A book on how virtue helps us flourish

I’d like to now envision the book I am working on. This post is something like a proposal for the book, both to clarify my thoughts on it and (more importantly) to hear yours. As I write it I keep in mind the wise advice of my dissertation advisor, Parimal Patil, that fundamentally a dissertation proposal is telling a lie. You don’t actually know what the final result is going to be, or you would have already written it; the act of researching it will necessarily make it something different from the proposal. You just don’t know how it will be different. With that in mind, let me attempt to say some more, in a nutshell, about what the book will be.

One of the reasons I’ve put so much attention into my debate with Evan Thompson is that it has helped me sharpen my view of what I intend my book to be arguing. Fundamentally, I intend the book to articulate a Buddhist eudaimonism: to make the claim that being good, generally and probabilistically, makes our lives better. Before Thompson started criticizing that view so hard, I hadn’t been as clear to myself that it was the view I wanted to articulate. Now, I see it as the core philosophical position I want to put forward and defend.

I want to open the book (possibly following a discussion of method) with what I take to be the bare foundations of ethics. For me this is to point out that we always begin ethical inquiry with a set of preexisting ends, cares and aims, and I think these must be the starting points for such inquiry. I accept Bernard Williams’s argument that we cannot really be said to have reason to do something unless a new motivation to do it “could be in some way rationally arrived at, granted the earlier motivations”. I also think that human ends do generally fall within a predictable range, and that many of our preexisting ends – such as the desire to punish wrongdoing – are bad ones, and can be judged as such with reference to reflection deriving rationally from our other motivations together with the nature of the world.

I intend to take up this line of reasoning to articulate a concept of human flourishing which includes multiple categories of intrinsic ends and goods. I think that traditional Indian Buddhist philosophy allows only two such ends – seeing correctly (yathābhūtadassana) and the removal of suffering (dukkhanirodha) – which it takes to be almost identical. I argue, for reasons I brought up in conversation with Thompson, that a good human life does include ends beyond this, and in that I depart from traditional Buddhist philosophy (though not necessarily practice). I don’t attempt an exhaustive account of what these ends could be, but I think they at least include love, justice and self-respect, defined in particular ways, and likely some form of achievement or self-actualization. I also depart from contemporary qualitative individualists like Martin Hägglund who give the removal of suffering basically no role. (I intend to say more about Hägglund soon.)

With such a conception of flourishing in mind, I argue virtue conduces to this flourishing: it makes our life better. Virtue does so in multiple ways. First, virtue partially constitutes some of our ends: the virtue of kindness is itself a constitutive part of the end of love; the virtue of our being just is part of the justice and self-respect we seek in life; the virtues of serenity and patient endurance partially constitute the contentment that follows the removal of suffering. Second, virtue does indeed tend to help us achieve those ends: our being kind and just tend to make others more likely to be kind and just to us, our being self-disciplined and mindful helps us achieve success at our projects. All of this is how I understand the nature of karma, as the Thompson debate has discussed in detail.

Possibly the most important reason that virtue leads to flourishing is that external goods are less important to our flourishing than we human beings, across cultures, tend to think they are. It is this statement that I see at the core of a genuine synthesis between the views of Śāntideva and Nussbaum as I discussed them in the dissertation. It is a middle ground very different from the one proposed by Mark Berkson based on other texts outside these traditions, where one performs worldly acts on the outside but is a renouncer on the inside. Rather, against Śāntideva and with Nussbaum, external goods do matter for our well-being, because goods other than the removal of suffering matter. But the removal of suffering matters too, and against Nussbaum and with Śāntideva, the causes of suffering are primarily mental, for reasons that I think are indeed confirmed by contemporary psychology. To the extent that that is the case, external goods matter less for our flourishing, and virtue matters more.

I intend to spell the case out further with a detailed discussion of four particular virtues: four habits we can build that both make us better people and make our lives better. The first is a serenity which sees clearly how many external goods are external, and is willing to accept the things it cannot change – a virtue that perhaps reaches its hypothetical peak in Śāntideva’s claim that a bodhisattva can be happy even while tortured. The second is patient endurance, kṣānti – the reduction (not repression) of anger in all cases outside of what Nussbaum calls “Transition-Anger”, given the damaging effects that anger has on ourselves and others. (This is one point on which Nussbaum and Śāntideva have already come closer to agreement without my help!)

The final two virtues are kindness and justice. I think it is important to examine such other-regarding virtues because they are typically foremost in the minds of opponents of eudaimonism: we all know kind and just people who do not seem to be flourishing, and vice versa. Again it’s important here that the eudaimonism is probabilistic: kindness and justice don’t guarantee good lives, they just make our lives better than they would be without them. Kindness (composed especially of generosity and gentleness) not only partially constitutes the love we seek, it is itself a pleasure. As far as justice (a virtue generally less informed by Buddhism): we need other people for most of our ends, so in order to live well we must rely on them – and that requires filling roles and reciprocal obligations, which can fall apart quickly if we do not live up to our end of them. Essential to living well amid such a web of expectations is a good conscience, which also requires living up to one’s genuine obligations, the legitimate expectations that others can have.

There’s a lot more to say about all of this, of course. And that is another reason it’s going to be not just a blog post but a book.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

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