A Ku Indeed!

Hutton on Situationism

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, virtue ethics by Chris on July 24, 2008

I’m re-reading Eric Hutton’s “Character, Situationism, and Early Confucian Thought” (Phil Studies, 2006) and starting to wonder…am I a situationist about Confucianism? I’m starting to wonder if I have begun to walk down this dark path. (Also, note that Alexus just put up today an excellent post on possible situationism in the Analects).

I’ve noted before that I have a difficult time getting my head around exactly what “situationism” really means. The difference between “character” and “situationism” seems very fuzzy to me. As a result, I have no right definitions to work with. So I’ll use Hutton’s. He says that non-situationism is committed to the existence of “robust” character traits. Alright, what are those? He says (pg. 38):

For example, if there is a robust trait of compassion, then people with that trait can be confidently expected to display compassionate behavior across a wide variety of situations where compassion is an appropriate response, even in situations where acting compassionately may not be easy.

He continues:

Or to give an even more specific description, a person with a “robust” trait of compassion will display compassion toward her family members at home, her co-workers at the office, and even strangers on the street, sometimes at considerable cost to herself.

If the second pass is a way of elaborating on the first pass, then it looks as if having a “robust” character trait is a matter of being free of “compartmentalization.” A person might say, for instance, “yeah, it’s true, I am courageous at work, but boy I’m a wimp at home.” In such a case, the person would lack what Doris calls “cross-situational consistency” and as a result, insofar as Hutton seems to put it, would lack the “robust” trait of courage.

Doris’ preferred way of talking about character traits is to localize them. So, as Hutton puts it, Doris prefers things like “battlefield courage” or “wild animals physical courage” where such local traits could be possessed independently of each other. Hutton disagrees strongly that this is the case in early Confucianism — if there are character traits in the philosophy, they are robust, not local.

Hutton’s evidence focuses on ren as the central robust trait in the Analects. For one, he looks at LY 4.5, which suggests:

If the gentleman abandons ren, how can he merit the name? The gentleman does not go against ren for the amount of time required to finish a meal. Even in times of urgency or distress, he necessarily accords with it.

Hutton immediately after argues that one “should be ren at all times and in all circumstances,” arguing that this means that the junzi possesses ren in a stable and consistent way, and as such possesses the virtue in a robust way.

I’m just not convinced by Hutton’s claims here (he further argues examples in the Mencius and Xunzi, but I’ll stick to Confcius). I’d like to briefly put forth two claims.

A. Virtues are developed and cultivated in role-specific environments.

My intuitions here about this lead me to beleive that if virtues are developed and cultivated in role-specific environments, we should expect to see localized virtues of varying “strengths” in a person’s life. Confucius’ claim that the cultivation of virtue requires the right environments should support this — he’s really just saying that a person needs to be in just the right kinds of relationships. It is unlikely that our moral education (taken across the board, from person to person we encounter in different roles) is equally “staffed” by equally qualified exemplars and teachers. My mother may do a fairly bad job of cultivating the development of courage in me (she may even actively stifle it), whereas my teachers in high school may do an exemplary job. As a result, one might expect just the kind of “compartmentalization” that Hutton suggests is characteristic of local virtues. I may be in one situation (school) and act courageously, and then enter another (home) where I am entirely cowardly. Confucius’ stance on moral education requiring the right environments, taken together which his position on role-specific aspects of one’s identity, seem to naturally lead to this very plausible result.  

In fact, in LY 4.6, Confucius asks:

Is there a person who can, for the single space of a day, simply devote his efforts to Goodness? I have never met anyone whose strength was sufficient for the task. Perhaps such a person exists, but I have yet to meet him.

There are different ways of reading this passage, but one way says this: a person, in a single day, finds themselves in a variety of different situations calling for a variety of different role-specific performances. It would be truly amazing if all of those different relationships were just right, such that we would expect the person to be in a good position to be “good” across the board.  

B. Ren can very well be taken as a holistic virtue.

Hutton’s use of LY 4.5 leaves me unconvinced that Confucius is suggesting that we have a “startup” robust virtue of ren, and that the junzi has it because it is exemplified in all areas of that person’s life. There are alternatives to this view that might be consistent with Doris’ claims.

1. It could be that the junzi’s life is integrated in a way that the compartmentalized person’s is not. This doesn’t mean that the junzi has a robust trait of ren “underneath” all of the situations he/she is in, but rather that in each role specific to that person’s life, he/she is ren. So, the junzi is ren-as-teacher, ren-as-son, ren-as-father, and so on. At the end of the day, if this is right, the junzi’s behavior will appear to be a robust trait in the way that Hutton suggests, but this is really just the fact that the junzi’s local traits are all unified and consistent. If that’s what robustness comes out to be, I’m not sure Doris would object, would he?

2. Another possibility — highly speculative and possibly non-sensical — is that local unification of role-specific traits results in an emergent trait. So if a person is ren in all local areas, then the person is ren in a way that goes beyond merely unifying independent local “parts”. Perhaps an analogue here is with the unified “global” trait of ren in the Analects. Is “being ren” merely the presence of all of the other specific virtues in a given person, or is it something extra that comes into existence when those virtues all come together?

(2) is a harder and more obscure thesis to argue for, so to be honest I’m happy to work with (1) for the moment.  


