A Ku Indeed!

Confucius, Virtue Ethics and Guilt

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics by Chris on September 12, 2007

A post over at Adam’s place, Within Reason, got me thinking a bit. Adam’s concern is with John Rawls’ “difference principle” and how students tend to discount it in class. My concern here is not so much with the difference principle or with student reaction to it, but on a completely different question that came up in the midst of the discussion about Rawls: the role of guilt in virtue ethics (or at least in Confucianism). I’ll explain the whole thing below the fold.

The basic context for the argument was this: is it morally acceptable to legislate the difference principle (essentially a redistribution of resources) and force people to comply to it? Well,

(a) it might be acceptable because the ends of the legislation are morally correct (redistribution helps the needy).

and

(b) it might be unacceptable if an essential part of the moral life is to care about the needy; here it might be argued that forced compliance only accomplishes (a), and certainly doesn’t require (b), and may even harm the cultivation of (b). (A classic conservative argument against forced redistribution).

My position here is to argue for a Confucian response in terms of (b). My position looked something like this:

It is morally preferable that a person motivate him or herself to do some good action X in terms of virtue than that the person be motivated to do that action X based on fear of punishment due to X being required by law. This claim comes straight out of the Analects. Confucius says there:

The Master said, “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.”

So, what Confucius is saying is that what is important is that people care about others. He would also hold that people who do care would redistribute, so the ends of (a) would be accomplished anyway if we were developed in society to care for others. Forcing people to give through legal frameworks, at worst, severs the kind of ‘benevolent’ relationship that should take root between people and replaces those persons with abstract notions of obligation (the needy have an abstract right to my goods, and so on). At best it abstracts the aims of benevolence from benevolence and treats the former as if it can be made morally coherent on its own.
Next. Adam’s contentition is with Confucius’ claim that in a society that advances the cultivation of virtue, shame plays a large role. His point was this (I believe): if X helps the needy because they feel shame when they don’t, then X isn’t really virtuous. They are really just trying to avoid “internal punishment” and if so, what’s the difference between this and a set of laws?

I think Confucius’ response would be this:

First, that the kind of shame he is concerned with is the type that virtuous people develop. So, a person for whom honor is important will tend to feel shame when they act dishonorably.

Second, that the feeling of shame is not what makes the person do the right thing (redistribute, say), but rather the “arrow” that points that person back to what is being lost — virtue, in this case. So, in a sense, shame is not what makes me give, it’s what forces me to recall what I ought to be motivated by — benevolence. Thus shame reconnects me with virtue and, in the best case, I am then motivated by virtue to do the right thing.

What a Confucian should not think (and I don’t think that they do) is that shame itself is the motivator to perform the right action. If it were, then Adam would be right — we’ve just substituted one set of “punishments” for another (an internal set for an external set). Sure, some might argue that there’s a world of difference between a set of punishments that I impose on myself (shame via cultivated virtue) and a set that are imposed from without (laws). But I think we can accept for the sake of argument that this distinction is not an important one.

At the end of the day, the Confucian does have a good argument for why the difference principle cannot be coercively applied, if morality is centrally concerned with character.

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3 Responses

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  1. Adam said, on September 12, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    That all sounds pretty coherent. I think another post that would be helpful in understanding Confucius’s argument is what he means by “led by virtue”. As you know, one of the things that keeps me skeptical about virtue ethics is how well it scales, and it would be interesting to see what kinds of social policies would fall under the umbrella of leading by virtue as opposed to laws.

    My original claim was that people would be more apt to choose social institutions based on the difference principle if they identified more closely with their fellow citizens, rather than thinking of them as competitors or just “others” in general. If Confucius is right that this notion of fraternity will come with these feelings of shame, it’s probably then fair to ask whether anyone would choose policies that emphasize fraternity with the knowledge that it’s not going to be all wine and roses. There will also be shame.

    I expect some people would actually respond negatively: they’d rather keep their mental states completely under their control and suffer punishments rather than have to endure even a modicum of shame. This would be the more libertarian side of conservatism.

    I’d like to offer an option to these people other than shame or punishment, but I’m not sure what the option would look like. It would have to be citizenship as a kind of positive rational friendship, which may not even make sense. First of all, rational friendship certainly sounds odd (though Kant does write about rational love, maybe there are also rational friendships covered in places I haven’t read), if not contradictory. Second, I’m suggesting there may be relationships in which the participants are not fully virtuous and autonomously change their behavior, but in which shame doesn’t arise. That feature would be even stranger than the first one. For Eastern Philosophy, I imagine this would be looked upon with great skepticism because you not only expect to get the yin with the yan, but it’s actually desired. I have to give it more thought before I know if the Western audacity in this case is even plausible.

  2. Adam said, on September 12, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    End of the second paragraph should be “There will also be shame as long as people are not fully virtuous.”

  3. Chris said, on September 13, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    Adam,

    “Second, I’m suggesting there may be relationships in which the participants are not fully virtuous and autonomously change their behavior, but in which shame doesn’t arise. That feature would be even stranger than the first one.”

    I’d love to know what that would amount to! It would be an odd moral psychology, it seems to me. I’d be curious to hear what you come up with.

    “I think another post that would be helpful in understanding Confucius’s argument is what he means by “led by virtue”. As you know, one of the things that keeps me skeptical about virtue ethics is how well it scales, and it would be interesting to see what kinds of social policies would fall under the umbrella of leading by virtue as opposed to laws.”

    I work one up. Right now there are three others in front of it in the queue, though.


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