A Ku Indeed!

Morality and Story-Telling

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, Life, virtue ethics by Chris on June 25, 2008

I’ve been reading parts of Linda Zagzebski’s Divine Motivation Theory and her discussion of exemplarism got me thinking on a slight tangent — the notion of narrative and its relationship to ethics (the tangent is also connected to a continuing discussion with Bill Haines in other threads on this subject). Yeah, I know — narrative ethics is an old idea — I’m late to this party, and most of the guests have already gone home. But I like the idea. Still, the notion of “narrative ethics” is itself a complex affair, and to be honest much of it I don’t have my head around at this point. One issue that has caused me to think a bit is the relationship between narratives and moral education. Is there a relationship? Is it a necessary one? If it is a necessary relationship, why is that? (Of course, as you might suspect, Confucius pops up in here).

When we are trying to teach children how to be “good people” we usually tend – as far as my experience leads me to believe – to use at least two methods. The first method is strictly propositional, the second narrative in character. The propositional approach is the simplest: you tell the child that X is a wrong action because Y (some proposition) highlights that it is. “Don’t take that kid’s toy,” you might tell your child, because “stealing is wrong.” Of course, when kids are particularly small, this is perhaps the best you can do – you repeat a number of key propositions and try to get the child to remember and abide by them.

At some point, though, this method stops working (or seems out of place). Or at least this method seems at some point to truly motivate the child anymore. “What’s in it for me?” the child seems to ask at some point. “Stealing is wrong – so what?” Of course, to answer the “why be moral?” question you can at that point attach violations of those propositions to punishments (providing a motivating reason) or you can turn to narratives.

When we turn in the narrative direction, we connect propositions to individuals, saying “so and so doesn’t steal.” Typically, “so and so” is some form of exemplar that the child is motivated to emulate – so and so is rarely a stranger the child has just met. In fact, Zagzebski seems to imply, though I may be misreading her, that when we teach a person what “good” is, we can do it merely by a type of Putnam-like ostension, by claiming that this exemplar is a good person over there (or, in my instance, the reason for not stealing is over there). But the pointing here to me has to be a reference to something holistic, something narrative in character. Pointing to a non-stealer (or purported exemplar) isn’t enough; instead, the child must already have a sense of who that person is, or what their life is all about.

When we try to situated a proposition into a person’s life, it seems, we are attempting to give the proposition a different situated location – it now finds meaning within a larger “story.” “Not stealing” fits in – it “makes sense” in the whole of the exemplar’s life story (even if the child, or the parent, is unable to articulate why this is so — why this behavior “hangs together” with the rest of that person’s life). It just seems clear: such a person would fail to be who they are if they stole. The person — as a story — would lose cohesion and unity. The “life story” of that person would begin to become discrete disconnected moments as opposed to a unified narrative that provides a history and a future direction, a combination that gives meaning to the actions of the present engaged in by the exemplar (I’m tempted here by existentialist notions of authenticity; many of the existentialists seem to imply that true personhood requires a way of embodying a set of propositions by connecting them, in action in the present, to both the past and to the future).

On this portrait, morality seems to take on a different meaning than it has under the purely “propositional” approach. Morality becomes more about wanting to participate in a certain notion of what human life is (carrying on in a certain tradition embodied by such exemplars; linking up one’s own history and future direction in a way that bears resemblance to those others), or should be, as opposed to simply following disembodied propositions separated from such larger stories (for Kierkegaard, perhaps, the difference between the way in which a person stands towards objective and subjective truths, the first disembodied “spectating” and the second a kind of embodied participation). On this view, morality is about connection or participation in a truth, it’s about giving one’s actions (and life) a sense of significance (in part through that content) against a larger background (a storyboard populated by characters one takes as salient).

