Moral Exemplars and Moral Connoisseurs

A number of scholars in our field have suggested that the model of connoisseurship is helpful in understanding Confucian moral education and the nature of the Confucian moral exemplar (the junzi or sage). Eric Hutton’s “Moral Connoisseurship in the Mengzi” (in Liu and Ivanhoe, eds., Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi, 2002) is a classic essay; more recently, Hagop Sarkissian (“Confucius and the Effortless Life of Virtue,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 27:1 [2010]) and P.J. Ivanhoe (“McDowell, WANG Yangming, and Mengzi’s Contributions to Understanding Moral Perception,” Dao [2011]) have also developed related ideas.

I’m going to excerpt here a bit from an essay of mine that is currently unpublished, part of a volume that will eventually wend its way through the review process and see the light of day. My concern in the essay is to further develop some comparisons between Neo-Confucians and contemporary psychological literature that I began in Sagehood and continued in “A Productive Dialogue? Contemporary Moral Education and Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian Ethics,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy (2011). In particular, I refine the idea of “active moral perception” introduced in Sagehood, and as part of that process, find myself arguing against the idea that moral exemplars are best understood as people who have honed their sensitivities to moral reasons or moral properties in a connoisseur-like way. My target here is not, at least explicitly, the interpretations of Kongzi and Menzi suggested in the essays cited above, but rather to argue that a common-sense idea (supported by recent psychological research) of what moral exemplars are like, and what they do, actually fits very well with key elements of Wang Yangming’s picture. I’d love feedback!

P.J. Ivanhoe has recently argued that the development of an ethical sensibility is “a prolonged, complex, and at times difficult process that seems to have more in common with acquiring a skill or art than possessing a faculty” (Ivanhoe 2011, 281). Part of his argument is that the analogy with vision that both John McDowell and Wang Yangming employ is misleading, since, for example, “we don’t tend to believe that our understanding of redness improves with greater experience of red things in the way we feel our ability to understand and deal with issues surrounding what it is to really love or care for someone does” (Ibid). Whether or not this point is telling against McDowell, I think that Wang has a ready response. Wang’s claim is that seeing-and-reacting would be easy if we only looked, unclouded by selfishness. We do not have to learn to care for others or to feel pain at their suffering; we need to learn to eliminate biases and distractions—and learning that can be a prolonged, complex, and difficult process.

Later in his essay, Ivanhoe acknowledges that Wang may have a somewhat easier time responding to this criticism than McDowell, but makes two further points. First, Ivanhoe says that many cases of moral failure come not from selfishness but from “a simple lack of information or enough experience.” Second, he suggests that the “growth of our moral sensibilities does not feel like the spontaneous realization of a fully formed innate faculty,” but is more like the cultivation of taste by a connoisseur (Ivanhoe 2011, 283). With regard to the first, I would say that Wang has no trouble with the idea that we often lack information. Liangzhi isn’t magic: it simply responds to situations, and responds not by magically telling us facts we don’t know, but by showing us the world (insofar as we understand it) in apt moral coloration. There is nothing problematic about our need to find out details, either in order to understand the situation, or to know how best to implement our desired response. As Ivanhoe notes, Wang actually recognizes the need to “investigate many actual details” quite explicitly, even while emphasizing that the basis of one’s moral response lies not in the details but in removing selfness and preserving Universal Coherence (Wang 1983, 30 / Wang 1963, 8 (§3)).

Concerning Ivanhoe’s suggestion that moral development is more like the gradual cultivation of taste, I reply (on Wang’s behalf) that moral responsiveness is a many-times-a-day affair that we all engage in, mostly rather well. When we go wrong, it’s typically the case that we can readily come to see what the better response would have been, when it is explained to us. Moral responsiveness is not, typically, a deeply subtle matter such that only those with much training can see it. It is not like tasting the hint of cloves in bottle of fine wine—the “hint” that is so subtle that even when an enthusiastic but under-educated wine drinker like myself is told of it, I still cannot perceive it. While more could surely be said on the subject (including exploration of relevant psychological literature), I do not find it obvious that a connoisseur’s taste is the right way to understand a moral exemplar.

