Report on 6th Rutgers Workshop

We post here detailed reports on each of the papers presented this past April at the 6th Rutgers Workshop on Chinese Philosophy; enormous thanks to Adrian Liu and Esther Goh for compiling them! Please read below for their reports.

1. “Relational Normativity: Williams’s Thick Ethical Concepts in Confucian Ethical Communities”

Presenter: Sai-Ying Ng (CUNY Graduate Center)
Commentator: Alex Guerrero (Rutgers University)
Moderator: Stephen Angle (Wesleyan University)
Rapporteur: Esther Goh (Rutgers University)

Ng argues that social role concepts like FATHER, HUSBAND, and RULER can be productively understood as thick ethical concepts in Bernard Williams’ sense. In Williams’ ethical thought, language like ‘A ought to do φ’ should be thought of in terms of internal rather than external reasons: On an internalist picture of reasons, ‘A ought to φ’ is a reason for A to φ if and only if A is motivated to φ. Ethical thought comes through the use of thick concepts, which are concepts like COURAGE or CHASTITY that have both descriptive elements (e.g. “acts well in the face of dangerous situations”) and action-guiding or motivational elements (e.g. a tendency to positively evaluate acts of courage). Ethical knowledge comes through a community’s convergence in their usage of thick concepts. But Ng shares a worry some have raised: that in explaining knowledge in terms of convergence in thick concepts among individuals, Williams overestimates the extent to which individuals within an ethical community are autonomous in determining their own reasons for action.

In particular, it is unclear how Williams’ account can explain the fact that an individual’s motivations will often manifest partly in virtue of them having certain social roles which they face contingently. A young couple who unexpectedly finds themselves parents may internalize reasons for acting in their capacity as parents, partly deriving these reasons from the social role of parenthood. Can Williams’s framework accommodate the motivational character of these role-based reasons?

Ng’s novel claim is as follows: Williams’s framework can accommodate the motivational character of role-based reasons if we take social role concepts to themselves be thick ethical concepts. If social role concepts are thick ethical concepts, then individuals who apply these social role concepts will find that the application of these concepts generate internal reasons for action.

Ng’s thesis, combined with a Confucian theory of li 禮, allows more robust ethical theorizing than Williams thinks is possible. Where Williams is silent on the process of how one comes to have a reason to apply a particular thick ethical concept, putting this task outside of ethical theorizing, Ng sees Confucian ethical theorizing about li 禮 as concerned with actively offering reasons for individuals to apply certain thick ethical concepts. Li, when properly understood and practiced, offers collective reasons for acting in accordance with the norms of conduct appropriate to one’s social roles. The practice of li allows individuals to understand the collective significance placed on certain social relationships within their ethical communities, which are reasons for these individuals to apply the thick ethical concepts of FATHER or SON.

What emerges is an expansion of Williams’s framework of thick ethical concepts to include a separate sense of ‘ought’ that emerges given individuals’ social relationships to one another within an ethical community. This retains the key insight of Williams’s reasons internalism, i.e., that individuals autonomously choose to apply various thick ethical concepts in making sense of their experiences, while allowing for li to provide the collective reasons for individuals to apply certain thick ethical concepts, e.g., FATHER or SON.

Guerrero poses four questions about the talk.
Question 1: Do we want structured social roles with a lot of evaluative content attached to them, or do we want more flexible social roles? Perhaps even on a Confucian vantage point, we want a more flexible conception (think of the relative particularized guidance/advice in the Analects; not one size fits all). In general, if, say, FATHER is a thick concept, does theory determine whether we want to say there is one way to be a father or multiple ways in which one might practice fatherhood?

Question 2: Further, can the role the community plays in structuring social roles itself be a socially contingent fact, or a topic of ethical debate itself? Could we imagine a general argument in favor of pluralism, liberalism, etc., in how much the community should be involved in structuring and limiting the contours of social roles? Ng, in response, notes that Williams leaves much open in terms of how a community will structure their thick ethical concepts: if social role concepts are thick ethical concepts, then it could make sense that a lot is left open to the community in terms of how these social role concepts are negotiated, even if after they are negotiated they can provide robust guidance to individuals.

