The Bodhisattva’s Brain

The Bodhisattva's Brain - Buddhism Naturalised by Owen Flanagan philosophy ethics Buddhism Aristotelian ethics


READ: 2016-08-25

AUTHOR: Owen Flanagan, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Duke University

Is there any underlying, testable truth in the claim that Buddhism generates happy people? I lived with Buddhists for several months. They seemed happy. The point is, even patients who take homeopaths report to feel good, and that does not prove homeopaths to be effective. The power of positive belief has to be examined and weighted when tackling such complicate questions about ‘happiness’, even more if we acknowledge that happiness has many facets, and c is at too an early stage to be able to distinguish between different happiness feelings.

Self-deceiving myself and uncovering its mechanisms has ben largely instructive. This is why I judge extremely interesting that Buddhism itself regards false beliefs (moha, delusion) as morally wrong, an obstacle toward enlightenment. The Dalai Lama itself summoned Buddhist epistemology in those terms: “Buddhism accords greatest authority to experience, with reason second, and scripture last”. Such affirmation may give naturalists a legitimate hope to engage in a fruitful conversation with Buddhism. Considering the adaptive nature of religions, it is not crazy at all to sketch out how a Buddhism naturalised ought to be.

There is a caveat, though: karmic causation. Karmic causation can be understood as the set of causations produced by sentient beings, both intrapersonally and interpersonally. Problems with reconciling karmic causation and ordinary causation may emerge when Buddhists, as it seems from both Flanagan’s thorough explanation and widely-known Buddhist concepts, introduce the following theses:

  1. That the emergence of sentience was somehow planned in advance;
  2. That human consciousness is of a different ontological type than natural laws are.

Flanagan generously gives two possible exits from the impasse, a ‘tame’ and an ‘untame’ one: the tame interpretation is to consider the ‘law of karma, by which an intentional act will reap certain fruits’ as a subtype of ordinary causation, pertaining specifically to sentient beings, which would give the conceptual framework of moral sciences.

The less tame interpretation is to consider karmic causation as ontologically independent, the metaphysical force that frees the stream of consciousness from the body and produces future, morally-charged causes; doing so constitutes a soteriological theory of rebirth. It strengthens Buddhist ethics, providing a hint of ‘hidden causality’ behind the randomness of Darwinian evolution and related potential threats to the meaning of life; it cannot although be supported within a scientific framework.

Buddhism wants to keep open an ontological question of consciousness, although scientific evidence is overwhelmingly against such hypotheses.

So far, so good. To reach the point of what Buddhism can teach us about happiness, a thorough examination would point out how Buddhism is essentially eudaemonic.According to Flanagan, following Buddhist moral principles might, not necessarily, cause happiness, specifically a kind of happiness which is rightly pointed out as happiness[Buddha], to distinguish it from happiness of the [happy-happy/joy-joy/click-your heels] or [hedonistic] sort.

The most interesting claim from Buddhism is that its metaphysics would necessarily imply a set of moral values, and that by working around those values, the eudaeimon would reach content and happiness. The metaphysics revolves around a narrative of ontological impermanence, both of the natural world and the alleged ‘self’. Such Heraclitean universe would imply a non-strict concept of personal identity, much as Locke has asserted. How does such conception contribute to reduce suffering (dukkha, the impossibility of satisfying all desires)? Recognising impermanence of things could make me feel better about losing a loved one; embracing the impermanence of self may come in hand to let go of afflictions buy seeing that they don’t belong to me anymore, because I am now a somewhat different person that I was when I originated them. This is the Buddhist receipt, to be discovered through wisdom (scripture) and experience (meditation), for alleviating suffering.

Buddhism proves to be a useful therapeutic mean. But Flanagan rightly argues that there is no logical connection between gaining the wisdom of being a selfless person and being moral. Plato himself wasn’t able to explain why a man who managed to exit the cave should go back and rescue his peers, instead of rejoicing his conquered virtues. True, Buddhism is a deep psychology that aims at changing human behaviour from the very roots, it is a practical set of moral principles stemmed from metaphysical laws to overcome earthly suffering; its metaphysical foundations are nevertheless clueless in providing moral outcomes by logical arguments. Thinking of oneself as selfless could equally likely produce a selfish, take-all attitude. To act selflessly in a generous way, one would therefore be motivated to the degree that a precedent inclination to link ontological selflessness and unselfishness was in place.

Again, if a selfless ontology may at most provide some psychologically fertile ground for the flourishing of morality, happiness is not a logical consequence. Rooting Buddhist eudaemonia in wisdom, virtue and mindfulness  – none of which are exclusively normative – doesn’t imply happiness as a necessary outcome. A normative exclusionary clause is further needed: happiness is worthy and ‘true’ only if it is attained through moral principles, and not by taking a magic pill, for example.

Buddhism is very useful in prospecting a rich eudaemonistic theory, characterised by compassion and focused on individual flourishing, which would positively affect cascade-like interpersonal relationships. In such view, selflessness prospects flourishing only to those who embrace a nonindifferent attitude and choose to make life a worthwhile, fulfilling project.

There is more. Following the eudaemonistic path, and accepting that virtue is the sole source of happiness with the exclusionary clause previously mentioned, Buddhism is not the only available option. How can we tell which virtue is the right one? It is widely recognised that virtues are psychologically useful and therefore real, but are nevertheless inclinations, not independent things. Virtues are ecologically sensible, so it is important to recognise that virtues could be evaluated only if we somehow define a broad and general concept of ‘True Happiness’ and proceed to examine different virtue variables. Furthermore, anachronism and ethnocentrism are somehow unavoidable, so any presented conception would be biased in this way, and can never be addressed as from “the point of view of nowhere”.

Liberal commonsense morality is extremely cautious from deliberating any shared vision of what a good life should be. It is so much simpler and less demanding than Aristotelian ethics. Aristotelian ethics is equally eudaemonistic, and claims that empirically, virtue is a reliable cause of happiness. Such reasoning would be valid if we insert the previous exclusionary clause, and say that happiness would not be valid if it stems from false beliefs or shortcuts, with a further warning toward self-indulgent talk of morally chauvinistic nature.

Aristotle is more inclined toward justice, reason and right action, whereas Buddhism places paramount importance to compassion and loving-kindness. Both morals address the fellow-feeling aspects of human nature as necessary – which were now in turn recently availed by evolutionary research – with Buddhism being much more emphatic on feelings of compassion and magnanimity. Buddhism advances that jealous rage, for example, although efficacious in evolutionary terms, should nevertheless be tamed, for when expressed it influences one’s mental state in a stressful way, with possible counterproductive outcomes. As this last example illustrates, Buddhism could be considered as slightly more demanding than Aristotelian ethics, but still feasible.

Ethics cannot produce a single, undoubtable theorem for living a good life. It has never done so, and it probably never will. Nevertheless, any attempt at deconstructing different morals is fruitful, for it brings new elements to the ethical draft we are constantly called upon sketching. Buddhism as such does not extinguish the rationally thirsty of why, given the impermanence of everything, compassion should be preferable to hedonism. A cosmopolitan view of the matter doesn’t allow us to settle for any single traditional way of living a good life; it does however enjoy the process of looking into ancient wisdoms for useful advances in the project of human flourishing. The very fact that there is no true answer, is at least a clear hint of Buddhist style.