Ethics [part ed: George Matthews]

  • @clhendricksbc The narrative here is kind of loose, but the basic idea was to include in the first chapter a bunch of perspectives that say that ethical value judgments aren’t based much on reflection, but rather on some kind of pre-reflective reaction that doesn’t filter responses through much deliberation. When we make value judgments according to relativists, we are expressing a viewpoint we were indoctrinated into by those with whom we share a culture; when we do so according to subjectivists we are reacting emotionally, and when we follow the dictates of God according to Divine Command Theory, or what the light of natural reason shows us according to Natural Law Theory we are similarly not really deliberating but more responding on the basis of something kind of incontrovertible.

    I am starting to think that I should drop this four chapter scheme and follow Scott’s lead by organizing each chapter around a central question like so:

    Chapter 1: Isn’t it all a matter of perspective? This would deal with relativism and subjectivism, both of which claim that the answer to this question is yes. It would consider arguments in favor and those against these theories.

    Chapter 2: What is the relation between ethics and religion? This would deal with Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory, but not with Buddhist ethics for reasons I’ll get to in response to unfalsify’s comments. Here the question is the question of authority, of a putative divine command giver or that of nature as revealed by a divinely tuned-up reason.

    Chapter 3: What’s in it for me? This would deal with egoism and social contract theory. The first denies that ethics is compatible with self-interest and that self-interest is either built in to human decision making (psychological egoism) or that crucial values are best attained by giving self-interest free reign (ethical egoism). The second explicitly tries to show how the rules of the social game are conventions that are warranted by our real or hypothetical acceptance of them as solving certain problems we all confront as essentially self-interested, rational agents.

    Chapter 4: But don’t others count too? This would deal with utilitarianism and Kantian ethics (each could also have a chapter on its own) as attempts to justify and explore the implications of more universalistic approaches to ethics.

    Chapter 5: Is ethics really all about following rules? This is where I see virtue ethics with its emphasis on the socially embedded character or moral training and judgment; Gilligan’s ethics of care with its claim that the focus on rule-following as the apogee of moral development is a non-gender neutral approach to understanding moral development; and Buddhist ethics which isn’t so much about following rules (even though there are lots of rules in various version of Buddhism) but of attempting to realize and embody various “perfections” such as wisdom, compassion, generosity, mindfulness and loving-kindness.

  • @unfalsify Yes you are right that Buddhism has a vast panoply of various gods and demi-gods and divine boddhissatvas and hell-realms and so on. And yes, one way to understand karma is in terms of explicit metaphysical claims about past lives and a cosmology that embraces whole-heartedly the notion of reincarnation. But, I’d still maintain that neither are really at the heart of, or even really essential to Buddhist ethics and that Buddhism is still in a certain sense non-theistic.

    I can’t get into a full-blown defense here since I have class soon, so let me just cite a few points. First in the Pali canon which is the basis of Theravada Buddhism and also taken seriously by both the Mahayana and Vajrayana wings of Buddhism there is the famous “parable of the arrow” in which the Buddha (a mortal human being by all accounts) dismisses metaphysical speculation about life after death and the cosmos as a whole to be irrelevant to the real task at hand which is the ending of suffering. Then there is the Parinibbana Sutta which reports on the Buddha’s last day alive and his last words to his followers which are basically, “be lights unto yourselves, do not listen to doctrines, or authorities, but only to your own experience.” There are similar cases throughout the canon to that effect. Yes they are often told with lots of very supernatural fanfare and talk of miraculous occurrences, but they are also constantly punctuated by the refrain that “the only thing I teach is suffering and the ending of suffering,” or the doctrines of the eight-fold path (which makes no mention of God in the western-monotheistic sense of a supernatural and supremely powerful personal being to whom we owe obedience and allegiance).

    So yes Buddhism does have a vast mythological literature, and that mythology is often invoked in rituals, but they are not held to express doctrines that must be believed to guarantee salvation. It is in that sense that Buddhism is non-theistic – there is no God of God’s demanding things of us. And its ethics is much more akin to virtue ethics I would argue with its constant emphasis on wisdom and compassion as the foundation of a well-spent human life. The four noble truths are 1. there is suffering, 2. the cause of suffering is desire, 3. there is a way to end suffering, 4. that way is the eightfold path. That’s as central a doctrine as I think you can get in Buddhism, and it makes no mention of divine powers governing the universe.

