Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for August 2014

How were Buddhists ethical?

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In recent years there has been a good deal of discussion of the nature of Buddhist ethics, On August 1, 2014 Jayarava wrote a post about ethics in the Pali canon. My aim is not to add anything new to the discussion of Buddhist ethics but simply to recapitulate positions that modern philosophers specializing in Buddhism have taken on why and how Buddhists, especially Buddhists in India, were ethical. It is well known that Buddhists recommended avoiding taking life, stealing property, violating societal norms on sexuality, lying, and becoming intoxicated. What is less clear is why. Answering this question takes us into the realm of meta-ethics, that is, the discussion of the criteria by which one may know that something is or is not ethical, and the classification of various ethical theories.

What everyone writing about Buddhist ethics these days seems to agree upon is that Indian Buddhists themselves said almost nothing about why it is a good idea to avoid killing and so forth; they seemed content just to recommend against doing certain things. If modern philosophers wish to talk about Buddhist meta-ethics, they cannot simply do scholarship on ancient texts and report what the texts say. Rather, they must try to infer on the basis of what is said explicitly in ancient texts what the authors would now have to say about meta-ethics if they were made aware of this field of inquiry.

Some modern authors, such as Damien Keown, have placed an emphasis on the virtues that Buddhists recommend cultivating. Indian Buddhist literature, both scriptural and commentarial, offer advice on how to cultivate carefulness, friendliness, generosity, kindness, responsiveness to the afflictions of others, impartiality, equanimity and other positive mental states. The Buddha himself is usually taken as a model human being, and when his mentality is described, it is described as one that is unfailingly furnished with the positive mental traits just mentioned. The precepts—avoid killing, avoid taking what is not given etc—are given as descriptions of the behavior of a man whose mind is furnished with those virtues. The emphasis is therefore not so much on rules of conduct as it is on the mentality behind the conduct.

Other modern authors, such as Charles Goodman, make the observation that virtue ethics normally presupposes the reality of a self or a soul in which the virtues reside and that Buddhism is based firmly on the doctrine that there is no self, there is no personal identity that can be said to own the virtues, but instead there is a constantly changing series of conditioned events upon which a notion of self or person is superimposed. A virtue ethic with no self is, according to Goodman, an anomaly, and therefore it is better to look at Buddhist ethics as a kind of consequentialism, that is, an ethical theory that identifies good actions as those that have desirable consequences and bad actions as those that do not have desired consequences. Goodman, following contemporary meta-ethical custom, distinguishes between act-consequentialism and virtue-consequentialism or character-consequentialism. In the former, the emphasis is on discerning the consequences of a particular form of behavior, such as taking life or making someone comfortable. In the latter, the emphasis is on the advantages of kindness or the undesired consequences of cruelty—in short, on the good consequences of having a character as much as possible like the Buddha’s. 

Jayarava, who was mentioned above, has made a case for early Buddhist ethics being a kind of moral particularism, which is the view that a moral value can be attached to a particular concrete action but that it is impossible to derive general rules of what kinds of action are good ones and which are bad. A moral particularist can take the view that there is a fact to the matter of whether, say, the hanging of Saddam Hussein was a morally good or a morally bad action. What the particularist says cannot be done is to arrive at a rule that can be applied to other cases. Even if we can determine the truth of whether it was good to hang Saddam Hussein, we cannot necessarily determine in advance whether it would be good to hang some other head of state.

In contrast to the moral particularist is the moral skeptic who argues that there is no fact to the matter of whether any action is moral or whether any mentality trait is a virtue as opposed to a vice. I myself have stated in an essay called Moral murk that ethical skepticism as a position I accept but do not know how to defend. My contention that at least some forms of Buddhism, such as the Mādhyamaka school of classical India, entails moral skepticism is not widely accepted, but so far no one has managed to convince me that my claim is indefensible, even if many people find it unpalatable.

There is yet one further position on the nature of Buddhist ethical theory that some modern philosophers, such as Mark Siderits, have taken up for discussion, which is that some Buddhists, such as the Mādhyamikas, deliberately avoided theoretical discussion about what makes some actions or mental states good. In the same way that these Buddhists carefully avoided theorizing about metaphysical matters, Siderits suggests, they may also have avoided theorizing about what moral right and wrong consists in. Theorizing, the story goes, often leads to attachment to a particular view, which in turn often leads to having contempt for those who have opposing views, which eventually contributes to the suffering in the world.

