Spent yesterday evening and most of today at the star-studded conference "Contemporary Perspectives on Buddhist Ethics"at Columbia, and learned a few things. I gather the tone for the conference was set at a plenary yesterday morning (which I wasn't able to attend) which suggested or perhaps argued that there is not really such a thing as Buddhist ethics - lots of good moral advice but little moral theory. This was from a British scholar who's argued for Buddhist ethics in the past (he found it to be "Aristotelian," if only because he was limited by the options in contemporary Anglo-Saxon moralizing). It wasn't, evidently, meant as a criticism - but also not, as I'd have been tempted to continue, as a challenge to the self-importance of "moral theory" either. (For that matter, none of the questions I raise about Buddhist ethics were raised, not even monastic/lay.)
The conference brought together analytic moral philosophers and psychologists whom someone should have told there is no single Buddhism, although no Buddhist present will tell you that - and Buddhologists who might have benefited from a similar warning about "ethics." Various categories uneasily bridging the traditions were discussed, from empathy, compassion and altruism to free-will, responsibility and engagement.We were treated to delicacies like neo- and paleo-compatibilism, and conundra of reductivism and freedom. Large questions asked if you can have Buddhist ethics without karma, karma without rebirth, responsibility without freewill, autonomy without selves, anger without hatred, a royal flush of skilful means uses of all of these categories understood as merely conventionally true or useful fictions, a "naturalized" Buddhism.
I'm not convinced there's a there in any of these theres, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn some cool stuff. Studies show that mere feelings of empathy motivate altruism little to not at all, and never if there's substantial cost involved, but long-term meditators' brains light up in the empathy regions a lot, without any of the self-referencing business of the pre-frontal cortex. College students who engage in mindfulness meditation are more empathetic - or report themselves so, or discover themselves to be - than those who spend comparable amounts of time developing attention through music or dance (or doing religious studies), especially in the "cooler" flavors of empathy characterized by understanding others' perspectives, but all students' empathy seems to decline over the course of a semester.
Was the whole thing kusala (wholesome, healthy) rather than akusala (unwholesome, unhealthy) - some of the few actually Buddhist categories put forward? I'm not sure. A final panel on "engaged Buddhism" was inspiring but operating at such a different level of analysis and application there seemed as good as no overlap with the rest of the discussions. So much meta- and metta-ethics leaves the moral challenges of our world curiously unattended.
(The picture above is a variant of one included in the slides to Karma Lekshe Tsomo's presentation on the overlooked and belated contributions of women to Buddhism. Apparently someone's written an article entitled "Was the Buddha a deadbeat dad?")