BOOK REVIEW: Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown

Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short IntroductionBuddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Most people, if they know anything about Buddhist ethics, have heard of the Eightfold Path (right + view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.) However, just knowing that can lead to the impression that Buddhist ethics are blurry and that it’s all a matter of doing as one pleases within one’s personal interpretation of rightness. This concise guide offers an overview of the Buddhist ethics and morality, focusing on issues of global and modern interest (as opposed to those issues only of interest in places where Buddhism is practiced or at the time in which Buddha was teaching – i.e. issues like abortion, vegetarianism, war, suicide, and cloning and not subjects like caste, traditional family roles, etc.)

The first two chapters present a broad overview, and the rest focus on particular ethical issues. I found the second chapter beneficial; it asks how Buddhist ethics fit in the categorization scheme employed by Western Philosophy. I considered it useful even though the answer was that Buddhist ethics aren’t neatly contained by this way of thinking, but rather can be seen as a mix of multiple approaches. (e.g. Buddhism has sets of precepts – ala deontology, has a karmic doctrine that is arguably consequentialist, and, also, has elements similar to the virtue ethics of ancient Greece.)

Chapters three through eight investigate specific issues: animal rights and environmental ethics (ch. 3,) sexuality and gender (ch. 4,) war and violence (ch. 5,) abortion (ch. 6,) suicide / euthanasia (ch. 7,) and upcoming technologies that will change what it means to be alive and conscious (i.e. cloning, artificial intelligence, cryogenics, and CRISPR.) As with chapter two, there’s often no tidy answer. For one thing, the author tries to contend with what is common across various sects, and this is often reflected in the laws of countries, laws which are only partially informed by Buddhist philosophy. Also, it’s not like the Buddha had anything to say on many of these issues, which either weren’t issues (e.g. cloning) or were considered radically differently (e.g. gender.) Still, one does get an idea of how these questions relate to ideas such as karma and dharma, and how contemporary Buddhist thinkers might begin to consider them.

One will note that there are ethical territories that aren’t addressed (e.g. justice / punishment, ethics of governance, business ethics, etc.,) but a brief guide needs filters, and this one chose to focus heavily on modern, individual ethical questions of broad international interest.

If you’re looking to better understand Buddhist ethics, this book is worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Humour: A Very Short Introduction by Noël Carroll

Humour: A Very Short IntroductionHumour: A Very Short Introduction by Noël Carroll
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As both Mark Twain and E.B. White made abundantly clear, humor is like a frog; dissection kills it and few are interested in watching that happen. Which isn’t to say that dissection isn’t useful. But it does mean that readers who are looking for a book that’s a laugh-riot are looking in the wrong place. Most of the example jokes were ancient when the book was first published eight years ago. (They’re good jokes. Bad jokes don’t become old jokes, they die ignominiously.) All that aside, this book provides an intriguing look into such questions as: 1.) why do we find things humorous in the first place? (We take humor for granted, but – think about it – there’s no rationale for things being funny that automatically springs to mind;) 2.) how, if at all, does humor relate to our broader emotional experience; and 3.) when, if ever, is humor unethical?

This concise guide has three parts. In the first part, we learn the various theories of humor, and learn that the author favors Incongruity Theory (i.e. humor is – first and foremost – a recognition of and response to incongruities.) In the second, the author discusses the debate over whether humor is an emotional experience, or something else. Finally, we learn about the value of humor and, in particular, the ethics of humor. There’s a continuum from those who believe that humor – in and of itself – is always ethical to those who think that it’s virtually always unethical (unless one can find a joke without a butt,) with many nuanced variations, in between.

I found this to be an intriguing guide to the philosophy and psychology of humor, and – if that’s what you’re in search of – you should check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas

Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionAncient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Annas’s task of creating a concise guide for such a broad topic is a daunting one. For perspective, I’ve read books in this series [AVSI] on Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Socrates – each of which is a slim subset of the material called “Ancient Philosophy.” Furthermore, it’s not as though there was great homogeneity of ideas among the ancients. And, adding to the challenge, the author attempts to address the full scope of ancient philosophy: i.e. ethics, epistemology, logic, and metaphysics.

