Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

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”?


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