Confucius, Virtue Ethics and Guilt
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).
(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.