Does Śāntideva’s theory make demands?

My friend Stephen Harris recently posted an interesting article on the question of whether Śāntideva’s ethics is “overdemanding”. I appreciate the article’s methodological approach. It engages Śāntideva’s ethics with the categories of analytical moral philosophy while moving beyond the relatively fruitless attempt to classify it: not “is Śāntideva’s ethics consequentialist?” but “is Śāntideva’s ethics vulnerable to the charges made against consequentialism?” The latter approach is more important because it allows engagement with Śāntideva’s ideas: asking the question “to what extent is Śāntideva right?”

There is much that is thoughtful and valuable in Harris’s article, and I can’t engage with all of it. It raises important points that go beyond anything I can say here. I’m going to focus on one narrow point that I think Harris doesn’t develop enough, but I don’t want that to detract from the wider issues at stake here. If what I say here is correct, I think much of Harris’s overall argument would survive, though its terms would likely be significantly altered.

The point that nags at me is the focus in the article – a focus inherited from the analytic categories Harris employs – on obligation, or duty or demand. (I’ve previously noted Christine Korsgaard’s argument that the move from virtue to obligation is a characteristically modern one, and that is quite relevant here.) The overdemandingness objection, as Harris describes it, “arises when a moral theory makes unfair demands on its adherents.” (my emphasis) This is a common objection made against the likes of Peter Singer. It is not just that Singer tells us that we should give up all possible comforts in order to feed and clothe the starving; he adds, as well, that doing so is not merely a charity but a duty:

It follows from what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable, or generous. Nor is it the kind of act which philosophers and theologians have called “supererogatory” – an act which it would be good to do, but not wrong not to do. On the contrary, we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.

Singer’s theory, then, demands that we give our money away. But what I want to suggest is that Śāntideva is not making a demand in the same way – so that something is missed when one describes his theory as “overdemanding”. The point I am making here has to do with the significant Spinozist or even Nietzschean element to be found in Śāntideva’s thought. In chapter VI of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Śāntideva argues hard against the very idea of blame, and in so doing, I think, moves his emphasis away from Singer’s idea of moral wrongness. Those who do wrong are not targets for blame but for compassion. Śāntideva thinks it better that we follow the path he lays out for it – but it is not clear to me that he demands it, or that we are obliged to do so.

Harris’s seventh footnote rightly notes: “In addition, early Buddhist traditions hold the bodhisattva path to be an optional supererogatory commitment and so would not face the overdemandingess objection.” My suggestion here is that we should likely view Śāntideva himself (and possibly most Indian Buddhist thinkers, Mahāyāna and otherwise) in the same way.

Nietzsche tells us that beyond good and evil does not mean beyond good and bad; and I think Śāntideva’s ethical vocabulary is closer to the latter pair of categories. Likely the most common normative terms in his writings, one might note, are puṇya and pāpa: good and bad karma (or karmically good and bad). If we in the 21st century are going to try to apply an ethic of karma we will likely need to naturalize it; I do think it is fruitful to do so. But I have argued that when we do, we are best off identifying good karma with something like Greek eudaimonia – a concept having far more to do with virtue than with obligation. In Śāntideva himself it has a close connection with the absence of suffering – and not, I have argued, with moral blame.

Now as Harris rightly notes, Śāntideva’s claims about what is good are quite extreme – an ascetic monastic life far removed from the everyday world, committed to the well-being of all other beings. But as I read him, his theory does not demand that we take up this life. Rather, it recommends that we take it up if we know what is good for us. To avoid this life is to commit ourselves to that very suffering we wish to avoid; we are doing something wrong in that we are making a mistake. It is in the nature of the world’s phenomena that they are not only empty but lead us to suffering. To avoid the bodhisattva path is not forbidden so much as unwise.

