Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


It Wasn’t Me: Reply to Karin Meyers

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

It Wasn’t Me: Reply to Karin Meyers

Rick Repetti
Kingsborough Community College
City University of New York

This is my reply to Karin Meyers, “False Friends: Dependent Origination and the Perils of Analogy in Cross-Cultural Philosophy,” in this Symposium. Meyers generally focuses on exegesis of what Early Buddhists said, which reasonably constrains what we may think about them if we are Buddhists. I agree with and find much value in most of her astute analyses, here and elsewhere, so I restrict my reply here to where we disagree, or otherwise seem to be speaking past, or misunderstanding, each other. In this regard, I focus on three of her claims. Meyers argues that (1) Buddhist dependent origination is not determinism; (2) attempts at naturalizing Buddhism threaten to run afoul of her hermeneutics; and (3) I seem to err on both fronts. However, I have emphasized that I am not a determinist, and I am not as concerned with what Buddhists did say about causation and agency. As a philosopher, I am mainly concerned with what philosophers can say about them. Thus, Meyers’s criticisms of my work seem predicated on interpretations of ideas I do not exactly espouse. Thus, the “Repetti” that Meyers primarily critiqued, as the title to this Reply (hopefully humorously) makes clear, wasn’t me! Whether I have failed to make my ideas clear, she has failed to accurately interpret them, or some combination of both, I am uncertain. Thus, I focus on trying to clarify those ideas of mine that Meyers seems to interpret in a way that I do not.
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It Wasn’t Us: Reply to Michael Brent

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

It Wasn’t Us: Reply to Michael Brent

Rick Repetti
Kingsborough Community College
City University of New York

In “Confessions of a Deluded Westerner,” Michael Brent insists no contributions to Buddhist Perspectives on Free Will (Repetti) even address free will because none deploy the criteria for free will that Western (incompatibilist) philosophers identify: the ability to do otherwise under identical conditions, and the ability to have one’s choices be up to oneself. Brent claims the criteria and abilities in that anthology are criteria for intentional action, but not all intentional actions are free. He also insists that Buddhism, ironically, cannot even accept intentional action, because, on his analysis, intentionality requires an agent, which Buddhism rejects. I have four responses: (i) Brent ignores the other half of the debate, compatibilism, in both Western and Buddhist philosophy, represented in the anthology by several contributors; (ii) the autonomy of Buddhist meditation virtuosos is titanic compared to Brent’s autonomy criteria, which latter are relatively mundane and facile, rather than something Buddhists fail to rise up to; (iii) such titanic Buddhist autonomy challenges, and possibly defeats, all major Western arguments against free will; and (iv) several contributors address the possibility of agentless agency. These responses could have been taken right out of the anthology, not only from my contributions.
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Primordial Wisdom and the Buddhist Free Will Controversy

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

A Role for Primordial Wisdom in the Buddhist Free Will Controversy

Marie Friquegnon
William Paterson University

In Buddhist Perspectives on Free Will (Repetti), I set forth my position on Buddhism and free will in terms of three ways of understanding the issue of freedom in Buddhism. Here I first offer a sketch of that threefold analysis, and then I analyze certain key passages in some of the other essays in that collection through that lens. Each of these three ways of understanding Buddhist conceptions of freedom harmonizes with some of the essays. I then analyze Śāntideva’s view on the acceptability of the action of the bodhisattva who shot a pirate to save 500 people; I contrast that with Śāntarakṣita’s view; and I try to dissolve an apparent contradiction. I then take Śāntideva’s use of upāya (skillful means) in the pirate case and apply it to his position on free will. Lastly, I conclude by suggesting that the way out of some of the discrepancies in the analysis of free will in Buddhism may be resolved by appealing to primordial wisdom as a hypothetical construct, making reference to what appears to be an analogous use of the concept of a hypothetical construct that may be found in Aquinas.
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Dependent Origination and the Perils of Analogy in Cross-Cultural Philosophy

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

False Friends: Dependent Origination and the Perils of Analogy in Cross-Cultural Philosophy

