Morality vs. Prudence in Confucianism?

Chapter 5 of my Sagehood book is concerned in various ways with the scope of ethics. On p. 92, I articulate some of my conclusions as follows:

…There is no morality-versus-prudence distinction. Instead, everything matters. The style and form with which one acts are important, though not in a way that can be detached from other aspects of the situations in which we find ourselves. There is, to be sure, a great emphasis on avoiding selfishness. But when everything matters, we are included: it is appropriate that we matter to ourselves, though we must be careful that we do not become so focused on our own immediate concerns that we view things in a skewed way.

In some recent discussions with colleagues, my claim that there is no morality-versus-prudence distinction (in either Neo-Confucianism or classical Confucianism, though the details and evidence will differ somewhat between the two cases) has met with some resistance. I am aware of two sources for the idea that there is, or must be, such a distinction:

  1. A Kantian reading of Confucianism, according to which the pure moral heartmind is fundamentally distinct from other sorts of physical and affective capacities. According to Mou Zongsan’s interpretation, the moral heartmind accesses (or even partly creates or constitutes) noumenal moral reality via “intellectual intuition,” which is fundamentally different from regular, sensory intuition. One source of evidence for this reading is the famous Korean four-seven debate, concerning the relationship between the Four Beginnings (si duan) and the Seven Feelings (qi qing). The idea is that while the Four (on most but not all accounts) are always good (and, on this reading, “moral”), the Seven are only sometimes good, and this good is of a distinct kind, namely “prudential.” In any event, one can see use made of a moral-versus-prudential (or “non-moral good”) in some of Wong Wai-ying‘s essays, for example.
  2. From the perspective of the Western tradition, we can also arrive at a morality-versus-prudence distinction if we distinguish rational self-concern from other-directed morality. This distinction might be rooted in an emphasis on the difference between reason and empathic care, as it is for Michael Slote (The Ethics of Care and Empathy, ch. 7), or it might have some other basis. If we take the key idea here to be morality=other and prudence =self, then while it is not based in the reason-versus-care distinction, I believe we can find this idea in some writings of the 20th century Confucian Feng Youlan. (This English-language essay explicates some of what I have in mind.) He insisted that Neo-Confucians problematically dichotomized value into “moral (daode and tianli)” and “immoral (budaode and renyu).” He says that there also needs to be a category of “non-moral (fei daode).” Concern with one’s non-moral good would then be prudential. He isn’t all that clear about what “moral” means, but seems to equate it with a purely other-oriented attitude, as in “exhausting the self on behalf of the other (jinji weiren 盡己為人).”

With all this in mind, I wonder if y’all have any thoughts on the simple question: who is right? Also, are there other kinds of theoretical or textual bases for defending (or resisting) a morality-versus-prudence distinction in Confucianism?

24 replies on “Morality vs. Prudence in Confucianism?”

  1. Hi Steve,

    Confucianism aside, I’m not sure I understand the question you’re raising.

    I don’t see how the idea that “everything matters” would amount to jettisoning a distinction between morality and prudence. For example, classical utilitarianism thinks everything matters but has no difficulty with the distinction – yes?

    By “prudence” one might mean simply a concern for one’s own well-being (or action for one’s own well-being, or the habit of such concern and action). In that case it would seeem obvious that a necessary condition of the nondistinctness of prudence and morality is that what is moral is always in one’s perceived self-interest. A sufficient condition would be that morality and one’s own well-being are so deeply the same that one cannot accurately conceive either of them except as the other, so that one cannot aim at morality without therein aiming at one’s own well-being, or vice versa.

    Or by “prudence” one might mean the moral virtue of concern for one’s own well-being, so that in case of conflict between one’s morality and one’s well-being, pursuit of well-being isn’t “prudence.” But that definition does not by itself seem to imply that the virtue of prudence is the whole of virtue. …?

    • Thanks, Bill. The idea I’m pushing for is that there are not fundamentally different types of value (and, furthermore, that one of these types [viz., the “moral” value] trumps or is more important than the other). So you’re right, we could say “everything matters,” and yet hold onto the distinction I want to deny. To clarify, then: everything matters in basically the same way, as constituent in VALUE (or Dao, or Li, etc.).