Question 3: Williams is such a subjectivist that it doesn’t always mesh with suggestions that ethical concepts apply to individuals whether or not they accept a role. It can seem that the obligations of, say, filial piety, apply to an individual regardless of whether they accept the role of SON or DAUGHTER. So how does this mesh with Williams’ reasons internalism? Is Ng’s theory something that Williams could accept? Ng, in response, says she wants to push Williams on where he draws the limits of ethical theorizing. The social interactions and pressures that create and maintain social role concepts in a given community will shape the motivational sets of individuals who adopt these role concepts and will also shape whether the individuals adopt them; but these interactions and pressures themselves are ethical charged (Ng brings up the case of Confucius and Zai Wo, where Confucius only criticies Zai Wo to other disciples, not to his face).

Question 4: Thick ethical concepts like SELFISH, CRUEL, CHASTE can be used, endorsed, or accepted by us, but the descriptive content seems relatively fixed, as does the evaluative content. Social role concepts seem much more malleable, culturally specific, both at a descriptive level, and at an evaluative level. Does this challenge the idea that social role concepts are thick ethical concepts?

Selected Questions from the Audience:
Question 1: Ng claims individuals autonomously choose to apply social roles. But how are they able to do so, if they are enforced socially? Ng replies by drawing us back to Williams and Roger Ames on how we develop our motivational sets: there will be social negotiation, but ultimately, you reflect on who you are and choose your motivational sense. Social enforcement may give strong motivational reasons to apply social role concepts, but they do not create fully “external” reasons.

Question 2: Isn’t it part of the Confucian project to undermine the naturalness of social roles? So what is the descriptive content of “social role”? What is the worldliness of it? There was then discussion about whether or not social roles actually had descriptive contents, with Ng contending that they did. “Someone who fills such and such a role in these ways” certainly seems descriptive. See also the discussion in Question 4.

Question 3: the value of thin ethical concepts — take a thick Mengzian view of “human,” where someone who lacks or loses certain dispositions simply does not count as human, vs a thin human-rights view of “human,” where every member of the species has humanity and thus the rights that go along with it. Might going radically into the view of thick social roles loses the ethical saliency of thin ethical concepts like the thin concept of human? A possible resolution that was discussed was to distinguish between roles that are adopted consensually vs roles that we are born into.

Question 4: When I say John is a good, compassionate person, this seems redundant. But when I say John is a good father, this does not seem redundant. Does this challenge the idea that a social role concept is a thick ethical concept? A discussion on the role of Zheng Ming 正名 (the rectification of names), such that “good father” does become somewhat redundant (“a bad father is not a father”).

2. “Paradox in the Zhuangzi”

Presenter: Chun-Man Kwong (University of Oxford)
Commentator: Graham Priest (CUNY Graduate Center)
Moderator: Karen Bennett (Rutgers University)
Rapporteur: Esther Goh (Rutgers University)

Chun-Man argues that the paradoxical expressions that Zhuangzi uses are not merely fancy tools to perplex readers but are meant as a substantive application of its philosophical insight. Paradoxes in western philosophical traditions are seen as problems meant to be solved or pose as problems to theories. This is because paradoxes assert contradictory statements that violate the very plausible law of noncontradiction. In contrast, paradoxes in Zhuangzi are not philosophical deficiencies.

Chun-Man distinguishes between micro-level paradoxes and macro-level paradoxes. Micro-level paradoxes are contradictions that lie within a single statement (e..g., ‘the non-dao dao), whereas macro-level paradoxes (e.g., the concept of self, and the concept of usefulness) are contradictions that are a cross-chapter structural literal phenomenon. Chun-man turns his attention mainly to the latter.

One worry is that Zhuangzi is written by different authors. If so, such ‘paradoxes’ should be understood instead as philosophical debates. Chun-Man is sympathetic to Tao’s response that the Zhuangzi should be read as a single text and investigated as its own distinct conceptual universe.

