Thursday 21 May 2015

What *is* Virtue Ethics?

This question is raised and discussed in Marcia Baron's chapter "Virtue ethics in relation to Kantian ethics" (see book in last post). The question is important as we try to set out virtue ethics as either part of or distinct from deontology and/or consequentialism (or its sub-theory, utilitarianism).

A plausible answer offered comes from Christine Swanton's Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View:
In virtue ethics, the notion of virtue is central in the sense that conceptions of
rightness, conceptions of the good life, conceptions of “the moral point of view”
and the appropriate demandingness of morality, cannot be understood without
a conception of relevant virtues. (Swanton 2003: 5) (quoted on Baron, p.28)
The question naturally arises: can Buddhist ethics be a form of virtue ethics by this definition? Even the arguably later (Mahayana) twin virtues of wisdom and compassion are not the foundations around all else revolves in Buddhist ethical thought.

Rather, I think, the dhamma (or law) is the foundation and the "moral point of view" around which all else turns. This is why various sets of virtues have arisen in Buddhist history; all of which aim at attuning the practitioner to the dhamma. 

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Defending contemporary moral theories from feminist critiques

In Perfecting Virtue: New Essays on Kantian and Virtue Ethics, Marcia Baron offers an intriguing introductory essay discussing the history of dispute between virtue ethics and Kantian ethics (much of this dispute, she notes, is also from virtue ethicists and aimed at all of 'Modern philosophy'). Some disagreement also comes from the realm of feminist philosophy, which she suggests is likely to be misguided.

She writes that "much of what contemporary ethics was faulted for neglecting was, according to the traditional gendered division of labor and of character traits, located under the heading of “feminine.” Rather than diminishing the importance of reason in our conceptions of ethics, Baron suggests:
The problem seems more centrally to be that (a) women have been assumed to be deficient in reason and excessively emotional and (b) it has further been assumed that any such deficiencies reflect inherent differences between the sexes. (p.13)
Quoting J.S. Mill, she suggests that it is not the case that women are less rational and thus 'left out' of contemporary ethical theory unfairly, bur rather that women have simply been oppressed by patriarchal societies.

At the same time, "qualities traditionally associated with women" such as nurturing or caring deserve greater attention in our reflections on morality (p.14).

Monday 18 May 2015

Becoming a Dhamma teacher, some guidance

"It's not easy to teach the Dhamma to others, Ananda. The Dhamma should be taught to others only when five qualities are established within the person teaching. Which five?
"[1] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, 'I will speak step-by-step.'
"[2] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, 'I will speak explaining the sequence [of cause & effect].'
"[3] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, 'I will speak out of compassion.'
"[4] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, 'I will speak not for the purpose of material reward.'
"[5] The Dhamma should be taught with the thought, 'I will speak without hurting myself or others.' 

-AN 5.159

Saturday 16 May 2015

Bhikkhu Bodhi's essay on non-dualism and the Buddha's pragmatic philosophy

Dhamma and Non-duality

In contrast to the non-dualistic systems, the Buddha's approach does not aim at the discovery of a unifying principle behind or beneath our experience of the world. Instead it takes the concrete fact of living experience, with all its buzzing confusion of contrasts and tensions, as its starting point and framework, within which it attempts to diagnose the central problem at the core of human existence and to offer a way to its solution. Hence the polestar of the Buddhist path is not a final unity but the extinction of suffering, which brings the resolution of the existential dilemma at its most fundamental level.

Monday 11 May 2015

Aristotle's "Anger"

I was surprised today to read Aristotle's account of anger, in the Nichomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 7:
In what concerns anger too there is an excess, a deficiency, and a mean;
and although these are pretty much nameless, let us call the mean gentle-
ness, since we speak of the person in the middle as  gentle.  Of those at
the extremes, let he who is excessive be irascible, the vice irascibility, and
let he who is  deficient be a sort of "unirascible" person, the deficiency
That "gentleness" is the mean of "anger" is quite contradictory by our contemporary definitions, is it not?

Certainly I recall reading (I believe in The Art of Happiness) that the Dalai Lama claimed that emotions such as anger and hatred are at the core of violence; thus placing anger in the category of irredeemably negative emotions.

However, it seems that what Aristotle must be talking about here is not anger as we tend to think of it, but rather a sort of 'concern' which can be, in excess hot-tempered and in deficiency apathetic.

We are helped in this change of terminology in the translator's definition of thumos:
SPIRIT, SPIRITEDNESS (thumos): The seat of anger andof"natural courage"; it is also translated as "heart" in the quotation from Hesiod in book  I  (1095 b13). (p.315)
 Aristotle goes on in Book 4, chapter 5:
The person who gets angry at the things and with whom he ought, then, and, further, in the way, when, and for as much time as he ought, is praised. Hence this person would be gentle, if indeed gentleness is praised. The gentle person wishes to be calm and not led by his passion, but rather  as reason may command, and so to be harsh regarding the things he ought and for the requisite time.
For those who do not get angry at the things they ought are held to be foolish, as are those who do not get angry in the way they ought or when or with whom they ought. For such a person seems to lack perception and even not to feel pain; since he does not get angry, he seems not apt to defend himself against an attack. Yet to hold back in this way after having been treated insolently, and to overlook such treatment of one's kin, is held to be slavish. 

The wikipedia page on the topic gives us:
Concerned withMeanExcessDeficiency
anger (orgē)Gentleness (praotēs)Irascibility (Rackham), Irritability (Sachs) (orgilotēs)Spiritlessness (aorgẽs
Just some thoughts.

