Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


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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