Prompted by a posted question from Scott Barnwell on our Question Board, Bill Haines has made some provocative comments regarding two related topics that for some of us may now count as conventional wisdom: that Chinese philosophy has more to say than Western philosophy about everyday life, and that Western ethics tends correctly to be characterized as “big moment ethics.” Scott and Bill both reference this interview with Joel Kupperman. I’d like therefore to move his remarks up to a main post, to encourage further discussion. The rest of this post is by Bill. –Steve
I can’t claim knowledge here, but I can’t imagine how someone could think that that Asian thought has significantly more to say about everyday life and the little things than does Western thought. I wonder whether Kupperman’s view amounts to a kind of semantic point, or semantic mistake, about the word “philosophy.”
Consider, for example, Benjamin Franklin’s practical checklist for each day (compare Zengzi at Analects 1.4):
1. TEMPERANCE.Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11.TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
We don’t therefore call Franklin a moral philosopher. And I wonder whether we call it “philosophy” when Aristotle says that the great-souled person walks slowly. What we call “philosophy” in the West is concerned more with rational justification of such views, and hence tends toward abstract argument (sometimes considering big choices as a kind of test case and for other reasons). There is a vast body of thought and literature on such daily matters in the West, dwarfing in volume the whole body of what we call “philosophy” in the West. I suspect that one reason such things are a bigger proportion of what we call Chinese “philosophy” is that we want to have a big body of writings to call “philosophy” in China. That clearly isn’t the only reason though.
Here’s a whole nother issue: what is Kupperman’s “big-moment ethics”?
In the 2002 piece Scott found for us, the writer tells us Kupperman “says much of Western philosophy centers on dramatic one-time choices, the big moments in life when a person has a real temptation, or could kill, steal, or do something else that would have major consequences. ‘Then you look for some kind of principle that would help you through the situation,’ Kupperman says. ‘It gives the picture that all there is to knowing how to live is handling these big moments.’ But these moments, for most people, don’t come up very often.”
In the string “Confucius: The Action Movie”, I wrote, “When Kupperman speaks of ‘big moment ethics,’ his idea seems to be that according to ‘traditional moral codes,’ morality is limited to certain discrete and largely negative requirements such that doing our best to be fully moral requires only very occasional ‘moments’ of attention to the moral requirements.”
Here’s what B is based on. A few weeks ago when I went to look up what Kupperman means by “big moment ethics,” I decided that the key text was his “Confucius and the Nature of Religious Ethics,” PEW 21:2 (1971), 189-94. There he wrote,
“most of a man’s life normally is entirely neutral with respect to traditional moral codes; that is, moments of moral choice or action normally will comprise very little of the duration of his life.” (192)
“Most of us are familiar with what might be called ‘big-moment’ ethics. In this form of ethics, the focus is entirely on moments of sharp moral decision: when a man decides whether or not to rob the bank, commit murder, commit adultery, admit his responsibility in previous actions, etc. A ‘big-moment’ ethics almost inevitably will place the highest virtue in dependably making the right moral decision, and almost inevitably will treat life apart from moments of moral choice as what I have called a ‘free-play’ zone. This zone usually will be very large, since most people are not incessantly in the process of making moral decisions. Thus ‘big-moment’ ethics is both comfortable and dramatic. It is comfortable because it enables us not to worry too much about most of our life, and, indeed, usually does not demand too much thoughtfulness. It is dramatic because it typically highlights convulsive, visible, and brief efforts of the will.”(194)
This 1971 material too suggests account A, but not as clearly as does the 2002 piece Scott found for us. Based on this 1971 material, I had settled on account B, out of charity, because after much effort I could not make any sense of A except as a reflection of B.
The Ten Commandments are a small part of a traditional moral code. Consider a poor reader’s misconception of the Ten Commandments, as consisting entirely of some simple and easy Don’ts. Don’t kill, don’t steal, etc. I would guess that this wildly fictional case of a “traditional moral code” is the paradigmatic case (or one of two) of “big moment ethics.” But these simple commandments require that we refrain always, not just occasionally; and we almost always have the opportunity to kill, steal, etc. Still, for most of us there are only occasional moments when our temptations call us to attend to these rules in deciding what to do. Why is that? It is precisely because the rules are not very demanding. That’s picture B.
(If we look not just at “traditional moral codes” but at actual Western moral thought, a central case is utilitarianism, which is not bigmomenty in any sense that I can think of. As Western introductory ethics classes and Peter Singer famously stress, it is not true that the moments when one could do something “that would have major consequences” are “one-time … big moments in life.”)
If there’s another paradigmatic case of “big moment ethics,” I would guess that it’s the kind of paper that talks about dilemmas, especially medical dilemmas. The core of this sort of literature, I think, is matters of government action; not individual action. But we also use related dilemmas for individuals in trying to teach students to think and to test theories. In writing about Jim and the Indians, Bernard Williams is neither expressing nor attributing to utilitarianism the view that ethics is mainly about such dramatic choices.