Role Ethics and Criticism

In a previous post, I sketched the two major premises on which Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont rely in their argument that we should attribute “Confucian role ethics” to the Analects and other early Confucian texts. Here, I’d like to consider one potential objection to Confucian role ethics, both as a plausible moral theory in its own right, and as a theory that fits with the texts. The Analects clearly sees the need for critical evaluation of the ways that roles are inhabited by particular people. Does “Confucian role ethics” provide adequate critical purchase for such assessment?

Suppose for a moment that all there is to role ethics is that with respect to any role one occupies, one should be like others in that role. Let us call this “simple role ethics.” As a parent, one should model on other parents; as a child, one should be like other children. An obvious problem with this is that in a society in which most parents are bad, one will tend to model on bad parents, and become worse oneself. A defender of simple role ethics might say that a society with bad parents will not flourish, so that in the long run only comparatively good societies, and parents, will be encouraged. This response fails to convince, though, both because our moral practice manifestly seems to make distinctions between good and bad parents (indeed, the coherence of the objection and response require this), and because the long-term existence of patriarchal practices, to choose one example, undermines the idea that good role-occupiers will ultimately be favored through some process of social evolution. If we need to be able to talk about good parents and bad, though, the question then becomes in what terms we judge or articulate such goodness.

Certainly Ames and Rosemont cannot call on widely applicable principles (“good parents are those who respect their children’s autonomy,” perhaps) or general, role-independent virtues (like “anyone with a well-rounded good character will be a good parent”). However, it is also clear that they do not promote simple role ethics. Their writings are replete with references to normative categories that seem aimed at evaluating specific role performance. For example, Ames writes: “Each person stands as a unique perspective on family, community, polity, and cosmos, and through a dedication to deliberate growth and articulation, everyone has the possibility of bringing the resolution of the relationships that locate and constitute them within the family and community into clearer and more meaningful focus” [Ames 2001, 93]. In addition to “focus,” “growth,” and “meaningful,” other terms play similar roles in Ames’s discourse of Confucian role ethics, including “harmony” [Ibid., 96, 112], “coherence” [Ibid., 103], “productive” [Ibid., 161, 181], “efficacious” [Ibid., 166], “vibrant” [Ibid., 181], and so on.

Two things about this list are striking. First, most of these evaluative terms explicitly depend on the relations among multiple entities. Second, none of them are readily capturable as single, general-purpose principles. Take “efficacious,” for example. As Ames explains this, it is clear that he has something quite different from an economist’s “efficiency” in mind: he envisions an imaginative response to a morally challenging situation that manages to simultaneously make positive differences for each of the multiple values at stake, achieving something like harmony. Since harmony does not mean arriving at a precise arithmetic balance, “Be efficacious!” is a largely empty principle, unlike (for example) the utilitarian’s “Maximize pleasure!” This is not to say that “Be Efficacious!” does us no good; it bids us to attend to the variety of values that we see (and feel) are relevant to a given case, and to strive to keep them all in focus. That is, it calls attention to aspects of our situation that we already find valuable, and seeks to further articulate or inflect the ways in which we enhance these values. To return to our original question, it seems that Confucian role ethics does indeed have some critical purchase, vis-à-vis existing role behaviors, but only so long as we are normatively committed to a general vision of interdependence and relationality. It is this web of relations—and not just a single dyadic relationship—that makes it possible for one to improve one’s parenting by striving for greater overall “focus” or “harmony.”

So now the question is: what is the status of this commitment to interdependence? By labelling it a commitment, I am sugesting that it is more than just an observation about the way we are. It is more than this; it is something that we value. The specific vision of interdependence that we find in the Analects is articulated partly through discussion of roles and relationships, but if it is what is really doing the normative work, are we really talk about a “role ethics”?

20 replies on “Role Ethics and Criticism”

  1. Steve, this is a great post and a nice examination. Regarding your final question: are you quibbling with the term “role” or with the broader assumptions or conclusions?