Even if we do not follow Ivanhoe in adopting the model of the connoisseur, we still might be tempted by the idea that the notion of skill must play a role in explaining moral development. Psychologists have engaged in extensive studies of expert or skilled behavior and of the acquisition of expertise, and are beginning to apply these frameworks to moral development (Narvaez & Lapsley 2005, 150-60). Philosopher Daniel Jacobson has argued that McDowell’s model of moral perception cannot be combined with a skill model of virtue, since the development of skills requires feedback based on concerns that we already have, whereas McDowell’s understanding of virtuous perception ties it to a distinct “space of reasons” that simply “silences” our pre-existing emotional reactions (Jacobson 2005, 400).

If this is correct, then is Wang Yangming equally vulnerable? Perhaps not, since Wang makes clear that we all already care about the deliverances of liangzhi, even though we do not always feel them as strongly and clearly as we should. Still, what would growing skill be about, on Wang’s model, if not the growing expertise of our liangzhi itself? The obvious answer for us to try out is: the skill of being more maturely committed to the Way and (consequently) less selfish. Perhaps the skill model can help us understand the gradual development of a non-selfish perspective on the world, and the increasing force with which we experience the felt goodness of liangzhi can provide the needed feedback to make skilled improvement possible. Much of what I said above about connoisseurs applies to experts as well: I think we have reason to resist a too-simple conflation of moral exemplar and moral expert.

One advantage of an engagement with Wang Yangming is that he pushes us to think about the assumptions underlying psychologists’ explanations of moral functioning. At the same time, several challenges remain for Wang and for contemporary Confucians. Wang’s talk of a unitary “good knowing” may need to be re-thought as a kind of idealization: a way of referring to a perceptual capacity that we have without needing to learn it, but which rests on various other functions that can be separately analyzed. For that matter, even if I have found Wang’s way of talking about active moral perception to be extremely insightful, we should remember that other Neo-Confucians disagreed with him on key matters of analysis and pedagogy, and perhaps they were closer to the truth than he.

Additional references:

Jacobson, Daniel. (2005). Seeing by Feeling: Virtues, Skills, and Moral Perception. Ethic Theory Moral Prac, 8(4), 387-409.

Narvaez, Darcia & Lapsely, Daniel K. (2005). The Psychological Foundations of Everyday Morality and Moral Expertise. In Lapsley, Daniel K., & Power, F. Clark (Eds.), Moral Psychology at the Crossroads. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 140-65.

Wang, Yangming. (1963). (Chan, Wing-tsit, Tr.) Instructions for Practical Living. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wang, Yangming 王陽明. (1983). 傳習錄詳註集評 [Record of Practice with Detailed Annotations and Collected Commentary]. Taipei: Xuesheng Shuju.

13 replies on “Moral Exemplars and Moral Connoisseurs”

  1. Steve,
    This is fascinating research. Thanks for sharing. It would seem that the model of moral connoisseurship grows out of the Humean-Smithean model of applying taste (as opposed to reason) in ethics. I am interested in exploring how far such a model can go in approaching the Confucian tradition. The Mencius seems to offer a rather similar position regarding “taste”, but one not so diametrically opposed to a moral rationalism. What is it that makes you hesitate about the moral connoisseur? How could we have a “skill” in ethical perception that wasn’t tied up to matters of good “taste”?

    • Hi Joe — Here are two different ways to approach tasting something “well.” (1) What I take to be the connoisseur model: develop the capacity to make fine-grained distinctions that non-trained people cannot make (unless, maybe, they happen to be born with a refined palate?). (2) Learn ways to avoid being misled about whether something tastes good to you: e.g., don’t eat a dish with the numbing Sichuan majiao just prior to tasting. Don’t expect to really taste if you have a stuffed nose. Etc. My thought is that moral exemplars may have habits or skills of the latter kind, but it’s not so obvious to me that they need to former. For the most part, at least, it’s not hard to get things morally right of we just pay attention in an unbiased way.

