A Ku Indeed!

Eudaimonia and Dao

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, philosophy, virtue ethics by Chris on July 6, 2008

At the very start of Jiyuan Yu’s new(ish) book, Confucius and Aristotle (2007), Yu sets out to talk about the relationships between various Aristotelean and Confucian concepts (such as de, arete, eudaimonia, dao, ren). At the very start of the chapter, Yu discusses what he takes to be the ground floor of both systems, eudaimonia and dao. The questions I have about this are similar to questions I’ve already raised in other threads concerning Aristotle but here are related to Confucius, so some of what I say here will sound familiar.

Yu argues that Aristotle starts off my suggesting that there is a “supreme end for a human life as a whole, and that this end is the human end.” Of course, for Yu it is eudaimonia that plays this role for Aristotle, and Yu suggests that it is dao that plays that role in Confucius. So, Yu argues that “Aristotle’s eudaimonism is about what is a good human life, and Confucius’ theory of dao is about which way a human life should take.” (p 25).

I suppose there are a number of places that Yu’s thesis can be pressed, or that the question could be pushed just how far this comparison can be made, but my interest (at this point) is more taxonomical (as it has been in previous posts on this subject). Let’s start here: Aristotle suggests that

It may be said that every individual man and all men in common aim at a certain end which determines what they choose and what they avoid.

Of course, for Aristotle, as Yu puts it, this common aim is happiness; it is this end which we pursue for itself and not for the sake of something else. In addition, this end, once we have determined what its components are, sets the ends that we will pursue that are subordinate to happiness. So, if happiness is gustatory delight, we then aim for the right foods.

Yu makes note of the interesting point that since happiness is not pursued for the sake of anything else, the value of eudaimonia simply self-evident. As Yu notes, in the Euthydemus Socrates points out that people who ask what the point of happiness is are stupid, given that such a question makes no sense. The value of eudaimonia is either intuitively apparent, or perceptually evident; as a result, questions denying it are dismissed (similar, I suppose, to the way Locke treats skepticism about the external world). Clearly, if Yu is right, we should expect a similar thesis about the value of dao.

I have a few questions about all of this.

1. Yu notes directly afterward that the value of dao is seen as dictated by the will of Heaven. What Yu is not clear on is whether the value of the dao stems from the fact that its exemplification is demanded by Heaven. If this is the thesis, then there seems to me to be a disconnect on some level between eudaimonia and dao. the former has its value in a non-derivative sense, whereas the latter finds its value in a derivative sort of deontic sense (the value of dao stems from the fact that one must follow the commands of Heaven). Whether Yu intends for this to the case, I cannot say; unfortunately he doesn’t seem concerned with taxonomical questions about how to understand the position of “the human good” in the general theory as a whole.

2. Let’s abstract away from (1) for a second for another question. According to Yu’s reading of Aristotle, it is eudaimonia that sets the standard for what has value; once this is accomplished, what should be desired follows as a result of unpacking what human flourishing is. If the comparison is apt, the same should apply for dao. But again Yu gives us no hint (that I can see) to the question: “is the human good evaluative or not?”

Let’s take a non-evaluative case first. If I say that a specimen of kind X is acting in a way that is characteristic of Xs, or perhaps that actualizes the essence of Xs (which doesn’t necessarily mean “acting characteristic of Xs, I suppose), then this is one way of talking about an X as “good.” In this case, it just means “an exemplar specimen with respect to what Xs are.” But this doesn’t imply that Xs ought to be characteristic or exemplar Xs, or that there is anything evaluatively “bad” about failing to fulfill what it means to be an X.

An evaluative case would be different. Here, one might argue that Xs that fail to exemplify their X-hood are bad, less real, or in some way falling short of what Xs should be. Seen from a neutral standpoint (if one is possible), exemplary Xs are normatively better than Xs that are non-exemplary.

Let’s return to Yu. In what way should we take this thesis about Confucius? Of course, this depends on figuring out what Yu means about Aristotle and how he sees the theory of eudaimonia. Unfortunately, Yu does not satisfy in this regard, and throughout the short sub-chapter actually seems to shift back and forth between treating eudaimonia as something that is good evaluatively and something that is not (but which can be seen as something one should pursue from the standpoint of desire, something which he thinks apparently that we naturally do anyway, as I noted at the top).

