Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Is Virtue Ethics a basis for 21st Century Progressive Buddhist Ethics?

Philosophy Bites' online logo
I subscribe to a British podcast series called Philosophy Bites that has episodes I usually greatly enjoy. The discussions are short – bite sized – lasting about fifteen minutes each. They explore the surface of a wide variety of philosophical matters in interviews with leading philosophers of our day.

One recent topic didn’t seem of interest to me. The topic was Virtue Ethics. It’s not that I’m opposed to virtue, so long as it’s spelled in all lowercase letters and uttered sotto voce. It is just that Virtue, standing tall, reminds me of Puritans putting the heads of penitents in stockades.
Prof. Annas's
most-recent book
My interest diminished further when I inquired online about the philosopher being interviewed, Julia Annas. All her books seemed to have ancient Greek people lounging about on the book covers. I’m not much interested in the dusty words of Aristotle or Socrates. I like my philosophy fresh, hot and tasty, damn it.

But, hey. Fifteen minutes I am willing to spend on just about anything. Sexual intercourse. Flower arranging. Meditation. Super Bowl halftime shows. You name it.

As it turned out I’m turned on by Virtue Ethics and think it a proper sensibility for modern-day Buddhists like us. And it seems I’m not the first person to think so. A googling of "Virtue Ethics Buddhist Ethics" turns up a big pile of links.

So. Let's dig into it. What is Virtue Ethics? 
First, let us set the landscape. We’re told by interviewer David Edmonds that there are three normative moral theories. Consequentialists judge an action purely by its consequences (which might be, for example, maximizing happiness). Deontologists judge the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. Virtue ethics – according to Wikipedia – emphasizes the role of one's character and the virtues that one's character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behavior.

Julia Annas provides a very palatable explanation of 'Virtue Ethics in practice' that makes it enticing to me.

So, let us run through this, using mostly the words [or the thinking, at least] of Prof. Annas from the podcast – which, by the way, can be heard in full from a link found here.
Annas tells us that the “central concepts” of Virtue Ethics are two ideas:
·        VIRTUE described as a disposition you acquire, to learn from experience to form reasons for actions AND to conform you emotions such that you go along with those reasons.
·        EUDAEMONIA described as living a good life that harbors a feeling of satisfaction. [Aristotle’s description of this element is “happiness as the result of an active life governed by reason.” ]
Examples given of virtue (as a character trait) can be courage, or being a good parent,  or honesty, or being dependable.
In pursuing this manner of ethics, we are each left with the task of determining what virtuousness is for ourself. We learn by seeing the excellent behaviors of people we admire. And then, as a result of witnessing the actions of great, good people, we aspire to be excellent in a somewhat similar way. And then, throughout our life, we hope always to do good and to find means to best meet our aspirations to perform nobly.
One way to improve our actions can be to read self-help books, which could well include books by Buddhist teachers.
Julia Annas explains that acquiring virtuousness is rather easy; it’s second nature for us to use others as our teachers for being GOOD; of doing the right (and sometimes courageous) thing.  Annas quotes Aristotle, “In general, people act ‘for the good’ and not in doing just what their parents did.”
Basically, virtuousness becomes a skill that you acquire but you make use of it in a way that is indelibly your own. But with this learned skill, you gain appreciation and an eye to see virtue practiced in a great variety of ways across cultures. An example Annas gives is that one may see courage practiced by both samurai warriors and Quakers, yet despite the seeming diametric difference, take equal pleasure in witnessing the actions of each group.
A vital late point that Annas makes is that none of all this has anything to do with becoming sanctimonious or thinking that you’ve come to breathe a richer grade of oxygenated air than the hoi polloi.
What happens is that you rationally mold your actions toward what’s GOOD; you’re not engaged in a task of becoming ALL THAT. Annas’s example here is one of ‘wanting to be a good parent.’ You don’t aspire to be the best parent of any living in your neighborhood; you resolutely engage in just doing what’s best for your children. The action is what counts, not ego-boosting or other  hoo-ha that might surround it.


Sunday, 1 February 2015

Tomorrow's the 22nd Anniversary of THE GREATEST Buddhist movie! Yep, GROUNDHOG DAY!