    Maybe part of the issue here is the somewhat arbitrary category of religion, which is a pretty modern conception and really includes many things that do not always appear together in many religions such as mythology, ritual marking of time and human life, a conception of and way of approaching the sacred, attempts to explain social, moral and physical reality, and the various institutional trappings of world religions. The bottom line for me is that yes there are many gods in Buddhist literature, but nothing akin to the God of the Abrahamic religions in terms of a being who is the creator and governor of the universe.

    Anyway, perhaps there are too many hedges required here to make this case, and there are versions of Buddhist practice that are much more devotional in nature than I’ve been emphasizing, and so maybe Buddhist ethics is not so appropriate for this text. I don’t know…

  • I am by no means an expert on ethics, but I am glad to see that this chapter is coming into shape!

    For one thing, George, don’t you mean ‘sections’ instead of chapters? It doesn’t seem that important, but I wanted clarification on this in relation to the purported length of the book.

    With regards to including a section on Buddhism, I would stress that this is essential. True cultural diversity requires tackling age-old questions from multiple perspectives. If the entire discussion of ethics includes only Western thinkers, we would be tacitly supporting the dominance of Western thought in academia. Just in Vancouver, where I am located, there is an increasing population of Asian students. It is only fair that their cultural heritage be considered as well.

    To that end, does anybody here know a lot about Taoism? The little I know seems to imply that the discipline is both metaphysical and ethical, though I am not clear on precisely why.

    I would also like to see mention of Nietzsche’s treatment of ethics through reference to The Genealogy of Morals, if only because that is the only ethics text that I have studied in University!

    I am also motivated by this potential inclusion because it would be amazing to get permission to include this webcomic on self-driving cars from a Deontological and Will to Power perspective as a contemporary issue:

  • @geoslack
    I think we should spend a significant amount of time defining “non-theistic” if we are to present Buddhism as non-theistic to the readers. For most people, I presume, a religion which posits the existence of supernatural creatures which have some degree of control over alternate realms and which can (according to some texts) even interact with this one is definitely theistic.

    Second, you call the Buddha (I’m assuming you mean Gautama Buddha) a “mortal human being by all accounts”. This is quite puzzling considering that the Buddha is described as having multiple supernatural powers, and on one occasion travels into Brahma god’s realm to lecture him. (Brahma-Nimantanika Sutta, also a part of Pali Canon, mind you)

    Third, you describe Buddhism as practically doctrine-less, in the sense that there are no specific beliefs which one must hold to attain salvation. This is a particularly cleverly-worded sentence, considering that beliefs are not the only thing Buddhism is about, and in fact much more emphasis, enlightenment-wise, is put on practice. To this end, we can certainly say that there are ways believed to be much more efficient and reliable, like leading a monastic life or having an enlightened teacher - Sariputta leaped one degree closer to sainthood by listening to one verse from Assaji. (Upatissa-pasine from Vinaya Pitaka, also part of the Pali Canon) There’s even sort of a road-map for achieving enlightenment in Theravada, in the form of four stages of enlightenment. Similarly, there’s definitely things one is absolutely forbidden from doing certain things (matricide, patricide, attempting to kill an Arhat, injuring a Buddha, creating a schism in a monastic community), and doing any of these will inevitably result in being reborn in Avici (a hell of constant torment). On this ground, I think that traditional Buddhist ethics is in places much closer to traditional Christian ethics, in the sense of carrot-and-stick treatment of behaviour.

    The conclusion, for me, is that there is a multitude of ways one can interpret the Buddhist texts, and history shows that this has happened. This isn’t surprising, considering that Buddhism shares with Hinduism the approach of being all-encompassing and pluralistic. The readers, some of which might have a rosy view of the religion, should also be acquainted with its less pleasant dogmas present in some of its schools.

    I think it’s a bit hyperbolic to say that being uncertain about including a discussion of a very broad subject in a short section is “tacitly supporting” any dominance.

