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Buddhism and Levinas

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Image of William Edelglass

‘Many Indian Buddhist philosophers, and other figures they influenced elsewhere, also believe that language does not have the traction with the world that we typically believe it to possess. That is, the words and concepts we employ, and that allow communities to function, do not actually reach out and grasp reality as such. Words and concepts do not magically mirror reality. Instead, they give us is a kind of conventional truth that makes social practices possible. Ultimate reality, however, is beyond the scope of language and concepts.

As with Greek thinkers, many Buddhist philosophers have regarded ethics as intertwined with other areas of philosophy. The Buddhist path consists of insight, and developing a mind that is capable of concentration, but it is also a path of moral discipline. And indeed, for the philosophy to be transformative, it needs to be expressed in our actions. Freedom from the illusion that there is a substantial self is not solely cognitive; it is manifest in a lack of possessiveness and reactivity.

A chair, for example, is often regarded as “the same chair” whether it is painted one color or another, or a leg is replaced. Moreover, the concepts we employ are understood to circumscribe or capture that essence. But if all phenomena are always arising and passing away, dependent on causes and conditions, then—according to many Buddhist thinkers—they do not possess the nature or essence that we attribute to them with our words and concepts. They do not exist independently. According to our social/linguistic conventions, of course, things do have meanings that are stable. But upon analysis, many Buddhists argue, it is we who have superimposed these meanings on passing phenomena. Ultimately, these phenomena lack, or are empty of, the concepts that we superimpose upon them. Even this emptiness of the meaning that is superimposed, it is argued by some Buddhist philosophers, is itself dependent on the mental imputation of an essence, and is therefore also empty.’

Levinas claims that ethics is first philosophy. Language, according to Levinas’s analysis, is the manifestation of a world we share with others; language always bears the possibility of articulating views and values and experiences different from my own. Objectivity is made possible by shared perspectives that could be different.’

‘I don’t think that philosophical traditions are so atomized in their methods and interests so as to justify not engaging in what is sometimes called intercultural philosophy. For a couple of semesters I taught Western philosophy to Tibetan monks at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India. These monks were in the final years of a decade-long training in the history of Buddhist philosophy in India and Tibet. They relished engaging Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, James, Wittgenstein, and others. And while my Tibetan students worked hard to learn these philosophers on their own terms, inevitably questions were posed and thoughts developed using familiar Tibetan Buddhist conceptual frameworks.

William Edelglass teaches philosophy, environmental studies, and Buddhist studies. He has published widely in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, environmental philosophy, and 20th-century European thought. William has taught in diverse settings including the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, a federal prison in New York, and a Tibetan refugee settlement in Nepal. For many years he served as a wilderness guide at Outward Bound, and between 2000 and 2003 he taught Western philosophy to Tibetan monks at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India. Here he discusses philosophical ideas in Buddhism, both its diversity and shared commitments, the metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and hermeneutics of Buddhists, impermanence and selflessness, dependent origination, what it means to say that all things are empty, why it isn’t nihilism, the Buddhist use of language in a philosophical approach that values linguistically inexpressible truths, why Buddhist moral pluralism doesn’t lead to relativism, skepticism and the undermining of moral obligations, contrasts between Western and Buddhist approaches to moral pluralism,  environmental philosophy, Levinas, whether Buddhism conflicts with his environmentalism, and the relationship between western and non-western philosophy.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

William Edelglass: I dropped out of high school, worked on a farm in northern Germany for a year, attended art school in Vienna, and when I was ready to return to the States I went to St. John’s College, in Santa Fe, NM, which didn’t require a high school diploma. St. John’s is a Great Books school; students choose the program, but there are virtually no choices once you arrive: every student devotes considerable attention to the Western philosophical tradition. Other subjects—Greek, French, Math, Music, Physics, Biology—become areas of philosophical inquiry, taught around a seminar table as discussion-based classes. I thrived with this approach, and was excited by the books we studied. Everyone on campus devoted a full year to studying Classical Greek and reading Greek texts: Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Homer, the tragedians, Herodotus and Thucydides. And then on through Aquinas and Montaigne and Hume and Kant and Hegel, Marx and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, along with Cervantes and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and so many more, all approached in a philosophical way. No matter where I was—in the classroom, the dining hall, or out in the glorious New Mexico landscape—other students and faculty had read the same texts in all their various classes. This common background of texts made endless conversations possible, which I loved.

Still, by the end, I was done with all those conversations; I felt confident I was not going to graduate school. For a couple of years I worked various jobs: with teenage boys in the juvenile justice system; at a ski area; as a wilderness guide. However, I found myself reading more and more philosophy. I applied to graduate school primarily to provide space and resources for exploring the questions that were important to me, and friends to engage with; I had no plan of becoming a professor. I thought I would give my Ph.D. program a semester, or a year, and if I liked being there I would continue, and if not, I would find something else.

The Emory philosophy program, where I pursued my graduate studies, was a good fit for me. It was a pluralistic department and the faculty supported me as my interests changed over the years, including providing funding for the study of Sanskrit and Tibetan when I started studying Buddhist thought. And there was a group of graduate students who became good friends. In retrospect, perhaps, there was a clear trajectory to where I am now, but it was not particularly obvious along the way. It feels like a great privilege, an undeserved stroke of good luck, that I am paid to read, write, teach, and discuss questions that I think are interesting and important, both relevant to wider conversations and challenges—I teach courses in Environmental Philosophy, Climate Change, Philosophy of Race, and on contemporary issues in cognitive science and moral thought—as well as focusing on more traditional questions and historical texts.

