2nd Rutgers Workshop on Chinese Philosophy (RWCP): “Xunzi on Authority”
Friday, April 11, 2014
Report by Marilie Coetsee
This April, Tao Jiang (Rutgers), Ruth Chang (Rutgers), and Stephen Angle (Wesleyen) invited scholars from around the country to Rutgers’second annual meeting on Chinese philosophy, focused this year on Xunzi’s work on authority. Falling in line with last year’s successful conference on “Nature and Value in Chinese and Western Philosophies,”this year’s workshop produced stimulating discussion about the variety of ways in which Xunzi’s work can contribute to and expand upon our conventional Western philosophical conceptions of authority.
Amy Olberding (University of Oklahoma) started the day’s talks with an intriguing paper on Xunzi’s view of the moral authority of etiquette. Though just a sub-component of his discussion of li,which covers a wide range of value-laden rituals and practices, his discussion of etiquette is, she argued, especially worthy to be drawn to the attention of rule-bucking, autonomy-prizing cultural creatures like ourselves. Indeed, in our philosophical discourse and moral lives, she pointed out, we tend not only to fixate on autonomy, but to conceive of it —and, by extension, conceive of our moral selves —as defined by “big moments,”by dilemmas that conjure up the full resources of our deliberative faculties. Xunzi’s work reminds us, however, that much (if not most),of our moral life is in fact constituted by what Olberding called the “small moments.”“Small words”and “slight movements,”she alerted us, communicate our respect for our neighbors in subtle but significant ways—or, in our negligent indifference, can gradually “nickel and dim[e] [them] to death.”Xunzi was prescient, then, in highlighting the importance of etiquette as a bulwark against this quiet but important possible source of moral incompetence. Good etiquette, she argued, improves moral competence by symbolically operating as thoughtfulness, but also simultaneously “[guards] against the exhaustion thoughtfulness risks.”Concern with etiquette not only expands our conception of which moments matter morally, then, but also suggests an alternative way of approaching them. On Xunzi’s approach, Olberding showed, cognitive deliberation often takes second place to proper habituation in the rituals of etiquette. These rituals gradually form our character to produce in us a degree of reliable automaticity in doing what we know we ought, she argued, and thereby allows us to get the small stuff right, without adding any unbearable cognitive weight to our moral load.
While Oldberg showed how Xunzi helpfully drew attention off of the cognitive aspects of moral life, Eric L. Hutton (University of Utah) went on to show that the cognitive elements of moral life that remain a part of Xunzi’s story are better justified than many have thought. To answer the common objection that Xunzi demanded from subjects an objectionably irrational epistemic deference to the tradition created by the ancient sages and upheld by the ru erudites, Hutton used resources from Xunzi’s own texts to reconstruct an argument for the rationality of that deference. Drawing on Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority, Hutton argued that Xunzi had resources for reasonably motivating subject’s trust: (1) first, Xunzi allowed that people had reason to trust their own epistemic faculties when used carefully; (2) second, Xunzi thought that people would be able to see that they held a certain amount in common with the sages and the ru in regards to their epistemic faculties, which, (3) (given #1) justified at least a preliminary trust in the tradition. Given, further, that Xunzi points out that (4) the years of testing that tradition has undergone substantiates the sages’and ru’s claim to extraordinary skills in sound judgment, there is reason to think (5) that trust in the output of their epistemic faculties will produce more beliefs that better survive reflective scrutiny than ordinary subjects could procure on their own. Subjects, then, could be rationally justified in showing the trusting epistemic deference that Xunzi asked of them. Hutton went on to show how a further step in the argument taken by Xunzi preempts an objection that Zagzebski’s framework alone would (arguably) have left him vulnerable to: Xunzi claims not only that, in general, there are good reasons to trust the authority of tradition, but also, specifically, that the best reasons compel trust in the particular authority of the Confucian way. Though it’s unclear howexactly Xunzi would justify this claim, Hutton and his commentator, Alvin Goldman, both pointed out how it pointed to a weakness in Zagzebski’s argument, which, they claimed, failed to adequately address the matter of competing experts. Zagzebski’s account, they argued, remains vulnerable to the “novice to expert problem:”supposing that there are many experts who disagree, where is the novice to begin, and how is she to progress correctly through their claims? Lively discussion ensued among our own group of disagreeing experts before we let up for lunch.
