Naturalizing Śāntideva’s eudaimonism

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. Charles acknowledges that in many cases a wrongdoer will indeed suffer for wrongdoing. But, he claims, not all:

It seems very hard to resist the claim that there will be at least certain rare cases of spectacularly profitable wrongdoing that will supply the perpetrator with plentiful material resources for life, with relatively little chance of failure or of being caught. In these cases, a credible understanding of the nature and scope of the psychological ill effects of wrongdoing is unlikely to imply that the perpetrator’s well-being will be reduced by carrying out such an act. (139)

Charles, of course, knows that Śāntideva does not remotely believe this claim. For Śāntideva, in the case at issue, a perpetrator’s well-being will indeed be decidedly reduced by this profitable wrongdoing. But in Charles’s interpretation, the only thing that would reduce the perpetrator’s well-being would be the supernatural form of karmic fruition, where the perpetrator has bad rebirths:

So if there is nothing more to karma than the workings of our psychology, as the modern view claims, then morality and self-interest will sometimes fail to coincide. The cases in which they diverge are likely to be rare; unfortunately, potential criminals will probably perceive them as diverging far more often than they actually do. But the theoretical point remains: Absent some heroic defense that has yet to be provided, on the modern understanding of karma, eudaemonism is false. (139)

But for Śāntideva, I would argue, this too is not the case. For him, the kind of external goods that the perpetrator could secure (especially material goods and social status) are irrelevant at best to the perpetrator’s well-being; their effect may well be negative. It is important here that, as Barbra Clayton notes and as we already saw last time, Śāntideva at times uses the term śubha (well-being) interchangeably with puṇya (good karma) – which he also uses interchangeably with śīla (good conduct). When he uses a term translatable as “well-being”, moreover, śubha comes up more often than hita (the term that Charles treats as equivalent to “well-being” on page lii of his translation). Śāntideva’s choices of terms suggest that for him virtue and well-being are indeed equivalent.

Now what does this equivalence imply? Charles and I agree that the Greek and Roman Stoics regarded “only virtue as valuable” (137). I have argued at length in my dissertation that Śāntideva takes the same position, treating what the Stoics call “external goods” as neutral or even negative for our well-being. Charles casually dismisses the Stoic view on Martha Nussbaum’s grounds that it

seems to undermine the content of any plausible account of the virtues themselves. If physical injury, degradation, and misery are not bad for people, then why should it be any part of virtue to refrain from inflicting them on others? And if those who suffer these alterations of fortune at the hands of others have not been harmed, then what can justify setting up elaborate social institutions to prevent them, or participating in the functioning of those institutions? The view that assigns value to nothing but virtue seems to drain all content out of both our ethical and our political theories, leaving nothing but a sterile form behind. (138-9)

The problem for Charles’s view is that this so-called “sterile form” is exactly what Śāntideva advocates. In this respect I humbly request that Charles reread my dissertation, especially chapter 7, where I explain at considerable length how Śāntideva would respond to these exact objections in the exact form that Nussbaum makes them. The short version: Śāntideva, to put it bluntly, does not give a crap about social institutions – except for the monkhood, whose point is to teach virtue rather than to do anything about alterations of fortune. One does still individually prevent others’ wrongdoing, for the wrongdoer’s own sake (see chapter 5 of the dissertation); and similarly one gives generously, to poor and rich alike, in order to prepare them to listen to one’s own teaching (see my 2013 JBE article). But physical injury and degradation are not problems in themselves; if we understand them properly, they are opportunities for us to practice our own patient endurance. Śāntideva claims the developed bodhisattva can even enjoy being tortured (ŚS 181) – a claim given some empirical plausibility by the case of Thich Quang Duc. Non-bodhisattvas, to be sure, are not at that level yet – but getting them there is our goal, and likely our only goal. We might protect them from injury or degradation in the short run, to make sure they are well prepared to listen to our teaching – but those injuries and degradations are not bads in themselves.

What all this means for Charles’s argument is that a naturalized understanding of karma does not render Śāntideva’s eudaemonism false. (It also means that Śāntideva indeed is a eudaimonist, in the sense Charles describes on p137: that he will “assert a very tight connection between virtuous action, on the one hand, and the well-being of the agent, on the other.”) For Śāntideva, as for the Stoics, virtue and well-being coincide when properly understood – and not primarily because that virtue comes to ripen karmically as external goods. Indeed Śāntideva spends considerable time advising us to get rid of the karmic fruits of our good actions, because enjoying them is likely to interfere with our genuine well-being.

There is a place where naturalized karma can become genuinely problematic for a view like Śāntideva’s – and that is the suicide objection, which Jan Westerhoff makes in the same volume. If we are not reborn, then suicide – or even murder – can mark the end of our duḥkha. Śāntideva’s view is uncompromising enough that he could not accept my response, which does allow some value to goods other than virtue or liberation. So if we could establish that humans are not reborn at death, would that then destroy the bodhisattva path? I do see one other, more Śāntidevan path (taken by Jim Wilton in his comment on the suicide discussion), which is to argue that the bodhisattva’s life is so joyful that it is better than simple extinction. Śāntideva has various characterizations of the highly advanced bodhisattva – some suggest a painful compassion, some suggest no emotions or thoughts at all – but there are enough passages describing the bodhisattva’s happiness, even through excruciating external conditions, to suggest that he thinks that state considerably better for the agent than simple extinction.

[Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.]

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

2 thoughts on “Naturalizing Śāntideva’s eudaimonism

  1. If we’re going to naturalize the traditional concept of karma, I can’t think of a best place to start than reciprocity, the strong tendency we all share (which is and probably innate, and has clear evolutive advantages) to keep track of who has done us favors, who we owe favors to, who returns or doesn’t return favors, etc.

  2. First let us understand “well-being” refers to a state of freedom from suffering.
    A fellow who has a naturalized understanding of karma will not resort to evil deeds to protect himself from their psychological
    consequences,in his own self-interest.
    So in a sense, well-being is a result of restraining oneself from evil deeds.

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