    • Hi Brian, Excellent question. Maybe my challenge is best posed as a dilemma: either A&R have misdescribed the theory, or the theory is incoherent. There’s an ambiguity here, I realize, concerning whether the “theory” is the theory that *is* implicit in the Analects, which may or may not be CRE, or the theory of CRE, which may or may not be implicit in the Analects. In this post I am granting what I described in my previous post as premise one, and so granting the various claims that A&R make concerning transactional human becoming.

    • Suppose we were to focus on the first horn of the dilemma. An adjustment would have to be made either in the description or in the theory. Since the coherence of the theory is being granted, what kind of adjustment in the description would make it acceptable?

  2. Hi Steve, I think this gets to the heart of Ames’ attempts to differentiate role and virtue ethics. If I understand you correctly, the worry here is that the roles celebrated in Confucian moral thought turn out to be in service, as it were, to a greater good. If so, while it may be true that the virtues recognized by Confucianism are more relational than those recognize by a paradigmatic virtue theorist like Aristotle, there is still a convergence in the idea that some traits are morally desirable because they serve human flourishing as understood in one way or another. In the case of Aristotle this means they tend us towards a life lived according to reason; in the case of Confucius they tend us toward greater “relationality and interdependence.”

    I think one possible response would be to deny that the roles serve a greater good; rather they simply provide the goods of the relationships themselves. That is, the greater “efficacy” of good parenting simply brings about more of the goods that can only be had in the parent/child relationship. In this sense, it’s not “relationality” per se that we value. The focus would be on the goods to be had only in the particular kinds of relationships that (in the Confucian picture) are the locus of a life well lived. This is think would mark a more substantial departure from Aristotle and company.

    • I wonder whether Aristotle has that view as well? I’m thinking of the goods of friendship and of the political life (though Aristotle was of course ambivalent about whether the very highest ideal for the very best humans involved political involvement or position); and I’m thinking of Terry Irwin’s emphasis on one of Aristotle’s arguments against communal property: that it would make generosity impossible.

  3. Hi Steve,

    I’m not sure I understand your point about interdependence. Suppose we have a commitment to some “general vision” of it. You seem to suppose that it exists prior (logically or causally) to participation in a role-based society. But why? I think it’s open to Ames and Rosemont to think of the commitment to interdependence and relationality as itself arising from our participation in roles, from a young age, and our subsequent appreciation of the goods that are (both internally and externally) available from that participation. Take my commitment to shared faculty governance as an example. I’m committed to interdependence with and among my colleagues but that wasn’t the thing that got me into committee work. It was, rather, through working with people in committees with particular roles within the university that I came to appreciate the value of interdependence and maintaining good relationships among committee members, committees, and between faculty, staff, and administration. Does that make the ethics of committee work beholden to some prior, general principle of promoting dependence and cooperation — sometimes with harmony and sometimes in adversarial roles vis a vis one another? It doesn’t feel that way to me.

    Is that an apt comment or am I misunderstanding your point about the value of interdependence?

  4. What do Ames & Rosemont mean by ‘role’?

    Here’s some context that might speed discussion:

    Chris Korsgaard reports:
    “…Republic (R 352d–354b). … First of all, each thing has a
    function, which is what one can do only or best with that thing (R 352e).
    Furthermore, everything that has a function has a virtue, which enables it
    to perform its function well (R 352b–c). The function of the soul is ‘‘taking
    care of things, ruling, deliberating, and the like,’’ since these are activities you
    could not perform with anything except your soul. A few lines later Socrates
    also proposes that ‘‘living’’ is a function of the soul (R 353d). Since the soul
    only performs its function well if it has the virtue associated with its function,
    a good soul rules, takes care of things, and in general ‘‘lives’’ well, while a
    bad soul does all this badly (R 353e). Since earlier arguments have supposedly
    established that justice is the virtue of the soul, Plato concludes that the just
    soul lives well, and therefore is blessed and happy, while an unjust one lives
    badly and so is wretched.”

    Also, justice in a psyche or in a state is when each part does its own ergon.

