Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

On Confucian Role Ethics

I have recently been at work on an essay called “The Analects and Moral Theory,” one part of which has been examining the idea of “Confucian role ethics,” as recently articulated by Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont. I thought it might be productive to extract some of my analysis here for discussion. In this post I look at the two key premises supporting Confucian role ethics; if folks are interested, in a subsequent post or two I have a couple different objections to the view that may be worth discussion.

At the heart of Confucian role ethics is “a specific vision of human beings as relational persons constituted by the roles they live rather than as individual selves” [Ames and Rosemont 2011, 17]. Their point is not that the roles themselves are distinctively Confucian, but rather that the idea of human as fundamentally constituted by our on-going living in roles ramifies throughout Confucian thinking in a way that renders it dramatically different from Greek or contemporary Western alternatives. Their argument in favor of a role-ethical interpretation of the Analects thus depends on two important premises. The first is a wide-ranging interpretation of early Confucian thinking that emphasizes its anti-foundational, anti-essentialist, and processural character. The second premise is that even though Confucian role ethics comes closer to virtue ethics than to Kantianism or consequentialism, relying on virtue-ethical vocabulary to understand the Analects “forces the Master and his followers more into the mold of Western philosophical discourse than they ought to be placed…and hence makes it difficult to see the Confucian vision as a genuine alternative to those with which we are most familiar” [Ibid.]. Therefore the best interpretation of Confucian ethics is as role ethics.

PREMISE ONE: The most basic difference they see between role ethics and all the standard Western ethical theories is that the latter rely on the idea of an independent principle or cause, while Confucianism does not. According to the Confucian project, Ames writes, “without appeal to some independent principle, meaning arises pari passu from a network of meaningful relationships” [Ames 2011, 91]. It is easy enough to see how Kantian and Utilitarian ethics rely on an independent principle; Ames argues that Aristotelian virtue ethics, too, depends on an independent, essentialist, reified notion of human nature, as compared to corresponding Confucian notions which are “collateral, transactional, and reflexive” [Ibid., 90]. A related contrast is that between abstraction and universalism in the Western theories, and concreteness and particularity in Confucianism. As Ames says, “the personal model of Confucius that is remembered in the Analects does not purport to lay out some generic formula by which everyone should live their lives” [Ibid., 95]. While one might be tempted to reply that particularism and a lack of “codifiability” are generally taken to be features of Aristotelian virtue ethics, Ames would respond that Aristotle still sees virtues as reified, individual capacities, as versus the relational and transactional idea of “virtuosity” that he finds in Confucianism [Ibid., 159, 180].

PREMISE TWO: This second premise is important because Ames and Rosemont are not claiming that Confucian role ethics is incommensurable with Western moral theories: it is both similar and different, and they are choosing to emphasize the differences. This is a strategic choice, reflecting not just the degree of difference but also our contemporary situation in which differences with dominant Western frameworks tend to be downplayed. They are concerned with the phenomenon of “asymmetry” between Western and Chinese discourses that Kwong-loi Shun has also highlighted.  Ames and Rosemont note several instances in which, in the course of their comparisons of Aristotle and Confucius, Sim and Yu stress what seems to be lacking, missing, absent, or ignored in Confucian ethics, when seen in the light of Aristotle [Ibid., 18]. To be fair, both Sim and Yu announce that their projects are to see what each of their subjects can learn from the other, and both Sim and Yu note problems for Aristotle, including that his “insistent individualism…fails to account for the thick relations his own theory requires” [Sim 2007, 164], and his overly strong distinction between virtue and activity “inappropriately reduces the value of having virtue” [Yu 2007, 194]. I will not try to settle here whether Sim or Yu in fact give us asymmetrical comparisons, but the fact surely remains that comparative philosophy overall has been characterized by an asymmetry, and it is with this in mind that Ames and Rosemont “want to resist tailoring what we take to be a distinctively Confucian role ethics into a familiar category of Western ethical theory” [Ames and Rosemont 2011, 18].

REFERENCES:

Ames, Roger T. 2011. Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont Jr. 2011. Were the Early Confucians Virtuous? In Ethics in Early China: An Anthology, eds. Chris Fraser, Dan Robins, and Timothy O’Leary, 17-39. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Sim, May. 2007. Remastering Morals With Aristotle and Confucius. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yu, Jiyuan. 2007. The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue. New York: Routledge.

