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Buddhism, moral philosophy, Derek Parfit

A Quiet Place in Paris by Alias Rex via Flickr (Creative Commons license) [1]

I recently read this in an article in the Shambhala Sun [2], a magazine about Buddhism:

Here is another practice, rooted in Zen tradition, which you might enjoy. Sit down with someone you care about and have a cup of tea. The practice is just sitting and having tea and conversation for its own sake. Drink the tea together without an agenda, without wanting anything from the other person or trying to change them. That means not wanting them to think or feel differently from the way they do, without wanting them to appreciate you, or needing them to understand how you feel about them. Enjoy yourself. (From a piece by John Tarrant entitled, “Let me Count the Ways,” September 2011, p. 33)

I find myself buying Shambhala Sun quite often, lately. Trivially, I might say it’s become a guilty pleasure of sorts; the way one might buy an especially nice bag of coffee beans or a box of Belgian chocolates.

Guilty, because it’s hardly becoming for an atheist—an avowed religious skeptic with a decades-old penchant for expressing said skepticism—to buy a magazine of religious teachings. Yet: pleasurable, because the quality of thought and writing in the magazine strikes a chord for me almost every time I turn its pages.

I find myself drawn to its no-nonsense advice about becoming a better, more socially functional, more authentic person; about how to better endure suffering during the difficult times and be more conscious of the world’s gifts during the good. Grace, dignity, groundedness, being in harmony with our surroundings, developing an ability to let in the simple—and deeply frightening—truth that we are ultimately impermanent, as is everything around us (something I have had much recent occasion to experience): all concepts the Buddhist teachings I’ve read address very well.

As I grow older, I increasingly search for guidance that resonates with me because I’m better able to articulate what that is. The endless stream of self-help books (business or personal) that our culture produces mostly misses the mark for me. I believe they serve to trivialize teaching and learning; what was once the noble calling of moral philosophers has now been reduced to 20 new self-help titles per month, accompanied by showy performances on daytime talk shows. Thought as entertainment is about as nourishing as a burger from McDonalds.

I struggle with my discovery that much of the subject matter I’m interested in is primarily presented in a religious context—just not the religion I was raised in and that I rejected so readily (Lutheranism). Of course I know that Buddhism is different from other belief systems in that it seems to offer an extraordinary amount of freedom in how one might choose to interact with it, explore it, adhere to it. Adherence to doctrine may not be its central precept (though I don’t know this for sure). But I also read or hear about Buddhist activities that signal ‘organized religion’ to me and cause me to instinctively back off further engagement: hours or days of silent meditation retreats and other repetitive physical practices; the renouncement of conventional living to follow a monastic trajectory, chants and other activities to invoke the spirit of someone who himself wouldn’t have claimed to be more than an awakened, enlightened teacher.

I don’t reject religion with a young man’s need to be brilliant by being offensive to others anymore. I have come to deeply appreciate Christianity’s immense cultural achievements—in music, painting, sculpture, the art of publishing. Our culture would be nowhere without it. Rejecting it and its artifacts would be meaningless, unproductive, nihilistic. I am the child of Western civilization in every way, and I embrace it.

For years I fervently hoped to better grasp onto my poorly substantiated suspicion that it must be possible to argue for a universally true, secular set of ethical principles according to which we should conduct ourselves—in our private sphere, and publicly in our communities. Before I left academia in the mid-1990s (recognizing my increasing boredom with my graduate degree as indicative of any academic career I might eventually have), I had tried to synthesize a better understanding of Kant’s ethics through the lens of Michel Foucault, who himself (I think) held the belief that shining a public spotlight on certain otherwise unregulated exercises of power (deliberately hidden from view) might render them ineffective in time.

Derek Parfit by Arenamontanus via Flickr (Creative Commons License) [3]What was missing, though, was any real sense of why the public would perceive these transgressions of power as intolerable, and why it would be compelled to act once the truth had been exposed. Nobody could—or wanted to?—admit to the possibility that we all have a basic set of common human moral assumptions ‘built in’ that allow us to agree, in the moment, on what is right and good, regardless of our cultural, geographic or religious backgrounds.

