Kranti Saran is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ashoka University and a Research Associate at Harvard University.
The Bodhisattva and the Disposition to Justice
The 8th century Indian Buddhist monk Śāntideva’s classic Bodhicaryāvatāra depicts the individual of good psychological health: the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is dedicated to working for the well-being of all sentient creatures. The mind of the bodhisattva is marked by six perfections or pāramitās: generosity, moral conduct, forbearance, effort, meditative absorption, and insight.
Conspicuously absent from Śāntideva’s list is something essential to a healthy mind: the disposition to justice. Following Bernard Williams, the disposition to justice is a motivating sensitivity to considerations of fairness to all. Since insensitivity to harm is pathological, and injustice is a harm, insensitivity to injustice is pathological. Hence a healthy mind must have a disposition to justice.
Is a disposition to justice any part of Śāntideva’s moral psychology? If not, it has a justice-shaped hole. While the bodhisattva can doubtless perform actions we would classify as just, whether a disposition to justice drives those actions remains an open question.
Śāntideva argues into existence a motive of universal altruistic concern, which can be cultivated into a stable disposition. He writes: “I should dispel the suffering of others because it is suffering like my own suffering. I should help others too because of their nature as beings, which is like my own being,” (VIII.94). Here is a first pass at Śāntideva’s argument. By nature, I do not wish to suffer. Wishing not to suffer gives me a reason to relieve my own suffering. I share my nature with all sentient beings; they too wish not to suffer and so have a reason to relieve their suffering. But there is no morally relevant distinction between them and myself, for we share the same nature (VIII.103). Hence I have a reason to relieve everyone’s suffering.
Whether the disposition to universal altruistic concern is related to the disposition to justice remains an open question. They generate different kinds of reasons. The former produces reasons that appeal to our common nature, the latter to others’ rights. Nevertheless, both dispositions share the character of impartiality and a sensitivity to the harms facing others. Perhaps supplementing the universal altruistic concern with some reasoning can generate the disposition to justice.
Even if a disposition to justice can be part of Śāntideva’s moral psychology, its thematic elision risks a misunderstanding of universal compassion’s impartiality. The misunderstanding is thinking that impartiality requires neutrality in action between oppressor and oppressed, or worse, disengagement. Properly understood, universal compassion’s impartiality demands acting in solidarity with those suffering injustice.
Śāntideva. (1995). Śāntideva: The Bodhicaryāvatāra (K. Crosby & A. Skilton, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford.
Williams, B. (1981). Justice as a virtue. In Williams 2006 (pp. 207–217).
Williams, B. (2006). The sense of the past: Essays in the history of philosophy (M. Burnyeat, Ed.). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.