Huang’s Why Be Moral? is Published

I am excited to note the publication of Yong HUANG’s Why Be Moral? Learning from the Neo-Confucian Cheng Brothers, the fruit of many years of research. The SUNY Press site is here, and Amazon is here. Here is the editorial description:

Yong Huang presents a new way of doing comparative philosophy as he demonstrates the resources for contemporary ethics offered by the Cheng brothers, Cheng Hao (1032–1085) and Cheng Yi (1033–1107), canonical neo-Confucian philosophers. Huang departs from the standard method of Chinese/Western comparison, which tends to interest those already interested in Chinese philosophy. While Western-oriented scholars may be excited to learn about Chinese philosophers who have said things similar to what they or their favored philosophers have to say, they hardly find anything philosophically new from such comparative work. Instead of comparing and contrasting philosophers, each chapter of this book discusses a significant topic in Western moral philosophy, examines the representative views on this topic in the Western tradition, identifies their respective difficulties, and discusses how the Cheng brothers have better things to say on the subject. Topics discussed include why one should be moral, how weakness of will is not possible, whether virtue ethics is self-centered, in what sense the political is also personal, how a moral theory can be of an antitheoretical nature, and whether moral metaphysics is still possible in this postmodern and postmetaphysical age.

Versions of some of the chapters have been published or presented at conferences over the years, so Huang’s general approach is well-known. Now that we have a full, book-length presentation, there is sure to be renewed attention paid to Huang’s important arguments as they concern ethics, the goals and methodology of comparative philosophy, and the interpretation of the Cheng brothers. Discussion welcome!

One reply

  1. Thanks, Steve, for this post. In case anyone is interested in what I myself regard as somewhat unique comparative methodology taken in this book, I abstract a few passages from the Introduction of the book and post them below. Any comments will be welcome:

    This is a book about the neo-Confucian brothers CHENG Yi and CHENG Hao; it takes an approach of comparative philosophy; and it focuses on ethics. In this sense, it is a fairly conventional book. However, in a different sense, it is not conventional at all. Unlike most books on the Cheng brothers (while this is only the second book-length study of the Cheng brothers in English, a few dozens monographs on them in Chinese), it does not aim to provide a comprehensive coverage of their moral philosophy; unlike most books in comparative philosophy, it does not aim either to find the similarities and differences between the Cheng brothers and some particular philosopher(s) in a different philosophical tradition or to bring them into dialogue so that they can enlighten each other; and unlike most books in ethics, it does not aim to construct a system of moral ideas or explore some topics that have not received their deserved attentions. What, then, is unique about this book and what potential contributions does it aim to make to the relevant field? The best way to explain this is to introduce the unique approach to comparative philosophy this book adopts.

    As a comparative study of Chinese and Western philosophy, while on the Chinese side, this study focuses exclusively on the Cheng brothers, no corresponding counterparts in Western philosophy are fixed. This is closely related to an important feature of this comparative study. What type of comparative philosophy one does is at least partially determined by the goal one attempts to reach by doing such a comparative philosophy, and the goal one attempts to reach is at least partially affected by the audience one has in mind. This book on the Cheng brothers is written in English and so is addressed to Western philosophers. The first question that comes to my mind is why Western philosophers ought to know anything about Chinese philosophy in general and the Cheng brothers in particular. There are of course many ways to answer this question and therefore many ways to do comparative studies of Chinese and Western philosophy. However, I think perhaps the most convincing answer to this question is that Western philosophers have something important to learn from Chinese philosophy. With this in mind, and focusing on ethics just to make this study more manageable, I shall identify a number of important and controversial moral issues in the West to see what are some representative positions on each of these issues, what problems there may be with each of these positions, and whether and how the Cheng brothers can have something better to say on these issues.

    This can at least partially explain the two apparent defects of this book. The first is its unsystematic nature, in two related senses. As a book on the Cheng brothers, it does not cover all important aspects of their philosophy; as a book of ethics, it does not include all important issues in ethics in the Western tradition. Both can be explained by the main goal of this book: to suggest to philosophers in the West what they may learn from the Cheng brothers on the very issues they (Western philosophers) have regarded as important. Thus, I only select those issues in Western philosophy on which I believe (of course I may be wrong) that the Cheng brothers have views that are not only different from but also better than those developed in the Western philosophical tradition. On the one hand, the aspects of the Cheng brothers’ philosophy not discussed in this book are not necessarily valueless. Some of them may be extremely important. They are not discussed because they do not connect to the issues raised in the Western philosophical traditions in any significant ways. On the other hand, moral issues not discussed in this book are not all insignificant. However, on some of them, Western philosophers have already provided convincing arguments or at least more convincing arguments than those we can find in the Cheng brothers; and on some others, while I found the representative positions developed in the history of Western philosophy unsatisfactory or problematic, the Cheng brothers don’t have anything better to say. I have thus dropped both types of issues from the scope of this book, however significant they are in their own light.