After breaking for an excellent lunch accompanied by exquisite views of the Rutgers campus from the philosophy department’s fifth-floor home, workshop participants returned for an engaging paper from David Wong (Duke University) on “The Authority of Moral Beauty.”Like Olberding’s discussion of etiquette, Wong’s discussion of moral beauty showed that Xunzi’s work introduces us to a domain of moral authority too often overlooked in the canonical works of mainstream Western philosophy. Beauty, he claimed, constitutes part of normativity of the morally ideal, contributes to our motivation to attain it, and enriches and enlivens our experience of those elements of the ideal that we do in fact attain. Wong began by highlighting the ways in which Xunzi’s notion of moral beauty finds resonance with some of Aristotle’s discussions of kalon (often translated as “fine”or “noble”) —which, like Xunzi’s discussion of moral beauty, adverts to a kind of fittingness and well-ordered-ness of parts in relation to the whole they compose. Though the connection between fittingness, order, beauty, and morality remains largely implicit in Aristotle, Wong showed how it becomes explicit in Xunzi. Explicit discussion, he noted, is especially prominent in Xunzi’s comparison of the activity of moral self-cultivation with that of craft. Xunzi argues that we must overcome the badly-inclined spontaneous desires of our nature (xing) by engaging in pro-active conscious effort (wei) to craft ourselves into morally disciplined agents. In Xunzi’s view, this craft will result, not in bland, moral rule-following automatons, but in a beautiful moral personality, well-ordered within, and that responds fittingly, without, to the vagaries and complexities of life. Like Olberding and Hutton before him, Wong focused in on the important role that Xunzi affords ritual. For Xunzi, Wong pointed out, rituals play a key role in moral self-crafting by definitively marking out for us the important as having importance. This marking aids in the ordering of our inner emotional lives, “fitting”us emotionally to the real structures of objective value. What’s more, ritual marks the important as having importance in a way that, through a kind of aesthetic inspiration, forms and transforms us individually to rise aptly to the relevant occasions, and, through a kind of aesthetic bonding, allows us to grow in feeling solidarity and closeness with our community. Music, Wong took special care to point out, can play an especially important role in these latter regards. Towards the end of his talk, Wong noted a fact that nicely buttressed Hutton’s (previous) and Stalnaker’s (still forthcoming) arguments: he told us that the Confucians believed that, to the extent that one could form one’s inner emotional life according to the standards set by ritual and proper music, one could achieve a state of excellence called “de.”This state, it seemed, was capable of grounding a kind of self-authenticating authority for its possessor that would no doubt prove invaluable in ordering social-political life: “people,”Wong noted, “would not quarrel with or struggle against such a person,”and “when they see [the] manifestations [of de], they [would be] affected directly and accept and obey [him] from an inner feeling stimulated by his presence.”
Aaron Stalnaker’s paper (“Xunzi on Virtue Politics and the Authority of the Wise”), followed on on this question of social-political authority. Xunzi, he reminded us, believed that society should be thoroughly formed and ordered by the Confucian Way, beginning at the top, with a governing elite of junzi that would itself be thoroughly formed and ordered by li. What, Stalnaker asked, can be said on behalf of the sort of elitist, paternalistic politics Xunzi seems to have advocated —is it morally sensible? Practically feasible? Stalnaker both pointed out ways in which the model isn’t quite as morally un-sensible as our modern ears might be inclined to hear it, and is, at least in principle and in its basic conception, practicable. On the former front, the training of the elite was (to Xunzi’s moral credit) a training that was supposed to be accessible and open to all, and, on the latter front (to the credit of Xunzi’s practical foresight), meant to be gradual, accumulative, and hands-on. What’s more, the training was meant to instill in its subjects not only a socially-oriented sort of virtue ethic that would incline them to seek the good of all, but also the crucial skills that they would need to effectively reach that goal. Chief among those skills, in Xunzi’s view, was the competence to make good judgments about how to apply fa (models of good governance) to specific cases. Such correct application of general standards to specific cases was, in Xunzi’s eyes, absolutely crucial to any model of good government, and the junzi would be especially well prepared for the task by the ritual training they would receive from the ru, a training that would generate in them both a comprehensive view of human life and an attentive responsiveness to particulars. The paternalistic political ordering, then, would ultimately be not just (in Xunzi’s eyes) intrinsically well-ordered, given the skills and characters of the relevant parties, but also (in Xunzi’s eyes, but also perhaps in our eyes as well) instrumentally desirable, facilitating military might, economic prosperity, and the general maximal satisfaction of human desires. Martha Bolton commented helpfully on Stalnaker’s presentation, pointing especially to the weakness of Xunzi’s model with regards to higher-ups’access to and acquaintance with ground-level political problems. Stalnaker acknowledge the issue as a potential problem for Xunzi, but also pointed out that Xunzi at least encouraged leaders to keep each other accountable if and when they found their compatriots going off course.
By the close of day, engaging discussion of Xunzi’s work on etiquette, epistemic deference, moral beauty, and paternalistic politics helped to make the case that Xunzi’s work certainly deserves an established place in our modern day discussions of authority. In fact, it may be well-warranted to add that while that place certainly should be established, it should also equally certainly not be fixed; Xunzi’s work should not just be attended to in isolation, but allowed to move into and force us to expand on other, heretofore untouched, philosophical discussions on the nature and scope of moral and political authority.
Thanks very much for the write-up, Steve! Wish I could have attended.