    “For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be?” (EN.i.7)

    Candlish & Basile write in the SEP:
    “…the fifth essay, the famous ‘My Station and Its Duties’, where he outlines a social conception of the self and of morality with such vigour that it is understandable that the mistaken idea that it expresses his own position has gained some currency. This Hegelian account of the moral life, in which the self is fully realized by fulfilling its role in the social organism which grounds its duties, is clearly one which greatly attracted Bradley, and he seems never to have noticed the implicit tension between the metaphysical account of the self as necessarily social and the moral injunction to realize the self in society. But he finally acknowledges its inadequacy, pointing out, for instance, that any actual society may exhibit moral imperfections requiring reform from the standpoint of an ideal which cannot be exemplified in the roles available within that society. This leads him naturally into…”

    In “On Duties” (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series Vol. 106, 1952-1953), anthologized in Feinberg, ed. Moral Concepts (Oxford Readings in Philosophy):
    “But this sense of the words “duty” and “obligation” [as simply whatever is morally right] is not their usual sense in common speech. The ordinary sense is that in which we speak of “the duties of a professor”, of a policeman being “on point duty”, of “putting a person under an obligation”, of “discharging one’s obligations”. In this sense, a duty or obligation is a consequence of a contract or undertaking, either explicit or implicit. My duty is that which I am engaged or committed to do, and which other people can therefore expect and require me to do. I have a duty to keep a promise, because I have bound myself thereto. I have a duty to render certain services to my wife, my employer, my clients, my constituents, which I need not render to other persons, because I have taken upon myself the status of a husband, an employee, a consultant, a delegate, and thereby committed myself to the performance of the tasks pertaining to such a status.
    “I have a duty to speak the truth if by offering information I have thereby made myself responsible for its accuracy (the extent of this responsibility varies according to the conventions of the situation…). I have a duty to conform to the rules of the society to which I belong, in so far as I give others to expect that I shall do so, and in so far as I take advantage of the reciprocal conformity of other members. If we may distinguish between the customs of a society, as what its members generally do, and its conventions, as what its members are generally expected to do, then nobody calls an action a duty because (like shaving the beard or taking tea with the afternoon meal) it is customary, unless it is also conventional.
    “Now, if the terms “duty” and “obligation” are understood in this ordinary sense, in which a duty is a function of a trust-relationship, my nine propositions are all true.”
    [I haven’t quoted the nine propositions. – BH]

    “I use the word “practice” throughout as a sort of technical term meaning any form of activity specified by a system of rules which defines offices, roles, moves, penalties, defenses, and so on, and which gives the activity its structure. As examples one may think of games and rituals, trials and parliaments, markets and systems of property. I have attempted a partial analysis of the notion of a practice in a paper “Two Concepts of Rules,” Philosophical Review, LXIV (1955), 3-32.” – “Justice as Fairness,” 1958

  5. Thanks all, and sorry for delaying my replies. The siren call of 12″ of fresh snow drew me to northern Vermont yesterday…. I’ve now got a little catching up to do, but will try to respond soon!

  6. Some preliminary replies. First of all, let’s imagine STAN. He’s domineering to members of his family and cheats on his wife; he’s fawningly deferential to superiors at work (at least to their faces); he’s indifferent to ways in which he might be able to help his neighbors and the neighborhood community; and he’s simply ignorant of suffering farther from home. Yet he thinks of himself as a good father and husband–he makes a good salary–after all; a good employee; a good neighbor (he expects that they want him to “respect their privacy,” and likes the saying the “good fences make good neighbors’); and supposes himself a good citizen. Stan is pretty content with himself.

    So a way of reposing my original challenge, especially to Dennis: how do we criticize Stan?

    Dennis offers one gloss on the positive, virtue-ethical alternative that I might be suggesting. On this view (let’s call it the FLOURISHING view), specific conceptions of roles would be evaluated in terms of their contribution to a specific vision of flourishing. I agree that this is an alternative that would seemingly give us a way to criticize Stan. Something like this view is suggested in Bryan Van Norden’s interpretation of early Confucianism.

    There is an alternative family of views, according to which the ability to criticize Stan comes from an understanding of the virtue, character, virtuous activity, or virtuosity of an agent. This would be a VIRTUE-CENTERED view. There are lots of ideas out there about how we understand these ideas and their normative importance. One way of bringing in interdependence would be to say that a collection of traits is good at least in part insofar as it leads one to be responsive to our interdependent reality.

