Endorsing and rejecting the views of the modern West

Friend of this blog Seth Zuihō Segall has a new book out entitled Buddhism and Human Flourishing, which he kindly sent me a pre-print review copy of. There is much to like in the book and I am very sympathetic to it. Indeed, my first worry about the book was that I would be too sympathetic. For the basic idea of the book – a modern Buddhist ethics understood in roughly Aristotelian terms –  is quite close to the book I have been starting to work on writing myself. Did Segall scoop me?

Having read the book, I think this is not the case: my take on Buddhist ethics does turn out to be significantly different from his. To an outsider this will no doubt look like the narcissism of small differences, but that is probably in the nature of scholarly disagreement. We are indeed both Aristotelian Buddhists who deemphasize rebirth – a kinship I already pointed to in my review of Evan Thompson’s book. And we both take a constructive perspective, arguing for this Aristotelian Buddhism – in contrast to Damien Keown, say, who aims to identify similarities between Buddhism and Aristotle but does not endorse this position. Keown rightly points to the need for the study of Buddhist ethics to move beyond mere descriptive ethics, but he only moves to meta-ethics and not to normative ethics, thus still putting his work in ethics studies rather than of ethics proper. Segall and I, by contrast, are explicitly normative about our modern Aristotelian Buddhism. So we are on the same page in many respects. I’m also delighted to see him cite Love of All Wisdom twice in the book (though, interestingly to me, neither citation is about either Buddhism or Aristotle).

All of that said, I have some significant differences with Segall’s approach. Core to this: I think Segall is too ready to take the views and attitudes current in the modern West as given by default. I think it is important to engage more critically with those views and attitudes – both to endorse them and to reject them.

On the side of endorsing modern Western views: Segall and I are in agreement in leaving rebirth out of our conception of Buddhism. But in my view, he puts the point much too weakly: “Please note that my argument is not that rebirth is untrue, but only that most Westerners don’t find it compelling due to their preexisting prior beliefs.” (7) I don’t think this is enough. On normative questions, there could be a case made that different ways of life are appropriate to the different values and customs of different societies. I don’t think such a case can be made about whether people’s mental states transmigrate after death into a new birth. Either we get reborn or we don’t! One way or another, rebirth or its absence applies to everyone: I have never heard anybody make the claim that Tibetans get reborn but Canadians don’t.

So I don’t think it is appropriate to say, “If someone else finds the traditional model more compelling, more consistent with his or her understanding of the world, and more inspiring for practice, then the traditional model might be the best model for that person.” (69-70) Either human beings are reborn according to the traditional model or we aren’t. From the psychological evidence I have seen so far, it appears that we aren’t; the case for rebirth looks a lot like creationism, adhering to a major traditional doctrine that scientific evidence rejects. I don’t think we should say that “the traditional model” of creationism is better than evolution for people who find that “more consistent with their understanding of the world”. Those creationists are wrong, and should be regarded like anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, and others who hold demonstrably false beliefs. If we indeed aren’t reborn, the traditional model needs rethinking – or if it turns out we are, then Segall’s and my model of the psyche needs even more rethinking. One way or another, rebirth is no more culturally relative than the existence of the pancreas.

On the flip side, the side of rejecting Western views: Segall says his model “restricts itself to the kinds of claims that modern Westerners can potentially endorse without reservation.” (172) If we modern Westerners have reservations about endorsing anything, it seems, then it has to go.

And I think there is a big problem with such an approach. If your Buddhism restricts itself to only those things that “modern Westerners can potentially endorse without reservation”, then it becomes reasonable to ask (as David Chapman and Evan Thompson effectively both do, in different ways) why we should even bother with Buddhism at all – what difference it makes to be a Buddhist, as opposed to “(say) a non-Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Californian.”

I think Buddhism does offer a number of important ideas that will give modern Westerners lots of reservations, such as the rejection of righteous anger, the dangers of political participation, the detached attitude to time and material goods. And I think it is important that modern Westerners have reservations about these ideas, for I think the reservations themselves indicate that the texts have something to teach us – that we may have something to learn from them that we didn’t already know. The most valuable lessons a tradition has to teach us are the ones that we first have reservations about, that first look implausible and unappealing. Once we have investigated those ideas further, we may continue to find many of them unappealing, but we may also find some of them more plausible than they did at first glance, and it is in that respect that the tradition can genuinely change us for the better. If we restrict ourselves to the uncontroversial views that we can potentially endorse without reservation, we close ourselves off to that kind of learning, and I think that is a tragic loss.

So Segall makes some reference to the kinds of conflicts that my dissertation explored, between a classical Buddhist view typified by Śāntideva and a modern Western one typified by Martha Nussbaum. His method effectively assumes Nussbaum’s position and dispenses with Śāntideva’s: “As practicing Buddhists, most of us want to become the best human beings we can possibly be. We don’t want to lose our humanity in the process.” (161) But Śāntideva’s point, on some level, is that we’re wrong not to want to lose our humanity in key senses (of partiality to particular relationships, in the case that Segall is discussing). Our wants are part of the problem. I do disagree with Śāntideva, and agree with Segall and Nussbaum, on this point – for reasons that happen to put me closer to a classical Chinese philosopher than to a modern Western one. The important thing, though, is that we modern Westerners provide reasons for our disagreement with a classical thinker – while we try to understand that thinker’s reasons for disagreeing with us. We must not just assume the rightness of the modern Western view.

There are many questions, like rebirth, where I think a typical modern Western view is right, and a view like Śāntideva’s wrong. But having read Śāntideva in detail, I have also found questions on which I think the moderns are wrong and he is right. A crucial part of a cross-cultural philosopher’s work is to aim to identify which is which. That work is not easy to do, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Now there are also many questions on which ancients and moderns can find relatively easy agreement, and I think Segall does a wonderful job of finding those. But we need to push into the disagreements as well. That way we can do the crucial work of allowing modern Western views to change.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

One Reply to “Endorsing and rejecting the views of the modern West”

  1. > Aristotelian Buddhism

    This oxymoron is the problem you seem to have been struggling with for a while… Or so at least it appears to me in your writings…

    There is nothing in Aristotle that one must accept on faith. And there is no historically established chain of authority that must resolve fundamental doctrinal disagreements sometimes without even a passing reference to logic or reason. No community with shared moral values that must practice a particular way of life to attain a goal beyond this life.

    In that light, what you write is hardly philosophy in any Aristotelian sense. What you write is religious apologetics. “Aristotelian Buddhism” is a comfortable compromise for those who can neither believe unquestionably nor abandon their beliefs entirely.

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