      It seems to me that classical utilitarianism is mixed on these matters. It sees one basis for all value, namely pleasure. The moral right is all-encompassing, with one’s own pleasures counting as much as anyone else’s. On the other hand, it would be perfectly cogent to say “the prudent thing to do is the one that maximizes MY pleasure,” whereas the moral thing to do would be the one that maximizes pleasure holisitically. This version of “prudence” would be different from ethical egoism, which says that the thing I should do is to maximize my pleasure. A utilitarian might have trouble seeing why one should care about prudence, so defined.

      Prudence as the moral virtue of concern for one’s own well-being is fine, though if we think that well-being (and even self) are deeply relational, and that virtues themselves are interdependent (i.e., some flavor of “unity of virtues”), then what is really prudent, in this sense, will probably just come down to one aspect of what is just plain good or right or valuable.

  2. I wanted to echo what Bill said that at first glance the question itself seems to be based on yet another false dichotemy. My own instinct is that as long as you remove the Christian/ daoist concept of vice or sin from the picture then “correct action” (which is the *only project* ever) will entail the moderating of behavior based on context (which your paper, Bill, that I read a long time ago was absoluely wonderful in illuminating. If S.A. hasn’t read it, he should)

    If being human implies inter-dependence, then the self-other dichotemy too becomes much more fluid then SA is positing and Bill’s paper was absolutely brilliant in the way it illuminated negotiating/moderating behavior which probably can only be described in its project as both moral and prudential. However, I would suggest to SA that “moral” is not a great definition of daode (indeed it is atrocious) and its opposite is an even worse translation choice. Maybe if he goes back and fixes that translation—or better just tries to stick to Chinese, he will be in a better place to re-work the question itself because it does seem, as you said, Bill, to be not appropriate on many levels—from approach to linguistic.

    The significant thing about care ethics, in my opinion, is not that it is ‘other based” in terms of some kind of normative choices but rather that a particular model of human relationship (child-parent) become a model for one’s life approach. That is to say that because it is a way of being in the world, you cannot rely on self-other dichotemy to the extent that your blog post above posits maybe, SA?
    Bill, did you read this one?
    Care ethics stuff at bottom. Manyul had recommended a wonderful paper by Chenyang Li—there is a link at the bottom and I enjoyed the paper especially in terms of mapping care to jen 仁, whereby care is 愛 (love, affection→ care)

    Bill, I am finally reading Lloyd’s Providence Lost and really wanted to recommend it to you (and even more to CP if he sees this) It is very, very interesting in terms of thinking about alternatives to descrates’ idea that autonomous Will is locus of freedom. Lloyd contrasts Descrates to Spinoza & Hegel’s rival theories involving capacity of –shaping- one’s life around recognition of necessity, which of course are more complimentary of concepts found in 儒教 not just in the re-working of the concept and philosophical implications of choice.

    • Hi peony, Thanks for these thoughts. I think we are considerably in agreement: my point is precisely to question whether a distinction between “moral” (as, among other things, other-regarding) and “prudent” (as self-regarding) is coherent. I am not positing a self-other dichotomy, but pointing out that the moral/prudence distinction might well depend on such a dichotomy, which I think is at least somewhat problematic for Confucians. I’m not sure whether I want to go quite as far as you do; I agree that relationships and relationality are vital, but I still think that we (and the Confucians) find it important to talk about the individuals who are in these relationships. But this may just be a matter of empahsis.

  3. One more book:
    In terms of thinking about Mou Zongsan’s heartmind (which I know nothing about)… if I was going to approach that, I would read this wonderful book by Heather Webb called the Medieval Heart. You will be fascinated at the way the medieval idea of a “breathing” heart has certain resonance with heartmind… heart “breathes in” landscape and world (it is not a self enclosed entity). This is a possible place to start… I don’t know. Recommend book to both CP and Bill. Ciao.

