Role ethics as virtue ethics?

In case you are not tired of thinking about the issues raised by Henry Rosemont’s and Roger Ames’s defense of “role ethics,” I’d like to offer one more perspective on the matter. Rosemont and Ames see Confucian role ethics as a full-scale replacement to the current moral theories on offer, which in their writings seem to be consequentialism, Kantian deontology, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. As Bill Haines suggested in a comment to a previous post on this subject, some readers of Aristotle find the version of Aristotle that is rejected by Rosemont and Ames to be a caricature, but I am going to set that issue to the side and look at the possible value of recasting the ideas and values driving Confucian role ethics as a version of a broad notion of virtue ethics.

The idea would not be to conflate Aristotelian ethics and Confucian ethics, but to ask whether there is a way of construing virtue ethics that is broad enough to include an ethic with the relational, transactional grounding on which Ames and Rosemont put so much emphasis. It is significant that the modern revival of virtue ethics over the last half-century has been spurred by a reaction against many of the same features of deontology and consequentialism that Ames and Rosemont also critique, and also that virtue ethics has been quite dynamic in stretching beyond its initial source of inspiration in Aristotle. Ames and Rosemont say that contemporary version of virtue ethics maintain “the foundational role of the individual and of rationality,” but it is not clear to me that this is so, or at least problematically so. Furthermore, it is striking that when Ames comes to discuss de (which is often translated as “virtue”; he renders it “excelling morally”), he says:

Each of these [terms that make up the vocabulary of Confucian role ethics] is a perspective on the same event, and functions to highlight a particular phase or dimension in achieving the consummate life. There is a sense in which de is used as the more general term for expressing the cumulative outcome of coordinating the shared experience effectively—both the achieved quality of the conduct of the particular person and the achieved ethos of the collective culture. Hence, the other terms we have explored above are all implicated in excelling morally (de). [Ames 2011, 207].

Ames makes it clear elsewhere that his concern with the term “virtue” is with its implication that virtues are reified, metaphysically independent things, rather than as aspects of our complex, socially articulated experience. Instead, he insists that “whatever we call virtue…is nothing more or less than a vibrant, situated, practical, and productive virtuosity” [Ibid., 181]. Seen in this light—and also in the light of my previous argument concerning the need, within Ames’s and Rosemont’s theory, for a normative commitment to interdependence—I wonder whether their ideas are really, at bottom, about roles. When we foreground virtuosity and interdependent flourishing instead, it starts to sound like such a “virtuosity ethics” has things to teach to, and things to learn from, virtue ethics—and indeed, that they may ultimately be two species of the same genus.

23 replies on “Role ethics as virtue ethics?”

  1. I’m not an ethicist, but I find this topic fascinating, perhaps because I was studying with Roger while he was first formulating these ideas. I have two thoughts on Steve’s post:

    1. I think the term “role” is potentially misleading. To me, its sounds too static to convey the dynamism that Roger finds in early Chinese ethics. I think he should call it “relational” or “relationship” ethics.

    2. Imagine that you are writing a textbook that introduces the basic normative ethical systems. You naturally would list deontology and consequentialism. You would probably include virtue ethics, and you might even include feminist care ethics. You want to make things as clear to your readers as possible, so you don’t want to include a lot of complicating factors in any one of these. You want to get the main ideas of the main theories across and then move on. If you were not a specialist in Chinese philosophy, would you include any aspects of Chinese philosophy among any of these? Chinese thinkers have been exploring ethical ideas for 2,500 years, and when any of those have made it into introductory explanations of ethics, I’ve only see Chinese ethics introduced in terms of deontology–yes, Confucian ethics as deontology, because Confucius was concerned with fulfilling duties. Hopefully someone can tell me that there have been improvements, and Mohism is making its way into introductions of consequentialism, and maybe Confucianism is making its way into introductions of virtue ethics. Some philosophers working in sinology would also argue that Confucianism can be a included as a variety of care ethics. But here is the worry: what does Chinese philosophical history have that is identifiably unique to offer any of these theories such that it would warrant inclusion in these types of introductions? 2,500 years of ethical theory and what do the Chinese have to show for it that is worthy of the attention of an introductory student of ethics? Roger’s starting point, I think, is to say that the most important feature of Chinese ethics is the achieved hierarchy in which the individual is defined via a unique web of relationships that begins in the natural hierarchy of the family and broadens and changes over time throughout the individual’s life-span of moral achievement. We learn about ethical obligations, expectations, emotions, reciprocity, etc. through the notion of xiao 孝 as a child and gradually grow into different roles of responsibility as our circle of concern broadens. We become an older sibling, a friend, younger cousin, a neighbor, a spouse, a parent, a leader at various levels of responsibility in society, each with its own unique situational characteristics. As we move through the hierarchy, each of us creates ourselves as a node in a network of relationships and each of us is created by virtue of the interactions in those relationships. Without the relationships and all of the education and socialization that they inculcate, the individual is just a shell, not a genuine person in any worthwhile sense of the term. This unique aspect of Chinese philosophy, from Roger’s view (if I may say), is worth highlighting and promoting as an alternative to the major European normative ethical systems. It may also have resonances with virtue ethics and even care ethics, but to identify it as a variety of one of those would cheapen its unique value and relegate it to a back seat in the literature that arguably reaches the largest number of students of philosophy.

  2. Hi Steve,
    I think there is a strong sense in which “role ethics” is not a theory of ethics at all. Granted, it is an attempt to articulate the fundamental presuppositions of the Confucian tradition. But in many ways Ames and Rosemont’s position is a response to the overly intellectualized and disembodied rational agency at the heart of Western ethics (at least the Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue, and perhaps some forms of Care Ethics). Confucius for one doesn’t wax philosophical about the nature of the “relational self”. Rather he gives us concrete examples and a kind of disposition (qixiang 氣象) to emulate. While the Song-Ming Confucians do seem to engage in more theoretical pursuits, a lot of what they do is rehash the old to realize the new. As Aristotle suggests, his own ethical theory can’t lead one to have good habits. A proper moral education is needed first and then the theory just helps fine tune behavior. I would say the same holds for just about every version of ethical theory in the West. Confucian role ethics on the other hand, might actually get people to act differently if the “qixiang” of the Sages/Worthies can be appropriated into one’s own life.

    I wonder what you think we can gain by claiming that more relational forms of “virtuosic” ethics and more foundationally individualistic forms of “virtue” ethics can be classified as two species of the same genus? What might that genus be? At what point does a classification schema do violence to difference? Trivially we could say that Kant and Aristotle’s ethics are two species of the genus “Rationalistic Ethics”. But this would clearly gloss over the important differences between their respective notions of rationality. Can’t we talk to the Other without assimilating them to the Same?

    • Hi Joe,

      You write, “Confucian role ethics on the other hand, might actually get people to act differently if the “qixiang” [dispositions] of the Sages/Worthies can be appropriated into one’s own life.”

      At first glance your claim here seems to run parallel to the claim, “Aristotelian ethics might get people to act differently if the ‘hexeis’ (stable dispositions) that Aristotle calls ‘virtues’ could be appropriated into one’s own life.” But I gather it you don’t mean it to run parallel to that latter claim. Can you explain the difference?

  3. Hi Steve, I agree with Brian that in the end Roger’s concern is less about getting the taxonomy just right than avoiding comparative frameworks that suggest more similarities between Confucianism and Western thought than are really there and elide Confucianism’s most distinctive characteristics as a result.

    I also agree that on Roger’s reading relationships and relationality might seem more important than roles per se, but I’m a little bothered by that actually. In the texts the emphasis seems always on particular relationships types—father/son, husband/wife, ruler/subject, etc.—and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. It’s that specificity that suggests roles, and this focus is sharpened by the thoroughly communal nature of how these relationships are navigated and played out according to li. This is one reason I’m hesitant to assimilate Confucianism and Care Ethics too quickly, as there’s nothing resembling li in Care Ethics.

    Lastly, regarding the idea of foregrounding “virtuosity”, I think this can be done without leaving roles behind. Wouldn’t it remain the case on the Confucian picture (as read by A&R at least) that this virtuosity exists only and precisely in the successful playing of (specific and varied) roles? This is what I was trying to get at with my music analogy a while back so I’ll return to that. We can speak of musical virtuosity, but we can’t ultimately separate that out as something distinct from simply playing the instrument very well. Virtuosity on an instrument just is talent and ability honed to a particularly fine level. I would read the passage you quote as suggesting a general way of characterizing human lives when particularly well lived, but I don’t see how we lose the roles.

  4. I always find arguments about ethical theory classification of Chinese philosophy — my own arguments included — to require so many qualifications as to render them only of limited use. To make that more pointed, the category of virtue ethics is at best an awkward one to compare to consequentialism or to deontology. Whether or not we’re talking about early Chinese views, these are three categories that overlap in significant ways, or at the least serve cross-purposes for talking about ethics.

    Consequentialism may, as a category, capture the most systematically theoretical aspects of the relationship that might be posited between deontology and axiology — roughly, that the right (deontology) is defined in terms of the good (axiology). But theory taxonomists, for various reasons, tend to de-emphasize that consequentialism has a deontology — a theory of what one ought to do, hence a theory of duty in the broadest sense, whether that involves the duty directly or indirectly to maximize the good.

    Deontology is most useful as an intra-theory category, to distinguish views about what one ought to do or to be, from the theory’s view, if any, about what has value, either morally or nonmorally considered.

