The Fruitfulness of Using Aristotle to Understand Buddhism

One of the classes I teach is Ethics from a Global Perspective. I usually begin the course with selections from Aristotle‘s Nicomachean Ethics. As I tell my students, I think there is much that Aristotle gets wrong, particularly his views on women, but his overall ethical framework, and the concepts and distinctions he employs, are extremely useful. While Kant is an obvious exception, Aristotle’s teleological approach can easily be mapped on to the other views we consider such as Hinduism and Buddhism. As with Aristotle’s ethics which rotates around the concept of eudaimonia, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, are centered around clearly identifiable ends. Where Aristotle asks: What constitutes eudaimonia? Buddhism asks: What constitutes enlightenment? So there’s a nice parallel structure, and I want to suggest that we can fruitfully use Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia and virtue to help elucidate important aspects of Buddhism.

I take it one of the caveats that most writers and professors make regarding eudaimonia is to point out how problematic the translation of it as happiness can be. While happiness is not univocal in English, my impression is that most folks associate it with a certain mental state, or feeling; moreover, one that can be assigned a specific duration. And so, we find other translations of eudaimonia in terms of a lifelong flourishing or well-being. However, given liberal (in the classical sense) and capitalist influences, it seems to me even flourishing and well-being are likely to mislead.

Emphasizing that eudaimonia is something applicable only to a whole life is a helpful start. Aristotle eventually identifies eudaimonia, flourishing/well-being, with virtue. Importantly, virtue for Aristotle is not a passive state, but very much an active one. In fact, eudaimonia consists in a lifetime of virtuous activity (which includes a number of “external” goods—one interesting question about these external goods is whether they are needed in order to be virtuous or whether they are needed in addition to virtuous activity; and, of course, it could be both). So what it is to have achieved a life of eudaimonia is to engage in a certain activity one’s whole life. In other words, eudaimonia is something you do. This is not to say, of course, that eudaimonia does not involve certain mental and affective states. The virtuous person enjoys being virtuous, for example. Continue reading

Does a Robustly Just Society Require Just Citizens?

Yesterday in one of my Introduction to Philosophy classes we were discussing the introduction to Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? It’s an engaging read and great for the classroom, particularly as he adroitly handles a number of real world examples. One of them concerns the issue of price gouging in the context of Florida post hurricane Charlie. After considering several arguments for and against laws against price gouging, which he uses to illustrate the way in which discussions of justice hinge on people’s ideas about the nature and role of welfare, freedom, and virtue, he writes:

So when we probe our reactions to price gouging, we find ourselves pulled in two directions: We are outraged when people get things they don’t deserve; greed that preys on human misery, we think, should be punished, not rewarded. And yet we worry when judgments about virtue find their way into law. (9)

One of the main issues he’s concerned to clarify is the problem of government legislating conceptions of who we ought to be, i.e., virtuous people or not, and what conception of virtue (or not). One problem is that when the government legislates the kind of person we are to be (virtuous and what counts as virtuous), our freedom to make of ourselves what we will is limited. As he goes on to write immediately after the above passage: Continue reading

Philosophy as Good for Nothing: A Manifesto

1. “What is philosophy?”— What kind of question is that? I’ve long found it fascinating and of huge importance that, “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question. This is not the same for other fields. That is, “What is science?” is not a scientific question. Perhaps if it is read as asking, “What do people called ‘scientists’ do?” it could be read as an empirical question, though that is not enough to make it scientific. I take the questions, “What is philosophy?” and “What is science?” to be asking about how we should think of them, which may or may not correspond to how anyone actually does think of them. This is not to say that there is a single correct answer to either question, though that in itself is controversial. However, if Wittgenstein’s denial of essences and his alternative picture of family resemblance has a place anywhere, I’d say it is here, with how we should conceive of philosophy (and most likely science).

