Honing in on a disagreement

I wanted to reflect a bit more on my debate with Charles Goodman at Princeton this November. (If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the video of the debate and our handouts.) I don’t think either of us would consider the debate conclusive. Indeed, following the debate, our conversations that afternoon indicated that the issues we were really concerned about lay elsewhere.

A brief summary of where the debate itself went: the Charles calls Śāntideva a utilitarian because Śāntideva is a universalist consequentialist; that means that he is concerned with bringing about the best overall consequences for all beings. I dispute that “utilitarian” is the right term because I think it has misleading connotations: Charles agreed in the debate that his equation of Śāntideva and Peter Singer doesn’t work, and I think that calling Śāntideva “utilitarian” leads to similar misinterpretations, even though (as Charles noted) analytic philosophers often deploy the term in that way.

As for eudaimonism: Charles repeatedly defines eudaimonism as asserting “a very close connection between virtuous actions and the agent’s own well-being”, or something similar to that. I think it’s inarguable that there is such a close connection for Śāntideva in practice: virtuous actions always, or at least nearly always, do in fact improve the agent’s well-being. Charles clarified during the debate, though, that he did not mean a close connection in practice but a close conceptual connection: that is, on his account of eudaimonism, virtuous actions are defined in terms of the agent’s well-being, as they are for Aristotle and are not for Śāntideva. I agreed that by that standard Śāntideva would not be a eudaimonist.

There is probably more that could be said on the use of both these terms at issue, utilitarianism and eudaimonism. But Charles and I agreed that there’s not that much value in trying to say it. He and I agree on a large number of matters; we picked the topic of utilitarianism and eudaimonism as a point of disagreement in our interpretations of Śāntideva. But the helpful thing we saw in the debate was that our bigger disagreement runs in a more interesting and important direction – a constructive direction. That is: we actually disagree very little, if at all, about what Śāntideva thinks. We disagree on the words we use to characterize him, but much more importantly, we disagree on whether he’s right, about one particular issue.

That issue is an argument that Charles refers to as the Ownerless Suffering Argument. The Ownerless Suffering Argument is probably Śāntideva’s most famous argument, the one excerpted in introductory ethics texts: in a nutshell, Śāntideva argues that because the self is unreal, it makes no sense for us to treat ourselves, or those dear to us, better than any other sentient beings in our actions. In Charles’s terms, the view that Śāntideva argues for is agent-neutral: all people, all moral agents, should have the exact same aim as all the other moral agents, namely the well-being of all sentient beings. We shouldn’t be partial to our friends or families or neighbours, let alone ourselves.

I agree with Charles that Śāntideva holds this view. Contra Charles, I also believe that Śāntideva is wrong. I don’t think this argument works.

And when the disagreement moves to this terrain, we are no longer dealing with small questions of terminology. At issue now, among many other things, is what kind of Buddhists we each are. Charles, I think, is committed to Śāntideva’s Mahāyāna as interpreted by the Tibetans. But while I’ve drawn more from Śāntideva than from any other Buddhist author, and still pray to Mañjuśrī, I learned my own Buddhism in a Theravāda place, and at heart I’m still a Theravādin. I take very seriously the Dhammapāda’s advice that one should not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another.

Now I’ve also noted that Śāntideva’s view is not necessarily as far from the Dhammapāda’s as it might look. And Śāntideva makes an entirely different argument for altruism, one that I largely accept. This is that beautiful paradox in Bodhicaryāvatāra VIII.129: “All those in the world who are suffering are so because of a desire for their own happiness. All those in the world who are happy are so because of a desire for the happiness of others.” Egocentrism, in practice, is self-defeating: cultivating other-regarding virtues of generosity and gentleness and honesty improves one’s own well-being.

I suspect that, overall, Charles and I are likely to agree on Śāntideva’s paradox too. in the debate (just after the one-hour mark), on one aspect of the question of whether egocentrism harms one’s well-being, he said “I think that might be true, I think there might be some evidence for that, but that’s an empirical question for the psychologists to talk about.” That quote may identify another source of disagreement between us, a methodological one: with John Doris, I refuse to identify philosophy as an a priori field of inquiry; I think any philosophy that refuses to talk about empirical questions isn’t worthy of the name philosophy. Aristotle was wrong about a great many empirical questions, of course, but he would never have dreamed of excluding such questions from his purview. There is no room for NOMA in my philosophy: many of the most important philosophical claims are subject to empirical confirmation or refutation, including this one. Having said that, I think Charles and I (and Śāntideva!) would likely agree that the weight of evidence does point to egocentrism harming the agent’s well-being, so that in itself is not where our great disagreement lies.

However, important substantive disagreement remains. When one’s focus is turned to the way other-regarding virtue helps one’s own flourishing, it likely leads to partiality: one pays more concern to one’s friends and family and neighbours and colleagues than to strangers one doesn’t know. That partial view, which I accept, is not agent-neutral. An agent-neutral view like Śāntideva’s regards everybody equally, which is one of the reasons he praises the monk’s life so highly: it is difficult if not impossible to live an agent-neutral life when one runs a family household.

It is on that point of agent-neutrality where there is agreement between Śāntideva and the otherwise very different philosopher Peter Singer. Charles noted in our followup conversation that he agrees with Singer’s claim that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” It seems to me that Singer’s philosophy and life are a reductio ad absurdum of this statement: by Singer’s own standard, Singer himself is a murderer. For Śāntideva, unlike for Singer, that sort of universal altruism is not an obligation – but it is still the best course of action to take. One should be giving money to starving children halfway around the world, not buying toys for one’s own children. For Śāntideva the monk, it would not be so hard to live up to that philosophy; for a father like Charles, I think, it is a bigger challenge. (It is relevant here that the Buddha named his son with the word for “fetter”.)

You may have noticed – I am sure Charles has – that I have not actually refuted the Ownerless Suffering Argument itself here (as, say, Paul Williams attempts to do). That’s by design: this post is not intended to establish my view against Charles’s. For one other point of agreement that he and I reached in our post-debate discussions was that we should have a followup debate on this very topic. Where and when are to be determined – but I hope this post sets the context.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

One Reply to “Honing in on a disagreement”

  1. I have just found Hume lapsing into frank contradiction where he takes an *intensive view of his own deliberations in philosophy and morals (Hume’s emphasis!) That is in the Conclusion to Book I of his Treatise, which already articulates the concern with antinomies in metaphysics now commonly associated with Kant (and Riemann after him).

    So Hume comes to the antinomies just where he witholds any *extension of tolerance in respect of diverse points of view, interests or capacities, which have been amiably acknowledged here, to remarkably constructive effect.

    It would follow that any one-sided echoing if Hume’s very influential account of causality would subvert the process, and that concern can be taken to elisa’s new thread.

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