Having been out of academia for so long now, contemporary philosophy is something I access through the popular media, if at all. (I’m moderately at peace with this mechanism; it’s fundamentally reliable if a little sluggish.) So it came as a welcome surprise recently when—courtesy of Jennifer [4]‘s keen mind and New Yorker subscription—I heard about [5] the British philosopher Derek Parfit.

Parfit, as I understand it, has just published a book he’s laboured on for fifteen years in which he tries to develop a philosophically sound, secular argument in favour of there being universal moral truths. The journalist Larissa MacFarquhar, who wrote the Parfit profile in the New Yorker, summarizes the main thrust of On What Matters as follows:

Parfit believes that there are true answers to moral questions, just as there are to mathematical ones. Humans can perceive these truths, through a combination of intuition and critical reasoning, but they remain true whether humans perceive them or not. He believes there is nothing more urgent for him to do in his brief time on earth than discover what these truths are and persuade others of their reality. He believes that without moral truth the world would be a bleak place in which nothing mattered. This thought horrifies him. (“How To Be Good,” by Larissa MacFarquhar in the New Yorker September 5, 2011, p. 44)

In a relativist world, this is immensely exciting. We are increasingly caught between the ongoing project that is modernity—in which indeed, as it turns out, nothing matters because there is no universal moral truth to anchor our judgment (or agreement on how to arrive at such a truth)—and the ever-increasing backlash of religious fundamentalism (Christian and Muslim alike), where universal truths not only exist but apparently need to be advanced by the sword once again, just like a thousand years ago.

What we variously describe as ‘pluralism’ or ‘postmodernity’ may be culturally entertaining to the rich and powerful but is also fundamentally unjust and destructive to the hundreds of millions who are not. Whether on a local, national or international scale, individuals and institutions struggle with how to make and justify moral decisions, and whether to assert them beyond their own immediate sphere of influence. Telling your neighbour to turn down his music when it bothers you causes no small amount of agonizing for a variety of reasons. An argument between members of different ethnicities or cultural backgrounds results in much private self-doubt (and sometimes, public outrage). ‘Tolerance’ becomes the yardstick by which everything has to be measured, and has also evolved into the primary weapon against freedom of opinion and expression. Our fragmented attempts at constituting our own moral authority in the international sphere are either short-lived populist movements (Band Aid, Bono’s debt relief, etc.), hollow treaty organizations that act without any genuine popular support (the United Nations, the International Criminal Court), or simply waging the odd war here and there.

How we feel about the future and about future generations is key to how we act in the present. “Parfit has always been preoccupied with how we think about our moral responsibilities towards future people. It seems to him the most important problem we have.” (“How To Be Good,” by Larissa MacFarquhar in the New Yorker September 5, 2011, p. 53). Our ability to discover—and agree on—a universally acceptable moral truth that is not based in religion or the subjective views, preferences or indeed whims of every person will directly influence how well we leave the world for our descendants.

I am now sixty-seven. To bring my voyage to a happy conclusion . . . I would need to find ways of getting many people to understand what it would be for things to matter, and of getting these people to believe that certain things really do matter. I cannot hope to do these things by myself. But . . . I hope that, with art and industry, some other people will be able to do these things, thereby completing this voyage. (Derek Parfit in “How To Be Good,” by Larissa MacFarquhar in the New Yorker September 5, 2011, p. 53)

I’m not yet sure what my own contribution to Parfit’s “art and industry” may eventually be, but I have ordered a copy of On What Matters and I’m feeling strangely undaunted by the prospect of slowly working my way through its 1,400 pages. It seems like a discovery of tremendous personal importance. It purports to resolve one of the great “what if” questions I had often wondered about in my own intellectual journey. I look forward to being taught, and to seeing what I may do with what I’ll learn in the future.