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February 21, 2012 - Posted by | Comparative philosophy, Confucianism

14 Comments »

  1. This seems like a round-about way of saying that the Analects contain anecdotes of a moral-orientation rather than anything that rises to the sophistication of philosophy in the Western (or Indian) sense.

    The gospels in a sense manifest a moral philosophy, but they aren’t properly philosophical—they don’t offer a *moral theory*. And neither does most Chinese ‘philosophy.’

    Comment by Johann Happolati | February 21, 2012 | Reply

    • Well, it’s lucky for you that you can save a lot of time by reading other blogs then. 🙂

      Comment by Carl | February 22, 2012 | Reply

  2. Hi Steve,

    I’m interested in your objections. Do Ames and Rosemont believe that the best interpretation of Confucian ethics is as role ethics because it is then an alternative to Western models?

    While Ames may be correct that the ancient Chinese were more process-oriented than people in the West, I don’t think it is a black-and-white case. I would argue that one can find passages in the Classical Chinese corpus at odds with his view, although I suppose I might be accused of reading them through biased Western eyes.

    As Ames says, “the personal model of Confucius that is remembered in the Analects does not purport to lay out some generic formula by which everyone should live their lives”

    We can find some generic formulas in the Analects, methinks.

    Comment by Scott "Bao Pu" Barnwell | February 21, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Scott,

      Do Ames and Rosemont believe that the best interpretation of Confucian ethics is as role ethics because it is then an alternative to Western models?

      Yes, although it’s important that their strategic choice is relative to our current “asymmetric” world situation.

      As for generic formulas, the question is whether something like “What he himself does not want, let him not do it to others” is a formal, fixed principle, or a generalization that offers good advice, or what.

      Comment by Steve Angle | February 21, 2012 | Reply

      • Well at least it’s a generic formula! But as you say, Steve, that’s probably not what Roger meant.

        Comment by Bill Haines | February 22, 2012 | Reply

  3. I think this all might be terribly interesting.

    Steve, I think that by “premises of Confucian role ethics” you mean premises of the attribution of role-ethics to (some) Confucians.

    I’m guessing that Ames & Rosemont’s reading does not hold that the early Confucians actually articulated for themselves the main abstract ideas by which A&R describe the role ethics view, but rather holds that the Confucians had the ideas in some other way – in some other medium – such as the shape of their vision.

    I don’t begin to understand the language offered to describe that shape. Here are some questions.

    1
    On the one hand, (A) the attribution is “a wide-ranging interpretation of early Confucian thinking that emphasizes its anti-foundational, anti-essentialist, and processural character.”

    On the other hand, (B) the view attributed is a view of the essence of human beings – “a specific vision of human beings as relational persons constituted by the roles they live rather than as individual selves” – and a view about what’s fundamental: “the idea of human as fundamentally constituted by our on-going living in roles.”

    2
    I wonder whether the intent in (A) is to characterize the views or shapes as “anti-foundational” and “anti-essentialist,” or instead merely as non-foundational and non-essentialist. Had Confucius encountered “foundationalism” and “essentialism”?

    3
    I do not understand the claim that early Confucian thinking is “processural.” Surely what’s meant is not that their thinking was a process (whose isn’t?) nor that they saw thinking as a process (who doesn’t?).

    4
    “The most basic difference they see between role ethics and all the standard Western ethical theories is that the latter rely on the idea of an independent principle or cause, while Confucianism does not.”

    “It is easy enough to see how Kantian and Utilitarian ethics rely on an independent principle.” Actually it’s not easy for me yet, at least because I don’t know what I’m supposed to be seeing.

    4a. Independent of what?

    (Of roles? If what’s meant is that the Western views are each based on a principle putatively independent of roles, then (i) offhand the claim looks false of Rawls; (ii) the claim is narrower and shallower than the initial presentation would have it appear; and (iii) I wonder whether the idea of human persons as fundamentally constituted by roles is itself a principle independent of roles.)

    4b. Independent in what sense? Epistemically? Causally?

    ***

    Are there answers to these questions? Maybe my problem is just that I haven’t read the book or the paper in the anthology yet. At least I have the anthology here somewhere.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 22, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks, Bill: you’ve pointed out some places in which I’ve been sloppy. And let me see if I can answer some of your questions.

      (0) Yes, you’re right that I should have said “premises of the attribution of role-ethics to (some) Confucians.” A theme of my whole essay is identifying ways in which it can be constructive to think about the Analects (and, by extension, other early texts) in terms of “moral theory,” as well as reflecting on the very real limits of such approaches.