Some connection to Confucius can easily be made here, of course. When reading the Analects, one might loosely think of rituals (li) as “the propositions of morality.” One should do X when in the presence of one’s parents, for instance. Interestingly, however, Confucius seems to take a dim view of simply following rituals (li) simply because they are the rituals of the community (because the parent says so), and he takes an even dimmer view of merely following rituals because one fears the punishments that may come as a consequence of breaking them (the basis of a kind of legalism). Instead, Confucius seems to want the “learning of ritual” to be conjoined to a type of connection to the relationships that those rituals govern. So one must care for one’s parents (li) from a sense of actual love and devotion, a care that stems from one’s sense of extension of the self into the relationship of parent/child. One’s performance of the li, on this account, is a performance of selfhood, in this case one’s sense of being a son or a daughter. Such a connection or performance, however, seems to intrinsically require a background connection to a shared past and future, to a shared way of making present actions significant through this relational language of parent/child (and thus, for the child, through performances of filial piety).

I wonder whether this itself – this sense of connection or extension into the relationships that form the core of one’s life – requires the use of local exemplars (junzi or phronimos) who themselves embody the notion of an admirable human life in the way in which they have conducted their own lives over a period of time long enough for the junzi or phronimos to be understood not merely as the example of this or that behavior, but rather as this or that human story. So one might look at one person and think “what a father!” and another and think “what a ruler!” or “what a _fill in the blank_ relational identity!”

Much of this is ramble at this point – I tend to use my blog to jot down unfinished ideas. But one thing seems clear to me, in thinking back now – if this is right, being moral requires narrative. Moral education at some point must advert to it. This would be in opposition to those views that might view the use of moral narratives (in moral education, specifically) as a kind of heuristic device that makes “remembering what to do” easier (might get complicated to have to remember all those propositions, after all!).

This view is not worked through, and as usual I am left with more questions than anything else. If this view has any legs, it does seem to imply that connection with human stories as a way of giving significance to one’s own life (and one’s actions) is part of the substance of morality itself. Many times when I read Confucius I get this feeling that this is part of what he too is arguing.

13 Responses

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  1. Manyul Im said, on June 28, 2008 at 7:57 am

    Hey Chris,

    I’ve been thinking about similar issues with Zagzebski’s exemplarism. Here’s a question: how do we avoid some kind of conservative or traditionalist tendency with moral exemplarism? The people who are just “plainly” exemplars so that we can point to them without providing further criteria for who counts legitimately as a virtuous person, would seem to fall within what we, as a community, tend to think of already as exemplary–Ghandi, MLK, Mother Teresa. But unless we can start talking about the prior question of *what makes them exemplary* it seems like we can’t actually be critical of any of them–i.e. of their status as *true* exemplars. But if that is allowed, then we move away from exemplarism, right? Maybe I’m misunderstanding Zagzebski here…

  2. Alexus McLeod said, on June 28, 2008 at 8:44 am

    I remember asking her about something along the lines of the second part of this question this back when I took her Epistemology seminar at OU. I think I suggested that something like a perfect exemplar seemed needed to support the view (someone like Jesus, say, who could do no wrong). Either that, or something like overlapping–so if we take MLK, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, for example, and one of them has some quirk the others do not have, we can attribute this to their character in general but not necessarily as something we should imitate in trying to become virtuous–rather, we should try to gain the traits the exemplars all share. But, of course, this seems to be moving slightly away from exemplarism as well…

  3. Bill Haines said, on June 28, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    The issue Chris and I were talking about before was about whether, in the Analects, the “junzi” (in the strong ideal sense) should be understood as someone who has certain features or as someone whose life follows a certain plot. We can ask more generally whether ethics is just about what we are or also about how we change.

    One might say “Ethics is about what we do!” –and that’s at least about very quick changes (A kicks B). A concern with “decision procedures” might drag things out to days or more. Rawls and others have talked about life-plans. Then there’s theories of moral education, political progress, retribution, etc. One can think ethics addresses these matters without thinking some narrative is fundamental to all ethics.

    These topics involve what we might call abstract narrative: general accounts of how things should unfold over time. I gather Zagzebski favors a view of ethics that essentially involves a particular person (God). I haven’t heard that she thinks the content of ethics essentially involves *narratives* about that person, though e.g. Christianity does seem to see ethics as a particular narrative.