Buddhist Philosophy

3:AM: You’re an expert on Buddhism. To help orientate readers new to this area, can you sketch for us the core views that characterize the philosophical approach of Buddhists before we look at the variation in details. Is release from suffering a key part of this core?

WE: One of my favorite Tibetan proverbs is, “wherever you find agreement there you find fools.” This is from a tradition that values debate, which means making disagreement productive. And indeed, you don’t have to look far into any one Buddhist tradition before you find plenty of disagreement. Taken together, Buddhist traditions are so heterogeneous, spanning more than two millennia and very different cultures and social contexts across much of Asia—and today, much of the world—that we ought to be wary of making any claims that would attempt to cover Buddhism in its totality. There is hardly anything about which all Buddhists agree.

Despite the diversity of views, one can say that for many prominent Buddhist philosophers there are a few shared philosophical commitments. One of these is indeed that most of us are caught up in habits of thinking, speaking, and acting that result in our own suffering and dissatisfaction, and often contribute to the suffering and dissatisfaction of others. The many forms of Buddhist practice, including the practice of philosophy, can be understood as cultivating a way of being in the world that is less reactive, that allows for release from attachments and aversions that entangle us in painful and disconcerting ways. This disentangling, for many Buddhist philosophers, requires understanding that all phenomena are impermanent. And that things—including, most importantly, human beings—lack any substantial nature; they lack any kind of vessel that is unchanging, that somehow sits behind passing phenomena. In some texts, these three—impermanence; lack of self; and the way in which life is characterized by both obvious pains and more subtle dissatisfactions—are sometimes considered the primary marks of existence.

Many Indian Buddhist philosophers, and other figures they influenced elsewhere, also believe that language does not have the traction with the world that we typically believe it to possess. That is, the words and concepts we employ, and that allow communities to function, do not actually reach out and grasp reality as such. Words and concepts do not magically mirror reality. Instead, they give us is a kind of conventional truth that makes social practices possible. Ultimate reality, however, is beyond the scope of language and concepts. And, these thinkers share an emphasis on the importance of understanding causality, and how all phenomena have a multiplicity of conditions. That is, they believe there is nothing that is somehow autonomous, independent, or self-arisen.

The above themes—causes and conditions; lack of a permanent self; a distinction between conventional truth and ultimate truth; impermanence; the pervasiveness of suffering and dissatisfaction; and the possibility of liberation—are common among Buddhist philosophers. Understanding these themes, together with cultivating moral discipline and capacities for attention and concentration, are widely regarded as paths for liberation from suffering. But how these themes are unpacked differs considerably. Thus, one can say that Buddhist thinkers share common themes, but there are virtually no universally shared specific views.

3:AM: Can you say why you believe metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and hermeneutics are all concerns of Buddhist thinkers?

WE: Many Buddhist philosophers have regarded philosophy as a necessary practice on the path to awakening from the excessive attachments and aversions that they believe characterize much of our lives. These attachments and aversions are themselves thought to be grounded in delusion, in ignorance regarding reality. According to some traditions, it was insight into the nature of reality that made the Buddha’s awakening possible. Typically, this insight is understood to be that all phenomena are impermanent, that they cannot provide an enduring satisfaction, that they do not possess an essence or self, and that they arise dependent on causes and conditions. These are metaphysical and ontological claims, and there has been much debate about how to understand them. But, as claims to knowledge, they raise epistemological questions, for example: what is the status of words and concepts in gesturing toward an ultimate reality that is beyond language? And how is this knowledge achieved? And how do we know when we have this knowledge? The vast proliferation of conflicting responses to these metaphysical and epistemological questions, together with the great diversity of views attributed to the Buddha, demanded hermeneutic strategies for resolving doctrinal conflicts. Hermeneutics, or the study of interpretation, thus became a highly developed discipline in Buddhist intellectual traditions.

As with Greek thinkers, many Buddhist philosophers have regarded ethics as intertwined with other areas of philosophy. The Buddhist path consists of insight, and developing a mind that is capable of concentration, but it is also a path of moral discipline. And indeed, for the philosophy to be transformative, it needs to be expressed in our actions. Freedom from the illusion that there is a substantial self is not solely cognitive; it is manifest in a lack of possessiveness and reactivity. Moral discipline, then, is a primary focus of both practice and theory, and ethics has been a primary concern of Buddhist philosophers.

3:AM: Impermanence and selflessness are entwined, aren’t they, in Buddhist thinking. Can you say why these two terms are so linked and why Buddhists think there is no self?

WE: As I noted earlier, impermanence and non-self are two marks of existence according to many Buddhist texts. On one level, impermanence refers to the idea that no particular thing has always already existed, endures without changing, and will exist forever. Instead, all phenomena arise when the appropriate conditions are present, age, and then eventually pass out of existence. For many Buddhists, this is also understood to take place on another, more subtle level. Because everything is constantly undergoing change, there is no complete identity of anything from one moment to the next: everything arises, exists, and passes away each moment. Of course, we find phenomena in the world that appear to be stable and to endure through time. However, according to this account, the identities we ascribe to momentary phenomena are not, under analysis, found in the things themselves.