Karin Meyers
Centre for Buddhist Studies
Kathmandu University

Cross-cultural philosophical inquiry is predicated on the possibility of drawing analogies between ideas from distinct historical and cultural traditions, but is distorted and constrained when those analogies are overdrawn. In considering what Buddhists might have to say about free will, scholars tend to draw analogies between dependent origination and distinctively modern naturalistic ideas of universal causation. Such analogies help promote the idea of Buddhism as a “scientific religion” and help justify the impulse to naturalize Buddhism (or to simply ignore its un- or super-natural elements) in order to make it a more credible conversation partner. By tracing some of the early history of the idea of dependent origination, this essay discusses how and why these analogies have been overdrawn. It addresses why this matters to the inquiry into free will and other cross-cultural philosophical engagements with Buddhism. With respect to naturalizing Buddhism, it argues that decisions about what to exclude from serious consideration (such as karma and rebirth) necessarily influence how we understand ideas (such as dependent origination) we deem more congenial (and thus essential), and that by excluding those we do not find congenial, we foreclose opportunities to submit our own philosophical assumptions to scrutiny and to be genuinely transformed by our encounter with Buddhism.
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Free Will and Artificial Intelligence

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

Buddhist Philosophy, Free Will, and Artificial Intelligence

James V. Luisi
Independent Scholar

Can Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophical conceptions of free will intelligently inform each other? Repetti has described one possible Buddhist option of solving the free will problem by identifying a middle path between the extremes of rigid determinism, as understood by the hard determinist, and random indeterminism, as understood by the hard indeterminist. In support of this middle path option, I draw upon ideas from the fields of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, evolutionary psychology, and related fields that together render coherent the ideas that determinism may be non-rigid and that indeterminism may be non-random, on the one hand, and upon Buddhist ideas, such as interdependence, the four-cornered negation, and what Repetti describes as the Buddhist conception of causation as “wiggly,” to argue that Buddhist philosophy has much to contribute to the field of artificial intelligence, on the other hand. Together, I suggest, the Buddhist philosopher and the software expert would form an ideal team to take on the task of constructing genuine artificial intelligence capable of the sort of conscious agency that human beings apparently possess.
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Heroic Willpower (Virya)

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

Freedom through Cumulative Moral Cultivation: Heroic Willpower (Vīrya)

Jonathan C. Gold
Princeton University

Although abstract speculation on “freedom of the will” is hard to find in premodern Buddhist writings, this is not for Buddhists’ lack of attention to responsibility and effortful moral acts. This paper studies early teachings on the dharmas called “effort” (vyāyāma) and “heroic will-power” (vīrya), which are key to such quintessential Buddhist lists as the Eightfold Path, the Four Right Endeavors, and the Perfections cultivated by a bodhisattva. A look at effortful action as treated in traditional Buddhist texts helps to show why the western philosophical preoccupation with “free will” is not self-evidently worthwhile from a practical or moral perspective. Effort on the Buddhist path accumulates into moral strength through numerous and different kinds of enactments at the level of individual mental events. The goal of this model of practice is that one arrives at the ability to transcend the busy, messy work of having to decide to act morally—one’s virtue becomes spontaneous. This structure suggests that not only is the capacity for moral choice not a necessary precondition of effective practice or moral significance; it may get in the way.
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A Perspective on Free Will from Mindfulness-Based Interventions

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

The Healing Paradox of Controlled Behavior: A Perspective from Mindfulness-Based Interventions

Asaf Federman
Sagol Center for Brain and Mind, Muda Institute, IDC Herzliya
Oren Ergas
Beit Berl College, Israel

In this paper, we discuss the issue of free will as it may be informed by an analysis of originally Buddhism-based meditative disciplines such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and related mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) that are deployed in a variety of therapeutic contexts. We analyze the mechanics of these forms of mindfulness meditation, paying particular attention to the ways in which they appear to enable individual practitioners to reduce a variety of otherwise unwholesome mental and behavioral factors, such as habituated or conditioned dispositions to reactivity, that are intuitively associated with increasingly ineffective agency or diminished free will, while increasing wholesome mental and behavioral tendencies, such as spontaneous responsiveness. We pay particular attention to a somewhat paradoxical way in which direct efforts at control are counter-productive, on the one hand, while meditative practices designed to cultivate “choiceless awareness,” a sort of non-control associated with a non-judgmental acceptance of things beyond our control, tend to indirectly increase self-regulative abilities, on the other hand.
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Confessions of a Deluded Westerner

