Socrethics – Introduction
First version 2008 Last version 2018
Table of Contents
1. Practical Philosophy
2. Biological and Cultural Evolution
3. Contemporary Buddhism
4. Negative Utilitarianism
5. Philosophy as Therapy
The turning point from sage advice to critical investigation came with Socrates and his method of elenchus or dialectical enquiry (…). Socrates marks the beginning of practical philosophy [Haldane].
The Socratic way of thinking originated in a social environment that was – in analogy to today’s situation – exposed to major political and religious upheavals and where the old conventions lost their liability [Hampe, 438]. Socrates was looking for a new and reliable orientation, a new conception of the good life.
He was driven by the personal question of how he himself should live and the more general question of how one should live [Sellars, 35].
The Eightfold Path (Fourth Noble Truth) is a possible answer to the question “how one should live”, the question which – according to Kant – is at the core of practical philosophy. Buddha offers orientation for truth seekers and a concrete conception of the good life.
The Four Noble Truths are also a form of philosophical therapy with a strong normative claim. They can be interpreted as diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and prescription [Gethin, 63-64] and represent a detailed ethics for the cure of suffering. The Buddhist denial of the world and the corresponding retreat-oriented way of living, however, are in conflict with the Western understanding of therapy.
The guiding principle of the Socrethics website is
▪ an examination of Buddhist ethics
▪ using the Socratic way of thinking.
In the tradition of Socrates the Buddhist truths are considered as theses, which are open to falsification [Koller]. There are two strategies for a hypothetical falsification:
1. Use empirical data to challenge the Buddhist world view:
b. The First Noble Truth postulates that suffering surpasses happiness, a thesis that is challenged by surveys on subjective life satisfaction (chapter 3).
c. The Buddhist doctrine of karma and rebirth and the implied belief in cosmic justice is shattered by the findings of contemporary biology. The (early) Buddhist ideal of disengagement and non-violence is accordingly challenged by the ideal of a just secular law and order (chapter 3).
2. Map Buddhist ethics to established contemporary ethics. The criticism of the latter then also applies to the former.
a. Buddhism can be interpreted as consequentialism of compassion [Verhaeghen] or negative utilitarianism [Keown, 176]. Negative utilitarianism – like (early) Buddhism – is criticized for being a life-hostile philosophy (chapter 4).
b. Buddhism can also be interpreted as virtue ethics [Verhaeghen]. Philosophy as therapy criticizes virtue ethics for its claim on universality and its lack of authenticity. Possibly the Eightfold Path is not the best therapy of suffering in every historical time and environment [Zhang, 442], in particular not the best therapy for everyone (chapter 5).
Statue of Buddha Statue of Socrates
The basis of every therapy is the understanding of suffering. The prime goal is therefore a theory of the origination and dispersion of suffering. An analytical approach is confronted with unpleasant theses. One of them is that the degree of suffering increases in the course of evolution and seems not to be limited. Does the cultural evolution with its increasing complexity and its prolongation of lifetime lead to higher degrees of suffering (in analogy to the biological level)? Or will the problem of suffering be solved by a technological breakthrough? In the latter case the Buddhist doctrine is refuted.
A possible steering of cultural evolution presupposes the existence of a free will. This paper investigates the evolution of free will and reasons for skepticism. To what extent are human values and decisions controlled by the unconscious? Without some control of cultural evolution it is hard to believe that the worst kinds of suffering will eventually be eradicated.
Classical utilitarianism assumed that happiness correlates with the consumption of goods and services. Buddha in contrast, suggested that – once basic needs are met – it doesn’t make sense to expand material desires. This paper investigates how welfare economics evolved from the 18th century until today.
The papers listed in this section were published in the journal Contemporary Buddhism.
This paper illustrates how axiologies are shaped by intuitions, and how intuitions are driven by interests. The biological intuition about non-existence is driven by the interest to survive; the Buddhist intuition about non-existence is driven by the interest to avoid suffering. The acceptance or denial of the current state of affairs depends on the weight given to these interests.