So I put the question out there: is dao an evaluative or non-evaluative good? From a neutral standpoint, are those who walk the path better than those who do not? Or is dao a good in an evaluative sense only when it is approach from the standpoint of those who desire it (even if that desire is seen as intuitively evident or natural). If it is the latter sense, then the goods associated with a full theory of what the dao is will turn out perhaps to be “internal goods” that are relative to a certain way of life, but goods that will not be seen as valuable ends until one takes on the larger end (the value of the dao) from which the others goods stem.

I must admit, although I do like Yu’s book, I find his ambiguity on these sorts of questions (what type of good is the human good?) frustrating. If we are to ascertain whether eudaimonia and dao are comparative in the sense that he wants, we need to be more demanding about taxonomy. Is they are both “the human good” from which other valuable ends spring, we need to first get clear on what “the human good” means, or could mean, and then apply it to Aristotle, and then to Confucius.


16 Responses

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  1. Bill Haines said, on July 13, 2008 at 4:26 am

    Hi Chris,

    It’s a shame that nobody has commented on this very careful and interesting post. I’ll try to start, but I won’t say much.

    I think maybe in your last paragraph ‘comparative’ is a slip for ‘evaluative’?

    I’m inclined to think ‘dao’ in the Analects is a pretty thin term, well translated simply as ‘way’; not a name for something (such as human eudaimonia).

    I think the idea that for Aristotle the goodness of eudaimonia is “self-evident” is potentially misleading. If the proposition “eudaimonia is good” is self-evident, that means that once we grasp the proposition we see right away that it’s true. But Aristotle thinks it’s pretty obscure what eudaimonia is. Adequately grasping the proposition is the hard part.

    (I think it’s interesting that both Plato and Aristotle agree that our actual ultimate aim is something we find profoundly difficult to articulate.)

    Within your Point 2 section, you distinguish between “non-evaluative cases” and “evaluative cases”. I’m not sure whether these two are supposed to be two kinds of object, two kinds of statement using ‘good’, or two something else. So I’m not absolutely sure I follow your discussion from that point on. My best guess is that they’re supposed to be two kinds of use of ‘good’.

    (Michael Slote has a very interesting paper, “Object-Utilitarianism” (Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 66 (1985): 111-124), that you might find relevant to your distinction. I attack his argument in the paper I sent you.)

  2. Chris said, on July 13, 2008 at 9:59 am


    I’m glad you picked this thread up. As you can tell, this subject of “goods” is getting a lot of play here, mostly because I’m puzzling through a paper on Confucius and (coincidentally), Slote (his 2001 Morals from Motives).

    When I get back from my anniversary break, I’d like to return to this subject, and also bring up some of the points you make in your interesting paper (I read it — but not section V, which you suggested to skip). I’d like to see if some of the things you argue for in the paper with respect to applying the term goodness may be applicable in these cases (such as one above in this post).

    I’ll hold off until then, though — the wife demands a blogging break!

  3. Bill Haines said, on July 13, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Good – because I need time to pack. I’m flying to the States tomorrow, and to the respective wife, who will get whatever jet-lagged attention I can muster for a while.

  4. Chris said, on July 17, 2008 at 7:29 am


    Let me see if I can pick this up again.

    You asked about my (2) point above. It is probably the case that what I’m pointing to here doesn’t make sense, but I’ll give it another try:

    I’m guessing that one way that people talk is to claim that an end is “good” in some way that is independent of human desiring. As a result, some goods, one might say, have a normative binding force on their own.

    In another sense (perhaps this is similar to Foot in “Morality as Hypothetical Imperative” but I haven’t read it recently so it’s not crisp in my mind) perhaps one could talk about good as relative to the internal workings of desires.

    Here’s an example (hopefully not a bad one): it could be that there are certain features or characteristics that are typical for humans to develop (perhaps “human nature”). So “good specimens” of humans might be understood to turn on this way of talking. But this doesn’t, it seems to me, settle the question of the value of exemplifying such characteristics such that they take on a normative, as opposed to a merely descriptive, meaning for me.