    I’m not an expert on Taoism, but there are metaphysical claims made in some of its texts, and it features some esotericism (alchemy and such), depending on which source you consult. As far as I know, there is no central authority, so it’s not really possible to nail anything down as “definitely Taoist”.

  • @unfalsify
    Thanks for the detailed response. I do not disagree with any of what you are saying, but I do think we should keep things in perspective here in terms of this project. We are putting together an introductory textbook in philosophy that includes a section on ethical theory from a variety of perspectives. A certain amount of caricature is inevitable in this undertaking. Just like will not have space in the discussion of Divine Command Theory or the section on Natural Law Theory to do more than merely mention that some contemporary Protestants endorse something like Divine Command Theory and that Natural Law Theory continues to be central to the Catholic Church’s understanding of ethics, we will not have the space to do anything but very briefly mention some of the very basics of Buddhism as a background for looking at what it (or one version of it) might have to contribute to philosophical discussions of ethics. Yes, Buddhism is a vast and complex religion (if it is even a singular thing or a religion, both of which are subjects of vigorous debate among scholars and adherents). There is a ton of magical thinking in Buddhism as well, not to mention reactionary politics at times, and plenty of other dirt, just as there is in the Western monotheistic religions which will be very briefly touched on in the relevant sections of the text. But I really don’t think, beyond maybe listing a number of books for further reading at the end of each chapter, that we really need to get into this material in the presentation itself.

    The question here, as we are figuring out what to include in this text, is whether or not there is something that we might reasonably called a Buddhist approach to ethics that can serve as an illustration of something a bit different than the other approaches we’ll be dealing with. Maybe we should limit this to contemporary, revisionist (and also to a certain degree Western) Buddhist ethics while pointing out that there is much, much more to Buddhism than what the likes of Stephen Batchelor, Joseph Goldstein, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh have to say about ethics.


  • @sebastian.higherlearning

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions. Yes, I agree that there should be more material on non-Western ideas about ethics, but know next to nothing about Taoism and it’s potential for discussion in the context of this project. Maybe we can find someone who does.

    As for the sections -vs- chapters question, I guess that’s what we are in the process of hammering out. Maybe it’s just a matter of terminology, but I was envisioning something like a text with “Parts” (which are being referred to by the main editors as “sections” so I guess I should use that term) devoted to each sub-topic in philosophy with a part on each of the main topics of Aesthetics, Ethics, Metaphysics, Logic, Epistemology, etc. and within each part a few short chapters devoted to particular questions, and then within each chapter, sections. One intro text I’ve been using lately has a single longish chapter devoted to each of the main branches of philosophy, but it seems to me that its treatment is a bit too condensed in that format. There also seems to be more room here, than with a traditional published textbook, and depending on the ultimate format of the book, to make it more expansive and to enable people who might use it to select from a larger range of material to include in their particular classes.

  • @geoslack
    I agree that there’s a need to abbreviate here, and that it will inevitably result in skipping certain details. My main concern is to not give a too crude of a presentation - the thing that we should keep in mind (in my opinion), is that the book is meant to be modular, so the lecturer/student should be able to cut out certain parts while still getting the general overview. Perhaps dividing each section into a brief overview and a more in-depth overview could alleviate these problems?
    I think there is a Buddhist approach to ethics (via the notions of karma, samsara and bodhi), and that it is centred on specific practices and ways of thinking to be cultivated. Fundamentally, it isn’t that different from certain Western ethical notions (especially in the modernized, Western Buddhism), but both modern and traditional forms contrast with the Judeo-Christian notions of salvation that have influenced Western ideas of right conduct.
    In any case, I agree that there should be a note somewhere saying that there’s much more to Buddhism (and its various interpretations) than the average Western reader will witness.

  • Sorry for my lateness in replying here … just submitted final grades for the term so I can finally spend more time on this project!

    I think it’s true, as @unfalsify says, that the text will be modular, but it’s also the case, as @geoslack says, that our main efforts at the moment are to produce an intro textbook that is something first-year students can legitimately be expected to handle. So there’s going to have to be brevity, with a lot of detail left out.