Chun-Man then highlights a macro-level paradox: the paradox of usefulness. There are two relevant notions that seem to contradict – “uselessness as usefulness” and “uselessness as not usefulness”. The first notion is exemplified in Zhuangzi’s narratives concerning the story of Shu and the story of a tree of the shrine. In both stories, the tree is too big to be made into functional objects, and so is not cut down. They illustrate that one’s uselessness disinterests others and thus uselessness brings longevity – making it useful. The second notion is exemplified in the “big-tree universe”. The goose incapable of crowing is useless and thus killed so it cannot live out its heavenly lifespan. So, uselessness is useless. In contrast, a goose capable of crowing survives because it can crow, so usefulness is useful.

To illuminate this paradox, Chun-Man introduces the notion of first and second-order paradoxes, and notes that this structure can also be seen in other paradoxes in the Zhuangzi (e.g., the paradox of the self). “Uselessness as usefulness” – a first-order paradox – and “uselessness as not usefulness” – a second-order paradox – create a distinctive dynamic in the Zhuangzi, enabling readers to realise the idea of flexibility merely through reading the text. Using both first and second-order paradoxes shocks readers not once, but twice, in order to thoroughly loosen the readers’ rigidly held beliefs and demonstrate the ideal of flexibility. Neither “uselessness as usefulness” doctrine nor “usefulness as usefulness” doctrine is held by Zhuangzi, as these sayings are always contextual.

Last, Chun-Man discusses the logic approach to the paradoxes in Zhuangzi. The logic approach argues that Zhuangzi simply takes both sides of the contradiction to be true because of the contradictory nature of reality itself. He objects that this overlooks the context in which the contradictory notions are introduced, and furthermore, overlooks the structure of first and second-order paradoxes. He emphasises that the Zhuangzi is performative, meant to turn the reader toward a way of living rather than give an abstract argument for truth. The dao should be understood as a textual-performance; it is performed rather than being represented in the Zhuangzi.

Graham Priest’s Comments

Graham Priest is in wide agreement with Chun-Man. He agrees that paradoxes can play many roles in a text, and so one should not discount a text based on paradoxes alone. He notes that the Zhuangzi contains many other paradoxes that are dialectically significant, and that the paradox of the self can be diffused by careful interpretation. On the other hand, the paradox of usefulness seems problematic. Priest agrees with Chun-Man’s approach to this paradox but raises a worry. If paradoxes are meant to shake our beliefs, then the rule “don’t have rigidly held rules” cannot be consistently held by Zhuangzi. Priest, however, thinks that thinkers tend to give numerous arguments and examples for their view, and thus the structure of first and second-order paradoxes might not signal that the Zhuangzi aims at a further purpose.

Some Q&A

One question was about paradoxes in Zhuangzi that are practically inert, and thus cannot be performative in nature. Chun-Man is skeptical about these paradoxes and maintains that in these paradoxes, Zhuangzi is not committed to recommending a particular way of acting. Chun-Man notes that he does not wholly reject dialetheism but does not think that it applies to the paradox of usefulness. Another question concerns whether we can actually communicate ideas if language is contradictory. Chun-Man responds that the Zhuangzi is not providing an argument for skepticism about language. Another participant raised the worry that the performative message of Zhuangzi can be conveyed without explicit contradictions, and we can explain away explicit contradictions semantically. Chun-Man thinks that this approach underplays the contradictions in Zhuangzi.

3. “A Mohist Theory of Reference”

Presenter: Susan Blake (Skidmore College)
Commentator: Jane Geaney (University of Richmond)
Moderator: Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers University)
Rapporteur: Esther Goh (Rutgers University)

Blake begins by situating her paper in the discussion of theories of reference in the philosophy of language concerning disagreement. Blake argues for a conditional claim: if Mohists provide a theory of reference, then they are connecting the extension of our words to facts not only about kinds but also about the interaction between speakers.