    Manyul, I agree that one comes to appreciate interdependence in the context of specific, often (or even always?) role-articulated activity. But when faced with questions about whether someone is a good committee member, or whether Stan is a good colleague, the value of interdependence is the sort of thing that we can use to answer, ONCE we have come to appreciate it.

  7. Steve, I’m having trouble understanding the question, as posed in the OP or in #6. I don’t see what the incoherence is supposed to be.

    In the OP it seemed as though maybe your point was that A&R were trying to appeal to the value of our being involved in roles/relationships without asserting it, by simply asserting that it is essential to us to be involved in those. If the two points were in some tension that might be a problem. But offhand the latter point seems to me to support the former. As Aristotle might put it, the idea that it’s essential to us to be X amounts to the idea that it’s our telos to be excellent or perfect X.

    In #6 when you speak of criticizing Stan, do you mean criticizing him to him in a way that he might be expected to find reasonable and persuasive (having been hired to listen)? I gather Ames and Rosemont might say that the way to criticize Stan is to draw his attention to things he is overlooking in his particular relationships. (Maybe they’d say they are not offering CRE as a universal fundamental principle for practical guidance of individuals.) Maybe you are taking all that for granted, and asking which kind of particular point CRE would tend to advise us to draw Stan’s attention to?

    I’m afraid I’m completely missing your point!

    • OK, let me try it this way. (1) I have no problem with the idea that there are goods that “can only be had in the parent/child relationship” (Dennis) or that it is only by “working with people in committees with particular roles within the university” (Manyul) that one can come to appreciate interdependence.

      (2) I agree that CRE is not a “universal fundamental principle for practical guidance of individuals” (Bill), and I do not find it therefore to be puzzling or incoherent. *That* is not what I am looking for.

      (3) What I am worrying about is whether, supposing we were to criticize Stan (to his face, I guess) by saying that his way of occupying roles was not very “meaningful” or “focused” or inducing of “growth” or leading to “harmony,” we are sneaking something in that is not built in to the notions of roles. To which he could, therefore, say “who cares? I’m not interested in those things, I just want to keep being a good father (etc.).”

      (4) Prompted by your listing above of various ways of thinking about roles and practices (Rawls), I note that MacIntyre says that what the virtues are is the set of traits that enable us to get at the internal goods of practices. So he would criticize Stan by saying that his mode of occupying his roles fails systematically (across roles) to achieve various internal goods because of his failure to develop the virtues. This is just one way to go, but gives a flavor of what I’m wondering about.

    • Thank you very much, Steve.

      I think you’re right that it seems as though the way to criticize Stan plausibly and effectively is to point to what he is missing by living as he does, and what those involved with him are missing, that he can be led to appreciate: goods.

      I’m not sure how that’s a criticism of CRE or RE, but my grasp of both is admittedly weak.

      One guess is that at some point CRE may be defined as not making any appeal to goods. But I’m guessing that’s not the case. There’s at least a shallow sense in which it’s not the case. A&R say role ethics is about playing roles well. Another way to put that is to say that one’s playing of one’s roles should be good playing of those roles (excellent activity of that kind) – which would be a good one has. In that sense one might say CRE is committed to a view about goods.

      Maybe the criticism is that CRE is insufficient — or no “role ethics” as A&R mean that term can be sufficient — to determine even the roughest answers about what is right and what is wrong (e.g. for Stan to do in some circumstance)?

      It’s easy to see how the term “role ethics” could suggest social relativism.

      A difficulty I have in understanding CRE and RE from the anthology paper is that much of the exposition consists of drawing contrasts between early Confucianism (notably including Confucius) and Western virtue theory (especially Aristotle). And regarding several of the leading putative contrasts, I find myself disagreeing with the reading of Confucius and/or Aristotle. It’s confusing, or at least distracting.

      More objectively, I’m unsure how to understand those technical terms because I don’t know what they mean by “role,” and more importantly perhaps because I don’t know what kinds of theoretical move or part are supposed to disqualify a view from being a form of “role ethics.” Is everything supposed to be excluded that is not “built into the notion of roles”?

