:: Article

buddhist ethics

Interview by Richard Marshall.


Nicolas Bommarito is currently a Bersoff Fellow in the philosophy department at NYU and an Assistant Professor of philosophy at University at Buffalo. Here he discusses Owen Flanagan’s three styles of working with Buddhist philosophy, on whether Buddhism has religious content, on its relationship with applied ethics, on the metaphysics and epistemology of Buddhism, on comparative links with Western philosophy, whether the Bodhisattva is a virtue ethics, Logong, patience as a moral virtue, why anger towards those who hurt us is never justified, modesty as a virtue of attention, private solidarity and his status as an anti-expert. Here we go again…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Nicolas Bommarito: It’s hard to say because it wasn’t until I was nearly 20 that I learned philosophy was something you could study. I was raised Catholic and around 13 or 14 I decided that it wasn’t for me. At that time I was sort of operating on the assumption that there was some religion for me, so I started reading around about other religions. As a result I read, among other things, Śāntideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva and The Questions of King Millinda. This was the first I thought critically about how to live or what reality was like, but that was long before I ever even heard of Plato or Aristotle.

When I started at the University of Michigan I was a computer science major, but after a few long nights searching hundreds of lines of code for a misplaced semicolon I gave up on that. I was able to take Tibetan language courses and was taking a lot of courses on Buddhism; Andy Quintman and Ben Bogin ran a study aboard program in Tibet and that really got me hooked on studying Tibetan language.

I got into philosophy after I took a few classes by Louis Loeb, Rachana Kamtekar, and Stephen Darwall (The first book on virtue that I ever read was a wonderful anthology he edited; I alluded in a conversation that I couldn’t afford to buy it and he immediately offered to loan me a copy!). I think part of what pulled me into philosophy was that you could read a text and say something like, “That seems wrong because …”, which seemed to be a taboo in my Asian Studies courses.

I was also really lucky to land a job as a student librarian in the Tanner Philosopher Library – that was wonderful because I got to have a key to the library so I could stay there reading very late. I got in the habit of skimming the books as I reshelved them, so I got a good sense of what people were reading. Plus I got to talk to lots of really smart graduate students all the time!


3:AM: You’re interested in Buddhist philosophy. Owen Flanagan has three different styles working across the border of western and Buddhist philosophy: 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). Do any of these help capture your own perspective on what you’re about?

NB: Of the options, I suppose I’m closest to the cosmopolitan approach (though I’m not sure I’d describe myself as ‘ironically’ positioned). I see my interaction with Buddhist philosophy in the same way I think of my interaction with people I know. When I meet a philosopher that I respect, I’m not interested in just comparing our ideas and I’m not really out to develop some fusion of our views. I’m going to listen to them and think about what they say. I won’t accept everything they argue, but they’ll likely show me things I’ve not really worked out or things I didn’t see before. I relate to Buddhist philosophy in the same way.

3:AM: You’ve written about Tibetan philosophy. Although Plato has Apollo and Descartes God its kind of easy to be philosophically interested in their work without any theological or mythical commitments. Is it the same with the religious content of Buddhism? It seems to be more tightly wrapped to religion.

NB: One wrinkle here is that it’s often hard to tell what counts as “religious content” – You suggested Apollo for Plato, but does his belief in The Forms count as religious? How about his belief in reincarnation or the immortality of the soul? Lots of Buddhists so dislike the idea of theological or mythical commitments that they don’t even like to call Buddhism a religion at all.

As with Plato, whether or not the interesting stuff is separable from the religious content depends a lot on what gets included in the religious content and what you find interesting. Some people think the Myth of Er is just a silly story tacked on the end of the Republic, but other people think it’s really important. This is particularly pressing when it comes to Buddhism since it has been received in a lot of different cultures; people in Tibet, Japan, Korea, China, Europe, America all had to import it and all face this challenge of figuring out what the important parts are. One of the main tasks people interpreting Buddhism face is determining what’s the product and what’s the wrapping. So for example, some people will think the practice of reciting mantras is critical to Buddhism, while other people will think it’s not.

I’m not in the business of arbitrating what “real” Buddhism is, but as someone who isn’t particularly fond of theological or mythical commitments, I can say I’ve had a much easier time with many Buddhist texts than I have with people like Plato or Descartes.

3:AM: 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?

NB: One of the reasons that Buddhist philosophy is interesting is there is so much to work on – so you can find things relevant for ethics (not just applied, but normative theory and metaethics too), metaphysics, and epistemology.

There’s a boring way in which everybody relies, at least implicitly, on metaphysical and epistemological views. Saying, “Don’t shop there because they mistreat their workers” makes assumptions about actions, persons, causation, and how you might know about those things.

Less boring is when there are interesting connections between theory of what there is and how we know and how we should live. In general, for Buddhists there is a strong connection. This is partly because 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.

