Delight Springs

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Being Nice

Our topic in HAP 101 today is Owen Flanagan's fifth chapter, "Being No-Self and Being Nice." It poses the two questions he says every tradition must answer: What is morality? and Why Be Moral?

Big questions, possibly of the "If you have to ask, you may not understand any reasonable answer" variety. Likewise, if your unblinking answer is that morality is god's law and you must submit, to get to heaven. Or, that being moral is in your narrow self-interest. Or, that it "pays." (There is a more sympathetic construction of the admittedly unfortunate and ill-chosen "cash value" metaphor, but that's another conversation.)

Practical moral skeptics say the questions are unclear."Many nontheists would take [the] question to be meaningless," notes one infidel, but surely that's obtuse. 

Peter Singer's "soundbite answer":

If you ask me: morality is the disposition to live a life of rectitude, honor, principle, and virtue; to act consistently in ways that try to expand our heritage of constructive value, correct our history of injustice, and improve the lives of as many others, now and in the future, as possible. Bottom-line goal: leave the world better than we found it, make life better.

Why develop that disposition and those goals for myself, you might ask, and why should any self-- Heraclitean or otherwise-- be obliged or even just inclined to do so?

Answering for my own neo-Heraclitean but mostly non-Buddhist self: because that's the disposition and those are the goals I want others to display, because that disposition and those goals seem to offer the greatest prospect of health, happiness, and graceful living for our kind, now and in the future, and indeed because a meaningful life (to me) involves participating in the progressive unfolding of that very prospect.

It's Solomon's "thoughtful love of life," Comte-Sponville's "atheist spirituality," James's "susceptibility to ideals," and especially Dewey's common faith and "natural piety" towards the continuous human community: The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves...

But that's just me, that's a too-wordy first draft. We can discuss whether or how to chisel it down to something as compact as its provoking pair of questions. More importantly, we'll discuss Flanagan's provisional answers and his interpretation of Buddhism's answers. Some may still press the issue: "Why should I care? What's in it for me? Why shouldn't I simply seek to maximize pleasure?" Etc. Some who persist with such questions are sincere seekers, others self-styled "enlightened egoists" (or "un-"), some nihilists, some just trouble-makers.  Some feel a native or communal impulse to be "nice" and "good" and want to rationalize it. Some don't, and that worries them.

Whatever motivates the motivational question, asking it is central to the examined life.

Many, not just Buddhists, think the moral life is entailed by wisdom and "seeing things as they really are."

Buddhists in particular think things are thus: impermanent, dependent, selfless, and empty. Buddhist Credo: "everything is impermanent, and everything is subject to the principles of cause and effect." Everything includes you and me.

So what? Why should an impermanent causally dependent no-self who doesn't believe in punitive gods or karmic ultimate justice go out of his way to care for others (or even future renditions of what we're grammatically stuck with calling "himself")? Why treat any sentient beings with  lovingkindness and compassion?

Well, for starters, Why not? Treating others as one wishes to be treated, and as one wishes others to treat one another, affirms a pleasing and positive vision of humanity. Isn't that enough? It may well be that the only way "creatures such as us flourish and find happiness" is by affirming and reaffirming such a vision.

Will that sway the seeker, convert the nihilist, open the egoist's heart? Don't bet on it. But it probably reflects the mind of the contemplative arahant and the motivation of the more pro-active bodhisattva. If we can begin to understand that, we may be on our way to answering those opening questions for ourselves.

But questions are what I have most of, with this chapter. To name a few:

The goal of liberating numberless sentient beings still strikes me as supererogatory. It would be impressive enough simply to liberate oneself, wouldn't it, and in the process inspire whoever might be watching?

Is it enough to "transcend" delusions? Don't we want to dispatch them?

Plato's cave and Buddha's dreamland are indeed strikingly similar, and Flanagan's been diligent in comparing and contrasting Buddha and Aristotle. Is it possible we can shed valuable light on our situation without endorsing the more extreme (Platonic and Buddhist) characterizations of it?

Do we agree that Locke, Hume, James, and Parfit all endorse the SELFLESS PERSON and see it as automatically subverting normal human selfishness? James in particular contends for a robust WILL rooted in self-reliance. Is there any place for that impulse in Buddhism?

"Why isn't no-self just a piece of information, motivationally irrelevant unless I want to be compassionate?" And what if I want that for an extraneous or morally irrelevant reason (like a seizure)?

Why not just own my no-self by maxing out my hedonist credit card?

Do we all have a strong moral obligation to help others both materially and spiritually, by "returning to the cave" and really acting on a feeling for others?

Is it true that seeing oneself as no-self makes it easier (if not automatic) to overcome craving and acquisitiveness?

Is nirvana really a state of permanent oblivion, like "just being dead"?

Is there a non-literal understanding of reincarnation that can be naturalized? Do our successors partake in our former consciousness in a non-metaphysically spooky way? Does the "row of candles" analogy make sense?

What do you say to all those "soulophiles" and "soulophiliacs" in the west, the 90% + who believe in a separable god and immortal souls, to make no-self (etc.) more appealing?

Why does Flanagan say "What ordinary people think or are ontologically committed to is not really any of my business as a philosopher"?

Mozi and Locke were wrong, the mind is not a thorough "tabula rasa" with respect to perception and morality. Right?

Also right?: "Reality is filled with many real 'things' that are not really things." Days, love, friendship, the Heraclitean self...

"Everyone, even Hitler, will feel himself moved (emotionally and physically) to want to rescue a child falling into a well." Really?

"The wise and compassionate Buddhist is a different sort of person than the rational and virtuous Aristotelian." Can we be more specific?

"Anatman is the view one gets when one reads Locke, then Hume, then William James..." But again (and it's a BIG but): those guys, especially James, insisted on coupling no-self with resolute will and deliberate intention as co-constitutive of flourishing. The pursuit of happiness is ineliminably personal, though ideally not selfish. No?

If "my self surfaces in narrative," then I've got to pay attention to my story, my enthusiasms and delights, my ideals. "Find some worthy goals and projects that suit you"-- you-- and get fired up and passionate about them... Delight in the small steps... nothing less than the meaning of your life turns on doing your best to make them work out." And then, when it's time to go, entrusting those goals and projects to the living.

With all these questions, and maybe with most in this difficult domain, we're just scratching the surface. Let's keep scratching, but let's also finally dismiss the skeptic. Of course we should be moral, not just as Buddhists or theists or humanists but above all as human beings. Clemens Vonnegut's great-grandson said it best. (Feel free to substitute "nice people" for Humanists.)
We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectations of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife... We don't fear death, and neither should you. 
And better than best:
Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—”God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Lovingkindness and compassion and what have you are all very well and good, but more than halfway through my aspirant century this is about the best phronesis I've heard yet.

Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail. Be kind. Be nice.

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