  8. Ok, a couple of thoughts.

    I would criticize Stan (in the sense of saying what is wrong with his way of going about things, not in the sense of the best way to get him to change his ways) by saying that he’s failing to maximize the goods that parenting (etc.) make possible by failing to play his roles as well as he might. This might put my reading of role ethics closer to the MacIntyre picture, which is ok with me, though with some qualifications. First, as I understand it, Ames and Rosemont sees the all the ‘virtues’ we should aspire to as thoroughly relational. Secondly, it matters greatly which roles we’re talking about–that is, it matters that we’re talking about parenting and the like, and it won’t do just to talk about “relationships” or practices or roles in a general way. Rather, in a way that is pretty much taken for granted, something like parenting is seen as a particularly important and defining role in a human life. Hence the sense in which the goods of parenting aren’t goods that we might acquire by way of other practices.

    As for the place of normative notions such as “meaningful”, “focused”, etc. in all of this. I would agree these are not part of the idea of a social role per se, in the sense that we can make sense of someone playing some roles without knowing what it would mean for her to do so in more or less meaningful or focused or creative ways. But again I think it’s important on the Confucian picture that we can recognize some relationships as simply being the stuff out of which a good life is made. Here these kinds of words do seem appropriate–parenting just is the kind of thing that can be done in more or less meaningful ways. Perhaps these normative terms stand to the playing of the (right kinds of) roles in a way comparable to how an injunction to “play with more energy” stands to a musical ensemble working on a piece of music. Playing with more energy is a way of getting more of what is already in a musical performance–it’s not an extra value smuggled in. I think that’s how Roger sees things like creativity and meaningfulness as applied to these kinds of human relationships.

  9. I want to ask what’s the picture of the meaning of the word “meaningful” here. One picture is that it’s significance, importance, i.e. much goodness or badness. Another idea is that for an activity to be meaningful is for it to be good (I don’t mean: good for the agent) in a way that the agent grasps, appreciates, cares amply about. Another idea is that meaningfully parenting is parenting of which nobody would say, “that’s not parenting in any meaningful sense.”

    Separately, and to turn from philosophy to interpretation (without wishing to stop the former conversation!), it seems to me there is only negligible evidence in the Analects of any interest in the activity or role of parenting, though there’s plenty of evidence of interest in the status of parent, or in parents as parties to whom something is owed. I think that’s a very striking combination. It might evidence against some picture of Confucius’ picture of the centrality of role-relationship-activities (especially family ones) as such.

  10. Steve,

    I would want to say that “appreciating” interdependency from within a role can mean two different things:

    A) From within a role I see the value of interdependency, itself, independent of that role or any roles.
    B) From within a role I see the value of interdependency as an essential part of the role and its functioning within a circumscribed network of some other roles.

    I guess I think B is what makes appreciation of interdependency *from within* a role and its associated social setup unproblematic for the Role Ethics view.

    I’m worried that asking for the possibility of criticizing Stan without reference to the roles that he happens to occupy begs the question against Ames and Rosemont. Why should they buy into the notion of a person stripped of his/her roles? Isn’t their starting point that there are only persons qua role-occupiers and that the idea of a morally significant *bare* person is incoherent? (or maybe that *should* be their starting point…)

  11. Hi Manyul,

    I like your point here, not just because it draws a really important distinction, but also because it sheds new light for me on what might be meant by saying that persons are relational (or rolational or whatever).

    Here are three projects:

    a) Giving someone reasons why it is better to have relationships/roles than not to.
    b) Giving someone reasons why it is better in general to be more related (or less related) than she is.
    c) Giving someone reasons why her relationships and roles should be different ones.

    Project (a) seems to involve the idea of a person without relationships/roles. I’m not sure that’s something wrong with the project. I mean, I seem to be able to think about whether (and how much) it’s better to be alive than dead, or better to be dead than badly demented, etc.

    Project (c) might appeal in a different way to the notion of an unrelated person. When Cipher made a deal with the machines whereby, in return for his betraying Zion, they would reinsert him into the matrix with all new memories, he was making a mistake about what it is to be a person, and more specifically a mistake about what it is to be the same person, so to speak, over time. Arguably the most radical versions of project (c) rely on making an analogous mistake – at least if the argument is an appeal to the person’s interest, trying to show that the change would be good for her. For whatever continues through a complete change of roles must be something that isn’t defined by its particular roles.

