A Ku Indeed!

Confucius and Hursthouse on Luck, Racism and Virtue

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Ethics by Chris on January 28, 2008

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!


5 Responses

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  1. eyeingtenure said, on January 28, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    The only thing more certain than myself commenting on your blog these days is that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. That said.

    Isn’t the hypothetical moral compass what inspires one’s feeling of guilt?

    Isn’t one’s “hard-wire” his moral compass, by definition?

    How does one disavow their moral compass, or what is hard-wired?

    I imagine, from your description, that the author does not believe a person can disavow their moral compass by any way that matters, at least when determining the value of that person’s virtue.

    If that’s a correct assumption, then I have to agree with Hursthouse.

    To that end, Confucius’ emphasis on anxiety as you describe it would not concern a righteous anxiety. I recall a discussion of Kirkegaard’s passion that dealt with a much more specific kind of passion — something similarly more specific might be involved in Confucius’ anxiety.

    On the central point, I think Confucius would disagree, though. One’s moral character is entirely within one’s own control, in his view.


  2. Charity Smith said, on February 10, 2008 at 2:15 am

    Came across your blog and thought I’d throw in my two cents:

    First, I think even we discuss the Analects in the framework of a virtue theory, it’s troublesome to discuss it in terms of dispositional virtue ethic as the framework is obviously an ill-fit. But assuming your concern over Confucius/ Hursthouse is a more general one– the struggle to account for the ‘native stuff’ we’re all born with and what to make of it with regard to moral luck– I believe there’s a genuine tension in the text of the Analects that’s hard (though perhaps not impossible) to resolve.

    Though the Way seems to be open to anyone who wishes to pursue it, it’s relatively uncontroversial to assert that not everyone can become a Sage. In the text we’re presented with students of varying skill sets who seem to be not only farther along due to their studies, but because of their native stuff (Yan Hui is clearly the most naturally adept. Zilu errs in li frequently, but is by nature sincere and so errs in a less damaging way than others like Zegong). From this angle, your conclusion about the espistemic limit and the moral importance of the attempt to transform one’s self seems correct.

    However, I think it’s problematic to ignore the transformative power of the Way as it is occasionally presented by Confucius. He states that no sooner than he desires the way, than it is at hand. More directly, he states in 4.4 that if one’s purpose is set as authoritative conduct, one can do no wrong (Ames/Rosemont trans). Also, in 2.4 he describes his progress as a person, remarking “from seventy I could give my heart-and-mind free rein without overstepphing the boundaries.” The end point here is about the transformation of his desires; after traveling the way for a long enough period, he no longer worried about controlling his desires because he *desired the right things*. Granted, one could argue that Confucius was just born with better raw stuff as he’s taken as a Sage, but I think the emphasis of the passage is still that of transforming the raw stuff through studies.

    If we take this second tendency into account, Confucius is clearly at odds with Hursthouse. The person with inappropriate emotions (eg, the racist) is at fault, and not just because of poor moral luck– but because they’ve somehow failed in their moral learning. This may perhaps be counter to our common intuition, but I think it’s a genuine facet in early Confucianism.

  3. Chris said, on February 10, 2008 at 8:53 pm


    Thanks for the comment. I agree with much of what you’ve said here (the point about dispositional virtues to the side, which is a different issue). I actually have a paper in the works on the topic, and the exact Analects you use for the opposing view I mention. Especially 4.4, obviously (which, I think, is actually not a straight forward passage). I also think it runs against the general contention in the Analects that the junzi does not worry, because the cultivation of character is entirely within his/her control.

    But that said, too much of the Analects seems to point towards jen as more than mere desire, especially just desire that follows from native capacity. Of course, it’s possible that a person could be born with the sort of performative ability that he associates with knowledge, but that’s not the case for me and you, I suppose. So how can we hope to cultivate our own desires and prune them in the appropriate way? It seems, via proper exemplars (2.1) and the community at large (one’s family, I suppose, would play an important role). Without them, it’s hard to see how a Confucian disciple could ever possibly hope for self-cultivation.

    There are some passages (to be honest I can’t recall the numbers at the moment) where Confucius, in my opinion, hints at the fact that he is indeed worried that he may be put into a situation and won’t be *able* to do what is yi; he doesn’t say he won’t desire yi, or want to do it. Rather, he seems to imply that he won’t have the ability. Given that the Master is hardly short on desire, he must be referring to some necessary condition for virtue that is external to himself, most likely the presence of virtuous persons around him.

    That said, I surely don’t think the Master would absolve the racist. He’s surely not a “blame others” type. But I doubt he’d blame the racist for the emotion they feel. Rather, I think he might blame them for some smaller feats that, given their situation, they *could* accomplish, and which would allow the person, in the presence of further virtuous persons, to take self-cultivation of the type that would avoid racist emotion/action to the next level.

    Lastly, and I apologize for the length here, there’s the straightforward question of why a person who thinks that identity is fundamentally relational would look to blame a solitary person for their states/actions (or whatever), as opposed to looking for a more relational explanation of that person’s behavior/attitudes. It seems too individualistic to suit him.

  4. Charity Smith said, on February 18, 2008 at 2:17 am

    I’m going to take the coward’s way out (or perhaps simply the way out of an over-worked grad) and not respond, for now, to some of your comments here.

    But I do need to correct a textual point that I made– it’s ren, not dao that Confucius says he attains as soon as he seeks it. The passage is @ 7.30

  5. Chris said, on February 18, 2008 at 6:28 am


    Ha — it’s not a problem. I remember the workload of the grad student all too well.

    Say hello to Andrea for me.


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