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

Confessions of a Deluded Westerner

Michael Brent
University of Denver

In this paper, I aim to make two general points. First, I claim that the discussions in Repetti (Buddhist Perspectives on Free Will: Agentless Agency?) assume different, sometimes conflicting, notions of free will, so the guiding question of the book is not as clear as it could be. Second, according to Buddhist tradition, the path to enlightenment requires rejecting the delusional belief in the existence of a persisting self. I claim that if there is no persisting self, there are no intentional actions; and, if there are no intentional actions, there is no hope for Buddhist enlightenment. Thus, rejecting the allegedly delusional belief in a persisting self has disastrous consequences, both for the existence of intentional action and for Buddhist soteriology.
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Tracing the Trajectory of Buddhist Free Will Theorizing

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

Tracing the Trajectory of Buddhist Free Will Theorizing

Katie Javanaud
Keble College, Oxford

This paper documents the key trends and developments in the history of Buddhist free will theorizing, indicating potential new avenues for research. Part 1 traces the debate from its origins in the late 19th century to the present day. Though scholarship remains divided as to whether a Buddhist free will problem can even be formulated, this paper contends that such skeptical arguments can be defeated. An important aspect of Buddhist free will debates concerns the commensurability of causal determinism and dependent origination: by evaluating their similarities and differences it becomes clear that dependency relations encompass, but are not limited to, causal relations. Part 2 examines psychological/spiritual responses to the problem, where the focus has shifted away from metaphysics. Finally, this paper initiates an exploration into the prospects of articulating a pan-Buddhist response to the free will problem.
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Symposium on “Buddhist Perspectives on Free Will: Agentless Agency?”

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

Symposium on Buddhist Perspectives on Free Will: Agentless Agency?

Rick Repetti
Kingsborough Community College
City University of New York

This special issue of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 25, is a symposium on the anthology, Buddhist Perspectives on Free Will: Agentless Agency? (Repetti), and on the topic reflected by that title, more broadly, based on an Author Meets Critics session of the 2018 American Philosophical Association Eastern Division meeting organized by Christian Coseru. To orient readers new to the topic, I first sketch what some of the issues are regarding Buddhist perspectives on free will. Second, I briefly describe the anthology, and third, I introduce the several contributions to this symposium. As I am sympathetic to most of the papers here, I only respond briefly to them in this introduction, giving some reasons for my approval. Two papers here, however, are significantly critical of either the anthology as a whole (Brent), or critical of my contributions to it (Meyers). I respond separately to each of them in the last two papers in the symposium. Together with this introduction, all the included papers are original.
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Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Recent Buddhist Theories of Free Will: Compatibilism, Incompatibilism, and Beyond

Riccardo Repetti
Kingsborough College, CUNY

This is the fourth article in a four-article series that examines Buddhist responses to the Western philosophical problem of whether free will is compatible with “determinism,” the scientific doctrine of universal lawful causation. The first article focused on “early period” scholarship from the 1970’s, which was primarily compatibilist, that is, of the view that the Buddhist conception of causation is compatible with free will. The second and third articles examined “middle period” incompatibilist and semi-compatibilist scholarship in the remainder of the twentieth century and first part of the twenty-first. The present article examines work published in the past few years. It largely agrees that Buddhism tacitly accepts free will (although it also explores an ultimate perspective from which the issue appears moot), but mostly divides along compatibilist and incompatibilist lines, mirroring Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhist perspectives, respectively. Of the writers I emphasize, Gier and Kjellberg articulate both perspectives; Federman and Harvey advocate Theravāda compatibilism; and Wallace argues that although determinism and free will are incompatible, subtle complexities of Mahāyāna Buddhist metaphysics circumvent the free will and determinism dichotomy. Although the present article focuses on these writers, as the culminating article in the series it also draws on and summarizes the other articles in the series, and directs the reader to other recent period works that, due to space constraints, cannot be reviewed here.