      (1 and 2) “Fundamental” in “the idea of human as fundamentally constituted by our on-going living in roles” is my word, not theirs. Same goes for “anti-“; “non-” is better. I need to be more careful! So the question of whether there is an internal contradiction, as you suggest in (1), becomes more subtle. I take it that they have an understanding of “essentialism” that is not contradicted by the “specific vision” that I briefly sketch. We can pursue this farther if you like.

      (3) I guess what I mean by processural isn’t that the thinking itself is processural, but that the its subject matter is processural. Rather than being about distinct properties that individual agents may have (i.e., virtues), it is about the “transactional” idea of virtuosity. (Transaction is a good metaphor because it is both relational and processural.)

      (4) “Independent of what” and “independent in what sense” are good questions. My first try at an answer, without going back into the book (which is at my office, and thus not readily accessible at the moment), is: independent of our actual, everday life experiences. Kant’s principle is, I submit, independent in this way. I suppose there are various different accounts of the justification or status of the utilitarian principle, most of which would also make it independent in this sense. (Maybe not for Hutcheson, for whom it’s just a summary of what our moral sense tells us; I’m not sure about Sidgwick, for whom it is supposed to best account for common sense.)

      Comment by Steve Angle | February 22, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks Steve, I had imagined that the gaps were mainly theirs, not yours. I should hunt up the paper at least.

      Comment by Bill Haines | February 22, 2012 | Reply

  4. I’ve made my initial reconnaissance with the anthology paper, and here’s a first thought:

    In might be helpful to think of A&R’s “role ethics” in connection with the view of ‘good’ put forth in a famous paper by Peter Geach.
    http://fair-use.org/peter-t-geach/good-and-evil
    The view has been widely received, as a challenge to all general theories of goodness. The basic idea is that the meaningful use of ‘good’ always involves, explicitly or tacitly, a general noun, or at least an understood kind, so that “X is good” always means “X is good qua K” – a good knife, a good butter-knife, a good knight, a good knish, or a good day to quit smoking – and what it is to be a good K varies greatly from one kind to another. So it is wrong to speak of goodness simpliciter, saying e.g. that to be good is to promote net pleasure. Further, where people are involved the general noun involved may name a role: X is a good friend, a good wizard, daughter, butcher, goalie, teammate, bridge partner, liar. We understand how to uses these phrases involving ‘good’ not because we have some general account of what it is to be good, but because we understand how to use ‘good’ in a way that is sensitive to kinds.

    Objection to the Connection: The Geachian view of ‘good’ may seem not to harmonize with role ethics as A&R conceive it. For the latter seems to stress the particularity of each role of each person, while the Geachian view (and the underlying linguistic dynamic, I think) is essentially bound up with the fact of kinds, of generality. The A&R picture as presented in the anthology paper also seems to stress relationships at least as much as roles. I’m not sure whether that’s because the picture identifies roles with relationships. I’m reminded once again of the country song “Who I am” by Jessica Andrews (I’d post the YouTube link if I hadn’t already):

    “I am Rosemary’s granddaughter
    The spitting image of my father
    And when the day is done
    My momma’s still my biggest fan
    Sometimes I’m clueless and I’m clumsy
    But I’ve got friends who love me
    And they know just where I stand
    It’s all a part of me
    That’s who I am.”

    (Where does a particularist stand? Over the Why.)

    Reply to the Objection: Even roles defined with reference to particular individuals can be generic enough to work with ‘good’ in a Geachian way: You have been a good sister to me, this is a good sledgehammer for Jones, etc.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph,_the_Insult_Comic_Dog#Catchphrases

    I think the Geachian view is pretty much right – except for the part about how it is inconsistent with the truth of any general unified account of what it is to be good. Advertisement: In my paper “Hedonism and the Variety of Goodness” (Utilitas 22:2) I argue that Geach’s view, like its Aristotelian father and Rawlsian and Thompsonian offspring, is not only consistent with, but is in fact predicted and explained by, Hedonism about goodness, which I define as the simple theory that anything is “good” just insofar as it means net pleasure for the universe – where this account is meant to apply to pretty much every occurrence of the word ‘good’, not just some specialized subset.

    Which brings me to the thought that A&R’s “role ethics” might best be regarded not as an alternative to general theories and principles in moral philosophy, but rather as the topic or aspect of life that general theories and principles in moral philosophy (and metaethics etc.) aim to address and deepen: that is, as pre-theoretical rather than anti-theoretical. A pre-theoretical grasp of and orientation to ethics is a necessary ground for theory.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 23, 2012 | Reply

  5. Hi Steve, you write,

    According to the Confucian project, Ames writes, “without appeal to some independent principle, meaning arises pari passu from a network of meaningful relationships” [Ames 2011, 91].