  4. Maybe this is another way to set up a prudence/morality split? There are, I take it, plenty of decisions we make that are not settled by moral considerations alone, and I take it they aren’t settled by ren and yi alone either. (Maybe: what I should have for dinner.) If we this sort of decision on the basis of reasonable concern for one’s own well-being (maybe by eating our greens), then that seems to be prudence but not morality. This doesn’t assume that morality is solely other-directed, just that it doesn’t settle all questions where one’s own well-being might be at stake. (Maybe I’m just agreeing with Bill here.)

    • Hi Dan, You need to define “moral considerations” for me in such a way that I can understand how they are delimited. The core claim I want to defend is that for Neo-Confucians, there is no category like that in play. Let’s take the case of what to eat for dinner. There are a bunch of different values that are relevant, and to which we ought to be sensitive, from our own well-being, to ritual, aesthetic, and other expressive issues (how important they are will depend on context: i.e., who’s coming to dinner), to ways in which the products going into the meal have been produced, etc. It seems exceedingly likely that even when all that is appropriately attended to, there still will be a large space for free choice (asparagus or beans as the side dish?), but this is because they are all “tied for first”: nothing is at stake.

      If classical Confucians think of “ren and yi” as delimiting a set of concerns that do not conect up with the full range of value—as is implied by the practice of translating “renyi” as “morality”—then perhaps they are different from the Neo-Confucians on this score. My current thinking is that they are NOT different in this way, and we should not understand “ren and yi” as separable from other values, but I’m interested in hearning more.

    • I can’t speak to the Neo-Confucians, of course. For the Mohists, I’d say yi does the required work, but that it probably subsumes prudence in something like the way you describe. For the early Confucians I think it’s a lot less clear.

      Above you say in response to Bill that as you read them the take everything to matter in the same way. I’d be more inclined to say, at least to begin with, that ren things matter to them one way, yi things in another way, li things in yet another way, and so on. If they tried to systematise these into one or more fundamental kinds of value, it’s not at all obvious. My view is that the Analects and the Mencius don’t do this, but that Xunzi maybe does (though he’s getting it from the Mohists).

    • Cool–this is helpful. I’m pretty amenable to what you say here (though I wonder if there aren’t at least some hints of an interest in a more synthetic/holisitic notion, e.g. in the various ways that quality X isn’t adequate without quality Y), and the main thing I want to say now is that there is no suggestion that these different modes of valuing can or should be grouped into a “moral” and a “non-moral” (or “prudential”) category.

  5. Hi Dan–

    What about just thinking about it in terms of care=愛

    For 愛, do you think (transactionally) in terms of self-other? Isn’t what’s good for the beloved by defiition good for the lover and likewise, what is good for the child is good for the mother to such an extent that it is almost impossible to think of these things independently? Indeed, there is no necessity to do so? And likewise, do you think, in terms of moral versus prudential? The question itself is flawed since it is not about decisions but about being. (being in the world) Maybe? I give up!!

  6. None of the classical Confucians think only in terms of 愛. The closest to that would be the Mohists, I guess, and for them it’s certainly often reciprocal, so I guess also transactional.

    Steve, I wonder if you’d make the same claim about the Mohists. Now that I’m thinking about it, I suspect I’d agree. Inclusive care involves doing one’s part in making sure everyone gets taken care of, and that would include a lot that we might classify as prudence (maybe even eating your greens).
    (Of course not everyone interprets inclusive care this way, but I think the case for doing so is pretty overwhelming.)

  7. peony, I should also have said that I wasn’t really trying in my initial comment to present Confucian ideas, more to get a handle on what it would mean if Steve is right about them. To me it’s an interesting consequence if it means that all legitimate concern for one’s own well-being derives from morals, for example. I’d agree that it’s often unhelpful to think of early Chinese ethics in terms of particular decisions (though I’d go to patterns of action, which is to say dao, rather than to being-in-the-world).