    • “For the most part, at least, it’s not hard to get things morally right [i]f we just pay attention in an unbiased way.”

      As Brian suggests below, I too think that has something to do with the cultivation of mindfulness (my Buddhist bias no doubt), which contemplatives of several traditions can attest to in their own ways and which the philosopher John Cottingham speaks to in what follows in his introduction to spiritual praxis in the widest sense, which in some sense could even be said to be prior to metaphysical doctrine:

      “In the history of philosophy, the epithet ‘spiritual’ is most commonly coupled not with the term ‘beliefs’ but with the term ‘exercises.’ [….] There were many Stoic treatises entitled ‘On Exercises,’ and the central notion of askesis, found for example in Epictetus, implied not so much ‘asceticism’ in the modern sense as a practical programme of training concerned with the ‘art of living.’ Fundamental to such programme was learning the technique of prosoche—attention—a continuous vigilance and presence of mind (a notion, incidentally, that calls to mind certain Buddhist spiritual techniques [and, I would add, what Eno terms the ‘Ruist syllabus’]). Crucial also was the mastery of methods for ordering the passions [see Nylan’s discussion of this with regard to Confucius and the Odes]—what has been called the therapy of desire [of course Cottingham is here referencing the title of Nussbaum’s work on Hellenistic philosophies]. The general aim of such programmes was not merely intellectual enlightenment, or the imparting of abstract theory, but a transformation of the whole person, including our patterns of emotional response. Metanoia, a fundamental conversion or change of heart, is the Greek term; in the Roman Stoic Seneca it is ‘changing’ (mutatio) of the self. ‘I feel, my dear Lucilius,’ says Seneca, ‘that I am being not only reformed but transformed (non tantum emendari sed transfigurari).’”

      Incidentally, it’s this topic of the presence of mind or attentiveness, or at least something very close to it, that arose recently in a review of a new crop of books on baseball by David L. Ulin for the Los Angeles Times. In his discussion of Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game (Gotham Books, 2013), “a book of quasi-spiritual reflections by New York University President John Sexton” (‘developed from a course he’s taught for many years’), Ulin writes: “As it happens, I agree with Sexton about the spiritual side of baseball; its charm is in its contemplation, which is the case with literature, as well. ‘Baseball,’ Sexton writes, ‘calls us to live slow and notice. This alone may be enough.’” No doubt Confucius (I can’t speak for the neo-Confucians) thought that training in the arts contributed to such mindfulness as well.

      Ulin’s reference to literature of course calls to mind Martha Nussbaum’s thoughts along these lines as well. Invoking both a philosopher: Aristotle, and a novelist: Henry James, in Love’s Knowledge (1990) Nussbaum writes of the importance of “perception” for ethical attentiveness and judgment or practical wisdom (phronēsis). This perception is defined as “the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s practical situation.” Such perception works in conjunction with or supplements (Western) moral philosophy’s traditional emphasis on rules or principles and categories, for the latter are not sufficient alone to make sense of the novelty of, or interconnected “particulars” in, our experience. Put differently, they cannot, unaided, cultivate a capacity to sensitively respond to new circumstances and situations. Experiential learning with regard to ethical living, in other words, “requires the cultivation of perception and responsiveness: the ability to read a situation, singling out what is relevant for thought and action.” This emphasis on perception reminded me of an aphorism from Nietzsche:

      “Learning to see—accustoming the eye to calmness, to patience, to letting things come up to it; postponing judgment, learning to go around and grasp each individual case from all sides. This is the first preliminary schooling for spirituality.” (Beyond Good and Evil)

      Literature’s capacity to peer, second-hand or at one-remove as it were, into the lives of others, to cultivate a certain kind of “seeing” characterized by “calmness,” “patience,” the postponement of judgment, the appreciation of different perspectives, and the engagement of our emotions (sympathy, compassion and empathy for example) in a way that complements and motivates our rational reflections and deliberations, these are among the features intrinsic to the act of reading literature of a certain sort that Nussbaum chooses to highlight for its contribution to ethical reflection, moral deliberation and our understanding of virtuous living generally.

