Eudaimonia and Dao
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.