Review of Roger Ames, Confucian Role Ethics
Ryan Nichols and Craig Ihara have jointly written an extensive review of Roger Ames’s Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Here is an excerpt from that review, posted here with permission. Please address any comments to Ryan and Craig.
This is a selection from our draft review, the final version of which will be published soon in Dao, of Roger Ames’ newest book Confucian Role Ethics. We post it here in order to continue conversation about this important theory. -Nichols & Ihara
There are many subjects to discuss in Confucian Role Ethics. The following discussion addresses several of the most salient issues.
Methodological problems arise in Ames’ discussion on pp. 20-35 in regard to the need to make generalizations about China, in opposition to others who say this is inadvisable. Ames’ arguments on behalf of making generalizations are somewhat weak, including assertions such as: “the only thing more dangerous than striving to make responsible cultural generalizations is failing to make them” (23). Generalizations about certain philosophical continuities between thinkers in Han and in Warring States China are appropriate and permissible so long as they are justified by textual and historical evidence. While Ames may be correct that generalizations are important for understanding Confucianism, the unaddressed but more important question is: under what evidential conditions are such generalizations justified?
Ames’ approach overlooks this key methodological question. Typically, his generalizations are not about a single text but about a 2500-year tradition. In contrast, scholarly work in the history of philosophy usually involves making close inferences from what texts and manuscript sources say to what they mean. Confucian Role Ethics offers rich discussions of Confucianism’s key terms motivated by pragmatist goals, executed in a literary style that draws from historical Confucian scholarship, contemporary continental thought, pragmatism and more. The methods used, while familiar to us and to Ames’ readers, lack clear interpretive goals and appear under-informed by metaphilosophical reflection as to the purposes and aims of the history of philosophy. In this way Ames’ work reduplicates the methods and goals of Confucianism itself since the tradition attempts to influence readers more than persuade readers through philosophical argumentation.
Ames’ method places greater importance on explicating just what is the Confucian tradition. He argues that traditions are not a priori definable by appeal to systematic principles but rather are sequences of human conduct that grow organically over time and in response to the people who use them. This suggests that Confucianism is as Confucianism does. A competing account of Confucianism may locate the tradition as the set of commitments that appear in canonical Confucian texts. Ames’ definition of ‘Confucianism’ appears dialectically advantageous since it enables advocates of Confucianism to distance themselves from, for example, features of canonical texts that advocate forms of gender discrimination, for example. However, this belies a subtle, but pervasive equivocation on the use of ‘Confucian tradition’. Consider: Ames argues that when “despotic rulers have ruled imperial China over the centuries and have oppressed generations in the name of Confucian values” (19), these rulers have misappropriated Confucianism. But this would only follow if the tradition is not characterized as historical sequences of human conduct, so it appears that Ames attempts (albeit unintentionally) to have it both ways. A related point is that critics may argue that a book about the vocabulary of Confucianism is self-immunized from common forms of scholarly criticism since generalizations about the tradition as a whole cannot be falsified by, for example, appeal to a text. Surely there is a place for broad-sweeping, pan-tradition, generalizations within Chinese philosophy, but absent an account of evidential standards employed in such generalizations, critics may argue that Ames makes it too easy for himself.
Those critics might find themselves in a pinch. On one hand, Ames typically overlooks the research of contemporary scholars of Confucianism. For example, despite the attention to which Liu Qingping’s work has been exposed in recent years (this journal devoted the bulk of two separate issues (2008, volume 7, numbers 1 and 2) to this discussion), Ames does not mention Liu’s work. We would have benefitted from reading Ames’ responses to arguments from Liu partly because they directly challenge Ames’ interpretation of filial piety in the tradition.
On the other hand, when Ames does discuss the research of contemporary scholars of Confucianism, his discussion often lacks charity. Consider Ames’ discussion of the research of Zhang Longxi. He chooses to describe Zhang’s psychological attitudes rather than assessing the evidence on behalf of Zhang’s interpretations and methods. Ames describes Zhang’s motivations in heightened emotional language, referring to “Zhang’s ire” (31) and “Zhang’s exasperation” (33). He also describes Zhang’s argument in militaristic metaphor–the “target” (31) of Zhang’s research is Ames himself; and Ames trivializes Zhang’s criticism, referring to it as “Zhang’s complaint” (31).
Following the fifth page of this discussion Ames remarks, “But I am not done” (34). When Zhang gets something right it is done “inadvertently” (35). When Zhang gets something wrong, it is so wrongheaded (Zhang commits “the philosophical fallacy”) that it becomes ironical (34). We suspect that Ames will influence many readers more by this treatment of Zhang than he would by a cool consideration of evidence for and against Zhang’s theses. Readers might greet Ames’ subsequent presentation of positions with suspicion since his representation of Zhang’s position seems unbalanced.
Theoretical questions of interest to ethicists that go unaddressed in the book include: Does a role ethics imply moral relativism or presuppose it–or instead is it inconsistent with relativism? If inconsistent, why? How does Confucian role ethics yield discernible ethical injunctions on behavior? Steven Geisz has presented a related challenge by arguing that Amesian Confucian role ethics offers no non-trivial answers to the question, ‘What sort of person ought I be?’ It appears one ought to be the person that one’s inherited roles prescribe, thus embracing a form of culture-bound normativity. This inference is consistent with discussions in the book that appear to endorse or imply a form of moral relativism, including Ames’ rejection of notions of truth and objectivity, the comparison of morality to art, his characterization of fulfillment exclusively within social roles determined by the community, and explicit remarks such as this: “Ren for this person is going to be different from ren for that person. … There is no template, no formula, no ideal” (178).
Ames uses evaluative concepts such as efficiency, or expertise, harmony, etc. as the goals of any human being, but are these based on standards internal to the culture or are they trans-cultural without being absolutist? Confucian leaders endorsed the practice of footbinding that subjugated women for a millennium, causing physical pain, inhibiting movement and opportunity, and damaging psychological well-being. Taken one way Ames’ theory implies that these women are fulfilling their Confucian roles. (See the valuable discussion on the group blog Warp, Weft and Way of Goldin on footbinding.) Confucian leaders endorsed practices of filial piety that, according to Bertrand Russell, held tyranny over the individual and, according to Liu Qingping, generated nepotistic corruption in Chinese cultural leaders. But here too Ames’ Confucian Role Ethics may require individuals to engage in nepotistic corruption to fulfill one’s role. Ames’ discussions of the threat of relativism and filial piety appear to avoid tough metaethical issues. Ames dismisses Russell’s well-known criticism of the role of filial piety in Confucian ethics with an ad hominem attack put in the subjunctive (263) and, as mentioned, Ames does not engage research such as Liu Qingping’s that challenge his position.
Since Ames envisions distinctions about truth and falsity as grounded in a Western tradition that presupposes a transcendental realm, and since he believes that the absence of eternal and unchanging realms in the Chinese tradition is fundamental to understanding it, Ames has historically not concerned himself with addressing questions about moral relativism from a theoretical perspective. Nonetheless, we can reformulate some of these questions in ways (we think) that can be addressed by a Confucian pragmatist. For example, Ames places family roles and relationships at the center of Confucian ethics, but he does not explain whether there are Confucian grounds for objecting to roles in a non-Confucian culture that are, for example, equivalent to slavery. Ames does invoke remonstrance, overemphasizing its historical importance in the tradition, but he does not discuss cases in which remonstrance is ineffective. Furthermore, how does a Confucian social role ethicist participate in genuine philosophical dialogue with defenders of cultural traditions that do not place the family at the center of life?