Is the eudaimonist proposition true?

Evan Thompson’s critique of my eudaimonistic and probabilistic approach to karma has two prongs: that it is not really karma, and that it doesn’t work on its own terms. I addressed the first criticism last time. Now I’d like to turn to the second, which I personally find to be the more interesting and important of the two.

Let us start with the word “probabilistic”, which I use in a non-technical way. My eudaimonism is a probabilistic claim (as opposed to a deterministic claim) in the same sense that “brushing your teeth will prevent cavities” or “running into the middle of a busy street will get you run over by a car” are probabilistic claims. That is, we assert that these causal correlations are likely, not certain. In the case of the busy street, I’m not sure we have a detailed statistical model of how likely you are to get run over by a car, but I don’t think we need one. Everyday observation is sufficient to determine that. In the case of virtue and happiness, I’ve mentioned a couple of ways that Śāntideva says one leads to the other, in this life; there is a lot more to say about it, and I intend to say it in my book – not with a statistical model, but again I don’t think that’s necessary. This is what I mean by “probabilistic”. I’m not wedded to that specific word: so far “probabilistic” has seemed the most appropriate word to express the concept in question and I haven’t been convinced that it isn’t, but I wouldn’t mind expressing the concept just described with a different term if a better one is available.

If I read Thompson’s objections on that point correctly, though, I don’t think they are about a statistical model or its absence. Rather, his bigger concern is this: “Normative concepts operate in the logical space of reasons—the logical space of being able to justify what you say in relation to norms and values. The concept of probability, however, is a descriptive one that operates in the logical space of causes.” This is a Sellarsian way of making a sharp fact-value distinction, and I don’t think that such a sharp distinction is tenable. Without the kind of connection between facts and values that eudaimonism provides, I think that moral claims are left without any rational foothold – any reason for us to follow them. A Kant is powerless against a Nietzsche, but an Aristotle (or a Śāntideva) is not. For when normative claims are held to operate in an entirely separate space from the world of cause and effect (as they are in Kant), one has good reason to ignore those normative claims and do whatever one was going to do anyway; the normative claims are left as an empty “you just ought”, unable to motivate. In my view, this is a problem that eudaimonism does a great deal to solve. It gives us reason to be good, starting from the motivational set we already have.

Now Thompson also says “the proposition that good and bad actions are more likely to produce experienced good results, and bad actions are more likely to produce bad experienced results isn’t obviously true as a general empirical proposition about the world. Maybe it’s true, and maybe it’s false.” That criticism – that eudaimonism might not be factually true – is an extremely important one, and I have acknowledged that the arguments I have made so far against it are insufficient on their own. That’s part of the reason I’m writing a book, and it’s my intent that this proposition will stand or fall on the book’s case – some of which, I’m sure, will be developed in this space over the next couple years. There is plenty to return to in the future, which is itself a sign of the productiveness of this discussion.

I do need to say at least a little about it now, though, in order to clarify what I’m claiming. First, Thompson treats the claim that good actions bring about good results as separate from the claim that they generate pleasant mental states. I don’t. I think that mental states, characterized above all by less suffering, are among the most important of the good results – for Śāntideva and for myself. (Thanks to this conversation, though, I am realizing that “pleasant” is not a wide or powerful enough term for them.)

That leads me into the second point, where Thompson asks why a eudaimonistic claim would be true, if it were indeed so:

Is it true because of some inherent causal power on the part of good and bad intentions, as traditional Buddhists believe? (Mādhyamikas are an exception, because they deny that anything has inherent causal powers.) Or is it true because of social and political structures that regulate human behaviour? If the latter factors carry more of the causal weight, then eudaimonistic karma loses causal relevance in proportion.

A major intent of my dissertation on Śāntideva was to understand him on his own terms. How exactly does karma work, for him – including in our future lives? To scientifically minded people like Thompson and myself, the supernatural causality involved in rebirth is weird enough that it’s tempting to write it off as mysterious unexplainable wooj: it’s some inherent causal power, and we can’t really say anything about which such power. But we do not need to write the supernatural causality off in this way entirely, for Śāntideva provides us with at least some sense of how he thinks karmic rebirth works. Charles Goodman’s chapter in Jake Davis’s A Mirror is for Reflection shows us how even Śāntideva’s passages about rebirth in the hells are often written in such a way that the suffering caused to the agent in hell mirrors the suffering caused to the agent in worldly life. (As is the case in many readings of Dante’s Inferno.) A man who engages in sexual misconduct will continue being reborn in a hell where he is devoured by women made of iron and fire, because his lust continues to drive him toward them. One who murders will be reborn in a hell encircled by enemies, alone and friendless. Goodman points out that similar fates likely await murderers in this life, in ways that go well beyond the punishments meted out by social and political institutions:

Quite obviously, once you start murdering people, the number of friends who will stand up for you and help you diminishes rapidly, while the number of enemies you have (starting with the SWAT team) increases just as rapidly. Even more significant, the murderer comes to perceive the world as a hostile and threatening place, full of enemies. No one can be trusted; anyone could stab you in the back at any time. This world, in this life, becomes a harsh realm of conflict, full of fire and demons. The murderer comes to perceive the Earth as a hell. (Goodman 134)

Goodman’s point here – an extrapolation from Śāntideva’s writing on rebirth – is a start (and I recognize it’s just a start) to answering Thompson’s important objection about a hypothetical person who enjoys tormenting young animals (or children) because of the pleasant mental states that the act gives in the moment. As with tobacco or cocaine, the pleasures offered by such experiences do not come in isolation; they are part of a larger package of harmful mental states, as well as social consequences not limited to institutions.

Furthermore, the Dalai Lama, in the passage I quoted earlier, makes it explicit that the causal process involved in rebirth is a function of mental habits and dispositions, the same ones that are at the heart of eudaimonism. That is, the habits that have led us to internal bads in this life manifest in the world at the time of death and rebirth, leading us to external bads in the next life. Once we understand the causal power that guides rebirth in the works of Śāntideva and the Dalai Lama, we see how it is closely connected to the causality of habit and psychology that (we eudaimonists claim) underlies eudaimonism in this life.

So – the big question – does such a view hold up in this life? Again I think the truth of eudaimonism stands in part on the claim that a great deal of human flourishing is constituted by the internal goods, including good mental states, that virtue brings – rather than the kind of external goods that social and political structures can provide. If our focus is primarily on the latter, then yes, eudaimonism is likely hard to sustain. (I think Thompson and I may be mostly in agreement on that point.) The Stoics and Epicureans manage to be determinist eudaimonists without believing in rebirth, specifically because they take external goods to be valueless. I do not take their strong ethical stance, though I do think that their stance is very close – closer than mine – to that of traditional Indian Buddhists. (On this point I disagree deeply with Goodman: Śāntideva, just like the Stoics and Epicureans, views virtue as the truly valuable thing, with external goods and bads being a side benefit at best. That’s why he, like most classical Indian Buddhists, views political participation as fruitless.) I do, however, think that the traditional Buddhists, Stoics and Epicureans have realized a crucial truth: external goods are much less important to our well-being than human beings in most ages generally tend to think they are. To live a good life we need to turn our focus to the internal causes of our suffering, and the virtue that helps heal it. It is in that respect that I believe a this-worldly eudaimonism to be both plausible and Buddhist.

Again, there is much more to be said. But I will leave the discussion there, for now at any rate. It has been tremendously thought-provoking, as well as enjoyable, for me. I hope that it has also been so for Thompson, and for our readership. My thanks to Thompson again.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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