When you get down to particulars, however, I think the answer is the same as in Western philosophy: It ends up being different for different thinkers and different texts. So there definitely are metaphysical and epistemic commitments, but how much of the ethics one can accept without relying on them varies a lot. For example, many people read Śāntideva (a famous 8th century Indian Buddhist) as arguing that a kind of altruisism follows from metaphysical truths about emptiness. But other figures like Dōgen (a famous 13th century Japanese Buddhist) seem to see emptiness as superseding ethics.

3:AM: What are the salient features of this metaphysics and epistemology?

NB: Well one is the idea of karma. This literally means action, but generally refers to the idea that our actions produce effects. So saying that something is your karma is really saying, “It’s your doing!” Of course, there’s debate about how to interpret the idea – whether we should think of it naturalistically, as the same cause and effect of science, or as being supernatural aspects like past and future rebirths.

Another important one is the idea of emptiness. To say that something is empty is to say it is empty of a particular kind of essence. To say that all things are empty is to say that nothing has a static and persisting essence. The classic example is that of a chariot – when we examine a chariot we find various parts, wheels, axel, reins, etc. To say that a chariot is empty is to say there’s nothing to it beyond those parts, there’s no extra chariot-ness to be found. A common metaphysical claim in Buddhism is that all phenomena are like this. When applied to people this is called non-self. When Buddhist say that there is no self what they mean is that, like the chariot, there is no you-ness beyond the parts that make you up.

On the epistemology side, there’s discussion about what the sources of knowledge are. These are categories like: perception, inference, analogy, and testimony (among others). There’s debate about which ones are reliable and when, which ones reduce to other types and why. Of course, these issues are not unique to Buddhism; there’s lots of discussion of these concepts by non-Buddhist philosophers in India too.

3:AM: Are there comparative links with anything in western philosophy?

NB: In terms of taking metaphysics and epistemology to be important for ethics there are a lot. So Spinoza’s Ethics, for example, spends a lot of time on metaphysical issues before getting to the ethics. Or think of all the ethical conclusions that Kant derives from metaphysical ideas about our freedom. Or think of the all the people Aristotle inspired to base ethical conclusions on ideas about a thing’s natural function. The general aim of trying to get ethical stuff out of metaphysical theory seems to happen in both places.

I suppose consequentialists in general share a view of the importance of the effects of our actions. People have found Derek Parfit’s view in Reasons and Persons similar to Buddhist ideas of non-self.

3:AM: What is the Bodhisattva? Is it a kind of virtue ethics?

NB: A Bodhisattva is a kind of ideal being in Buddhism. It initially referred to the historical Buddha in his previous lives. There is a collection of stories called the Jātaka Tales that describes these lives. They commonly involve the Buddha as a king or some kind of animal and he makes these huge sacrifices to help others. Later, the term comes to refer to someone who purposely forgoes their own enlightenment in order to help others. So rather than escape from suffering, the Bodhisattva chooses to remain in the world in order to help others.

So it is a kind of ideal being, but that doesn’t mean it must be a kind of virtue ethics. Lots of theories can describe ideal beings and are not thereby a type of virtue ethics – So Utilitarians can describe an ideal utility maximizer or Kantians can describe an ideal person who never takes inclination as a reason for action.

It’s an extra interpretive step to claim that all other ethical notions are derived from the concept of the Bodhisattva. In a lot of cases, that’s going to be tough work – one would have to argue that suffering is bad because the Bodhisattva wants to eliminate it. That seems rough going to me.

I’m with Jay Garfield in 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.


3:AM: And what is Lojong and what is of philosophical interest in it?

NB: Lojong literally means ‘mind training’ and it’s a collection of techniques to cultivate mental, emotional, and behavioral changes. Here’s a version of one such technique called Exchanging Self and Other: First you imagine yourself from the point of view of someone beneath you in some respect (could be wealth, professional respect, or even moral development) and let feelings of jealousy and envy towards yourself arise. You think to yourself, “Ugh! They are doing so well and I really suck!” You examine those feelings and observe what they’re like. Next you do the same with a rival who is equal to yourself in this respect. You imagine yourself from their point of view and observe your feelings of competitiveness and insecurity. Finally, you take up the point of view of someone above you and let yourself see your accomplishments, skills, and successes as small and trivial.

Of course, this is just one example and this particular practice won’t be what everyone needs. This one is supposed to be an antidote to a variety of negative mental habits. So it’s supposed to combat things like the tendency to see our own position and qualities as absolute and fixed. It’s aimed at breaking the habit of thinking of our own success and skills as fixed and intrinsic qualities of who we are. By getting used to the fluid and perspectival nature of these feelings, this technique can help rob pride, jealousy, and resentment of their power and make us more sympathetic to others.