Most importantly, we ourselves are without an enduring nature; we do not possess an essential core that somehow is the foundation of who we are. Rather, we superimpose ideas of “self” on the causal continua of momentary physical and mental phenomena. Thus, impermanence and selflessness are linked, as both ideas are expressions of a general critique of essence. While this critique of essence permeates much Buddhist thought, there have also been plenty of Buddhist thinkers who have defended one account or another of Buddha-nature that is not impermanent. According to these thinkers, Buddha-nature is not just another idea that dissolves under rational analysis. Buddha-nature, or Buddha-mind, or luminous awareness is not a personal self, but it is, for some thinkers, our most fundamental nature. Thus, even for these figures, the personal self is a continuum of conditioned mental and physical phenomena and not an essence. As persons, we are a stream of processes—thoughts, desires, volitions, perceptions, sensations—that are interdependent.

3:AM: How are we to understand the notion of ‘dependent origination’? Is this broader than causal interdependence?

WE: There are multiple accounts of the relationship between dependent origination and causality, both in Buddhist traditions and in contemporary scholarship. In the Nikāyas, early Buddhist texts written in Pāli, dependent origination is sometimes presented as a middle way between determinism and chaos. Some causal account was necessary to make sense of the possibility of progress on the path toward liberation. If everything were determined, the texts suggest, it would not make sense to strive for liberation. But, such striving would also be absurd if our actions of body, speech, and mind did not function as causes that resulted in change. Dependent origination, then, provides an account of how all phenomena are dependent on causes and conditions, and how our own thoughts and volitions can themselves function as causes and conditions for changes in ourselves and the world around us.

“Dependent origination” refers to the idea that nothing exists independently; no phenomenon exists necessarily, but only arises when the conditions are suitable. For a tree to exist, there must be suitable soil, temperature, water, etc. And when the conditions of its existence no longer prevail, than its existence will cease. Dependent origination, then, is intertwined with the idea of impermanence, for it suggests that nothing endures forever. Things arise based on causes and conditions, and they pass away.

Today, many Buddhist practitioners in the West understand dependent origination through a Chinese Huayen view of interdependence. According to the widely used metaphor, reality is like a net, and if you pull one node, you pull the whole net, because each node is connected to every other node. This is the image of the Jewel Net of Indra, in which everything reflects everything else. It is often regarded by contemporary Buddhists as resonant with ecological interdependence. But it is a slightly different idea from dependent origination as found in earlier Indian Buddhist texts.

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3:AM: So, with all this in mind, what does it mean to say that all things are empty? Why isn’t this universal nihilism?

WE: An essence or substantial nature, in the view of many philosophers, is an idea of something that underlies change. A chair, for example, is often regarded as “the same chair” whether it is painted one color or another, or a leg is replaced. Moreover, the concepts we employ are understood to circumscribe or capture that essence. But if all phenomena are always arising and passing away, dependent on causes and conditions, then—according to many Buddhist thinkers—they do not possess the nature or essence that we attribute to them with our words and concepts. They do not exist independently. According to our social/linguistic conventions, of course, things do have meanings that are stable. But upon analysis, many Buddhists argue, it is we who have superimposed these meanings on passing phenomena. Ultimately, these phenomena lack, or are empty of, the concepts that we superimpose upon them. Even this emptiness of the meaning that is superimposed, it is argued by some Buddhist philosophers, is itself dependent on the mental imputation of an essence, and is therefore also empty. Thus, for the second century CE Nāgārjuna, and others he inspired, emptiness is not an ultimate; emptiness is also empty. Of course, this means that critics can object that Nāgārjuna’s account is also not ultimately true, that he has undermined his own position. But Nāgārjuna accepts this. He claims he himself holds no view, as there is no possible view of ultimate reality. The emptiness of emptiness is not giving an account of ultimate reality; it is a self-subverting method that results in no object to which the mind can cling.

While Nāgārjuna has been one of the most influential Buddhist philosophers, the criticism that his thought is nihilistic has come from Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Indeed, some of Nāgārjuna’s own texts already respond to this objection. Critics have asked: doesn’t there have to be a ground, some thing behind any phenomenon that Nāgārjuna accepts as existing at the conventional level (as Kant postulates a thing in itself behind things as they appear to us)? To reject such a ground would be to say that nothing exists, which is an instance of metaphysical nihilism. Critics have suggested that Nāgārjuna’s radically deconstructive approach undermines morality, and is thus a moral nihilism. And perhaps most importantly, some critics argue, if buddhahood, suffering, and the insights and actions that lead to awakening are all conventional constructs, there is no ultimately compelling reason to engage in Buddhist practices. For such critics, Nāgārjuna’s account is a religious or soteriological nihilism, as it appears to undermine the very project of the Buddhist path.

To escape metaphysical, moral, or religious nihilism, many Buddhists maintained that there is something that, upon analysis, is not empty, or at least is only empty of everything that is not itself. For example, the Tibetan thinker Dölpopa argued that the absolute is empty, but it is an extrinsic emptiness. That is, it is not intrinsically empty but empty of everything that is other than the primordial, unconditioned, luminosity of pure mind. Various accounts of Buddha-nature, mind, the absolute, etc. provided alternative accounts of emptiness in which something positive was left over, that were not quite so radically deconstructive. This more ontologically positive account of emptiness was especially prevalent in Chinese Buddhism. And it gave Buddhists a kind of ultimate ground, one that provides a basis to defend against charges of nihilism.

Another move that some Buddhist figures made was to argue that Nāgārjuna could not possibly have meant that he really had no view, that there was nothing to be said that went beyond conventional discourse and was ultimately empty. Tsongkhapa, for example, defended the place of inferential reasoning in the realm of the conventional and ultimately that emptiness, despite the fact that it is a negation, must be in some sense an object that can be known in meditation.