Deontology in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

For simplicity, hard lines are often drawn between Aristotle, Kant, and Mill, as ideal exemplars of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. However, whenever we look more closely, we will find a mixture of these 'systems' of ethics in each thinker. Or at least we can, depending on how we define our terms.

I have before me the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, which on pp.200-201 defines deontological ethics. It begins:
1. According to deontology, certain acts are right or wrong in themselves. ... Note that deontology is not the same as absolutism, according to which certain acts are wrong whatever the consequences
The second part of this will be addressed later. But the first part, that certain acts are right or wrong in themselves can be found almost verbatim in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6, where Aristotle discusses virtues in terms of means between extremes:
But not every action or every passion admits of the mean, for some have names that are immediately associated with baseness-for example, spitefulness, shamelessness, envy, and, when it comes to actions, adultery, theft, and murder. For all these things, and those like them, are spoken of as being themselves base, rather than just their excesses or deficiencies. It is never possible, then, to be correct as regards them, but one is always in error; and it is not possible to do what concerns such things well or not well-by committing adultery with the woman one ought and when and as one ought. Rather, doing any of these things whatever is simply in error. 
 I think we can take "in error" to mean the same thing as "wrong". 

Saturday 9 May 2015

Must all 'Philosophy' include metaphysics?

Such is the assertion at the outset of T.K. Abbott's translation of Kant's The Metaphysics of Morals, Die Metaphysik der Sitten (1797), translated by Abbott as The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics:
If there exists on any subject a philosophy (that is, a
system of rational knowledge based on concepts), then
there must also be for this philosophy a system of pure
rational concepts, independent of any condition of in-
tuition, in other words, a metaphysic.
He goes on:
It may be asked
whether metaphysical elements are  required also for
every practical philosophy, which is the doctrine of du-
ties, and therefore also for Ethics, in order to be able to
present it as a true science (systematically), not merely
as  an aggregate of separate doctrines (fragmentarily). 
So are metaphyics (or a metaphysical edifice) necessary for ethics? Only, perhaps, if that ethics is to be presented systematically rather than fragmentarily (a key difference between Kant and the Buddha's teachings, perhaps).
As regards pure jurisprudence, no one will question
this requirement; for it concerns only what is formal
in the elective will, which has to be limited in its exter-
nal relations according to laws of freedom; without re-
garding any end which is the matter of this will.  
I'm not sure what exactly to make of this sentence. For 'pure jurisprudence', I take it to mean abstract reasoning on the good, in itself, free from particular instances. 'Without regarding any end...' I take to mean without any particular goal in mind, again trying to understand 'the good' in an abstract form. If 'the good' is to be understood on par with matter or mathematics, it must be examined in the most abstract manner possible. And so, Abbott continues:
Here, therefore, deontology is a mere scientific doctrine (doc-
trina scientiae).
Abbott goes on to make a distinction similar to Kant's own in the Groundwork, namely that our reasoning about ethics must begin with the concept of duty in its most abstract form, not from feelings, either the quest for maximizing happiness or avoiding suffering (again a distinction from Buddhism, which begins and ends with suffering). If we are to do this, we ally ourselves with 'feeling by whatever it may be excited' and thus endless possibilities in the empirical realm.

For instance a greedy drug-maker who stumbles upon a miracle drug that saves millions and accidentally releases its patent (and thus earns nothing) might be hailed as a hero as great as Jonas Salk (who did the same but purposely didn't patent the polio vaccine). The consequences of each man's work might be the same, but only one acted according to a sense of duty toward humankind. Thus, for Kant and his followers, only one acted morally.

Abbott then reiterates Kant's understanding of how morality leads to happiness, namely that a 'thinking man' conquers the temptations of vice and is conscious of having come to act according to duty, and 'finds himself in a state of peace and satisfaction which may well be called happiness, in which virtue is her own reward' (p.10). The happiness-seeker, on the other hand, argues that this happiness was the motive all along and our thinking man merely acts out of duty for the sake of that happiness.

[Now, this may look conspicuously like Buddhism, but I'd argue the opposite. The Buddhist practitioner might start with a quest to just overcome his/her own suffering, but this morphs over time with the realization of interconnectedness, etc, toward a recognition of the need to help all beings, thus abandoning a merely selfish goal and taking up a sense of duty to be of service. It is this shift from a selfish goal toward a universal one that marks a stream-enterer; or something like that. I need to gather sources and justifications, but the point is that the Buddhist 'thinking man' who has conquered vice and done his duty and feels peace and satisfaction will have done so out of an attraction to goodness (kusala) itself in the end.]

In any case, if the Buddhist practitioner merely seeks after whatever appears to remove suffering, he will no doubt chase after a million chimerical solutions, running this way and that. It is only with a firm grasp on certain realizations (or acceptances) about the nature of reality can he/she move forward in a straight line in life. Obeying duty (Dhamma) often means abandoning one's search for the latest happiness-producing-activity. And this is the key point. If one's allegiance is toward happiness, one will not abide by duty, which often requires suffering, temporary as it may be.

Thus the need for this metaphysical distinction between ultimate aims. As Abbott concludes:
If this distinction is not observed; if eudaemonism
(the principle of happiness) is adopted as the principle
instead of eleutheronomy (the principle of freedom of
the inner legislation), the consequence is the euthana-
sia (quiet death) of all morality. (p.11)
So we have begun with a call to the need for metaphysics and ended with that metaphysics differentiating two key directions that moral philosophers might take: one toward physiology and joys/sorrows as its justification, and one toward a transcendent, unknowable (but feelable) duty or dharma.