There are two types of people in this world: those that love Groundhog Day, and those that can't appreciate it. Our job is to exterminate the latter group.
-- Adum Miller, webmaster GHD Home Page

[Beware!! This article is chockablock with spoilers. Any reader who has not seen the film Groundhog Day recently should stop now, click an iTunes icon, rent the film, watch the film, shutdown the computer, take a shower, eat a peach, turn the computer back on, get online, find this article and then -- and only then -- read it.]
A still from the motion picture Groundhog Day
Rita [Andie MacDowell] and
Phil [Bill Murray] dancing.
"Groundhog Day," the 1993 Bill Murray comedy, is a curiously crafted film. It is peopled by many minor characters who are artificial in the way that situation-comedy characters are -- yet the film is ambitious (and rises to its ambitions) with a keen sensitivity to the dynamic of change to the central character.

At the very beginning of the film there is something very interesting for a Buddhist audience.  We are introduced to the Murray character (Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors) as he gives his report in front of a bluescreen.  He is there gesticulating with essentially nothing behind him [signifying the true emptiness of Self], talking about the nation's weather.  He is grandly overdressed, in a black three-piece suit (like no other weatherman I have ever seen), befitting the egocentricity of the character as we quickly come to know him.  As we see him on a TV monitor (with the "blank" bluescreen now substituted for a satellite-view of the day's weather) he acts as if he is blowing a mass of cold air eastwardly toward the Pittsburgh area.  European paintings, a millenium or more ago, used to depict the air being blown by God or cherubim to explain the cause of weather in just this way. [Fifteen minutes later in the movie, Connors will deny a blizzard starting to flurrying all about him (which he had predicted would miss western Pennsylvania) in a conversation with a policeman:  "What blizzard?" he says "I make the weather!"]

In sharp contrast to the Connors character, Rita the TV producer (played by Andie MacDowell) is introduced to us as she plays in front of the bluescreen after the broadcast, wearing a plain blue coat.  On the monitor, she essentially disappears against this backdrop.  The qualities of Rita, as we come to know her, fit this depiction: she is not ego-attached.  Later in the movie she will say "I just like to go with the flow (and) see where it leads me."

Phil, Rita and cameraman Larry (played by Chris Elliott) drive to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities that centers on a groundhog named Phil, who, according to legend, predicts six more weeks of bad wintery weather if the sun is out on the morning of February 2.

Everything in the first fifteen minutes of the movie sets up the character differences between Phil and Rita.  In addition to displays of vanity--calling himself "The Talent," his unwillingness to stay in the largest hotel which he considers "a fleabag," etc.--we hear Phil ridicule people, calling them morons, making fun of people in ways they cannot be aware of, and we also are privy to some of Phil's internal monolog [When he talks to the landlady of the bed & breakfast on the first Groundhog Day, he mutters "you can't even spell espresso" just under her ability to hear him, meaning that he thinks she's a fool.]  Phil is certainly vainglorious, but he is also a tortured man.  Though he sees job advancement in his future, it is life inself in its untidiness that tortures him.  Before the movie's gimmick of the Groundhog Day holiday repeating thousands of times, Phil is trapped--in a pattern of thinking that saps him of the ability to learn from and enjoy the life he has.  Phil is classically Unaware.

After the situation has been set up -- Phil has given the first news report on the holiday activities and we have seen Phil's first reaction to a dozen of Punxsutawney's citizens -- the film's gimmick comes into effect and we witness the evolution of his relationship with the people in his small universe and the changes that come over him. The films's gimmick has become rather spectacularly famous: It is that Phil, for reasons wholely unexplained, is stuck in this one Groundhog Day, having to repeat it thousands upon thousands of times until he finds the key to move on to February 3 -- where he can then emerge whole, as a compassionate being.

Phil the Weatherman by no means undergoes a complete transformation to Enlightenment or Cosmic Consciousness, but the stages of change that Phil experiences is not uncoincidentally similar to the marks of the Cosmic Sense, as listed in Dr. Bucke's classic study in 1901, Cosmic Consciousness:  A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.  In an early chapter, "From Self to Cosmic Consciousness," Bucke lists the signs that this sense is present in an individual. Bucke wrote,
"...briefly and explicitly, the marks of the Cosmic Sense...are:
    1. The subjective light.
    2. The moral elevation.
    3. The intellectual illumination.
    4. The sense of immortality.
    5. The loss of the fear of death.
    6. The loss of the sense of sin.
    7. The suddenness, instantaneousness, of the awakening.
    8. The previous character of the man--intellectual, moral and physical.
    9. The age of illumination.
    10. The added charm to the personality so that men and women are always (?) strongly attracted to the person.
    11. The transfiguration of the subject of the changes as seen by others when the cosmic sense is actually present.
Most of the book is devoted to documentable instances of persons with the Cosmic Sense.  The first person discussed is Buddha, which is not surprising, for the book is a work of zen (whatever the author may have intended), looking at manifestations from the vantage of a detached third party.  Most of the eleven marks that Bucke deliniates are touched on in Phil's ascent to higher consciousness.

