Buddhist and Liberal Views on Persons

My MA dissertation was an investigation into the compatibility of Mahāyāna Buddhist and liberal approaches to ethics. It focuses upon the differences between Buddhist and liberal views on persons. If you have a spare afternoon (and happen to be just a little bit crazy) you can read the entire thing here.

For everybody else, here’s a two minute and a ten minute summary.

The two minute summary

  • Mahāyāna Buddhists believe that there are not ultimate distinctions between one person and the next, and that a proper ethical engagement with other people and the world requires that we first cultivate a number of key virtues embodied in the bodhisattva ideal.
  • Liberals, on the other hand, believe that persons are fundamentally separate, necessitating a system of rights for their mutual protection.
  • So, Buddhists apparently deny what liberals seems to affirm; namely, the separateness of persons. How can these two approaches to ethics be compatible if their views of persons are diametrically opposed?

After evaluating a number of approaches to reconciling these traditions and sketching some salient points of intersection between Mahāyāna and liberal metaphysics and ethics, I conclude that although there is no reason to think that Mahāyāna and liberal views on persons are metaphysically incompatible, there remain strong reasons to doubt their practical compatibility.

The ten minute summary

I begin by considering Jay Garfield’s argument that Buddhism and liberalism are compatible and mutually complimentary, and move on to consider the argument that Garfield’s assessment was implausible (or at least optimistic), since he has overlooked the striking disparities between Buddhist and liberal conceptions of persons. If disparity between their views of persons is a genuine problem for Garfield’s argument, then the wider project of reconciling Buddhism and liberalism might be jeopardized.

I consider next what I call ‘the two-truth solution’ to the differences in Mahāyāna and liberal views on persons. Two replies to this solution present themselves; one semantic and one metaphysical. For either of these objections to be sustained we need to examine the metaphysical presuppositions behind liberal and Mahāyāna views on persons.

Accordingly, I turn to assess the metaphysical reply to my ‘two-truths solution’ – because Buddhism and liberalism presuppose metaphysically substantive conceptions of personhood they cannot be reconciled. I dismiss this reply with three points:

  1. The Mill/Mādhyamaka synthesis: I draw a parallel to the theoretical approach of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. The strategy that Mill adopts in defending his political theory is one that floats free of any substantial metaphysical commitment claims about the nature of persons. Liberal theory does not presuppose metaphysical commitments to substantive selves.
  2. Madhyamika metaphysical commitments: I point out that the views of Mādhyamikas such as Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti are not meant to be understood as committing them to substantial metaphysical claims about the nature of persons.
  3. The Locke/Candrakīrti synthesis: I suggest that Locke’s theory of natural rights could be reconciled with Candrakīrti’s thoughts on the distinction between possessing invariant intrinsic natures (svabhāva) and the inherent qualities proper to phenomena (svalakṣaṇa). Creatures like us are essentially corporeal, so we could possess natural rights in virtue of our corporeality. Humans might, in other words, posses liberal rights by svalakṣaṇa.

Since Mahāyāna Buddhists need not be committed to any substantive metaphysical claims about the nature of persons, I conclude that Mahāyāna Buddhist and liberal views on person are not metaphysically incompatible.

This does not mean, however, that they are practically compatible. Buddhists might still have reservations about the soteriological, political and moral ramifications of insisting on the separateness of persons. Their concern would be that accepting the liberal’s concept of the separateness of persons might not consistently lead to successful practice.

Accordingly, I next assess the semantic reply to my ‘two-truths solution’ –  that because Buddhism and liberalism have differing practical concerns they cannot be reconciled. I accept this reply by highlighting three concerns:

  1. Soteriological concern: Mādhyamikas do not prefer any one view of persons over another because that view is more true (in any ultimate sense), but because that view consistently leads, on balance, to successful practice. And if we consider successful practice to include the alleviation of our own suffering, then, so claims the Mādhyamika, accepting that the use of the pronoun ‘I’ does not refer to a substantial, abiding self does in fact, on balance, consistently lead to successful practice. The liberal, on the other hand, places no soteriological significance upon our abandoning metaphysical commitments to substantial selves. As far as liberal are concerned, Buddhists are free to pursue their own conception of the good, free from the interference of others. Therefore, the Mahāyāna Buddhist can object to my two-truths solution on soteriological grounds.
  1. Political concern: Drawing a parallel with Marx’s criticism of liberalism in his text, ‘On the Jewish Question’, I suggest that Buddhists will, at the very least, find it hard to agree that the liberal’s concept of the separateness of persons consistently leads to successful political practice – if, that is, we define successful political practice as promoting human, rather than merely political, emancipation (as Marx does). If liberal rights-based approaches to ethics promote egoism whilst claiming to alleviating it, then Buddhists ought to outright reject any liberal rights-approach to ethics on Marxian grounds. Therefore, the Mahāyāna Buddhist can object to my two-truths solution on political grounds.
  2. Moral concern: Accepting the liberal concept of the separateness of persons might very well lead to more successful moral practice if we, at a early stage in our philosophical understanding, are not yet able to grasp the doctrine of non-self. However, I argue that accepting non-self consistently leads to more successful moral practice by allowing us to put our resentment and anger into perspective. Therefore, the Mahāyāna Buddhist can object to my two-truths solution on moral grounds.

I conclude that Buddhists can only consistently regard the liberal’s talk of separate persons as the first of many steps toward full moral subjectivity. It is a step, however, that a Mādhyamika must eventually reject if they are to avoid promoting a self-centred attachment to substantial selves. This poses a problem both for my two-truth solution and for Garfield’s argument, since accepting the separateness of persons will probably, on balance, not lead consistently to successful practice.