But some figures—perhaps the most recent that comes to mind is the extraordinary twentieth century Tibetan scholar, Gendun Choepel—have continued to defend a view that can appear to be nihilistic. And some contemporary scholars have agreed that it is, in the end, a kind of nihilism. However, there are plenty of other interpretations that defend Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka thought from the objection that it is nihilistic. To say that something only exists conventionally, or is only conventionally true, is not to say that it doesn’t exist or that it is false. To say that food is not ultimately real does not mean that we can somehow get by without eating. Similarly, suffering may be dependent on causes and conditions and therefore empty of the meaning we ascribe to it. But suffering is still a problem that we need to solve. According to Madhyamaka thinkers, the emptiness of emptiness is both rationally compelling—there simply is no possible account of an ultimate reality that is independent of our language and social practices—and liberating. That is, for some Buddhist figures, to hold on to an ultimate intellectual ground is a form of clinging to opinion that is an obstacle to the non-reactive and open awareness that philosophical analysis can lead to. Philosophical analysis that leads to the insight of emptiness can thus be considered a kind of liberating practice.

3:AM: How are we to understand the Buddhist use of language in a philosophical approach that values linguistically inexpressible truths?

WE: This is a really good question. If phenomena lack the essence that we attribute to them, ultimate reality and truth are beyond the grasp of words and concepts. How, then, can we conceptualize this ultimate reality and truth? How can we talk about it? Is there something there to talk about at all? For many Buddhists, language is not merely inadequate as a vehicle to articulate the highest truth; language is often thought to reify, and words and concepts are thus regarded as obstacles on the path to awakening. The awakened mind is not merely transcendent to the social conventions of language; some Buddhist thinkers understand awakening to be a nonconceptual awareness that is precisely a liberation from language and concepts. At the same time, the efficacy of language is presupposed by a broad range of Buddhist practices, especially philosophical analysis. The paradox of language as liberating and ensnaring is at the heart of much Buddhist thought and practice. In one text, the Buddha is said to “laugh with all his might” at the difficulty of employing language to articulate that which is beyond language.

The questions of why, precisely, language and reason are incapable of articulating nonconceptual reality, and the nature of the nonconceptual reality to which it may lead, and if there is such a nonconceptual reality, and if human subjects can have nonconceptual awareness, and what the role of language is in leading beyond itself, are all sources of considerable debate in Buddhist traditions. Nevertheless, acknowledging the endless differences, one can still point to a tension that appears in numerous historically significant Buddhist text and practice traditions in South and East Asia between language as an obstacle and language as the vehicle to a nonconceptual awakening beyond the realm of words. This tension between two aspects of language is not merely an interesting side-note. Transforming our relation to language—and thereby transforming our relation to the world—is for many traditions, central to the Buddhist path. Liberation often means relinquishing the idea that words somehow reach out and have traction with reality. But, even as awakened awareness is widely regarded as a transcendence of language, and mind and reality exceed the grasp of language, words and concepts are necessary to make progress on the path.

One temptation, when thinking about words employed to point beyond language and thought, or apophatic discourse, is to interpret them on the model of kataphatic discourse. That is, to try to figure out what they mean, to translate what they say into a more positive mode of discourse. Apophatic discourse, which gives us no positive content to which we can become attached, is more interested in transformation than the truth of naturalized language. It is interested in provoking a loosening of our grip on the meanings we are constantly projecting. It is more interested in a kind of knowing how rather than a knowing what. It is more interested in praxis than theory. I think for many Buddhist figures, instead of asking what an apophatic discourse means, a more fruitful question might be, what does this apophatic discourse do? Or, perhaps, what are some of the things it does? Or even, what can one do with apophatic discourse? In a variety of Buddhist traditions, cultivating an awareness that one’s doctrinal beliefs cannot be ultimately grounded but may still be effective or liberating constitutes a kind of wisdom. And rational analysis—of reality, experience, knowledge, language, etc.—is necessary to achieve this wisdom. The path to liberation requires living with the paradox that even as the beliefs of the communities to which we belong structure our lives, determine our moral commitments, our bodily comportments, and ritual practices, to hold them too tightly is both irrational and an obstacle on the path.

3:AM: Some argue that moral pluralism leads to relativism, skepticism and the undermining of moral obligations, but you disagree don’t you? Why?

WE: Yes, I do disagree. First, let me say something about the difference between moral pluralism and moral monism. It is a difference based on the function of moral principles in moral theories. Utilitarianism and natural law theory, for instance, share a formal structure in that each is grounded in a supreme moral principle. In utilitarianism, for example, all moral reasoning is derived from the principle of utility. Such theories, founded upon one overarching moral principle that provides unity and coherence, are monistic. Some theorists reject moral monism, arguing instead for a pluralism that acknowledges the legitimacy of a multiplicity of independent, basic moral principles. These principles may well be in tension, or even mutually incompatible, but, it is said, they can be consistent with our moral experience. Pluralists argue that there is no one monistic theory that can encompass the whole moral realm, with all its complexities; there may be, however, moral theories that can provide principles that are true for some kinds of moral acts, intentions, or states of affair. Moral pluralism is not a form of relativism, but an appropriate and necessary response to the multiple kinds of moral concern in our lives. A third kind of moral theory, moral particularism, associated with David McNaughton, Jonathan Dancy, and perhaps illustrated in some existentialist ethics and forms of virtue theory, rejects the need for any moral principles. Instead of deriving judgments from a supreme moral principle or a plurality of self-justifying moral principles, particularists argue that the moral features of acts, agents, and states of affair arise contextually and cannot be grasped by universal principles. Instead of following moral principles, particularists claim, moral agents must cultivate the discernment of specific, contextualized moral landscapes.