  8. Hi Dan,

    I am very glad you left this comment since I was about to facebook message you to say just that: that thinking in terms of choice and decisions is (perhaps) setting up a false dichotemy… it is more interesting, for example, to think in terms of Spinoza in terms of shaping ones life via the recognition of necessity. Will (or choices) is not necessarily the locus of freedom…

    In terms of “patterns of actions as dao”–I like it too. Chris panza could say so much more than I ever could but i think that is the definition of authentic being in the world… maybe if Chris sees this he will say more. xoxoxo

  9. Hi Steve, I know we are mainly in agreement but the dinner example is maybe not the best (since it is not interesting imagining someone eating all alone right? And it is typical of a wrong start in approaching the issue)

    Let’s take divorce.

    Let’s say a lady of ren wants to divorce her no-good husband. My point is this, her decision is a non-decision. if “care” is not the basis for the decision but rather is the way of being in the world (pattern of behavior) then, what is good for the child is good for the mother. But the mother’s happiness is also at issue. But the cultural context is also totally essential and indeed is embedded into the water supply (since this informs everything above) so in the end we are left we a non-decision. One just does what one does. It is not about prudence but about sensitive negotiating and not doing anything that involves the imposition of will….this is how I think you and i would agree that this is totally different from ultilitarianism (which I think is very concerned with free choice and agency) and more about authentic being in one’s particular world. That means, –hence: 無為→徳道

  10. Really interesting post, Steve!

    I kind of want to take a step or two backward here. It seems to me that what generates the morality-prudence distinction in philosophy are worries about an apparent aspect of practical reason, namely the possibility of rationally irresolvable conflicts internal to an agent’s practical reason. On the one hand, moral reasons may seem to dictate taking one course of action. On the other hand, prudential reasons may seem to dictate taking a different, conflicting course of action. The problem is philosophically interesting because there seems to be two conflicting but equally mandated (by reasons) practical courses. That apparent irresolvable conflict generates the question of whether there are in fact two different practical rationalities — moral and prudential, hence a real moral-versus-prudential distinction.

    Now, one response to that is to rethink one’s conception of morality, or of prudence, in order to reconfigure the distinction as merely apparent. So, maybe some form of Consequentialism, Kantianism, Perfectionism, Eudaimonism, or whatever can do that. A different response is to argue that the apparent distinction is a real one; from there one could conclude that one form of practical rationality trumps the other or that there’s no question-begging trump card so we’re always in some tragic existential bind because of the conflict.

    So, jumping ahead now to your post: when we ask whether such a distinction exists in a philosophical tradition such as Confucianism, we might be asking this:

    Q1) Is the apparent conflict of practical reason between recognizably moral requirements and recognizably prudential requirements addressed at all in Confucianism, either directly or indirectly?

    If the answer to Q1 is “yes,” then there’s a plausible yes-answer to the question of whether such a distinction “exists” for them.

    If the answer to Q1 is “no,” then we could ask:

    Q2) Why doesn’t Confucianism address the apparent possible conflict between moral and prudential reason?

    The answer to Q2 could take a couple of different forms, broadly:

    A1) The Confucians were not interested in practical reason and so did not recognize the apparent conflict. (But maybe they should have been interested in practical reason and/or should have recognized the apparent conflict?)

    A2) The Confucians were interested in practical reason but because of how they indigenously(?) conceived of it, they didn’t need to reconfigure it to bring the apparently conflicting moral and prudential reasons into line with each other. (In effect, they “skipped” the step of having to puzzle over the apparent conflict internal to practical reason.)

    I take it that you, Steve, want to say something like A2. But whether it is or is not what you want to say, what speaks in favor of framing your point in this way is that you wouldn’t have to take a side on the more general debate about whether there really is a difference between moral and prudential practical reason beyond the apparent. As we jokingly used to say in graduate school: aim low.

    • If I may respond to myself without going blind, I think a “yes” answer to Q1 could go a long way. Maybe that’s what is behind resistance to your (Steve) view?

    • Thanks, Manyul. Ah, Sigwick’s dualism of practical reason. (This really does take me back to graduate school!) When faced with the question of “what should I do?”, he worried that we can adopt one of two different stances, the moral or the prudential. And perhaps we can see the same kind of question in Soctrates’ effort to convince Thrasymachus what justice is–if we see that as a matter of convincing him that he should choose to be moral, as opposed to adopting the purely prudential stance.

