A Ku Indeed!

Confucian Virtuous Disagreements?

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, virtue ethics by Chris on May 30, 2008

In his well-known 1990 piece “The Misfortunes of Virtue,” J.B. Schneewind makes his case that virtue ethics, as as an autonomous theory, was discarded many years ago not because of some sort of unjustified neglect, but rather because the theory simply couldn’t address issues, problems and challenges that were put to it throughout history. Although most of Schneewind’s argument in the piece details the challenge of constructing a sensible virtue of justice, I wanted to point out a disagreement I have with him towards the end of the piece, on the nature of disagreement.

On the last page, Schneewind claims:

And consequently, he [Aristotle] does not notice what seems to be an implication of his view: that if two allegedly virtuous agents strongly disagree, one of them (at least) must be morally defective…[this] encourages each, rather, to impugn the character of the other rather than listen to the other’s case.

As he outlines in the article, it is mainly the failure of virtue ethics to come up with a satisfactory account of justice (one that is supplied historically, he suggests, by various natural law theorists) that gets virtue into this jam.

I don’t want to make claims here about Aristotle, because I’m not sure textually how to respond to Schneewind. But I would point out that his criticism of VE seems to fall on a deaf Confucian ear.  Isn’t it the case (in 4.10), say, that the Master is not on the side of any one position, but rather on the side of what is (situationally) appropriate (yi)? Here it appears to me that the ground is laid for an anti-universal principle VE; some degree of practical wisdom is required for the agent to “see” (whatever this amounts to) what to do. What is appropriate is context-laden and situational.

Still, Schneewind might argue that he can accommodate — two virtuous individuals in the same situation could not disagree. But I’m not sure this looks right either. First, “in the same situation” for a Confucian is not merely a reference to the context that one is “in.” One is not “in” a context in the same way that a pen is “in” a room, such that two things can be “in” the same situation. Roughly, sure, but “same” — no. I take it that the Confucian means by this that the agent him/herself is a salient variable of the situation. So two individuals are never in the “same” situation”. If this is right, then theoretically virtuous agents could of course agree, but the agreement would be contingent, not necessary.

If the Confucian virtuous agent is called upon to “walk the path” of the tao, and 15.29, which suggests that it is man that broadens “the way” and not the other way around, then it is particular beings in context that must ascertain what is appropriate in a given situation.

As I read it, the Confucian is not called upon to judge the actions of others, but rather to ascertain whether the way in which they have come about their context speaks of virtue. Perhaps, though I won’t expound on it here, there’s a rough analogy here to virtue reliabilism (thinking of Zagzebski). For the virtue reliabilists, something counts as justified knowledge if it follows through the right procedural mechanisms. Similarly, the Confucian agent, as I read it, means to ascertain similar things. It is always open by such a method that one person, using right-procedure, might do X and another ~X (not a contradiction due to the fact that they are not, as I noted, in the same situations, just roughly similar ones).

Of course, the temptation is to assume that what is right for you is right for the other person, and to hammer such a point home in your dealings with the other. But this way of interacting appears to me, in my reading of Confucius, to be petty. If one cannot truly discern that the person is wrongly coming at things, to demand that their behavior accords with yours is to demand “sameness” (the demand of the hsiao jen) as opposed to “harmony” (of differences).

How these differences are “worked out” (or rather worked through) is, I would suggest, the main question behind the methodology of the one thread, specifically here requiring the application of shu.

Just some thoughts anyway. Reading back on this post, it occurs to me that I may still be under the spell of Hall and Ames.


2 Responses

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  1. bob said, on June 4, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    One worry with this position is that it abdicates any sort of action guiding aspect to VE, and if we want our ethical theory to provide guidance for action, then saying that no one is ever in the same situation and appropriate actions are tied to these situations seems to lead to a host of problems.

  2. Chris said, on June 4, 2008 at 2:11 pm


    Hi — thanks for the comment.

    I guess it depends on how much action guidance you’d like to get out of the theory. I recall that even Hursthouse (who I’d suspect is more rigid on these matters than I’m suggesting is the case here) embraces some degree of “messiness” with respect to action guidance, suggesting that in any given situation it is unlikely that there will be any “one” right thing to do.

    I think the Confucian account will stress particularity and the situated nature of ethical questions. This surely doesn’t mean “all things are possible” — there are general action guidance rituals in place (li), but how to adapt those rituals to any specific situation cannot be discerned in any rule-oriented fashion that would provide certain and determinate action guidance. In other words, li should corral action in a broader sense, not determine it (if that makes sense).

    Although it’s clear that the details on such a position will be complicated quickly, I suspect that what the Confucian agent will want to do (at least) is assure that action is in accord with virtue, or at least not contrary to vice (and so in this case, in a generalized way, the agent has the guidance to do what the junzi or phronimos would do).

    Still, I don’t think that this means that two junzi would do the same thing in that situation. How I might approach this situation may differ from the way you should; my job, as a moral guide, isn’t to guide you to any specific thing to do, but rather to try to guide you through the correct procedures (some of which incorporate the need for attentiveness to li, and others incorporate having the right dispositional orientation).

    Not sure if that helped at all, or perhaps further confused matters. It’s certainly not an easy position to make clear, and one I need to spend more time clarifying.

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