Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Big Moment Ethics and Philosophy

Prompted by a posted question from Scott Barnwell on our Question Board, Bill Haines has made some provocative comments regarding two related topics that for some of us may now count as conventional wisdom: that Chinese philosophy has more to say than Western philosophy about everyday life, and that Western ethics tends correctly to be characterized as “big moment ethics.” Scott and Bill both reference this interview with Joel Kupperman. I’d like therefore to move his remarks up to a main post, to encourage further discussion. The rest of this post is by Bill. –Steve

I can’t claim knowledge here, but I can’t imagine how someone could think that that Asian thought has significantly more to say about everyday life and the little things than does Western thought. I wonder whether Kupperman’s view amounts to a kind of semantic point, or semantic mistake, about the word “philosophy.”

Consider, for example, Benjamin Franklin’s practical checklist for each day (compare Zengzi at Analects 1.4):

———
1. TEMPERANCE.Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.

11.TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
———

We don’t therefore call Franklin a moral philosopher. And I wonder whether we call it “philosophy” when Aristotle says that the great-souled person walks slowly. What we call “philosophy” in the West is concerned more with rational justification of such views, and hence tends toward abstract argument (sometimes considering big choices as a kind of test case and for other reasons). There is a vast body of thought and literature on such daily matters in the West, dwarfing in volume the whole body of what we call “philosophy” in the West. I suspect that one reason such things are a bigger proportion of what we call Chinese “philosophy” is that we want to have a big body of writings to call “philosophy” in China. That clearly isn’t the only reason though.

———

Here’s a whole nother issue: what is Kupperman’s “big-moment ethics”?

Picture A:
In the 2002 piece Scott found for us, the writer tells us Kupperman “says much of Western philosophy centers on dramatic one-time choices, the big moments in life when a person has a real temptation, or could kill, steal, or do something else that would have major consequences. ‘Then you look for some kind of principle that would help you through the situation,’ Kupperman says. ‘It gives the picture that all there is to knowing how to live is handling these big moments.’ But these moments, for most people, don’t come up very often.”

Picture B
In the string “Confucius: The Action Movie”, I wrote, “When Kupperman speaks of ‘big moment ethics,’ his idea seems to be that according to ‘traditional moral codes,’ morality is limited to certain discrete and largely negative requirements such that doing our best to be fully moral requires only very occasional ‘moments’ of attention to the moral requirements.”

Here’s what B is based on. A few weeks ago when I went to look up what Kupperman means by “big moment ethics,” I decided that the key text was his “Confucius and the Nature of Religious Ethics,” PEW 21:2 (1971), 189-94. There he wrote,

“most of a man’s life normally is entirely neutral with respect to traditional moral codes; that is, moments of moral choice or action normally will comprise very little of the duration of his life.” (192)
“Most of us are familiar with what might be called ‘big-moment’ ethics. In this form of ethics, the focus is entirely on moments of sharp moral decision: when a man decides whether or not to rob the bank, commit murder, commit adultery, admit his responsibility in previous actions, etc. A ‘big-moment’ ethics almost inevitably will place the highest virtue in dependably making the right moral decision, and almost inevitably will treat life apart from moments of moral choice as what I have called a ‘free-play’ zone. This zone usually will be very large, since most people are not incessantly in the process of making moral decisions. Thus ‘big-moment’ ethics is both comfortable and dramatic. It is comfortable because it enables us not to worry too much about most of our life, and, indeed, usually does not demand too much thoughtfulness. It is dramatic because it typically highlights convulsive, visible, and brief efforts of the will.”(194)

This 1971 material too suggests account A, but not as clearly as does the 2002 piece Scott found for us. Based on this 1971 material, I had settled on account B, out of charity, because after much effort I could not make any sense of A except as a reflection of B.

The Ten Commandments are a small part of a traditional moral code. Consider a poor reader’s misconception of the Ten Commandments, as consisting entirely of some simple and easy Don’ts. Don’t kill, don’t steal, etc. I would guess that this wildly fictional case of a “traditional moral code” is the paradigmatic case (or one of two) of “big moment ethics.” But these simple commandments require that we refrain always, not just occasionally; and we almost always have the opportunity to kill, steal, etc. Still, for most of us there are only occasional moments when our temptations call us to attend to these rules in deciding what to do. Why is that? It is precisely because the rules are not very demanding. That’s picture B.

(If we look not just at “traditional moral codes” but at actual Western moral thought, a central case is utilitarianism, which is not bigmomenty in any sense that I can think of. As Western introductory ethics classes and Peter Singer famously stress, it is not true that the moments when one could do something “that would have major consequences” are “one-time … big moments in life.”)

If there’s another paradigmatic case of “big moment ethics,” I would guess that it’s the kind of paper that talks about dilemmas, especially medical dilemmas. The core of this sort of literature, I think, is matters of government action; not individual action. But we also use related dilemmas for individuals in trying to teach students to think and to test theories. In writing about Jim and the Indians, Bernard Williams is neither expressing nor attributing to utilitarianism the view that ethics is mainly about such dramatic choices.