      Meditation practices are a time-tested and systematic training in the cultivation of such mindfulness or attentiveness that can be said to truly enable us to get things morally right because we can (spontaneously or intuitively) see things in toto and in particular, both the forest and the trees, in other words, from all sides, as it were, in short, in an unbiased way.

    • Thanks Patrick — mostly I just want to agree, and thank you for the various references. I think there are a lot of differences, some subtle and some big, in the ways we might train ourselves to attend to the world; lots of traditions speak to this and suggest different sorts of practices or exercises. I discuss this at some length in my book _Sagehood_, especially in chapter 8 (“Learning to Look for Harmony”), which directly takes up the analogy with Stoic and other exercises. So as we think about what practices might make sense today, I’d recommend Neo-Confucianism as an excellent source, related to but not entirely the same as Buddhist ideas on the subject.

    • Steve,

      I’m inclined to suspect that the differences (and here I become a Jain epistemologist), be they subtle or big, serve a purpose analogous to the reason we might invoke to rationalize a plurality of worldviews: it speaks to different social and cultural circumstances, different traditions, perhaps even different characters or temperaments and degrees of moral and spiritual individuation; thus the different techniques may all be suitable in their own way, so I’m constitutionally reluctant to highlight or stress differences insofar as that may mean privileging one worldview over another, while recognizing an appreciation of or sensitivity to such differences (appropriately enough, and thus not incorrectly) comes in the wake of a training in analytic philosophy.

    • By the way, I did read and very much enjoyed the aforementioned chapter from your book (although I remain for now poorly read in neo-Confucianism), even if my comment did not show any evidence of same! I’m not at all fond of Hadot’s approach to the Stoic tradition (I much prefer John M. Cooper on this score), although as previous comments from me on this blog will attest, I’m an unabashed fan of Murdoch’s thoughts on cultivating and directing our modes of attention, having invoked it in the study guide on Confucianism that I give to my students.

  2. Great post, Steve.

    Just a few comments.

    The philosopher Thomas Leddy (Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life)has an interesting piece on this topic:

    He draws on the work of Hall and Ames who, in Thinking Through Confucius, give a thoroughly aesthetic interpretation of Confucian morality, liberally employing the notion of connoisseurship. He also draws on Richard Shusterman, who, I think, was initially inspired by Hall and Ames to draw parallels between Confucius and Dewey.

    I also have a couple of pieces that might be relevant ( My article on spontaneity (“The Rehabilitation of Spontaneity”) seeks to place the concept of “self-causation” historically East and West, suggesting that it could be profitably rehabilitated for contemporary use–perhaps in this kind of context–and also discusses the notion of selflessness in early Daoism. In a more contemporary theoretical vein, I try in another piece (“Apertures, Draw, and Syntax”) to describe, from a cognitive scientific point of view, what is going on in attention in the creation of habits such as the ones discussed. You may find some relevance from pp. 234 on. My Introduction to the same volume details some of the difficulties in conceptualizing habit in the context of spontaneous, or effortless, action/attention.

    David Velleman has a piece ( on selflessness in Daoist action that I think is good but not developed enough. I’m currently working on developing that idea in relation to natural action.

    Your “just pay attention in an unbiased way” sounds like Graham’s injunction to just be aware (Reason and Spontaniety). From a perspective of getting human action “right,” as opposed to what Wang Yangming or other thinkers might have said, I find that notion unsatisfying because in habituated action, you are actually introducing biases more or less intentionally–in the sense that you no longer think the action through neutrally but respond in a way that is consistent with prior exposure. At first, you pay attention to a fairly gross level of stimuli, or cues, as I prefer to call them. You habituate to those by biasing your responses in particular directions, so that you no longer have to pay such close attention to them. Then you become aware of a more subtle set of cues, to which you gradually do the same, tucking them into your implicit system by introducing biases. And so on (none of which is meant to exclude the possibility of novelty). This, in one sense, is what it means to develop spontaneous, or effortless, attention/action.

