how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy

Last week, my colleague Erin Kelly and I taught excerpts from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice along with Emily McRae’s chapter, “Empathy, Compassion, and ‘Exchanging Self and Other’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism,” from the Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy. I then attended a conference on empathy. As a result, I’ve been thinking about Rawls’ famous thought-experiment, Buddhist exercises for moral improvement–and how empathy relates to both.

Rawls argues that to know what justice demands, you should collect all the relevant available information about how the society in general works, but you should then imagine that you don’t know your own position in the society and ask what rules and institutions you would favor–in your own interest–under this “veil of ignorance.”

To make that method seem intuitive, imagine that I am considering (in the light of last week’s scandalous news about college admissions) whether it is desirable for such institutions as Yale University to exist. I should try to understand how Yale functions, today and in the past, in the broader society. But I should try not to be influenced by the fact that I was admitted to Yale and graduated from there. I should ask whether the existence of Yale would be a good thing if I did not know whether I would ever get anywhere near it. Thus general knowledge plus self-interest plus ignorance about my own circumstance equals justice.

We could think of this thought-experiment as a way of modeling justice. Just as we test a model of a new airplane in a wind tunnel, so we test a theory of justice by using Rawls’ veil of ignorance, because that will yield the same results as justice itself would yield if we could know directly what justice says.

Now compare Rawls’ method to those developed in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. McRae begins her chapter: “Imagine yourself as an old yak … your back weighed down with a load far too heavy, a rope pulling you by the nostrils, your flanks whipped, your ribs bruised by the stirrups.” She is quoting the nineteenth-century Tibetan master Parrul Rinpoche, who offers it as an exercise in empathy.

McRae defines bodhicitta as a “radically altruistic moral orientation that centrally involves cultivating oneself in order to be the kind of person who can reliably, effectively, and wisely benefit others… . The cultivation involved in becoming a person with bodhicitta–a bodhisattva — … includes developing virtues such as patience, generosity, and wisdom, and moral skills such as mindfulness, moral reasoning, responsiveness, and, arguably, empathy. … .Empathy practices [such as imagining that you are a yak] are traditionally presented in the context of cultivating bodhicitta, since empathy triggers both virtuous emotionality (through the Four Immeasurable Qualities practices) and the realization of no-self (through exchanging self and other practices), both of which are necessary for bodhicitta.”

Here are some differences:

  • Rawls tries to make moral reasoning as impersonal as possible, whereas the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition strives for maximum concrete identification with other sentient beings.
  • In the Buddhist tradition, you cultivate empathy. Rawls provides a way of determining justice that does not require empathy–in part because empathy can be biased, manipulated, and otherwise untrustworthy.
  • Rawls treats every person as equal, whereas a stance of “radical altruism” implies that the thinker should count everyone else as more important than herself.
  • Rawls’ theory is limited to “persons” (probably human beings), whereas Buddhism extends to all sentient life.
  • Rawls offers a technique for deciding what justice is, whereas for the Buddhist theorists, the problem is not deciding what is right–they presume that we should be as altruistic as possible–but rather motivating people to act right. “Exchanging self and other is not simply a heuristic for determining the limiting condition on action (“how would you like it if someone did that to you?”) or a mental exercise in perspective taking. It is a transformative practice that uses empathic imaginative projection to chip away at self-clinging by softening the boundaries of self and other.”

And here are some similarities:

  • Both methods are conducted by the thinker alone. Neither is dialogic, involving an actual exchange of opinions. You imagine you’re a yak, but you don’t ask the yak if you got that right.
  • Like the Buddhist teachers, Rawls also softens “the boundaries of self and other,” but he does so by asking you what you’d want if you did not know who you were.

If you happen to find both arguments persuasive, you’re left with an odd proof:

1. Self-interest plus [a specific form of ] ignorance = justice (Rawls)

2. Compassion plus radical altruism = justice [Buddhism]


3. Self-interest plus ignorance = Compassion plus radical altruism


See also: empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; avoiding the labels of East and West; Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.