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February 8, 2010 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy

28 Comments »

  1. This was my short reply (from the Question board thread):

    7.Hi Bill,

    re: “I suspect that one reason such things are a bigger proportion of what we call Chinese “philosophy” is that we want to have a big body of writings to call “philosophy” in China.”

    – That’s a plausible view I think.

    re: “But these simple commandments require that we refrain always, not just occasionally; and we almost always have the opportunity to kill, steal, etc. Still, for most of us there are only occasional moments when our temptations call us to attend to these rules in deciding what to do.”

    – I’d say rare moments, not occasional. For most of us, we won’t ever find ourselves in situations which ask us whether to kill someone or not, whether to sacrifice one life for many, etc.

    Comment by Scott 'Bao Pu' Barnwell | February 8, 2010 | Reply

    • And this was my reply to that:

      Regarding the latter point, I suppose it depends on what rules we include in “Don’t kill, don’t steal, etc.” There’s also working on Saturday, taking the Lord’s name in vain, disobeying one’s parents, etc.

      Comment by Bill Haines | February 8, 2010 | Reply

  2. Interesting thoughts, Bill. A somewhat different way to think about big moment ethics, one that seems more sympathetic to the enterprise, seems to me to be:

    C. Distinguishable from everyday codes of conduct, philosophical morality, or ethics, involves attempting to address justifications for either the particular codes or for their underlying principles, should the latter exist. “Big moment” thought experiments, ones that involve either a) larger than ordinary life moments of choice, or b) extreme, or fringe, possibilities of choice, are useful for testing important aspects of those codes or principles: their comprehensiveness, accuracy in reflecting deeply held intuitions, consistency across situations, etc. That is what modern Western ethical theory has focused on within normative ethical theorizing, because practitioners of it conceive of themselves as pursuing serious justification of otherwise untested assumptions about how to live and act.

    I think if we take C seriously, then there’s much less bite to the sorts of criticism lodged at modern ethical theory by lovers of virtue in the past 30 years.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 8, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Manyul,

      I agree with your Picture C as a picture of much of what has been going on in recent Western normative theory, part of the cause of Kupperman’s complaint.

      I meant my Pictures A and B to be pictures of what Kupperman means, pictures of his own concept of “big moment ethics,” and I don’t think C is trying to be that. Kupperman introduced “big moment ethics” as a description of “traditional moral codes,” not a description of recent academic philosophical activity.

      Comment by Bill Haines | February 8, 2010 | Reply

  3. In Kupperman’s Learning from Asian Philosophy, he seems to be defending virtue ethics, (which he generally sees Chinese philosophy as representative):
    “Most of the choices that people make in their lives, of course, are not as dramatic – or seemingly discontinuous from what came before – as those that are most used as examples in books on ethics. Often we find ourselves on a path of life, or immersed in projects and commitments of various sorts, and much of what we do is to carry on (pretty much as before) with minor deviations here and there. A great deal of what is ethically important has this form. Philosophy that takes seriously the connection between what people do and their developed selves can best do justice to this. This is a strong reason for seeking an ethics that approaches longitudinally how people structure their lives.” (p. 21)

    Comment by Scott 'Bao Pu' Barnwell | February 8, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks, Scott!

      What Kupperman says here seems to me right. Also it seems to me to fit a “skill” ethics as well as it fits a “virtue” ethics.

      Comment by Bill Haines | February 8, 2010 | Reply

  4. I’d like to point out also, that, as Kupperman says in that interview: “What the best Asian philosophy does much better than many Western philosophies,” he says, “is give you a sense of the texture of life in the moments between those major choices, the things that make life worth living or not worth living, and also help you prepare for the major choices,” he seems to me to referring more to what counts as the good life and less to ethics. That is, in fact, the topic of his book.

    Comment by Scott 'Bao Pu' Barnwell | February 8, 2010 | Reply

    • I agree, Scott; my initial comments on Kupperman above neglect this central aspect of what he is saying. But I don’t see any plausibility in the claim that Western thought addresses these matters less than Asian thought does (though, again, maybe that’s just because of my ignorance). I see some plausibility in the claim that Western moral thought addresses these matters less than Asian thought does (just as Asian moral thought addresses these matters less than Western thought does).

      Regarding the comparison you quote: One could make the same boast for “the best” Western philosophy as opposed to “many” Asian philosophies. Kupperman’s claim does not on its face allege any general difference between Asian and Western philosophies. In my first remarks I complained that Kupperman was radically stacking the deck by comparing Eastern to Western “philosophy” rather than “thought.” I wonder what difference it makes to limit the claim further to “philosophies.” I think it unstacks the deck just a little, at least if we take “philosophies” to mean “comprehensive views of life and the world” and not “articles in academic journals.”

      If the 1971 paper is any guide, Kupperman’s original interest, in introducing the concept of “big moment ethics,” was not to characterize the West as different from the East, but to characterize secular ethics and traditional morality as different from religious ethics. Here two distinctions might be involved: between morality and ethics, and between the secular and the religious. Kupperman was not counting Western religious ethics as big-moment ethics. His distinction is reminiscent of the idea that a main theme of the Sermon on the Mount is “Old Judaism has norms about actions, but we should have norms about feelings too” – a reading suggested by at least Matthew 5:20-30.