    Another (probably worse) example: perhaps there is a sense of order in the universe, and I can contribute or mirror that order by X-ing. That’s fine; I suppose that some will argue that the fact that X-ing mirrors order has an immediately normative dimension (the exemplification of what is “good” where “order is good”). But I suppose someone else might say “good by reference to what?” in the sense that for it to have a binding normative force would require that I can, in some way, link it up in some way to the internal ends of some set of desires I already have.

    I am almost certain that I have confused the issue at this point — bah. As you know, discussions about the good get complicated very quickly.

  5. Bill Haines said, on July 17, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Chris, it looks to me as though you want to distinguish three things: (1) A use of ‘good’ that makes direct reference to the conversants’ desires (Foot says this is the main use of ‘good’, in “Utilitarianism and the Virtues”), and (2) uses of ‘good’ on which “goodness” is independent of the conversants’ desires, including (2a) a use of ‘good’ that is morally or normatively authoritative, e.g. “Smith is a good person”; and (2b) a use of ‘good’ that is not normatively authoritative, e.g. “The crack we confiscated yesterday is very good stuff”. Is that it?

    The distinction between (1) and (2a) can be obscure if we regard moral talk as involving everyone as conversants, and regard morality as being about the satisfaction of desire.

  6. Bill Haines said, on July 23, 2008 at 5:40 am

    I mean Foot says it’s the main use when it’s bare, not accompanied by e.g. ‘-knife’. I think. I don’t have the piece with me.

  7. Chris said, on July 23, 2008 at 4:36 pm


    The Footean (1) seems clear enough. If I endorse contemplation (I desire it), then it is good, and other things (perhaps virtues) will be derivatively good as they lead to or are constitutive of that good.

    (2) (both a and b) are more difficult, because they seem to rely on standards that may (or may not) be against desire specific (even if they are not relative to the desires of any specific people). So, you might say “Joe is a good man” and this refers to a standard of good “specimen” (say) that the speaker and hearer desire as a good and agree Joe is normatively bound to, whether he desires that standard or not himself (he may just hit the target).

    Perhaps Plato’s form of the Good is a better example of (2a). Here, the Good is set wholly independent of anyone’s desires, and has normative force on us, whether we want it to or not.

    Perhaps for (2b); if X is a natural kind, and Y is an object, one might suggest that Y is a good specimen of X, where the kind is fixed and there is no normative dimension whatsoever to being closer or further from being an X when you are a Y.

    Forward to the Dao: where does it go, *if* it is a good? Sometimes I get the impression that if it is admissible to call it a good, it is a (1) good. At the very least, it is a good because it’s the proper object of desire of *those* guys (people like Yao and Shun), and *those* guys are, in a way, the “alpha” or origin of what I am as a person (and so, if I want to be myself, I desire what they desire).

    Or something like that? At the very least, I don’t usually get the impression that there are any (2a) type goods floating around in the Analects, though I may simply be approaching the text in a biased way.

  8. Bill Haines said, on July 23, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Chris, from your first paragraph above I feel I can’t tell what kind of use of ‘good’ you have in mind there. I think Foot is thinking of the kind of use of ‘good’ we might make when watching a sporting event, calling “good” the things that help our side win. That’s not about being a *proper* object of desire. We wouldn’t say the other team’s fans are mistaken to call our “good” things “bad.”

  9. Chris said, on July 23, 2008 at 5:40 pm


    Ah — interesting. I don’t have the Foot here, so I’ll just go with what you’ve said here.

    If I’m reading you right, the goods of (1) are those goods that are proper *to* the object of desire as it is desired. So I like chess, so reading books by Bobby Fisher are good because they are instrumental to fulfilling that desire.

    Or perhaps I think virtue is good because I desire eudaimonia, and virtue is constitutive of that object or activity.

    I have another question, but let me make sure I’ve got you right up to this level first.

    Thanks for being patient!

  10. Chris said, on July 24, 2008 at 4:48 am


    [Sidebar point about Foot].

