Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

A Mengzian Answer to Johnson’s Incompleteness Objection

As those of you interested in virtue ethics will know, one of the much-discussed objections to virtue ethics in recent years has been Robert Johnson’s claim that any virtue ethical theory that tells us an act is right if and only if a fully virtuous agent would do it is incomplete, since it cannot account for duties of moral self-improvement (“Virtue and Right.” Ethics 113 (2003): 810-34). Sean McAleer has just published an article in the on-line Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy that uses Mengzi as one strategy to rebut Johnson. It’s fascinating to see Mengzi used as one source among others, without any seeming awkwardness, in thinking through this contemporary philosophical challenge. Or at any rate, I find it fascinating; what do you all think? (Full disclosure: Sean was one of the participants in the NEH Summer Seminar that Michael Slote and I ran two summers ago.)


August 4, 2010 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Virtue


  1. Steve, thanks for pointing us to Sean’s paper (hi Sean! if you’re following this string). It’s a great, lively discussion of the problem that Sean identifies as an incompleteness problem. It’s nice to see Mencius taken seriously in a piece like this. My initial, quick response to it is that Sean’s Mengzian solution solves the problem from an interesting direction, but at the cost of introducing a type of “paradox of virtue” into the account.

    The Mengzian solution introduces 義 into the mix, of which Sean says, “The virtue most relevant here is yi, usually translated righteousness, though we will see that it extends beyond the perhaps narrowly religious connotations of that term to something more akin to appropriateness” (10), citing Van Norden’s and Kwong-loi Shun’s accounts in support.

    In approaching Johnson’s incompleteness problem, Sean proposes the following as the Mengzian account of virtuous action that would replace the act-is-right-iff-a-fully-virtuous-agent-would-do-it account:

    The Mengzi account: A’s φing in c is right if and only if A’s φing in c expresses benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), ritual propriety (li), or wisdom (zhi).

    As Sean summarizes later, “Mengzian yi is in part, at least, a virtue of seeing what a situation calls for and acting appropriately, of being flexible” (11). Sean’s proposed solution to incompleteness comes then in this way:

    So, let us see what Mengzian righteousness, understood (in part) as a virtue of situational appropriateness, has to offer as a way of responding to Johnson’s objection. If I am subvirtuous, taking certain measures – weeding my garden, so to speak – would be appropriate, whether these be making and reflecting on a list of my lies or avoiding the ice cream aisle at the grocery store. I ought to do these things, as they are expressions of the virtue of righteousness. The subvirtuous person is not doing what the virtuous person would do in those circumstances, but this is because the same virtue, righteousness, makes different demands on people at different stages or levels of moral development. What is righteous or appropriate depends not only upon the circumstances, but upon the nature of the agent, as well. (12)

    That seems like a good dodge of Johnson’s problem, but I wonder if the Mengzian account harbors a paradox of virtue problem. The “subvirtuous” person on this account, presumably ex hypothesi, doesn’t quite possess the virtue of yi. but if so, she wouldn’t be able to exercise it, except occasionally or accidentally. So, the subvirtuous person would first have to acquire yi prior to being able to recognize and act on the demands appropriate to the subvirtuous person. But then it seems like the subvirtuous person has to acquire the subvirtuous person’s virtue prior to being the subvirtuously “virtuous” person. Or maybe it seems I’m being too stringent in requiring the subvirtuous person to have yi fully prior to exercising it? If so, I’d like to hear how a virtue that requires sensitivity to appropriate action according to the contingencies of circumstances could be anything that someone who doesn’t fully possess that virtue could effectively exercise.

    Comment by Manyul Im | August 5, 2010 | Reply

  2. Here’s one way maybe: if on the basis of your virtue you tell me to do something, and I do it because you told me to, then my action might express your virtue. Similarly, if the broad righteousness of (the members of) a community or tradition generally endorses a certain rule, which I obey because my community or tradition endorses it, then too my action might in a sense express the virtue – ? (Depending on how stringently we read “requires sensitivity to the circumstances,” that requirement might rule out the latter of these two proposed cases.)

