Virtue Ethics and Confucianism

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Introduction II. The Confucian Virtues IV.

Virtue Ethics and Moral Responsibility: Confucian Conceptions of Moral Praise and Blame

Wholeheartedness i. The Primary Conceptions of Wholeheartedness ii. Implications of the Wholeheartedness Criterion Bibliography Notes. Abstract and Keywords In this chapter the author defends the view that the major variants of Confucian ethics qualify as virtue ethics in the respects that matter most, which concern the focus, investigative priority, and explanatory priority of virtue over right action. Justin Tiwald Justin Tiwald has published widely on topics in Chinese philosophy. Consider again Analects In this case, at least, loyalty to parents or to children takes precedence over loyalty to ruler or to public justice.

To introduce other kinds of problematic treated by Confucian thinkers, it is necessary to identify a pivotal critic of Confucianism in the classical period. Mozi probably 5 th century B. E , who possibly was once a student of Confucianism, came to reject that teaching, partly on the grounds that the Confucian emphasis on ritual and musical performance was a wasteful expenditure of resources that could otherwise be used to meet the basic needs of the many Mozi , chapters 25, 32; see Watson, for a translation.

A related criticism in the text of the Mozi is that tradition does not hold normative authority simply because it is tradition, for there was a time when the practice in question was not tradition but new chapter If a practice has no authority when it is new, it has no authority at any subsequent time simply because it is getting older. Exclusive concern for the self causes the strong to rob the weak.

Justin Tiwald

Mozi advocated the doctrine of jian ai as a remedy. The next section explains how Mencius incorporated this understanding of jian ai in his criticism of it and in his development of Confucian ethics. They responded on two subjects: first, they had to address what is required by way of concern for all people and how to reconcile such concern with the greater concern for some that the Confucian doctrine of care with distinctions requires; second, they had to address the question of what kinds of concern are motivationally possible for human beings, partly in response to the Mohist argument that it is not difficult to act on jian ai which they came to interpret as being contrary to care with distinctions , and partly in response to others who were skeptical about the possibility of acting on any kind of genuinely other-regarding concern.

Mencius, in the text purporting to be a record of his teachings, explicitly sets himself to the task of defending Confucianism not only against Mohism but the teachings of Yang Zhu. Yang Zhu on this view was an ethical egoist: i. Mencius positioned Confucianism as the occupying the correct mean between the extremes of having concern only for oneself on the one hand and having an equal degree of concern for everyone. Mencius 1A7 purports to be an account of a conversation between Mencius and King Xuan, the ruler of a Chinese state.

Mencius is attempting to persuade the king to adopt the Confucian dao or way of ruling. The king wonders whether he really can be the kind of king Mencius is advocating, and Mencius replies by asking whether the following story he has heard about the king is true. The story is that the king saw an ox being led to slaughter for a ritual sacrifice. The king decided to spare the ox and substituted a lamb for the ritual sacrifice. If he can care for an ox, he can care for his subjects.

What the king has to do, suggests Mencius, is to treat the aged in his family as aged, and then extend it to the aged in other families; treat his young ones as young ones, and extend it to the young ones of others; then you can turn the whole world in the palm of his hand. Mencius is portrayed in this text as very much engaged in getting the kings of Chinese states to stop mistreating their subjects, to stop drafting their subjects into their wars of territorial expansion, and to avoid overtaxing them to finance their wars and lavish projects.

Mencius holds that natural compassion is a part of human nature. Extension is necessary because natural compassion is uneven compared to where it ought to extend. King Xuan may find it natural to have compassion for an innocent man about to be executed or a terrified ox about to be slaughtered, but not toward all his subjects when he is focusing on the benefits that a war of territorial expansion might bring him.

Confucius on Ethics

This story of Mencius, the King, and the ox is rich material for reflection on the nature of moral development. It seems plausible that development must begin with something that is of the right nature to be shaped into the moral virtues, and also plausible that what we begin with is not as it fully should be. The questions posed by the story is what the natural basis of morality is and how further development occurs. What are the four beginnings of morality? Such a man would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get in the good graces of the parents, nor because he wished to win the praise of his fellow villagers or friends, nor yet because he disliked the cry of the child.

A second beginning is the heart that feels shame in certain situations, e. Under the right conditions, innate shame develops into the virtue of yi or righteousness—being able to do the right thing. The third beginning is the heart that feels courtesy,e. Under the right conditions, courtesy develops into li, which as a virtue consists in the observance of the rites or the virtue of ritual propriety.

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Under the right conditions, this sense of approval and disapproval develops into wisdom, which includes having a grasp of the spirit behind moral rules so that one knows how to be flexible in applying them. It is important to note that Mencian beginnings of morality are not just blind feelings or primitive urges to act in certain ways, but contain within them certain intuitive judgments about what is right and wrong, what is to be disdained and what is deferential, respectful behavior. In the example of the beggar who does not accept food that has been trampled upon, it seems that Mencius is suggesting we have an original, unlearned sense that allows us to judge the sort of respect that is due to ourselves as human beings.

