A Ku Indeed!

Confucian Virtue and Activity

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, Life, virtue ethics by Chris on June 11, 2008

I’m close to finishing Yu’s Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue (2007) and have one chapter left to go. Along the way, Yu has made a number of interesting points in his overall thesis that Confucius and Aristotle have remarkably similar theories of (virtue) ethics. There are a number of points worth commenting on in this book, but at the moment I just want to make a quick note of one. In chapter 6, “The Highest Good and External Goods” (169 – 197) Yu advances one major point that itself turns into a number of smaller points. The main point is that the Confucian and Aristotelian diverge on one issue: for Aristotle, the value of virtue lies in activity, whereas for Confucius the mere state of dispositional virtue is sufficient for value. This point leads Yu to a number of further points, but I’ll stick with this one, because I find myself disagreeing with Yu about it.
Yu suggests on page 192:

“The achievement of virtue, even if it is not exercised, amounts to the fulfillment of human way which is the highest good. He realizes that virtue should be exercised, and knows well that practicing virtue is vulnerable to external conditions. Yet in his view, the lack of external goods is simply a matter of ming. As long as the agent possesses virtue, his or her life shines even without exercising virtue.”

On pg. 176, Yu suggests:

“However, even if a virtuous agent does not exercise this virtue or his activity is blocked, the value of his life will not be diminished.”

Yu’s point here is intermingled with other points about external goods and ming. But the main point is clear: for Confucius, the fulfillment of human dao stems from cheng, or from “self-completion” and this can be understood as non-activity oriented virtue. For Aristotle, on the other hand, the fulfillment of human nature stems from contemplation, which is not a virtue but an activity of (theoretical) virtue.

Admittedly, this is a very complicated subject, and I can only attack a certain amount of it in a short blog post. But I’m sure that I don’t agree with Yu here, and my disagreement is about the virtue-activity distinction he tries to draw. I’m just not sure that Confucius would differ with Aristotle here.

My main reasoning was to do with the nature of self for Confucius. Although Yu does recognize (in a paragraph) the fact that fulfilling one’s nature would require helping others to fulfill theirs, I think he fails to see how central a role this plays in the philosophy, and it leads him to describe what looks to me to be an individualist conception of fulfillment that can be described without activity. Note — this is not to say that Aristotle’s notion of fulfillment, because it relies on activity, is anti-individualistic; instead, contemplation has little to do with relational selfhood and more to do with the engagement with noema within the mind. But I would argue that Confucius’ connection between (a) relational selfhood and (b) fulfillment entails that virtue cannot “have” value itself without activity in quite the way that Yu suggests.

1. My intuition on this is simple. If Confucius is right that selfhood is relational, then “self-completion” cannot be seen in isolation from the completion of others (LY 6.30 here, perhaps). Assume that I am a son (well, I am, obviously). If so, then my virtue as a son relies on the employment of those virtues in such a way that they work to develop the relationship that I have with my parents in just the right way, one that leads to a harmonious relationship. Fulfillment as a son cannot come from the mere possession of dispositions, it must come from their actual employment.

2. Point (1) can be taken in a more austere manner, though I am not sure how far to push it. I have an intuition here that Confucius might even suggest that a son cannot be fulfilled as a son if his parents are not themselves virtuous parents; as a result, (1) would only be necessary and not sufficient for fulfillment of the human dao. An obvious counter to this point would be that the son cannot control the virtue of his parents in the same way (maybe) that he can control his own virtue; as a result, self-fulfillment would rely on an element of the uncontrollable, which Confucius in some places seems to deny.

In any event, if (2) is correct, “self” completion, or “fulfillment” are purely relational in the most severe way — a son cannot consider himself fulfilled or completed when his parents are not. These properties would belong to relationships, not individuals.

Just quick thoughts.

There’s a second point lingering in there as well. Yu seems to suggest in the discussion that value stems from jen, and as a result for Confucius it is the mere fact of self-correction (the possession of dispositions) that suffices for human fulfillment. To place value instead in activity, he seems to suggest, would be to deny the focal point of value in jen.

These discussions, I think, are notorious due to the slippery nature of the words, and how they can be used in a variety of different fashions. But one point sticks out to me, one that might be a misreading. My thought was that jen can be the focal point of value while at the same time deny that virtue without activity fails to actualize the self or human nature, or the dao, or fulfillment. Here’s why:

Dao (human fulfillment) is not what has value, independently of jen. Instead, it may be the case that from the perspective of jen, it is dao that fulfills human nature. Without jen, in this way, there is no notion of “value” at all for the agent — to truly be capable of seeing things in terms of true value requires the right set of dispositional patterns (hence a similarity with Aristotle’s point, perhaps, that virtue sets the aim). But it is only from within the embodied jen agent that dao is seen to be the fulfillment of what it means to be truly human. As a result, a person who fails to fulfill dao (by failing to employ virtuous activity in just the right way) fails to live a fulfilled life as that is dictated by jen, the origin and focal point of value itself. If this point makes sense, it doesn’t seem to me that holding activity to be essential to fulfillment cancels out the role of jen as the focal point of value.

As usual, that’s a lot of stream of blog consciousness. Hopefully something in there made some sense!


3 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on June 12, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Another wonderful post, Chris. What you say makes sense to me and seems offhand mainly right, but I haven’t read Yu so I don’t know how to join the debate – I don’t know what passages would seem to support the strong claims Yu makes about Confucius. (Confucius doesn’t, I think, explicitly discuss the questions at issue.) Also I wonder where, in your view, Confucius most clearly shows that he thinks that “the self is relational.”

  2. Chris said, on June 14, 2008 at 10:18 pm


    Thanks for the kind words. I figure if I’m batting .200 I’m doing okay. 🙂

    I’ve never tried to textually defend the relational thesis — I’ve always taken it as an accepted view. Of course, as you know, this isn’t something that he’d explicitly defend, being as non-theoretical as he is.

    I suppose I’ve always seen the suggestion that one’s authoritative personhood depends on fulfilling relational obligations as a central component. As well, there’s the translation of jen that has it meaning “person” and “two” seems to be decent prima facie evidence. I’ve always seen this to mean that to be a real person requires being immersed in a relational framework.

    Do you suspect the relational thesis might not be true?

  3. Bill Haines said, on June 15, 2008 at 6:01 am

    Chris, I always find your comments very sharp and very worthwhile.

    I haven’t given much attention to the claims that Confucius thinks “the self is relational” or thinks that “one’s authoritative personhood depends on fulfilling relational obligations.” To do so I’d have to go back to Hall & Ames, I suppose, and try to get from them a sense of what those sentences mean. My sense is that I might not succeed.

    Until I try that, I won’t know whether even I myself think the self is relational or our authoritative personhood depends on fulfilling relational obligations. “The self” is a term I tend not to use in my thinking. I suppose it’s fairly uncontroversial that to be a model person one has to fulfull all one’s obligations, relational and otherwise.

    I don’t have the sense that Confucius was concerned about “the self.” If being an “authoritative person” is being someone who has the authority to innovate in ritual propriety for herself and others, I don’t share H&A’s sense that Confucius was significantly concerned with such a quality.

    I haven’t thought a great deal about these matters though; my lack of sense about them isn’t set in stone.

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