Moral Objectivity: The Ph.D. thesis

My Ph.D. thesis "A Buddhist Theory of Moral Objectivity" was accredited in 2001 at Lancaster University, U.K. It was in the course of writing this thesis that I developed the ideas on this website. With a background in Buddhism, I set out to find a Buddhist way of resolving the problem of moral relativism. However, this led me not into the study of Buddhist scriptures or the Buddhist tradition, but into Western Philosophy. I completed my thesis in a Philosophy department, supervised by Western philosophers. My intention was to do Western philosophy in a Buddhist way, but in the process I found myself simply relying on a few universal Buddhist insights (such as the Middle Way), rather than the Buddhist tradition, and using these as the basis of a different way of engaging with Western philosophy.

I found a whole tangle of intermeshing assumptions in Western philosophy, all of which seemed dependent on each other but giving rise to the problem of moral relativism. In order to deal with the assumptions that gave rise to moral relativism I had to deal with many other assumptions, from metaphysics and epistemology. I had to develop a model of the relationship between psychology and philosophy, dealing with how beliefs are formed and thus how the psychological aspects of objectivity relate to the philosophical. Also, because I was putting forward an alternative model of these things that stood in its own terms, I decided that the only way to show the advantages of this model over others was to show how the others had failed in the past as opposed to the ways this model of ethics could succeed. So I had to prove my point through a fairly comprehensive survey of the history of past ideas about ethics in the West.

The result was a monster thesis of about 296,000 words. This about three times the normal admissible length for a Ph.D. thesis. Nevertheless the examiners accepted my argument that the scope of the project justified this length. Much less would have left the thesis much less convincing, because there were just so many interlocking assumptions to deal with. The thesis put forward a new model of ethics created from the cross-fertilisation of Buddhist insights with the Western tradition, and its originality was recognised, but this was unfortunately not enough to secure it a wider audience. I was unfortunately mistaken if I thought it would be a straightforward matter to get it published and to make it the springboard for an academic career. 

I could not get the thesis published partly because of its length, which is far beyond what most publishers are willing to take a risk on with a new writer. The fact that it was not in an established area of discourse also did not help. I was not doing analytic philosophy or continental philosophy, but criticised the assumptions of both these camps in my thesis. I was also not doing academic Buddhist Studies, which rests on the study of Buddhist scriptures in the original languages and/or the sociological observation of Buddhist societies. Because my assumptions needed lengthy explanation, it was also difficult to develop a reputation by getting shorter papers published. I was caught in an academic Catch-22 situation.

For a long time I have resisted the obvious alternative of publishing the thesis on the web. I can't really explain this rather irrational resistance. But finally in 2008, seven years after I completed the thesis, I decided to take the plunge of creating this website and putting the thesis on it. In 2009 it was also put on the web by the British Library ethos project, so you now have a choice between the version on this website (in html and divided into sections) or the British Library download version.

Link to the Ph.D. thesis: "A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity"

Download version available from http://ethos.bl.uk (search for thesis title above)

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