So far, no one has been able to make a compelling case that one of the positions outlined above is better than the others. What is more to the point is that no one that I am aware of has made a compelling case that any of this really matters. Indeed, some have hinted at the possibility that Indian Buddhists had no meta-ethical theories, not because it never occurred to them to develop any, but because they saw meta-ethical discussions as a distraction and a waste of resources that could better be put to other uses. I tend to take that position myself, which makes me wonder why on earth I wrote this squib.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 14:22

Posted in Buddhism

Does Buddhism actually work?

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On the July 15, 2014 issue of Skeptoid, Brian Dunning discussed 12 Step Programs . After giving a brief account of the indebtedness of the 12 Step Program to an evangelical Christian organization known as The Oxford Group, Dunning delved into the important question of whether 12 Step Programs actually work. This turns out to be, in principle at least, a fairly straightforward question. The claim is made that 12 Step programs help people to break addictions of a various kinds, such as addictions to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, gambling, shopping, hoarding behavior or overworking. Answering the question of whether these programs work is simply a matter of compiling statistics on what percentage of people who resort to these groups are actually able to stop the addictive behavior they sought to stop. One possible complication in the seemingly straightforward task of gathering these statistics is at what point does one collect them. If someone manages to stay free of the addiction for, say, fifteen years and then “falls off the wagon,” does that count as a success or not? If a person is in the program for twenty years and has seventy relapses but eventually happens to die in between relapses, do this count as a success or not? Supposing it can be determined (even if only arbitrarily) what counts as an example of the program working, one can come up with at least an approximate answer to the question “Do 12 Step Programs actually work?” (It is worth either reading or listening to Brian Dunning’s report and conclusions.)

After listening to Dunning’s podcast, it occurred to me that Buddhism is usually described as a program, although its followers tend to describe it as a mārga or pratipad, both of which Sanskrit words mean method or course or path, or as a dao (道), which also means path or way or course or method. A legitimate question to ask, therefore, is whether the program actually works. Does the path actually lead to the destination indicated on the roadsigns? Not only does this seem a reasonable question to ask, it seems to be the most important question for someone to ask about any path before embarking on it. Does this path actually go to where one would like to go?

Answering the question of whether Buddhism works should be quite simple. First, one determines what the destination of the path is said to be, and then one determines how many of the people who embark on the path actually reach the destination. The claim is that Buddhism is a path of getting to nirvāṇa. So all we need to do is collect statistics on what percentage of the followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvana. If a very high percentage (once we decide how high a percentage needs to be to count as “very high”) does reach the goal, then Buddhism works. If only a very few people who follow the Buddhist method manage to reach nirvana, then we must conclude the path does not work very well.

No sooner is the method of determining the answer to the question of whether Buddhism works stated, however, than it is obvious that there is a problem. Suppose one were to use a similar method to determine whether highway I-25 works. According to the maps, this highway extends from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Buffalo, Wyoming. Now to determine whether the highway works, all we need to do is determine what percentage of the people who set out from Las Cruces make it all the way to Buffalo. I don’t know the answer, but I would suspect relatively few users of the highway manage to make the entire journey from Las Cruces to Buffalo, or from Buffalo to Las Cruces. Quite a few probably end up getting only as far as Denver or Albuquerque, or perhaps even only as far as Truth or Consequences, NM. This being the case, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that I-25 does not work very well. But that conclusion is obviously silly. Surely, one might observe, the criterion of success needs to be modified such that anyone who manages to use I-25 to get from somewhere on the highway to somewhere else on the highway counts as having made a successful journey. Using this criterion, we would have to say that I-25 works if someone manages to drive the thirty miles from Trinidad to Walsenburg, Colorado.

In applying the analogy of determining whether I-25 works to the matter of determining whether Buddhism works, we could either use the very strict criterion of determining what percentage of followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvana, or the more lenient criterion of determining how many followers of the Buddhist path manage to get somewhere other than the place where they started out. Let’s begin with the stricter criterion. What percentage of Buddhists reach the destination of nirvana? To answer this, we must first know what exactly nirvana is. Traditional Buddhism offers two definitions. Nirvana is either the cessation of rebirth or the complete elimination of greed, hatred and delusion from one’s mentality, with no possibility of their returning. How many Buddhists arrive at either one of those two destinations?