Why am I sympathetic to moral pluralism? I appreciate the clarity of monistic theories, but I find that this clarity doesn’t work so well as we try to apply a single principle to a multiplicity of different phenomena. In the context of environmental ethics, for example, a moral pluralist does not look for one supreme principle that will cover all questions of environmental practice. Rather, a moral pluralist admits that in some instances, for example questions concerning the treatment of farm animals, animal rights or sentientism might be the best theory. However, when considering what to do about an invasive species that is degrading an ecosystem, an ecocentric ethic that is not as attentive to the suffering and needs of individual animals might be the most prudent to follow. Some moral pluralists acknowledge that we have moral obligations to salmon, pets, mountains, our own children, other people’s children, elms, works of art, fellow-citizens, and watersheds. However, they argue, we possess different moral obligations derived from different principles for these distinct entities. When theories such as animal rights and ecocentrism lead to incompatible results, instead of rejecting one theory wholesale in the pursuit of monism, pluralists argue that we should prudently determine which moral principle to apply to a particular situation. Instead of debating the one, right, univocal metaphysics of morals – ecocentrism versus anthropocentrism; biocentrism versus sentientism; deep ecology versus social ecology; etc. – pluralists seek agreement on practical policies that can be derived from a variety of moral principles.

I find the pluralist orientation to be more responsive to the diversity of moral phenomena that confront us. One might be tempted to object that pluralism doesn’t provide enough critique of dominant practices because it always makes room for a moral principle that might fit our intuitions, and our intuitions may justify practices that upon critical reflection are indefensible. However, when there is tension between principles, pluralists still need to think seriously about their choices. Moreover, to recognize that different moral principles are appropriate in different circumstances is not to suggest that there are no moral principles. Indeed, moral monism—for example, Kant’s use of the categorical imperative not to lie—because it comes up against problem cases, may be more likely to lead to moral skepticism and moral relativism than pluralist accounts.

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3:AM: Why do you think it’s best to approach Buddhist ethics in terms of a kind of moral pluralism with a different reach than Western ethics? Are South Asian Buddhist traditions the models that you draw on to illustrate this, and could you sketch them for us?

WE: This is a big question. But yes, I do think that you can find examples of what, to use a contemporary Western term, is a kind of moral pluralism in South Asian Buddhist traditions. As scholars—most prominently Damien Keown and Charles Goodman—have argued, one can find versions of virtue ethics and consequentialism in Buddhist ethical reasoning. Interpreting various forms of Buddhist ethics with the aid of diverse Western moral theories can, I believe, increase our understanding. In the end, though, I don’t believe that any one Western metaethical theory provides an adequate theoretical framework for grasping moral thinking in the major traditions of Buddhism and, a fortiori, the vast and heterogeneously diverse tradition of Buddhism as a whole. Instead of translating Buddhist moral thinking into Western categories, we are better off approaching Buddhist ethics on its own terms. And when we do so, often what we see, is a willingness to apply different moral principles in different contexts, depending on what would be most helpful. Consider a text such as Śāntideva’s Introduction to the Way of Life of a Bodhisattva. This text is widely considered to be the most comprehensive work devoted to ethical questions in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, and was profoundly influential in Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Śāntideva sometimes emphasizes the cultivation of virtues. At other times he seems to promote actions based on calculations to minimize suffering. The attempt to reduce Śāntideva’s ethics to a monistic Western moral category would make his writings appear inconsistent and confused. It would also be a mistake to interpret his moral thought as a uniquely Buddhist moral monism. Rather, grounded in the doctrine of dependent origination, Śāntideva provides rich descriptions of the moral significance of intention and consequence, character and action, without seeking to circumscribe all moral activity under one principle. (While I have emphasized moral pluralism in Buddhist ethics, some scholars have interpreted Buddhist ethics as monistic and other scholars have described what they regard as moral particularism in some Buddhist texts.)

Asian Buddhist ethics may indeed have a different reach than classical Western moral theory. Asian Buddhist moral traditions, for example, did not propose the kinds of sophisticated theories that ground the autonomy of the individual that Western philosophers have developed since the European Enlightenment. These theories justifying human dignity and human rights have provided intellectual foundations for numerous liberation movements in the past several centuries. But Western moral thinking—to overgeneralize, perhaps—in many instances has been concerned with abstract principles, and Buddhist moral thought in Asia has, arguably, been more attentive to the relationships and practices in which our lives are embedded. As a pluralist myself, I believe that drawing on, for example, both deontological principles as well as more nuanced understandings of our relations with others, can help us understand the diversity of moral phenomena.

3:AM:You are interested in environmental philosophy and in particular how to live in a time of ecological crisis, aren’t you? Do you think we bear moral responsibility for the many thousands who will die as a consequence of climate change?

WE: Yes, I am concerned about what it means to live in the Anthropocene. For me this is both existential and theoretical. We—my wife and twin daughters and I—live on an off-the-grid homestead in southern Vermont. We have vegetable gardens, and have planted berries, nuts, and fruit trees. I walk—or in the winter, ski—to school. Our house is heated only with wood from our land, which I cut and split. I realize that if everyone lived like this, there wouldn’t be any open land left, and no habitat for our fellow creatures. And I realize that people living in apartment buildings where they share walls (and therefore heat), take public transportation, etc. may have a smaller carbon footprint. But ours is one of the currently available options for living a less unsustainable life. Teaching environmental philosophy also feels like a kind of environmental practice, as a sustained focus on environmental questions can be transformative for many of us. And I do a certain amount of service that is related to the field: I co-edit the journal Environmental Philosophy; I served as co-director of the International Association of Environmental Philosophy (IAEP); and currently I am chair of the Board of Directors of IAEP.