      I agree that the view I’m pushing is something like your A2; following on some of peony’s line of thought from above, things aren’t conceived of in terms of a choice of types of reasoning that one might make, but rather in terms of two different ways to be, noble (junzi) or base (xiaoren). And furthermore (esp. in Mencius) that the noble way to be encompasses whatever might be valuable in the being of the base type of person. What I mean by this is that concern for one’s well-being, physical satisfaction, and so on is part of the noble perspective (as Mencius 7B24 makes explicit). So there is no tension in general. For non-sages, we will regularly experience conflicts between all manner of different values, but (1) these conflicts do not cleanly parse along a moral/prudential line, and (2) in principle they are resolvable (the values can be aptly balanced/harmonized), as the conflict passages in Mencius are meant to show us.

    • And yes, if one answers Q1 affirmatively, I may be in trouble. But I think affirmative answers tend to beg the question, assuming the distinction and then finding it there.

  11. Peony, thank you for your kind words about my paper.

    Peony raises the question what in Chinese texts is to count as “morality” for purposes of inquiry into what they did or didn’t say about “morality.” There are very different kinds of plausible answer, such as (a) “respect and care, considered as more or less hanging together” or (b) “whatever values and/or requirements are overriding or absolute.”

    Steve, some things you say make me wonder whether your way of conceiving the question “Did X distinguish moral value from another kind of value, prudential value?” allows for a Yes answer even as a logical possibility. For it’s not clear to me that what you mean here by “value” and by “moral value” are distinct.

    a. For example, you seem to suggest under #1 above that utilitarianism doesn’t really fully recognize the thing you call prudential value, because utilitarianism sees prudence as a requirement only ceteris paribus ; and therefore in a sense utilitarianism is not equipped to distinguish moral from prudential value. You seem to suggest that for a utilitarian, the quick way to come to recognize prudential value as value would be to accept Ethical Egoism (which is a way of identifying moral with prudential value).

    b. And you write under #1: “To clarify, then: everything matters in basically the same way, as constituent in VALUE (or Dao, or Li, etc.).” Now if this just means that there is a kind of value (here labeled “VALUE”) that everything has to some extent or no extent, it seems a trivial claim. (Everything has nutritional value to some extent or no extent.) If instead it’s the denial that there are differing kinds of value (moral value, aesthetic value, nutritional value, etc.), then it seems plainly false. A third way to read it is as the claim that all moral value is of the same kind. But so read, the statement makes no suggestion about whether or not prudential value is recognized as something separate, and I think the point was to make such a suggestion.

    c. And you write under #10, “… the noble way to be encompasses whatever might be valuable in the being of the base type of person. What I mean by this is that concern for one’s well-being, physical satisfaction, and so on is part of the noble perspective …. So there is no tension in general” (emphasis added). (Compare: “The prudent person is concerned with whatever might be prudentially valuable in nutritional value, aesthetic value, and financial value. So there is no tension.” Or: “Zookeepers are concerned with apples and orangs ….”)

    d. If (following Manyul’s extremely helpful remarks) we take the distinction whose absence you are observing to be something fundamentally paradoxical, there is some sort of problem about what can count as its being present.

    When you present your thesis as the claim that in traditional Confucianism “there is no morality-prudence distinction” it sounds like you’re saying they identified the two. But as you’ve explained, you don’t mean that, any more than I would mean that Confucius identified grits with okra if I said he didn’t distinguish the two. Well, maybe a little more?

    Borrowing peony’s term, you might recast your claim as the claim that Confucians have mainly not operated with a dichotomy between morality and prudence. But that could still mislead, for as you point out, they have emphasized a contrast between morality and selfishness, and between moral good and such prima-facie-goods-for-oneself as comfort and recognition. When Mencius contrasts a concern with 仁義 and a concern with 利, and when he discusses Yangzi, he seems to recognize something like a contrast between morality and prudence (e.g. 6B4).

    For my part, I’m inclined to doubt that there even is such a thing as a person’s good — I mean, that thing X such that whatever is good for that person is so in virtue of tending to promote X. (In that way I’m unusual among hedonists.) But it is understandable that a culture concerned with protecting individuals would tend to develop such an idea.

