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Ethics of the East and West with Bradford Cokelet

Dr. Bradford Cokelet is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas. He has written and coedited three books, including the Moral Psychology of Guilt, which is to be published this month. He is also the recipient of two Templeton Foundation grants to study character, virtue, and motivation. His work concerns Eastern philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and applied ethics. In this podcast, Brad and I talk about ethical traditions of the East and West, and begin to discuss how to meaningfully compare and contrast traditions.

APA citation: Cazzell, A. R. (Host). (2019, October 22). Ethics of the East and West with Bradford Cokelet [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from


NOTE: This transcript was automatically generated. Please excuse typos and errors.

Brad Cokelet: 00:01:14 My undergrad was in math and religious studies and I was raised in a nonreligious household. So I got interested in sort of questions about what I want to do with my life. So I started a religious studies major. And so I studied a lot of Buddhism and Christianity and Judaism. And then after I graduated from college, I was a social worker for a brief time. And then I had a friend who is studying philosophy and he sort of turned me on to it. And so I started reading it and then I went to get a master's degree to see if I wanted to do it more seriously. And so that was the period at university of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. I started taking ethics courses and that's when I realized my whole interest in religion was basically around a question of how do you live a good life? What should, what should I do with my life? And then my time as a social worker got me more interested in stuff about social justice and sort of what being a good parent involves. So, so those are sort of my real life interests. And then you know, I professionalize and do academic philosophy as time went on. But I kept up the side interests in psychology and Buddhism, especially at that point that I took classes when I was in grad school. So that's how I kind of got into it.

Amber Cazzell: 00:02:35 And what drew your interest in Buddhism in particular?

Brad Cokelet: 00:02:42 Well, I'm not a theist and I sort of think it's sort of like the William James idea that I, I meet friends with a lot of theists. I went into a lot of different churches and it just wasn't really alive option for me. And so, but I was interested in the idea of I figuring out what my current psychology was like and what I could do to change it a to be happier and best sort of with my life again, a good way. And so then, so then Buddhism was a natural draw cause they have lots of sort of tech technologies or whatever you want to call them for trying to modify your psychology, understand your psychology. And it didn't have a theistic backdrop. So it was sorta easily accessible to me.

Amber Cazzell: 00:03:25 I see. Okay, cool. So I think that we'll just go ahead and jump right into kind of our topic for today, since there's a lot in here for just an hour. So Brad is, is thankfully going to educate me on some of the differences between ethical traditions of the East and the West. So first Brad, could you tell me about sort of the main ethical, the, the main Western ethical traditions what they are and just brief descriptions, kind of each?

Brad Cokelet: 00:04:00 Yeah, I mean, I guess one way to think about this is that you know, in a, in a kind of useful caricature that we uses is that ethics in the West to some extent in philosophy. Anyway, it started in Greece. And so a lot of people think there might've been some kind of background of Homeric hero culture. And then when you get to people like Aristotle and Plato they're trying to kind of rationalize and improve the background culture that they're inheriting and kind of, you know, use reason in order to reflect on and improve their background value scheme that's in their culture. And so that, you know, there's a sort of weak ethics that a lot of people now we'll look back to I guess most people today in philosophy anyway, or even outside of philosophy, a lot of people look back to Aristotle.

Brad Cokelet: 00:04:54 And so Aristotle had this idea of he's mainly focused on the idea of a good life for what it is to be a good human being. And he doesn't really have a notion of morality as sort of an independent set of rules or norms or considerations apart from other values. And so he has just focuses on the idea of being a good person or good human being and living, living a happy, some people say flourishing life and he identified good features you have to have in order to be a good human being in with a good life. And those are roughly like the Greek term is arete. It's basically excellence is you. And that's sort of the origin of our term virtue. Now roughly put. And so among those are things we would now call moral virtues. So things like justice, but they also included things like being witty and you know, potentially taking proper pride, your great accomplishments.

Brad Cokelet: 00:05:58 And so you know, now is we wouldn't really think of those as moral defects that you're not witty or you don't, you know, if you're not proud enough of what you've done. So it was this kind of general category of sort of virtues of a good person living a good life. And so then there's a big, a huge historical tradition going on all the way up through, you know, the influence of Christianity especially. And Aristotle was sort of taken up by st Thomas Aquinas and had a huge influence on the Catholic church. And so one thing is that the idea of a good life, what is the good person gets transformed by sort of largely a Christian dominated culture by for a long time. You might, it's useful to think of it as sort of, they're still that still sort of the basic framework. And then I think one way to think about it is there was a big shift in thinking of turning away from just thinking about and thinking there are actually a set of moral norms or rules that are independent of what's good or bad for individual human beings and makes us happy and what makes us good people.

Brad Cokelet: 00:07:13 And when we think about that, is there divine commands that God laid down on a tablet or something or they're, they're out there. Other people just thought they're just, these are these moral rules and that kind of idea of morality as a set of norm that's independent of what's good for us that really came into its own during sort of the modern period in the last. So that's, I guess I would say about the Western history of ethics. So I see sort of two phases. One that's just, doesn't really have a distinct distinctive distinction between morality and other things that make us good human beings and help us live well together. And then there's a shift to thinking there's this special thing morality. And that I think in certain ways starts with certain Christian thinkers, especially people who are interested in divine command theory.

Brad Cokelet: 00:08:11 But then it comes into its own with the rise of the modern state. It's a complicated story. I don't wanna try to get into too much of it, but what I understand of it, I've read his story, philosophers and ultra starts writing about this. There's this complicated story, but the way, the easiest thing to notice is there's this now people just think, well, there's morality and there's you know, it would be good for you and what it would be for you to live a good life. And people think those might conflict. And so they're definitely not like is not grounded in the other, they're there. They're like, they could totally come apart. And then typically people that point want to say, you should do the moral thing even when it's going to require you to suffer a lot. And you know, so that, so that's sort of like these two ideas is moralities and independent thing. And number two is that a lot of people want to say it should, it's the thing you should do even at great sacrifice.

Amber Cazzell: 00:09:05 Yeah. So, so was that, I mean it sounds like you're saying that sort of this separation between what's good for a person or what's good in sort of this more abstract, ethical kind of sense that that distinction wasn't really the case in ancient Greece.