    Virtue ethics is, in the broadest sense, a category for capturing ethical views that intertwine views about what is valuable and about what one ought to do or to be with some central account of personal traits and habits. An ethical view centered on virtues may emphasize duties along certain character trait analyses (e.g. being just, courageous, or loyal) while simultaneously emphasizing concern for promoting good states of affairs with other traits (e.g. being benevolent or charitable). That captures many aspects of ethical views from Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Aquinas, Hutcheson, and Hume, among others. There are recent views that may try to address the centrality of virtues more systematically, or at least more self-consciously, by way of making clear that the views are not reducible in some way to a consequentialist deontology or axiology, and perhaps for distinguishing the view from a systematic attempt (a la Ross) to make ethical inquiry primarily an endeavor to delineate duties.

    I think the role ethics categorization adds to this grid, rather than carving out exclusive theoretical space, by emphasizing that particular social roles, situated within a particular societal nexus of recognized relationships, can serve as the starting points for thinking about character traits, goods, or (inclusively) duties. That makes it explicit that an agent’s location within an actual set of relationships should be taken into account for determining what the agent’s virtues and duties, or even her good, might be. A very strong version of this view — Ames’ and Rosemont’s, I think — holds that the agent’s location within an actual set of relationships is all that there could be for generating views about virtues, duties, or the good of the agent. One way to make this more emphatic is to refer to this sort of role ethics view as a “contextualized identity” view — thinking of “roles” as “contextualized identities,” which will have some theory of role-based virtues, role-based goods, and/or role-based duties.

    Maybe this comment is a long way of saying that it isn’t an (exclusive) either/or question when we ask whether early Confucianism is a form of virtue ethics or a form of role ethics; and in either case, deontology and duties enter the discussion at some point or other in discussing what Confucianism regards as the types of things a person ought to do. You can have a role-based virtue ethics, it seems to me.

    • Yeah, in teaching intro ethics, I have not found the category “deontology” very useful because consequentialism also posits a “duty” to maximize good consequences. There is an interesting meta-ethical question about which comes first the Good or the Duty, but it’s not great as a scheme of classification, because it’s too abstract to have much impact on normative ethics.

      What I do instead is ask students how do we decide which actions are moral or immoral. For example, “Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread?” The students immediately that with, “It depends on why you’re stealing it,” which lets me draw a little schema on the board.

      There is an action (either particular or general).

      An action is caused by one’s intentions.

      One’s intentions originate in one’s character, but one’s character is shaped by the consequences of past actions.

      An action has certain consequences.

      Broadly speaking then, we can talking about theories in several groups. Some try to look at just the action itself without reference to its origins or results. For example, you might say actions are moral if natural (Natural Law, some forms of environmentalism) or moral if divinely commanded (Divine Command theory) or moral if an expression of one’s authenticity (some forms of existentialism). Another approach says an action is moral if it results in positive consequences (consequentialism). Another approach says that an action is moral if it came from good intentions (Kantian Good Will). Another approach says an action is moral if it springs from or contributes to a good character (Aristotle). And of course, one can always try to create hybrid approaches.

      On this basis, it seems to me that Confucianism is most like a character based approach. The goal is to become a junzi or a person of ren, and good actions are those that either contribute to becoming one or are the expression of being one. Like Joe and Brian, I’m also a student of Prof. Ames, but I tend to see the differences of Confucianism from Aristotle as more species based than genus based. They both want to create human flourishing, but Confucius has a different picture of what a human being is and what it’s like for a human to flourish. Aristotle thinks that there’s one kind of pre-determined flourishing for people, but on Ames’ view, Confucius thinks that human flourishing is an open ended response to historical conditions that expresses itself in creative new ways (Dewey-esque).

  5. Just a cross-reference from me. Do you know Daniel Star’s “Do Confucians Really Care?” (Hypatia 17.1, 2002)? It takes issue with Chenyang Li’s thesis that there are significant commonalities between classical Confucian ethics and care ethics. (Li’s original paper defending that view was in Hypatia 9.1, 1994. Hypatia 17.1 contains another argument against Li by Lijun Yuan, as well as Li’s response to both Star and Yuan.) Star argues that classical Confucian ethics isn’t a form of care ethics because it focuses on repeatable roles rather than on concrete relationships; Star takes the focus on repeatable roles to be characteristic instead of virtue ethics. That, I take it, is also the key issue in assessing Rosemont and Ames’s claims (and Star does briefly take up Rosemont’s earlier work on similar themes).

  6. Thanks, all, for these comments and questions. I absolutely agree, Brian and Denis, that a central motivation of Roger and Henry is the worry that fitting Confucian ideas about ethics into an existing Western box lessens its importance (as well as distorting its meaning). It’s not so much about getting the taxonomy right, as Denis puts it. This is the issue of their “strategic” motivation that I mentioned in my initial post on the topic. My motivation for pushing an alternative, though, is also strategic. I am worried that by setting CRE up as a full-fledged, sui generis competitor/replacement genus, Henry and Roger undermine the potential for Confucian ethics to contribute to / participate in / learn from broader philosophical dialogue about ethics. I absolutely agree with Brian’s suggestion that there should be much to learn from 2500 years of normative thinking — but also that the final answers aren’t already there in those 2500 years of normative thinking. In a few striking places, Henry and Roger do talk about the need to further develop CRE. I want that development (of Confucian ethical thinking) to take place in dialogue with the most congenial Western theories.

    Joe, you’re right that there is a degree of “anti-theory” sentiment in Henry and Roger’s writings; among other things, they call CRE a “vision” rather than a “theory.” There’re also anti-theory strands in Western ethics, many of them closely connected with ideas that those more comfortable with “theory” weave into virtue ethics. I think it’s clear that Roger and Henry envision a continuing theoretical dialogue about CRE, even if it’s not, in some narrower (and possibly straw-mannish) sense a “theory.” I think that we can pursue questions about ethics in a theoretical way — it’s not JUST admirable individuals and one-off, apt reactions to particular situations; and I think that modern Confucian thinkers should think so, too.

    Manyul and Carl, your different thoughts about how to carve up the ethical space are intriguing. In the very long essay from which I’ve been extracting these little bits, I do talk about different ways to taxonomize. It may be that the best approach is a multi-dimensional grid, such as Manyul suggests. At any rate, let me reiterate that I do not think that taxonomizing for its own sake is very valuable, and I also agree that forcing Confucianism into an existing taxonomy has many dangers. One of the intriguing things that I have been emphasizing about virtue ethics is the way that it is a dynamic, growing and changing category as more and more texts, ideas, and traditions are re-examined in its light. This can be frustrating — critics are continually complaining that there is no clear definition on which all virtue ethicists agree — but it also suggests considerable openness. I want to see if Western virtue ethicists and Confucian (virtue) ethicists can effectively learn from one another.

  7. Very interesting debates.

    ….a central motivation of Roger and Henry is the worry that fitting Confucian ideas about ethics into an existing Western box lessens its importance.

    Sorry, but this smells like a conspiracy theory – not that it is out of the question, but more evidence is required – it really depends on what interpretation/understanding of Confucianism you are presupposing…

    ….contemporary version of virtue ethics maintain “the foundational role of the individual and of rationality,” but it is not clear to me that this is so, or at least problematically ..

    The comparison between Confucianism and Aristotle would be really complex indeed. But at least on the foreground, Aristotle defines being in terms of ousia -viz. individual substance constitute the primary actualization of being. While human beings for A are zoon logon echon – animals with the capacity for speech/reason. This definition seems to contrast strikingly with the Confucian understanding of humanity as the “heart of Sky and earth,” esp. when Mencius determines the most important quality of human being as their capacity for sympathy and compassion with other beings (relationality that defines the roles each individual has to live through). I think at least on this basic dimension, the contrast tends to support Ames and Rosemont thesis to an extent.

    • Doesn’t Aristotle also define humans as “the political animal”? That seems a bit more Confucian.

    • Thanks for the question Carl. But I am not sure, for Confucius, there is no teleological hierarchy of city over the family, that the goal of humanity for Confucius is somehow different (more flexible perhaps) from that in Aristotle’s political order that is defined by logos. In a sense, Confucius won’t regard a person living an inadequate life without fulfilling any political duties for the city and the state – as long as the roles for her family are fulfilled satisfactorily…

  8. What’s the prima facie obstacle to some version of “CRE” also being some version of “virtue ethics”? I’m having trouble seeing one. Toward getting a handle on that, it would be helpful to hear more about what these terms mean to you, Steve.

    I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that “virtue ethics” is bound up with any notion of radical universal individuality, or the ethical primacy of rationality, or metaphysical reification of virtues (for example, I think these views are all alien to Aristotle); but maybe that’s just my ignorance.

    One possible obstacle that occurs to me arises from the contrast in the Post between “virtuosity” and “virtue.” The contrast suggests a famous old contrast between skills and dispositions. Not that skills can’t essentially involve dispositions and vice versa; but the skill of doing X is not in general the disposition to do X. Is this an important worry for anyone?

    Another possible obstacle may have to do with the idea that virtues are stable dispositions (a person is better if her good qualities are stabler), while roles and relations are not so stable. Is this an important worry for anyone?

    What else?