      I think Kupperman’s complaint does reflect a certain weakness of much Western moral philosophy, which I think of as a combination of two ideas: (1) the idea that reason (best thinking) is a clear or even mechanical process that is wholly authoritative, and (2) the idea that a central topic of moral philosophy is specifically practical reason. The result is a view that a central project of moral philosophy is to find authoritative rules for the process of deciding what to do.

      Comment by Bill Haines | February 8, 2010 | Reply

  5. Bill, you’re right that C isn’t on Kupperman’s radar. As far as I can see, it’s because he seriously misconstrues the nature of modern ethical theory, either on purpose (for rhetorical purposes, for the sake of promoting virtue ethics, Scott) or unwittingly (which I doubt seriously, given his impressive background and publication track). Does he really think moral philosophers sit around trying to prepare us all for the day when we have to choose between rescuing the cancer specialist instead of the boatload of ordinary joes? or when we have to shoot one person ourselves otherwise the bad guys will shoot twenty people?

    Slightly different track: to the extent that medical ethics focuses on extreme moments of choice, that’s because those sorts of choices occur more frequently in medical situations.

    So, I’m not sure there is a plausibly non-strawman position that Kupperman is addressing with his reference to Big Moment Ethics.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 8, 2010 | Reply

  6. Manyul’s “C” option says, in part, that: “…philosophical morality, or ethics, involves attempting to address justifications for either the particular codes or for their underlying principles, should the latter exist.” That doesn’t sounds exactly right to me, at least for the two most prominent competing theories making up modern moral philosophy (Kantianism and consequentialism). For neither Kant nor Bentham was the starting point justifying existing moral codes, right? Rather, both sought to develop theories of morality — which concept, admittedly, they took themselves to be drawing from their communities — in systematic ways that allowed for the critique, when necessary, of existing moral codes. In undertaking this type of explicitly theoretical enterprise, they put themselves on a path that has led to modern moral philosophy.

    Kupperman isn’t, of course, the only “lover of virtue” (aren’t we all lovers of virtue, Manyul?!) to criticize some of the results of this style of moral theory. Pincoffs’s 1986 book calls it “quandry ethics,” by which he means much the same thing as Kupperman’s “big moment ethics.” Pincoffs is as much an anti-theorist as he is a pro-virtue ethicist. I think that Kupperman shares some of the anti-theory sentiment as well, though in principle these are distinguishable. (Slote is a good example of a pro-theory virtue ethicist.)

    While not wanting to endorse everything that Kupperman or Pincoffs say in their criticisms of big-moment ethics, I feel that Bill’s reply (e.g., about Franklin) doesn’t give the critique enough credit. Part of Kupperman’s point, I take it, is that there is a continuity between attention to matters of style and detail, on the one hand, and more abstract issues as well as bigger moments or dilemmas, on the other hand, in (e.g.) Confucianism than we see in paradigmatic Western modern moral philosophy. Putting this in terms of “Western” versus “Asian” is potentially quite misleading, insofar as there are both ancient and contemporary voices in the West who see and emphasize such a continuity, though these voices have certainly been a great minority in modern Western moral philosophy, especially as practiced from Sidgwick through the 1980s. Partly because of critiques like Kupperman’s and Pincoffs’s, we’ve been getting more nuanced consequentialism and Kantianism and re-attention to the virtues in recent years.

    But there are still real differences. As my colleague Elise Springer has put it, how important are “verdicts” (e.g., “morally wrong” or “obligatory”) in a given case, as opposed to nuanced responses that may never result in a clear verdict with respect to a given actor? Certainly much of the practice of moral theory has made it seem like verdicts are what matter, but it’s not clear to me that this is very often the case.

    Comment by Steve Angle | February 8, 2010 | Reply

  7. Hi Steve,

    You’re right about Kant and Bentham, though I meant to indicate the same thing by wording it as “attempting to address” justifications for ethical codes or their underlying principles, specifically not wording it as “attempting to justify” them. The point, again, of considering hypothetical “big moments” either of the momentous or the rare/obscure/extreme type is to test those codes or their underlying principles and see if there are some justifications in the offing or if they fail in their common versions to be adequate moral guides, in the variety of ways that “adequate” could be spelled out. So, I don’t see that we disagree here.

    I do disagree that we’re all lovers of virtue, either in the tongue-in-cheek sense (I didn’t use the proper tongue-in-cheek operator, or emoticon — sorry!) I intended, viz. lovers of virtue theory, or in the more Greek literal sense of being admirers of virtues or the virtuous. I think there are some who’ve given the issue of moral character critical thought and found it wanting in some respects. Kant is one, I think — I can’t remember his discussion of virtues well enough to say for sure. And of course there are more modern skeptics of virtue, including but not restricted to the situation psychology mongers.

    Sort of switching back to a different Kupperman issue, though, I’m not sure why anyone would think the texts of Confucianism really address “ordinary” or “everyday” life. If anything, they tend to address, in the Classical texts, the actions of governance by would-be ministers, ambassadors, dukes, and emperors. In the Neo-Confucian texts, there’s also an understood audience, which is the audience of men who are committed to scholarship and philosophical meditation. Am I exaggerating here? or is Kupperman? or are we both?