Brad Cokelet: 00:09:28 Yeah, that's right. I mean, I think that's a, I mean, some people have sort of when you try to get precise on what exactly was not present in Greece, that that is present in more recent thinking. Like anything else, you'll get scholars disagreeing. So, but some people will say things like if you read Aristotle, like my advisor in grad school, Richard crowd argues that Aristotle just doesn't even have the concept of moral right and wrong in his, in his thinking. And then other people like Juliana Annas really excellent a philosopher at Arizona, you know, she argues maybe against that or so there's a back and forth. But I think everyone would agree whether or not, you know, there's a sort of, first of all, there is a dispute about whether these ancient Greek philosophers even had the concepts of moral right and wrong.

Brad Cokelet: 00:10:22 But even if they did, they didn't really distinguish you know, what we think is like morally good and bad features of people from other features that would make you live well or not. Or you know, whether you, you know, maybe we might think of stuff like witty being witty, we might be like, Oh yeah, that makes you more fun to be around and maybe you make people happy, but it's not like a moral issue. And so they just didn't, they didn't really distinguish. So they either didn't they, some people think, you know, they didn't even have these moral concepts. Other people think, well, okay, maybe they have the concepts, but they just didn't really, it wasn't that big a deal. Like they, that wasn't the focus for them. They were focused on, you know, everybody living well and being good human beings.

Amber Cazzell: 00:11:04 So that's interesting to me cause it all, it also, it kind of makes sense that, all right. So you then have, you know, religions come along that namely Christianity that kind of dictate all right, there're be certain rules for social functioning and yet like the early Christian Church arose from ancient Greece. So was there like a...

Brad Cokelet: 00:11:26 Well, my understanding, so this is, I am not an expert on this, but my understanding roughly at this point is that it really wasn't until the Medieval period with people like Duns Scotus and these kind of medieval Scholastic philosophers they get called. So I'm really bad with dates, but this is way after the early church. It's at, you know, before the enlightenment. And so, but, but these guys were basically you know, look, God created these commands. He commanded certain things. Those are the moral rules. And it's not really, you know, grounded. You can't give an account of what's right or wrong based on an account of human nature and what human beings wants good or bad for them. But bad idea that you could make sense of moral right and wrong based on thinking about human nature and what's it's good or bad for humans is kind of broadly Aristotelian idea.

Brad Cokelet: 00:12:22 That idea is even, that's basically acquaintances view. I think what I understand is the contemporary Catholic church to some extent. So there are lots of Christians all along that don't really pause at the sort of moral rules that are started independent. And my total caricature is that, you know, the more you think human beings are sort of utterly depraved and sinful, you might start to think of a more rules as being something independent. It's imposed on them. But I don't think that's really totally right. Right. But my impression is like historically you're right, like all early Christianity this idea, it wasn't that big. It sort of came at a later period in the developments.

Amber Cazzell: 00:13:07 That's fascinating. So the, the other thought I kind of had about this was I think some of those issues, the idea that what's good for you or just personal traits that are, you know, like what, you know, how Blaine [Fowers] calls certain traits like performance traits, not moral traits. That kind of a thing. I wonder also how much that has to do with just a rise in individualism in general, which, you know, I'm not, I'm not familiar with like classic societies as well as I'd like to be. But again, like individualism, my understanding is this is sort of, it, it really started to come into like politics and social functioning again with like ancient Greece moving forward. And I, I wonder like just if the level of individualism has increased over time alongside that shift.

Brad Cokelet: 00:14:17 Oh yeah. And the one thing about that, that brings a mind anyways, so about both ancient Greece and, you know, like Medieval Europe say, and then a lot of people say the same thing about ancient China for example. And to some extent contemporary different Asian countries is that they think insofar as they had like an ethical worldview and an ethical practice in our culture, it was what's some people make a distinction between a shame culture and a guilt culture. Yeah. And they think and so I just edited a collection on guilt that's a lot more complicated obviously when you try to work it out. But roughly the idea is that you know, with the advent of this kind of idea of morality as an independent set of norms that might go away from what's good for you and that you should act on what's right.

Brad Cokelet: 00:15:10 A lot of times people think that is connected to the idea of having a conscience and if your, your conscience is connected to guilt and you might think shame is just a more general response to failures to act in ways that others would approve of by. So a lot of people think guilt and conscience. It has this individualistic aspect where if you feel guilty, you think you have done something wrong and you're unhappy with the kind of person you have been. So it's really like focused on you as an individual where shame might be more like embarrassment where it's just, it's kind of like you're aware other people are looking at you in a negative way and you might try to kind of hide or something. So I don't know, but there might be something to you know, this the idea that a certain form of guilt or guilt starts to play a bigger role over time and that might be connected to people thinking of themselves as individuals more and caring more about their, whether they're good or bad as an individual. So that's one thought, but I that's pretty, that's obviously very speculative.

Amber Cazzell: 00:16:24 Okay. Yeah. So backing up to sort of the history of Western ethics, so we get to the point where people start to think about sort of personal goods and broader ethical goods as distinct, how do like deontological traditions and consequentialist kind of traditions come into the picture here?

Brad Cokelet: 00:16:51 Right. well that's pretty complicated. But I guess one way to think about it is you know, in philosophy sort of deontological so, so that means roughly sort of rules, rule focused. I think kind of technically or something, but I mean linguistically, but you know, you might think like if you, if you were to ask who's the famous deontologist, everybody would probably say Immanuel Kant. It would be probably one of the main people you would focus on. And one way of thinking about that is that a con is embedded in a part of the history of philosophy. And he's really focused on the idea that we have certain duties or obligations and those duties and obligations we have aren't connected in any systematic, reliable way with what's good or bad for us at all. So he thinks they're just these, they're just these moral facts about what obligated to do, what is permitted to do, what's right or wrong.

Brad Cokelet: 00:17:52 And he thanks like ancient philosophy made a big mistake when it tried to connect that up with stuff about what's good or bad for people. And so he tried to give a story, sort of a nontheistic story about the foundation of these moral right, wrong these obligations we all have. And he also brought up the idea that all human beings have some special dignity because we're just cause we're rational beings. So it doesn't matter whether you're rich or poor or what area, you know, whether you're high or low status or anything else, how old you are, the color of your scan and you maybe some principal con's view is everybody has equal dignity and they should be treated with respect. And that's sort of the basis for his thinking about obligations. So that's one way to think about it is that at least cons.