    Since our roles and relationships do change, the rolational conception of persons arguably undermines the coherence of appeal to one’s own good or happiness in making decisions about anything beyond the very near term.

    Somewhere – maybe when he’s talking about the fundamental moral powers of the person – Rawls talks about the importance of the idea idea that a person can change her – well, I forget what. Maybe it was her comprehensive conception of the good. The point was supposed to support the idea that just institutions have to respect that power, have to leave people free to change their minds. One might have an analogous thought about relationships.

  12. Hi Bill,

    Two initial reactions to your suggestive remarks:

    First, suppose we grant that there’s a coherent notion of a person free of all relationships or roles. What’s left that allows us to make sense of a better or worse choice for that person, i.e. of a “moral” choice in a very broad sense? One thing that seems required for the latter is that such a person at least has a relationship to herself, in at least a kind of advisory capacity — or, an advisory role, if you will. To decide for one’s good is to take a stance toward oneself as someone about whom one cares. There seems some minimal relationship/role involved here, at least with oneself, if that’s an okay way to talk. Can we do without that kind of talk to make sense of good choices for oneself? I’m not too sure.

    Of course, that’s all very abstract. We don’t make ordinary choices in that kind of relationship dearth. So…

    Second, in your (c) scenario, how do we make sense of a person making a good decision about being in completely different roles than the ones she is currently in? I’m not sure she would have the very minimal idea of herself as her beginning point. Practically speaking, she probably begins with a fantasy about being a very different kind of person in a very different set of roles, then thinks in terms of how happy she might be in that kind of life. But her basis for making the happiness judgment relies on what she knows of herself qua related person. I’m not sure any normal human being could have an idea of her happiness qua persona non relata (I’m not sure I got the right Latin there, but whatever). That makes the decision very difficult because of the leap one would have to make from the current-life-basis-happiness-ideas one has about oneself to an imagined-life-basis-happiness-idea of oneself. It’s difficult but it could be done largely through imagination, but the imagination is of oneself in those other roles/relationships, by hypothesis in (c). I think…

  13. Oh that’s good! I hadn’t thought about relationships with oneself. Alongside adviser and provider, other roles might be: critic, scorekeeper, governor, victim, clothier, entertainer. And in the movie “Memento,” correspondent.

    I guess relationships with oneself aren’t the sort of thing A&R have in mind, but I don’t know.

    It’s hard to stay the same person while taking up with a different oneself.

    Jason Bourne right after his amnesiating accident: was he in relationships? Did he have roles?

    Confucianism might contemplate being in a role relationship with someone long after that person is dead.

    Regarding (c): I said the rolational conception of persons might challenge the very idea of one’s own good as a basis for big decisions in life – I didn’t mean that as an objection, unless the idea of one’s own good is supposed to play an important role in role ethics.

    I would hope people look beyond self-interest, however broadly construed. And I don’t think the idea of one’s own good is nearly as coherent as it’s cracked up to be.

    There’s more to answer, but I might not be able to get to it for a while.

  14. I suppose that if the rolational conception of persons is not trivial, then it has application not just to the most radical cases. I suppose the extreme cases are interesting only because they raise questions about less extreme cases. One might consider giving up speech, or taking to sea in a raft, or (less extremely) going to live among the barbarians (“the toughest job you’ll ever love”), or going to work for some distant new ruler (expecting to start by sharpening my “tools”).

    I imagine a “role ethics” view doesn’t deny the possibility of generalizing plausibly about what’s good for people, and so planning responsibly for the interests of whatever new person one might become. And Confucius at 6.30 seems to think one can in some broad way understand others by taking oneself as a model.

    Separately, regarding Confucius: I commented on parenting in #9 above. Another of the most salient roles discussed in the Analects is that of ruler. But when Confucius talks about how to rule well, he seems mainly (always?) to look to the sort of results that are uncontroversially good (good for society, for the people), and uncontroversially the main ones that it is the function of a ruler to promote. His observations seem to be about the instrumental effectiveness of various approaches. I’m not sure how a “role ethics” view would expect him to discuss rulership.

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