When Phil awakens on the first repeating Groundhog Day, he is ill, disoriented and stunned.  He quickly becomes aware that his is more that a simple instance of deja vu.  The world has been rocked off its axis; the impossible is happening; all the comforts of a predictable universe where his habits of thought had succor have vanished.  The second repeating day is much the same, with Phil a little angrier.  He continues to be dismissive toward others and exhibits the same old patterns of being cruel and sarcastic. On the third day he explores a medical fix to his situation, consulting a physician and a psychiatrist, and sees that there is no escape from the trap he finds himself in.

On the next day depicted in the movie, Phil sees that there are no consequences to his actions.  At this point, Phil drives on railroad tracks and smashes into a line of parked cars.  The fact that any day is repeated means that the prior experience of a day is undone -- thus his arrest by the police is obviated by a new dawn.  Here Phil begins to experience joy in having his life disconnected from others (and have no meaning).  "I'm not going to live by their rules any more." he says.

He's freed of all responsibility.  We see him on a subsequent day smoking and stuffing himself with fattening foods.  He tells Rita "I don't even have to floss."  Here, Rita recites a famous Sir Walter Scott poem with the lines "doubly dying will go down; unwept, unaltered and unsung."  On subsequent days he seduces a resident named Nancy, telling her he will marry her, steals a bag of money, and indulges his fantasies.  (He has one woman wear a short maid's dress and insists that she call him "Bronco.")  And with each new day, everything is erased.

At this point, Phil begins a long sequence of days where he attempts to seduce Rita.  As he learns more and more about her, and corrects his errors, he is able eventually to get her up into his room before she slaps him and runs off.  But the artifice to his effort is something Rita sees through and he cannot succeed in establishing a close relationship with her.  Essentially, Phil is unchanged; he continues to treat others as objects that he either ridicules or manipulates.  In his pre-Groundhog Day life, his "habits of being" worked for him; but stuck in a day that loops every 24 hours, he can only struggle to expand the depth (or meaning) of the period of time--and he is not yet able to bring forth that ability from within himself.

Phil falls into a depression and commits suicide, repeatedly ["doubly dying"], but still awakens again and again for more Groundhog Days in Punxsutawney.  Phil, with the knowledge he has of all his (24-hour) lives, comes to know that he is "an immortal; a god."  ("I've killed my self so many times, I don't exist anymore," he says.) At this point, Phil has undergone a change which results in an honest conversation with Rita in the coffee shop. He and Rita are now able to have a real relationship, but it, too, ends with the cycle of another, new day.

But having found his "emptiness of self" Phil begins a different experience of existence, a new pattern of thinking.  He begins reading, learning to play the piano and ice sculpt--and to care about people.

On the last Groundhog Day, Phil and Rita become acquainted late in the evening, but it is enough time for them to come to have a close personal relationship.  And with a new dawn -- on February 3 -- they begin a life together as what we well suppose are mated loving partners.

Is Phil Enlightened?  No.  But much of what happens in the way of Phil's spiritual maturity matches the marks of Bucke's Cosmic Sense.  Phil is certainly (b) morally elevated and (c) intellectually illuminated.  His efforts at suicide can have (d) given him an ongoing sense of immortality and (e) a loss of fear of death.  Phil has certainly undergone a (h) change of character.  The Cosmic Sense usually comes upon a person in his late thirties, and, we are told, Phil was twenty years out of high school, just right for (i) the age of illumination.  As for (j) and (k), Phil seems to exude extraordinary charm at the end of the movie, based on people's reactions to him.