Brad Cokelet: 00:18:43 Deontology, it's really about respect for all people because they are rational agents. So that's not, you know, that's one dominant, prominent type of deontology. So, but it's not based on if you want to know what you're obligated to do, it's pretty much a matter of like, how would, what do you need to do to respect yourself and other people? And it's not about what you, what you would do to bring about the most good in the world. So you could think in lots of cases. Like I teach medical ethics, you know, an end of life situation. You might think, well, this person, they're going to suffer less if we euthanize them. But you might think that that's in some way disrespectful of them. So, so deontology really that's just easy way to think about it is that it's the, you're intuitive ideas about what to, it takes respect to people.

Brad Cokelet: 00:19:33 That's kind of the core. And so, you know, deontology was in various forms and then you know, historically at least some part of where consequentialism came from is it partially came from people like Francis Hutchinson who's a, who's a early English thinker, Scottish, I guess. That's horrible. I don't know. I'm kinda thinking about what would a benevolent God want. That's one source of people thought about that. And they just started thinking, well, well, if you are a God and you are all powerful and you are benevolent, you would want to bring about the best world you could. And so that's one way to get into the idea of consequentialism is if you were all powerful and you were really a good, good person and you were really benevolent and kind, wouldn't you want to just make the world the best place you could?

Brad Cokelet: 00:20:24 So then it seems like the right thing to do is what I've whatever will bring about the best world or outcome. And so that's a good way to get into kind of what the wave consequentialist ended up thinking about things is they think that's basically what determines what's right or wrong is what brings about the best consequences. And so early on was like, you know, there's lots of famous consequentialists. I was like, Bentham and Mill, they tend to adopt what philosophers call welfarism. That's this technical term. It just means when you're like, I want to bring out the best world, how do you measure a good world? Like what world's better or worse, they say, just keep your eye on wellbeing. And so the idea is the best action is the one that will promote people living happy lives. You know, and it's bad if it detracts from quality of life. And so that was so you can see that's an appealing idea. But it's gonna get you, it's gonna be really different than deontology. So like, you know, like my case of a person at the end of life that's a toy case to see where at least, you know, the simple forums that theories are going to come apart. I know I've kind of gotten into the different theories. I don't know.

Amber Cazzell: 00:21:37 Yeah. No, no, no, no. That's, it's helpful cause I think of those as different ethical traditions even though they're born out of sort of the same roots. Okay. So now let's shift gears to Eastern ethical traditions and sort of, I loved the historic backdrop. That was fascinating. I'd love to hear more about the historic backdrop on this side too.

Brad Cokelet: 00:22:00 Yeah. So I'm not as, I mean I'm not an expert on either. One of these histories, but I'm sort of fascinated by that and redevelop it. I think about that all the time. And so the Eastern tradition that I guess I'm most interested in recently is in, is China. And so you know, early China there's a lot of different strands of the traditions. I guess the main ones that people pull on or originally right away are Confucianism and Daoism. And so one way to think about Confucianism, is just so Confucius you could think of him, he's this guy sort of wandering around in this period where there's sort of political, some political instability, but things aren't too bad. And he's going around and he's got ideas about why things aren't going quite right politically, socially in individual people's lives.

Brad Cokelet: 00:22:54 And he thinks things were better back in this past dynasty that, you know, like several generations ago. And he's like, Oh, there was this period where things were better and things are worse now because there's been this decline from the way things used to be done. And so he advocates trying to kind of reinstate and live in accordance with what gets translated as rituals that were really influential in these past dynasties. And part of his idea is that by following these rituals, you become, that's your best mode to becoming a good person. We call it learning which maybe involves some kind of study of say, these classic texts or sets of songs that are kind of like folklore. And then you also engage in these rituals and you sort of have to observe yourself and cultivate your ability to live, like act out these rituals as well.

Brad Cokelet: 00:23:52 And that'll shape your whole way of behaving and interacting with everyone in your society. And he thinks you can sort of become a good person, a good human being. It looks like by using all these rituals and doing this sort of study. And what he thinks is that in order to have a good political system, you need the leaders to do all this stuff and then they'll become good people. And if they're really good people, they'll sort of inspire the populace. So the first of all though, do have good policies, cause they won't be bad people, but they'll also have, because there'll be these sort of exemplary people, they'll inspire the people around them, the all their underlings in the military and in the bureaucracy. But also the common people will start at being inspired by their moral ideal. And so there's this idea of sort of the good person or the good human being or, I mean, of course it's all gendered,

Brad Cokelet: 00:24:51 So its a good man. Talked about and so the, so there's this also kind of like in Greece, there's this focused on the idea of a good person and it, and it looks like, you know, it's more or less connected to the idea of looking at good life. So one difference is there's a lot of emphasis on a ritual and using ritual as a way to transform yourself into a good person. And there's less of an emphasis than you find in Greek philosophy, at least on reasoning and developing your kind of rational capacities. So if you ask, you know, Confucians what's, what's a good human being look like, what's the best human life they're going to say you develop all these kinds of virtues, some of which will be, we would now call moral. Some of us, we might not. So it's kind of like the Greeks with that.

Brad Cokelet: 00:25:46 And then maybe you'll be like a really great Prince or you'll be a really great functionary in the side. And so you'll sort of contribute to social a success. If you look in Greece, if you look at Aristotle and other Greeks and you ask what's the best life, they're sort of, they're sort of broken up over this. Partially they think the best life would be if you just were like kind of what, we might not think it was like a research scientist like their, they would call it theoretical philosopher and you sort of contemplate the truth about the structure of the universe. And they're like, wow. And then maybe, you know, it's also pretty good to be this political person who uses their reason to run society well, but that sort of second best. And you kind of see that in a way in Plato too.

Brad Cokelet: 00:26:35 I mean, he sort of was like, you know, the philosophers leave the world and go see this world. The forms, there's like I said, they have sort of lived this theoretical life and then they might, they might come back to end up working in politics, but it's kind of a little mystery, like why they're doing that. And it seems kind of like a let down. So that's one distinction is that, you know, in this, these ancient Chinese tradition, at least Confucianism, virtue is more about this worldly kind of operation and last reason focused. And in a Greece it kind of looks like the good life for a human being. And the virtues are more geared towards theoretical research and contemplation. So I don't know. That's some initial stuff.