    I think the idea of the brief then in-depth overviews in each section is intriguing, but for the sake of getting something done on this ethics section relatively quickly (I mean, within the next 6 months ideally) I would rather aim for the focus on the brief aspects first. The beauty of this kind of project is that it can be a living document that people add to later, or as we go along with the other sections. I am also concerned about two things:

    1. some rough sense of uniformity in the sections, so if we had brief/detailed sub-sections in Ethics, we’d want to have something similar in the other sections

    2. getting volunteer authors (this is what I’m most concerned about): asking people to write a short-ish amount of text for free may be easier than getting people to write more in-depth sections for free.

    So my view is that we aim for the more introductory overview in all the sections of the whole textbook (ethics, aesthetics, etc) and then if someone wants to write more in-depth sections we can add that in later. Maybe I relax my concern for uniformity in the different parts…we could cross that bridge later.

    But I do agree that even in the brief overview aspects, we don’t want to caricature things to the point where we give the wrong impression, and having statements about how there is much more detail that is being missed in our discussion is important. And if there are places to point students to that give those details, even better.

  • @clhendricksbc Just emerging from the end of the semester, so I’ll be able to devote some more time to this.

    As for uniformity, I like the idea suggested by Scott in his outline of the Aesthetics material of having each chapter focus on a question and using that as the primary way of organizing that material. And I’d be happy to rewrite the outline in that way, which I can do in the next few days.

    Also for the sake of clarity we should also decide on terminology regrading parts, sections, chapters and so on since we seem to be using them in different ways.

    I’ve been using the terms from the world of LaTeX which are as follows:

    • Book (e.g., This Intro Book)
      • Part (e.g., Ethics)
        • Chapter (e.g., Is it all relative?)
          • Section (e.g., Subjectivism)
            • Subsection (e.g., Arguments for Subjectivism)

    If you’d prefer a different terminology, just tell me and I can use that.

  • @unfalsify Would you be willing to be an author for the section/chapter on Buddhist ethics?

  • @geoslack Yes. Regarding editing, I presume that the chapters will be peer-reviewed before we commit them to the book? While I do aim for a rigorous presentation (evidence in this thread), I didn’t specialize in Buddhism during my studies, and my writing has sometimes been described as too terse - at least if you ask my past professors - so having a reviewer would be good.

  • @geoslack

    This logical structure is precisely the one that I am most familiar with–the one of LaTeX. Maybe someone with the right authority can edit this into the main document page.

    Now, I do agree that while the existence of ‘deities’ or other ‘beings’ has an impact in the ethical behavior of those who believe in such things, it should not be central to the exposition of the text. Ultimately, ethics corresponds to actions and behavior (in my opinion) and metaphysical considerations of the Buddhist canon would better be left out for the time being.

    Or perhaps even better, this would be an opportunity for a box in the relevant section. Something like: ‘How do metaphysical beliefs affect ethical behavior?’ As the textbook reaches maturity, I am looking forward to have intersections between the different parts of the book. I think ‘boxes’ are the ideal environment for such cross-pollination!

  • @geoslack This terminology sounds good to me. I’ll put it in the thread for project leads:

  • @unfalsify Yes, that is the plan, to submit completed drafts of chapters to reviewers for editorial feedback. I will be away for a week with no email contact :) but then will work on finalizing the table of contents. (Off to a zen monastery to stare at the wall – a welcome prospect after this far-too-busy semester.) I’m still a bit unclear whether the material on Buddhist ethics should go in a chapter on ethics and religion, whether it would be better in a chapter of its own (or one shared with other non-Western approaches), or whether it should remain where I originally suggested, in a chapter that deals with “embodied ethics,” if that is not too vague and mysterious a concept. Partly this depends on whether we want to avoid extending the number of chapters per part, or err on the side of too many chapters, assuming that whoever ends up using this text will likely make a selection. It seems to me that doing justice to Buddhist ethics for those not at already familiar with the basic tenets of Buddhism would require a chapter on its own (if chapters are roughly 5000 words or less).

  • @geoslack I’m thinking maybe a chapter on its own, which would then open up the idea for others to possibly submit chapters on other “non-Western” ethics (a term I dislike but I don’t know what to replace it with). But it’s mostly up to you to decide, after getting input from us!

    Enjoy your week away. Please check email when you get back as we’re trying to set up a meeting!

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