Sunday, August 07, 2005

The *Less* you know: great political commentary

John Stewart this week took on several current issues in US politics: (video here)

New photographs of Abu Ghraib abuse - ACLU wants the other photos made public. The US government doesn't think the public really needs to see them.

Bill O'Reilly, (alternate site / another) the Fox News spinster who seems to know little about everything and much about nothing, makes the case quite clear: a knowing US public, compliance with the Geneva Conventions, and civilian lawyers all "help the terrorists." Hence anybody who wants
  1. transparency in government,
  2. the rule of international law, or
  3. the upholding of the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution
are "terror allies."

John Stewart jokes that this is a direct quote from Bill's new book "The O'Reilly Factor for Kids: with no more than a passing acquaintance with logic" book (yes, Bill really does have a new book out for kids).

John goes on to note that the Whitehouse is battling a bill by John McCain which seeks to prevent the US military from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross (a violation in international law). Mr. McCain (who spent 5 years as a POW himself) went on O'Reilly's show where he was promptly instructed by O'Reilly that his understanding of torture (er... 'coerced interrogation') was incorrect.


Ah... sigh... As they said on Crooks and Liars: "Why-oh-why must a fake news program do the real reporting?"

There is always work to be done - getting people to look at the issues themselves rather than relying on the likes of Bill O'Reilly. It's nice that we can laugh at his absurdity now, but we have to weep a bit when we think of all the people who swallow his 'analysis' without any thought of their own. Sigh again... 'Baby steps', I think, 'baby steps'. That's how we can make real change in the world - keeping aware of every opportunity: to tell a friend, to learn for ourselves, to intelligently discuss an issue, to donate a few dollars to a good cause. Baby steps...

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Soon to return to the US...

Frantic organization,
Bored procrastination,
Dhyanic meditation,
Academic inspiration;

Such is my life lately. It is a bit surreal; time is moving slowly, hence the boredom. I know I will be exhausted from the time I get back to the US (midnight on the 11th) until I'm at least half-way moved over to Missoula (week of the 15th). I am planning a last-minute trip to London
as well, with Soorjya (left). Hm... London... Yes, I had pretty well decided that I would not go to London (see recent post on the terror attacks), but we managed to create a trip which would be dirt cheap - my money will still go to organizing a 'terrorism' dialogue in Montana.

I have said my goodbye's to two of my course-mates and my advisor. Paul Williams, my advisor, was great - he gave one last go at advice for my dissertation, which he thinks is coming together fairly well (he even made me believe so), while giving me very positive feedback on my essays from spring term classes. Heather, a classmate, will be moving to the states herself in a few months, so hopefully we will keep in touch. Alison, another classmate, will travel to India (sweet India) to teach and do community work with her boyfriend for six months. Mary, classmate number three, will stick around Bristol with her boyfriend and will start an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development (sounds fun) in October. Considering Alison will have an MA from Oxford soon enough and I'm going on to my second MA, it looks like we're almost all double-MAers.

I will do two last sessions of meditation with Sumita, a housemate: tonight and on Tuesday. We have been doing metta bhavana and mindfulness of breathing for a couple months now, and will try some vipasyana - just a taste for her before I go. It has been good for me to have a 'student' of sorts; forcing me to reflect on my own states and how they affect another person in that type of relationship. In the Geluk tradition there is great warning upon those who aspire to be a teacher (lama), as such a position carries huge responsibility, and can easily lead to an extremely unhealthy codependence. So I have had to make clear (to myself included) my own faults and deficiencies. It is easy for teaching to become an act of conceit, an ego-booster, ruining what little attainments a person has. I am not sure though if it should be heavily restricted, only to those who have proven their knowledge or other abilities. It is still all quite a mystery to me; and I can only hope, as I feel, that I am doing some good.

Academically... Well - you can look at my last post, or (likely) some future posts to see how that is going. I'm working on it a bit every day, and the ideas are gelling, so to speak, but not much is coming out on paper just yet. I am still aiming to have a full first draft before I leave... And, yea, I will. I'll try to crank out a section tonight, in fact! (that's the spirit :)))

Feelings... Well, I'd like to say 'equanimity' but that is a bit tough to judge. My time here has been wonderful beyond expectation. The course has been great, fantastic, and inspiring. The people I've met in the course and in the house (oh, and in the Diamond Cutter study group also!) have all been probably the best overall group of people I've ever been around. Everyone has had a great grip on life, no (or extremely little) of those dramas that seem to consume so many people's lives. It has become home for me.

Missoula: mmmm, sweet Missoula. Well I have no doubt that I will pick up there as if I never left (in some regards), and yet bring back part of England, with bits of East Asia, Ireland, and Spain as well! It is easy there to get in the routine of life (it is a rich, almost intoxicatingly pleasant routine) and fail to look outside into the world with wonder... I am hoping to keep the wonderment I have picked up here - to enrich Missoula in some small way; to not assimilate into the community or fall back into my old habits. But some of the best friends I have ever had are there (though sadly (or happily, depending on how you look at it) my sister has moved on to LA) so I know I won't feel the anxiety and isolation of entering a world anew. Missoula, too, is my home.

Well, those are my thoughts as I prepare, or not, to return to the US; leaving home to go home.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Kantian and Buddhist ethics: Thinking outloud

Plan of attack:

Intro - why Kant? Deontology flows from reason, as opposed to feelings/authorities (reason as internal and all else as external - reason: autonomous; all else: heteronomous) Buddhist ethics pursues similar ends for the individual, an overcoming of circumstances as bases for action: they (bodhisattvas) should do good out of good intentions without desire for reward, etc.