    So much for the content of ethics. A different kind of topic is whether *learning* about ethics (either in education/transmission or in new exploratory work) should involve concrete (particular) narrative in significant degree. Even if ethics is just about making the right sorts of one-minute decisions, there might be a key role in moral education or exploration for particular stories whose plots cover hours or decades.

    One kind of narrative that I would imagine has a key place, maybe the keystone place, in early moral education is the kind that helps us understand the impact of our actions on others, or how we seem to others. We are asked to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end, and particular short or long stories can help train our imaginations to tell its own accurate stories. Reciprocity too can train our imaginations in the same direction. (Is “narrative” a form only of words? If so, then we need another word.)

    Manyul raises an excellent question about conservatism. I suppose there are two kinds of conservatism one might worry about. One is social conservatism: opposition to social change. The other is, as Kant said, that reliance on examples in morality amounts to arguing in a circle.

    The theory that Smith is the definitive exemplar of virtue or wisdom risks social conservatism if Smith doesn’t have radical principles (or traits or whatever we’re supposed to copy). If Smith is Jesus, that might not be a leading concern. And if Smith isn’t dead yet, she might offer new approaches for new circumstances.

    A weaker exemplarism says we can more easily pick out proper heroes than we can state the qualifications of a hero, so we ought to proceed by first picking out particular heroes and then emulating them. I think this is the view Manyul is worried about. (One possible argument for this view is consequentialist: it’s easier to see who gets good results than to figure out in any other way what kinds of approach get good results, so we should first see who gets good results and then explore and emulate their approaches.)

    A similar but broader theory, which I gather is only very distantly related to Zagzebski’s exemplarism, is that moral learning (education or exploration) should rely heavily on plots involving particular people. I’ll call this view plot-empiricism. One version says we should rely heavily on nonfictional plots. One might worry that this version is biased against social change, because all our exemplars will be existing people. Two points seem to me to weigh against that worry. One is that existing exemplars may be radicals. (We do tend to admire people who are better than average and better than ourselves.) The other is that if good examples are important for learning, then presumably (or at least possibly) bad examples are important in the same general sort of way. As Confucius said (perhaps in response to a question about who taught him), “When three walk together, necessarily I have a teacher there. I should copy what is good and correct [in myself] what is bad” (7.22).

    That point doesn’t address Kant’s worry. His worry (which applies not just to plot-empiricism but to all moral empiricism) was that in relying on examples I’m just arguing in a circle, because I rely on my own moral views to choose examples. Interestingly, this particular worry doesn’t seem to apply to the kind of appeal to narrative that is implicit in the golden rule.

  4. Bill Haines said, on June 28, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    Chris, your picture of “narrative ethics” lights up the whole field for me. Thank you!

    It puts me in mind of 2.24: “…to offer sacrifice to the spirit of an ancestor not one’s own is obsequious …” (Lau’s translation).

    I wonder what passages you are thinking of when you write, “Confucius seems to take a dim view of simply following rituals (li) simply because they are the rituals of the community (because the parent says so)”. In 9.3, about the linen cap, he seems to be talking about cases where there is no determinate answer to the question “what are the rituals of the community”, because there is some division, e.g. between the currently popular way and the traditional way of that very community—perhaps a divergence between the views of the masses and the records whose authority the community acknowledges.

  5. Chris said, on June 28, 2008 at 8:58 pm


    I’m not familiar enough with Z to say (I’ve only read her first chapter so far). She does promise to solve this problem (where we argues for ethical pluralism within the theory) in the very last chapter.

    If I had to guess, I’d suppose that one route might be to argue that it’s not any specific exemplar that sets conduct with respect to her specific acts, but rather that each exemplars as a whole share a family resemblance with respect to the way in which their longer term lives are lived. Similar to the way in which some have argued that we need to attend to the “spirit of the li” as opposed to its exact letter, and use the spirit of the li to criticize it’s current exact form, perhaps a similar move is available for exemplarism. So she’d need to argue that there’s a “spirit of the exemplar” (some key family resemblance in terms of life-approaches, and that some form of pluralism (and criticism) is possible starting from that point.