    But the passage you quote, Manyul, suggests to me that Sean’s picture is that Yi is an organic thing, like an animal’s heart or a sprout of barley: it can be small in April and big in June. That is, sometimes Yi is Yi without being fully developed. It would be interesting to try to work out a view like that.

    Comment by Bill Haines | August 7, 2010 | Reply

    • Each of the two ideas I’ve just sketched seems to leave some incompleteness, however. For the first: sometimes I lack a virtuous commander. For the second: there might be a moral agent (someone capable of right and wrong) who does not have the virtue of Yi (even undeveloped or otherwise imperfect).

      Comment by Bill Haines | August 7, 2010 | Reply

      • I like Bill’s solution. It seems to reflect what Confucius said – he knew the mandate of heaven before his own heart was brought fully into alignment with it.
        I don’t think the presence of a virtuous commander is a problem, because we have books. The golden age of virtue was 3000 years ago, after all. People have been getting by since then (if declining).

        Comment by Phil Hand | August 7, 2010 | Reply

      • Actually I meant to offer two solutions to Manyul’s problem, of which the second looks to me more promising toward interpretation of Confucians. The second solution is that an action of mine can express e.g. Yi even if my Yi is less than fully developed, because young Yi is still Yi.

        Comment by Bill Haines | August 21, 2010 | Reply

  3. Hi Manyul! That’s an interesting point. I wonder if part of the problem isn’t my infelicitous use of ‘expresses’ — which is especially dopey, since I take care to distinguish expression, respecting, and promoting elsewhere in the paper. I’m tempted by the Aristotelian distinction between virtuous action (action that respects (= conforms to) the demands of the relevant virtue) and being virtuous or possessing the virtue. I may not yet possess a certain virtue, but I can act as the virtue requires — and if I do so often enough and in the right spirit, I may well acquire the virtue, and when I do acquire it, my virtue-respecting conduct is also virtue-expressing.

    I’m intrigued by Bill’s suggestion.

    Comment by Sean McAleer | August 7, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Sean. A fan of the idea that rightness has to be defined in terms of virtues might think you’re eviscerating that idea by giving a key role to a virtue that seems to be defined in terms of rightness or appropriateness independently understood. Are you? 🙂

      Comment by Bill Haines | August 7, 2010 | Reply

  4. What I find most interesting is not really whether Sean is successful or not in deploying Mengzi to dissolve the accusation of incompleteness. Rather I’m excited at the simple fact that he deploys Mengzi in a way that makes solid contact with the accusation, in a context otherwise defined by Western thought (and JESP recognized that he was making contact). It is clear that what he says about Mengzi addresses the accusation. Chinese philosophers were writing about universal questions, and we need to consider their views.

    I do think the way Sean presents his Mengzian solution encounters this paradox of virtue, and I would quibble with other points. For example, I’m afraid Sean is leaning on connotations of the word “appropriateness” that don’t really fit what Mengzi is talking about; I do think the Confucians have extremely valuable things to say, however, about people who are merely on the way to virtue and what they should do. I think this is one of their most important strengths in contrast with the Western tradition which seems to be fairly inarticulate about anything less than complete virtue, whereas in fact nearly no one is completely virtuous.

    I also think it is interesting to see how Sean’s deployment of Mengzi actually unfolds. It is not easy to deploy him within an otherwise Western conversation, and I feel like I can hear the engine straining a bit as he is working through all the explanation it takes to connect Mengzi’s thought with the previously established terms of debate. However, I think this is really where we need to go if we are to take Chinese philosophy seriously as philosophy. I am convinced that the Confucian tradition is a complete, alternative tradition of virtue ethics every bit as rich, interesting, and insightful as the Western tradition, and essentially addressing the same questions. To get from the “same” questions in a pre-theoretical sense to connecting the philosophical discourse, full of theory-laden terms, though, is no small task.

    Comment by Ben H | August 8, 2010 | Reply

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