WEH/Ethox Seminar: Ethical Dispossession: Mindfulness-Based Therapies and the History of Virtue

This WEH/Ethox seminar will be held by video conference through Bluejeans. Please email admin@ethox.ox.ac.uk for the link to the meeting.

Over the past 40 years, mindfulness‐based therapies (MBTs) have gained a reputation among the biomedical community for their ability to contribute to health, mental capital, and human flourishing. Recently, however, various mindfulness scholars and practitioners have begun to criticize MBTs on account of their lack of moral depth. MBTs, they argue, historically stem from Buddhist meditation techniques. As such they ought to be embedded, they say, within a moral framework aimed at a general transformation of the ethical subject, especially as that is enabled by the internalisation of the Dharma. In “secularizing” meditation for biomedical settings, however, the worry for many is that mindfulness is being stripped of much of this traditional ethical value, leading to an impoverished practice in terms of moral development as well as mental health. In this paper, I take up this issue of the perceived “de‐ethicization” of mindfulness. Rather than locate it in the recent history of MBTs, as many mindfulness scholars do, I instead situate it in a longer history of virtue ethics in the West, and in a process I call, borrowing a term from the anthropologist Christopher Hann, “ethical dispossession.” This is not just the dispossession of Buddhist virtue ethics, as will be seen, but of the conditions of virtue ethical thinking generally, and of the specific virtue of practical wisdom. MBTs are thus, I argue, the most recent iteration of that transformation.