Tim Connolly – Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy Lecture: “Virtue Ethics, Role Ethics, and the Early Confucian Self”, Dec. 5 @5:30pm


Welcomes: TIM CONNOLLY (East Stroudsburg University)
With responses from: SCOTT R. STROUD (University of Texas at Austin)

Please join at Columbia University’s Religion Department on FRIDAY, DECEMBER 5 at 5:30PM for his lecture entitled:

“Virtue Ethics, Role Ethics, and the Early Confucian Self”

ABSTRACT: Confucian Role Ethics takes its point of departure from “a specific vision of human beings as relational persons constituted by the roles they live rather than as individual selves” (Ames and Rosemont, “Were the Early Confucians Virtuous?”). It is this vision, its proponents maintain, that makes it distinct not only from Western ethical theories such as deontology and utilitarianism, but also from Aristotelian and other forms of virtue ethics. But does CRE mean by contrasting “relational persons” with “individual selves”? In this paper, I examine three different versions of the contrast defended by CRE: the metaphysical thesis that for Confucius there is no “substantial self” left over once we take away a person’s social relations; the psychological thesis that there is no steadfast distinction between “inner” and “outer” in theAnalects; and the moral developmental thesis that Confucian self-cultivation always takes place within the context of roles. I argue that in each of these areas CRE can gain from a greater engagement with Aristotelian virtue ethics.

5:30-7:30 pm
Rm. 101, 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University


5 replies on “Tim Connolly – Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy Lecture: “Virtue Ethics, Role Ethics, and the Early Confucian Self”, Dec. 5 @5:30pm”

    • Tim recently gave similar lectures here at East China Normal University. Highly engaging talks!

  1. I too wish I could be there – this sounds good.


    I want to suggest a fourth version of the contrast, trying to focus on the idea of a person’s “identity.” I say “trying to focus” because I don’t think I have that idea quite in focus myself. I’m not familiar with the literature on these things; I’m sorry.

    “What do you identify as?” asks the sociologist, and she may offer a list of ethnic groups or occupations as the possible answers.

    “Who I Am (Rosemary’s Granddaughter),” a country music song by Jessica Andrews, includes these lyrics:

    …I know exactly who I am
    I am Rosemary’s granddaughter
    The spitting image of my father
    And when the day is done my momma’s still my biggest fan
    Sometimes I’m clueless and I’m clumsy
    But I’ve got friends that love me
    And they know just where I stand
    It’s all a part of me
    And that’s who I am

    “Identity” isn’t about metaphysics or what it is to be a person (as opposed to the things that aren’t persons). It isn’t for or against any distinction between “inner” and “outer,” (unless between in-groups and out-groups?), and I think it probably isn’t mainly about self-cultivation or moral development. (Or is it?)

    And it isn’t something that Western ethicists have been much concerned about in their theories.

    But I think it may often be part or all of what people mean when they use ‘self’ as a free-standing noun, and it may be part of what Ames & Rosemont have in mind.

    (By the way, during my years living and working in the tribe of the Anglophone Ethicists, I never heard any of us lay any stress on “individuals” or “selves” or “individual selves.”)

    Here are some phrases to consider and contrast:

    Someone’s concept of persons, of personhood
    Someone’s concept of herself (self-concept)
    Someone’s identity, how she identifies
    Someone’s “concept of the self”

    My concept of persons is arguably part of my self-concept, insofar as I think of myself as a person. Perhaps it isn’t the part we usually focus on when speaking of “self-concept”?

    What am I?” A person …

    “Who am I?” This question uses the personal pronoun; it presupposes that I am a person, so the fact that I’m a person is arguably no part of the answer. This question asks something like: which person am I?

    I get the impression that the freestanding noun ‘self’ is sometimes used as a rough equivalent for ‘person’, and sometimes used for what distinguishes one person from others. And often floats between these two incompatible meanings.

    I think it’s worth stressing that the freestanding noun ‘self’ hardly exists in common usage. Unlike tricky words like ‘good’, the word ‘self’ does not come with the community’s guarantee that it must mean something. Rather it’s a creature of specialized academic or intellectual contexts. I’m in doubt about whether specialists’ definitions or usage actually determine specific meanings for the term in the respective contexts.

