Teaching Philosophy to Non-Majors as a Form of Public Philosophy (Public Philosophy Journal February 2021)
Teaching philosophy as a general education requirement has many challenges, but if done with an open mind it can provide unique opportunities for public engagement. Instructors can address a range of philosophical topics with a diverse audience with no background in academic philosophy, and we can use this opportunity to develop our research and communication skills to better suit public engagement. To achieve this, we need to actively cultivate student engagement, and be eager to learn from our students. In this article I discuss the philosophy and practices I apply to my general education courses and what I take to be the major benefits and challenges of this approach.
Abstract: This paper analyzes Aristotelian virtue-theoretic and feminist accounts of moral anger. Virtue theorists have argued that anger is morally appropriate in response to injustice. As Lisa Tessman has argued, this becomes problematic in cases of oppression, in which anger is all too frequently appropriate because injustice ever-present. In these cases, Tessman argues that anger is both morally required, and harmful to the agent’s well-being. I argue that a Buddhist framework focused on suffering allows an oppressed agent to respond in a way that is both moral and conducive to her well-being. I sketch the concept of skillfulness, and suggest that attitudes and emotions are morally appropriate, or skillful, according to their ability to alleviate long-term suffering. I then argue that anger is rarely, if ever, skillful, because of its tendency to perpetuate suffering. I then suggest that compassion can do much of the moral work of anger, without damaging the agent’s character, making anger less morally necessary than we might think.
Abstract: It is widely known that Buddhist philosophy rejects the notion of a substantial self, but methods and motivations for this are far less known. I argue that the rejection of the self is motivated by practical, rather than metaphysical concerns, and that it should be interpreted as supporting the Buddhist project of transcending suffering as opposed to a metaphysical doctrine in its own right. I present two ways that Buddhist thinkers have interpreted personal identity, “no-self” reductionism, and “not-self” quietism, and compare these with Derek Parfit’s reductionist view. I argue that because Parfit’s project has strong ethical concerns such as developing compassion and living a good life, Parfit should use the “not-self” interpretation, which offers the desired ethical benefits without the metaphysical costs.
Abstract: The term “skillful” is used in Buddhist philosophy to describe actions leading to beneficial results. Ethical actions can be called skillful, as can prudent or wise actions. “Skillfulness” sits within the broader soteriological framework of Buddhism: the goal of Buddhist practice is to escape the cycle of suffering and rebirth and reach enlightenment. Skillfulness is deeply dependent on the way things actually are. For example, the most skillful way to sail depends upon the actual conditions of the wind and the sea, and not upon theoretical principles of sailing. This brings us to one of the most interesting features of Buddhist ethics. It is perfectly logical to derive an “ought” from an “is” (King, 2005, 43). In this paper I will suggest that this comes from Buddhism’s rejection of “ethics” as a natural category, and that this allows Buddhism to approach hard ethical problems in ways that are unavailable in Western theories.
Do We Really Own Ourselves? (Public engagement article in progress)
The idea that each individual owns herself or himself is a popular way to explain individual rights like bodily sovereignty and self-government. In this article, I explain the ways in which the self-ownership thesis fails to describe social interconnectedness, leading conflicts of rights-claims between interested parties. A great example we have seen recently is the rights-based refusal to wear masks in public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the model of self-ownership, we must acknowledge that obligating individuals to wear masks against their will does interfere with their rights, even if it is justified. However, it seems that this is not in fact a rights violation, but instead a situation in which bodily sovereignty is not clear-cut, and we need a more nuanced way of describing the interaction between one's individual freedom and the rights of others. I suggest that human beings are not the kinds of things that can be owned, and thus the attempt to ground individual rights in property-like claims is destined to fail. I offer instead the concept of "cooperative autonomy" which grounds individual rights in the context of social and biological interdependence, allowing for conflicts of rights and freedoms to be navigated with an eye towards doing right by all persons involved, as opposed to choosing between adversarial claims.
In my dissertation, Embracing the Non-Ideal: Buddhist Ethics for a Secular World, I develop an original ethical framework to resolve problems of well-being that are complicated by oppressive conditions. Buddhist thought focuses on the problem of suffering and develops a unique set of tools to address it. I argue that this focus is uniquely equipped to address problems of well-being in oppressive contexts because it assumes non-ideal conditions and works within them. This produces an ethical framework for the oppressed agent to actively pursue and protect well-being for herself and others, shifting ethical focus away from the obligation to respond to oppression head-on. I apply this framework to two serious problems for the oppressed agent: identity formation and moral anger. In my analysis of both of these issues, I address the ways in which they impact suffering and suggest an alternative view to mitigate suffering and cultivate well-being instead. This project engages actively with feminist theory, virtue theory, Buddhist philosophy, and analytic ethics to create a unique and effective approach to the pursuit of the good life in the face of injustice.