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 8, 2010 | Reply

    • re: “I’m not sure why anyone would think the texts of Confucianism really address “ordinary” or “everyday” life. If anything, they tend to address, in the Classical texts, the actions of governance by would-be ministers, ambassadors, dukes, and emperors.”

      It seems to me that he might be suggesting that the Chinese philosophical tradition deals more with the kind of person one should be, which would surely play out in ‘ordinary life’ (as well as the Big Moments).

      BTW, I would’ve been more accurate to say that Kupperman defends character-ethics rather than (the related) virtue ethics.

      Comment by Scott 'Bao Pu' Barnwell | February 8, 2010 | Reply

  8. Steve,

    While not wanting to endorse everything that Kupperman or Pincoffs say in their criticisms of big-moment ethics, I feel that Bill’s reply (e.g., about Franklin) doesn’t give the critique enough credit.

    But I never addressed any critique of big-moment ethics above. I accused Kupperman of being muddled about what he meant by “big-moment ethics,” of making a plainly false claim about “traditional moral codes,” and of making a plainly false quantitative comparison between Asia and the West.

    However, regarding that last point, on closer reading of the 2002 interview report, while I still see there statements that seem to be meant to suggest broad differences between Asian and Western thought, I don’t see there any statement that clearly does assert any difference whatsoever. For example: “It seemed to me that the great classical Chinese philosophers asked questions that had not been asked by most Western philosophers in the last couple of hundred years.” That compares the best apples to the majority of oranges.

    In the 2002 report, where Kupperman speaks of “Western philosophy” in general, the broader context makes it possible, so charity proposes that we assume, that he means only current philosophy; and since the broader context is his personal intellectual history, maybe one can suppose that he meant the professional philosophy of the notoriously dry period you mention: Sidgwick to the 1980s, give or take, during much of which time the profession’s emphasis was on metaethics rather than normative theory.

    Insofar as Kupperman is talking about his reasons for professional career choices within philosophy, comparisons between Chinese “philosophy” and Western “philosophy” are relevant, even if radically misleading for any suggested general comparison between Chinese and Western thought.

    Part of Kupperman’s point, I take it, is that there is a [greater] continuity between attention to matters of style and detail, on the one hand, and more abstract issues as well as bigger moments or dilemmas, on the other hand, in (e.g.) Confucianism than we see in paradigmatic Western modern moral philosophy.

    By “continuity” between attention to detail and abstract issues, do you mean discussion of relations between details and live abstract questions? Or do you mean attention to matters of detail in the light of concern for certain broad values and virtues? Or something else?

    I wonder what ancient Western moral philosopher failed to focus on continuities between the abstract and the quotidian. If one is interested in how much attention Western thought pays to continuities between style/detail and abstract questions, I think one has to include Bacon, Tocqueville, Conrad, Freud, Carol Gilligan, pulp fiction, and self-help (except maybe the volumes written by Easterners).

    I think you’re suggesting that in comparing Chinese to Western thought, it’s fair to limit our comparison to Western “philosophers” on the grounds that they’re the only Westerners who attend to Western abstractions (and therefore the only ones who could discuss or display continuities between abstractions and details).

    But even pulp fiction addresses philosophical abstractions. For example, here’s a snippet I have handy: from a Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker (Ceremony, p. 134). I think it’s philosophically illuminating. Spenser has just told Susan (a guidance counselor and his lover) that he has discovered that the head of guidance counselors for the state of Massachusetts runs a child porn production and distribution network.

    Susan nodded. Her face was sharp with concern. “What are you going to do?”
    “Eventually I’m going to blow the whistle on him, but first I want to see if he knows where April is.”
    “Eventually?”
    “I didn’t hire on to clean up the state,” I said. “I hired on to find April. First things first.”
    “But—”
    “No,” I said. “Don’t give me the well-being-of-the-many-against-the-one speech. The many are an abstraction. April is not. She rode in my car. I’m going to find her first.”
    “One of the rules,” Susan said. There was no smile when she said it.
    “Sure,” I said.
    “How much is it for April?” she said. “How much for you?”
    “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “It’s a way to live. Anything else is confusion.”

    Here Spenser doesn’t criticize utilitarianism as a fundamental idea. Rather, like many moral philosophers, he argues very plausibly that it’s an unproductive way to make middle-sized decisions. In other words, it is at best an abstraction, a background justification, not a practical rule for daily reference. Susan is suspicious of rule-worship, and wants Spenser to spell out his motives in terms of quantitative rationality.

    [Despite the contributions of e.g. Kupperman and Pincoffs,] there are still real differences [between East and West]. As my colleague Elise Springer has put it, how important are “verdicts” (e.g., “morally wrong” or “obligatory”) in a given case, as opposed to nuanced responses that may never result in a clear verdict with respect to a given actor? Certainly much of the practice of moral theory has made it seem like verdicts are what matter, but it’s not clear to me that this is very often the case.

