Role ethics as virtue ethics?
In case you are not tired of thinking about the issues raised by Henry Rosemont’s and Roger Ames’s defense of “role ethics,” I’d like to offer one more perspective on the matter. Rosemont and Ames see Confucian role ethics as a full-scale replacement to the current moral theories on offer, which in their writings seem to be consequentialism, Kantian deontology, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. As Bill Haines suggested in a comment to a previous post on this subject, some readers of Aristotle find the version of Aristotle that is rejected by Rosemont and Ames to be a caricature, but I am going to set that issue to the side and look at the possible value of recasting the ideas and values driving Confucian role ethics as a version of a broad notion of virtue ethics.
The idea would not be to conflate Aristotelian ethics and Confucian ethics, but to ask whether there is a way of construing virtue ethics that is broad enough to include an ethic with the relational, transactional grounding on which Ames and Rosemont put so much emphasis. It is significant that the modern revival of virtue ethics over the last half-century has been spurred by a reaction against many of the same features of deontology and consequentialism that Ames and Rosemont also critique, and also that virtue ethics has been quite dynamic in stretching beyond its initial source of inspiration in Aristotle. Ames and Rosemont say that contemporary version of virtue ethics maintain “the foundational role of the individual and of rationality,” but it is not clear to me that this is so, or at least problematically so. Furthermore, it is striking that when Ames comes to discuss de (which is often translated as “virtue”; he renders it “excelling morally”), he says:
Each of these [terms that make up the vocabulary of Confucian role ethics] is a perspective on the same event, and functions to highlight a particular phase or dimension in achieving the consummate life. There is a sense in which de is used as the more general term for expressing the cumulative outcome of coordinating the shared experience effectively—both the achieved quality of the conduct of the particular person and the achieved ethos of the collective culture. Hence, the other terms we have explored above are all implicated in excelling morally (de). [Ames 2011, 207].
Ames makes it clear elsewhere that his concern with the term “virtue” is with its implication that virtues are reified, metaphysically independent things, rather than as aspects of our complex, socially articulated experience. Instead, he insists that “whatever we call virtue…is nothing more or less than a vibrant, situated, practical, and productive virtuosity” [Ibid., 181]. Seen in this light—and also in the light of my previous argument concerning the need, within Ames’s and Rosemont’s theory, for a normative commitment to interdependence—I wonder whether their ideas are really, at bottom, about roles. When we foreground virtuosity and interdependent flourishing instead, it starts to sound like such a “virtuosity ethics” has things to teach to, and things to learn from, virtue ethics—and indeed, that they may ultimately be two species of the same genus.