The latest in our series of discussion pieces on recent articles published in Dao, here we have Howard Curzer (Texas Tech), an Aristotle sepcialist who has also developed an interest in early Confucianism, commenting on Thorian Harris’s essay. For Harris’s piece, click here.
“ARISTOTLE AND CONFUCIUS ON THE SOCIOECONOMICS OF SHAME”
BY THORIAN HARRIS, COMMENT BY HOWARD J. CURZER
Harris begins by combining and fleshing out Aristotle’s scattered, elliptical remarks about the sense of shame in an admirably charitable and plausible way….
The sense of shame is a disposition to feel pain at the disapproval of good people caused by disgraceful conduct (325). Like the moral virtues, the sense of shame is a mean disposition. People with the sense of shame attend to the opinions of good people, while the shameless are indifferent to what good people think, and the bashful care about everyone’s opinion (324). The sense of shame is unnecessary for perfect people, but it helps the rest of us avoid wrong actions in two ways. It negatively reinforces bad behavior so that we learn from our errors and are less likely to repeat them. The sense of shame is also forward-looking; we avoid wrongdoing because we fear disapproval. Thus, the sense of shame builds character, and could be used by legislators to encourage people to good actions (328).
[Harris mentions that the sense of shame is not a virtue because even people who lack practical wisdom such as people with merely civic courage can be motivated by concern for what good people will think (326). If the sense of shame merely lacked practical wisdom, then would be a natural virtue. Adding practical wisdom would make it a proper virtue. Aristotle offers a different reason for denying that the sense of shame is a virtue. He says that it is useless for already virtuous people (NE 1128b21-22). However, since virtuous people occasionally act wrongly, I think that Aristotle is mistaken. He should say what Harris says he says.]
Harris finds all of these points within the Confucian tradition, too (329-330). He thinks that Aristotle and the Confucian tradition differ about socioeconomics. According to Harris, Aristotle maintains that people who have not developed a sense of shame by adulthood are out of luck. The window of opportunity closes at the end of childhood (331). Developing a sense of shame takes leisure, so people who must work all of the time are also out of luck (332). These two factors are intertwined. A major reason that people fail to develop the sense of shame during childhood is that they are born into poor families, and must spend their time grubbing for necessities rather than developing the sense of shame and the (other) virtues (332). Thus, Aristotle considers the working class to be morally stunted.
By contrast, Harris maintains that the Confucian tradition allows that badly-raised, overworked people may nevertheless develop the sense of shame. These disadvantages hinder, but do not preclude moral development (332-333).
Harris sides with the Confucian tradition on these points. He endorses its egalitarian view that shame and general moral development is open to all, and criticizes Aristotle for looking down on the masses. Harris says, “Aristotle has rather disparaging things to say about those who are compelled by economic necessity to work as merchants, craftsmen, or wage-earning laborers” (332).
Harris offers an explanation of the divergence between Aristotle and the Confucian tradition. He suggests that the Confucian tradition takes desirable character traits (including the sense of shame) to be available to badly-raised and overworked people because, unlike Aristotle, the Confucian tradition accepts situationism. Aristotle insists that virtuous people behave consistently across situations. Courageous people behave courageously whenever facing physical risk; just people behave justly whenever opportunities for injustice present themselves; and so on. By contrast, the Confucian tradition takes behavior to be relative to situations. When risk is low and theft is hard, everyone behaves well. Conversely, when risk is high and theft is easy, everyone behaves badly (338-340). This is because traits are characteristic of people embedded in social networks rather than isolated individuals (340-341).
Comparative philosophy owes Harris a debt of gratitude for foregrounding and clarifying the Aristotelian and Confucian accounts of the sense of shame, and for pointing out the extent to which these accounts converge. I shall argue that the convergence is even greater than Harris believes. Aristotle is no elitist. He agrees with the Confucian tradition that badly-raised and overworked people can develop the sense of shame. And neither Aristotle nor the Confucian tradition is situationist.
Aristotle thinks that mentally defective people (natural slaves, barbarians (sic), women (sic), and the brutish) cannot develop the sense of shame. The Confucian tradition agrees that some mentally defective people cannot develop a sense of shame. What about mentally healthy people?
King Hui takes famines to be unavoidable natural phenomena. By contrast, Mencius takes droughts to be natural phenomena, but famines to be the avoidable result of inadequate governmental action (Mencius 1A3.1-2). Similarly, elitists take the inequality of virtue (even among the mentally healthy) to be an unavoidable natural phenomenon. “We aristocrats are naturally more virtuous than the masses.” By contrast, liberals take the inequality of virtue (among the mentally healthy) to be the avoidable result of inadequate governmental action. Unchecked, the free market obstructs the moral development of some people, but governments can mitigate this by providing such things as public education, food stamps, and minimum wage laws (so that people need not work multiple jobs in order to survive).
