Dissertation, Harvard University (2007
This dissertation examines the idea of _ethical revaluation_ — taking things we normally see as good for our flourishing and seeing them as neutral or bad, and vice versa — in the Mahāyāna Buddhist thinker Śāntideva. It shows how Śāntideva’s thought on the matter is more coherent than it might otherwise appear, first by examining the consistency of Śāntideva’s own claims and then by applying them to contemporary ethical thought. In so doing, it makes four significant contributions.
Śāntideva claims that property and relationships are bad for us because they promote attachment, and that others’ wrongdoing is good for us because it allows us to generate patient endurance. Yet he also urges his readers to give property to others, and to prevent their wrongdoing. Is he caught in contradiction? The dissertation argues that he is not, because giving to others is not intended to benefit them materially, but rather to produce beneficial mental states in them, and preventing wrongdoing is intended to benefit the wrongdoer and not the victim. In both cases, Śāntideva emphasizes individual action in a way that makes social or political action more difficult to justify.
The dissertation’s first contribution is to show how this interpretation of Śāntideva contrasts notably with standard presentations of Mahāyāna ethics. Its second contribution is to refute claims that Buddhists have no normative ethics.
Śāntideva’s resolutions of these apparent contradictions also have relevance for contemporary ethical thought. Martha Nussbaum argues against an ethical revaluation similar to Śāntideva’s, on the grounds that such a revaluation makes it contradictory to argue for providing goods to others, preventing others’ wrongdoing or engaging in political action. Śāntideva’s views show that ethical revaluation is a more sustainable position than these criticisms of Nussbaum’s would imply; if it is to be rejected, it must be rejected on other grounds. To show this point is the dissertation’s third contribution. The fourth contribution is methodological; by finding similarities of concern and differences of opinion between Śāntideva and a contemporary thinker, it helps bridge the gap between normative and comparative religious ethics.