    I’m not sure what that has to do with big moment ethics. “Obligatory” and “wrong” are a very small subset of the ethical predicates one might apply to big and small moments, and that moral philosophers discuss. Often the discussion of dilemmas in recent anglophone philosophy doesn’t aim to arrive at a general decision. E.g. Jim and the Indians.

    Springer is talking about verdicts on actions, not actors. Both are, as she says, backward looking, unlike thinking about what to do. Maybe the distinction between backward and forward has nothing to do with what you meant. I think many Western moral theorists rightly hold that what’s most centrally important is neither verdicts nor “more nuanced responses,” since both look back and judge; but rather the forward looking questions of what to do and how to live. And I agree that what one can find is often not clear general answers. Sometimes it’s rough general rules, sometimes it’s pithy sayings, and sometimes it’s fragmentary hints.

    I wonder whether a conception of ethics that doesn’t focus on decisions – such as Chris Fraser discusses in his “Action and Agency in Early Chinese Thought” – therefore tends to put more emphasis on backward-looking evaluation.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 8, 2010 | Reply

  9. Sorry Steve, I was surely wrong when I wrote, “I think you’re suggesting that in comparing Chinese to Western thought, it’s fair to limit our comparison to Western “philosophers” on the grounds that they’re the only Westerners who attend to Western abstractions (and therefore the only ones who could discuss or display continuities between abstractions and details).

    Of course Western moral philosophy does often neglect important things. I have been under the impression that the fixing of anglophone moral philosophy was well underway before Pincoffs made his contribution, and was inspired by Aristotle and Thomas and by the general return to normative theory sparked by Rawls and the civil rights movement.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 9, 2010 | Reply

  10. This is clearly a question you can get lost in trying to define your terms, but I did wonder about this:
    An awful lot of western philosophy seems to make the assumption that individuals are (strongly) autonomous and that they have some level of rationality. (I’m thinking of almost all western political philosophy here, enlightenment thinking, protestant theology). Therefore ethical thinking tends to focus on prOscriptive limitations on people’s actions.
    Classical Chinese philosophy doesn’t completely share these assumptions, and has lots of prEscriptive rules on how to be a (good) person. Therefore it looks as though Chinese philosophy is directing everyday life more.
    I agree with Bill that western philosophy has ceded the area to psychology, education, sociology. But that’s kind of the point. Western philosophy sees these areas as in some ways non-philosophical, because it has granted that people have the power to make rational choices and act according to their will. In Chinese philosophy these ideas are (partially) denied – for example, ordinary people bend like grass in the presence of powerful moral beings – and that opens up a whole new area for philosophical enquiry.

    Er, right, what I was thinking evolved through the writing of that comment. So I think where I’m at is: western philosophy has voluntarily and for philosophical reasons chosen not to address certain areas concerning “everyday life”; Chinese philosophy makes a different choice, and so life gets philosophical again.

    Does that make sense?

    Comment by Phil Hand | February 13, 2010 | Reply

  11. That makes sense to me, and also I find it extremely interesting.

    I want to ask what you mean by ‘philosophy’ in saying both that Western philosophy has ceded etc. and that life can get philosophical. Or maybe your thought is that Western “philosophy” has abandoned some of philosophy. I wonder whether by living philosophically you mean living in light of general reasons, or, as one might say, trying to live according to views about how people in general should live. In which case I think it’s not out of harmony with the Enlightenment.

    Do you think of Chinese philosophy as being addressed to the people it considers to be grass under the wind?

    I appreciate your raising the point about negative v. positive rules. It’s something I haven’t thought nearly enough about, and I want to think nearly enough about it.

    I’ve tended to assume that most of the most urgent (elementary, pre-aspirational) ethical rules for everyone be negative, on grounds of respect and because that’s what’s easiest to agree to and enforce on each other. Much of the Decalogue and other rules thereabouts are negative, and I think that’s not because of views about autonomy. Maybe that’s because the view of human nature reflected in the Bible is less like grass and more like snakes? The snake idea seems to have been influential in much enlightenment and Protestant thought, though perhaps the Scottish enlightenment is happier with the nitty gritty of everyday life.

    I think Western philosophy (classical and otherwise) has lots of prescriptions about how to be a good person, though many are not exactly in the form of rules. I think the negativity of Western rules hasn’t for the most part been part of Western moral philosophy’s conception of rules.

    I think the fact that Western philosophy tends to attribute “some degree of rationality” to people isn’t a general difference from Chinese philosophy, and I think that lots of Western philosophy has long been skeptical about people’s autonomous rational powers, though I agree that lots hasn’t. I think that in Western philosophy assumptions of people’s autonomy are often not meant literally but are allocations of responsibility, forms of practical respect, and/or theoretical constructs for use in technical models.

    I see how what I said could have given the impression that I thought Western philosophy had ceded everyday life to psychology, education, sociology (or even those plus literature and self-help and Thoughtful Essays, which enterprises I had more in mind). I just meant that if we are going to compare (explicitly or by suggestion) Chinese to Western thought, or Chinese to Western philosophy as people mean ‘philosophy’ in the phrase ‘Chinese philosophy’, we ought to take into account more than just what Western professional “philosophers” have written. (And a fortiori, more than what professional Anglophone philosophers wrote during certain decades, etc.)