So to the extent that there are supposedly unfair demands made on the agent, these demands are not made by the theory, but by the world. the theory merely describes those demands inherent in the nature of things. If that is the case, its unfairness seems much less of a problem, for one cannot expect the world to be fair. (Except, perhaps, if one is a monotheist, as Śāntideva is not.) One can of course object that the world is not in fact as Śāntideva describes it. But to the objection that what the world demands of us is unfair, it is quite reasonable to respond: tough luck. That is how the world is, and my theory merely reports it. It would be really nice if the world’s demands were fair, but they aren’t, and we will just have to live with that.

4 Replies to “Does Śāntideva’s theory make demands?”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful response to my article, Amod. Just a couple quick points in response. First, I think that there’s an interesting connection between Śāntideva’s work and contemporary discussions of the demandingness problem, even if you’re right that Śāntideva doesn’t actually face the overdemandingness objection. This is because it’s in the interest of Mahayana authors like Śāntideva, who praise the bodhisattva ideal and encourage others to take it up, to lessen the severity (or apparent severity) of that process. So lessening demandingness is important to Śāntideva, even if he doesn’t face the overdemandingness objection. (I think we might agree on that part!)

    Your point about the obligation language is interesting, and I’ll continue to think about it. It seems to me that in a couple arguments in the eighth chapter, including the one I cite, Śāntideva claims that it would be irrational to prioritize our well-being over the well-being of others, given the equal desire for happiness of all, and given the lack of an enduring self. So it seems as though he’s suggesting we ought to work equally for others well-being, since it would be irrational not to do this.

    I agree that this doesn’t necessarily push us into the heavier deontological territory that some contemporary ethicists move into, where morality becomes marked out from other kinds of normativity, and obligations takes on a particularly heavy weight. But I’m not sure it would take more than the rationality arguments above to move an author like Śāntideva into the domain of the overdemandingness problem. He seems to be claiming we ought (in some morally relevant sense) to do something that at least appears to be counter-intuitively demanding, which leaves us facing the objection.

    Then there’s also the interesting tension with this interpretation of his arguments in chapter eight and his remarks about the inappropriateness of anger and blame in the sixth chapter, that you develop in more detail elsewhere in your blog (see links in Amod’s post). For right now, I’ll just say that I think one of the deepest difficulties with reading Śāntideva philosophically is in deciding how to read the various parts of the text alongside each other. Once could, for instance, claim (as I did in the past here) that Śāntideva’s apparent arguments in chapter eight are meant to function primarily as meditations to develop compassion. If I was right back then, Śāntideva wouldn’t face the demandingness objection, since he was not (at least primarily) intending to rationally convince in these passages.

    I still think these passages function (maybe even primarily) as meditations, but I don’t think I properly acknowledged the ability of Buddhist passages to function both as arguments and as meditations (as do the arguments against the existence of a self, for instance). So in this article I read them as arguments, and drew the stronger conclusion that this meant Śāntideva faced the overdemandingess objection.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful response, which I’ll continue to consider.

    • Thank you, Stephen, for this wonderful reply that reminds me why I love scholarly blogging. First I’ll add that I think we agree more than we disagree: especially that Śāntideva has an interest in lessening the perceived severity of the bodhisattva path. (Thus my point in the post that much of your argument would survive my claims.)

      I agree, Śāntideva does think it irrational to prioritize our own well-being over others’, and that therefore we should (ought to) prioritize others’ over our own instead. By thinking this, he believes we should pursue a radical revision of our normal priorities. The question is in what sense this counts as “demanding”.

      Your formulation of the overdemandingness objection in the article is that it occurs when “a theory asks the agent to make an unfair sacrifice of her well-being.” As I note in the post, according to Śāntideva’s theory it is not the theory but the world, the nature of things, that “asks for” that sacrifice (and that can therefore be counted as unfair). That’s a major reason why I don’t think we can count the theory itself as “demanding”, unless perhaps we dramatically disagree with the theory’s own interpretation of itself.