Amber Cazzell: 00:27:20 Yeah. And what about, you also had mentioned Daoism and what about Daoism?

Brad Cokelet: 00:27:25 That's interesting. I mean, so it's a very complicated tradition. It started out with these sort of texts I understand it, and I didn't develop into a religion leader. But I guess when we are thinking about that is that that tradition is sort of it has a kind of general thrust of being sort of less focused on making a big effort to cultivate good traits through sort of what you might think of his like civilizing yourself. So like, you think like your kids were growing up and you're like, Oh, my kid needs to go to school. And they have to learn how to interact in society and they need to learn how to follow, you know, social norms. And so if your kid has a learning disability, they might need to get extra help. Learning how to play with others and follow our social norms.

Brad Cokelet: 00:28:11 And that's so, I mean, one way you might think the confusion is they're thinking, yeah, you have to get really good at interacting with other people. And it's this kind of civilizing process that involves learning rules and internalizing them. And the Daoists think you know, maybe it's like the civil and civilizing stuff in the use of reflection and reason and that sort of stuff. It might be just bad. But at most, it's not the ideal. And the ideal is somehow according with something that's kind of more natural, that's sort of before it arises, before the influence of reflection or chronic cultural civilizing influences. And so there's a, there's a kind of back in nature dimension or sort of anti anti intellectual, don't overthink things, a sort of aspect to it. And then even politically, there's stuff about look, you should just get your populace, deliver these difference subsidy.

Brad Cokelet: 00:29:15 You then don't, they shouldn't get like little villages and don't, they shouldn't be like, there shouldn't be like commerce. They shouldn't like talk to each other. And so like, ideally your citizens, they'll have their basic needs met and they'll just kinda chill out in their local village and they'll just kind of naturally be nice to each other and live well in harmony with themselves in nature. And they won't, they won't need to be taught too much or told much. They can sort of, to some extent just be living these sort of rural issues, you know, kind of a lives. And they don't need to develop a lot of thinking. And so that, so it's, that's as a first caricature. It's, it's, it's very kind of against development of like a civilized, rational mode of living or kind of interacting.

Amber Cazzell: 00:30:09 Interesting. so like to what degree do these traditions sort of head nod toward the goods of other traditions? So for instance, like you know, the US is pretty individualistic. We're focused a lot on rationality, but I think that people can appreciate collective values. They can appreciate tradition. So to what extent are the goods from each of these traditions recognizable to the other traditions?

Brad Cokelet: 00:30:56 I mean, that's a good question. I mean, I think I mean it's sort of complicated. I mean, I think a lot of times like when people in the, in Western countries from Western backgrounds or in Western culture talk about say, like the value of tradition or the value of having roots in a place and the goods of community. A lot of their, sort of, the background of those ideas and probably the contours of the specific way they're going to work out that idea are connected to brodlya Greek Aristotelian ideas. And so I think that there's a way, you know, kind of modern individualized. Like if you think about like I've been, Christopher Lash wrote this book the culture of narcissism or there's like more recent books and psychology about the, the rise of narcissism and like there are other people who during the 80s on sort of the conservative side of the culture Wars and kind of there's a theme.

Brad Cokelet: 00:31:59 Are there other people, you know, Wendell Berry's a well known poet who also writes about cultural criticism. And a lot of people saying, are you like bowling alone? Like there's a lot of these books that are about our individualism is kind of not so great in certain ways and it's leading to this sort of narcissism and a lack of community. And I think a lot of that thinking you know, it's, it's sort of against the backdrop of these currents in Western philosophy. But there's a way it looks like some of those ideas look similar to the value placed on community and tradition in Eastern culture. So I think to some extent there's a place for kind of appreciating maybe something that's emphasized more in another tradition by finding there's sort of something at least similar in, in, in the other tradition. And at least scholars of Confucianism have tried to do that same thing with the Confucian tradition.

Brad Cokelet: 00:33:03 And then there's other groups in Chinese history obviously. And then there's, you know, the influence of Marxism and then, Buddhism comes in, there's like, it's like super complicated, picture, but there's definitely a lot of people who are trying to find something like a more kind of the concerns Westerners have about the value of the individual in the Confucian and the Buddhists and the started developing traditions in China. And so I think there is, and one thing is I'm interested in, there's some, there's a really interesting sociologist at UCLA who works on theories of modernization. And so he's written some interesting stuff about how the process of modern individualization as kind of a sociological phenomenon. So it's like people move away from their home community. They, a lot of them moved to the city. The people stop believing nature involves, you know, God's controlling what happens in their local environments.

Brad Cokelet: 00:34:02 There's various features that he picks up on. And so it's basically, this German sociologist has a theory of that, how it happened in the West. And so this guy, he's talking about how right now in China, the process of individualization sociologically is really ramping up right now in China. And he thinks it's kind of a little bit different, you know, but it's, so I think that's an interesting thing for me is to see how not just the ideas, but maybe even like the actual sociological changes that we would associate with individualism. You know, maybe that stuff has already happened in certain countries where, you know, in different cultures and that what's happening now. I was, anyway, that's, yeah. But it's interesting. Yeah.

Amber Cazzell: 00:34:48 I, I you know, and maybe I'm an outlier in this, maybe I'm just wrong, but it's interesting, I often hear people talk about how the world is westernizing, but as far as, as far as like morality and things like that go, I, I also feel like the world is Easternizing. Like, like you know, like for instance, there's been the huge wave of mindfulness research in psychology, which I think is influenced by Eastern thought and sort of this idea, this popularization of Buddhism. Like I've been seeing a lot of books coming out almost as like Buddhist apologetics. I guess that doesn't even make sense cause it's not theistic. But you know, basically saying, here's the merits of, of embracing these ideas. And even like just in the States now, liberalization and politics, there's a lot of frustrations I think with not, um there's a lot of frustrations by liberals toward conservatives of like, Hey, we need to operate a little bit more collectivistic and we need to, you know, have these, maybe I shouldn't go so far as to say roles, but certainly an eye toward like, it's not all about me or it's not all about you. So I dunno, just, just a thought I'd never quite put into words, but it seems like it's not, it's not clear to me that the world is just Westernizing, which I kind of feel that some people imply.