But no matter how much I try to be less dependent on fossil fuels, the goods I purchase and consume and that make my life possible contribute to the pain and suffering of many people, now and in the future, as well as to increased levels of species extinction. This is the nature of life in the Anthropocene. And it is not just thousands who will die in the future; there are studies that suggest that the number of people dying each year as a consequence of climate change is already in the hundreds of thousands. And this does not include the many deaths from conflicts resulting from desertification and the competition for scarce resources. I do feel some responsibility for this pain and suffering, and I think this feeling is reasonable.

Instead of thinking about individual responsibility, one might object, we need to think about climate change as a tragedy of the commons. Instead of holding individuals responsible, then, we should work toward forging agreements that would regulate the commons that is our atmosphere. According to the tragedy of the commons view of climate change, there would be no unilateral obligation to reduce one’s own green house gas (GHG) emissions. Climate change and other common-pool resource problems, then, would constitute a kind of prisoners’ dilemma, in which individuals acting according to their preferences worsen the situation for everyone. What would be required, then, is an enforceable, collective agreement.

Or, one might object, while it may be the case that cumulatively our actions are catastrophic, no one individual actually causes climate change. This is sometimes called the problem of inconsequentialism: if the consequences of my actions are negligible, and there would be no discernible difference if I drove a low- or high-mileage car, then I am simply not responsible. If my individual choice of a low-mileage car doesn’t really cause climate change, then there is nothing morally wrong with it. According to this view, the only moral obligation we have is to support systemic changes at a policy level by electing and supporting politicians who will implement incentives and regulations that will make a consequential difference.

Clearly, regulation, legislation, and international political agreements are necessary to make significant progress in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Moreover, it can be problematic to hold someone morally responsible for choices that are limited by their economic and social context, in which it may be very hard to make decisions that result in fewer GHG emissions. But, there are also theoretical obstacles to understanding individual moral responsibility in the context of climate change. As Dale Jamieson has argued, climate change and other collective action environmental problems pose a challenge to our traditional conceptions of moral responsibility. Because individually my actions are inconsequential, I intend no harm, and there is no immediate victim, according to the standard account of responsibility I am not responsible for the suffering that results from climate change. Climate change is thus both a moral challenge and a challenge to moral theory because we find ourselves caught in a situation where together we cause immense suffering and our inherited moral theory has difficulty conceptualizing any moral responsibility. But there are vast numbers of people today who do feel morally responsible. And, I think there are ways of conceptualizing moral responsibility that make sense of that feeling. One way is by drawing on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, whose account of responsibility inverts relevant aspects of the standard account.

According to Levinas’s moral phenomenology, responsibility is not grounded in intention and causality. According to most moral philosophies, and our common intuitions, we are responsible for acts that we choose, especially when we understand the consequences of our choices. Causal responsibility is generally understood to be a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for moral responsibility. Thus, we tend to recognize moral responsibility for acts that are close in space and time, where we see clear connections between perpetrators and victims. In the standard account, because ought implies can, responsibility does not demand more than is reasonably possible for the agent. However, for Levinas, ethical consciousness is precisely the sense of responsibility for the Other, even when I myself have done nothing to harm her. And the more attentive I am the more I recognize my own responsibility.

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3:AM: Ok, so let’s turn to Levinas. Emmanuel Levinas is an important thinker for you when discussing environmental issues isn’t he? Can you tell us something about him for the uninitiated?

WE: Levinas (1906-95), was a Lithuanian-French phenomenologist. In “Signature,” a brief autobiographical sketch, Levinas writes that his life and work were “dominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror.” Levinas himself entered the French military and was captured shortly after the start of the Second World War; he spent the next four years in a labor camp in Germany for French officers, hearing rumors of the murder of European Jews. His parents, grandparents, both his brothers, and many others close to him were killed by the Nazis; Levinas’s wife and daughter spent the war years hiding in France. For Levinas, the Nazi horror and the goodness of some when confronted by overwhelming force, demanded a radical rethinking of ethics, which became the central philosophical project of his life. It is primarily a project of rethinking our relationship to the other person, which, as he notes, also demands a rethinking of subjectivity.

Here are a few points about Levinas’s project for readers who may be unfamiliar with his work.

First, Levinas’s ethics is grounded in a phenomenological method; he approaches ethics through a description of the relation with the Other, rather than focusing on moral principles that have been abstracted from this relation.

Second, for Levinas, ethics is asymmetrical. According to his phenomenology of moral consciousness, I encounter the Other as transcendence, transcending my world from a height. At the same time, in the ethical encounter my own power to protect and support the Other is disclosed as inescapable; I discover myself to have resources for the Other.

Third, Levinasian responsibility is not based on a choice I have made or an action I have committed. Beyond any choices I myself have made, it is a responsibility beyond reason in which I am responsible for the Other, held to account for the Other’s suffering and need.

Fourth, according to Levinas, especially in later works such as Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (1974), the ethical relation with the Other is what singularizes me as a subject. That is, I am not a free, autonomous subject, a center of synthesizing activity—or consciousness, mind, spirit, ego, or some other abstraction—who then encounters an Other who is there. Rather, it is in my susceptibility to being affected by the Other that my own here arises; my responsibility for the Other precedes my freedom to choose whether or not I want to be subject to morality.