    I don’t think Western or even anglophone philosophy has made such a cession, if we mean mainly normative matters about everyday life. Well, Kupperman doesn’t mean mainly that. Maybe I’ll comment more on that later, after I’ve decided what to think.

    (When I wrote in the quasi-OP that we wouldn’t call Franklin a “philosopher” simply on the grounds of his list, I didn’t mean to be denigrating what he was doing, or suggesting that what he was doing isn’t or shouldn’t be a central topic of Western pro philosophy. I was making a narrow lexicographical point. My claim about Aristotle was positively misleading. I should have added that given its actual context, Aristotle’s remark about walking slowly should and does count as part of philosophy.)

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 13, 2010 | Reply

  12. In Martin Luther’s brief commentary on the Decalogue, he seems to strive to find positive rules:

    ———-

    I. The Ten Commandments

    As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.

    The First Commandment.

    Thou shalt have no other gods.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

    The Second Commandment.

    Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.

    The Third Commandment.

    Thou shalt sanctify the holy-day.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.

    The Fourth Commandment.

    Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother [that it may be well with thee and thou mayest live long upon the earth].

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear and love God that we may not despise nor anger our parents and masters, but give them honor, serve, obey, and hold them in love and esteem.

    The Fifth Commandment.

    Thou shalt not kill.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].

    The Sixth Commandment.

    Thou shalt not commit adultery.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse.

    The Seventh Commandment.

    Thou shalt not steal.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business [that his means are preserved and his condition is improved].

    The Eighth Commandment.

    Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

    The Ninth Commandment.

    Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of [justice and] right, etc., but help and be of service to him in keeping it.

    The Tenth Commandment.

    Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away our neighbor’s wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and [diligently] do their duty.

    What Does God Say of All These Commandments?

    Answer.

    He says thus (Exod. 20:5f): I the Lord, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    God threatens to punish all that transgress these commandments. Therefore we should dread His wrath and not act contrary to these commandments. But He promises grace and every blessing to all that keep these commandments. Therefore we should also love and trust in Him, and gladly do [zealously and diligently order our whole life] according to His commandments.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 13, 2010 | Reply

  13. Bill – I think I agree with what you’re saying, but it’s clearly hard work fighting through the thickets of assumptions we all carry about what philosophy is and should be, and the particular examples we’ve read.
    I actually agree when you say that western philosophy hasn’t ceded everyday life to other disciplines. However, as Manyul was saying on another thread, there are large areas now which it would not seem appropriate to address in a philosophical way – cosmogony was the example he was talking about. For classical western philosophers this would not have been true, and the same is true for classical Chinese philosophers. Similarly, though philosophers do write about education now, it would seem a bit odd to us if a philosopher started getting into specifics about timetables and curricula. For Confucius, this would probably not be the case. There’s been a process of specialization, which for philosophy (the love of all knowledge) has also been a process of narrowing, as areas which used to fall under its purview were taken over by more highly specialized disciplines. Classical Chinese philosophy simply never went through that process, simply because most of it happened over a fairly short period 2000 years ago.

    Also, just a bried comment on one thing you said: “Much of the Decalogue and other rules thereabouts are negative, and I think that’s not because of views about autonomy. Maybe that’s because the view of human nature reflected in the Bible is less like grass and more like snakes?”

    For me, the snake is precisely a symbol of autonomy – autonomy from God. The Fall as a result of free will is a fairly mainstream reading, I thought.

    Comment by Phil Hand | February 14, 2010 | Reply

  14. Yes, I find these matters frustratingly difficult. I keep feeling I’m missing something important.

    Good point about the snakes. Wickedness is not aimlessness. Still, in the Bible I think the picture leans toward a lack even of self-control, as when Peter denied Christ thrice before the cock crew. God’s aim is in large part to humiliate man’s self-respect: demanding circumcision, toppling the Tower, and blessing the “poor in spirit.” I guess that’s pretty negative, eh.

    As for timetables and curricula, I think you’re right. We tend to find finer detail in earlier philosophers, such as Xunzi, Zhu Xi, Plato, Locke, and Rousseau. I assume Dewey is less specific; I don’t know.

    But when the educator Confucius mentions particular textbooks, I think we should remember that particular books weren’t so particular in his day. And I’m looking at the table of contents of Amy Gutmann’s 1987 book Democratic Education, where titles of sections 5-10 pages long include Teachers’ Unions, Banning and Approving Books, Teaching Creationism and Civics, Sex Education and Sexist Education, Financing Private Schools, Funding Higher Education, Television and Democratic Education, and Television and Democratic Culture.

    Still, I agree with you that today we in the West count the finest practical and technical details as falling outside philosophy. I think the earliest Confucianism would agree with the general idea of such a division. Sturgeon/Legge:

    8.4
    曾子有疾,孟敬子問之。曾子言曰:“鳥之將死,其鳴也哀;人之將死,其言也善。君子所貴乎道者三:動容貌,斯遠暴慢矣;正顏色,斯近信矣;出辭氣,斯遠鄙倍矣。籩豆之事,則有司存。”
    The philosopher Zeng being ill, Meng Jing went to ask how he was. Zeng said to him, “When a bird is about to die, its notes are mournful; when a man is about to die, his words are good. There are three principles of conduct which the man of high rank should consider specially important: that in his deportment and manner he keep from violence and heedlessness; that in regulating his countenance he keep near to sincerity; and that in his words and tones he keep far from lowness and impropriety. As to such matters as attending to the sacrificial vessels, there are the proper officers for them.”