    You write: Prudence as the moral virtue of concern for one’s own well-being is fine, though if we think that well-being (and even self) are deeply relational, and that virtues themselves are interdependent (i.e., some flavor of “unity of virtues”), then what is really prudent, in this sense, will probably just come down to one aspect of what is just plain good or right or valuable.

    Because it seems to me both obvious and important that the virtues are (a) in large part interdependent, and (b) distinct, I’m not inclined to take emphasis on (a) as a sign of denial of (b). Have Confucians directly discussed the unity of virtues?

    (Of course, since the virtues are interdependent, as sleep and eating are interdependent, any one of them is likely to promote indirectly the functions of the others, up to a point. But if we define what counts as this or that virtue by limits derived from the need for balance with other virtues, then we are not entitled to argue on that basis for any non-trivial claim about a lack of tension between the virtues.)

    Is a relational conception of persons in any special tension with, say, a hedonist conception of people’s good? I am not sure quite what it is supposed to mean to say that people (or selves) are “relational.” (The term reminds me of the view that elementary particles are “relational” in the sense that they are defined simply as centers of fields of force, which in turn are defined in terms of potential motions of particles — a view that is not one step toward any of the following views: that particles are near each other, are heading toward each other, are heading in the same direction, have fields with similar equations, or are really the same particle.) Teams in a league are relational, in that the very idea of them is that they are opponents. The concept of the “second clarinet” is relational in that the idea is to differ somewhat from the first clarinet. Does the notion of the relationality of people involve the idea that they are defined by their relationships, such as their vicious enmities? Or does the notion of the relationality of people instead involve the idea that they are defined by the relationships it would be good for them to have? My idea of healthy relationships and a healthy society involves divergence – even deep divergence – of people’s ends, projects, interests, etc., and also, following Aristotle’s criticism of Plato, a certain lack of concern for each other. In a healthy society, I think, it can often be clearer that X is in Smith’s interest, or promotes her projects, than that X is morally right; and I think institutions often ought to attend to the former sort of point rather than the latter. So I think a distinction between prudential and moral value is a useful one. Which is not to say that I think either of these topics is very definite.

    One can have a concept of prudence that does not involve the idea of an individual’s good at all, but rather focuses on instrumental rationality. A prudent person is one who takes intelligent, far-sighted means to her ends. (Is this maybe the more common use of the word ‘prudence’?) Prudential value, then, would be similar to instrumental value, except that when we think of instrumental value we think of the promotion of an end rather than the promotion of “Smith’s ends” taken as a body.

    I think Dan might say that in that sense, Mencius argues mainly about what is prudent, not about what is moral; for Mencius talks about what our ends are and how to achieve them. Would that amount to an objection to your thesis?

    I wonder whether the following recasting of your thesis captures what you want to say: “Confucians have not taken an interest in the intelligent pursuit of one’s own interest or aims as an abstract topic for sustained discussion or theoretical development, or at least have not taken much interest in that topic in abstraction from specific views about what a person’s ultimate good (or ultimate body of aims) comes to.”

    I’m inclined to agree with you and Dan in the third level of #4 above, that early Confucians didn’t much unify value.

    Does the Confucian tradition come to involve a term that plays a role anything like the role of the English word value (as used in e.g. the rather uncommon phrases “moral value,” “prudential value,” and “aesthetic value”); or a very general term that plays a role anything like the role of the English word “goods,” as in “dry goods” and “pleasure is a good”?

    • I have a little time this morning before the rest of my family wakes up; let me see if I can make some headway here. I’m going to focus on the first half or so of this comment, concerning whether I even allow for the possibility of a “yes” answer to the question of “Did X distinguish moral value from another kind of value, prudential value?”

      1. I am putting forward a reading according to which there is not such a distinction, so I am trying to flesh out the (Confucian) perspective from which such a distinction is not in evidence. I don’t think this means that the Confucian missed something: their approach to understanding and parsing value(s) is a good one, as far as I am concerned. (Among other things, it doesn’t lead to the dualism that bedeviled Sidgwick.) None of this means that I’m trying to rule out, as a matter of logical possibility, the making of such a distinction. Rather, I’m trying to display what it would be like for the Confucians not to have made it.