Similarly, in suggesting that we have an unlearned sense of deference, Mencius is suggesting that we have an unlearned sense of what is due to others such as elders and our parents.

Virtue Ethics and Confucianism - CRC Press Book

The Mencius contains different metaphors that convey a view of human nature as the basis for moral development. On one metaphor, used in a debate with rival philosopher Gaozi in 6A2, the inborn goodness of human nature is like the tendency of water to flow downward. The metaphor implies that human beings develop virtues in the absence of abnormal interference such as water being damned up or struck so that it splashes upward.

On the other way of conceiving ethical development, the four beginnings are more like barley sprouts that need nurture analogous to sun, water, and fertile soil 6A7. In some passages, extension is characterized as a matter of simply preserving or not losing what is given to one at birth 4B12, 4B19, 4B28, 6A10, 6A11 , and such passages accord with the water metaphor in suggesting that moral development happens in the absence of abnormal interference.

In other places, the thinking seems to be more in accord with the sprout metaphor and identifies conditions for moral development that go well beyond noninterference: kings are held responsible for providing for their subjects a constant means of livelihood 1A7 that enables them to support parents and nurture wife and children; kings must also ensure the appropriate moral education about filiality, about the duties that rulers and subjects owe to each other and about respect for the elder. Mencius furthermore recognized natural predispositions other than the four beginnings that could potentially lead human beings astray.

He mentions the desires of the senses in this regard 6A With such reflection, human beings can recognize that virtue takes precedence over satisfaction of potentially conflicting desires and feelings e. If the deprivation of nourishing conditions is severe enough, the sprouts can be killed off 6A8.

Thus, while Mencius is often characterized superficially by his saying that human nature is good 6A6 , he means at least when his thinking is guided by the sprout metaphor that it contains predispositions to feel and act in morally appropriate ways and to make intuitive normative judgments that can with the right nurturing conditions give human beings guidance as to the proper emphasis to be given to the desires of the senses see Shun, ; Van Norden, , It is not surprising that there should be the kind of ambiguity expressed by the juxtaposition of the water and sprout metaphors in Mencius.

A very common contemporary conception of the innate comes very close to the implications of the water metaphor, i.

On the other hand, we are also capable of recognizing that other things develop under a narrower or much more contingent not necessarily realized in the normal course of affairs set of conditions. A barley sprout develops only if human beings plant it in the right kind of soil and put effort into cultivating it. Yet it seems intuitively correct to say that its direction of growth is innate. If the conditions for growth are realized, it will become a barley plant, not a corn plant. Contemporary thinking about the innate bases of morality also shows this range of thinking.

Claims that morality is constrained by an innate universal grammar e. Much of what is fascinating in Mencius lies in his explorations of how moral learning takes place and how this learning might also interact with emotion.

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Consider now in combination the theme that the cognitive and affective go into the constitution of emotion and the theme that the emotional beginnings of morality can be extended through provision of the right kind of nurture. What is necessary for extension? Is cognitive extension, i. The answer to this question depends on the nature of the intertwining between the cognitive and affective in emotions.

Consider again the story of King Xuan and the ox. Here the question of whether cognitive extension is sufficient emerges in the concrete. Was it sufficient for Mencius to have reminded the king that he has even more of a reason to spare his people from suffering than he had to spare the ox from suffering more reason because Mencius clearly ranks the interests of animals below those of human beings, and because for him there is a good moral reason for the performance of ritual sacrifices? Logical consistency alone cannot be expected to provide motivation, as David Nivison has pointed out , but then what is Mencius trying to do with the King if not move him through logic?

Nowhere in the Mencius is there enough said to point to a definitive interpretation on this matter, but various reconstructions of possible positions can be given. What seems philosophically fruitful about the Xuan and ox story is that it portrays an attempt at moral teaching of the kind that actually occurs in the moral life, and the ambiguity that it presents to the reader is fruitful precisely because it is not a completely theorized story.

We are not told exactly what Mencius is trying to do with the King in terms of a theory of the nature of emotions and the relation between the cognitive and affective. Rather, we are led to reflect on the most plausible possibilities in trying to arrive at a reconstruction of what might have been meant by the text, as well as what might be the most illuminating position on its own merits. The story is particularly intriguing for those philosophers who believe in the possibility that learning can influence emotion at the same time that emotion can help learning become motivationally efficacious.

At one moment in the conversation between King Xuan and Mencius, the King remarks that Mencius has helped him to understand that he was truly motivated by compassion to spare the ox. As Mencius was talking, he says, he felt the stirrings of compassion again. It is at this point that Mencius reminds the King of the suffering of his people. He may know in the abstract that he has a duty to advance the welfare of his people, but he may not feel it very much, and by stimulating the King to re-experience the feeling of compassion he had for the ox, Mencius is perhaps trying to get that feeling to expand to include his subjects.

Mencius is reminding the King of his duty precisely when he has primed the King to assimilate it emotionally.

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