A negative valuation of the world is hard to defend, if it is confronted with empirical data. Surveys on subjective life satisfaction consistently report that the majority is satisfied with their lives [World Happiness Report]. This paper suggests that the majorities’ perception of suffering and risk may be distorted by the interest to survive. The Buddhist denial of the world cannot easily be dismissed as being irrational.
Negative utilitarianism is an umbrella term for versions of utilitarianism which model the asymmetry between suffering and happiness [Fricke, 14].
Major Buddhist intuitions can be mapped to major versions (axiologies) within negative utilitarianism. This paper investigates the thesis that there is no world with positive total welfare.
The Buddhist doctrine of karma and rebirth implies a belief in cosmic justice. Secularization means, amongst others, that this belief transforms into a quest for mundane justice. There are resources in Buddhism which allow relating Buddhist ethics to Rawls’ theory of justice. But whereas Rawls’ concept cannot be implemented without force, Buddha teaches the principle of non-violence (at least for the members of the sangha). Justified violence has a theoretical potential to refute the Buddhist escapism.
In contemporary ethics negative utilitarianism is the consequentialist ethics that comes closest to Buddhism [Keown, 176]. Insofar some arguments for and against negative utilitarianism can also be applied to (secular) Buddhism.
Negative utilitarianism, as well as any other form of consequentialism, has a totalitarian potential. Rawls’ theory of justice – in particular the engagement for human rights and the difference principle – aims at the reduction of suffering as well as negative utilitarianism, but avoids the totalitarian potential of the latter.
Classical utilitarianism has the deficiency, that it favors expansion at the cost of the quality of life, see Repugnant Conclusion. Unconditional expansionism is a characteristic of the utility function of biology (the maximal proliferation of genes). It not only leads to lives with minimal welfare, but also to lives with negative welfare. The ethical goal to minimize suffering – which does not favor this expansion – conflicts with biological forces. Is negative utilitarianism necessarily a life-hostile philosophy?
In his essay Why I’m Not a Negative Utilitarian, Toby Ord shows himself surprised to see that some of his friends and acquaintances in the effective altruism community identify as negative utilitarians, although negative utilitarianism is discarded in mainstream philosophical circles. Is negative utilitarianism an implausible theory?
Does the Buddhist virtue ethic lead to neurotic disorders? Does it merely transform suffering it into new forms? The radical ethical priority of the avoidance of suffering – as suggested by Buddhism – is a controversial matter [Nagel, 173, 217] because it conflicts with the biological meaning of life. The sublimation of passionate happiness into com-passion and meditative happiness is hard work, and not achievable for everybody. High ethical standards are often the wrong medicine for people who are vulnerable to depression. Furthermore some of Buddha’s rigorous ethical guidelines were influenced by a controversial theory of karma and rebirth and require validation.
Stanley Cavell suggests abandoning all predefined virtues in favor of authenticity. For some people a moral norm is easy to comply, for others extremely difficult, depending on their constitution, environment and biography. Furthermore, in complex and evolving cultures it is often difficult to translate virtues into concrete arguments for decision-making. In accordance with Socrates, Cavell recommends a certain way of thinking, rather than a given path leading to a known destination.
1. Fricke Fabian (2002), Verschiedene Versionen des negativen Utilitarismus, Kriterion Nr.15, pp.13-27
2. Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press
3. Haldane John (2009), Practical Philosophy: Ethics, Culture and Society, Introduction
4. Hampe Michael (2014), Die Lehren der Philosophie, Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin
5. Keown, Damien (1992), The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, New York, Palgrave.
6. Koller Erwin (1994), Sternstunde Philosophie
7. Nagel Thomas (1986), The View from Nowhere, Oxford University Press
8. Van Hooft Stan, Philosophy as Therapy, Deakin University, Melbourne
9. Verhaeghen Paul (2015) Good and Well: The Case for Secular Buddhist Ethics, Contemporary Buddhism, 16:1, 43-54
10. World Happiness Report (2013), Edited by John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, The Earth Institute, Columbia University Press, New York
11. Zhang Guoquing, Veenhoven Ruut (2008), Ancient Chinese Philosophical Advice, Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol.9, No.3, Springer Verlag, Berlin