The book is forced to both restrict itself to an inch deep (because the subject is a mile wide,) but also to make choices about what schools, philosophers, and sub-topics it will address. History did part of the work – e.g. for many ancients, only fragmentary or secondhand evidence of their positions survived. So, we see a lot about Plato and Aristotle because their words remain. The book also devotes a disproportionate emphasis to what some call “philosophy of life,” i.e. ethics and how / whether to pursue a happy and meaningful life – i.e. how to live. This emphasis is both because that’s what many ancients focused upon, but also because it’s what people find relevant when looking back to them. [As opposed to ancient metaphysics, which science has largely made obsolete, ancient ethics and thoughts on happiness aren’t necessarily outmoded.] The first chapter sets up this focus on philosophy of life in an interesting way by discussing humanity’s mixed motivational system — reason v. emotion.

One question that the book robustly considers is the degree to which ancient philosophy is still relevant. This is taken up most directly in chapter two, but the final chapter (on what constitutes ancient philosophy) also has germane things to say on the subject.

I found in this book a quick guide to comparing schools of the ancient world across the breadth of philosophy, and would recommend the volume – particularly as a starting point prior to delving deeper into sub-topics.


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BOOK REVIEW: Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood

Stoicism: A Very Short IntroductionStoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Inwood provides an overview Stoic philosophy as it’s discussed in a scholarly context. To distinguish Stoicism as scholars see it from how it’s viewed by those who practice it as a lifestyle, the author differentiates “large Stoicism” from “minimal stoicism.” The vast majority of books today deal only with minimal stoicism – in other words; they exclusively explore how to lead a good and virtuous life, i.e. ethics-centric Stoicism. Scholars, however, are also interested in the physics (/ metaphysics) and the logic of Stoicism.


There are several reasons for this difference in scope. First, Stoic ethics has aged much better than its other philosophical branches. Much of Stoic logic has been improved upon or superseded, and Stoic physics is [arguably] obsolete. This means that scholars studying Stoic physics and logic are more interested in those subjects as a stage of development or a piece of philosophical history than they are as contenders for understanding those subjects. Second, prominent Stoic philosophers with surviving writings (i.e. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca) have inspired many people by discussing Stoicism as a way of life – not so much as a navel-gazing endeavor.


After discussing the origins of Stoicism, the major Stoic authors, and how Stoicism relates to other philosophical schools of the ancient world, the book presents a chapter each on physics, ethics, and logic. The last chapter investigates how Stoicism is viewed today and how it might maintain relevance despite challenges to some of its metaphysical and logical underpinnings.


Having read a number of books on Stoicism, I didn’t know whether this concise book would be of much benefit. However, by describing Stoicism’s broader context and how the deterioration of much of that context influences the philosophy’s relevance, the book offered plenty of food-for-thought. If you’re interested in this broader context, you may want to give this book a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Anecdotes of the Cynics by Various

Anecdotes of the CynicsAnecdotes of the Cynics by Robert F. Dobbin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of brief stories and sayings from famous Cynic philosophers – notably, Diogenes of Sinope, Crates of Thebes, Hipparchia, and Bion. It opens with the longest piece, a dialogue [allegedly] by Lucian the Cynic advocating the Cynic’s minimalist approach to life. [Cynics were ascetics who shunned customs and cultural conventions and thus often ran afoul of the conservative societal base / rubbed people the wrong way.] The dialogue uses Socratic method, but also contains prolonged exposition. [Not like the Platonic dialogues in which Socrates tends to ask brief questions and attempts to demand brief answers – granted not always successfully.] However, most of the pieces are just a paragraph or two brief excerpts.

Most of the entries report on what various Cynics said or did, though there are a few that are biased commentaries of non-Cynics about these “dog philosophers” – e.g. there is a Catholic tract denouncing the Cynics while talking up Paul. [It reads as though the early Christian church (which was teaching Jesus’s ideas, including: in part, the virtues of poverty, of simplicity, and of a lack of deference to the world of men) might have been concerned about being outcompeted.]

There’s not a tremendous amount that remains of direct Cynic teachings, and so a book like this is a way to get a taste of the highlights. Just as Buddha found that extreme forms of ascetism didn’t yield the optimal result, Cynicism lost ground to the upstart school Stoicism, which borrowed some Cynic ideas while jettisoning the most extreme aspects of the philosophy.

One can find these stories in old public domain sources such as Diogenes Laertius’ (no relation) “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers,” but this is a good way to get the condensed version without too much extraneous information.