5 Responses

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  1. Adam said, on July 24, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    As usual, my comments aren’t terribly versed in the Confucian terminology, but I’m curious about two things. First, I’m not sure why having local (or role- or situation-based) character traits wouldn’t just push the situationist criticism one step farther. Someone who doesn’t believe in anything like a systematic character would just say (about battlefield courage, say) that the particular situation a soldier finds herself in would be much more of a determiner of behavior than her previous behaviors or her localized (reputation? disposition?) for “battlefield courage”. Ultimately it’s an empirical question. But I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that very good soldiers get different marks on courage depending on whether they’ve just had losses in their units, for instance.

    Second, say that Confucius or virtue ethicists in general can make do with role-virtues instead of global virtues. What is going to be the normative pay-off here? Is it going to be in some sense permissible (or the virtue ethics equivalent) to be a compassionate husband but a ruthless businessman? I cringe when my business ethics students tell me that certain people didn’t do anything wrong because they were “just doing their jobs” (or worse, “following orders”) at the time, and are otherwise nicer people. If virtues are ultimately just local, it looks like someone isn’t being terribly excellent if he or she isn’t at least trying to shoot towards making an attempt at cross-situational consistency. And if that’s the case, it looks like one should hope for at least the possibility of global character traits as a normative ideal. And it’s going to have to be something other than ren-in-role1, ren-in-role2, etc. Because say someone is a thief or a mobster or a gossip columnist. There has to be something global out there to shoot for that involves excluding oneself from certain roles. At least, it seems to me that a plausible moral theory is going to hold out for that.

  2. Chris said, on July 25, 2008 at 4:52 am

    Hey Adam:

    What’s new in Rolla? I’m keeping up by reading your Twitter updates. 🙂

    On the first question, yeah, it’s an empirical issue. For Doris (the situationist), he accepts that data support the robustness of localized traits. I suppose it’s not a case of whether any specific behavior is ever defeasible, but rather to what degree it can be dislodged. But in general, your point makes sense.

    On the second question, I don’t think the Confucian will accept fragmented identity at all in the way you suggest. Rather, I suspect that the ideal will be to unite roles in a way that is consistent as a whole. You don’t want a person who is ren here and not ren there, say.

    My take on it (not the majority take, I’m sure) is that a ren-person-as-a-whole is ren-as-son and ren-as-businessman, etc. That said, we shouldn’t expect that ren plays out in the same way (same behaviors) in each role, so we should expect what might look to an _outsider_ to be cross-situational inconsistency. So you’d never get a result where a person says “I’m bad in role X, but good in role Y.” You’d have “I’m good in all roles” but what good means is cashed out in role-specific ways. There wouldn’t be any “good in general” say.

    I also think, but this is just a thought here, that role-specificity tends to force people to be much more careful about the circumstances surrounding their everyday moral education. If virtues are role specific, then the quality of all of our relationships matter to whether we become “ren as a whole” — not just the quality of some segmented set of relationships. So you couldn’t say, for instance, “I have a good relationship here, but crappy ones everywhere else, but no worries, the one will teach me how to be good.” So the quality of one’s embedded situations would become very salient.

    What do you think?

  3. Adam said, on July 25, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Well really the question should be what ISN’T new in Rolla? ‘nother inch of rain maybe?

    If there isn’t any good-in-general though, what is supposed to keep someone from not adopting certain unsavory roles and doing them well? It’s tempting to say “the goodness of all of one’s other roles”, but that’s going to assume that one’s other roles are in fact savory ones as well. So it looks like 1) there is some kind of good-in-general, 2) certain roles are just primitively good, or 3) good can apply to roles that are traditionally “unsavory” and it’s that much more difficult of a balancing act.

    I know you’re trying to suss out Confucius here rather than pronounce on global character traits in general, but I’m leaning more towards the idea that global virtues are possible, but very rare. The situationist data would seem to support such a verdict and 4.6 seems pretty in line with that idea.

  4. Chris said, on July 25, 2008 at 11:13 am


    Right — no pronouncement here on global character, more of a “hmm…what if?” with respect to Confucius.

    On your first question, I would suspect that unsavoriness/savoriness is defined at least in a general respect by ritual. Certainly by this account (1) and (3) are out (though I’m not sure exactly what the “good in general” is here — I’m thinking more of the fact that ren would not be a general abstract good), which leaves your (2), which in some sense I’m not actually opposed to, though I’m unsure whether we’d want to make roles primitive goods or whether we’d want to make the goodness of an exemplar primitive, where the roles are further specifications of the ways in which exemplars live their lives.

    Perhaps exemplars are good in the sense that we point to them and say as such, with no further explanation (like pointing to water and saying “water” — this is actually argued by some folks). From there, it’s a matter of investigation what makes those folks good, and part of it is the way they live their lives, which includes roles of certain sorts.

    But I’m just speculating here on justification, I’m not sure what the right answer would be. That said, I’m not sure that role-specific ethics rests on justificatory-type questions.

  5. Chris said, on July 25, 2008 at 11:16 am

    By the way — I’m not doubting that you could give 4.6 a robust trait reading. I’m just suggesting that it is certainly not the only way to read the passage, as one could see the implication of “goodness as a whole” as more of a claim about unified character.

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