Review of Roger Ames, Confucian Role Ethics

Ryan Nichols and Craig Ihara have jointly written an extensive review of Roger Ames’s Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Here is an excerpt from that review, posted here with permission. Please address any comments to Ryan and Craig.

This is a selection from our draft review, the final version of which will be published soon in Dao, of Roger Ames’ newest book Confucian Role Ethics. We post it here in order to continue conversation about this important theory. -Nichols & Ihara

There are many subjects to discuss in Confucian Role Ethics. The following discussion addresses several of the most salient issues.

Methodological problems arise in Ames’ discussion on pp. 20-35 in regard to the need to make generalizations about China, in opposition to others who say this is inadvisable. Ames’ arguments on behalf of making generalizations are somewhat weak, including assertions such as: “the only thing more dangerous than striving to make responsible cultural generalizations is failing to make them” (23). Generalizations about certain philosophical continuities between thinkers in Han and in Warring States China are appropriate and permissible so long as they are justified by textual and historical evidence. While Ames may be correct that generalizations are important for understanding Confucianism, the unaddressed but more important question is: under what evidential conditions are such generalizations justified?

Ames’ approach overlooks this key methodological question. Typically, his generalizations are not about a single text but about a 2500-year tradition. In contrast, scholarly work in the history of philosophy usually involves making close inferences from what texts and manuscript sources say to what they mean. Confucian Role Ethics offers rich discussions of Confucianism’s key terms motivated by pragmatist goals, executed in a literary style that draws from historical Confucian scholarship, contemporary continental thought, pragmatism and more. The methods used, while familiar to us and to Ames’ readers, lack clear interpretive goals and appear under-informed by metaphilosophical reflection as to the purposes and aims of the history of philosophy. In this way Ames’ work reduplicates the methods and goals of Confucianism itself since the tradition attempts to influence readers more than persuade readers through philosophical argumentation.

Ames’ method places greater importance on explicating just what is the Confucian tradition. He argues that traditions are not a priori definable by appeal to systematic principles but rather are sequences of human conduct that grow organically over time and in response to the people who use them. This suggests that Confucianism is as Confucianism does. A competing account of Confucianism may locate the tradition as the set of commitments that appear in canonical Confucian texts. Ames’ definition of ‘Confucianism’ appears dialectically advantageous since it enables advocates of Confucianism to distance themselves from, for example, features of canonical texts that advocate forms of gender discrimination, for example. However, this belies a subtle, but pervasive equivocation on the use of ‘Confucian tradition’. Consider: Ames argues that when “despotic rulers have ruled imperial China over the centuries and have oppressed generations in the name of Confucian values” (19), these rulers have misappropriated Confucianism. But this would only follow if the tradition is not characterized as historical sequences of human conduct, so it appears that Ames attempts (albeit unintentionally) to have it both ways. A related point is that critics may argue that a book about the vocabulary of Confucianism is self-immunized from common forms of scholarly criticism since generalizations about the tradition as a whole cannot be falsified by, for example, appeal to a text. Surely there is a place for broad-sweeping, pan-tradition, generalizations within Chinese philosophy, but absent an account of evidential standards employed in such generalizations, critics may argue that Ames makes it too easy for himself.

Those critics might find themselves in a pinch. On one hand, Ames typically overlooks the research of contemporary scholars of Confucianism. For example, despite the attention to which Liu Qingping’s work has been exposed in recent years (this journal devoted the bulk of two separate issues (2008, volume 7, numbers 1 and 2) to this discussion), Ames does not mention Liu’s work. We would have benefitted from reading Ames’ responses to arguments from Liu partly because they directly challenge Ames’ interpretation of filial piety in the tradition.

On the other hand, when Ames does discuss the research of contemporary scholars of Confucianism, his discussion often lacks charity. Consider Ames’ discussion of the research of Zhang Longxi. He chooses to describe Zhang’s psychological attitudes rather than assessing the evidence on behalf of Zhang’s interpretations and methods. Ames describes Zhang’s motivations in heightened emotional language, referring to “Zhang’s ire” (31) and “Zhang’s exasperation” (33). He also describes Zhang’s argument in militaristic metaphor–the “target” (31) of Zhang’s research is Ames himself; and Ames trivializes Zhang’s criticism, referring to it as “Zhang’s complaint” (31).

Following the fifth page of this discussion Ames remarks, “But I am not done” (34). When Zhang gets something right it is done “inadvertently” (35). When Zhang gets something wrong, it is so wrongheaded (Zhang commits “the philosophical fallacy”) that it becomes ironical (34). We suspect that Ames will influence many readers more by this treatment of Zhang than he would by a cool consideration of evidence for and against Zhang’s theses. Readers might greet Ames’ subsequent presentation of positions with suspicion since his representation of Zhang’s position seems unbalanced.