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BOOK REVIEW: Meno by Plato

MenoMeno by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Online: MIT Classics

The central question of this dialogue is the teachability of virtue. The dialogue called Protagoras also delved into this question. Lest one think there’s no benefit to be had from reading a second take on the subject, the ultimate answer in this dialogue is the opposite of that seen in “Protagoras.” Socrates agreed with Protagoras that virtue was teachable. However, here Socrates concludes that it isn’t, citing the fact that there are no viable teachers of virtue (ever the anti-Sophist,) and yet there are people who consistently behave virtuously.

[If one wonders how two of Plato’s Socratic dialogues could feature completely different answers on the same question, the mid- and late dialogues are often thought to reflect Plato’s personal views more than his teacher’s. “Protagoras” is an early dialogue, while “Meno” is a middle dialogue. (It’s also possible they weren’t written by the same author as a number of dialogues attributed to Plato are in doubt.)]

I don’t find Socrates’s arguments on the subject at hand compelling. Socrates proposes that there are certain concepts that come pre-loaded into humans. He questions one of Meno’s slaves on geometry to show that the slave seems to have a grasp of geometry without having ever been taught. Ultimately, Socrates concludes that a grasp of virtue is divinely installed in many people.

Still, there’s lots of beneficial food-for-thought, particularly when Socrates differentiates knowledge and true beliefs / right opinions.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gorgias by Plato

GorgiasGorgias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

This Socratic dialogue explores what rhetoric is, and whether rhetorician is a real job, like plumber or secretary, or whether it’s more like “bottled water sommelier” or “social media influencer” – i.e. an undertaking by which one can make loads of money without contributing society one iota. It starts out (as usual) with Socrates questioning someone, in this case the rhetorician Gorgias. This exchange can be summed up by the ideas that: 1.) rhetoric is persuasion; 2.) the ignorant are more persuasive to the ignorant than are those with knowledge. [Gorgias boasts that he has been able to convince patients to take actions that their physicians couldn’t. Because Gorgias had to admit he didn’t know as much about facilitating health as a physician, he was forced to agree to the sad absurdity that people will often comply with slick talkers who know nothing (a plight which may prove to be the downfall of our species.)] There’s a fine epistemological discussion of the difference between belief and knowledge that is used by Socrates to show that rhetoricians aren’t concerned with knowledge so much as beliefs.

Then Polus and Callicles (young rhetoricians) take up the questioning role, turning the tables and asking Socrates what is the art of rhetoric. [And we know they’re not going to like the answer.] Socrates denies rhetoric is an art, and calls it the counterfeit part of politics. Socrates compares rhetoric to cookery, where cooks pretend to be experts in what food should be eaten but, while people often love the cook’s meals, it’s the physician who actually knows what food is best. Socrates doesn’t consider rhetoric an art because it isn’t rooted in knowledge or virtue, but rather in momentary preferences. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the young men believe it is worse to suffer injustice than to do injustice and that being able to exert control (be it for good or ill) equates to power and happiness. Socrates accepts neither premise, and systematically refutes both. Callicles’ tack is along lines of natural justice — the strongest do as they please and pursuit of pleasure is noble. [The truth is that while Socrates may have the more sound and supportable position, the rhetoricians describe the way the world operates more accurately.]

This is a sharp and insightful dialogue, and given its surprising relevance to the present day, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alcibiades I & II by Plato

Alcibiades I and IIAlcibiades I and II by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While these two dialogues feature Socrates questioning Alcibiades (a youth – apropos of nothing – for whom the philosopher has the hots,) they’re different. While it’s not certain that either was written by Plato, it’s much more widely accepted that the first dialogue was so authored. I found the first part to be the more engaging read.

In Part I, Socrates urges Alcibiades to put off going into politics (as the young man is about to do) until he’s more enlightened on the subject at hand – i.e. justice, expediency, and virtue as it pertains to matters of war and peace. In the second part, Socrates convinces Alcibiades that the subject of prayers should not be taken lightly, leading the young man to delay his sacrifice and prayer to a time he can be wiser about it.

