Sunday, 31 January 2010

Peter Harvey in - Destroying Mara Forever

coming soon... (sounds like a cheesy horror movie, I know)

Destroying Mara Forever 1

I've completed the first chapter, "Śāntideva, Virtue, and Consequentialism" by the great Śāntideva and Buddhist ethics scholar, Barbara Clayton.

The chapter argues for a version of "character consequentialism" (p.15) or "perfectionist consequentialism" (p.15 and 26) to make sense of Buddhist --- specifically Māhāyana --- specifically Śāntideva ethics. I note that because it should be an open question whether and/or how Śāntideva deviates from prior Buddhist ethics.

Clayton nods to this question when suggesting that Keown has it right (in his 1992 The Nature of Buddhist Ethics and the 1996 article "Karma, Character, and Consequentialism") when he suggests that if Buddhist ethics is consequentialist, it must be a form of ethical egoism (an ethics based on consequences for oneself) and this is clearly wrong (p.17). Keown argues this because in early Buddhism the consequences one is seeking are the elimination of one's own greed, hatred and delusion (aka the roots of suffering). So if we call Buddhism consequentialist, we are saying it is quite selfish indeed. Keown argues, rightly, that this misses the point of early Buddhist ethics, which instead focuses heavily on cultivating right kinds of other-regarding behavior.

But, Clayton adds, this just the case for Theravādin Buddhism. Buddhists who focus on the bodhisattva ideal explicitly identify all suffering as equal - refusing to differentiate the suffering of oneself and others. The consequence sought is not merely removing one's own suffering, but that of all beings. She notes several instances of this, notable one from the Compendium:
"When fear and suffering are dear neither to me nor others, what is special about me, that I protect myself and not others?" - p.19; ŚS 2.10-11 (Cf. BCA 8.96)
Universalism and Agent-neutrality

Two related notions are discussed here: Universalism and "Agent-neutrality." Universalism means that ones ethics are concerned with all beings, clearly a trait of Māhāyana ethics. And arguably not a feature of Aristotelian virtue ethics - the analogue argued for by Keown. Agent-neutrality, expressed in Śāntideva's quote above, denies the possibility of privileging one person's pain or pleasure above others. Clayton clarifies that not all of Śāntideva's work is so clear on this issue, including, for example, the suggestion that it would be worse to impede the progress of a bodhisattva than to kill every man, woman and child in India! (p.20, ŚS 83.20 - 84.5)

This, it is worried, might disqualify Śāntideva from being a consequentialist. But, Clayton argues, the reasoning here is still consequentialist in nature. The reasoning is that the results of impeding a bodhisattva, even the slightest bit, is an incredibly horrible thing to do because a bodhisattva does so much good in the world.

My sense that Śāntideva's words here can only be religious hyperbole, to be read with reverence and gratitude to bodhisattvas, and not to be read as a rational argument. Thought about rationally, too many obvious questions arise.

Along similarly troubling grounds is Śāntideva's claim that even a transgression of precepts rooted in the defilement of passion (rāga) may be acceptable if it benefits others (somehow). (p.23) It is here that the consequentialist strain in Śāntideva becomes worrisome.

Moral Accounting

A third concept that Clayton brings up is moral accounting (pp.24-25). Moral accounting, weighing out the pros and cons of a given act or rule, is a hallmark of consequentialist theories. And Keown, rightly again, argued at length that this is not the way Buddhists derive their ethics. The first precept, for instance, is not there because "more or less" it reduces suffering.

Clayton argues, however, that Śāntideva engages in just this sort of moral reasoning. Quoting again from the ŚS, I paraphrase, "what good is one's happiness when the world is suffering? What good is it when a body is in flames to have a fingernail unburnt?" This, Clayton suggests, is Śāntideva's way of saying that a little suffering (on his part) should be accepted if it relieves more suffering in others.

However, it is not clear to me that this is the kind of reasoning going on. It may not be a case of ethical reasoning at all, but rather exhortational, "hey, I, we, you have got work to do!" Based on pan-Buddhist karmic theory, one's happiness is a result of past good deeds, and, according to pan-Buddhist psychological theory, unless we're awakened, we're ignorant and thus likely to misunderstand this and waste our lives and all the good karma in them. So Śāntideva is likely just rousing these obvious understandings in his reader as a pep-talk. Based solely on the lines quoted, we needn't read into this some deeper moral accounting, as Clayton does: "bodhisattvas should do whatever will ultimately yield the most benefit to sentient beings."

The problem, here, is that it presents a paradox. Either the bodhisattva is an ignorant chump like you or me and this cannot possibly know what will "ultimately yield the most benefit..." or he/she is awakened and thus will spontaneously, that is, without the need of moral reasoning of this kind, always act in ways that will ultimately yield the most benefit to sentient beings. If the bodhisattva is ignorant, then this "decision rule" is either empty or, like the above, exhortational. If the bodhisattva is awakened, it's just empty.

I'm not sure that this critique of mine holds water and I invite your thoughts on it.

Clayton's article concludes by agreeing with Keown on his critique of the Transcendency Thesis, but comes back to restate her position that this does not disqualify Buddhist ethics, at least in the case of Śāntideva, from being a form of consequentialism.

Update 2/1/10: on second thought, perhaps the paradox is not as intractable as it seems. Even mainstream consequentialists, who have great faith in people's ability to reason and thus make the best decisions, would admit that noone is omniscient and that mistakes happen. So Śāntideva could, too, be making a clearly consequentialist plea/argument here.