    It seems to me that more than the early Confucians, Aristotle articulates a role/relationship/transactional view of ethics, in which the human person is essentially social, the most important deliberations are collaborative, one’s identity is bound up with one’s friendships, and even the “self-sufficiency” (autarkeia) of a person’s eudaimonia is defined as essentially inseparable from the person’s family and friends. To borrow Brian’s words: “Without the relationships and all of the education and socialization that they inculcate, the individual is just a shell, not a genuine person in any worthwhile sense of the term.” Aristotle’s own image is that of a solitary chess piece. I think Aristotle is not willing to say that the individual human being is a substance, an ousia. More than a third of the Nicomachean Ethics has relationships as its main explicit topic (social virtues, friendship, justice, etc.); nearly a fifth focuses primarily on the transactional aspect of friendships and other kinds of relationships (friendship proper, business relationships, family relationships, casual companionships, political relationships). Circumstances differ so that right action and good character cannot be reduced to formulas; furthermore, there are different flavors of virtue for different kinds of role and transaction, and in different kinds of society. Aristotle says that political order grows naturally from family order, and that the different kinds of binary family relation are “as it were, models” (paradeigmata) of the different kinds of political relation. Etc.

    So I offer Aristotelian ethics as an example of a role/relational/transactional ethics that is also a virtue ethics and that is presumably of some value, worth studying.

    • Nice comments, Bill! I think you have made very relevant points here. All persons, of course, are relational to one degree or another, though their are different attitudes and importance laid on such relationality by different philosophers like Confucius and Aristotle.

      It might be more correct to say that Aristotle begins with the individual human person as an independent substance who is to achieve his essence though his activity in the social and political order and communication. While Confucius presumes a web of human relations that always set the background for the rise of an individual, who is to distinguish and establish his individuality precisely through the appropriate handling of such relationships and roles assigned.

      (This is of course my own thoughts on the concepts as role, relation, autonomy in C and A – not a recap of Rosemont and Ames’s theory per se).

  9. I’m not actually sure Aristotle doesn’t call a single human being a substance. I had it in my head that he doesn’t call an individual bee a substance, but I don’t have a text in mind. (I’m on a tropical island at the moment – no, really – and I’m not in a good position to check.)

    As A&R point out, “rational/rationality” is often used more narrowly than our “reasonable/reason.” Aristotle’s “logos,” by contrast, is broader than our “reasonable/reason.” To be “logon echon” – what does that mean? It might simply mean having discursive (linguistically articulate) thought, except that logos can also encompass uses of language that aren’t exactly discursive, such as dramatic poetry.

  10. Hi Steve,

    In introducing the post you say, “I am going to set that issue to the side and look at the possible value of recasting the ideas and values driving Confucian role ethics as a version of a broad notion of virtue ethics.”

    Do you think any recasting of those driving ideas and values is needed, or even any recasting of CRE itself, in order for it to be a kind of virtue ethics?

    The possible value you mention – I think this is what you mean:
    “I am worried that by setting CRE up as a full-fledged, sui generis competitor/replacement genus, Henry and Roger undermine the potential for Confucian ethics to contribute to / participate in / learn from broader philosophical dialogue about ethics.”

    I’m not worried about that, because I think that most good moral philosophers simply don’t use concepts like “virtue ethics” or “deontology” to decide what books not to read or what ideas they don’t need, nor to categorize themselves. A&R’s approach has the advantage of suggesting that early Confucianism has an interesting abstract feature that other philosophers may have been unwisely neglecting.

    Separately, you write,
    “there is a degree of ‘anti-theory’ sentiment in Henry and Roger’s writings; among other things, they call CRE a ‘vision’ rather than a ‘theory.’”

    I wonder whether they use that term not because they’re against theory, but rather simply because the early Confucians didn’t offer CRE as an explicit theory? That is to say, perhaps Roger and Henry would have no principled opposition to the idea that one could or should put forth some clear CRE-ist theory?


    Thank you, Huaiyu! I appreciate your thoughts.


    Regarding your characterization of the difference between Confucius and Aristotle, I’m not sure whether it isn’t truer the other way around. For example, Confucius seems to have the concept of an “exemplary person,” and seems to think that the core of good rulership is just to be a good person in general. But I really do only mean I’m not sure. I’d love to get into that here.

    I suppose the term “CRE” does hang uneasily between being a name for something Ames and Rosemont are articulating, and being a name for what the early Confucians thought. So in trying to determine whether Aristotle’s ethics counts as a version of “CRE” that is also a kind of virtue ethics, it’s not clear to what extent interpretive discussion of early Confucians is relevant.

    In any case it may be appropriate for me here to set aside Confucius himself. More than half the case for attributing a robustly rolational ethics to Confucius rests on the premise that he accepted the ideas of LY 1.2. I think he didn’t, and I think 1.2 doesn’t quite fit with the Confucius of the Analects. Still, as 1.2 did become a core part of Confucianism, for purposes of understanding “CRE” to discuss Steve’s proposal maybe we should just set aside Confucius himself on grounds that he may be an exception to the main lines of “early Confucianism.” Or at least look only at other aspects of his views.


    I wonder whether it is fair to say that Mencius didn’t start from a notion of the individual as cosmically endowed with a set list of potential virtues to realize; or whether it is fair to say that Xunzi didn’t start with a notion of the individual as endowed with a set of desires and faculties that a social order mainly has to accommodate and tame.

    One might suppose that even a rolational ethics is going to have to work with some conception of the potentials biologically inherent in humans. As you may suggest, Huaiyu, whether Aristotle is an example of the kind of view Steve would like to see depends on whether Aristotle’s view is relational enough. Maybe Steve can say something here about how much is enough?


    One thing Aristotle seems to do far more than early Confucians is to articulate, assert, and explicitly develop the views that A&R identify as definitive of CRE. (Correct me about this?) Still, that point may be consistent with the idea that the early Confucians’ vision was in fact more rolational than Aristotle’s – at least if the rolationality of an approach to ethics is something that can be seen in the concrete patterns of activities it favors, and isn’t primarily a feature of how life is theorized about.


    Consider two people who theorize about good and bad in the playing of cards. One of them considers just two games, one simple and one complex. Her notion of the features of a good card-player is going to be deeply informed by the specific requirements of those two games.

    The other theorist thinks that people and cards allow for a very wide variety of different games. As compared to the first theorist, the second will focus on much more general or abstract features of what counts as good strategy and good qualities of a good card-player, and at the same time will try to theorize about what kinds of card games there are, what qualities make one sort of game better than another, and even whether we can construct the ideal game, or the ideal game for excellent players.

    When you ask the first theorist what makes a strategy or a player good, she is likely to answer in two parts: “For the first game, ABC; for the second game, DEF.” The second theorist may give a different kind of answer. Simply because no very short list would interest her, she may find it less interesting to give a list, and more interesting to try to generalize, and especially to generalize for good kinds of game, while still perhaps commenting on how different approaches suit different kinds of game.

    Each kind of theorist might take a rule-centered or a virtue-centered approach to prescriptions about excellence in card-playing. That is, each might try to work up a good set of rules (or two sets) for a strategist to follow, or a good set of general qualities (or two sets) to exercise. Offhand I would expect the rule approach to be more tempting to the first theorist than to the second.

    Does the first theorist have a more rolational view? She may, at least in the negative sense that the broad generalizations have not drawn her attention. To find out how rolational her view is, we might want to ask her, “Why do you consider only those two games? Do you think those are the best or only ones? If so, why? Because of the limits of human nature, or of the nature of the cards?”


    I think it is wrong to think of the Ethics as the place where Aristotle lays out his ethics. I think he lays out his ethics in the Ethics and Politics, and I think he’s pretty explicit about that. For example, he says in EN.i.2 that the discipline that studies the highest good is politics, and that the good of the community trumps the good of the individual. He says the understanding of politics is in a way the same state as phronesis, practical wisdom ( He says that lawfulness is in a way the whole of virtue, because it is virtue in relations with others; hence “ruling will reveal the man, for the ruler is automatically related to another, and in a community” (EN.v.1). The main way to train virtue is through law [i.e. communal norms] ; therefore, to become good, and especially to know how to train our own children and friends in virtue when existing communal norms do not suffice, we should study norm-designing, and especially constitutions (EN.x.9). Thus the Ethics at its conclusion hands us off to the Politics.

    In the Ethics, Aristotle focuses mainly on ideal qualities of an individual and of personal relationships. But his conclusions are in significant part negative or open-ended. Consider the six virtues that introductory surveys tend to focus on: (a) courage, temperance, (b) munificence, generosity, and (c) magnanimity, and the nameless virtue that resembles magnanimity. I think these are indeed an organized set: each involves the pursuit or avoidance of leading prima facie goods (and bads): roughly, (a) bodily pleasure and pain, (b) material goods, and (c) honor (others’ respect). We can pursue these goods (and avoid their lack) too much or too little. So far, that’s a negative point: focus on the prima facie goods does not suffice to define the virtues for an individual. As how far one should actually go in pursuit and avoidance, the main thing Aristotle says here is “it depends on the case.” That is, the significance of these goods is more in their context than in the goods themselves.

    There are many more virtues on Aristotle’s short-list. Of all of them, roughly one half of one is not on its face primarily about our relations with others: the half of temperance that is about food rather than sex. And note that the means for munificence, generosity, magnanimity, and the nameless virtue are not, strictly speaking, means in pursuit or avoidance of goods. Rather they are means with regard to our allocating the goods between ourselves and others.

    Aristotle often talks about how different people have different biological potentials (though it isn’t always clear whether he has decided how far his generalizations reflect biological differences or cultural differences). For example, some people (such as women) simply have less potential for the highest human virtue than others, so that their proper virtue takes a distinctive form. Some have more of a natural disposition to one virtue than to another. And different tribes or nations have different proportions of different parts of the soul. Persians, Greeks, and Scythians differ in the relative strengths of their rational and spirited parts. Among the persons the rational part overbalances the spirited part, and among the Scythians it’s the reverse. The imbalance is revealed in, and problematic (wholly?) because of, the difficulties these peoples have in political organization (Pol.vii).