    However, there is another sense in which the kind of neutral awareness that you mention seems relevant. That is the cross-domain habituation of meditation, or mindfulness. Mindfulness (敬?)is an interesting phenomenon because it seems to be a unique kind of awareness that allows for “spontaneous” action but not limited to a specific domain, as habit generally is. I don’t know if it has ever been proven to be so, but the literature suggests that mindfulness, for instance, has general rather than specific effects. Meditation (and perhaps other similar practices) is said to engender something called the mirror mind, which allows you to respond to cues appropriately but without lengthy deliberation. This may be more what you, or Wang Yangming, are discussing. Whether or not it actually exists in the world is another question. There are a few labs focusing on it (such as:, but getting the operationalized terminology to be consistent across studies will be a challenge.

    I’m excited to learn about your piece and look forward to reading it. You appear to be handling it with your usual depth and subtlety.

    • Thanks Brian — a lot to think about here! In my reply to Joe, I didn’t mean to suggest that “just pay attention in an unbiased way” was a simple process (a Nike-esque “just do it”). The sense was supposed to be “if only we could pay attention in an unbiased way,” which would then connect up to what I said above about learning to look properly (as something we could develop “expertise” in, etc.). I think I mean unbiased” in a technical sense — something like non-self-centered or non-selfish — which is perfectly compatible with having to introduce habituated “biases” (in your sense) to the way we look. Suppose one comes to realize that in one’s zeal to get academic work done, one routinely pays too little attention to one’s spouse or children or parents. I could imagine developing habits that would counterbalance such tendencies, getting one to notice (and thus react to) aspects of one’s reality that one used to ignore. The argument that I am trying out here is that this is not a new, connoisseur-like sensitivity to subtle aspects of moral reality, but a new ability to pay attention to things that were there all along, if only one had looked.

    • I see. So instead of developing more and more subtle sensitivities within a domain, you are, in a sense, broadening the existing domain. You may be right that these can be considered aspects of the same thing. I’m thinking of tennis.

      Suppose a tennis player is always focusing on the ball when his opponent swings, and the coach comes along and says he should expand his awareness to his opponent’s footwork, as a way of anticipating where the ball will go (I don’t play tennis, so forgive me if that seems crazy). That sounds analogous to what you are suggesting and looks like it might just be another way to develop appropriate sensitivity and responsiveness to cues (such as one’s child pleading, “Daddy can you play with me?”). It is also consistent, I think, with mindfulness, which is supposed to bring whatever is relevant at the moment into awareness. Insofar as mindfulness is supposed to engender the mirror-mind, you seem to be going in that direction with your idea of non-self-centeredness. I agree that that will be a profitable direction to take. It’s a very interesting topic!

  3. Hey Steve,

    As it happens, I’m working on a paper on a dilemma faced by any view that spells out appropriate response to emerging situations by the virtuous or virtuoso moral agent as “immediate,” in the sense of skipping deliberative reasoning. Basically, what I’m trying to argue is that in the case of moral agency, what such a view requires is that this kind of immediate response is either

    A. in fact, a product of super-fast deliberation, or

    B. indeed a product of undeliberated, unmediated discernment

    To see why this is a dilemma, consider first the empirically more plausible possibility that in such an agent, there is an automated, sub-deliberative, subconscious process in place that is the result of training the agent to respond to certain kinds of ongoing input in certain ways. “Awareness” then, would be some kind of pattern recognition that feeds into the automated processes that prompt actions of certain (appropriate) sorts. The existence of such trained processes that operate independently of conscious ones — and better when they are allowed to run independently — is apparent in neuropsychological studies, not only of virtuoso athletic or artistic activities, but also of ordinary walking-while-chewing-gum activities as well. Such processes can produce amazing feats that respond to slight changes in situation (think of virtuoso tennis players’ reactions at the net).

    So, what’s the dilemma? Here’s my current thinking:

    If we lean toward A (super-fast deliberation), we opt for a model of virtuous/virtuoso response that includes rational response, the speed of which makes it more plausible, neuropsychologically, that an automated process took over the task — an automated process that doesn’t involve reasoning at all. I suppose we could slow down the interval between awareness and response, but then the sexiness of the view about moral virtuosity is dampened.

