Was Shantideva an act-Consequentialist?

Goodman argues how and why he thinks Shantideva was an act-consequentialist or how his teachings and commentaries evolved Mahayana Ethics (ME) into so from somewhat a rule-consequentialist view of morality. While there is almost a consensus among scholars that Buddhism doesn’t offer a systematic ethical system as one would find in Western ethical traditions of rigorous reasoning and systemization, but Shantideva’s two works (Bodhicaryavatara and Siksa-samuccaya) come closest to a worked-out ethical theory. Goodman argues that given the bulk of scriptural evidences and synthesis in creating a system of substantially coherent body of ethics, Shantideva can be regarded legitimately as the greatest of all Buddhist ethicists (Goodman, 89).

With direct quotes from Shantideva, Goodman proceeds in arguing that Shantideva’s position is no different from classical act-utilitarianism. He points out some of the crucial common features like the the central emphasis on promotion and negation of happy and unhappy states of mind, the balancing act of cost and benefit in the direction of maximizing “happiness” or minimizing “unhappiness”, and the demandingness of the theory etc. (Goodman, 90). “Whatever suffering is in store for the world, may it all ripen in me. May the world find happiness through the pure deeds of the Bodhisattvas (Goodman, 92)”, quotes from Bodhicaryavatara, this clearly demonstrates a great deal of level of self-sacrifice. Seeing all these features of classical act-utilitarianism in Shantideva, Goodman even thinks that Shantideva is “much more similar” to act-consequentialist writers like Peter Singer, who argues that supreme moral significance of altruism is self-sacrifice (Goodman, 90). This sounds to me a misinterpretation of Singer’s rather practically prudential modification of extending altruism through one’s circles of relatives and people in the vicinity. I won’t pursue this further here, but i think Singer’s arguments are compelling from a practical standpoint.

Philosophically, Goodman thinks that Shantideva’s ethical theory doesn’t just merely fit as a form of act-consequentialism, but in fact the theory is well-thought-out as to see the level of reasoning he engages in with. Here, as indicated by Derek Parfit in his Reasons and Persons, that how Buddhist reductionism of personal identity can support a consequentialist view of Buddhist ethics, Goodman argues how actually Shantideva had done so. With the doctrine of no-self, which rejects the identity of people over time or the unity of a person over time, Shantideva argues how these delusions are source of all our ethical problems. But then, this brings me to the question: why be moral since there is no-self or why don’t just focus and meditate on no-self and cut off all ethics? This might only be achieved when one is enlightened and the ticket to there is not only wisdom but also compassion. Without the concept of karma, can we try to make sense of ME or try to see the possibility of deriving ME from no-self and emptiness doctrine? If nothing exists, there can be no actions or consequences either. This leads to nihilism, but what can be the way out?

The tension I portrayed above between ME and its ontology of emptiness is tried to address in chapter VI and Goodman acknowledges the problem (122). It is explained and defended best by Madhyamikan philosophers of the Middle Path School, and Goodman borrows from Nagajurna’s take on it. Nagarjuna asserts: “This doctrine wrongly understood causes the unwise to be ruined, because they sink into the uncleanness of nihilistic views (122).” This only says that nihilism is a sign of misconception of emptiness, but doesn’t explain much. Goodman draws on discussions and debates on the notion of emptiness when he explains: what does it mean to say something is empty? It means it is empty of svabhava, essence or inherent character. This allows the Madhyamikan thinkers to bring in two notion of truths or realities; the conventional and ultimate truth. While things are ultimately empty of svabhava, they do exist on the conventional level. This ontological framework allows the Madhyamikan philosophers accommodate ethics with emptiness. However, the notion of two truths in itself still remains problematic from a proof standpoint for the ultimate truth as an epistemically un-reachable island as Kant’s noumenal world. Therefore, the Madhyamikan transcendentalism seems simply a practical and explanatory mechanism for attempting to resolve the tension between ethics and emptiness. I will continue try to address this issue in my future entries, and in fact, this unresolved tension seems to be a stumbling block for understanding Mahayana ethics in its inevitable relation to the doctrine of shunyata.

Work Cited:

Goodman, Charles

2009 Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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