The problem of determining how many people achieve nirvana turns out to be at the very least difficult, and at the very most impossible in principle. Let’s begin with the latter. Given that it is not even possible to know whether anyone is ever reborn in the first place, how can one know whether anyone has stopped being reborn? For all we know, we all have only one life anyway, in which case we all succeed at not being reborn, whether we wish to or not. In that case, it would be trivially true that everyone who follows the Buddhist path avoids future rebirth; so does everyone who does not follow the Buddhist path, including every squirrel and every Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata). Even if it were granted that some or all beings are reborn, there is no easy way of knowing which beings stop being reborn. The Buddhist tradition claims that the Buddha himself had the ability to see what happened to everyone upon their death, so he could know who had stopped being reborn and who had been reborn in some other realm. There is, however, no way of knowing whether those stories of the Buddha’s powers of clairvoyance are true or whether he simply claimed he could do what no one else could do, or whether his admiring disciples made this claim on his behalf. While I think it would be safe to dismiss these claims, it might be better simply to conclude that there is no known way of determining whether they are true, and hence no way of knowing whether anyone achieves nirvana.

If we take the other definition of nirvana, the definition that says that nirvana consists in the complete eradication of the very possibility of being greedy, hateful or delusional, we are still left with something that it is impossible to determine. At the very most, we might be able to say that a person has not been angry for a very long time; but does it follow from that that there is no circumstance whatsoever that would provoke that person to anger? Are we ever in a position to know that some psychological event that is currently not taking place will always and forever be absent from a given mentality? Here again, Buddhist tradition helpfully offers the claim that when a person has attained the complete eradication of greed, hatred and delusion, then that person knows that there will never again be greed, hatred or delusion in successive moments of mentality. That claim, however, cannot be tested. It is not at all obvious what kind of evidence one would even look for to determine whether it is true or false.

Trying to apply the strict criterion of determining what percentage of followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvana gets us nowhere. Unlike the question “How many people start in Las Cruces, New Mexico and drive all the way to Buffalo, Wyoming?”, the question “How many people who begin the practice of Buddhism attain to nirvana?” turns out to be unanswerable. But what happens if we apply the more lenient criterion, the counterpart of deciding that I-25 works as a highway if anyone manages to get on the highway at one point and end up at another point thirty miles, or two centimeters, down the road? It may be easier to apply this test. One might give a battery of psychological tests to a person to determine a mentality profile, have the person practice Buddhism for a period of time, give the battery of tests again and see whether the results of the first set of tests differed from the results of the second set of tests. Any difference in mentality profile could be attributed to Buddhist practice.

Well, yes, but that would still be a sloppy methodology. As described, it commits the fallacy of the form “If x precedes y, then x is the cause of y” (the Latin name for which fallacy is Post hoc ergo propter hoc). The difference in mentality profiles between the earlier and the latter battery of personality tests could very well have been caused by something other than the intervening Buddhist practice. The changes may have taken place simply because the subject grew older, or for any number of other reasons. To get anywhere at all with this question, one would have to have a group of people take personality tests before and after doing some Buddhist practice, and then have a control group taking the tests before and after not doing Buddhist practice for the same amount of time, and then compare changes in the two groups. If the Buddhist practice group changed in statistically significant ways differently from how the control group changed, then one might be able to attribute the difference in change to Buddhist practice. No doubt someone somewhere has done such an experiment and published the results, thereby claiming to have shown that Buddhist practice changes mentalities in some way. Do such tests results really indicate that Buddhism actually works?

Let us return for a moment to the Brian Dunning report on 12 Step programs. His conclusion is this:

So even though there are a lot of studies with a high noise level from the past half century, we can still form a pretty good answer to the question of whether twelve step programs work. If you have an addiction, then you are probably better off seeking a treatment program than you are doing nothing. You’re probably better off starting with a full medical intervention. And from there, the road forks: If you’re an evangelical Christian, your best chance at recovery is to enter a twelve step program; and if you’re not an evangelical Christian, then your best chance is to go with a community support program that is not a twelve stepper.

Without having done any research on the topic, my guess is that something similar to what Dunning said about 12 Step programs could also be said of Buddhist practice. If one wishes to change one’s mentality (presumably to a more positive mentality, however one defines “positive”), then it may be better to do something than to do nothing at all. The more attractive one finds a program, the more likely one is to stay with it, and the longer one stays with a program, the greater the likelihood the program will have some kind of results. If one finds Buddhist statues attractive and likes hanging out with people who identify themselves as Buddhists, then there may be a sense in which Buddhist practice works for one. If, on the other hand, one resists the very idea of accepting guidance from an allegedly enlightened master who lived twenty-five centuries ago and if one does not find Buddhist images aesthetically pleasing and inspiring, then one is unlikely to benefit much from Buddhism. In that case, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other programs that may work for one. Buddhism is by no means the only program in town.

There is, of course, also the very real possibility that nothing whatsoever works and that whether the changes in one’s mentality are positive or negative is a result of nothing but blind luck. If that is the case, then doing nothing may be every bit as effective as doing something. Ladies and gentlemen, please place your bets.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, August 3, 2014 at 21:08

Posted in Buddhism