Śāntideva vs. Singer

I’ve been fortunate in the past year and a half to meet Charles Goodman at three different conferences, and to have long and stimulating discussions with him. Since our researches have both focused on Śāntideva’s ethics, we can critique each other’s ideas at a highly detailed level – one that has often involved whipping out a physical copy of Charles’s excellent new translation of the Śikṣā Samuccaya to confirm our points.

Probably our central point of disagreement: Charles is known for presenting a consequentialist interpretation of Buddhist ethics, and especially of Śāntideva; in his talk at the IABS, referred to Śāntideva as “the world’s first utilitarian”. Since I discovered Buddhism in part as an alternative to an unsatisfying utilitarianism, this has not sat particularly well with me.

This week I will look at the point in terms of Charles’s generally very good Śikṣā translation. I have a generally positive review of it forthcoming at JAOS. That review focuses on the translation proper; I have more difficulties with Charles’s introduction, which I want to examine here.

The portion of the introduction that I find problematic is the section on ethical theory, which articulates an interpretation of Śāntideva that I think is unsupported by the text. Charles claims that “Of all the philosophical ideas that appear in the Training Anthology, none is more central to the message of the text than that each of us is rationally required to regard the welfare of anyone else as being just as important as our own welfare.” (xxxviii, emphasis added) While it is undeniable that this idea appears at a prominent place in the text (the first of the kārikā verses), I think Charles greatly overstates its centrality. Far more of the text is given over to the question of what constitutes welfare for oneself or another, and how that welfare can be attained. Most of the advice provided by the Śikṣā would be quite applicable to a practitioner of the śrāvakayāna who seeks only her own nirvana.

Charles rightly notes past scholars’ observation that the structure of the text is provided by the fourth kārikā. This verse says ātmabhāvasya bhogānāṃ tryadhvavṛtteḥ śubhasya ca | utsargaḥ sarvasatvebhyas tadrakṣāśuddhivardhanam: “the giving up [utsarga] to all beings of one’s person, possessions and well-being [śubha] in the past, present, and future, and their protection, purification and enhancement.” But in this context it is surely significant that only chapter 1 of the text addresses the actual giving, the others all having to do with protection, purification and enhancement. For this reason, Barbra Clayton doesn’t even note the role of giving in the text’s structure – although Richard Mahoney, whom Charles doesn’t cite, did. It is also relevant that the term used for “giving” is not dāna but utsarga, which has much more of a connotation of giving up: the emphasis is not on others having the thing given up, but on your own not having it.

Already we are seeing ways in which Śāntideva’s view differs at its heart from the entire anglophone utilitarian tradition. For Śāntideva could never agree with utilitarianism’s focus on maximizing a happiness understood primarily as pleasure. The highly problematic and misleading nature of this comparison is particularly highlighted in this passage:

Some prominent writers in the utilitarian tradition, such as Unger and Singer, hold that we are morally required to contribute almost all of our income, wealth, and time to the relief of the suffering of the global poor. Śāntideva seems to teach a similar view, repeatedly citing sūtras that advise practitioners to give away all their possessions to the poor or to the religious community, to cultivate a state of few desires, to live by begging, and to travel to the wilderness to practice for the benefit of others. (xli)

But one cannot imagine Peter Singer ever urging – as Śāntideva does – that possessions be given to a “religious community” of voluntary renunciants, when they could instead be given to the poor. Nor could Singer advocate that one “live by begging”: for him, one should be earning a large amount of money so that one can provide as large a quantity as possible to the poor.

But to give to the poor is not the point for Śāntideva. I developed this point at some length in my JBE article “The compassionate gift of vice”. One gives to the poor when called for, yes, but one also gives to the rich. Even when the poor are mentioned as the target of a gift, the rationale provided is either one’s own spiritual development or generating a goodwill that makes them more receptive to hearing the dharma – not any benefit that the gift itself provides. Someone who lived as Singer advocated would not, on Śāntideva’s view, be doing properly altruistic work, since the gifts given would be ultimately fruitless, not getting people out of suffering and perhaps even trapping them further. (In Bodhicaryāvatāra V.9, Śāntideva explicitly asks: “If the perfection of generosity consisted of making the world non-poor, why is the world of the previous buddhas still poor?”)

As an aside that I think Charles would agree with, a comparison with Singer is with what Singer advocates, not what he does. Singer himself admits not living up to his own philosophy, as compared to the many Buddhist monks who do give away all of the possessions from their lay lives. It seems that Singer’s path is considerably less viable, even on its own terms, than Śāntideva’s path is on its terms.

[Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.]

4 Replies to “Śāntideva vs. Singer”

  1. Thank you, Amod, for this fascinating post, which is also enlightening concerning the risks of modernisation (shall we translate our authors in terms understandable to today’s audience? Perhaps, but this also entails risks).

    Independently of Charles Goodman’s introduction (which I have not read yet), I share your view about the fact that giving in Śāntideva does not have the physical wellbeing of others as its ultimate goal. Perhaps I would stress even more the fact that this is part of a worldview that does not see material penury as the ultimate evil.

  2. Thanks for this Amod. The attention you draw to whether dāna and utsarga can act as synonyms is I think very important. I’m reminded of the verse in the BCA where he refers to nirvana as abandoning everything, and suggests that if we are going to abandon it we may as well give it to sentient beings.

    I think it’s worth keeping in mind that Goodman’s consequentialist analysis of Śāntideva does (of course) include a careful consideration of his theory of well-being, and in the Consequences of Compassion version of this account, virtue plays the most prominent part. I think this can do some of the work of explaining differences in emphasis between the BCA and Singer/Unger etc. Pleasure/material goods aren’t (all that) good for us, if what’s most important are the virtues (if I may use that as a rough translation for kusala-dharma for now 🙂

    I find it really exciting to see how Goodman’s translation of the Śikṣā will begin to influence debates on Santideva’s ethics. (Adding to the early work on the the Śikṣā by yourself, Clayton and Mrozik of course).

    • Yeah, he does address that in the well-being section, but I think he shies away from the implications of it. Calling this a “non-classical utilitarianism”, as that section does, dilutes the point – I don’t see this as being utilitarian in any sense that is not already covered by the term “consequentialism”. And my next post will address another piece where he seems reluctant to admit that for Ś the good is virtue.

      • Well since I don’t think Santideva is a consequentialist (in a particularly robust sense), I will leave further defense of Goodman’s position to the much more capable hands of Charles Goodman!

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