The Ethics of Anatta/Anatman in Pre-contact and Post-contact Western Philosophy

Sat., Aug. 23rd, 11:00-12:30

Hume as a Western Mādhyamika: The Case from Ethics

Garfield, Jay L. (National University of Singapore, SGP); Silbert, Doris (University of Melbourne, Melbourne, AUS)

Many philosophers looking for homologies to Buddhist ethics in the West have turned either to the tradition of Aristotle or to that of Mill. And many philosophers who have noted affinities between Hume's views and those of some Buddhists (whether Śrāvakayāna or Madhyamaka) have referred to his metaphysics. These affinities are real. And they suggest affinities between Humean ethics and Buddhist ethics, which turn out also be be real and to be quite profound. I discuss the relation between Hume’s ethics and his metaphysics and how Humean ethics can help us to understand the structure of Buddhist ethics, especially as articulated in Madhyamaka.


Personal Identity and Moral Philosophy in Recent Interpretations of Buddhist Thought

Hanner, Oren (University of Hamburg, Hamburg, GER)

Contemporary Western philosophers who adopt a skeptical approach to personal identity, such as Derek Parfit, Charles Taylor and Galen Strawson, develop their ideas already informed by the Buddhist critique of the unified self. At the same time, we can see that their works shaped in many ways the terminology and philosophical methods used by Buddhist scholars, like Matthew Kapstein, Mark Siderits and Charles Goodman, to analyze themes in Buddhist ethics and personal identity. This bilateral influence is an interesting feature of what we may call the late post-contact period. We thus find in the interpretations offered by Buddhist scholars who write in a Western philosophical style the two components: the influence of the Buddhist concept of anātman, seen through the eyes of modern Western philosophy.

This paper focuses on the relation between ethics and personal identity in these recent interpretations, primarily in Charles Goodman's defense of his consequentialist reading. Here, the deconstruction of the unified self serves, on the one hand, to establish ethical theory; for example, when used to support altruism as a rational attitude. But on the other hand, it challenges the very core of ethics – be it our ability to stay committed to morality over time or our responsibility for past actions. These problems and others are addressed in Western philosophy by defining criteria of personal identity. They were also discussed, from a somewhat different perspective, in Buddhist texts. By tracing the ways in which the concept of anātman was channelled into ethical reasoning, I will examine the extent to which the Western interpretations reflect Buddhist ethical principles, and in particular, the manner in which they choose to deal with the tension between personal identity and ethical theory based on the principle of anātman.


Non-Self and Ethics: Kantian and Buddhist Themes

O'Hagan, Emer (University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, CAN)

My presentation begins by making a case for a Kantian version of the Buddhist distinction between ultimate and conventional truths about the self, and offering a demonstration of how this distinction operates within Kant’s ethical theory.  We can see a clear account of this distinction in Kant’s discussion of the duty and nature of self-knowledge.  Kant’s position on the self has strong parallels with a Buddhist view of the self, especially once it is acknowledged that self-knowledge plays a significant role in moral development.  A study of the relation between non-self and ethics is illuminated by Kant’s discussion of the limits of self-knowledge and its role in self-purification.  A defense of the significance of these parallels requires that some concerns about relevant dissimilarities be addressed.  In general terms the issue is whether Kant’s view of the self involves metaphysical and ontological, or pragmatic commitments.  This is relevant to the question of whether Kant’s account of moral agency can be grounded in practical reasons.  If the anatta doctrine requires a commitment to the view that there is no ultimate self then it seems unlikely that Kant’s appeal to the standpoint of agency can be maintained.  Or, to put the worry in other terms, if Kant’s view is that the self is “merely” pragmatically real, then it is not part of an ultimate ontology and does not exist.  I argue that this worry is groundless and that Kant’s position cannot be dismissed so readily.  Kant’s position is in step with the Buddha’s refusal to answer the question whether or not there is a self when asked directly (“Ananda (Is There a Self?)”, Samyutta Nikaya).  Moreover, the significance of practical reason in Kantian philosophy has broader implications for discussions about self and ethics, for it is from that standpoint that reasons for moral action are established.  I argue that this consequence of the Kantian position is a strength which poses deep problems for accounts of Buddhist ethics which divorce themselves from the practical standpoint.



IABS 2014 | Universitätsring 1  | 1010 Wien