Fifth, because the relation with the Other is the condition for any discourse, Levinas claims that ethics is first philosophy. Language, according to Levinas’s analysis, is the manifestation of a world we share with others; language always bears the possibility of articulating views and values and experiences different from my own. Objectivity is made possible by shared perspectives that could be different. But the precondition of objectivity and reason and discourse is community, is the relation with others. Thus, before we begin exploring questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ontology, or any other theoretical or practical issues, we are already in a social context, and therefore already in an ethical relationship.

Sixth, Levinas’s interpretive phenomenological ethics, in contrast to most Western moral philosophies, offers no universal moral principles or prescriptions. He does not seek to answer the questions that animate these traditions, such as: “what is the best human life?”; “how should I live?”; “how ought one to act?”; or “what principles of moral reason can determine what one ought to do?” Instead, Levinas understands his project as describing the very moral consciousness that precedes and motivates all moral thinking and action. In part due to his phenomenological approach, then, Levinas’s thought is not in tension with virtue ethics, deontology, consequentialism, or other moral theories; it is operating at a prior level.

Finally, Levinas’s phenomenology describes a normative force to respond to the Other, to engage in the world, but there is no particular rule to follow or virtue to cultivate that would be universally applicable. For Levinas, then, there is no escape from the moral dilemmas of social life, for we are incessantly called by a responsibility to address needs that always demand more than the capacities and resources we possess.

Levinas’s phenomenological ethics of difference and singularity has been quite influential, provoking increased attention to ethical aspects of social life in a variety of fields in the humanities and social sciences. His work is not, however, generally regarded as an intellectual resource for thinking about environmental issues. But I believe Levinas does have something to offer. A generation ago, many environmental philosophers and activists tended to ground their work in one form or another of non-anthropocentrism. These views recognized an intrinsic value in nature that made nature morally considerable. The idea that “nature,” as some abstract, ahistorical other to humans and human culture could be a source of moral obligation is alien to Levinas’s thought. For Levinas, “nature” is precisely that ontological realm which is outside the realm of ethics; it is distinguished instead by its drive to persist and its inability to put the Other before the self. Today, though, many environmental thinkers and activists articulate their concerns using conceptual frameworks that are less reliant on non-anthropocentric metaphysical and ethical views. Indeed, the climate movement, including the intellectual work that motivates it, is now very much a climate justice movement. Levinas’s recurrent concern with “the precariousness of the Other” resonates with this contemporary emphasis on climate justice, with a concern for the ways in which resource depletion and pollution overload harm humans and other animals.

As I noted in response to the previous question, Levinas’s account of responsibility, works well for understanding our moral situation in collective action environmental challenges such as climate change. And more generally, I find Levinas’s phenomenology provides an apt description of ethical life in the Anthropocene: I have inescapable responsibilities that increase with my awareness and are always beyond my capacities to meet.

3:AM: The Buddhist traditions of South Asia saw ‘seeing things the way they really are as a way of achieving liberation from suffering.’ This sounds like a kind of stoic quietism. Doesn’t this conflict with your environmental philosophy, which seems to require action rather than just acceptance of fate?

WE: There are some interpretations of South Asian Buddhist texts as promoting a kind of quietism. I am not persuaded by this view. Many Indian Buddhist texts do indeed emphasize the necessity of wisdom for achieving liberation. But insight is achieved by a mind that is capable of concentration. And this is achieved through practicing mindfulness and awareness and cultivating mental stability. But mental transformation, according to these texts, is intertwined with moral transformation. For it is through engaging with others, cultivating generosity, patience, and an attention to the suffering and needs of others, that our minds are transformed. A purely cognitive understanding of selflessness or dependent origination is not particularly liberating. For someone like Śāntideva, these insights need to be embodied. For example, a deeper understanding of selflessness is manifest in the ability to give, to relinquish the sense of “mine” that we attach to our things. Or, to use another example, a deeper understanding of dependent origination will be manifest in the ability to understand the conditions for someone’s behavior that might otherwise lead to frustration or anger. Meditation, wisdom, and morality, then, are regarded as interdependent in numerous South Asian Buddhist texts. And eventually, for many Buddhists, compassion for the sufferings of others became a characteristic of awakened mind. Thus, one of the most important figures in Mahāyāna Buddhism is pictured with 1,000 arms, to respond to the needs of suffering sentient beings. All this to say that I do not believe that Indian Buddhist thought is quietist, though it does bear some resemblance to Stoic thinking, which emphasizes our various responsibilities, even as it rejects perturbations as a motivation for fulfilling our responsibilities. Rather, as with Buddhist ethics, they are motivated by a kind of enlightened reason and appropriate emotions.

The 20th century saw the rise of what is called Socially Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is a Buddhist response to the widespread trauma, including colonialism, war, social and economic injustice, environmental degradation, genocide, totalitarian government, and the suppression of religion, that has accompanied modernity in some Asian Buddhist countries. Prominent Asian Buddhist leaders have argued that compassionate, nonviolent, mindful activism is a properly Buddhist response to structures of oppression. In Asia and in the West, engaged Buddhism has taken a multiplicity of forms, including serving the needy, working for peace and nonviolence, human rights, just and equitable development, liberation from oppressive government, social and economic justice, prison reform, access to education and health care, and addressing issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation.