Theoretical questions of interest to ethicists that go unaddressed in the book include: Does a role ethics imply moral relativism or presuppose it–or instead is it inconsistent with relativism? If inconsistent, why? How does Confucian role ethics yield discernible ethical injunctions on behavior? Steven Geisz has presented a related challenge by arguing that Amesian Confucian role ethics offers no non-trivial answers to the question, ‘What sort of person ought I be?’ It appears one ought to be the person that one’s inherited roles prescribe, thus embracing a form of culture-bound normativity. This inference is consistent with discussions in the book that appear to endorse or imply a form of moral relativism, including Ames’ rejection of notions of truth and objectivity, the comparison of morality to art, his characterization of fulfillment exclusively within social roles determined by the community, and explicit remarks such as this: “Ren for this person is going to be different from ren for that person. … There is no template, no formula, no ideal” (178).

Ames uses evaluative concepts such as efficiency, or expertise, harmony, etc. as the goals of any human being, but are these based on standards internal to the culture or are they trans-cultural without being absolutist? Confucian leaders endorsed the practice of footbinding that subjugated women for a millennium, causing physical pain, inhibiting movement and opportunity, and damaging psychological well-being. Taken one way Ames’ theory implies that these women are fulfilling their Confucian roles. (See the valuable discussion on the group blog Warp, Weft and Way of Goldin on footbinding.) Confucian leaders endorsed practices of filial piety that, according to Bertrand Russell, held tyranny over the individual and, according to Liu Qingping, generated nepotistic corruption in Chinese cultural leaders. But here too Ames’ Confucian Role Ethics may require individuals to engage in nepotistic corruption to fulfill one’s role. Ames’ discussions of the threat of relativism and filial piety appear to avoid tough metaethical issues. Ames dismisses Russell’s well-known criticism of the role of filial piety in Confucian ethics with an ad hominem attack put in the subjunctive (263) and, as mentioned, Ames does not engage research such as Liu Qingping’s that challenge his position.

Since Ames envisions distinctions about truth and falsity as grounded in a Western tradition that presupposes a transcendental realm, and since he believes that the absence of eternal and unchanging realms in the Chinese tradition is fundamental to understanding it, Ames has historically not concerned himself with addressing questions about moral relativism from a theoretical perspective. Nonetheless, we can reformulate some of these questions in ways (we think) that can be addressed by a Confucian pragmatist. For example, Ames places family roles and relationships at the center of Confucian ethics, but he does not explain whether there are Confucian grounds for objecting to roles in a non-Confucian culture that are, for example, equivalent to slavery. Ames does invoke remonstrance, overemphasizing its historical importance in the tradition, but he does not discuss cases in which remonstrance is ineffective. Furthermore, how does a Confucian social role ethicist participate in genuine philosophical dialogue with defenders of cultural traditions that do not place the family at the center of life?

8 thoughts on “Review of Roger Ames, Confucian Role Ethics

  1. First let me say I have not yet read CRE, but I did take courses with Prof. Ames during the time he was working on it.

    It seems to me that many of the criticisms here amount to the complaint that Ames didn’t write a book he wasn’t interested in writing.

    For example, the reviewers take issue with the contention that “the only thing more dangerous than striving to make responsible cultural generalizations is failing to make them.” But isn’t this obviously true? If we scholars don’t make fair generalizations, it is clear from history that non-scholars will rush in to make generalizations of their own, and not necessarily fair ones. Of course, any generalization will lose important parts of the picture—that’s what it is to make a generalization, after all—but it’s better that the generalizations floating around in society come from responsible scholars than that they come from ideologues. Look at the treatment of Islam in society today, for example. Really heinous, bogus things get said about Islam all the time. (In particular there have been news reports about “trainers” working for the CIA and FBI who claim that Islam is inherently warlike, etc.) The way to fix this problem isn’t to refrain from making scholarly generalizations, but to put out scholarship that makes good generalizations to counter those things.

    OK, so perhaps we can agree that we need some generalizations, but maybe first we need to answer “under what evidential conditions are such generalizations justified?” But it seems to me that Ames’s whole project is against the tendency to build up a big theoretical system first and then apply it second. Ames thinks the way is made in the walking, so it would be odd for him to start with a theory of how to make good generalizations instead of starting by making generalizations and retroactively trying to discern what made them good or bad. Ames, like Dewey, thinks that theory is something that comes afterwards, not beforehand.