Brad Cokelet: 00:36:31 Yeah, no, and that's interesting. I agree with you. Cause I mean, since I don't really, I primarily started out mainly doing Western philosophy, but now I do Eastern philosophy too. And I, but I, I don't, and so, I mean, I know a lot of people, they're like, you know, the whole idea of talking about East and West already is this kind of ridiculous idea. What about, you know, and there's, you know, there are other parts of the globe like Africa, but I think one thing is that I think you're right, when people talk about westernizing, I think they mean something like

Brad Cokelet: 00:37:00 You know, dominantly European ideas eh, that have and the United States and stuff from there is sort of being, getting uptake other other places. And so I think that's totally interesting idea. And I guess I sort of wonder if, you know, you can kind of separate kind of sociological processes of modernization in some way that I feel like are some extent spreading around at least to some other countries where they weren't so dominant before. And that might be right. But I think you're right, when it comes, it's easy to conflate that with sort of certain ideas and there's, you know, there's obviously connections, but I think you know, you're right that it's, my thought is, you know, people are sort of moving into a new period in lots of different parts of the globe. I mean, there's so many big changes going on with all the technology and the, the world of technology, my kids are growing up in and the world they're going to live in and the role of technology and then there's climate change and there's all this kind of the sense which, you know, people have been saying since ancient Greece, like, everything's changing, but you might think it's kind of like there's this new sort of very different world for a lot of people from the world, like, you know, 200 years ago.

Brad Cokelet: 00:38:25 And that always happens. But maybe now people can kind of draw on ideas at least from different cultural backgrounds in order to figure out how to navigate. And that's right. I agree. You know, I think the Busan case is interesting cause I actually do work on Buddhism and finishing a book on that. And one thing about that is, you know, a lot of people will say, if you look at mindfulness and the way it's got uptake in psychology, I mean, so sort of two reactions I find interesting. And so one is, there's, there's like a like kind of successful academics, I think influential, smart Catholic woman who's pushing back against the use of mindfulness say in the schools and she's saying this is not just some kind of neutral psychological treatment it comes from this religious tradition. And I think other people, like I recently saw like a piece of Aeon sort of saying a similar thing.

Brad Cokelet: 00:39:22 And then I think, okay, that's one thing. And then another thing is a lot of Buddhist scholars have recently pushed back and said a lot of what people are talking about as mindfulness, it's not really what's going on in these Buddhist traditions. And so it's an interesting thing where you think like if I'm a Buddhist now and I read a lot of Buddhism and I'm reading these books and I start meditating, I could even be doing these traditional Buddhist meditations. But what I'm doing is pretty different from what someone would in like an Asian country would be doing if they're Buddhists. Even if they probably would, they would be either like a monk that's this whole way of life. Or are they they're usually like late practices, you know, it's just like Catholic monks do one thing. And then the people who like, you know, go a couple of times a year do a different thing.

Brad Cokelet: 00:40:10 And so I think it's a really interesting thing about how much of these other traditions can we really import into our lives. You know, the way we live now, it's like, it's in some way it can have an influence, but it's going to be sort of a sliver of the original tradition and all this stuff. And that doesn't mean it's bad. But I dunno. So those are some thoughts. I agree with you. One thing I guess I'll end on is you brought up, it's really interesting you said about liberals and conservatives, cause I think, you know, one way to read the kind of conservative movements and you know, kind of the Trump movement and Brexit and all sorts. I mean, even the people who are in favor, those movements, they tend to really be against globalization and there's a kind of protectionist, nationalistic, kind of circle the wagons and protect the tradition type of aspect to those movements. And so in some ways it's kind of interesting that I think you're right, the S, you know, some liberals are saying it shouldn't be about me and you and who gets gets ahead. It should be about some more relational community thing. But it seems like something like that is kind of motivating some people on the total other side of the spectrum quiet, it doesn't mean we're going to get together and agree.

Amber Cazzell: 00:41:36 Yeah. Well, and I think kind of an important theme in what you're saying and that I agree with is that as these sort of traditions interact with each other, they're creating something fundamentally new. That's not, that's not quite the same as the tradition before. It's left a little bit different once it's interpreted through a specific lens.

Brad Cokelet: 00:42:03 Yeah. How I view it. It's like I think, you know, it sort of, I mean, I haven't read it yet, but I noticed the Charles Taylor as this giant book on secularism. And so one thing I kind of, for me a little bit of his stuff, it's like, look, you could be the most devout Catholic or you could be an Orthodox Jew right now and it's still really hard. You can't, it's, you don't live in this sort of society that people lived in like, you know, 15 generations ago. For most people today, you live in a multicultural environment and there's all this technology and things are just really different. And so I think even people who are in their own tradition that they've had through their family history or whatever it is I, yeah, I sorta feel like we're in this new environment. And it makes it kind of interesting, you know, how can these traditions adapt to the new environment? And for those of us who maybe are sort of uprooted from our, the tradition of our family a couple of generations ago or you know, many generations ago what can you borrow from other traditions for in terms of ethics or religion or something? It's, I, yeah, it's an interesting question.

Amber Cazzell: 00:43:07 It is, and actually it's the perfect transition to talk about how we even go about comparing these traditions. So let's talk about your framework for comparison for comparing these ethical traditions. So like what in your paper that I was reading through, it seems like you identify a few a few elements of nuance in these traditions that can kind of help tease them apart. So what are those nuances?

Brad Cokelet: 00:43:41 Right. So I got this paper that's sort of about why do you cross cultural FX and why and how do you do it in a way that wouldn't be a waste of time? And so part of the background is there a lot of people that, that are scholars both in Asia and in the US who study Asian philosophy, for example, or ethics or religion. They think whenever people try to do compared to compare these things, but they always end up doing is they always end up saying, which Western view is Buddhism most like or how would Buddhist deal with this problem that Westerners have with it? You know, or something I can, same thing with Confucianism. And so people think it's a kind of like cultural imperialism going on with a lot of this comparative stuff or maybe, you know, if not that it just kind of a of time.