    Ames’ claim might suggest that he accepts, at least tacitly, the following line of thought:

    1. People ought to live meaningfully. (premise)
    2. The way to live meaningfully is through relationships. (premise)
    3. We ought to be involved in relationships. (1,2)

    Of course the Ames quote does not present that line of thought, and the point Ames has in mind is not quite the same as premise (2) above; still the quote can suggest that he accepts the line of thought. I guess the way the quoted statement suggests the line of thought is that the quoted statement seems to be making an argument about how ethics makes sense without an “independent principle.”

    For two reasons, premise (1) needn’t be thought to be an “independent principle” of the sort Ames is claiming to be unnecessary. First, depending on what Ames means by “meaningfully,” (1) might be a mere tautology. For example, perhaps by “meaningfully” Ames means something like “appreciably well,” i.e. “with goodness that is accessible to the agent’s cognitive powers.” (One of the contributions of relationships to meaning is that they construct cognitive powers.) Second, we needn’t think of principle (1) as a proposed practical principle for people to act on; we can think of it as a philosopher’s comment.

    So I wonder whether Ames (or “role ethics”) does accept that line of thought; and if so, how he would understand and defend premise (1).

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 1, 2012 | Reply

    • Your argument seems to assume that we can live without relationships. It’s not like we get very far in life without beginning as someone’s daughter or son. If Roger assumes anything, wouldn’t it be that human life is lived in and through relationships with other human beings?

      Comment by Joanna Crosby | July 28, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Joanna, I agree: indeed any argument for statement 3 assumes in effect that we have a choice.

      As I read my comment now, I don’t see how the quote from Roger could possibly suggest that he accepts the 123 argument! Your comment makes this disconnect especially clear. Thank you.

      Whether the assumption is true depends on what one means by “relationship,” I guess. For example, if my parents died a while back, am I now in a relationship with them? If I am trying mainly to kill people, is that a relationship? Am I in a relationship with myself?

      Also, if the only objection to argument 123 were that it urges us to do something we do anyway, the argument might still be interesting as suggesting an argument for being more involved in relationships.

      As I read my comment now, it looks to me as though I was not making the 123 argument myself. And frankly I find it hard to see what worry I thought my comment might shed light on. My guess is that I was trying to push for more of an answer about what “independent principle” is supposed to mean.

      As for what Roger is assuming – I don’t know. I don’t understand his accounts of role ethics or of the relational conception of persons, even in a broad-strokes way. (Though I’ve studied the anthology paper closely, I still haven’t seen the book.)

      Comment by Bill Haines | July 28, 2012 | Reply

  6. Sorry I haven’t been very responsive, but I appreciate all these thoughts, challenges, and suggestions. A few miscellaneous responses:

    Dennis, I’m intrigued by what you say, but I wonder about the “play with more energy” analogy, for two reasons. First, lots of what is already there, for Stan, seems problematic. Should he be more domineering? If it’s other things—which are present, but submerged—that need to be emphasized, how do we articulate what needs to change and why? Not enough to just say “be a better father.” Second, part of the answer to those questions, I think, lies in the fact that we need to balance or harmonize different roles and multiple values. I believe this is quite explicit in Roger’s discussion of “efficacy,” and I think it’s true. I’d say that someone comes into better “focus” as a potential exemplar insofar as we see and understand the person along multiple dimensions.

    Manyul, I definitely am not thinking of a person free of roles, though I do think that we need to be able to think about the agent who is constituted relationally but is not just the sum of her or his present roles. Your discussion here with Bill (about future roles, and so on) speaks provocatively to this.

    Bill, two things. First, I like the questions you’ve asked about parenting and ruling, vis a vis the interpretation of the Analects as expressing a role ethics. In the terms that Brian uses in response to Kai’s recent post, Roger and Henry are clearly after *both* intellectual-historical and constructive objectives, and the line between them can be pretty blurry. Still, perhaps you downplay the degree to which we are told important things about how to occupy the role of ruler. “Face south” is not everyday instrumental advice, right?