    But that’s just my guess at this point. Given her preference for a form of agent-basing (reliance on the fundamental role of emotions in determining value) I suppose her answer might lie the in the way in which exemplars embody those emotions in a way that informs the way in which their lives are organized and unified.

    But again, I’m guessing, and I hardly understand Z at this point. The answer is still 325 pages off. 😦

  6. Chris said, on June 28, 2008 at 9:14 pm


    (to your second comment)

    I’m glad it lights up for somebody, because I still don’t have any damn idea what I’m talking about. 🙂

    2.24 is certainly one — I suppose 2.7 is another. I don’t have my book right here, but my impression is that there are a lot of sayings that seem to bring home this point, don’t you think? Whether engagement with the li is understood as a matter of internal appropriation (a la H&A) or simply a matter of resolve and will (as I read Fingarette), the joint message seems to be that mechanical mirroring is not sufficient for Confucius.

    On 9.3 — I agree with you here, but I’m not sure that this obscures the points above, do you? The point that I always find interesting on 9.3 relates to a claim by Heidegger. If I understand H correctly, a key component of “authenticity” (perhaps an analogue of personhood for C?) is the ability to remain at a distance from “the They” (the “public” or “voice of the crowd”) because the They, in attempting to level the individual, try to sever the connection of that individual to his/her historical past. “They” attempt to argue that “they” (their opinions, customs, etc) are the culmination of the past, and as such suggest that there is no need for the individual to take up the task of grappling with that past (and the exemplars of that past), and trying to actively understand how it (and those exemplars, with the respect to how they lived their lives) informs the present, on one’s own. This seems similar to what you suggest.

  7. Chris said, on June 28, 2008 at 9:28 pm


    (first comment)

    I’m not sure how strong the relationship is between the use of narrative (say in moral education) stories and ethics. It may be that it’s just a strong methodology — it may be that thick stories are more powerful and effective on the listener, and thus can impress upon us more clearly the need to use reciprocity in our thinking (as you note), or the need to at least be sensitive about how our plans and projects can effect others.

    But it could be that “being a good person” means in part (not in whole) the desire to emulate a certain way in which a person’s life can display a strong sense of unity over time. Here I’m thinking of the foil as Kierkegaard’s notion of the “field rotator” — a person who has no real sense of direction, jumping from one pleasure to another, as such failing to allow his life as a whole from having any sort of real narrative unity. For K, such a person lacks “passion” and is “irresolute” in the way in which his life over time seems to form an accidental “lining up” of one event after another.

    Although I suppose the type of lesson one would want to impart in the first example can use narrative as an effective device, the second lesson couldn’t dispose of it — it would be necessary.

  8. Bill Haines said, on June 29, 2008 at 12:00 am

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the interesting lessons on H and K!

    “Confucius seems to take a dim view of simply following rituals (li) simply because they are the rituals of the community (because the parent says so)”? I guess there are many things that might mean. You might be saying he takes a dim view of a maxim of complete obedience, or saying he takes a dim view of groundless adoption of such a maxim, or a dim view of groundless obedience on any occasion, etc.

    I think it would be uncharitable to suppose that Confucius (or just about anyone else) thought we should adopt the maxim, “Always obey the community,” especially if by that he meant the contemporary majority. But I don’t think he would accept an analogy between the proper relation to one’s parents and the proper relation to the current numerical majority, even the overwhelming majority. I think he’s more interested in having a conception of the community that doesn’t identify it with e.g. the current numerical majority, so that he can avoid saying we ought to buck the community. As thinkers go, I think he stands out in the direction of that avoidance.

    The connection you draw between 9.3 and H is very nice indeed. I was guessing that 9.3 might be your main evidence for the interpretive point about the dim view. I was arguing only that 9.3 wasn’t evidence for it, not arguing that 9.3 is evidence against it.

    4.18 says we should obey our parents even when we think they’re wrong. That’s suggestive against the interpretive point.

    Are you saying you think 2.24 and 2.7 support the interpretive point?

