Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Metaphysics of No-Self: A Determinist Deflation of the Free Will Problem

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Metaphysics of No-Self: A Determinist Deflation of the Free Will Problem

Article excerpt

Not every discussion of Buddhist ethics has to explicitly tackle Buddhist metaphysics. However, we should keep in mind that because all ethical theories make basic metaphysical assumptions, a clearer metaphysical understanding can greatly simplify our ethical explorations. (2)

Charles Goodman's 2009 book Consequences of Compassion, reviewed in the JBE by Richard Hayes (2011), illustrates this approach. In short, Goodman argues that because Buddhist metaphysics does not support the ultimate existence of the self, it also does not support the ultimate existence of free will or moral responsibility. Prima facie, if the self does not genuinely exist, what can possess free will or bear moral responsibility? Instead, Goodman outlines how the Buddha's teachings support hard determinism, in which (what we conventionally think of as) individuals are not ultimately responsible for their actions, and all is governed by a "karmic law" that resembles other laws of nature.

Recently in these pages, Riccardo Repetti published a series of articles examining the history of Buddhist views of free will ("Earlier," "Paleo-compatibilism," and "No Self") in addition to his own take on Buddhist ethics ("Meditation"). In his most recent piece ("No Self"), Repetti takes issue with Goodman's account of the conventional self and offers what he considers an alternate view of the "mind-dependent" self. Although Repetti's account is nuanced and compelling, I argue that he fails to draw a clear metaphysical distinction between Goodman's analysis of the conventional self and moral responsibility and his own analysis of the "mind-dependent" self and moral responsibility. In addition, I argue that Repetti misconstrues elements of hard determinism as entailing that the human will has no influence on final outcomes. If I am correct on both of these points, then Repetti and Goodman's disagreement about the ultimate existence of free will may bear little consequence.

This article proceeds in three steps: first, it outlines Goodman's theory of conventional vs. ultimate truth and how that connects to the self, free will, and moral responsibility; next, it shows how Repetti's argumentation fails to establish a clear metaphysical distinction between Goodman's view of the conventional self and his own view of the "mind-dependent" self; lastly, the article argues that hard determinists such as Goodman do believe in the causal efficacy of the will, and as a result that Goodman and Repetti's disagreement over the ultimate existence of free will may be inconsequential.

Goodman's View

Although Goodman does not devote much of his book to metaphysics, the basics of his view are clear. In Consequences, he draws on two distinct metaphysical perspectives: the Abhidharma and the Madhyamaka. In his view of the Abhidharma, what ultimately exists are "fleeting entities that are constantly appearing and disappearing in accordance with causal laws" (11), or, otherwise put, "simple, momentary, localized things, interrelated by a web of causal connections" (149). On the other hand, things that exist conventionally, such as "people, animals, chairs, rocks, and trees," do not exist "independently of the constructive activity of the mind," although our analysis, thoughts, and discourse about these things "clearly does feature in important human social practices, and these practices are useful for many purposes" (11). In other words, what conventionally exists is constructed by our minds from what ultimately exists. Under the Madhyamaka view, as he sees it, there is nothing that ultimately exists: "both people and dharmas exist, but conventionally, not ultimately." (3)

Thus, in Goodman's view, both the Abhidharma and Madhyamaka agree on the ultimate nonexistence of all of our concepts and composites. This means that the self also does not exist ultimately. Goodman quotes Vasubandhu's The Treasure of Metaphysics, a work from the fifth century CE in the tradition of Vaibhasika Abhidharma, as saying that when we look closely at the self, we see that "there is no sentient being here, nor is there a self, but simple entities, each with a cause . …

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