Confucianism, Sports and Virtue
One of the ways that I try to talk in (Values Analysis) class about the Confucian dedication to excellence is to make an analogy with sports. Let’s start with the analogy, and then I’ll connect it to what I think Confucius is saying in the Analects.
For some people, there’s a distinction between “being great” and “being excellent” in sports. Kobe Bryant — great, not excellent. Allan Houston — once great, then not so great, and never excellent (I blame him for the implosion of my New York Knicks, so I harbor some resentment here). Larry Bird — excellent. Jordan? Excellent.
What’s the difference between the two? Let’s try this way of drawing the distinction using sports:
1. Great: has all of the skills required for X (the goal), and the person uses them to achieve the ends of the sport.
2. Excellent: is great and is motivated in just the right way by becoming better at achieving the ends of the sport.
So look at Kobe. Is he great? Sure. He breaks records, he’s extremely well skilled. He has courage (he’ll charge the middle), he’s wise (know when to shoot — well most of the time), he’s determined (has drive), he has the actual physical abilities to jump, shoot, etc. He has the whole package needed. And when he puts them into play, he does what they aim at, in that he puts the basket in the hoop and he scores lots of points. So he’s “great.”
But he’s not excellent. Why? Because his motivations are not pure. He’s not motivated by an internal drive to be the best that he can be at the sport (the goal that the skills aim at in this case). Instead, he’s driven by appreciation, adoration, his contract, fame, and so on. But these “external” goods are not “internal” to what he’s doing (to use a distinction from MacIntyre). As well, you could achieve those things and detach them from basketball entirely. So they are in a way independent of the skills themselves. At the end of the day, then, it’s as if Kobe is using basketball to get something exterior to basketball (fame, fortune, etc).
Now Jordan or Bird. These folks may have been famous and rich, but that’s not what they were driven by. They were driven to be the best basketball players. They had “excellence” as players as their aim. And such excellence is not “exterior” to basketball, it’s “internal” to it. The only way you can achieve excellence at basketball (in this sense) is through developing the skills and right motives that excellent players of the past exemplified. Excellence in this sense is not “external” to the goal one is striving after.
Confucius feels the same way about Jen — his understanding of human excellence. First, we must work to develop the right skills (habits, character traits) that are required for Jen. Since “jen” (as the human excellence) is a certainly way of being caring within relationships, we’ll need certain skills to do this. Some are honesty, filial piety, trustworthiness, care, sensitivity (and so on, the Analects is full of them).
But these “habits” on their own are not enough for excellence. We can achieve the habits of Jen and not the right motives (see 2.16 — “To attack a task from the wrong end can do nothing but harm”). Right habits without right motive would make us “great” and not “excellent” to use the sports analogy. Confucius’ discussion of the “Kobe Bryants of Virtue” occurs at 17. 13, in his short aphorism that says: “The Master said, ‘The village worthy is the ruin of virtue.’ The village worthy is the guy that everybody thinks is good — he always seems to do the right thing, is agreeable, very sociable, etc., but the village worthy doesn’t do these things for the right reasons (one such “wrong” motivation is found at 1.16 — where a person is motivated by the desire for social recognition). The village worthy, like Kobe, looks excellent, but isn’t really excellent. Like Kobe’s use of basketball to achieve a goal external to basketball, what the village worthy is doing is using virtue as a means to get something external to virtue (rewards of some sort, probably recognition or social fame or acceptance).
Instead, a truly virtuous person — a junzi — is motivated in the right ways. Sure, they are usually appreciated, and they are loved by others. But that’s not their aim — they want to be excellent, they are always striving to be better and better people. They are never satisfied with their current abilities, and are driven by the “internal” goals of virtue to be more and more virtuous (like Bird is motivated by the “internal” goals of basketball to be better and better at the game).
So, it looks like Confucius does think there’s a “great” and “excellent” distinction in virtue as well. How many excellent virtuous people are there? Not many, he thinks. There many be some “great” people, but few excellent ones. But we can always strive to be better ourselves. One of the first things you need to do, however, is to decide to take excellence — and not the appearance of excellence — as your goal.
In other words, be Jordan, not Bryant.