    In natural-language English: ‘self’ is a reflexive suffix (or prefix) normally indicating or emphasizing that the subject and object of the related verb are the same:

    ‘I shot myself in the foot.’
    ‘Help yourself.’
    ‘She was beside herself.’
    ‘self-cleaning oven’
    ‘self-referential expression’

    It can also be a suffix emphasizing that something that would ordinarily be aided or accompanied or represented by some proxy is in this case operating alone:

    ‘He himself came to speak with us.’
    ‘She delivered, not the deed, but the car itself.’
    ‘I did it myself.’
    ‘All by myself, don’t wanna be/ All by myself anymore.’

    And other derivative expressions, such as ‘selfish’ and ‘selfie’. (In these uses, ‘-self’ or ‘self-‘ sometimes answers the question “what?” and sometimes answers the question “which?”)

    It’s easy to see how, from such uses, someone might become confused and think that ‘self’ is a word for e.g. person or oven—or for some core aspect of a person or oven. (When somebody told Mary she was selfless, she was of course devastated. She tried to fix her problem with a self-loading rifle, and wasn’t surprised at the results .)

    Not long ago on this blog, Howard Curzer wrote,

    Everyone accepts that selves include relations, so in order to be interestingly different, a relational self must involve a significantly deeper, broader unity

    I am not aware of accepting that selves include relations or relationships. My problem is that I don’t understand the claim. I don’t understand what the noun ‘self’ is supposed to mean here.

    Perhaps I have no concept of the self. No concept of what?

    If someone defines the term for me (as they intend to use it), I can accept the definition and thus share a “concept of the self” with her. And then we can perhaps talk about Confucian or other “conceptions of the self” (following Rawls’ distinction between concept and conceptions).

    Sometimes people seem to use ‘self’ almost interchangeably with ‘person’. Wikipedia’s article “Self” currently begins:

    The self is the subject of one’s own experience of phenomena …

    It’s not perfectly clear how this is different from saying, “Anyone who experiences something is a self.” Which suggests in turn that ‘self’ means “person,” or rather “sentient being.” (In which case I think the word ‘self’ should be retired as misleading.)

    (But my guess is that that’s not at all the sort of idea that this definition in Wikipedia grew from. My guess is that this definition grew from concerns about Which rather than What – grew from concerns about under what conditions two distinct experiences are the same person’s experiences, or the same subject’s experiences. For people whose metaphysics approaches the view that only experiences are real, this is a tricky question.)

    We find radically different account of ‘self’ at the beginning of Wikipedia’s article “Philosophy of Self”:

    The philosophy of self defines the essential qualities that make one person distinct from all others. …

    It would seem that on this account, ‘self’ and ‘person’ cannot be approximate synonyms. Personhood is not the aggregate of qualities that make one person distinct from all others; on the contrary, it is the aggregate of qualities that do not make one person distinct from all others.

    (By the way: arguably what normally distinguishes persons is the numerical distinctness of their bodies.)


    Speaking of the composition of selves, Howard also wrote,

    I would be a different person if I left that department.

    Who would be that different person? Would he get Howard’s property and spouse? Would he have any pre-existing conditions?

    I think Howard is using the phrase “different person” figuratively; I think he’s speaking of what we sometimes call “identity.”

    So here’s a question: Did the early Confucians have a concept of self in that sense – I mean, a concept of identity? Did they have figurative expressions like “I would be a different person if”?

  2. Thanks, Bin Song and Paul and Bill, for your interest. If anyone wants a draft of the paper, they can email me at tconnolly@p-box.esu.edu, and I’d be happy to hear any comments or criticisms.

    To Bill, I think the idea of self that you are talking about is covered by what I am calling the “psychological thesis.” CRE describes Confucian “self-consciousness” as consisting in shared awareness of one’s roles and responsibilities, which it then contrasts with the Aristotelian idea of a person’s identity being constituted his inner character. I am not claiming to understand all this contrast entails, but in the paper I am trying to figure it out.

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