Brad Cokelet: 00:44:32 And so then there are other people who think, yeah. And on top of that, if you just go study these other traditions, like if you go study Asian philosophy or African philosophy, you'll discover stuff that maybe their whole worldview is sort of incommensurable with Western thinking and it's better. So there are sort of people saying these kinds of things. And so that was partially what I'm trying to say is what I believe is that, you know, it's great if you want to just go study another tradition on its own terms. I think that's a great thing to do. You need linguistic skills. I don't have, I learn from people who do that, but then I want it to say there's this place for comparative work. And so basically the way I did that, as I said, and well one thing to know is that every tradition and major philosophic system of ethics that I know of has what you call a theory of virtue, which you could think of as a set of good traits or dispositions that you need sort of personality features or personality or something like that that are going to be a good and maybe they make you an animal person or a better person.

Brad Cokelet: 00:45:47 And then a lot of them are going to include a bunch of things we would call moral treats. And so everybody, a hat has a theory of virtue. So you know, even like Kant and Hume only, see they all have theories of virtue. And by, if you want to compare these different traditions, one thing you can ask is how important do they think these virtues are and what kind of role does the idea of having these virtues play in their thinking about ethics and morality? And so I guess one of the big contrasts is that if you look at someone like Kant he tends to think that you can understand morally what you ought to do and you can succeed in doing what you morally ought to do if you're a sort of a well relatively normal person with your basic reasoning faculties.

Brad Cokelet: 00:46:42 So he thinks it's that the ability to be a morally good person is very accessible to everyone. And so there's some really appealing things about that. So one reason that Aristotle, for example, it looks like he says some really nasty bad things that are false about women is he thinks women just can't reason very well. They're naturally sort of slavish. And what he means by that is you think some people just aren't fit to make decisions for themselves. So if you think there are people who we think we, they need help, they can't make autonomous decisions for themselves cause they just don't have the intellectual capacities or cognitive capacities. So I think Aristotle thinks there's a bunch of people like that. They're just naturally like that. And those are the people who should be slaves. Then it includes most of the women or something.

Brad Cokelet: 00:47:30 You know what it's like, right. The us, I mean even know that not that long ago people would always think that about all women or something like that and where their, you know, their emotions get in the way or whatever. And so one nice thing about Kant, the Kantian view is that what he's saying, everyone can be has what it takes to see more. All he's thinking cause everyone has their enough rational capacity. He just thinks it's sort of built into being a human being. You have a kind of dignity in good part because you have the power of reason to figure out how to be a moral person and do it. So it's a really what the philosophy call egalitarianism. It's like everybody's equal. And so that's an appealing idea. Sort of morality is a set of rules or obligations that everyone has to live up to.

Brad Cokelet: 00:48:19 And that makes sense cause everybody can live up to it, you know? So that's one, that's one idea. And then I think there's another idea. Are you finding in a lot of ancient traditions like the Confucians and in Greece where they think it'd be a good person and be moral. It requires you to develop over time, you have to have a certain amount of experience. Maybe you have to develop certain skills or a habits and it's a kind of habituation process into that or some kind of training through rituals or whatever it is. But there's, it's, it's, it's sort of an accomplishment to be able to understand what the right thing to do is and to do it. And so that's kind of one of those, I guess that's sort of in some ways a big contrast I think between Confucianism and ancient Greek thinking about ethics and Oh, I think a way a lot of people think and talk about ethics today in our culture is they sort of think of it in this more way. That's like what Consejo. So that's I dunno if that's helpful, but I guess that's, that's the kind of initial contrary, the kind of core contrast that I draw.

Amber Cazzell: 00:49:38 So the core contrast being talking about like good action, what, what is a good thing to do ethically versus what makes you as a person like good.

Brad Cokelet: 00:49:54 Yeah. And I guess mean to the other cause I guess, but it's like does it, if we think well some people are better or worse people. Do you think that the ability to know what the good thing right thing to do is or the ethical thing to do is and successfully do it? Does that depend on how good of a person you are? So Aristotle in a certain way I think and the Confucian, their thought is you have to be a pretty good person or like a really good person to know what the ethical thing to do is and to pull it off. Not just, no, you can't just, it's like we just like are like, okay, you're kid graduated from college and they've like launched and they're not a sociopath and were like, you know, playing nicely with others and you like them and they're, a friendly person.

Brad Cokelet: 00:50:36 There are lots of those people that may not be able to know what the ethical thing to do is and do it. I think on these kind of other, these are these kind of like Confucian and Greek models, whereas someone like Kant thinks, it's much like whatever you're really obligated to do morally, you're, you can figure that out if you're just, you know, as well developed, mature human. And so that's the thing is that this kind of thing of whether they're, and so con will say, Oh yeah, he does think there are these virtues that make people, you know, even better or not, but you don't need the virtues to be able to get a grip on what you need to do to be a moral, good person. So it's this kind of question about access to what's morally good to do and then the ability to do it. That's sort of depends on whether you're a good person or not in these one do. And on the other

Amber Cazzell: 00:51:29 In those views like Greek and Confucian kind of use ancient Greek and Confucian views. And the thought is still that most people have the capacity to be able to know what is the ethical thing to do, but it needs to be developed. Right? Or is that

Brad Cokelet: 00:51:55 Well, so this is it. This is one difference you definitely see with the Greeks and the confusion. So the Confucians, at least sort of like, Oh there's a, there's a debate in, in Confucianism, and so Mencius. So sort of the Analects of Confucius. If someone pick that up, it kind of reads like aphorisms are like liberal wise sayings as, it's not like a systematic treatise, it's just sort of like here's stuff you said and there's other stuff in there, sort of scenes. And sometimes dementia is when we think about him as he was the first guy to kind of develop a slightly more systematic account of, of Confucian thinking. And Mencius was very optimistic. He thought human beings are by nature good. They have what they call sprouts, a sort of like natural tendencies that if developed in good environmental conditions will lead them to be a good person and then they'll know the right thing to do. And do it. The, the next sort of big confusion thinker after that and other, other non-Confucians in the environment, they were like, that's a total pipe dream.