    On the other hand, if we lean toward B (unmediated discernment), we opt for a model that requires some kind of inexplicable perception of a normative fact about what to do. Or, more plausibly, it is an automated response that is causally explicable but not sensitive to reasons — instead it is responsive to cues, or triggers, for which the agent’s automated response has been trained. Here, we might try to appeal to the idea of the agent’s being causally sensitive to reasons *as* triggers. We could call that acting in accordance with reasons — so in that sense sensitive to reasons, but I’m not sure we could say that is acting *for* reasons. For the latter, we need conscious deliberation, don’t we? But if the agent is not acting for reasons, then I’m not sure he or she is the virtuous type for which we’re looking; just a well-trained agent, like a well-trained dog, worthy of some level of praise, but not the highest.

    Though I don’t want to take up your post with my crazy ideas, some feedback would help me as well. I thank you in advance.

  4. Manyul,

    Yes, this is the dilemma of flow, or autotelic experience (or postvoluntary attention). The notion of morality in the West is closely tied up with the notion of responsibility. When some agent acts, we want to be able to attribute blame or praise.

    The question for you seems to be: under what circumstances can we attribute praise or blame?

    I don’t know how many varieties of this kind of spontaneous action there are, but if one of them can be called “flow,” we can say that in flow, one acts but does not have a phenomenal sense of action. There is a very high level of attention but without a normal sense of conscious first-person awareness. Choices are made at very subtle levels involving, as you note, a semblance of novelty, and yet no one takes first-person credit in the moment. So it complicates our traditional view of moral attribution–agency without a feeling of agency.

    How we make attributions under such circumstances is an open question. If you consider it unconscious automaticity, then there should be no attribution of responsibility, as you say. And yet it is hard to claim that Michael Jordan shouldn’t get his championship ring, or Joshua Bell doesn’t deserve applause. On the other hand, because there is obviously no time for deliberation in the usual sense, we can’t call it fully deliberative action. So, it appears that this is a case that challenges our traditional dichotomy, perhaps proving that it is a false dichotomy. There can be attribution of responsibility without a phenomenal sense of agency. Anyway, that is the angle I take in a talk I have given on this. You seem to want to solve the paradox and come down on one side or the other. I wonder if the paradox, itself, demonstrates that we have missed something important along the way. Perhaps we need to reconsider the whole question. Perhaps the paradigm of rational free agency is, itself, part of the problem.

    Bronwyn Finnigan considers your question in her article “Don’t Think. Just Act!” ( Her solution is that this kind of action is rational but not reflective.

    I think there is a lot of work to be done on this issue, especially from a moral perspective, and look forward to seeing the answers you come up with.

    • Brian, thanks for the Finnigan reference. That should be very useful. About attribution of praise and blame: what I’m moving toward in the paper is that praise bifurcates into two kinds in the virtuoso cases, based on very different grounds of valuing.

      On the one hand, we attribute moral praise for the conscious effort that someone puts into training her automated responses (whether that is in the ethical, athletic, or artistic realm of action) — e.g. all the deliberative, determined time spent understanding and learning jazz scales, years of practicing and improving baseline shots in tennis, or a lifetime of learning social rituals (in the appropriate eras in China).

      On the other hand, praise for the agent engaged with virtuosity *in the performance* — whichever of those realms of action we’re talking about — is grounded on something else, an aesthetic appreciation for the heights of ability displayed in it, not for effort (in fact the more effortless, the more awe inspiring).

      These are very different grounds of evaluation and “moral” praise, even in a reasonably broad construal, is involved only in the first type. Part of my paper is to argue that Confucian valuing can very nicely fit into this type of two-headed praise because of its significant valuing of the aesthetic of a civilized, cultured social life. On the other hand, a Kantian view that requires ethical valuing to be grounded in facts about the agent’s deliberative reasoning, could not accommodate such a heteronomy of ethical praise.

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