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A Determinist Deflation of the Free Will Problem

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

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

Vishnu Sridharan

For over two millennia, the free will problem has proven intractable to philosophers, scientists, and lay people alike. However, Buddhism offers us unique insight into how, when, and why human agency matters to us. In his 2009 book, Consequences of Compassion, Charles Goodman argues that the ultimate nonexistence of the self supports the ultimate nonexistence of free will. Recently in this journal, Riccardo Repetti has critiqued Goodman’s view and made the case that free will does, in fact, ultimately exist. This article first illustrates how Repetti’s view of the self is, actually, entirely consistent with Goodman’s. It goes on to argue that Repetti misconstrues elements of hard determinism as entailing that our wills have no influence on final outcomes. Lastly, it shows how, if Goodman and Repetti are in agreement on the ultimate nonexistence of the self, as well as the causal efficacy of the will, their disagreement about the ultimate existence of free will may be inconsequential.

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Tsongkhapa on Choice and Emotions

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

Emotions, Ethics, and Choice: Lessons from Tsongkhapa

Emily McRae
University of Oklahoma

This paper explores the degree to which we can exercise choice over our emotional experiences and emotional dispositions. I argue that we can choose our emotions in the sense that we can intentionally intervene in them. To show this, I draw on the mind training practices advocated by the 14th century Tibetan Buddhist yogin and philosopher Tsongkhapa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa). I argue that his analysis shows that successful intervention in a negative emotional experience depends on at least four factors: the intensity of the emotional experience, one’s ability to pay attention to the workings of one’s mind and body, knowledge of intervention practices, and insight into the nature of emotions. I argue that this makes sense of Tsongkhapa’s seemingly contradictory claims that the meditator can and should control (and eventually abandon) her anger and desire to harm others and that harmdoers are “servants to their afflictions.”

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Buddhist Hard Determinism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

Buddhist Hard Determinism: No Self, No Free Will, No Responsibility

Riccardo Repetti
Kingsborough College, CUNY

This is the third article in a four-article series that examines Buddhist responses to the Western philosophical problem of whether free will is compatible with “determinism,” the doctrine of universal causation. The first article (“Earlier”) focused on the first publications on this issue in the 1970s, the “early period.” The second (“Paleo-compatibilism”) and the present articles examine key responses published in the last part of the Twentieth and the first part of the Twenty-first centuries, the “middle period.” The fourth article (“Recent”) examines responses published in the last few years, the “recent period.” Whereas early-period scholars endorsed a compatibilism between free will and determinism, in the middle period the pendulum moved the other way: Mark Siderits argued for a two tiered compatibilism/incompatibilism (or semi-compatibilism) that he dubs “paleo-compatibilism,” grounded in the early Buddhist reductionist notion of “two truths” (conventional truth and ultimate truth); and Charles Goodman argued that Buddhists accept hard determinism—the view that because determinism is true, there can be no free will—because in the absence of a real self determinism leaves no room for morally responsible agency. In “Paleo-compatibilism,” I focused on Siderits’s reductionist account. The present article focuses on Goodman’s hard determinism, and the fourth article will examine the most recent publications expressing Buddhist views of free will. Together with my own meditation-based Buddhist account of free will (“Meditation”), this series of articles provides a comprehensive review of the leading extant writings on this subject.

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Buddhist Reductionism and Free Will: Paleo-compatibilism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

Buddhist Reductionism and Free Will: Paleo-compatibilism

Riccardo Repetti
Kingsborough College, CUNY

This is the second article in a four-article series that examines Buddhist responses to the Western philosophical problem of whether free will is compatible with “determinism,” the doctrine of universal causation. The first article focused on the first publications on this issue in the 1970s, the “early period”; the present article and the next examine key responses published in the last part of the Twentieth century and first part of the Twenty-first, the “middle period”; and the fourth article will examine responses published in the last few years. Whereas early-period scholars endorsed compatibilism, in the middle period the pendulum moved the other way: Mark Siderits argued for a Buddhist version of partial incompatibilism, semi-compatibilism, or “paleo-compatibilism,” and Charles Goodman argued for a straightforward Buddhist hard determinism. The present article focuses on Siderits’s paleo-compatibilism; the subsequent article focuses on Goodman’s hard determinism.