The Ned Ryerson Conundrum

Ned Ryerson is an important character in the twilight zone of repeating days that traps Phil Connors in the film.  On the surface, there seems nothing particularly meaningful in the meetings between Ned and Phil.  It seems simply that Phil must avoid a pushy salesman, and that we see, over the course of the many meetings (most of which are implied, and may number thousands), the different strategies Phil uses to rebuff Ned's aggressiveness.  On the final February 2--the one that takes effect--we are told that Phil has purchased every variety of insurance that Ned sells.

Phil and Ned
The question then is, "What does it mean that after thousands of meetings, Ned is successful in selling insurance to Phil?"

But, also, there is something very curious going on in the carefully written screenplay.  And it is this curious thing which I think we are tasked to understand.

The curious thing is this:  If we are to suppose that the events relating to Ned are there just for comedy's sake, then why--when the screenplay is so meticulously crafted--does the first meeting between Phil and Ned so closely echo the later "pick-up" meeting between Phil and Nancy? Below, is the text of the first meeting between Ned and Phil, followed by the Phil and Nancy pick-up scene.

******** Ned greets Phil
Ned:  Phil?  Hey, Phil.  Phil.  Phil Conners.  Phil Conners, I thought that was you.
Phil:  How ya doing?  Thanks for watching.
Ned:  Now don't you tell me you don't remember me because I sure as heck-fire remember you.
Phil:  Not a chance.
Ned:  Ned!  Ryerson!  Neddle-nose Ned.  Ned the Head.  Case Western High!  Ned Ryerson.  I did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show.  Bing!  Ned Ryerson.  Got the shingles real bad senior year almost didn't graduate.  Bing!  Again.  Ned Ryerson.  I dated your sister, Mary Pat, until you told me not to any more.  Well?
Phil:  Ned Ryerson?
Ned:  Bing!
Phil:[meekly] Bing.

******** Phil greets Nancy
Phil:  Nancy?  Nancy Taylor!?
Nancy:  [Laughs]
Phil:  Lincoln High School?  I sat next to you in Mrs. Walch's English class.
Nancy:  Oh, I'm sorry.
Phil:  Phil Connors!
Nancy:  Wow.  That's amazing.
Phil:  You don't remember me, do you?
Nancy:  Um.
Phil:  I even asked you to the prom.
Nancy:  Phil Connors?
Phil:  I was short and I've sprouted.
Nancy:  Yeah.  Gosh, how are you?
Phil:  Great.  You look terrific.  You look very, very terrific!
Nancy:  [Laughs]
Phil:  Listen.  I've gotta go do this report.  Um.
Nancy:  Are you a reporter?
Phil:  I'm a weatherman with channel 9, Pittsburgh.
Nancy:  Wow.  Gosh.  I should have known.  That's great.
Phil:  But maybe later we could--
Nancy:  Yeah.  Whatever.
Phil:  Stay...right...here.  Promise me?
Nancy:  Yes.
Phil:  OK.  I'll be right back.
Nancy:  OK
Phil:  Wish me luck.
Nancy:  Good luck.

Now, it may not be immediately clear what the similarity is between these two conversations, so let me explain.

In the meeting when Ned greets Phil, Phil never recognizes Ned, though Ned provides three personal items of information:  1) Phil's full name  2) the high school Phil attended and 3) the name of Phil's sister.

The day before Phil succeeds in picking up Nancy, he goes to her and gets three bits of personal information from her:  1) her full name  2) the high school she attended  and 3) the name of her senior-year English teacher.  The next day, Phil confronts Nancy with his knowledge of this information to suggest that she must know him since he clearly, certainly knows her.  Ned had confronted Phil in exactly this way!  And there is no indication in the movie that Phil ever really remembered Ned from high school.

Question:  Why did the screenwriters knowingly make these scenes so similar and formulaic?

Perhaps the answer is this: When we take up the  practice of the Four Abodes of the Buddha -- the four being loving-kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity -- we first learn a simple, yet vital, beginner's task, "learning (just) to see the other."

As drabness or boredom in life is overcome our encounters both with people we think we know and with persons whom are strangers to us take on measures of adventure and discovery. We are tantalized by how others are both similar to us and quite different. We witness sparks of something new, amazing -- even unique -- in even the most annoying-seeming individuals, or those whom we had at first tagged as drab or dull as dust. There is nobody who isn't a wonderland and of immense value. Just the seeing makes it so.

Thus, Phil is finding himself -- in scenes that span from those with Ned to those with Nancy -- at the beginning of getting outside himself, becoming appreciative of other people.