    A similar comment can be made about many of the historical issues with CRE. Were there bad people doing bad things who called themselves Confucians? Of course. But the point of Ames’s approach is that we learn things through the development of history. Looking back, we can say that those things were mistakes, and once we identify past mistakes, we can cut them out of the canon. Look at Xunzi. Was he Confucian or wasn’t he? If you think he got a lot of things right, then he was. If you think he got a lot of things wrong, he wasn’t. “Confucian” is a prescriptive term, not merely a descriptive one. (A “thick” notion.)

    Finally, complaining that Ames doesn’t position himself as a relativist or absolutist, etc. seems misguided because one of Ames’s major contentions is that these categories are unhelpful for the project he is engaging in. That’s not say that one isn’t free to make criticisms of the Amesian project. But when the grounds of your project and his are so different, it’s not helpful to point out that he’s not well grounded from your perspective.

  2. Dear Carl,

    Thank you for your comments. I’ll venture a few (brief, inadequate) remarks in reply. Regarding the issue as to whether it is appropriate to make generalizations or not, I personally come down clearly on Ames’ side: the notion that good work in sinology or philosophy can be done without generalizations is so opaque to me as to appear incoherent. Consider: When I encounter character ‘X’ in text A dated year Y it is likely ‘X’ means the same thing as it does in text B also dated year Y. Bingo. Generalization. But, someone might object, this isn’t the right kind of generalization at issue. To that I can only say that I’m happy to be shown what is the sort of generalization at issue. But confusion about what generalizations are at issue I regard as symptomatic of the fact that this is a moderately silly non-issue. Our point in the review is that a false dilemma is not a good argument for the necessity of generalizations. Not that generalizations are not necessary. I take your point, and your more sympathetic way of looking at the point.

    More important to me is the evidential status of generalizations. I hear what you’re saying regarding the importance of not front-loading a project in history of Chinese philosophy with too much a priori ‘theory’ with, say, ridiculous Western-centric presuppositions. I don’t use ‘theory’ as a four-letter word, but I get your point. But if so then I venture to say you’ve misunderstood our intent. To offer readers a set of standards with which to evaluate one’s evidence for or against a generalization is not offering an a priori theory of this objectionable kind. To do so is merely to offer standards of evaluation for a theory. Without clarifying to readers what they are entitled to expect by way of justification or evidence for theses in a book, readers are at risk of misunderstandings–misunderstandings of a fundamental sort. A straightforward way an author can forestall misunderstanding is by clearly addressing the standards of argument and evidence to which he holds himself. In CRE Ames doesn’t.

    Regarding your final point, readers won’t mind if Ames defines his position in traditional philosophical terms–‘relativist’ or ‘absolutist’–or not. We as readers simply want to understand his position clearly. (Well, some readers do. Others may opt instead for a model of philosophy-as-play in which they expect nothing more than someone playing tennis without a net (as Arthur C. Clarke says of fantasy literature).) The important point is that the method and conclusions be clearly characterized. Wouldn’t mind also acquiring rich, edifying philosophical knowledge along the way, for example, in the form of new, tractable, non-circular responses to key philosophical questions, such as ‘What sort of person ought I be?’ Back up a second and consider the implications of the ‘you can’t expect him to pigeon-hole himself into one of your theoretical constructs then answer for its problems cause that isn’t his approach to philosophy’ objection you mention to our criticism. Taken to its logical conclusion, this reminds me of an amusing review by Tony Genova of a collection of papers critically engaging the work of John McDowell, a collection in which McDowell published responses to each paper. Genova remarks that McDowell’s responses to each of the papers were uniform: the given author didn’t understand McDowell’s project and pigeon-holed him incorrectly. …But when you say that about all the commentators’ papers perhaps you did not articulate your view with sufficient clarity to begin with. (I am not, for the record, saying that Ames adopts this response in CRE. He does not, unless I’m mistaken. I’m simply pointing out a logical implication of the ‘maximal deniability’ response to criticism that you raised.)

    Brief and inadequate, but something. Thanks for helping me think through these issues.

    • Not having read CRE yet, I (conveniently?) can’t reply to the substance of your comments above, but I will bear what you’re saying in mind when I do get around to it (2013?). A lot hinges on how well executed the book actually is.

      — Carl

  3. I apologize for coming to this discussion so late. I too haven’t seen the book.

    At first I read the review selection as complaining that the book lacked a section addressing in a general way the question, “Under what evidential conditions are cultural generalizations justified?” – say, a first chapter on the methodology or epistemology of the field. Such a demand, I think, would be mistaken (no matter whether or not the authors happen to think it mistaken). The epistemological question is too immense and the field too complex and profound to admit of any useful effort to deal with the question in general in a chapter.

    But if there are, or the book’s author thinks there are, particular epistemological mistakes widespread among the book’s expected readers, or the book departs significantly from what passes for epistemological common sense, then the particular points of departure ought to be discussed. And if the main expected readers are people who have markedly undeveloped judgment about how to evaluate cultural generalizations, then some brief general sketch may possibly be in order.