One of the most widespread concerns of Socially Engaged Buddhism is sustainability and environmental degradation. Indeed, there is now a substantial movement of Buddhists who think of themselves, or are characterized by others, as practicing EcoDharma, or EcoBuddhism. One of my favorite examples are Thai monks who ordain trees to protect them from being felled by timber companies. Recently, numerous Buddhist groups have mobilized in response to climate change, and the damage it does to the habitats that nourish humans and other species. But, as the question suggests, a particularly Buddhist approach to environmental action might be informed by an understanding of dependent origination and a recognition of the ways that we are all interconnected. For example, it might maintain an explicit awareness that loggers or miners or police officers are working to support their families and are not an appropriate object of hatred or anger. And that even as one might march in protest, or do research and teaching or other work to bring about a more regenerative society, one’s own consumption also plays a role in the activity that one regards as problematic.

3:AM: As a take home, do you think non-western philosophy and western philosophy are enhanced if they speak to each other, or do you find they have different interests and methods that are best left as separate if equal endeavours?

WE: I think that the differences between philosophical traditions tend to be exaggerated. We often talk about particular philosophical traditions as if each one was had its own self-consistent interests and methods. But I wonder how true that is. What we call “Western philosophy” has no immutable essence. The methods and assumptions of, for example, Plato, Augustine, Montaigne, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Kripke, Levinas, and Quine, bear little resemblance to each other. Newton and Locke were both referred to as “philosophers” in the vocabulary of their day. Today we tend to think of philosophy as primarily secular. But this is inconsistent with much of what we accept as the history of Western philosophy. I am not sure there is any one homogenous style, set of interests, or methods to Western philosophy. Indeed, I am generally wary of the construct of “Western Philosophy,” supposedly a unitary, coherent tradition with clear borders that runs from Ancient Greece through Rome and then Europe. This account forgets the many interactions between Greek and other traditions around the Mediterranean, and the intellectual engagements between Greeks and Indians, and the way in which Islamic thought and practice was the gateway through which Greek thought arrived in Europe, and the many instances of cross-fertilization between Chinese, Indian, and Islamic thinking that were also felt in Europe. And I am also wary of the term “non-Western Philosophy,” as it lumps together Indian and Chinese philosophy—Indian philosophy is, in many ways, much more similar to philosophy in Greece and Europe than it is to Chinese philosophy—along with philosophy from Africa, the Middle East, indigenous thought, etc. That said, at this particular moment in time, we don’t seem to have other terms that do the work we want them to do without the problems of “Western” and “non-Western.”

You can probably see where this is heading. I don’t think that philosophical traditions are so atomized in their methods and interests so as to justify not engaging in what is sometimes called intercultural philosophy. For a couple of semesters I taught Western philosophy to Tibetan monks at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India. These monks were in the final years of a decade-long training in the history of Buddhist philosophy in India and Tibet. They relished engaging Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, James, Wittgenstein, and others. And while my Tibetan students worked hard to learn these philosophers on their own terms, inevitably questions were posed and thoughts developed using familiar Tibetan Buddhist conceptual frameworks. That the monks were engaging Western thinkers on the basis of their own philosophical interests and questions is not surprising. They were learning about Western thinkers and doing so in a way that was of interest to them based on their study of Buddhist thought. Most scholars trained in a modern academic context approach classical Buddhist texts informed by contemporary academic theory and philosophy and pursue projects that speak to contemporary thought. This is simply a hermeneutic point: we cannot do otherwise. We bring our horizons with us wherever we go.

Engaging across philosophical cultures—whether between different cultures in the West, or different time periods, or different cultures elsewhere—can be philosophically productive. We see this already in a number of canonical Western philosophers, who often read whatever they could of Indian and Chinese texts as they became available in Europe. Reading these texts provoked and informed Leibniz, Wolff, Herder, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Emerson, Buber, Scheler, Jaspers, Heidegger, and plenty more. For these philosophers, just as for my Tibetan students, and for me, engaging with philosophers from another tradition enlarges the framework of one’s own thinking and experience. It can raise new questions and provide new perspectives. Sometimes another tradition might have moral intuitions or ontological categories that differ from our own, and exploring such a tradition can supplement and enrich our own thought. Regardless of one’s particular focus, it is hard to imagine that looking at questions through a different frame wouldn’t be philosophically helpful.

I am not suggesting that every faculty member ought to do intercultural philosophy as part of their research. But I do believe that in a postcolonial, globalized, interconnected world, every student and teacher of philosophy ought to explore some philosophical traditions beyond the West. To be philosophically educated today cannot simply mean that one is familiar with only Western thought. If philosophy is some kind of rational exploration in pursuit of truth, we can no longer think that reason and truth only appears to some people in some places and that it is absent outside of Europe, for example.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world?

WE: I feel myself to be an inhabitant of several different philosophical worlds. Here are a few books that provide a path into some of these.

The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way

  1. Jay L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Garfield’s analysis is clear, accessible, and gives a very compelling account of Nāgārjuna’s thought in terms familiar to students of Western philosophy.

The Bodhicaryavatara

  1. Śāntideva. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Śāntideva’s text has informed much of my work, even in areas that may not at first appear related. It also informs how I think about my own life.

Totality and Infinity

  1. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969. This is Levinas’s first great work of original philosophy, and his descriptions of the ways in which we are always called to be open to and respect and responsive to the experience of others informs much of my thinking.

Being and Time

  1. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. While my own research doesn’t focus on Heidegger, his emphasis on the ways in which our thinking is always conditioned by non-cognitive factors, and our own role in interpreting and making meaning, is important to me.

The Complete Essays

  1. Finally, perhaps the book that has been most influential for me is Montaigne’s Essays.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 14th, 2018.