    Second, you ask what disqualifies something from being a role ethics. I do think that there are some pretty clearly defined cases of role ethics (see, e.g., Nuyen, A. T. 2007. “Confucian Ethics and Role-Based Ethics.” International Philosophical Quarterly 47, no. 3: 315-328. This is also a case in which the issue/problem of social-cultural relativism comes very much to the fore). But I do not think that Roger and Henry’s CRE is such a case. As I suggested in my earlier posting, their decision to characterize their interpretation as role ethics has more to do with a desire to combat “asymmetry” than because CRE must fit into, or help to define, a clearly distinct approach to ethics. Without doubt, some of the unclarity here has to do with the comparative youth of virtue ethics and other potential alternatives to the Big Two in ethics: we are in a creative time, which is also a confusing time. More “revolutionary” than “normal,” in Kuhn’s terms, or so I think.

    Comment by Steve Angle | March 1, 2012 | Reply

  7. Hi Steve, thanks for the reference and discussion!

    I like the questions you’ve asked about parenting and ruling, vis a vis the interpretation of the Analects as expressing a role ethics. In the terms that Brian uses in response to Kai’s recent post, Roger and Henry are clearly after *both* intellectual-historical and constructive objectives, and the line between them can be pretty blurry. Still, perhaps you downplay the degree to which we are told important things about how to occupy the role of ruler. “Face south” is not everyday instrumental advice, right?

    Well, my point was not that Confucius’ comments about rulership are everyday or uncontroversial instrumental advice, but rather that they consist mainly (always?) of instrumental advice (however unusual) about how to support public goods the support of which is pretty uncontroversially the main job of government.

    It’s true that at LY 15.5 Confucius says:

    無為而治者,其舜也與?夫何為哉,恭己正南面而已矣
    “If anyone coudl be said to have effected proper order while remaining nonassertive, surely it was Shun. What did he do? He simply assumed an air of deference and faced due south.” (trans. A&R)

    I think once upon a time I read somewhere that the traditional view was that the monarch’s facing south was ritually instrumental to preventing natural disasters, or something like that – so that facing south would be instrumental to uncontroversial public benefits.

    Since Confucius says nothing at all in 15.5 about how or why facing south can be part of good rulership, I’m not sure how the passage would prima facie oppose my point. Maybe your thought is that facing south plainly can’t be instrumental to good results, or adequate to support the good results that are uncontroversially taken to be the main job of the ruler, and so must be valuable parts of rulership in some other way?

    Two specific reasons not to take the passage that way are that (a) 15.5 says that by facing south, Shun succeeded in governing (治); and (b) in 2.1, Confucius uses the star that sits facing south as an image of rule by exemplary virtue. (Also if we take the remark in 15.5 straight, we might have trouble reconciling it with many things Confucius says elsewhere.)

    As for blurring and Brian’s three “stances” toward “Confucianism as a political ideology”:

    I do mean to be disagreeing only with A&R’s historical-interpretive claims in the anthology paper – which doesn’t pretend to give a proper argument for most of its historical-interpretive claims of course. I don’t know enough about their CRE or RE to know if I agree with it.

    I would distinguish sharply between (a) interpreting an old text or an old thinker, and (b) interpreting some larger entity of which the interpreter herself is a part (like a Dworkinian judge interpreting the current state of the law). The latter task might be fine, but insofar as it might involve seeming to interpret Confucius or an old text, there is a heavy obligation on the “interpreter” to be at pains to prevent such misunderstanding. There shouldn’t be any bewildering.

    Anyway the anthology paper claims to be about “early” Confucianism, not about anything that includes A&R. I think the paper plainly operates on the assumption that Confucius is representative, on the points at issue.

    Anyway I submit that my challenges about Confucius above (and other things I’ve a mind to say) are on points large and central enough to show through a little blurring in “stance.”

    Regarding interpreting particular texts or thinkers, the main approach I tend to assume by default in any apparent interpreter I encounter, and like to think that I mainly take, is not on Brian’s list of stances toward the ideology. The approach is this: (4) using charity and other parts of critical judgment, try to identify and articulate the ideas the person or text is putting forth, and evaluate them, and perhaps (as can be a natural part of evaluating) suggest improvements. (4) is unlike Brian’s (1) in that (4) doesn’t have any interest in questions of influence except as instrumental to interpretation; and also in not being amoral – at least if the topic of the material at hand is moral or something like that. For one thing, if one isn’t actively interested in a topic, one can’t do a good job of exercising charity on that topic, or creatively generating candidate interpretations. I tend to assume that interpreters of old texts or thinkers on a topic are motivated primarily by an interest in the topic, and by the wish to help the old text or thinker contribute to the ongoing discussion of the topic.

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 1, 2012 | Reply


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