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Buddhist Ethics has a good day: on Philosophy, East and West

Mar 29, 2018
Earl Brooks
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 5 min.

Almost 3 years ago exactly, 3 AM Magazine interviewed Jay Garfield, one of the best-known Buddhist philosophers in academia today. I wrote about that interview and still look back fondly on the comments and conversations that ensued.

So it was with great joy that I saw 3 AM Magazine’s latest interview with a Buddhist philosopher: Nicolas Bommarito, who teaches at NYU and the University of Buffalo. It was a great reminder that great thought within the academy is still being devoted to Buddhist ethics (and Buddhist philosophy more broadly) and that there is still a long ways to go – a point also highlighted in the interview with Jay Garfield. It was also a good reminder that I should be finishing up my thesis edits and getting more work out there in publication.

Approaching Buddhist thought

After discussing his path into philosophy, which is always interesting to read for parallels and dissimilarities from one’s own, Bommarito dives into Owen Flanagan’s work (see him discussing Buddhism without Superstition here), wherein three approaches to Buddhist philosophy are taken:

a comparative approach;

a fusion approach ( where we try and unify them) and

a cosmopolitan one (where we are ironically poised to accept whichever comes through as best).*

To be honest, I don’t understand the use of the word “ironically” here, and perhaps Bommarito doesn’t either, as he responds, “Of the options, I suppose I’m closest to the cosmopolitan approach (though I’m not sure I’d describe myself as ‘ironically’ positioned).”

Much of my own work, I think, lies at the comparative level – and perhaps it’s simply a truism that comparative work is necessarily the first work to be done. However, I appreciate the term “fusion” here, as unifying disparate philosophies is so often dismissed as pernicious perennialism or naive ahistoricism these days. It makes me wonder, though, who is doing “fusion” work in Asian philosophies? Lastly, I’d take the cosmopolitan approach to be my own as well, after all of the heavy lifting of simply understanding, contextualizing, and comparing… It should be obvious that one cannot “accept whichever comes through as best” without rigorous comparison, right? Yet as Bommarito points out, part of what makes us philosophers is that we go beyond “just comparing.”

Buddhism: Religion or Philosophy?

A second point raised by 3 AM’s interviewer (Richard Marshal) is our bias regarding the distinction between “religious content” in Western and “other” forms of philosophy. Bommarito’s response is again excellent, saying that one can direct one’s interest to the philosophical elements of Buddhist thought just as easily as one does Plato or Descartes – and perhaps even more easily.

I’ve written about this a few times (such as here) and agree with Bommarito that I’m also not in the business of arbitrating what “real” Buddhism is – though watching arguments about this by Buddhists can be at times enlightening and/or frustrating.

Buddhism and metaphysics

Getting down to ethics, and raising another issue of Western bias against Buddhist philosophy, Marshal asks, “Is it fair to say that the philosopher of Buddhism is working in the field of applied ethics rather than metaphysics or epistemology or are there metaphysical and epistemological commitments that you have to have to get to the ethics?”

I would be interested in tracing the evolution of this idea, often quoted, that “the Buddha eschewed metaphysics.” My guess is that it arose around the early 20th century when much of the vanguard of Western philosophy also sought to eschew metaphysics. So Buddhism was read and promoted as – unsurprisingly – perfectly in line with cutting edge Western thought.

But Bommarito rightly responds that in Buddhist philosophy “you can find things relevant for ethics (not just applied, but normative theory and metaethics too), metaphysics, and epistemology.” He mentions Śāntideva and Dōgen specifically, but concepts from the Buddha such as Dhamma, kamma, anattā (not-self), and nibbāna all convey broad abstraction and universality characteristic of Western metaphysics. Bommarito elucidates the connection between ethics and metaphysics and epistemology thus, “many Buddhist thinkers share the assumption that living well involves seeing things as they really are and that the way to reduce suffering is to get rid of mistaken ways of experiencing the world.”

Returning to comparative philosophy, Bommarito notes that strong ties between metaphysics and epistemology and ethics can be found in thinkers like Spinoza and Kant as well as the more recent work of Derek Parfit (Reasons and Persons). He continues that he agrees with Jay Garfield (as do I) that:

I don’t find the project of trying to fit so-called “Buddhist ethics” into one of our theoretical categories to be very interesting. Partly because I’m skeptical that there is one theoretical view that is Buddhist ethics; it seems implausible that a tradition spanning thousands of years and multiple cultures will have a single ethical theory. It’s also partly because I’m not sure what they payoff of such a project is; I’m less interested in making a case that a particular philosopher or tradition is virtue ethical or consequentialst than I am in what new ideas I can learn from them.

So for me, the more exciting projects in Buddhist ethics are those that take Buddhist thinkers on their own terms and try to build on what’s useful in them. Some that come to mind are Jay’s work on the role of experience in ethics, work by Bronwyn Finnigan on the role of fear and how we should think of spontaneous action, and work by Emily McRae on the place of emotions like anger in ethics.

Ultimately, I would say that Buddhist ethics is it’s own category and indeed it morphs and twists and bends and shifts through time. However, I think great comparative work can be (and is being) done to highlight certain themes in Buddhist ethics, such as its consequentialist, virtue ethics, or deontological aspects. I tell people this is no different than the work of the men in the pan-Indian story of the four blind men and the elephant. We all in the West are somewhat blindly feeling-out Buddhist ethics, but the better a description we can give of the “tree/leg” part and the “rope/trunk” part, etc, the better we will understand the elephant when we bring the pieces together. In other words, really good comparisons of Buddhist ethics in terms of Western categories, such as Charles Goodman’s Consequences of Compassion, or Damien Keown’s The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (for a Virtues approach), bring to light key features of Buddhist ethics as a whole for us all to recognize, utilize, and debate.

by Justin Whitaker For Patheos

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