      I would add further that I think it’s key to a theory like this that Śāntideva does not believe (as far as I can tell) that ought implies can. The theory describes things that we should do, and would do if we knew (at a deep emotional level, not merely an abstract conceptual level) what was best for us. But it’s also pretty clear, I think, that most of us won’t, not in this lifetime – and that the proper attitude to to the fact that we won’t is not blame, but compassion. The power of pāpa is vast and terrible.

      In that respect I suppose I don’t see as big a tension between chapter six and the others as you do (or as I think Mark Siderits does). I think Śāntideva recognizes that his theory recommends a drastic change of priorities and that most people would find that change unreasonable – but also that those people are wrong, and (importantly) tragically wrong. They hurt themselves by not making that change. And for that reason it is worth making the change look less drastic, through skillful means – which could even be outright lies, making it look as if the theory recommends something much less drastic than it does in order to get people to take up at least a part of it (for their own sake).

  2. Thanks for the response Amod. Just a quick re-response, regarding your point about the demands of the world. If I follow you right (and looking at your original post again) your suggestion is that Śāntideva would claim the bodhisattva path is itself in the person’s own benefit–so even though it appears austere by ordinary standards, it’s not unfair since it actually benefits the person.

    I think where the potential demandingness of the bodhisattva path opens up is the space between the early Buddhist emphasis on individual liberation and the bodhisattva path. Śāntideva would claim that following the bodhisattva path would be of greater benefit than merely remaining in samsara. But many (most) of the benefits of the bodhisattva path could also be accessed by an individual traveling the quicker path to individual liberation (elimination of all but the subtlest klesas, positive karmic benefit). So at least initially it appears like the bodhisattva path is demanding, compared to the path to the individual liberation. Moreover, it at least appears as if the bodhisattva undergoes hardships arhats do not—remaining in samsara, voluntary difficult rebirths etc.

    This is where I left things for my article, and I then try to articulate ways in which Śāntideva lessons this apparent gap. But I think that it’s possible Śāntideva would make an even stronger claim—that following the bodhisattva path is in one’s interest even in relation to the arhat path, or perhaps that the distinction at some point isn’t sustainable. Most obviously, he emphasizes the massive karmic benefits of the bodhisattva path in chapter 1. There’s also the intriguing comments about subtle obscurations, especially in chapter nine, that suggest he might not think liberation is possible without commitment to the bodhisattva path—or at least that the state obtained is much deeper. One could also think about how attitudes to the conventional self would begin to change as one progressed long the path, so that the attitude of fairness of my well-being vs the well-being of the world would no longer make any kind of sense.

    Anyway, I didn’t include this in my article because I didn’t think Śāntideva’s position on this was explicit—it wasn’t clear to me anyway. So I decided to focus on the at least apparent gap in well-being between the bodhisattva and arhat path, take the boundaries of the conventional self relatively seriously and use that for the essay’s framing. I think it brought out some of the interesting demand lessening strategies found in Śāntideva (and other) Buddhist texts—although I don’t think it exhausts what’s in there.

    Not sure if that replies to your suggestion about the demands of the world or not—and I’m also not sure if we’re disagreeing anymore!

    • So I’m not sure the arhat path is really even a thing for Śāntideva. I’ve read him as taking the ekayāna approach, that the arhat path (the Hīnayāna, to him) is at best a skillful means for people who haven’t figured out the truth – so that if people remain on it, your work is not done. (He says a lot of things to that effect in the Śikṣā.) I don’t think he takes an approach like the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra, where the arhat’s path is a legitimate alternative approach to the bodhisattva’s. But even though he quotes the Ugra a lot in the ŚS, I don’t think he takes that approach or cites passages that do.

      So this does reply to my point, but I think it hinges on which of these two interpretations you take. I agree much more with the second of the two interpretations you offer, the “even stronger claim”. (VIII.129: all who are happy in this world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others.) According to that approach, again, any supposed demandingness is a demandingness of the nature of the world, not of the theory.

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