The first part is more piquant. In it, Alcibiades on occasion seems to be holding his own (rather than being a talking head.) A great example of this can be seen after Socrates makes clear that Alcibiades’ education in language, the lyre, and wrestling hardly qualify him to advise Athens on matters of war and peace. Alcibiades turns the tables and asks whether it isn’t possible that he could attain the requisite knowledge of justice other than through formal education. Socrates admits that he could by discovery, but just when Alcibiades thinks he has the point, Socrates argues that the only way Alcibiades could make a discovery was if there was a time that the youth didn’t think he already knew. Socrates goes on to show that – even as a child – Alcibiades labored under the impression that he knew what was just.

The most interesting topic of the second dialogue is the question of whether lack of wisdom and madness are the same thing. In Phaedrus, Socrates explores several varieties of divine madness, and I wondered how closely this dialogue might echo that one. (It doesn’t because it’s more about madness that’s not so divine, but Socrates does refute Alcibiades’ equation of the two concepts.)

Definitely read First Alcibiades, and if you have time, the second one makes some intriguing points as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Charmides by Plato

CharmidesCharmides by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Temperance is the subject of this Socratic dialogue, debated with Charmides and Critias. The opening may feel a bit icky as it’s essentially a few old men obsessing over beautiful youths (of which Charmides is one) in a way that may not explicitly be lecherous, but kind of feels that way. However, they soon get into systematic reflections of the nature of temperance. Charmides is said to have this quality in droves, but, of course, that begs the question of just what it is.

It’s worth noting, they aren’t using “temperance” in the way the English word is typically defined, i.e. the quality of knowing to what degree one should participate in varied activities, if at all. At least, they don’t get to that definition within the dialogue, but – in point of fact – they don’t arrive at any definition. However, they seem to equate “temperance” with “wisdom.” They do try out a series of alternate definitions, which Socrates systematically disassembles, including: temperance as quietness, as modesty, as “doing one’s own business,” as a science of itself and of the absence of science, and as the science of recognizing good and evil. The first couple of these are summarily dismissed, the latter ones take more effort and elaboration to tease out, but ultimately don’t produce a definition that’s both agreeable and useful.

In the process there is a discussion of epistemology as it pertains to what one can know, and whether one can have any clear understanding of one’s “known unknowns” and how they compare to the “unknown unknowns.” The relevance is rooted in a discussion of whether temperance is the ability to know what one knows and what one doesn’t.

This isn’t one of the best Socratic dialogues, but it does provide food for thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson [Ill. by Chris Garratt]

Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is one title in the “A Graphic Guide” series of books, many of which (including this one) are available on Amazon Prime. The books in the series explain fundamentals for a wide range of academic subjects, using simple descriptions supported by graphics. This particular book examines the philosophy of ethics and morality.

The book consists of a large number (almost 130) short topical sections, each with supporting graphics. Each section is just a page or two in length. The book has a chronological flow, moving from Socrates through the Postmodern philosophers. The nature of the topics varies, sometimes it is the view of a particular philosopher or school of philosophy, sometimes it’s a fundamental question or point of contention, and sometimes it’s a specific ethical issue. The last twenty-ish statements elaborate on two specific cases that the book addresses in detail: animal rights and euthanasia.

I felt the author did a good job of laying out a number of fault lines, controversies at the heart of differing views of ethics. The controversy that gets the most attention is that between absolutists and relativists. (Absolutists claim there are a set of core moral rules that are universally applicable, while relativists say one can’t make such rules because the morality of every action is relative, be it: situationally, culturally, or individually. An extreme view from either perspective is inconsistent with what one tends to sees in the real world.) A second point of contention regards whether ethical constraints are determined at the individual level or the societal / tribal / group level? A third controversy consists of a subjectivity versus objectivity divide – i.e. is morality just about what feels right or is there an objective way of defining moral knowledge? A significant portion of the book deals with the rivalries about these points, and – to a lesser degree – others (e.g. is biology the root of ethics or is it a domain devoid of ethics?)

There are cartoon drawings with most of the sections that illustrate key points, and / or depict interactions between rival philosophers. There is a “further reading” section in the back that suggests books to expand one’s grasp of the subject beyond the bare fundamentals that are addressed in this book.

I thought this book did a good job of laying out the issues. The cases (animal rights and euthanasia) helped show how different schools of thought apply their ideas to specific questions. I particularly enjoyed how the book clarified the subject through discussion of key questions of contention. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s definitely worth checking this one out. If not, you may want to see how it compares to the “A Very Short Introduction” guide for Oxford University Press, which is a similar series that explains the basics of a subject in a concise fashion.

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