might be willing to die for each of those elements. But I might have no position about whether any of those justifications is deeper than the others–whether I value freedom because it lessens suffering and increases pleasure, or for its own sake or whatever. Almost certainly thoughtful people don’t need to plunge all the way down to intrinsic value, in order to be reflectively committed to a value to the point of risking death. After all, they’ve been doing that for centuries, often without at least clearly marking the instrumental/instrinic distinction.

    I guess one might argue that in these cases the person is implicitly committed to holding one item has intrinsic value, while the rest might have instrumental value, even if she hasn’t clearly expressed this even to herself. Or we might say she believes all these items have intrinsic value, but might switch to holding some have instrumental value if she thought more carefully about it (with the help of philosophical distinctions and thought experiments). But I’m inclined to say that at this point she probably simply values these items deeply, and I’m not sure the intrinsic/instrumental distinction can characterize her commitment.

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