Volume 25, 2018
The Atipada Problem in Buddhist Meta-Ethics
Gordon F. Davis
We can express a wide range of objections to philosophical views by saying a view “goes too far”; but there is a more specific pitfall, which opens up when a philosopher seeks to generalize some form of anti-realism in such a way that it must itself be pronounced groundless or incoherent by its own standards. In cases where this self-stultification looks impossible to overcome without revising the view in question, it can be called the atipada problem. Signifying a risk of “overstepping,” this Sanskrit label reflects a particular relevance to Mahāyāna ethicists who seek to enlarge the scope of compassion by enlarging the meaning of emptiness (śūnyatā) to the point where all truths and ideals are pronounced ultimately empty, and likewise, at least ipso facto, the ideal of compassion itself. This incarnation of the problem is left unresolved by several recent defenders of Madhyamaka ethics, as well as by one recent interpreter of Vasubandhu; meanwhile, some Buddhist ethicists who try to avoid theorizing at this “ultimate” level run into the same general problem nonetheless. More than a specialized meta-ethical puzzle, this problem threatens to undermine central Buddhist ideals in precisely those contexts where philosophical ethics is invoked to vindicate them; however, rather than disposing us to foreswear meta-ethics in an attempt to avoid the problematic views in question, the problem should lead us to expand the scope of Buddhist meta-ethics.