      2. Evidence against my view could be of the form: look, there they are making such a distinction. There are matters of translation and interpretation to deal with, of course, but if someone thought (for instance–not that any of you necessarily think this) that dividing values into (among other categories) “morality” and “prudence” somehow cuts nature at its joints, so to speak, then we might expect the Confucians to come up with a version of this distinction. If they didn’t, we might think they missed something crucial. If they did, we might examine it to see if they drew the distinction in precisely the same way we do. Maybe we can learn how to draw it better.

      3. To pursue the type of thought raised by (2), we need to get clearer on what would count as a morality vs. prudence distinction. In my original post, I gesture toward some ideas that have been used to generate versions of the distinction in Western thought: self- vs. other-oriented; autonomous vs. heteronomous. Bill, you mention “overriding or absolute” as another possible way of marking off the values that are “moral.” So another way to put the basic claim I am making is this: no Confucians believed their to be a distinctive realm of value that is characterized by being other-oriented, or autonomous, or overriding. The argument for the claim put in this way would now need to ramify in different directions, since different sorts of evidence will be relevant to each of these three possible meanings of “moral.” As you point out, Kai has already made some points relevant to the “autonomous” option elsewhere on the blog.

    • Steve, I imagine you’re on a slippery slope. I hope you have a good time there instead of rushing to reply.

      As for me, I’m inclined to think you’re making an important and true observation, at least about much of Confucianism, and my worries are mainly about fine points in how it’s conceived or expressed. Of course, depending on what inferences you hope to draw from the observation, fine points needn’t matter unless there are texts that look as though they might be counterexamples. And I don’t know about that, though Kai says there is a “very strong dualism in Zhu Xi, going against desires or self-interest.”

      To your (1): I think I understood all that. I didn’t mean to suggest that you were aiming to rule out the logical possibility of the distinction. I meant to offer a list of reasons to think that (presumably against your wish) you were begging the question against any discovery of the distinction in Confucianism, by conceiving or formulating the question in ways that turn out to imply (or to imply too quickly) that the distinction can’t possibly be found in any self-consistent text.

      When I was talking about different working conceptions of morality for purposes of asking whether a text did or didn’t have this or that view about morality, I was thinking that for that purpose a conception would have to capture roughly what people mean by “morality” (so that if you explained the conception to the average person and asked, “Is that roughly what you mean by ‘morality’, they’d say yes), and would also have to be pretty much correct. Two accounts that I think meet those standards are (a) respect&care, and (b) absolute or overriding value or oughts.

      (By (a) “respect&care” I didn’t mean (aa) “respect&care for others” – though I think (aa) would pass the tests almost as well as (a). I think heteronomy fails the tests far less badly than autonomy does, and I think even Kant might agree that autonomy fails the first test.)

      All that by way of preface to adding, to my lettered list above, this:

      e. You write just now, “no Confucians believed there to be a distinctive realm of value that is characterized by being … overriding.” I take it that the operative word here is ‘distinctive’ – that is, you think Confucians probably did believe in overall or overriding value, and you want to deny that they distinguished it from any other kind of value. And I find that claim odd. For I wonder how they could have failed to distinguish it from nutritional or monetary value, or value for Smith, or prudential or slugging value (a feature of aluminum bats). If you say, “Those sorts of things don’t count because they’re not really kinds of VALUE,” then it looks as though you might be begging the question. If you say, “Those sorts of things don’t count because they’re only really kinds of value insofar as they’re parts of (or contribute to) VALUE,” then I think you’d be saying something false.

  12. Hi Steve,

    As it happens, this is one of the topics I was planning to address at the author-meets-critics session. Without giving too much away, I think there are many different ways of collapsing the distinction between morality and prudence, some having more bite than others. The purposes for which you collapse the distinction are clear in Chapter Five, but even so I’d like to fine-tune some of the language and examples. In any case, consider this a promissory note.

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