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Buddhist Theories of Free Will: Compatiblism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 17, 2010

Earlier Buddhist Theories of Free Will: Compatibilism

Riccardo Repetti
Kingsborough College, City University of New York

This is the first part of a four-article series that examines Buddhist accounts of free will. The present article introduces the issues and reviews earlier attempts by Frances Story, Walpola Rāhula, Luis Gómez, and David Kalupahana. These “early-period” authors advocate compatibilism between Buddhist doctrine, determinism (the doctrine of universal lawful causation), and free will. The second and third articles review later attempts by Mark Siderits, Gay Watson, Joseph Goldstein, and Charles Goodman. These “middle-period” authors embrace either partial or full incompatibilism. The fourth article reviews recent attempts by Nicholas F. Gier and Paul Kjellberg, Asaf Federman, Peter Harvey, and B. Alan Wallace. These “recent-period” authors divide along compatibilist and incompatibilist lines. Most of the scholarly Buddhist works that examine free will in any depth are reviewed in this series. Prior to the above-mentioned early-period scholarship, scholars of Buddhism were relatively silent on free will. The Buddha’s teachings implicitly endorse a certain type of free will and explicitly endorse something very close to determinism, but attempts to articulate the implicit theory bear significant interpretive risks. The purpose of this four-article series is to review such attempts in order to facilitate a comprehensive view of the present state of the discussion and its history.

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A Buddhist Theory of Free Will

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 17, 2010

Meditation and Mental Freedom: A Buddhist Theory of Free Will

Riccardo Repetti
Kingsborough College, City University of New York

I argue that central Buddhist tenets and meditation methodology support a view of free will similar to Harry Frankfurt’s optimistic view and contrary to Galen Strawson’s pessimistic view. For Frankfurt, free will involves a relationship between actions, volitions, and “metavolitions” (volitions about volitions): simplifying greatly, volitional actions are free if the agent approves of them. For Buddhists, mental freedom involves a relationship between mental states and “metamental” states (mental attitudes toward mental states): simplifying greatly, one has mental freedom if one is able to control one’s mental states, and to the extent one has mental freedom when choosing, one has free will. Philosophical challenges to free will typically question whether it is compatible with “determinism,” the thesis of lawful universal causation. Both Frankfurt’s metavolitional approval and the Buddhist’s metamental control are consistent with determinism. Strawson has argued, however, that free will is impossible, determinism notwithstanding, because one’s choice is always influenced by one’s mental state. I argue, however, that Buddhist meditation cultivates control over mental states that undermine freedom, whether they are deterministic or not, making both mental freedom and free will possible. The model I develop is only a sketch of a minimally risky theory of free will, but one that highlights the similarities and differences between Buddhist thought on this subject and relevantly-related Western thought and has explanatory promise.

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Theravāda Sources on Free Will

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 14, 2007

“Freedom of the Will” in the Light of Theravāda Buddhist Teachings

Peter Harvey
University of Sunderland

A well known issue in Western Philosophy is that of “freedom of the will”: whether, how and in what sense human beings have genuine freedom of action in the context of a broad range of external and internal conditioning factors. Any system of ethics also assumes that humans have, in some sense, a freedom to choose between different courses of action. Buddhist ethics is no different in this—but how is freedom of action to be made sense of in a system that sees human beings as an interacting cluster of conditioned and conditioning processes, with no substantial I-agent either within or beyond this cluster? This article explores this issue within Theravāda Buddhism, and concludes that the view of this tradition on the issue is a “compatibilist” middle way between seeing a person’s actions as completely rigidly determined, and seeing them as totally and unconditionally free, with a variety of factors acting to bring, and increase, the element of freedom that humans have. In a different way, if a person is wrongly seen as an essential, permanent Self, it is an “undetermined question” as to whether “a person’s acts of will are determined” or “a person’s acts of will are free.” If there is no essential person-entity, “it” cannot be said to be either determined or free.

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