Blake considers some questions from contemporary discussions of reference. How do we separate the meaning of a person’s words from what that person believes his word to mean? If two speakers disagree in their characterization of an object because of differing beliefs, what further facts can settle who is right? To answer these questions, it seems that we must point to some objective standard. One of the tools that Mohists have is the idea of standards. Standards and the similarities between objects provide a basis for identifying categories and kinds. Specifically, fa are particular physical objects that are publicly available and, in the case of measuring implements, easily replicable. On the basis of similarity with the fa, a person can judge something to be in the same category or kind. But equally importantly, kinds are determined by genuine similarity with the standard, rather than, for example, by similarity based on shared location or origin.

The Mohist takes actual disagreement to be disagreement among interlocutors that are using the same name consistently and unambiguously. So, the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle is observed in proper disputation. This definition excludes certain debates apparently forced by the Sophists, such as whether something is a dog or a hound.

Blake then turns her attention to a Mohist passage on sufficient conditions (A97). She interprets this passage as two speakers seeming to disagree about whether B is a member of a kind – for example, whether B should be deemed a ‘horse’. One speaker makes an argument from analogy: because A is a horse and B resembles A, B is also a horse. If in disagreement, his interlocutor points out that C is not a horse but shares similar features such as having hooves. Here, the speaker has two options: to agree that C is not a member of that kind and reject her original assertion, or to claim that C is a member of the kind she’s talking about.

Jean Geaney’s Comments

Jean Geaney focuses on Blake’s argument in chapter 4 of her book, “Standards and Reference: Philosophy of Language in Early China”. First, she suggests that Blake defines the notion of “shared practices” as “only training from socio-cultural norms of our communities’ habits”, whereas “intersubjective guidance” goes beyond guidance from shared practices by deriving constraints from continuous interaction of at least two people doing something at the same time.

Second, Jean raises a minor disagreement with Blake. In analyzing A97, Jean disagrees that ju actually means ‘to give an example’, since that involves a meaning change and is thus worrisome. Jean suggests that Blake does not need the claim that ju actually means ‘to give an example’. Rather, the uses of ju in early Chinese texts suggest picking up, raising up, or promoting something or someone – and this is broad enough to encompass “giving examples”. Jean thinks that we will never know what the authors of Mobian intended when they use ‘ju’, and so we can look elsewhere for criteria to assess competing interpretations. Last, Jean suggests that the Mobian seems intersubjective, and speculates that the mini-exchanges featured are as one Mohist student talking to another, learning together how to correctly participate in the practice of language use.

Some Q&A

One worry raised concerns having a clear definition of theories of reference. Blake responds that the focus on word identity allows meaningful discussion. Another question raised is about the rejection of Fraser’s interpretation of Ju. Blake responds that Mohists are talking about psychological states of individuals – similar to behaviourists – in talking about how we come to know language. She herself disagrees that Mohists are actually providing a theory of what we are exactly picking out. Another question raised concerns whether the Mohists are providing a theory of reference as compared to a theory of communication. Blake responds that Mohists are not arguing for a theory of reference, but rather presupposes it.

4. “Wealth, Poverty, and Living a Moral Life: Confucius and Mencius”

Presenter: Frederick Choo (Rutgers University)
Commentator: Stephen Angle (Wesleyan University)
Moderator: George Tsai (University of Hawaii at Manoa)
Rapporteur: Esther Goh (Rutgers University)

Choo argues against Li Chenyang’s proposal regarding how to understand the seeming contradiction in Confucius and Mencius when it comes to whether a comfortable level of wealth is necessary to live a moral life. For example, Confucius seems to prioritise wealth over moral education in the Analects (4.5, 7.12, 7.16, 8.13), and similarly does Mencius (3A.3). Book-learning also requires the possession of books – which indicates some level of wealth. However, Confucius and Mencius also praise those who are poor yet live a moral life.

