Confucius and Hursthouse on Luck, Racism and Virtue
In her 2001 book On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse uses the situation of racism (pp. 113 – 119) to discuss a few points about virtue that wants to make clear. Her main target is emotion’s relationship with virtue (and her secondary target is the rational and non-rational faces of emotion). Specifically, she argues that since virtues (and vices) are (at least) emotional dispositions directed towards (their appropriate) states of affairs in the world, the presence of race-tainted emotions in a person is sufficient to claim that the agent lacks (full) virtue.
Moreover, she suggests that in older agents such states are likely not, at least completely, alterable because emotions as states are not entirely based in reason, and so the presence of an emotion given a certain situation cannot be undone merely by presenting reasons why it shouldn’t obtain. As a result, the typical agent in such a situation — one who has done much to overcome such internal racism — is trapped within a vicious disposition they cannot overcome. Since such an emotional disposition is pretty much set early on in life, some aspects of your moral character are beyond your own control.
Hursthouse’s claims are interesting.
- Being moral requires having the right emotions directed at the appropriate objects.
This is a standard claim of the virtue ethicist (Aristotelian, Humean or Confucian, doesn’t matter). Seen from this view, Kant’s third “philanthropist” example in the Groundwork (the “indifferent” person) could not be a moral being, given his lack of emotion (one way or the other) towards the object to which he is directing his good will (so a philanthropist who helps others out of duty, but has no corresponding emotions is not virtuous).
Now assume that a person feels — to their dismay — racist emotions in certain situations. Of course, they do not act on them, but they feel them nonetheless (and they might even feel shame as a result, which is appropriate). Still, Hursthouse might suggest, this is a flaw of character (not a difficulty of external circumstance), and as such expresses a weakness with respect to the agent’s virtue. In such a case, at best continence is achieved when the person does not act on their racist impulses. So:
- Virtue is superior to continence
Doing what is right and having one’s emotions correctly oriented (virtue) is superior morally to doing what is right, but only after overcoming contrary emotions pointing in a different direction. In the case of a person with racist emotions, then, at best continence could be achieved.
- Racist emotions are central to the moral character of the person, given that they are value-laden.
The third claims that even where the continent agent argues that he or she has ‘disavowed’ those racist emotions, they cannot be said to be ‘external’ to the moral self. Regardless of how one feels about them, they do in fact serve as emotions directed towards certain objects and this is expressive of vice (Hursthouse is, interestingly, willing to make exceptions for difficulties that are external — such as a phobia; in such a case, overcoming it expresses even fuller virtue, but in the case of racism, it is internal to the self). So, as a result, disavowing the emotions does not diminish the fact that their existence detracts from the agent’s virtue. I find this an interesting claim, because many people seem to think that as long as the person doesn’t act racist, their moral status is protected (of course, the rejection of that common intuition is peculiar to virtue again).The fourth claims that the reason why the agent has such a hard time changing those emotions stems from the fact that they were inculcated at such an early age. So:
- Early-instilled emotion-to-object dispositions are practically hard-wired into the agent, and are almost impossible to budge.
The fifth discusses the source of those dispositions: culture and perhaps one’s family. But how one’s family and culture ‘hard-wire’ one towards the world emotionally is not a matter within one’s control. As a result, to some degree whether one is virtuous or vicious is not within one’s control. As a result,
- The substantive content of one’s moral being is saturated with luck.
This conclusion, of course, grates on most people’s intuitions; they want to be able to argue that all facets of one’s moral being are within one’s control. Moreover, it grates on people’s intuitions to suggest that a person can be held responsibility for (im)moral facets of their character they are not responsible for. Of course, one way around this is to suggest that it is not the agent who should be praised or blamed for the substantive content of their ethical being — their parents (or society) should.
The tie in to Confucius: in the Analects, Confucius is often found arguing that the small man is anxious, whereas the gentleman is never worried. One reason given for this psychological distinction is the fact that the small man is focused on the wrong things (that which is external to virtue; money, fame, honor, etc), As a result, because external circumstance can affect the attainment of such goods, the small man is always worried. The gentleman however is focused on the issue of perfecting their own character, and this is within his own control.
If so…my question is this one: would Confucius agree with Hursthouse or not? Is one’s moral character entirely within one’s own control, or not? If not, then it appears that concern with one’s own character will introduce a need for some anxiety, given that one is not fully in control with its content. This is not only with respect to the past (that on some level, one’s dispositions are fixed) but also towards the present and the future — I am not fully responsible for the virtue of my local community, and it, even now, affects my moral being, perhaps at the limit in ways that I cannot fully control. Perhaps there are reasons for the junzi to be anxious.
On the other hand, for Confucius to deny that there are aspects of one’s moral being that are out of one’s control seems too implausible psychologically. Even Aristotle admits this, thus the central importance of children being raised in the right way, when their ‘hard-wiring’ is still largely open to programming. Confucius, to his credit, seems to give even more emphasis to this than Aristotle (even if their attentions are focused in different areas, specifically on the family and on the law), though Confucius does not discuss the concern about bad-habit formation being difficult to dislodge if it sets in too early (actually, on second thought, this is not entirely true — there is 17.26, which suggests: “The Master said, “When a man at forty is the object of dislike, he will always continue what he is.”)
Of course, Confucius might agree with Hursthouse on one thing: that even if some aspects are unchangeable, epistemically you have no access to what that “limiting” case is, so it does not relieve you of the responsibility to try to always make further ground. Now, a Confucian might response, this effort of always within one’s control, even if the end result is not. However, there is still the odd question of whether Confucius would agree that aspects of one’s moral being can be outside of one’s own power. Try as the person might, they would always lack full virtue, and are not even particularly capable of it (whereas another agent, raised in a more enlightened culture, would be capable).
A lot of questions, perhaps!