Freedom from responsibility: agent- neutral consequentialism and the bodhisattva ideal
Introduction Is there such a thing as free will in Buddhism? Do moral and mental forms of cultivation at the heart of Buddhist practice imply some notion of agency and responsibility? And if they do, how are we to think of those individuals who embark on the path to liberation or enlightenment, considering that all Buddhists give universal scope to the no-self doctrine? Of course, Buddhism is not alone among the world’s great philosophical traditions in providing ample testimony for the possibility of cultivating to a high degree such cardinal virtues as nonviolence, wisdom, compassion, and a general spirit of tolerance. But it is unique among them in articulating a theory of action that, it seems, dispenses altogether with the notion of agent causation. Buddhists pursue what are unmistakably moral ends, but there is no stable self or agent who bears the accumulated responsibility for initiating those pursuits, and seemingly no normative framework against which some dispositions, thoughts, and actions are deemed felicitous, and thus worthy of cultivation, while others are not so deemed. It is not surprising, therefore, to find a near universal lack of agreement among contemporary interpreters about how best to capture the scope of Buddhist ethics using the vocabulary and theoretical frameworks of Western ethical discourse. In seeking an answer to the questions above, the plan, then, is first to show that despite some straightforward metaphysical tenets, the conception of agency in Buddhism is less alien than it may seem at first blush-indeed, it is not unlike conceptions of moral agency that we find in Stoic thought, and more recently in Nietzsche (2006) and several strands of contemporary moral phenomenology; next, to argue for a solution to what is widely regarded as a clear conflict between traditional conceptions of moral agency and the agent-neutral metaphysical picture of causality that we glean from Abhidharma literature. Recent accounts (Flanagan 2002; Meyers 2014; Siderits 1987, 2008) seek to resolve this conflict by arguing that the two pictures are compatible because the discourse of ‘persons’ and the discourse of ‘causes’ belong in two distinct and incommensurable domains. Specifically, my claim is that compatibilist solutions compromise the traditional notion of moral responsibility and render ethical conduct indistinguishable from merely pragmatic acts. The main thrust of the compatibilist move is against the notion of
agent causation itself, which social and cognitive psychology has presumably rendered incoherent.1 It is only to the extent that we dispense with such incoherent concepts-as compatibilist interpreters of Buddhist action theory argue-that some notion of moral agency and responsibility can be salvaged. Despite the dominant and paradoxical image of the selfless Mahāyāna (later Buddhist) bodhisattva (one who has taken the altruistic vow) tirelessly, yet effortlessly, working to put an end to ultimately non-existent human suffering (on account of the non-existence of sentient beings as conventionally established), support for a robust notion of phenomenal agency can be found in nearly all major schools of Buddhist thought.2 Indeed, the Eightfold Path program, much like the promulgation of monastic rules of conduct (the Vinaya), comes in recognition of the complex range of personal and subpersonal factors that are constitutive of human agency. Because mental states such as greed, hatred and delusion or, alternatively, loving kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy, can only be made sense of with reference to the person whose states they are, they are irreducibly phenomenal: they only exist first-personally. The impersonal description thesis at the heart of Abhidharma Reductionism (cf. Abelson, Ch. 13, this volume) may allow for the analysis of mental states in terms of their constitutive factors, but for these states to be analyzable at all, and for the attribution of moral responsibility and freedom to be intelligible, there needs to be a conception of first-personal agency in place. On the view I defend here, mental states are irreducibly first-personal: the idea of generic pain apart from individually realized sensations of burning, itching, or stinging is thus deeply incoherent. In what follows, I argue that influential Mahāyāna ethicists, such as Śāntideva, who allow for moral rules to be proscribed under the expediency of a compassionate aim, seriously compromise the very notion of responsibility. Moral responsibility is intelligible only in relation to conceptions of freedom and human dignity that reflect a participation in, and sharing of, interpersonal relationships. As critics of hard determinism (the view that universal causal necessitation is incompatible with free will and moral agency) have argued, there is no threat to human agency so long as we understand that agency is essentially grounded in a range of participant reactive attitudes and feelings (e.g., resentment, gratitude, anger, etc.) that are impossible without the ascription of agency and moral responsibility (see Strawson 1973, p. 11, and discussion in Goodman 2009, pp. 147ff.). But bodhisattvas cannot be seen to harbor such participant reactive attitudes, at least not once they are sufficiently advanced on the path to understand that no beings exist whatsoever as ordinarily conceived. For compatibilists, thus, the extraordinarily demanding bodhisattva ideal-informed, as it is, by a steadfast commitment to forego the body, its enjoyments, and all virtue for the sake of accomplishing the welfare of all sentient beings-makes a compelling case for allowing special dispensation. On an agent-neutral consequentialist interpretation of the Mahāyāna ethical project, we must grant the Buddhist saint dispensation for the unfathomable and mysterious ways in which utterly impersonal psychophysical aggregates accomplish their aim, while the unenlightened must be content with merely following rules.