    Sometimes I think that Zengzi’s views can be explained on the basis of what one would say to a disciple’s untalented child. “Keep quiet and obey your father.” But did anyone anywhere get the jump on Confucius himself in promoting a conception of the philosopher’s quest as a specialization in broad matters, avoiding detail?

    9.6
    大宰問於子貢曰:“夫子聖者與?何其多能也?”子貢曰:“固天縱之將聖,又多能也。”子聞之,曰:“大宰知我乎!吾少也賤,故多能鄙事。君子多乎哉?不多也。”
    A high officer asked Zi Gong, saying, “May we not say that your Master is a sage? How various is his ability!” Zi Gong said, “Certainly Heaven has endowed him unlimitedly. He is about a sage. And, moreover, his ability is various.” The Master heard of the conversation and said, “Does the high officer know me? When I was young, my condition was low, and therefore I acquired my ability in many things, but they were mean matters. Must the superior man have such variety of ability? He does not need variety of ability.”

    Kong Yiji chanted those last words in protection of his bowl of beans. I think students, especially in required gen-ed courses, can be very receptive to the image of Western philosophers as obsolete, pathetic counters of abstract and therefore meaningless beans.

    13.4
    樊遲請學稼,子曰:“吾不如老農。”請學為圃。曰:“吾不如老圃。”樊遲出。子曰:“小人哉,樊須也!上好禮,則民莫敢不敬;上好義,則民莫敢不服;上好信,則民莫敢不用情。夫如是,則四方之民襁負其子而至矣,焉用稼?”
    Fan Chi requested to be taught husbandry. The Master said, “I am not so good for that as an old husbandman.” He requested also to be taught gardening, and was answered, “I am not so good for that as an old gardener.” Fan Chi having gone out, the Master said, “A small man, indeed, is Fan Xu! If a superior man love propriety, the people will not dare not to be reverent. If he love righteousness, the people will not dare not to submit to his example. If he love good faith, the people will not dare not to be sincere. Now, when these things obtain, the people from all quarters will come to him, bearing their children on their backs – what need has he of a knowledge of husbandry?

    I might have more to say at this point if I had read my HKU colleague’s research on Rousseau’s botanical work.

    ***

    I think cosmogony is a live topic in current professional philosophy. I’ve usually had colleagues working in it, not to mention my undergraduate adviser; and I’ve taught it in Intro Phil and in Philosophy of Religion. Granted, you and I and many others see flaws in the main positive arguments. But as someone who likes some unpopular ideas, I don’t want to drum cosmogony out of the discipline on those grounds.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 14, 2010 | Reply

  15. Correcting a major hole in what I had said, Scott Barnwell quotes Kupperman’s interview in Comment #4 above: I’d like to point out also, that, as Kupperman says in that interview: “What the best Asian philosophy does much better than many Western philosophies,” he says, “is give you a sense of the texture of life in the moments between those major choices, the things that make life worth living or not worth living, and also help you prepare for the major choices,” he seems to me to referring more to what counts as the good life and less to ethics. That is, in fact, the topic of his book.

    One thinks perhaps of the opening of the Analects. I’ve long thought that that passage was likely a response to a specific challenge: “Don’t you think of yourself as a failure?” But it doesn’t have to be read that way. And Confucius often says one should not focus too much on food, comfort, clothes, glory, seeking office, but should rather find one’s joy in virtue and fellowship. Such points are at least as central to classical Western philosophy. I don’t know about recent Chinese philosophy. As for recent Western philosophy, even in the dry decades there was plenty of discussion of what counts as the good life, such as G. E. Moore’s claim that friendship is an intrinsic good; but none of that ultimate stuff seems on point. (I don’t think Nozick’s focus on the choice as to whether to enter the experience machine makes his discussion fall under any “big moment” rubric.)

    So maybe recent philosophy (not: recent thought) gives less, I mean proportionately less, attention than classical philosophy to practical questions about how to train oneself to be good and to like it, and how to enjoy life. If so, does that point have any connection whatsoever to any comparison between the West and China?

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 14, 2010 | Reply

    • … To address my question, perhaps there’s this. Perhaps the popular self-help books in China and in the West agree in associating many of their points with classical Asian philosophy, while there’s no such popular association with classical Western philosophy. I wonder: what’s the significance of that?

      Comment by Bill Haines | February 14, 2010 | Reply

  16. This is a great thread, with lots of rich ideas. Just a few somewhat random thoughts in response.

    First, this conversation definitely helps me to see that we need to distinguish beween broad claims about Western philosophy (or thought) has or doesn’t have some feature, and current or recent Western professional philosophy has or doesn’t have some feature. The broad claims — especially when they are comparative/evaluative, like “Western philosophy doesn’t deal with everyday life as much as Chinese philosophy does” — are often going to be false or unhelpful. Indeed, one of the ways that current Western professional philosophers are trying to change the direction of moral philosophy is by looking back to earlier moments in the history of Western philosophy (the “virtue ethics” movement). That Chinese thought can help here, too, is certainly relevant, but our claim should not be that Chinese thought alone can play this role.