As Wittgenstein realized, this could be seen as “taking the easy way out,” as it might seem to avoid the hard work of figuring out that one thing that philosophy is supposed to be. However, while I want to put forward a certain conception of philosophy—write its manifesto—without taking that to mean it is the only way philosophy should be conceived or pursued this does not mean that just anything goes. Much less that things will be easy. It is a potentially misleading analogy, but just as the possibility of a variety of legitimate interpretations of a poem does not mean that just any interpretation is of value, so with philosophy: not just anything will do.

2. There are many ways one can divide up the (meta-) philosophical terrain. A distinction that is vital for my purpose here is that between conceptions of philosophy that see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (at least in theory) and conceptions of philosophy that do not see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (theoretically or no). There are a variety of ways one might conceive of philosophy as “endable.” For example, in a well-known passage from 1931, Wittgenstein writes:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. (Culture and Value, Tran. Winch, 16)

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Buddhism and Aristotle on the Appropriateness of Suffering Grief: A Further Mark Against Buddhism

In the well-known parable of the arrow, the Buddha responds negatively to the usefulness of answering certain metaphysical questions. The point that he makes is that they are not important for furthering the goal of alleviating dukkha (suffering/existential dissatisfaction):

Whether the view is held that the world is eternal or not, Malunkyaputta, there is still birth, old age, death, grief, suffering, sorrow and despair – and these can be destroyed in this life! I have not explained these other things because they are not useful, they are not conducive to tranquility and Nirvana. What I have explained is suffering, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering. This is useful, leading to non-attachment, the absence of passion, perfect knowledge. (Found here. My emphasis.)

The Buddha seeks to live a full life, but one that eliminates suffering and the cycle of rebirths. Since the whole purpose of Buddhism is to alleviate suffering, it isn’t wrong to say that suffering has a negative value for Buddhists. This need not imply that it is never instrumentally valuable for the Buddhist; nevertheless, any instrumental value it has is to be transcended, ultimately leaving the suffering behind, negatively valued. For more detail on the value of suffering, see here and here.

Buddhism’s view of suffering and happiness is not as crude as Bentham’s, for whom pain varied only in intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty, and propinquity/remoteness, but not quality: consider the difference between stubbing your toe, nausea, and the death of a loved one. Nevertheless, for both suffering is bad and happiness is good, even if “happiness” means very different things for each. An important difference between Buddhists and Bentham is that the Buddhists don’t understand all pleasures as being intrinsically valuable. They would presumably say the pleasure of meditating is positive (barring attachment to it), whereas the pleasure of heroin and a dozen donuts at one sitting is negative. Bentham, on the other hand, seems to say that when considering actions, it’s simply a matter of summing pleasure and summing pain, and if the balance is on the side of pleasure, then the act tends toward good and vice versa (See chapter IV of Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation).

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Implications of the Desire to Know

I was thinking about Aristotle’s claim in the Metaphysics that all humans by nature desire to know. It occurred to me that if this is true it might partially explain why people are so often susceptible to errors of reasoning like the bifurcation fallacy and oversimplifying important but difficult issues, e.g., God’s existence, abortion, gun rights, justice, etc. My thinking was that if people really do by nature desire to know, but the issue they are thinking about is too complex to admit of a ready solution, then they will be faced with some sort of discomfort or anxiety. To avoid this, they result to oversimplifying the issue so that a “solution” becomes more apparent and—Voilà!—discomfort is relieved.

None of that is done consciously, necessarily. It might be akin to unconscious rationalization. And, of course, there are presumably many other factors that affect why people oversimplify things and believe things that, after a little reflection, are clearly problematic. I’m reminded of the fact that at two different schools where I’ve taught, I’ve had students admit to me during office hours that they didn’t like philosophy because they didn’t like having to think so hard!

An interesting and important question is what makes or determines the difference? That is, if we all by nature desire to know, then why do some people satisfy that desire through oversimplification and others satisfy it by facing deep difficulties and uncertainty, ultimately not feeling satisfied with any “answer”? Surely, the answer to that question won’t be simple either.