    I’m no expert on Aristotle’s idea of substance. But from my conversations long ago with people who are, I gather that there is strong evidence that he at least sometimes thought that nothing less organized than a biological organism is, strictly speaking, a substance. And that he might have thought that for very highly social animals such as bees, maybe the substance is rather the hive than the individual. Self-sufficiency is one of his standard criteria of substance-hood. So he may have thought that it is at least unclear whether an individual in an only moderately social species, such as the human species, is a substance. I don’t recall whether he says anything one way or the other about this. Maybe I’ll get around to researching what he said and reporting here.

    None of that is to deny that he thought that his concepts of essence and of the complete form as a final cause have rough application to things that are roughly substances.


    I suggested in another thread that Aristotle’s approximation of the word ‘role’ is ergon (work, task, function). When he looks for easy examples of things that have functions, he thinks of body-parts such as organs, and technai such as carpentry, flute-playing, or generalship. (In a broad sense these are relations. Aristotle thinks of the division and exchange of labor.) Whether something is good of its kind depends fundamentally on the function or role of that kind; and of course you can be a member of many kinds: you can be a flautist, a carpenter, a general, a citizen, and a human being. “Citizen” is pretty abstract. Aristotle worries about the question when and whether a good citizen is the same thing as a good human being. He does not, I think, address or even formulate the question, “Where these are not the same, which should you be?”

    (Another rough equivalent of “role” that is important for Aristotle is “office,” but this comment is already too long.)

  11. Role Ethics is different from Virtue Ethics.
    The center of The Whole Ethics is Virtue. Therefore, Ethics can be named also as Virtue Ethics. Additionally, Virtue Ethics is of The Whole Life Perspective.
    Whereas, Role Ethics is of Partial Perspective, that is, Perspective of Realization of “Talent”, Position, and Responsibility, which are only some parts of Life.
    Therefore, Role Ethics is a part of Virtue Ethics; it is Ethics of Realization of “Talent” Position, and Responsibility.
    Then, beside the other parts of Virtue Ethics, Role Ethics is also Virtue Ethics, inclusively.

  12. Hi Mario, I think you make a very good point.

    Aristotle might reply this way: “For me, role ethics encompasses virtue ethics and, arguably, more. I have argued in EN.i.7 that for each term R naming something with an ergon or role (carpenter, lungs, etc.), goodness for E (being a good E) is carrying out the role well. And as ‘man’ too is a term for something with a role–in Ross’s translation: ‘an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle’ and ‘an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle’–, I concluded that being a good person is ‘the good and noble performance of these.’ I didn’t mean that this idea is going to tell us exactly how to play our more specific roles well, such as flute-playing or governing.”

    I wonder whether you think this reply is philosophically wrong?

    Or maybe you would say instead that this reply departs from the idea of “role ethics” because the whole idea of “role ethics” is that there are only Roles in the plural, not one overriding Role.

    If so, then I make this reply to you: Maybe Aristotle’s broad claims about the role or function of a human being are in fact generalizations, not separate and overriding. That is, maybe they are related to more specific ideas about the role of a carpenter or judge the way “good musician” is related to “good flute-player” and “good pianist,” or “good knife” is related to “good dagger” and “good butter-knife.” Generalizations are useful to us in shaping ourselves and our children and neighbors, and in choosing friends and political policies, because in life people have thousands or millions of large and small particular roles.

    What do you think?

  13. I have ruined any apparent authority I might have had as a reporter of what Aristotle says, by saying that I thought he didn’t explicitly say that individual humans are substances. Also I can’t find anything he says about bees v. hives.

    So I here include substantial quotations. They’re all from translations at the Internet Classics Archive, so you can Search to see the context. Within the quotes, anything in brackets is by me.

    What is settled by the point that Aristotle sometimes says a human being is a substance? If we thought he arrived at his ethical views by inferring them from his metaphysical views, much might follow. But although he does sometimes argue in ethics on the basis of his very general views about the world, he says that his main method is more empirical/traditionalist: he respects the opinions of the many and the wise, trying to accommodate them while minimizing contradictions, and at the same time using direct observation and history (e.g. directing the collection of, and then analyzing, accounts of hundreds of actual modes of organization of a city’s political life).

    Aristotle’s ethical views can seem quite unsettled; partly because they are, I suppose; partly because what we have are notes from various periods in his life, and partly because at different times he was speaking at different levels of generalization — e.g. speaking about the ideal (i.e. for the best people), or about virtues for free men in general (including farmers), or virtues for all humans (including women and natural slaves).

    In one place where he considers an objection to the idea that the philosophically contemplative life is the human ideal, he seems almost to be struggling against the implications of his metaphysics about the human species: “But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue. If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything. This would seem, too, to be each man himself, since it is the authoritative and better part of him. It would be strange, then, if he were to choose not the life of his self but that of something else. And what we said before will apply now; that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest.” (EN.x.7)

    In Ross’s translation here, Aristotle uses ‘self’ as a freestanding noun, as though ‘self’ were the name of a kind of thing, like ‘brain’. Of course neither Attic Greek nor everyday English has such a word. Each has instead a set of reflexive pronouns (oneself, itself, herself: autos, heautos) and a reflexive prefix (self-deception, self-cleaning oven). In each case the pronoun or prefix simply stands for e.g. “that oven” or “that person,” depending on the context. If Whiskers cleans herself or deceives herself, that doesn’t mean she washes or deceives her “self.” It means she cleans or deceives Whiskers. (My impression is that the freestanding ‘self’ is not an important term in old-fashioned mainstream anglophone ethics, but is rather regarded with suspicion by many; but I could be wrong about the latter.) The freestanding ‘self’ might best be regarded either as a term of art (if a definition is offered or clearly implicit), or as something inherently figurative, if that makes sense, like a poet’s made-up word.

    (When I encounter claims about “the Confucian conception of the self,” I feel unsure of the topic; I wonder whether a topic is being exported from I don’t know where.)

    On other occasions Aristotle’s picture goes in different directions:

    “… the final good is thought to be self-sufficient. Now by self-sufficient we do not mean that which is sufficient for a man by himself, for one who lives a solitary life, but also for parents, children, wife, and in general for his friends and fellow citizens, since man is born for citizenship. But some limit must be set to this; for if we extend our requirement to ancestors and descendants and friends’ friends we are in for an infinite series. Let us examine this question, however, on another occasion …” (EN.i.7)

    “Parents, then, love their children as themselves (for their issue are by virtue of their separate existence a sort of other selves), while children love their parents as being born of them, and brothers love each other as being born of the same parents; for their identity with them makes them identical with each other (which is the reason why people talk of ‘the same blood’, ‘the same stock’, and so on). They are, therefore, in a sense the same thing, though in separate individuals.” (EN.viii.12)

    “… each of these characteristics belongs to the good man in relation to himself, and he is related to his friend as to himself (for his friend is another self [of his])” (EN.ix.4)

    “… For we have said at the outset that happiness is an activity; and activity plainly comes into being and is not present at the start like a piece of property. If (1) happiness lies in living and being active, and the good man’s activity is virtuous and pleasant in itself, as we have said at the outset, and (2) a thing’s being one’s own is one of the attributes that make it pleasant, and (3) we can contemplate our neighbours better than ourselves and their actions better than our own, and if the actions of virtuous men who are their friends are pleasant to good men (since these have both the attributes that are naturally pleasant),–if this be so, the supremely happy man will need friends of this sort, since his purpose is to contemplate worthy actions and actions that are his own, and the actions of a good man who is his friend have both these qualities.” (EN.ix.9)

    “When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best. Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces–the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts. …
    Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. … The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature, and yet he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all … Wherefore, if he have not virtue [i.e., roughly, justice], he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals … But justice [dikaiosune, the virtue] is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice [dike], which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society” (Pol.i.2)

    Still, the overall picture in these passages may differ in an important way from the picture in CRE. Aristotle’s picture in at least three of the above passages is that you are in some sense more or less the same person as those with whom you are more or less closely related. But a rolational conception of personhood might instead highlight a difference between a mother and her daughter: that one is a mother and the other is a daughter.

    I don’t think that picture of the contrast between Aristotle and CRE is quite right, but this comment is already complicated enough for one day.

  14. I want to argue at length that in most respects, Aristotle accepted CRE as Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont describe CRE in “Were the Early Confucians Virtuous?” (in Fraser, Robins, and O’Leary, eds., Ethics in Early China: An Anthology, HKU 2011).

    Here I’ll lay out and number the many other points that the paper suggests are significant marks of CRE, especially as opposed to one or another sort of virtue theory; and I’ll argue that they are each articulated and defended by Aristotle. (I don’t know whether they are articulated and defended by early Confucians.)

    Except that there are three main points of CRE that I won’t try to argue.

    Granted, Aristotle attended less to what children and male adults owe to their family elders than early Confucians did, and probably found such relations less important. Indeed, they were less important in his society. Certainly Aristotle was far less concerned with reverence for our ancestors than was Plato or at least some early Confucians. (The Nicomachean Ethics includes a discussion of whether the quality of our parents’ lives can be marred in retrospect by our bad behavior after they die (it can), but his purpose is not to offer an argument from filial piety for good behavior: En.i.10f.) And Aristotle was less concerned with families as continuing entities than I gather Chinese culture is (I’m not sure early Confucianism shared that concern).

    On the other hand, my impression is that Aristotle attended far more to the care and training that parents owe to children than early Confucian texts do, and attended more to the moral analysis of the parent-child relation and its analogy with broader social relations. But I won’t pursue that point here.