Brad Cokelet: 00:52:59 They are more, they are more skeptical. But they're, but they're as Mencius was very optimistic. If you look at the Greeks you know, like I was saying like aerosol just thinks like, you know, like basically women are out of the running more or less. I mean, that's, I don't know if it's, that might be slightly too strong. Maybe not. He thinks there are these people who are just, you know, they can't get it. There's way. And so, you know, he thinks it's just, it might just be a matter of kind of luck. And so that's one thing people talk about is that in ancient Greece and in China, there's more of an idea that there might be a certain type of work that's called moral luck that people call character luck. So it's like, well, you might just be born with, you know, we would now say the genes and then you also that you might have to have the right genes in order to be capable of becoming fully moral and being someone who really has the moral virtues and can act on them.

Amber Cazzell: 00:54:02 Yeah. Okay. So now let's compare that though to like modern day or civilians cause clearly that problematic. Yeah. So like, or, or even if we just set the people that he excluded off the table, which may be a little bit unfair, the situation, but it's not as though in the Aristotelian tradition, people are born with the natural ability to tell ethical behaviors apart from unethical behaviors. Right. They still have to.

Brad Cokelet: 00:54:34 Yeah, no, that's right. No. So yeah, I'll be mean. Nobody today is like running around saying aerosol was right and women don't have reason. Yeah. So that's totally there's this much more open minded, you know, like egalitarian idea, but as what's retained your right is you still need, so like one thing you might notice if you started looking like who supports character education in the schools, well one big group of people are going to be people who are connected to Catholicism and other religious traditions that are influenced by Aristotle. And so part of the character education movement you might think of it as being inspired by this Aristotelian idea is that, you know, you can't just trust that if kids learn to reason, well in some basic sense they're going to be able, in principle just to pick out what's morally right or wrong and then do it. It's like, no, they need to be trained to have certain character traits. And you know, there's debates about how you would get someone to develop character traits successfully or not. But you're right, that idea is still there. That modern Aristotelians tend to think that's the right way to think about morality. It's like you have to kind of set your goal of training people to develop these moral capacities and then act on them.

Amber Cazzell: 00:55:51 Are turning back to, so like the idea of moral luck, like you're either born capable of making these distinctions or you're not, it sounds very, very creepy and repulsive, but, but playing devil's advocate be fair. I think that a lot of people think that way about people with like severe you know, cognitive disabilities. So, so I think that most people would question like, okay, a child too is born with severe autism. Are they, are they capable of reasoning through these ethical situations or to make decisions about themselves? Well, a lot of people will still say no. Did Aristotle or others kind of buying into those positions try to whittle down to like, well, here's, here's what's necessary to be in this privileged moral luck group amongst men kind of thing.

Brad Cokelet: 00:56:56 Yeah, no, they, I mean, that's a great question. So are they dead? And, I mean, one way to think about this is that one, another big contrast between if you started thinking about this framework where you focusing on exactly the question you're asking, like what are the things you have to develop to be morally excellent and that some people can't and it might be a matter of luck. You get really different answers in these spiritual traditions. So that's why I sort of think this way we're talking about it, it's useful to then compare them. So like the Greeks tended to think or Aristotle at least thought you have to train your emotions to be in some kind of synchrony synchronous or like kind of like match up with your reasoning and your beliefs about what's right or wrong. So you need a sort of cognitive capacity to judge correctly.

Brad Cokelet: 00:57:46 So one thing you might need to do is you might be able to pick out what are the like competing reasons that make it hard to figure out or not obvious what's right or wrong in the situation. Like if there could different people's competing interests are in play. So you'd have to think about like who's good is in play. Like if you're doing something and it's gonna affect your, your like, okay, should you accept this new job offer? It would require you to move away from your fiance. Well, it's gonna affect you in certain ways, but also them. So you have to be able to think intelligently about what will be good or bad for those two people. And so I think that's one way to think someone like Aristotle thinks. You have to be able to have a certain cognitive sophistication to be able to make judgments will be good or bad for someone based on what you're going to do.

Brad Cokelet: 00:58:29 So if I ask, you know, a five year old, what do you think's gonna happen? If dad moves away for a year, let's just like start crying or something, right? They're going to like, it's bad, bad, bad, right? They can't. And you're like, well, what will, will it be good or bad for your dad? It's like they can't comprehend that concept and think about it. So that's one way to get into this idea. You need a certain cognitive sophistication to think about what's good or bad for people. Then you need to think about who deserve certain goods or who, who, who, what will be we'll, you know, we might think of as kind of a fear of distribution or adjust distribution. So there these complicated judgements used to be able to make. And then on top of that, the Greeks think to be a morally good person, you have to have emotions that align with those.

Brad Cokelet: 00:59:18 So an example would be, you might judge when I think about it and be like, you know, your fiance is going to move away for a year and it's, you bums you out and it's going to be hard for you. But you think overall that's the best thing for both of you. It's the best decision for him. And so after you made that decision and he's, you know, moved away you know, if you're talking about the phone, cause I shouldn't give you the exact, maybe I'm the person, but like the person that was away and then if you like start kind of like passive aggressively giving them crap on the phone for being away, I think that's a kind of moderate example of your, your emotions aren't in line with what you think. It's good that they're there. So why are you like getting angry?

Brad Cokelet: 00:59:59 They're there and then kind of giving them a hard time. It's like your emotions are suggesting it's bad that they're there basically. And so that's one way to think about like the Greek model of virtue is you, you can make all these complicated judgments about, you know, what the right thing to do is and you can grasp these considerations and wait a month and figure out what the right thing to do is. And then your emotions track that. And you know, similarly, like not only do you know it's wrong to discriminate against people because of their skin color. If you see someone discriminating against someone because their skin color, you're disposed to notice it and get kind of pissed off. So it's like you kind of judged off and then your emotions respond in sort of in lock step. So that's the, that's as Greek guy.

Brad Cokelet: 01:00:54 So if you think about that, yeah, many of us don't have that kind of, we're not like super developed. Like I guarantee you if my wife like went away for a year and I thought it was the best thing, I probably would do maybe passive aggressive thing. So that's this. You could see they had this very I think, you know, kind of, it is, it's sort of an admirable ideal and they thought certainly for our politicians, we want have people like that. So like, you know, our politicians right now, they're like the absolute opposite of everything they would've thought we want. But they thought we have to make people who make good decisions with the right emotions and they fought. And you know, same thing to be, you know, a good person in many roles in society. And they thought your own life will be better if you're a better person, if you have that kind of structure. So that's the Greek thing. Yeah.