    The second apparent defect of this approach is its asymmetric nature, in two opposite directions. On the one hand, this books seems to contribute to what Kwong-loi Shun regards as the problematic asymmetry in the comparative study of Chinese and Western philosophy: “to approach Chinese thought from a Western philosophical perspective, by reference to frameworks, concepts, or issues found in Western philosophical discussions” and not the other way round (Shun 2009: 47). Shun listed seven different ways in which such an asymmetry is exhibited, and my study may be most clearly guilty of the fourth and/or the fifth ways. The fourth way “focuses on certain questions raised in Western philosophical discussions, and considers how Chinese thinkers would view and address such questions” (Shun 2009: 470); the fifth way, like the fourth way, “also focuses on certain questions raised in Western philosophical discussion, but instead of just considering how Chinese thinkers might view the relevant questions differently, also attempts to address the questions in a way that draws on the insight of Chinese thought” (Shun 2009: 469-470). If there is anything special in my approach that is not fully captured by Shun’s characterization of these two ways, it is my attempt to argue that Chinese thinkers’ views on these Western philosophical questions are superior to those found in the history of Western philosophy. On the other hand, however, precisely because of this, my approach seems to be guilty of an opposite asymmetry: instead of being even-handed, showing both the strengths and weaknesses of both Chinese and Western philosophical traditions under comparison, on each issue discussed here in this book, for reasons mentioned above, I attempt to show that the Cheng brothers’ neo-Confucian position is superior to the representative views in the Western philosophical tradition, so much so that I might be mistaken by some as a (neo-)Confucian fundamentalist. It is my hope that these two asymmetries in opposite directions can themselves somehow balance each other, resulting in a special kind of symmetry between the Chinese side and the Western side in this project: while I let Western philosophy dictate what issues to talk about, I let Chinese philosophy have a final say on each of these issues.

    As I mentioned, I take this approach primarily because I am writing in English and addressing a Western audience. The basic idea is that, if I want to introduce to Western philosophers a Chinese philosopher they are not familiar with, it is pointless to show them how ridiculous (some of) this Chinese philosopher’s ideas are or how inferior these ideas are to their (Western philosophers’) own ideas, other than providing them with a dose of confidence in their own philosophy, which they hardly need. Instead, I believe what they would most like to know is what interesting and important things this Chinese philosopher can offer to them or what they can learn from him. For that reason, if I am writing in Chinese and addressing a Chinese audience, my approach may go in an opposite direction. I will try to see on what important and yet controversial issues in Chinese philosophy Western philosophers have something better to say. In other words, I will let Chinese philosophy dictate what issues to discuss and let Western philosophy have its final say on each of the issues under investigation.

    Now, we can try to see where this way of doing comparative philosophy stands between the two common ways of comparative philosophy: textual and philosophical. Clearly, it is not a textual study. The primary purpose of this study is not to provide a new interpretation of the Cheng brothers but to see how the Cheng brothers can help Western philosophers better deal with their (the Western philosophers’) questions. Moreover, according to Shun’s characterization, in textual studies, whether the ideas are philosophically appealing to us from a contemporary perspective should not affect the process (Shun 2009: 455); while in this study, I have left out precisely those aspects of the Cheng brothers’ ethics that are not philosophically appealing to us in the sense that they are not conducive to solutions to issues in Western philosophy. (To say this of course does not mean that we should not study these aspects. As a matter of fact, only after we study the various aspects of a philosopher or a philosophical text can we know which aspects are philosophically appealing or not.) However, nor does this study fit well with the category of philosophical construction. On the one hand, it is not my intention in this book to create my philosophical theory on any philosophical issues. What I’m trying to do is rather to see how Chinese philosophers, the Cheng brothers in this case, can help Western philosophers answer their own questions. In the sense that this book provides new answers to a number of old questions in Western philosophy, there is philosophical construction involved. However, this is so only if we look at the thing within the context of Western philosophy: something new comes up, yet this something new is really not new, as it has already been present in the Cheng brothers’ philosophy. So if there is any philosophical construction, it is not done by the comparativist, the author of this book, although clearly this comparativist fully endorses it. On the other hand, comparative philosophy aiming at philosophical construction tends to downplay the importance of textual studies, at least as characterized by some. For example, Stalnaker states that “such an approach should be judged as their [comparativists’] own creation not as interpretation of the classics,” as it has the danger of losing touch with the historical sources that provoked one’s efforts in the first place (Stalnker 2006: 16). Shun also states that, in taking this approach, “we are no longer constrained by textual and historical considerations, and are instead guided by criteria of excellence pertaining to this philosophical exercise” (Shun 2009: 455-456). In this sense, this approach differs from the philosophical construction. What I as a comparativist am doing in this study is to present the Cheng brothers’ answers to a number of important issues of ethics in the Western tradition, even though the Cheng brothers may not have these issues in mind when they develop the ideas that I present in this study. Of course, since I myself also endorse these ideas, their views on these issues can also be seen as my views, but they are not the views that I develop myself merely with some inspiration from the Cheng brothers (even though sometimes I do draw further implications of their views that they may or may not endorse). Thus it is important for me to make sure that the views I present here are indeed the Cheng brothers’ views, which can only be done through careful textual studies. For this reason, while this study itself is not a textual study, in a number of places, I do challenge some prevalent interpretations of the Cheng brothers’ philosophy. Of course, it is possible that I may have misunderstood some aspects of the Cheng brothers, and if this is the case, then such misunderstandings should be corrected by further textual studies instead of being excused or even defended for their philosophical utilities.

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