    Another of the main marks of CRE in the anthology paper is “a religious sensibility grounded in this world.” I won’t try to discuss whether Aristotle qualifies.

    Steve may be right that the paper indicates that a mark of accepting CRE is that one tries to live the life rather than to theorize about it. I won’t talk about how Aristotle lived, nor deny that he theorized.


    Most of the points in the paper are negative ones: CRE doesn’t hold A, doesn’t hold B, etc.

    1) CRE does not conceive the virtues, or anyway the good aspects of the good person, in such a way that they “can be described, analyzed, [or] evaluated, without specifying any role or relationship to or with others.” (19f)

    Of course we shouldn’t give point (1) an absurdly strict interpretation. Presumably it isn’t meant to rule out having simple general names for the most important virtues, as early Confucians do; nor to rule out offering brief broad-strokes comments about those virtues without specifying rolations, as e.g. Confucius does. Nor is it meant to rule out broad theoretical generalizations (such as point (1) itself and many other comments in the anthology paper) that don’t specify and aren’t limited to any particular rolations or kinds of rolation but instead speak about rolational excellence in the abstract. Aristotle’s “definition” of virtue of character as a kind of mean leaves quite open the extent to which he thinks we ought to be differently disposed to relate to people in different role-relationships with us, allowing Aristotle to have strong views about that.

    Aristotle’s term “hexis” or “state of character” does not by definition mean something that characterizes an individual independently of her relationships. For example:

    “Now it looks as if love [philēsis] were a feeling, friendship [philia] a state of character [hexis]; for love may be felt just as much towards lifeless things, but mutual love involves choice and choice springs from a state of character; and men wish well to those whom they love, for their sake, not as a result of feeling but as a result of a state of character.” (EN.viii.5)

    “The just man needs people towards whom and with whom he shall act justly, and the temperate man, the brave man, and each of the others is in the same case, but the philosopher, even when by himself, can contemplate truth, and the better the wiser he is; he can perhaps do so better if he has fellow-workers …” (EN.x.7)

    Aristotle’s vision is not that we are basically the same and should relate to others as though we are basically the same.

    “How man and wife and in general friend and friend ought mutually to behave seems to be the same question as how it is just for them to behave; for a man does not seem to have the same duties to a friend, a stranger, a comrade, and a schoolfellow.” (EN.viii.12)

    Here clearly Aristotle is using ‘just’ in at least the sense in which he holds that justice is “complete virtue in its fullest sense” or “virtue entire” or “complete virtue, but not absolutely, but in relation to our neighbor” (EN.v.1); and the context is a discussion, spanning two Books, of the various kinds of (mostly asymmetrical) social relationships conceived as kinds of exchange, especially of honor for care.

    “But there is another kind of friendship, viz. that which involves an inequality between the parties, e.g. that of father to son and in general of elder to younger, that of man to wife and in general that of ruler to subject. And these friendships differ also from each other; for it is not the same that exists between parents and children and between rulers and subjects, nor is even that of father to son the same as that of son to father, nor that of husband to wife the same as that of wife to husband. For the virtue and the function [ergon] of each of these [rolation-parties or personae] is different, and so are the reasons for which they love [philew]; the love and the friendship are therefore different also. Each party, then, neither gets the same from the other, nor ought to seek it; but when children render to parents what they ought to render to those who brought them into the world, and parents render what they should to their children, the friendship of such persons will be abiding and excellent.”(EN.viii.7; emphasis added)

    “This then is also the way in which we should associate with unequals; the man who is benefited in respect of wealth or virtue must give honour in return, repaying what he can. … This is why it would not seem open to a man to disown his father (though a father may disown his son); being in debt, he should repay, but there is nothing by doing which a son will have done the equivalent of what he has received, so that he is always in debt.” (EN.viii.14)

    “Friendship and justice seem, as we have said at the outset of our discussion, to be concerned with the same objects and exhibited between the same persons [i.e. pairs of persons]. For in every community there is thought to be some form of justice, and friendship too; at least men address as friends their fellow-voyagers and fellow soldiers, and so too those associated with them in any other kind of community. And the extent of their association is the extent of their friendship, as it is the extent to which justice exists between them. And the proverb ‘what friends have is common property’ expresses the truth; for friendship depends on community. Now brothers and comrades have all things in common, but the others to whom we have referred have definite things in common-some more things, others fewer; for of friendships, too, some are more and others less truly friendships. And the claims of justice differ too; the duties of parents to children, and those of brothers to each other are not the same, nor those of comrades and those of fellow-citizens, and so, too, with the other kinds of friendship. There is a difference, therefore, also between the acts that are unjust towards each of these classes of associates, and the injustice increases by being exhibited towards those who are friends in a fuller sense; e.g. it is a more terrible thing to defraud a comrade than a fellow-citizen, more terrible not to help a brother than a stranger, and more terrible to wound a father than anyone else. And the demands of justice also seem to increase with the intensity of the friendship, which implies that friendship and justice exist between the same persons and have an equal extension.” (EN.viii.9)

    I showed in an earlier comment that Aristotle says the essence of a human person is to be a functional part of a family and state (and that he conceives the ideal of contemplation, apparently suited for a very few, as in some sense a rising above our species essence – though as noted just above, not best done alone; the ideal is not solitary contemplation).

    Aristotle conceives the family and the state as composed of role relationships.

    “Now we should begin by examining everything in its fewest [almost all other translators agree that Aristotle’s term is better translated as “smallest”; a few say “simplest”] possible elements; and the first and fewest possible parts of a family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children. We have therefore to consider what each of these three relations is and ought to be: I mean the relation of master and servant, the marriage relation (the conjunction of man and wife has no name of its own), and thirdly, the procreative relation (this also has no proper name). …” (Pol.i.3)

    Aristotle sees these all as kinds of ruler-ruled relationship, in most of which (to put it briefly) care is exchanged for respect or honor; and he sees politics in similar terms. The organizing topic of the Politics is the forms of ruler-ruled relationship.

    “Of household management we have seen that there are three parts- one is the rule of a master over slaves, which has been discussed already, another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature. But in most constitutional states the citizens rule and are ruled by turns, for the idea of a constitutional state implies that the natures of the citizens are equal, and do not differ at all. Nevertheless, when one rules and the other is ruled we endeavor to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect, which may be illustrated by the saying of Amasis about his foot-pan. The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent. The rule of a father over his children is royal, for he rules by virtue both of love [philia] and of the respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power. And therefore Homer has appropriately called Zeus ‘father of Gods and men,’ because he is the king of them all. For a king is the natural superior of his subjects, but he should be of the same kin or kind with them, and such is the relation of elder and younger, of father and son.” (Pol.i.12)

    “One may find resemblances to the constitutions and, as it were, patterns [paradeigmata] of them even in households. For the association of a father with his sons bears the form of monarchy, since the father cares for his children; and this is why Homer calls Zeus ‘father’; it is the ideal of monarchy to be paternal rule. But among the Persians the rule of the father is tyrannical; they use their sons as slaves. Tyrannical too is the rule of a master over slaves; for it is the advantage of the master that is brought about in it. Now this [sc. monarchy] seems to be a correct form of government, but the Persian type is perverted; for the modes of rule appropriate to different relations are diverse. The association of man and wife seems to be aristocratic; for the man rules in accordance with his worth, and in those matters in which a man should rule, but the matters that befit a woman he hands over to her. If the man rules in everything the relation passes over into oligarchy; for in doing so he is not acting in accordance with their respective worth, and not ruling in virtue of his superiority. Sometimes, however, women rule, because they are heiresses; so their rule is not in virtue of excellence but due to wealth and power, as in oligarchies. The association of brothers is like timocracy; for they are equal, except in so far as they differ in age; hence if they differ much in age, the friendship is no longer of the fraternal type. Democracy is found chiefly in masterless dwellings (for here every one is on an equality), and in those in which the ruler is weak and every one has licence to do as he pleases.” (EN.viii.10)

    Further, he prominently identifies what we call his “Ethics” as a set of lectures in the study of politics.

    “Since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer [more kalon: 美] and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.” (EN.i.2)

    “A young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science [such as these]; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life.” (EN.i.3)

    “any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble [kalon: 美] and just, and generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits.” (EN.i.4)

    (to be continued)

  15. (continued from Comment #15 just above )

    We were talking about whether Aristotle fits this mark of CRE:

    1) CRE does not conceive the virtues, or anyway the good aspects of the good person, in such a way that they “can be described, analyzed, [or] evaluated, without specifying any role or relationship to or with others.” (19f)

    Aristotle defines the rolation-concept “citizen” basically in terms of the role participating in ruling (arkhein) and being ruled (arkhesthai). Among those who are ruled, citizens are those who also participate in ruling, i.e. in office (arkhē), even if the participation is only assembly membership, occasional jury duty, or membership in the lottery pools from which various officials were regularly chosen.

    Aristotle takes that role seriously: “The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives. … Neither must we suppose that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole. In this particular as in some others the Lacedaemonians are to be praised, for they take the greatest pains about their children, and make education the business of the state.” (Politics.viii.1)

    But it is a very general role. And presumably any serious discussion of role ethics will insist that there is no such thing as “the role” a person is engaging in at any given moment or in any given interaction, any more than there is such a thing as “the kind” that a given thing is a member of. (This butter-knife is a knife and is a thing of mine. A mother is also a parent; one’s brother may also be one’s neighbor, fellow citizen, subject, dentist, etc.)