Amber Cazzell: 01:01:53 What about like agency, how do these traditions compare on the issue of agency in the, and role in ethics? And I mean also I think it's relevant to kind of this most recent part of the conversation. Like it seems that agency might be something that's relevant to whether or not a person is capable of making ethical decisions or ethical development.

Brad Cokelet: 01:02:20 Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, the one thing only, I guess it started off as like, again, it's sort of like a caricature that you'll be good to start with, I think would be in ancient China and ancient Greece. They just don't, nobody's talking about freewill. I mean, maybe they don't have a concept of free will. They just don't really, and there's a lot of debate about this, but scholars writing about those, both traditions, they, they went so far at certain points for people to say they didn't even have the idea of intentional action or something really extreme. And, and that's, that's basically been, you know, I think there were these really strong claims about that and about Greek views, or at least at least in the Homeric poems and stuff. And so people are pushed back like Bernie Williams as a philosophy push back against that.

Brad Cokelet: 01:03:07 And same thing, East people push back against this guy Finnegan. But basically, you know, the truth in this is like if you study these views, I mean, one thing, they certainly don't talk about something like we might now think of it as us having free will in a strong sense. And then they also, you know, tended to think when they think about responsibility, which is always connected to our idea of agency. They had it, they seem to have a kind of different way of thinking about responsibility where you could be responsible for things when you couldn't have done otherwise or, you know, that's a complicated notion. But like something like it wasn't under your control. That's what you know, like right now, if you were like if your friend gets really angry and yells at you or something and you're the, it's like, I'm so sorry.

Brad Cokelet: 01:04:00 And you'd be like, well, I'm glad you apologize, but it's not like you didn't do it on purpose. Like you're kind of out of control or you know, if we have some notion of like when you're exercising your agency, you're more responsible for it and it was under your control. And I think that kind of idea, it's at least not prominent in these other traditions. And so some people talked about modern, a modern conception of the will and free will and modern responsibility being something that arises. You know, maybe something like, in the way the idea of modern morality arises and there might be a connection between those that we talked about earlier. So I'm not a scholar super, you know, I'm not an expert at this topic. That's my take on sort of like a good caricature. Anyway. so they'll talk about blaming people and people feeling ashamed about stuff. So they will talk about responsibility, but it's not tied to what was under your control in that same way. So I don't know if that's what you're asking about, but.

Amber Cazzell: 01:05:06 Yeah, and to clarify they, who is they in that circumstance? You're talking about like Eastern tradition?

Brad Cokelet: 01:05:12 Yeah, these are and the Greeks, right? So kind of ancient traditions. They tend to list in that direction. You know, as the Eastern tradition Chinese traditions develop, there's more of an emphasis on, you know, something like uh self-governance and self determination and you get something closer to agency.

Amber Cazzell: 01:05:35 Oh, that's fascinating. Very cool. Okay. So we're actually a little bit over time, but I want to ask, no, don't apologize. I'm the, my fault. So I want to ask also like what your hopes are for taking comparative ethics and applying it either in the real world or even just for future research directions. What do you hope happens with these comparative frameworks?

Brad Cokelet: 01:06:07 Yeah, I mean my, I guess this is just my current thinking of where I'm going to go, but I in my thought is that there are just general way like, so one thing that's going on in a lot of at least philosophy you also see to some extent in psychology is that if you're looking for a character focused of way of thinking about morality and ethics and you, and you're thinking about character development for example, and you're thinking about virtues in philosophy hand and some of that psychology people just look to Aristotle or Saint Thomas, they look to that part of the Western tradition. And my thought is that if you look to the Eastern traditions like Confucianism and Buddhism they have a lot, they have basically all the things that people like about these Western traditions, but then they have few of the bad things that are bad about, like we're saying like Aristotle cutting out the women and other things.

Brad Cokelet: 01:07:07 I think there are fewer bad things about these traditions and Eastern traditions have, have kind of promising aspects that you don't see. So my thought is if you're looking for a way to develop kind of a kind of broadly virtue ethical approach to thinking about ethics and ethical development I think some of these Eastern traditions they have just resources for, to kind of, you know, for today that you don't get an a West. And so like we talked about, you can't just, you know, pretend you're going to just adopt them. But I guess my thought is, you know, we could think about how to develop ethics today and implement ethics and try to make people more ethical today in our society. There are real resources over there that you don't find in the West. So that's my, my hope is that this kind of cross cultural philosophy will get kind of more mainstream and normalized to the point where it'll just inspire, move new ideas in Western philosophy and maybe Western psychology kind of way. You know, like it's sort of become independent of the original stuff, but it's, but it's become its own thing. It's not integrated with CBT and it's, you know, kids are doing it when they get stressed out on college campuses and it's like, I think there's more stuff from the ethical views that might be able to be brought over and then to some extent separated, you know? So that's, that's my hope for where things would go.

Amber Cazzell: 01:08:42 Before we started the recording, you had mentioned that it seems like there's a little bit of a hole connecting studies in psychology about wellbeing and some ethics and morality. It sounds like that's also, you know, like in a sense what mindfulness is doing.

Brad Cokelet: 01:09:01 Yeah, no, and I think that's, it's interesting. I'll be interested to see in psychology, people who do mindfulness, you know, there is other more morally, ethically loaded practices in say Buddhism. And so it'd be kind of interesting what to extent can those get integrated into something like cognitive behavioral therapy? Cause those are mostly focused on, you know, like, Oh, kind of like getting you to feel better and eliminate your pathologies it's sort of about personal wellbeing. So, but then why couldn't we also think of it is, you know, a toolkit for people that who want to be better people in an ethical sense. That would be really interesting. I think, you know, that could lead to political debates and stuff. It has, but it's an interesting kind of idea.

Amber Cazzell: 01:09:46 Yeah. Well, thank you Brad. I am excited to have been here with you today and to hear about these different traditions. I learned a lot and I'm grateful.

Brad Cokelet: 01:09:57 Well, thank you.

Amber Cazzell: 01:10:07 Thanks for listening. If you have questions, comments, suggestions or requests, contact me at the moral science podcast is sponsored by ERA inc a research and design think tank that's reinventing how people interact with each other. Music throughout the program is Microobee by Keinzweiter and can be found at


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