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.