    “There is a point nearly allied to the preceding: Whether the virtue of a good man and a good citizen is the same or not. But, before entering on this discussion, we must certainly first obtain some general notion of the virtue of the citizen. Like the sailor, the citizen is a member of a community. Now, sailors have different functions, for one of them is a rower, another a pilot, and a third a look-out man, a fourth is described by some similar term; and while the precise definition of each individual’s virtue applies exclusively to him, there is, at the same time, a common definition applicable to them all. For they have all of them a common object, which is safety in navigation. Similarly, one citizen differs from another, but the salvation of the community is the common business of them all. This community is the constitution; the virtue of the citizen must therefore be relative to the constitution of which he is a member. If, then, there are many forms of government, it is evident that there is not one single virtue of the good citizen which is perfect virtue. But we say that the good man is he who has one single virtue which is perfect virtue. Hence it is evident that the good citizen need not of necessity possess the virtue which makes a good man.” (Pol.iii.4)

    Here of course it is clear that he doesn’t take “good man” to be general and therefore weak as he does with “good citizen.” But I am inclined to think that that is because when he speaks of a “good man” here – which, recall, is still defined by the role or function of a political animal – he is not speaking of ethics (in the sense of what one morally should do given the circumstances at hand); he is speaking of ideals (as we might ask, what kind of situation allows for the best possible person). He is not always clear about the distinction between the moral and the ideal. I follow Terry Irwin in thinking that when he speaks of justice in the general sense he has in mind morality.

    I think the reason Aristotle is generalizing in one way for ‘citizen’ and in another for ‘man’ is that he is concerned in this Book and in the Politics as a whole with the foundational and practically urgent ethical question, What roles should there ideally be, among the ones that aren’t simply given by nature? He has discussed alternative forms of the family at some length in Book II; here and elsewhere he is trying to look at the problem from the perspective of whole communities: multi-party rolations that form a kind of whole. (Ideally the city should be small enough for the citizens all to know each other, more or less: Pol.vii.4.) He continues directly, trying to figure out what set of roles makes it possible to have excellent citizenship and excellent humanity coincide:

    “The same question may also be approached by another road, from a consideration of the best constitution. If the state cannot be entirely composed of good men, and yet each citizen is expected to do his own business well, and must therefore have virtue, still inasmuch as all the citizens cannot be alike, the virtue of the citizen and of the good man cannot coincide. All must have the virtue of the good citizen- thus, and thus only, can the state be perfect; but they will not have the virtue of a good man, unless we assume that in the good state all the citizens must be good.

    “Again, the state, as composed of unlikes, may be compared to the living being: as the first elements into which a living being is resolved are soul and body, as soul is made up of rational principle [logos] and appetite, the family of husband and wife, property of master and slave, so of all these, as well as other dissimilar elements, the state is composed; and, therefore, the virtue of all the citizens cannot possibly be the same, any more than the excellence of the leader of a chorus is the same as that of the performer who stands by his side. I have said enough to show why the two kinds of virtue cannot be absolutely and always the same.

    “But will there then be no case in which the virtue of the good citizen and the virtue of the good man coincide? To this we answer that the good ruler is a good and wise man, and that he who would be a statesman must be a wise man. And some persons say that even the education of the ruler should be of a special kind; for are not the children of kings instructed in riding and military exercises? As Euripides says: ‘No subtle arts for me, but what the state requires.’ As though there were a special education needed by a ruler.

    “If then the virtue of a good ruler is the same as that of a good man, and we assume further that the subject is a citizen as well as the ruler, the virtue of the good citizen and the virtue of the good man cannot be absolutely the same, although in some cases they may; for the virtue of a ruler differs from that of a citizen. … it may be argued that men are praised for knowing both how to rule and how to obey [be ruled], and he is said to be a citizen of approved virtue who is able to do both. Now if we suppose the virtue of a good man to be that which rules, and the virtue of the citizen to include ruling and obeying, it cannot be said that they are equally worthy of praise. Since, then, it is sometimes thought that the ruler and the ruled must learn different things and not the same, but that the citizen must know and share in them both, the inference is obvious.

    “… there is a [kind of rule] which is exercised over freemen and equals by birth -a constitutional rule, which the ruler must learn by obeying, as he would learn the duties of a general of cavalry by being under the orders of a general of cavalry, or the duties of a general of infantry by being under the orders of a general of infantry, and by having had the command of a regiment and of a company. It has been well said that ‘he who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.’ The two are not the same, but the good citizen ought to be capable of both; he should know how to govern like a freeman, and how to obey like a freeman- these are the virtues of a citizen. And, although the temperance and justice of a ruler are distinct from those of a subject [one ruled], the virtue of a good man will include both; for the virtue of the good man who is free and also a subject, e.g., his justice, will not be one but will comprise distinct kinds, the one qualifying him to rule, the other to obey, and differing as the temperance and courage of men and women differ. For a man would be thought a coward if he had no more courage than a courageous woman, and a woman would be thought loquacious if she imposed no more restraint on her conversation than the good man; and indeed their part in the management of the household is different, for the duty of the one is to acquire, and of the other to preserve. Practical wisdom only is characteristic of the ruler: it would seem that all other virtues must equally belong to ruler and subject. …

    “From these considerations may be gathered the answer to the question, whether the virtue of the good man is the same as that of the good citizen, or different, and how far the same, and how far different.” (Pol.iii.4)

    Let us now look at the particular virtues Aristotle discusses early in the Nicomachean Ethics, to see whether he gives there any appearance of not meeting standard (1).

    Again, to do this we must have a care for the standard’s meaning. For example, it is most natural to think that if (1) means anything at all, it must rule out the concept of an “exemplary person” — and yet I suppose it is not meant to. Also, when for example Confucius says at LY 2.22, “I am not sure that anyone who does not make good on their word is viable as a person” (A&R, trans.; 而無信,不知其可也),or says to Zizhang at LY 15.6, “If you do your utmost to make good on your word, and you are earnest and respectful in your conduct, even though you are living in the barbarian states of Man or Mo, your conduct will be proper” (A&R;言忠信,行篤敬,雖蠻貊之邦行矣), we can take these comments as being in accord with (1) if we think the qualities here favored will be exemplified in the context of whatever rolations one is engaged in; they are modes of engagement in rolations. For regarding these statements as consistent with (1), I suppose we need not also think that the virtues in question, such as making good on one’s word, apply only to some major rolations, not to all; nor to think that they only apply to major rolations, not also to ephemeral interactions.

    Let’s quickly review the list of virtues of character Aristotle offers at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics (briefly in ii.7, and at length in iii.6 – v); that is, setting aside his main discussion of friendship (relationships) in the Ethics, which comes later and takes about the same amount of text as his discussion of all these virtues. Taking the virtues in reverse order:

    He gives about half his attention to justice and its varieties: fairness in distributions, rectificatory justice, fairness in exchanges, and the broad adherence to nomos (convention, law) that is in a sense the whole of virtue. Each of these virtues, he says, is “in relation to [pros, toward] another [sc. another person, other people]” (EN.ii.2).

    Here are the other virtues he lists and then analyzes at some length:

    10. Wittiness in social interaction.

    9. Truthfulness in social interaction (he means the mean between boastfulness and self-deprecation).

    8. Friendliness (not: friendship) in social interaction.

    7. Good temper (or gentleness): being neither too quick nor too slow to anger.

    6, 5. Two states that consist in claiming from others the right degree of honor (respect): one state concerned with honors on a large scale (“magnanimity” or “proper pride”), appropriate especially for public figures; the other concerned with smaller matters and more appropriate for people who live more private lives.

    4,3. Two states that are means in the giving and getting of money or goods: munificence, concerned with large sums; and liberality (generosity), for everyday matters.

    2. Temperance.

    1. Courage.

    (Of course, in the Ethics he gives twice as much space to the discussion of justice and friendship as he gives to these ten together.)

    Of the virtues I’ve listed, the ones that could suggest that Aristotle does not always fit CRE point (1) are temperance and courage. And since he discusses these first and at some length, one might think they stand for his notion of virtues in general. Indeed he does use them to illustrate his doctrine of the mean and to insist on the limits of that doctrine.

    I think he puts courage and temperance first because the list of virtues, especially the first six, is organized roughly according to a ranking of goods from crude or immediate to more developed goods, higher goods. First there is bodily existence and avoidance of pain, then pursuit of pleasure, then material goods and money, then honor and respect, then the quality of social intercourse. The vision behind the ordering is likely to have been the idea that breaking the immediate responsiveness to cruder goods is a foundation for more advanced virtue. I’ll return to this point later. It is easy enough to see when we think about the relation between justice (in distribution and exchange) and virtues 3, 4, 5, 6. The latter four virtues are, roughly, means in the giving and taking of material goods and relative respect, which are also the main goods addressed with more exactness by justice in distribution and in exchange, which are internal standards for relationships. Aristotle’s long discussion of the norms for exchanges of such goods in relationships, spanning the two Books on friendship, closely recall the standards of fairness he developed in the Book on justice. (He often likens fair distribution to fair return, or vice versa, or identifies them: EN 1131b29-31, 1162a 4-7, b1-4, b16-21, 1163a26-b18, 1164b22-27; Pol. 1261a22-b6, 1279a8-13, 1280a25-34 with 1281a1-8, 1332b38-41.)

    Temperance and courage, as Aristotle conceives them, are not separate from how we relate to others.