Li’s proposal, roughly, is that Confucius and Mencius have two groups of people in mind: the cultivated group, and the uncultivated group. The cultivated group consists of people who are already morally cultivated well and have the virtues, thus do not require a comfortable level of wealth in order to be ethical. The uncultivated group refers to everyone else (i.e., the majority of people). Li considers the worry that one can absolve moral responsibility by pointing to the fact that one is poor and addresses it by appealing to the concept of being statistically inevitable.

Choo criticises Li’s proposal on the basis that it fails to really posit two groups. Given Li’s analogy, the answer is that everyone can live a moral life when in poverty – it is just that many people would probably not live a moral life when poor. However, this does not accommodate passages that seem to indicate two groups and does not adequately explain the book-learning example.

Choo suggests instead that we should think that there are two groups: those in the uncultivated group cannot live a moral life when they are poor. He then addresses two worries: attribution of moral responsibility to the poor, and book-learning. First, he argues that poverty alone does not determine that a person cannot live a moral life. The reason why the uncultivated cannot live a moral life is also due to their own moral character. Second, he argues that there are many ways to learn – not just through books. Furthermore, even if book- learning is necessary to become moral, it might not be necessary for one to be moral.

Stephen Angle’s Comments

Stephen Angle references Chan’s principle of sufficiency: “Each household should have an amount of resources sufficient to live a materially secure and ethical life”. He notes that even if we grant material sufficiency, dramatic inequality may render one unable to lead an ethical life. He then considers Li’s preferred solution of group distinction, the worry that one’s moral failure cannot be attributable to that agent, and the move to statistics.

Angle agrees that Choo’s argument succeeds against Li’s proposal. However, he raises the example of the child who bears a hole through the wall in order to learn and worries that Choo’s argument would rule out such cases. He also brings up Yan Hui’s learning despite his family’s material hardship. He also wonders whether it is possible to be born already cultivated, and if so, one can be ethical even though one is born into a poor family.

Angle then suggests an alternative approach: with respect to moral cultivation, from the perspective of the learner, there is only one group. From a socio-political perspective, however, there are two groups: the masses, and the individuals.

Some Q&A

One objection raised by a participant is that the texts should be understood contextually and are about different audiences. One passage might concern general policies, while the other concerns moral cultivation. So, the passages are just engaging in different conversations. Another participant raised the ritual of mourning for three years, and this seems to require that one is in a good financial situation in order to be moral. Another participant objected is that on Choo’s construal, the condition of poverty is decisive and unavoidable. However, passages still criticise one for failing to be good. Choo responds by emphasising that it is not simply poverty that causes one to do evil, but a combination of factors – some agential, and thus we can still criticise one who does evil. Another participant suggested distinguishing between first and third-person points of view. We cannot make or give benevolence to a person, but we can provide wealth to them. Thus, from a third-person point of view, wealth is necessary. However, from the first-person point of view, we are concerned with the dao. Another participant noted similar ideas regarding the difficulty of being moral in Christianity and Kantian views.

5. “Gratitude and Debt in Western and Confucian Ethics”
Presenter: Choo Lok-Chui (Nanyang Technological University)
Commentator: Frances Kamm (Rutgers University)
Moderator: Hagop Sarkissian (CUNY Baruch College)
Rapporteur: Esther Goh (Rutgers University)

Lok-Chui argues that gratitude in Early Confucian tradition and Western philosophy is differently conceived. Namely, the notion of “debt of gratitude” (i.e., the idea of a duty or obligation to reciprocate in some way to one’s benefactors) is absent in Early Confucian tradition but present in Western philosophy. To account for this difference, she identifies the broad moral ideas in the outlooks and practices of the two traditions that ground the conceptions of gratitude.