    On a more attentive reading of the review selection, it seems to me that the criticism there is not the absence of a section on the general epistemology of cultural generalizations, but rather that the arguments of the book display a degree of thoughtlessness about method and epistemology, largely by displaying a lack of interest in evidence, or in what would prima facie be the right sort of evidence to be concerned about. That’s a radically different sort of charge. In a book review there may not be space to support it, especially insofar as the arguments and theses of the book are unclear; but one values the judgment of the respected reviewers nonetheless.

    Ryan, your reply to Carl suggests that the criticism was indeed the absence of a section addressing the epistemological question in a general way. I wonder if that is really the criticism or is rather a way of expressing the worry that the book’s claims seem untethered to evidence?

    • oops, in “(no matter whether the authors happen to think it mistaken)” I meant to be referring to the author of the book.

    • Hi Bill, Thank you for reading this selection and for your critical comment. I’m a huge fan of your comments here at WWW and find myself frequently agreeing with you. No surprise that I concur with the point of your remarks: it may be too much to ask of an author to offer a chapter-length account of his method, and we didn’t intend to impose upon Roger in this way. But as you suggest, a clear statement of method and articulation of some principles about the value of evidence and counterevidence, of one’s relationship to the current secondary literature (and historical commentary), etc., strikes me as appropriate and expectable in a volume primarily directed at fellow scholars. (Notwithstanding this point, to be clear, the fact that I learned lots of useful, interesting things from CRE is indisputable, just so ya’ know.)

      History of philosophy in general and history of Early Chinese philosophy in particular still seems to me awash in a variety of methods and goals, some of which are not useful in forming true beliefs on the basis of adequate evidence. In a section of the review we cut I noted that a corner of Leibniz scholarship suffers from methodological and metaphilosophical problems, which have left scholars talking past each other. This concerns an absolutely central issue in Leibniz scholarship framed by this question: Is the mature Leibniz a metaphysical idealist, a realist, or did he try to reconcile the two? The problem is that for a variety of philosophical and historiographic reasons no clear standards have developed regarding answers to this question. Even if the one true answer to this question is published, it isn’t clear it would be recognized as such due to the motivated readings that a variety of scholars have developed over the years. (See Glenn Hartz’ book *Leibniz’s Final System* for a diagnosis of this problem.) Point: methodological problems are not unique to Early Chinese history of philosophy but pepper the field of history of philosophy.

      But this may be changing for the better. Explicit metaphilosophical and methodological conversations in Early Chinese philosophy are appearing with increased frequency. First, Zong Desheng’s recent publication in *Dao* (2010: 9) deals with method in Comparative Philosophy and defends a non-sententional approach to Early Chinese history of philosophy. Though a smidge convoluted and somewhat remote, Zong’s conclusions are well-argued and quite provocative and suggest a rethink about how to interpret (the non-sentential features of) Early Chinese thought. Second, PG Ivanhoe’s forthcoming paper in *International Philosophical Quarterly* clarifies metaphilosophical issues of crucial interest to historians of Early Chinese thought by distinguishing different interpretive methods at play in the field and arguing that one of them is most defensible. Ivanhoe defends a model of history of philosophy in which interpretation is best construed with a legal metaphor: we function like lawyers making an evidence-based case before an objective judge or jury (as opposed to ‘philosophy as play’, ‘philosophy as therapy’ or ‘philosophy as war’). This has much going for it–and it doesn’t go too far and succumb to the use of military metaphors (that crop up occasionally in Early Chinese history of philosophy and) that are ubiquitous in contemporary analytic philosophy, esp phil of religion. (Have you ‘targeted’ an objection or ‘attacked’ a premise lately?) Third, Ted Slingerland has done lots of valuable work across many publications in efforts to improve the quality of the questions that we’re asking, too.

    • Thank you very much, Ryan. (Only “frequently”?) I’m a fan of your contributions too, and always glad to see your name here.

      My worry was not about demanding too much space for epistemology (nor about other issues such as the relation with existing literature), but rather about the idea that the absence of a general account or overview of the epistemology of the field (however long or short) is automatically a flaw.

      To this worry I’ll add an Ignorant Casual Suspicion: that if people paid more attention to substance and less to general issues of method, we’d make fewer methodological mistakes.

      On another point – for my part, as you might imagine, I have no problem with “attacks” and “complaints.” This strikes me as plain and direct vocabulary for innocent argument; I think we can handle the tooth. As for “targeting,” I wouldn’t use it; to me it sounds like trying to sound academic. Aiming is a bad metaphor for attacking.

      Thanks for pointing me toward Zong Desheng’s piece — I’ll have a look.

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