Friday, June 10, 2005

Why Kant and Buddhism are comparable and why you should care

I'm starting my MA thesis comparing Kantian and Buddhist ethics and have already been told by a couple people that Buddhist ethics is really more like Aristotle (the mean between extremes, cultivating virtues, and all that). And for most people, the response when they hear what I'm writing is a kind of blank stare. So... I think I should formulate, briefly, why Kant and Buddhism are comparable and why you should care.

They are comparable because of the enormous stress laid by each on REASON. Reason, for Kant, is a move away from the ever-changing and uncertain realm of the senses and desires, toward something deeper, more true. It is this ability to overcome urges/desires that gives rise to autonomy (true self-governance) and dignity. Reason in Buddhism is a method of discerning true perceptions from those clouded by greed/aversion/ignorance. Most of the time, though we gaze upon reality, what we cognize is a mistaken image - like the experiences of a dream, we are so caught up even in waking experiences that we cannot discern the real from the unreal. Therefore reason plays a central role for both. For Kant it is through the 'rational will' alone that we act morally and in Buddhism it is only by reasoned analysis that reality, and with it true morality, can be ascertained.

Now.. why you should care: imagine any difficult subject in your life: a foreign language, math, philosophy, other people... Now think about it: when you reason out an answer and it works - as in it pulls together a great amount of disparate parts into a unified whole - you feel good. Of course you may screw up (a lot perhaps), and it will take time for any real accomplishment, solving a large calculus equation or understanding Kantian ethics, but when it does happen there is a very real shift in perception and overall understanding of what had hitherto been mere parts. All of those words you had hitherto just looked at and/or memorized suddenly fit together and make sense. Now imagine doing that with the nature of reality itself! Imagine shifting your perception of everything you experience in the world for the rest of your life. THAT IS PHILOSOPHY - That is the power of reason fully utilized. That is why you should care.


Master of Ceremonies said...

Buddhist ethics is an ethos of begging. When the monk renounces the world he is entitled to charity from the rest. If everybody renounced the world -all would go hungry. That's where Buddhist ethics differs from the Categorical Imperative. What is right for one is not necessarily right for all, or do you agree with Kant?

Buddhist_philosopher said...

I don't think that begging/dependence on the lay community for food is central to the Buddhist ethos. In all of its manifestations over the last 2500 years, the social situation of monks has varied, in some cases monks becoming self-sufficient. Likewise, even in the Pali Canon there are instances of lay people gaining enlightenment. So it would seem that the monk's life is simply a preferable variant on the quest/path to enlightenment (which is in line with the Categorical Imperative). So the monk's life is not per se moral.