Lok-Chui’s argument concerns prepositional rather than propositional gratitude as a response to benefaction. Benefaction, roughly, is the intentional provision of benefit done out of goodwill, where this act is not conditioned on, or motivated by, the expectation of receiving anything in return. Lok-Chui focuses on the normative dimension of gratitude – that we ought to be grateful under certain circumstances. She asks us to consider cases where it seems that we ought to reciprocate a friend’s help in buying groceries when we are ill in order to motivate the idea that gratitude is a duty of reciprocation. She then observes that many Western philosophers hold that we have this directed duty of reciprocation, but such a duty os absent in early Confucian tradition. She notes that early Confucian tradition speaks of gratitude as acknowledgement but falls short of positing the obligation to reciprocate. For example, we should understand the notion of repayment in filial piety not as an intention to repay a “boundless” debt, but of “boundless” gratitude.

Lok-Chui then considers two models of the role that debts of gratitude play in the Western context: The Distribution Model, and the Equal Status Model. According to the first,debts of gratitude restore a balance of resources or possessions, satisfying a justice-like requirement on distribution. According to the second, debts of gratitude function to restoree equal status between benefactor and beneficiary, satisfying the moral ideal of relating to one another as equals. They enable recipients of benefaction to recover and maintain status, securing relationships of equality.

With this in mind, Lok Chui hypothesises that early Confucians lack the notion of debts of gratitude because there is no role or function for “debts of gratitude” to play in the Confucian social world. According to the Confucian ethical outlook, human beings are enmeshed in an ongoing collective or shared project spanning across generations – within which different needs among its members with different roles may arise at different times. So, there is no need to equalize either the distribution of resources or the balance of agential status. Last, Lok-Chui then extends her discussion to contemporary western writings by Herman and Callard.

Frances Kamm’s Comments

Frances Kamm raises a worry about the methodology of the project. Lok-Chui motivates the idea that gratitude is a duty of reciprocation by raising the case of reciprocating a friend’s help. Kamm argues that this is problematic as there may be duties of friendship, and so this case should not be used to illuminate Confucian discussion on gratitude to one’s parents. She points out that our intuitions may differ when we consider cases involving strangers and when the stakes of one’s help are different.

Kamm then raises some substantive issues regarding Wallace’s account. She thinks that his account suggests that the beneficiary would be pleased if the person who helped him had something bad happen so that he needed to be helped (since this will the original beneficiary an opportunity to help). This also runs into the one-thought-too-many problem. Kamm also questions what Wallace would say about cases where the agents are unequal to begin with.

Another problem is that on Lok-Chui’s construal, gratitude required by early Confucians call for an adoption of a set of appropriate attitudes. However, Kamm worries that our feelings cannot be controlled or willed. Kamm also further objects that perhaps debts can play a role in a hierarchal system, and so debts of gratitude can be helpful in maintaining hierarchy so long as they cannot be paid off.

Last, Kamm further questions whether Chinese philosophy implies that it is inappropriate to have merely personal aims, or that personal aims cannot exist. If so, there would be no place for others to help with these personal aims, and thus there would be no debts of gratitude.

Some Q&A

One question concerns how to decide between family members in need of help and persons that one owes a duty of reciprocation. Lok-Chui responds that for family members, one should help in virtue of the relationship rather than ‘repayment’. Another question concerns the extent to which we can theorize about people’s behaviours that seem to suggest debts of gratitude. Another participant sympathises with Kamm’s point that debts can play a role in a hierarchal system especially early Confucian contexts. Lok-Chui responds that she is unconvinced that there is strong textual evidence to suggest debts of gratitude as understood as duties of reciprocation. Another participant raised the possibility of a middle ground: that of normative expectation. Another participant questioned how one should think about the idea of wronging someone and duties of reparation, given that there are no duties of reciprocation.

6. “’Flying by Not Having Wings’ – In and beyond the Zhuangzi”
Presenter: L. K. Gustin Law (University of Chicago)
Commentator: Lincoln Rathnam (Duke Kunshan University)
Moderator: Bixin Guo (University of Pittsburg)
Rapporteur: Esther Goh (Rutgers University)

While we desire to effect change in society, most of us lack the political power and resources. Gustin proposes a novel way of understanding Zhuangzi’s detached approach to enable us to bring about good social change while still preserving ourselves, be better at doing good, and without compromising our existing concern for others. His focal passage concerns the paradox “flying by not having wings”, referenced in the dialogue between Yan Hui and Confucius.