I think the philosophical interest in Lojong is in ideas about how moral development works. A lot of philosophers in the West take after Aristotle and think of moral development on the model of developing a skill. It’s almost taken to be a truism that the way to develop a virtue is by doing the actions associated with the virtue. You get to be a generous person by doing generous actions, a just person by doing just actions, and so on. I think Lojong puts pressure on this; it is a collection of techniques for developing morally important traits like compassion, selflessness, and kindness that doesn’t involve doing any of those actions. I think it offers a well-developed picture of how we can also cultivate virtue via imaginative practices that should be more central in how philosophers think about moral development in general.

3:AM: You’ve offered a Buddhist-inspired account of patience as a moral virtue. What’s the argument and what does it add or change to non-Buddhist approaches?

NB: In Buddhist thought, patience is essentially about not getting shaken up by various things in life. This is a bit broader than non-Buddhist notions in that it’s not essentially temporal, it’s not only about waiting. This, to me at least, is a more natural way to think about things. There is something similar in managing to keep from getting agitated when stuck in a traffic jam and keeping your cool when a co-worker insults you. When you’re insulted you’re not waiting for anything, but there’s a kind of basic relation to the world that you have in both cases.

I start with that notion and give my own explanation of how having that relation to the world can make you a morally better person. In a nutshell, my answer is that if patience is a moral virtue it is about what we value and how we experience that value. At the time, I expressed the idea in terms of perspective; someone who “has perspective” has a sense of scale in that they see the place of particular desires or values in their desires and values as a whole. They also have a sense of themselves in a larger context – their family, the human race, the environment, or whatever.

I think this best captures why not all failures to get angry count as patience. It doesn’t make you patient if you don’t get angry at the jerk in the meeting because you drained half a bottle of NyQuil right beforehand or because you’re distracted thinking about a paper you’re revising. I think it also best captures when getting angry doesn’t make you impatient. So someone who is angry when stuck in traffic on an ordinary day seems impatient, but someone who is angry when stuck in traffic when driving his pregnant wife to the hospital doesn’t. The former lacks perspective in a way that the latter doesn’t.

So I think impatience is essentially a way of being out of tune with what is really important. This isn’t to say the impatient person doesn’t know what’s really important, but their emotional experience, particular with regard to anger and annoyance, doesn’t bear that out.

3:AM: Why don’t you think that anger towards those who hurt us is never justified?

NB: I think it’s important to have some way to distinguish anger towards someone who intentionally hurt you and anger towards someone who did you no wrong. There’s a difference between an awful parent who is angry at his child, not because of anything the child did, but because he’s stressed at work and someone who is angry with a person who has been constantly bullying them. Call that difference one of ‘justification’.

So I’m not willing to say that people who are angry about being racially profiled, harassed, or abused are making a mistake, that their anger doesn’t make sense. It’s a further question whether or not anger is desirable or useful. So if I’m upset about a past failure, a friend might tell me that being upset isn’t desirable or useful; it’s making me miserable and I’d be better off not feeling that way. She can tell me this without having to say that my feelings are unjustified, that I didn’t really fail or that failures never warrant getting upset. I think something similar is going on with anger. You don’t need to think that anger is always unjustified to say that it is often better to avoid it.

3:AM: Is your view that modesty is a virtue of attention rooted in Buddhism? What’s the case?

NB: It’s not really rooted in anything Buddhist. The idea is that to be modest (in the sense that a morally good person is, not in the sense of dressing a certain way or being a Victorian prude) isn’t really about whether you know how good you are. Instead, it’s about how you direct your conscious attention and why. Modest people don’t pay much attention to their own goodness because they don’t care about puffing up their own egos. They experience the world in a certain way that reflects a concern for others. At the heart of immodesty is a kind of self-centeredness; immodest people are self-involved in a way that leads them to over-attend to their own goodness. I think this best explains a variety of features of modesty.

There are some strands in Buddhist thought that might be working in the background. One might be the idea of avidyā. This is often translated into English as ‘ignorance’ and in Buddhist thought is one of the root causes of suffering. But in addition to not knowing something about the world, it can also mean not seeing something about it. So for Buddhists, the kind of ignorance that causes suffering isn’t limited to simply having false propositional beliefs, but also includes experiencing the world in a way that misrepresents it or leaves something out. I think having this notion floating around my brain might have helped me to think of modesty in terms of experience rather than just belief.

3:AM: You’ve also argued in favour of what sounds rather paradoxical: ‘private solidarity’. How is it possible for anyone to support others and show solidarity in private and without producing change? It sounds like a cop-out! But you argue that it is ethically virtuous?