    Temperance: — Aristotle’s temperance is moderation in pursuit of bodily pleasures, and in particular food and sex (roll ethics?). Now, prima facie, temperance regarding sex is about how one relates to people; and arguably it went without saying for Aristotle that eating is normally a quasi-ritual social occasion. However, it seems plain enough that people can have general (not role-specific) dispositions regarding bodily pleasures such as food and sex (not to mention alcohol, gambling, etc.) that can interfere with their engagement in the social aspects of eating or sex and in other projects. No doubt that was what Confucius had in mind when, for example, he said at LY 1.14: “In eating, exemplary persons do not look for a full stomach; nor in their lodgings for comfort and contentment” (A&R, trans.; 君子食無求飽,居無求安). If Aristotle’s view that temperance is a virtue marks him as departing from CRE on point (1), then we have to say the same thing of Confucius.

    Courage: — Aristotle says it is wrong to think of courage as the general mean in quantities of fear and confidence. For we don’t call someone brave for not fearing poverty, or not fearing death from nautical accident. Rather, the virtue, the state that properly merits honor, is specifically about the greatest of dangers in the noblest [美] circumstances for the noblest ends, i.e. specifically or primarily death in battle. Aristotle seems to have in mind the willingness to brave some people’s direct attack, for the sake of others with whom one has a closer tie.

  16. Comment digressing from my main series here, to which I’ll return:

    In this thread I haven’t yet said anything about Roger’s and Henry’s own portrayal of Aristotle’s views, and outside of this one comment I won’t; the OP asked to set that matter aside.

    The OP also reported that I suggested that others think their portrait of Aristotle is a caricature. Maybe others do; but I didn’t mention others, and I don’t think the portrait is a clownish exaggeration. I think it’s a reversal.

    As Henry’s and Roger’s picture of Aristotle differs from mine as night from day, a reader might reasonably think mine can’t be quite right. To rebut that reasonable objection, here I’ll directly address a core point in their interpretation, presented repeatedly in the anthology paper and elsewhere, one of the few interpretive points for which they offer evidence: their overview of his picture of the virtuous person’s character.

    On page 21 of the paper, Roger and Henry speak of “temperance, courage, and wisdom (to name only the three cardinal virtues first analyzed and discussed at length by Socrates in Plato’s Republic and then later by Aristotle).” The whole sentence also appears on p.22 of their book The Chinese Classic of Family Reverence (Hawaii, 2009).

    On the one hand, punctuation requires us to read these words as saying, quite truly, just this: that (1) of the virtues discussed in the Republic, these three are the first three that the character Socrates analyzes at length in that dialogue; and they are also among the virtues discussed by Aristotle later.

    (By the way, the fourth virtue in the Republic was justice, defined as each party performing its function or role, and regarded as implying the other three virtues because of the way the individual and community implicate each other.)

    An alternative reading is possible, if we add a comma. We can read the words as making the patently absurd claim that (2) Plato, Aristotle, and others after them regarded these three virtues as “the three cardinal virtues,” i.e. as encompassing the broad lines of virtue in general.

    It is clear that the intent is to say or suggest (2). For later in discussing Aristotle, Roger and Henry mention “the basic excellences he champions (as noted earlier), temperance, courage, and wisdom” (31 in the paper, 42 in the book). The endnote to the initial statement (in the paper and the book) says, “Aristotle maintains the centrality of the three (1984, vol.2; 1982/1250a).”

    (2) helps draw a portrait of Aristotle’s virtue as basically impersonal and solitary: wisdom is impersonal rationality, while courage and temperance are merely habits about danger and pleasure for one’s own body. That’s Aristotle with long floppy shoes and a big red nose.

    The citation to show that Aristotle “champions” these three as the cardinal virtues is to On Virtues and Vices, and specifically one sentence from that work, quoted in the book’s version of the endnote:

    “If in agreement with Plato we take the soul to have three parts, then wisdom is the excellence of the rational, gentleness and bravery of the passionate, temperance and continence of the appetitive.”

    Can this sentence have seemed to Henry and Roger to lean in favor of their claim, rather than against? How?

    The original work has no such sentence. For the sentence in the original goes on: “; and of the soul as a whole, justice, liberality, and magnanimity.” That’s eight virtues, without a hint that any of them is more basic or central than any other, here or anywhere in the work.

    The words Henry and Roger quoted in the endnote are strikingly un-Aristotelian, as is the whole four-page work. The cited edition tells us that nobody thinks the work is by Aristotle; or to be precise, that its not being by Aristotle “has never been seriously contested” (vii). This point is flagged by a warning sign in the table of contents and again on the cited page.

    Still it may be interesting to have a look at the cited page’s account of what wisdom is, to see whether the “wisdom” of Roger’s and Henry’s “Aristotle” resembles the “rationality” they sneer at him for, or instead resembles the intellectual qualities they associate with CRE:

    “To wisdom belongs right deliberation, right judgment as to what is good and bad and all in life that is to be chosen and avoided, noble [美] use of all the goods that belong to us, correctness in social intercourse, the grasping of the right moment, the sagacious use of word and deed, the possession of experience of all that arises from wisdom or accompanies it. Or possibly some of them are, as it were, subsidiary causes of wisdom (such as experience and memory), while others are, as it were, parts of it, e.g. good judgment and sagacity.”

    So much for the big red nose.


    I agree with Huaiyu when he says under Kai’s Feb. 29 post that he tends to think “that the only effective way to introduce a beneficial foreign ideal is almost always to find resonance of such ideal in some dimensions of one’s own tradition and to initiate productive dialogues and collaboration between them…”

    Regarding rhetorical strategies for recommending serious study of Confucianism to the West, I think there are three main kinds of audience worth considering:

    1. Western philosophers,
    2. Western undergraduates,
    3. Chinese students and intellectuals interested in philosophy.

    Now imagine a familiar sort of campaign defending the merits of Confucianism: one that relies on a clownish picture of Western philosophy.

    Group 1:
    Such a campaign can only decrease Western philosophers’ respect for scholars of Confucianism generally, especially insofar as the authors have status in the field.

    Groups 2, 3:
    Such a campaign may be effective for many undergraduates and Chinese thinkers; but it thereby does them a grave disservice.

  17. 2) In CRE, “we [in becoming human] begin with the very concrete, with the particular, that is to say, and then extrapolate to a more abstract level when we need to, but not the highly abstract – the universal principle, unless we are philosophers besotted with rationality.” (19)

    3) Consummate excellence “does not precede practical employment; it is not a principle or standard that has some existence beyond the day-to-day family-grounded lives of the people who realize it in their role relationships” (21)

    (The notion of moral improvement as “becoming a person” or “becoming human” suggests a conception of virtue as complete or perfect human personhood, and if we combine that Virtue Ethics with a rolational conception of personhood, such as a political conception of humanity, we get Role Ethics, as a theorem of Virtue Ethics. What it is to be a “good man” (as Aristotle might put it) is to play one’s roles well. Now, the notion of moral improvement as “becoming a person” or “becoming human” is a nice fit with (a) Aristotle’s vision of formal cause as final cause, and also with (b) Aristotle’s focus on the habituation aspect of moral improvement; for both (a) and (b) are at home in a focus on the development of children into adults.)

    Item (2) appears to refer both to the trajectory of good moral development, and to the general order of justification in discussions of ethics. But as this statement about proper development is itself a universal proposition, albeit a modest one, apparently it means to register CRE’s opposition not to universal ethical theorizing, or abstract discussion, but only to using universal principles as a direct guide for action.

    “Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).” (EN.ii.1)

    Aristotle’s idea is not that people first understand how they should be, and then habituate themselves based on that understanding (as I’ll show later in connection with another point). Excellence does not precede employment; on the contrary, the actions of each virtue precede the virtue. Aristotle says so, and then addresses an objection:

    “The question might be asked, what we mean by saying that we must become just by doing just acts, and temperate by doing temperate acts; for if men do just and temperate acts, they are already just and temperate, exactly as, if they do what is in accordance with the laws of grammar and of music, they are grammarians and musicians.

    “Or is this not true even of the arts? It is possible to do something that is in accordance with the laws of grammar, either by chance or at the suggestion of another. A man will be a grammarian, then, only when he has both done something grammatical and done it grammatically; and this means doing it in accordance with the grammatical knowledge in himself.

    “Again, the case of the arts and that of the virtues are not similar; for the products of the arts have their goodness in themselves, so that it is enough that they should have a certain character, but if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. These are not reckoned in as conditions of the possession of the arts, except the bare knowledge; but as a condition of the possession of the virtues knowledge has little or no weight, while the other conditions count not for a little but for everything, i.e. the very conditions which result from often doing just and temperate acts.

    “Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them. It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.

    “But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.” (EN.ii.2)

    Aristotle thinks it is a mistake to look for “universal principles” in ethics. A large chunk of the first book of the Ethics (EN.i.6) is a series of philosophical attacks on “the universal good,” i.e. Plato’s view that there is an abstract idea of the goodness common to all good things. Even if there were such an idea, Aristotle argues, it wouldn’t help us live well, as we can see by the fact that it wouldn’t help us carry out specific roles:

    “But what then do we mean by the good? It is surely not like the things that only chance to have the same name. Are goods one, then, by being derived from one good or by all contributing to one good, or are they rather one by analogy? Certainly as sight is in the body, so is reason in the soul, and so on in other cases. But perhaps these subjects had better be dismissed for the present; for perfect precision about them would be more appropriate to another branch of philosophy. And similarly with regard to the Idea; even if there is some one good which is universally predicable of goods or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man; but we are now seeking something attainable. Perhaps, however, some one might think it worth while to recognize this with a view to the goods that are attainable and achievable; for having this as a sort of pattern we shall know better the goods that are good for us, and if we know them shall attain them. This argument has some plausibility, but seems to clash with the procedure of the sciences; for all of these, though they aim at some good and seek to supply the deficiency of it, leave on one side the knowledge of the good. Yet that all the exponents of the arts should be ignorant of, and should not even seek, so great an aid is not probable. It is hard, too, to see how a weaver or a carpenter will be benefited in regard to his own craft by knowing this ‘good itself’, or how the man who has viewed the Idea itself will be a better doctor or general thereby. For a doctor seems not even to study health in this way, but the health of man, or perhaps rather the health of a particular man; it is individuals that he is healing. But enough of these topics.” (EN.i.6)

    Aristotle gives the impression of a focus on the generic, while some early Confucians give the impression of being more personal in their thought. Perhaps matters would be different if we had records of Aristotle’s conversations with companions.