    I was thinking that Foot’s position was something roughly like this: that there are no “good states of affairs” independent of a reference to some state of mind (I was using desire). So to claim that “X is a good state of affairs” would reduce, in her cases, to the way things look from the standpoint of, say, a person with the virtue of benevolence, where this virtue has certain targets or ends.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I remember thinking that part of her criticism of utilitarianism was that it held to a notion of good SOA independent of virtuous states, and Foot was suggesting that for utilitarianism to be coherent as a theory we need, first, a theory of virtue to give its talk of good SOA an intelligible backround framework.

  11. Bill Haines said, on July 24, 2008 at 5:13 am

    Hi Chris, I don’t have the Foot with me either and it’s been a while. I think her relevant claims are that (a) in ordinary usage, “good state of affairs” simply *means* “state of affairs that causes or indicates that what we want is more likely to obtain,” where “we” are roughly the immediate conversants. So (b) if a utilitarian claims to mean something else by “good state of affairs,” he’s using that phrase in a technical sense and he owes us a technical definition. (c) He might, and some do, define “objectively good state of affairs” by providing some objective end to replace “what the conversants desire” in the normal meaning of the term. Such an objective end might be something like the sum of what all people desire, or the ends of certain virtues. But (d) the utilitarian who does that sort of defining. shouldn’t then pretend that he’s doing anything but defining ends into the word. He’s not finding out anything about what’s really good.

  12. Chris said, on July 24, 2008 at 5:44 am


    Good (heh) — I think we’re on the same page (though I think we differ in precise wording here and there).

    With all of these points in mind, here’s a question: if a person X values the ends of benevolence (seeks out the SOA that serve as targets of that virtue, say), and X holds to a Footean framework for understanding goods, what grounds the value of benevolence as a virtue in the first place? Why does she inhabit this as opposed to some other desire/virtue?

    Is the admirability (say) of such a desire/virtue a primitive?

  13. Bill Haines said, on July 24, 2008 at 6:21 am

    I don’t exactly agree with Foot’s analysis of ‘good’, so I’m not X.

    I don’t think Foot is X either. I think Foot’s purpose in discussing use (1) of ‘good’ is to argue that (1) is not very important for moral philosophy. So I think what you’re talking about here is a Footean framework for understanding a use of ‘good’ that Foot thinks is peripheral and unimportant, not a Footean framework for understanding goods. I think that in “U and the Vs” she means to press the question you raise, as a rhetorical question amounting to an attack on utilitarianism.

    Her own view about goods and virtues, I think, places heavy weight on the same kinds of natural fact that Aristotle emphasized, but I’m not familiar with the details.

  14. Chris said, on July 24, 2008 at 7:17 am

    I’ll have to grab a copy of the piece from JSTOR and brush up on what she says there (to get straight what is Footean and what isn’t).

    But in the meantime, maybe there are two questions:

    1. How is goodness a property (if it is one)?
    2. Does morality provide compelling reasons for action that are independent of a person’s desires?

    I’m not sure what Foot’s take on (1) is. If Aristotelean, it might be something like “X is good for Y when X contributes to (or is constitutive of Y’s being an exemplary member of species Z (given that being an exemplary member is seen as ‘good for’ Ys.”

    My understanding (which could be wrong) of (2) is that her answer to (2) is “no.” So a theory of what is “good for” a human (in this case, ‘exemplify Z!’) is not motivating to a person if the reasons the theory of Z provides do not, in some way, link up to Y’s desires.

    If they don’t (link up) then it looks as if X is “good for” is descriptive for Y only, whereas if it does link up, it’s a normative good for Y (it serves as a binding ought for Y).

    Perhaps this is where I’m tangled up. Maybe what I’m asking here is how X becomes a normative good for Y (in this framework above), if Y doesn’t already have the desire for the exemplification of Z. There are lots of “oughts” that Y may recognize people following through on that have no motivating force for Y. What, in the end, grounds the value of having such desires?

    Of course, I’ve likely confused things more here.

  15. Chris said, on July 24, 2008 at 7:31 am

    Those winks are annoying. I think the only way to avoid them is to put in a space between the parens and the last letter before it.

  16. Bill Haines said, on July 24, 2008 at 8:04 am

    Chris, thanks for the advice on the winks!

    I don’t know enough to comment on how Foot’s views on morality have changed since “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.” Maybe somebody else can help out?

    Is “causes net pleasure” a property? 🙂

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