I suggest that Aristotle is a liberal rather than an elitist. Like the Confucian tradition, he acknowledges the existence of mental illness which blocks some people from becoming virtuous, but aside from that, he does not blame inequality of virtue on nature. He says that, “all who are not maimed as regards their potentiality for virtue may win it by a certain kind of study and care” (NE 1099b18-20). Overworked people have little or no opportunity to acquire virtue, and governments should prevent this from happening by arranging for excessive labor to be done by natural slaves and barbarians who will not be disadvantaged by it (Politics 1329a25-26). Aristotle even fantasizes about robots freeing all people from burdensome labor (Politics 1253b33-1254a1). When equalizing opportunity is not feasible, government should at least ameliorate inequality by providing such things as public education (Politics 1337a33ff) and subsidized meals (Politics 1272a12-21).
In general, a charitable reading of Aristotle would take him to sympathize with laborers rather than criticizing them. Just as Aristotle should not be blamed for observing that there are some non-natural slaves, for he laments this fact, and argues that it should be changed (Politics 1255a3-28), so he should not be blamed for observing that badly-raised and overworked people lack the opportunity to acquire virtue, for he laments this fact, and argues that it should be changed.
Harris sketches the Confucian tradition’s two-pronged method for developing the sense of shame. First, provide basic needs to the poor. Lack of basic needs poses a huge obstacle, but it is not insurmountable. A few sages succeed despite destitution (334-336). Second, improve character directly by instruction and example. Good examples are to be provided both by teachers, and by policies which put good people into positions of visibility and authority (336-338). Instruction and example are not panaceas; they help only those who are receptive. But even badly-raised people can gain the sense of shame, and embark on the moral development path.
Aristotle agrees with all of this. He does not say that badly-raised people are incorrigible, but only that they will not benefit from teaching (NE 1095a4-6, 1095b2-7, 1179b23-31). Indeed, Aristotle contrasts badly-raised people with the incorrigible.
The many obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than what is noble. This is why some think that legislators ought to stimulate men to virtue and urge them forward by the motive of the noble, on the assumption that those who have been well advanced by the formation of habits will attend to such influences; and that punishments and penalties should be imposed on those who disobey and are of inferior nature, while the incurably bad should be completely banished. (NE 1180a4-10)
As Harris acknowledges, the Confucian tradition accepts that bad habits eventually become entrenched (332). Aristotle also thinks that repeated vicious acts make people vicious, and the vicious are incorrigible. The vicious are “the incurably bad [who] should be completely banished.” However, Aristotle does not endorse banishment for the badly-raised many. Those who have not “been well advanced by the formation of habits” need “punishments and penalties” because arguments won’t help them, but they are not incorrigible. The point of punishment is not merely to keep badly-raised people in line, but also to improve their character.
Aristotle often cautions that ethics is inexact (NE 1098a26-29, 1103b34-1104a5). He warns that he is speaking “roughly and in outline,” and that his claims are “only for the most part true” (NE 1094b11-22). Thus, although Aristotle claims that the goods of fortune are necessary conditions for virtue, he is not making an exceptionless claim. Instead, a charitable reading would take Aristotle to be agreeing with the Confucian tradition that lack of basic needs is typically, but not always an insurmountable obstacle.
Harris is right to observe that Aristotle is no situationist. Aristotle thinks that virtuous people reliably behave virtuously across a wide range of situations. But he also thinks that virtue is rare (NE 1156b24), so he would agree with the Confucian tradition that most people panic (or steal, or overeat, etc.) in some situations, but fight fiercely (or refrain from theft, or eat moderately, etc.) in other situations. Aristotle thinks that virtuous action is situationally relative (NE 1106a29-b7), so he would agree with the Confucian tradition that virtuous people perform different sorts of acts in different situations. Finally, because Aristotle thinks that people are political animals (NE 1097b8-11, Politics 1253a1-4), he would agree with the Confucian tradition that ethics is about people embedded in social situations rather than about isolated individuals.
Aristotle and the Confucian tradition not only agree on these points, they stand shoulder to shoulder against situationism. Both situationists and virtue ethicists allow that courageous people respond differently to risky situations of different sorts, temperate people respond differently to different sorts of temptations, etc. Situationists go further. They claim that people behave differently not only in situations which differ in morally significant ways, but also in situations which differ in trivial ways. But neither Aristotle nor the Confucian tradition is committed to behavioral differences of this sort.
I have no quarrel with what Harris says about the Confucian tradition, or with what the Confucian tradition says about the sense of shame. My only goal has been to show that Aristotle is even closer to the Confucian tradition, and to the truth than Harris allows.