    Anyway Aristotle opposes the view that there are precise universal principles of human ethics. The closest we can come is rough generalizations:

    “Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion [translator’s mistake: “of opinion” is not in the original and is obviously not what Aristotle means; he means that what is good is relative to circumstance, e.g. culture], so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.” (EN.i.3)

    “But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely, as we said at the very beginning that the accounts we demand must be in accordance with the subject-matter; matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health. The general account being of this nature, the account of particular cases is yet more lacking in exactness; for they do not fall under any art or precept but the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.” (EN.ii.2)

    Virtue involves deliberation; while “in the case of exact and self-contained sciences there is no deliberation, e.g. about the letters of the alphabet (for we have no doubt how they should be written); but the things that are brought about by our own efforts, but not always in the same way, are the things about which we deliberate, e.g. questions of medical treatment or of money-making. And we do so more in the case of the art of navigation than in that of gymnastics, inasmuch as it has been less exactly worked out, and again about other things in the same ratio, and more also in the case of the arts than in that of the sciences; for we have more doubt about the former. Deliberation is concerned with things that happen in a certain way for the most part, but in which the event is obscure, and with things in which it is indeterminate. We call in others to aid us in deliberation on important questions, distrusting ourselves as not being equal to deciding.” (EN.iii.3)

    Regarding the order of justification in theory, Aristotle distinguishes between what we might call the order of justification to us and the order of absolute explanation.

    “Let us not fail to notice, however, that there is a difference between arguments from and those to the first principles [archai: origins, offices, foundations, etc.]. For Plato, too, was right in raising this question and asking, as he used to do, ‘are we on the way from or to the first principles? ‘ There is a difference, as there is in a race-course between the course from the judges to the turning-point and the way back. For, while we must begin with what is known, things are objects of knowledge in two senses- some to us, some without qualification. Presumably, then, we must begin with things known to us. Hence any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just, and generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits. For the fact [“the what”] is the starting-point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not at the start need the reason [“the why”] as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting-points.” (EN.i.4)

    That is, people with good habits have developed the ability to recognize what in particular is good or bad in fact, and are thus able to consider accounts of why this or that is good or bad (and use these accounts to get even better).

    4) CRE involves a focus on imagination rather than reason in “determining conduct”, “what it means to become a person” (20)

    I’ll discuss imagination first and then reason. Regarding imagination, there are perhaps four different kinds of thing that A&R might have in mind, or a reader might think they’re testifying about.

    a. Aristotle discusses what he calls the faculty of phantasia mainly in the third book of De Anima and in De Motu Animalia (see e.g. the essay on phantasia in Nussbaum’s edition of the latter); it is the mental faculty of generating images or appearances. He argues there that all moving animals must have such a faculty, for it is essential to thought and desire. If Roger and Henry agree with Chad Hansen that pre-Buddhism Confucianism makes no mention of such a faculty or such mental objects, then probably this is not what they mean by “imagination.”

    b. If instead by ‘imagination’ they mean creative thinking, taking the trouble to consider alternate ways of being (i.e. alternate forms of relationship and association), then Aristotle explicitly insists on and exemplifies this activity. He wrote various kinds of manual on how to do it. (I hope these points do not need defending.) I suspect this is not what they mean.

    c. I suspect also that they are not thinking of literature, the main imaginative art form concerning human life and ethics; if only because I suspect that such a thought seems not to have been on early Confucianism’s radar. I mean, it is unclear to me to what extent early Confucians imagined the possibility of imaginative literature – narrative poetry or fictional drama on any significant scale – or valued the continuing production of poetry. (I’ve asked on several occasions in this blog and another, but got no answer.) I gather that early Confucians would not have associated the Odes with imagination, except perhaps in the imaginative ways they utilized and commented on the Odes, though perhaps the kinds of utilitization and commentary envisioned did not much involve trying to discover an author’s point of view, or trying on for a while the point of view of an author or character.

    In Aristotle’s time and place, the moving recitation of literary classics was a popular form of entertainment (or so I gather from Plato’s Ion). More importantly, ongoing creation of new fictional literature was a lively form of public discussion of the human condition and the great issues of the day. For example, the citizens would assemble for days on end to receive and evaluate new tragedies and comedies, ranging from the mythical to the fantastic (a sexual strike for peace, a utopia of talking birds) and from the noblest to the most debauched, and imaginatively addressing abstract moral questions, current military policy, and the characters of named individuals in the audience.
    It surely went without saying that forms of literature shaded imperceptibly into forms of religious rite. Aristotle’s teacher Plato used dramatic fiction as a medium of philosophy; unfortunately Aristotle’s reported works of the same kind have not survived.

    The eighth and last book of Aristotle’s Politics is incomplete; it breaks off in the very early stages of a discussion of proper education, while arguing for the moral importance of amateur musicianship for the role of citizen. Aristotle had not yet got to literature. But he makes it clear in his book on literature that he thought of literature as an important guide to understanding one’s human environment:

    “It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function [ergon, role] of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity …” (Poetics.i.9, again from the Internet Classics Archive)

    (And of course it is quite impossible that that contrast with history expresses Plato’s student’s whole idea of the moral importance of literature.)

    d. Conceivably what Roger and Henry have in mind in saying that CRE emphasizes imagination rather than reason derives from the early Confucian emphasis on the Golden Rule. One passage says we should act as we would want if the roles were reversed. To us, that point suggests imagination, because the roles are not in fact reversed. Therefore the claim that the Golden Rule has a central role in Confucian ethics (though the claim seems not to be borne out by records of application of the rule) may suggest to us a high importance placed on imaginatively understanding the generic positions (generic because I am to imagine what I would want, not what my father might want).

    Perhaps that is what Henry and Roger have in mind: that CRE favors imagination over other ways of understanding others’ wants, needs, or perspectives. If that is how we should understand point (4), then I have to concede that Aristotle is not in respect of this point an adherent of CRE.

    Aristotle’s was a culture of actual discussion, vigorous discussion, in many modes and on many scales. Now, I guess I think of early Confucians as valuing a culture in which “relationships” are largely ascribed and ritualized, and the vertical ones are valued as paradigmatic. In such a culture, discussion can feel disruptive. And in the absence of much discussion, imagining what the opposite party might feel or need would indeed be extremely helpful. The need for such imagination might be desperately felt, or even articulated. Now, ritual can be something like a mode of external imagining, at least covering the generic and standard, as e.g. walking behind someone is a metaphor; and ritual can promote sympathy insofar as it promotes understanding; and sympathy might itself be called a kind of imagining, as my feelings are images of yours. But imagination more properly so-called may be starved in a culture of permanent ascribed vertical relationships, because real imagination requires open discussion, logos, as its stimulus and soil.

    And it might require a sense of open possibilities, an outlook that is not fundamentally conservative.

    Imagination tends to require the sharing of power, e.g. taking turns. A permanent lord is unlikely to take up in imagination the point of view of his subordinates. Long-term power tends to corrupt one’s vision, as one relies for insight and feedback on people over whom one has power. We see this today in everyday life, even in institutions of academic power. Conversely, permanent subordinates are everywhere good at seeing themselves through the eyes of their immediate superiors (though Confucius perhaps shoos them away from imagining the view from yet higher eyes, at LY 8:14: “Do not plan the policies of an office you do not hold”: A&R, trans.).

    We saw above Aristotle’s appreciation of the point that citizens should understand both ruling and being ruled, both sides of relationships with some vertical dimension: that it is this dual competence, depending on a sufficiently egalitarian constitution, that makes it possible for “good man” and “good citizen” (the ideal for a political animal and the moral in one’s particular polis?) to coincide. Further to that:

    “Again, the middle class is least likely to shrink from rule, or to be over-ambitious for it; both of which are injuries to the state. Again, those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends, and the like, are neither willing nor able to submit to authority. The evil begins at home; for when they are boys, by reason of the luxury in which they are brought up, they never learn, even at school, the habit of obedience. On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme, are too degraded. So that the one class cannot obey, and can only rule despotically; the other knows not how to command and must be ruled like slaves. Thus arises a city, not of freemen, but of masters and slaves, the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship in states …” (Pol.iv.11)

    As for the quality of more personal relationships, Aristotle lays out at some length the kinds of disagreements and misunderstandings that can arise in “friendships” (real personal friendships, business associations, companionship for fun, etc.) in EN.viii-xi, to help us recognize and resolve them.

    So if Henry’s and Roger’s point about “imagination” is not that CRE stresses imagination as a way of understanding the opposite party’s point of view, but rather simply that CRE stresses the importance of understanding the opposite party’s point of view, then I think Aristotle passes the test.

    The other half of point (4) was that CRE puts little emphasis on “reason;” I’ll discuss that next.

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