Cautionary note: pitfalls and difficulties in comparative philosophy. It is easy to create your own version of Kantian or (more easily) Buddhist ethics and knock down 'straw-men' critics. One must treat each fairly and note aspects that will not be covered and why.

Keown: criticizes comparisons with Utilitarianism (ends justify any means) in favour of Aristotelian ethics. Detailed discussion of karma, nirvana, kusala (good/right), puñña (merit/meritorious), pañña (wisdom), karuna (compassion), cetana (intention), etc. Cover here arguments on Buddhism as Utilitarian, Keown's rebuttal, and his arguments toward an Aristotelian understanding of Buddhism.

Kant against Aristotle: Kant's arguments against the ethics of Aristotle. Aristotle builds his ethics on the goal of eudaimonia (happiness/flourishing). Kant says that any goal which is basically a 'feeling' fails to give ethical guidance. Our feelings will influence our understanding of eudaimonia, and as such, our goal will oscillate this way and that, making our ethics - if they are pinned to that kind of goal - in flux.

Kant's Ethics: argues that a solid foundation for ethics can be found in reason - not mechanical reasoning - but in working to 1) think for yourself (question authorities); 2) Listen to others, put yourself in their situation to improve understanding, and; 3) think consistently: develop intentions that can guide you in more and more situations rather than shifting rationale from one situation to another. When a community does this together, out of their conversation come elements of the 'moral law' - a complete and universally binding law which is free from particular wants/needs/desires. This actually establishes a beginning point upon which to build a future order: we must begin with something everyone can do; thus act on maxim that you would will to be a universal law. This is the famed Categorical Imperative.

Feelings/Respect: Kant does have room for feelings in ethics; but not just any feelings. The only feelings that can have moral significance must flow from a reasonable basis, and Kant argues that in reasoning we do actually feel something: Respect. Respect is what we feel when we employ our own reasoning and it is what we feel when we encounter reasoning in others. In so far as a person can reason, he/she is worthy of respect; such worth of respect is dignity. Anything which cannot reason has no dignity.

Freedom/Autonomy: Given that science (think now of life in the 1700s) has shown that everything we see, smell, hear, etc is part of a mechanistic / purely deterministic world, there must be something beyond this world in us. An animal doesn't reason when it is in a difficult situation, it only reacts, but humans think about the situation. It is this capacity that sets us apart from the purely natural world where this is no freedom and everything is determined by outside forces. We have the unique ability to reason, to overcome outside forces. Kant holds that the very concept of morality requires agents with freedom who make choices. Weather patterns make no moral choices, nor does a wild animal.

Duty: Humans, and any other rational beings, because we can (it is not the case that we always do) make moral choices, have a responsibility to do so (not sure if this is Kant's reasoning exactly). He says that nature (or God) provides no .... (will return) While following rules at work to get promoted, participating in community service to bulk up your CV, studying hard at school to get a good job, or buying flowers for your significant other to make him/her happy may be praiseworthy acts, none of them has moral worth. Only action which is in accord with duty and is done out of duty is of moral worth. So you constantly have to question your own motives when doing something 'good' - is it because you know you will get something out of it? or are you acting simply and solely because it is a good thing to do, the good thing to do, and you need no other reason to do it?

Politics / Self-development: And as such, our duty to act in accordance with the Categorical Imperative drives us to question authorities (church and state) and to fight our own personal inclinations (wherever they disagree with the dictates of reason). Virtue, according to Kant is 'the strength and ability to overcome such powerful forces' (paraphrase - will get source/quote). So Kant at once has a powerful political (and anti-Catholic) statement and an command for self-development.

Result / Kingdom of ends: The Kingdom of ends represents the actual nature of all rational beings, in that they/we are all worthy of being treated as ends and not mere means. This sounds vague, but has strong implications. Whenever you deal with anyone in the world around you, you must see them (honestly) as a moral agent, not merely a shop clerk, merely a waitress, etc. This is imperative, again, for both political and self-developmental reasons. The Kingdom of ends also (possibly/likely) represents heaven, wherein all beings actually do treat one another as full moral agents, equal before the moral law (the Categorical Imperative). In each case, people act at one time as legislator (acting from the law) and as subject to (in contact with other people) the moral law.

Buddhism as Kantian: This will be a task in essentially 'constructing a Buddhism' which fits my arguments and then seeing if that is an agreeable form of Buddhism, or if most Buddhists would disagree with my statements.

Buddhism and Reason
: The first of these is that reasoning plays a vital role in the development of the Buddhist. A Buddhist cannot merely recite passages, do calming meditation, follow the precepts (or vinaya/ethical rules if ordained), and expect to gain enlightenment. Such actions, while praiseworthy and good will only produce mundane happiness - ie. a good rebirth, happiness in this life, etc. Cf the Kalama Sutta, Nagarjuna's Precious Garland, wherein injunctions are made to carefully analyze your actions and decide only with first hand knowledge, whether the guidelines you follow are good or not.

Buddhism and Freedom/Autonomy: As many Buddhists are agreeing recently, autonomy and free will are only a problem if you presuppose a mechanistic material world 'out there' which is experienced by you and me 'in here'. Such a bifurcation is difficult to make in Buddhist philosophy, and so arguments about freedom are never strongly made. The Buddha did, however, argue very strongly against a school of thought which preached predeterminism and hence the uselessness of morality (all will happen as it is already determined to happen). The very fact that the Buddha instructed his followers in a path that they must choose, according to Kant's standards, implies an implicit notion of freedom. Of course Kant's notion may be overly slanted toward freedom due to his Protestant background. In Buddhism, we are not determined, but we are conditioned by past actions, and this conditioning will determine our future circumstances.

Self-Development... I'll take a break here.