NB: I think the only reason it might seem paradoxical is if you think that solidarity must be shown. I started thinking about solidarity that isn’t displayed or performed for others when reading a biography of Simone Weil. When she was only 5 or 6, she learned that French soldiers fighting in WWI didn’t have access to sugar and so gave up eating sugar in solidarity with them. The description of the case is kind of bare, but I thought it had some striking features. It’s naturally described as solidarity (a few biographers explicitly describe it as such), but one gets the feeling that she didn’t have the aim of starting a political movement or raising awareness. I was puzzled by this because I thought it reflected well on her moral character even if she didn’t tell anyone and just thought to herself, “Well, if they can’t have any sugar, I won’t either.”

It’s important to note that I don’t think private solidarity is the only kind of solidarity or that it’s necessarily better than public solidarity. In fact, I think cases of purely private solidarity are pretty rare and are often in cases where actually doing something to bring about change isn’t an option. It’s plausible that as a five year-old child, Simone just wasn’t in a position to be able to do much about the situation (and, as her life bears out, once she did have the chance, she did try to bring about change). What makes it virtuous, I think, is that it connects us with others even if they never learn about it and is a way in which our concern for others can manifest.

3:AM: Another rather paradoxical sounding claim you argue for is that it is sometimes rational to self-describe as an anti-expert. How do you argue for your position?

NB: I think that someone can be more rational for taking their own beliefs to be false, particularly in cases where you have good evidence that they are false but can’t change them. Consider two people who just can’t shake their belief that aliens abduct people and experiment on them. They have the same irrational belief, but they have different beliefs about the truth of this belief. One thinks it’s false, he sees it as a sticky bit of wishful thinking from his childhood spent reading too much sci-fi. The other thinks it’s true, when he reflects on his belief he takes it to be true. I think the former is more rational than the latter, because at least he responds appropriately to the evidence about the status of his first-order belief in aliens.

The beliefs don’t have to be anything wild about aliens either, could be something common like, “If I don’t watch the Red Wings play, they’ll lose!” Lots of superstitions like this can be hard to shake: I need to use my lucky pen on the exam or I need to wear my lucky t-shirt or I won’t do as well in the race tomorrow. I think the rational way to respond to these beliefs is to think that they’re false even if you can help but have them.

I think this is true even in cases where you can change your first-order beliefs, but it takes time. So if a geologist suddenly gets some strong evidence that many of her geological beliefs are false, it may take her a while to get rid of her false beliefs. After all, she built a career on them and is very attached to them. But I think what will motivate her to do the doxastic housecleaning is the thought, “but those beliefs are false!”

3:AM: Do you think that Buddhism brings new philosophical ideas to the table that need to be a part of all philosophers’ repertoire, or is it always going to be a rather marginal influence in the academy?

NB: I do think Buddhism offers analytic philosophers interesting concepts and new ideas. I wouldn’t say that they need to be part of all philosophers’ repertoire though. I’ve found it useful and interesting, but other people will find other things useful and interesting. I really do hope that Analytic philosophy will broaden its horizons and include a broader range of topics, figures, and ideas. Buddhism is one direction to expand, but it’s certainly not the only one. I’m also happy to meet people expanding in other directions: I learn a lot by talking to people thinking about Feminist philosophy or African philosophy. I think it’s a bit like foreign language study: I think it’s good for people to learn a foreign language, but I don’t think they have to learn the same one that I did.

Of course, I would like Buddhist ideas to become more mainstream and more accessible to non-specialists. I would absolutely love it if in 50 years from now, Analytic philosophers could make references to the ideas of Śāntideva or Buddhaghosa as casually as they can for Plato and Aristotle now.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3AM, are there five books you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?



1. Unprincipled Virtue – Nomy Arpaly
This is the book that made me want to become a philosopher. It definitely hit me like an atom bomb. I loved how it discussed interesting theoretical issues in a way that was grounded in realistic examples. It’s also written in this way that makes hard issues feel easy and clear. It set the ideal for philosophical writing that I’ve been chasing ever since.


2. Way of the Bodhisattva – Śāntideva
If I’ve at all managed to stop being the know-it-all, condescending, asshole that I was in my late teens and early 20s, it’s largely because I was fortunate enough to have read this book. Plus, it’s one of those texts with so many interesting little bits that you keep coming back to it.


3. Uneasy Virtue – Julia Driver
When I started thinking about virtue more I was discouraged because I started getting the feeling like you had to build on Aristotle or get out. This book helped me see that there are other options that are really attractive views. And it has these amazing examples that would really throw me – I’d have to keep thinking about them for weeks and weeks.


4. Discourses – Epictetus
This is the first historical work in Western philosophy I read that seemed relevant to my life. Very few works of philosophy can make me feel better when I’m feeling down, but this one can.


5. Land of No Buddha – Richard Hayes
I love how Hayes writes about Buddhist philosophy. You can see he’s really invested in it, but also not afraid to be critical. It helped me to see that you could write about Buddhist thought in a way that didn’t boil down to total and blind acceptance.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 8th, 2016.