    Separately: Above I didn’t mean to suggest that stories can impress on us the need to use reciprocity in our thinking, though I suppose stories can impress on us pretty much anything. I meant rather to say that other people’s reciprocating what I do (smiling back at me, kicking back at me) can train me toward a more accurate feel for how my prospective actions might play out for others. I think that kind of perception can really help teach us what is good and bad, not just add rhetorical force to views independently arrived at. (I don’t think the Golden Rule is about reciprocity. I think reciprocity is exchanging good or bad treatment.)

  9. Chris said, on June 29, 2008 at 3:57 pm


    Good points.

    On most of the top half, we’re in agreement. I guess the more interesting distinctions between such positions lie in the “why” part — why it is important not to yield to the current numerical majority (for example, the specific Heideggerian reasons versus others that may have a very different foundation).

    Though with respect to Confucius, I would guess it’s not just a claim of standing with some distance from the current numerical majority, it’s also a question of standing in some distance from the li, if you think that it is possible that the li (which in a specific case may well be imported from the ancients) is no longer appropriate in some way to the current situation (here I’m thinking of the debates about whether Confucius’ stance towards the li is one of adopting, and then mirroring in a strict and unchanging manner, the Zhou li, or whether li should be seen as an evolving language — I’m thinking here of Kwong loi-Shun’s work, specifically).

    Also — I didn’t mean to suggest an analogy between the parent case in 2.7 and the Heidegger point about being distance from the current majority; rather there I just mean that C seems to think that following li without the proper personal investment (however that is cashed out, again re H&A or Fingarette or others) is insufficient to attain the kind of moral character he is advocating.

    4.18 is a different point for me — it’s important, in the way I read it, to think that what came first was remonstration on some level with one’s parents, and *then* after refusal, one obeys. I’m not sure that speaks against the interpretative point — doesn’t it rather just enforce the view that attempting to force one’s views in such cases will rarely lead to anything helpful (the further development and possible perfection of the relationship, say), and if anything might actually tear apart the cohesive glue holding the relationship together in the first place?

    Last point on stories – I agree with your point here. I just wonder whether those stories at some level are not merely excellent devices for teaching insights that are not necessarily embedded within narrative frameworks.

  10. Bill Haines said, on June 29, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Hi Chris, that all seems basically right to me. But I want to comment on the very last point some.

    If we’re not misunderstanding each other, by “those stories” you mean the quick stories I might tell myself during deliberation, about what is likely to happen if I do X.

    I think the content of moral duties, obligations, etc. is conditioned by what we can understand, and what we can understand (in real time) is conditioned by limits of time, brainpower, access to info, etc. So I think if there are deep reasons why narrative is more efficient at getting some key points into our heads, that’s likely to infect the content of morality.

    I wonder whether by ‘narrative’ you mean representation of a particular chain of events (e.g. a Road Runner cartoon) rather than of a type of chain of event (e.g. an account of the “stages of grief” or of a good sort of decision procedure).

    And I wonder whether you would class utilitarianism as a view that makes narrative important to the content of ethics, because utilitarianism says what makes an action right or wrong is what will tend to happen if we do it.

    (Though I used the word ‘teach’ at the end of my last comment, I was thinking there more of moral epistemology – what life can teach us – than the transmission of moral knowledge or opinion from one person to another.)

  11. Chris said, on June 30, 2008 at 7:29 am


    I have to head into the office for a few things — when I get back I’ll give a reply to your last question. I think you’re right to want to ask how thick this notion is, and from your question I do suspect that my use of the term is more broad.

  12. Bill Haines said, on June 30, 2008 at 8:41 am

    Chris et al, I’m going to drop out of the blogosphere some time Tuesday night (your time), and maybe not be back for ten days, except for a brief glance or two.

    I guess narrative (in the sense worth worrying about) isn’t just representations of (particular or general) chains of events; rather it’s representations of such chains as having a kind of rational or semi-rational content: a coherent plot involving intelligent action.

  13. Bill Haines said, on June 30, 2008 at 9:49 am

    I mean Monday night.

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