On Gustin’s interpretation, the detached approach recommends seeing the world through a non-evaluative mode of consciousness that can coexist with the evaluative mode of consciousness without inconsistency. The evaluative mode of consciousness is the mode in which we have ethical concerns, and the mode in which we have values and pursue these values. The non-evaluative consciousness is a reactive consciousness, which can issue acts in response to the world. On Gustin’s proposed model of two-sided consciousness, both sides can be expressed in the same act. For example, the sage playing a musical note for an intended purpose expresses the sage’s evaluative mode of consciousness. At the same time, that same act, expressed through the sage’s non-evaluative mode of consciousness, is done without reference to any goal. The sage’s non-evaluative mode of consciousness merely responds to the world but does not strive towards anything. To illustrate, consider someone who wills to breathe as he normally would. His breathing seems to express both the evaluative consciousness and the non-evaluative automatic system.

When applied to our ethical lives, our non-evaluative mode of consciousness frees us from any norms of reality, and thus allows us to be less affected by the success or failure of our intervention. It also enables us to behave and respond more like a mirror, and therefore we would be less distracted by the hope of success or the fear of failure. We can thus attend better to the situation at hand. Furthermore, since the detached side of our consciousness would be non-evaluative, the detachment would not compromise on our existing ethical concerns.

Using this model, Gustin addresses two problems raised by the Stoics and Nagel respectively. The first problem posed by Stoics is resolved because the non-evaluative facet of consciousness allows one to not be wholly consumed by failures that are not within our control, while the evaluative facet allows us to still fundamentally care about others. The second problem posed by Nagel is resolved because the Zhuangzian dual existence does not involve a perspective from which one is ironic or caring conditionally. The evaluative side allows care for others unconditionally. The non-evaluative side of consciousness protects the agent from absurdity because this side of themself does not take anything more or less seriously than anything else.

Lincoln Rathnam’s Comments

Lincoln Rathnam finds merit in Gustin’s view. Zhuangzi is one who rejects a dogmatic view of the world. The cosmic point of view seems to require a revision of our ethical stance: our evaluative systems are not privileged sources of guidance. He then raises some interpretative and philosophical challenges to Gustin’s account. He questions whether the dual perspective can be applied to other Chinese traditions and their respective ethical projects. He cautions that Gustin might be too quick in his interpretation of Yan Hui. While he agrees that Yan Hui does not need to abandon his ethical pursuit, he wonders whether Yan Hui really doesn’t need to compromise on any of his evaluative commitments. Rathnam also questions what sort of evaluative constraints Zhunagzi is imposing, as in some passages, people instead modify their evaluative commitments.

He then questions the independent plausibility of dual consciousness. He wonders whether we can know when the dual consciousness is at play, and how one should resolve tensions if the consciousnesses conflict. For example, in presenting a paper, one is subject to norms of discussion. The evaluative mode of consciousness recommends following these norms, such as acting proper and giving good feedback. However, it seems that the non- evaluative mode of consciousness need not recommend the same – it could recommend telling an inappropriate joke or talking about unrelated topics.

Rathnam also suggests that our ends might need to be modified in order to fit the recommendations of our non-evaluative consciousness.

Some Q&A

One question concerns whether one can hold dual consciousness without allowing the non-evaluative consciousness to change one’s evaluative commitments. Gustin responds that if one is cultivated, then the non-evaluative consciousness and the evaluative consciousness would issue the same act. Another question raised concerns instrumental value and value as an ends in itself, and whether we can understand the passage in light of this distinction. Gustin responds that the non-evaluative consciousness simply responds to the situation without some instrumental purpose, but is neither committed to value as an ends in itself because it has no ethical commitments. Another participant references the example of how the dual consciousness allows one to grieve their partner without being wholly consumed by it, and highlighted Zhuangzi’s reaction to his wife’s death. Another participant suggests that we should resolve the paradox by appealing to one’s ego.

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