    One other thing, prompted by the mentions above of psychology. Hagop Sarkissian gave a terrific lecture at Wesleyan last fall that (among other things) looked at resonances between early Confucianism and recent research in psychology. After the talk, a student asked: well, if we’re learning this stuff now from psychologists, who have experiements to back up their claims instead of armchair intuitions, why do we need to make the connection to Confucianism? Hagop’s answer, as I understood it, was that what Confucianism offered was a marriage between some important psychological insights and a normative theory designed with these insights in mind. And this, he suggested, was distinctive and valuable, both for its content and for the model it offered. I found this quite persuasive.

    Comment by Steve Angle | February 16, 2010 | Reply

    • I’d add that insofar as there is something the Confucians could see when someone else couldn’t, maybe the Confucians were looking in a way that the other party should consider emulating. For one thing, they didn’t get their intuitions in armchairs.

      Comment by Bill Haines | February 16, 2010 | Reply

      • Good point, and doubly bad metaphor on my part: not only were they not sitting on chairs, they also were not sitting at all: they were participating. To some degree in court, but I don’t think that this means — or meant to them — that their observations only applied in such formal settings.

        Comment by Steve Angle | February 16, 2010 | Reply

    • Steve–Thanks for referring to my talk in the context of this discussion. I remember my visit well, and that student’s question in particular (sitting toward the back, on my right-hand side). It was a good question, and that was precisely the point I was trying to convey in the response, so it’s good to know that the point actually came across (which isn’t always a sure thing in philosophy, especially when one is working on one’s feet).

      Comment by hagop sarkissian | February 17, 2010 | Reply

  17. Those are great quotes, Bill. I feel rather elegantly refuted, which is a very good way to learn things, thank you.

    Looking back at my comment, I think I was pretty much wrong – my own brother (a philosopher in London) actually wrote a paper not long ago suggesting a specific and particular approach to addressing homosexuality in school curricula. That’s pretty specialized. And there’s been a whole bunch of popular philosophy books in Britain recently very much about the practicalities of living a good life, or a more enjoyable life. So perhaps Kupperman is simply mistaken.

    Comment by Phil Hand | February 16, 2010 | Reply

  18. Thanks Phil, that’s a kind reaction to showy bluster!

    It seems to me that there is something to your point about autonomy and negativity, that might connect with some fair point Kupperman is making. Maybe it has to do with embodiment or involvement in concrete detail.

    This whole conversation began when Scott asked for reactions to the reported 2002 interview (which might have antedated the books you have in mind). What the interview didn’t mention, and we haven’t discussed here, is Kupperman’s claim that Confucius’ own concern with style is not matched in recent Western philosophy.

    From his 2002 paper “Naturalness Revisited: Why Western Philosophers Should Study Confucius” (in Van Norden’s collection):

    “It seemed to me [in 1954-55], and continued to seem to me during graduate study at Cambridge, that the fascinating philosophies presented by Creel offered things—principally views of everyday life that synthesized psychological observation with normative interpretation—that were largely neglected in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, and that had never been developed so astutely anywhere else.” (39)

    “[despite the big changes since the 1960s], it is still true that most contemporary Western ethical thinkers tend to ignore ethical problems that center on a style of life.” (40)

    “What seems largely absent from all these [i.e. all current Western] philosophies, though, is any systematic account of how people could self-consciously attempt to integrate personal style, connectedness with others, and virtues into a way of life that would both be worth living on a minute-by-minute basis and also be civically useful. There is still no contemporary substitute for what Confucius has to offer.”(40)

    (Was Confucius systematic?) Sometimes by “style” Kupperman seems to mean the subtle attitude-expressing features of the manner in which a particular action is performed, and sometimes he seems to mean something such that you and I might each have just one style: something like a personal langue, or something like the expression of a whole set of attitudes.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 16, 2010 | Reply

  19. Thanks for those quotes Bill. It seems both Kupperman and Van Norden (and probably others) are trying to get Western people to pay attention to ideas from other parts in the world. It always bugs me when I see a book in the bookstore on “The Great Philosophers” and there isn’t one non-Western name in it.

    I personally haven’t studied much Western philosophy, but much of the stuff I have been exposed to is much less interesting to me than the Chinese stuff I’ve read. Why? Perhaps I have an inadequate exposure to Western philosophies. This undoubtedly true. But, Kupperman and Van Norden do not have this “excuse,” so it strengthens my feelings about this issue. Perhaps I just like the way the Chinese use stories or poetry to get one thinking, rather than sustained arguments. Perhaps the Chinese (except perhaps Mozi) point to the moon while Western philosophers explain it in detail. And perhaps this is very valuable and worth our attention in the West.

    Comment by Scott "Bao Pu" Barnwell | February 16, 2010 | Reply


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