Vacchablogga

Chapter VIII of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra contains some of the most interesting arguments in the history of philosophy. More philosophers should read it.

Excerpt

94 I should dispel the suffering of others because it is suffering like my own suffering. I should help others too because of their nature as beings, which is like my own being.

95 When happiness is liked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself?

96 When fear and suffering are disliked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I protect myself and not the other?

97 If I give them no protection because their suffering does not afflict me, why do I protect my body against future suffering when it does not afflict me?

98 The notion ‘it is the same me even then’ is a false construction, since it is one person who dies, quite another who is born…

101 The continuum of consciousnesses, like a queue, and the combination of constituents, like an army, are not real. The person who experiences suffering does not exist. To whom will that suffering belong?

102 Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation put on this?1

Analysis

There are at least three lines of argument in the above passage.

The Your-Pains-Aren’t-Special Argument (verses 94-6)

  1. Your pain and the pains of other people are the same in all relevant respects.
  2. It two things are the same in all relevant respects, then it is irrational to treat them differently.
  3. Therefore, it is irrational to treat your pain differently from the pains of other people.

(2) is plausible, but it is unclear whether (1) is true. Even if a given pain of mine feels the same as a given pain of yours (so the pains are intrinsically identical to each other), I stand in different relations to them: my pain is mine, and your pain is yours. This might be a relevant difference. Of course, Śāntideva goes on to deny that pains have owners: “Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone” (verse 102). So he wouldn’t be moved by this objection.

The parallel between your future pains and the pains of other people (verses 97-8)

In verses 97-8, Śāntideva isn’t positively arguing that you have reason to care about the pains of other people. Instead, he is objecting to an argument which aims to show that you have no reason to care about the pains of other people. The argument that he is objecting to goes like this:

  1. If you don’t feel a pain, then you have no reason to care about it.
  2. You don’t feel the pains of other people.
  3. Therefore, you have no reason to care about the pains of other people.

Call this ‘the egoist argument’.

Śāntideva objects to (1). He points out that you don’t (now) feel your future pains, but you still have reason to care about them. But if (1) were true, then you wouldn’t have reason to care about your future pains. So (1) is false: you can have reason to care about a pain even if you don’t feel it.

I think Śāntideva is right to deny (1). But the egoist argument can be changed to avoid Śāntideva’s objection. The obvious fix is to replace (1) with

(1*) If you don’t now feel a pain, and never will feel it, then you have no reason to care about it.

and change (2) accordingly. (1*) isn’t vulnerable to Śāntideva’s objection, since you will feel your future pains even though you don’t now feel them. (In contrast, you will never feel the pains of other people.) So the mere fact that you have reason to care about your future pains gives us no reason to deny (1*).

Śāntideva anticipates this response to his objection, and responds to it by denying that you will feel “your” future pains. This is because, he claims, persons do not persist through time: “it is one person who dies, quite another who is born” (verse 98). So the person feeling pain in the future is not you. This is an extreme claim. But if it is true, then Śāntideva can make the same argument against (1*) that he made against (1): you will never feel “your” future pains, but you still have reason to care about them.

The Persons-Don’t-Exist Argument (verses 101-2)

  1. Persons don’t exist.
  2. If persons don’t exist, then it is irrational to care about who feels a given pain.
  3. Therefore, it is irrational to care about who feels a given pain.

(2) is plausible, but (1) is implausibly extreme: it endorses nihilism about persons. A less extreme and more plausible view is reductionism about persons, which admits that persons exist but denies that they are fundamental. Here is how Parfit (1984) characterizes reductionism about persons: “A person’s existence just consists in the existence of a brain and body, and the occurrence of a series of interrelated physical and mental events” (p. 211).

We could then try changing the argument to say ‘persons are non-fundamental’ instead of ‘persons don’t exist’:

  1. Persons are non-fundamental.
  2. If persons are non-fundamental, then it is irrational to care about who feels a given pain.
  3. Therefore, it is irrational to care about who feels a given pain.

Although this change makes (1) more plausible, it makes (2) less plausible. On the face of it, whether persons are fundamental is irrelevant to whether it is rational to care about who feels a given pain. Even if I am just “a brain and body, and the occurrence of a series of interrelated physical and mental events”, why shouldn’t I care more about the pains connected to this brain, body, and series of physical and mental events?

Similar arguments from other philosophers

It is surprising that the Bodhicaryāvatāra isn’t better known among contemporary philosophers, especially because Sidgwick and Parfit (two very famous philosophers) have developed arguments that are similar to Śāntideva’s arguments. For example, here is a famous passage from Sidgwick’s (1874) Methods of Ethics:

If the Utilitarian has to answer the question, ‘Why should I sacrifice my own happiness for the greater happiness of another?’, it must surely be admissible to ask the Egoist, ‘Why should I sacrifice a present pleasure for a greater one in the future? Why should I concern myself about my own future feelings any more than about the feelings of other persons?’ It undoubtedly seems to Common Sense paradoxical to ask for a reason why one should seek one’s own happiness on the whole: but I do not see how the demand can be repudiated as absurd by those who adopt the views of the extreme empirical school of psychologists, although those views are commonly supposed to have a close affinity with Egoistic Hedonism. Grant that the Ego is merely a system of coherent phenomena, that the permanent identical ‘I’ is not a fact but a fiction [i.e., grant reductionism about persons], as Hume and his followers maintain: why, then, should one part of the series of feelings into which the Ego is resolved be concerned with another part of the same series, any more than with any other series? (book III, chapter 2)

Parfit quotes this passage in Reasons and Persons and goes on to develop an argument that is inspired by it. He also also defends reductionism about persons and develops a version of the Persons-Don’t-Exist argument. See below for references.

Further reading


  1. Garfield, Jenkins, and Priest (2015), among others, think that verses 101-2 were added by a later editor, and were not written by Śāntideva himself.