Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
2016.02.02 View this Review Online View Other NDPR Reviews
Henry Rosemont Jr., Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion, Lexington Books, 2015, 190pp., $85.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780739199800.
Reviewed by Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, University of Hawaii, West Oahu
This book has ten chapters and can be roughly divided into two parts: the first five chapters focus on the discussion of many problematics of the Western notion of individualism; and the second half is devoted to the Confucian role-based alternative. This book can be seen as a culmination of Henry Rosemont Jr.’s decades of work in the field of comparative philosophy. His critique of Western individualism along with his search for Confucian spirituality as an alternative stretches back to his early works such as A Chinese Mirror: Moral Reflections on Political Economy and Society (Open Court, 1991), “Human Rights: A Bill of Worries” (in Confucianism and Human Rights, Columbia University Press, 1998) and Rationality and Religious Experience: The Continuing Relevance of the World’s Spiritual Traditions (Open Court 2001). Against Individualism is a natural progression of all these early groundworks that Rosemont has laid along the way.
The Western notion of a free, autonomous, independent individual, an inner self untouched by sociality is, as Rosemont argues, not only an ontological fiction, but more importantly ethically problematic, since to champion one’s freedom unencumbered by others as the utmost value for the libertarian and social conservative alike comes at the expense of the advancement of socio-economic justice. (54) For the first generation human rights (i.e. the Bill of Rights) are passive, focusing on freedom from constraints, and for the second generation human rights (i.e. socio-economic rights) are positive rights, requiring assistance from others to provide means to exercise those rights. These two rights stand in opposition if our conception of the self is grounded in foundational individualism. As Rosemont writes precisely,
To whatever extent we may be seen to be morally and thus politically responsible for assisting others in the creation and obtaining of those goods which accrue to them by virtue of having social and economic rights, to just that extent we cannot be altogether autonomous individuals, enjoying full civil and political rights, free to rationally decide upon and pursue our own projects rather than having to assist the less fortunate with theirs. (66)
And if so, the notion of Western individualism not only does not help alleviate poverty and social inequality; it in fact aggravates it, since the well-to-do and the needy alike are conceptualized as responsible only to oneself and hence only for oneself as well. Each rises and falls on one’s own, and to exercise the second generation rights would be impossible within the framework of individualism. A conceptual alternative obviously is sorely needed if we are to address the many socio-economic problems threatening the global community today.
Despite all its problems, the lures of individualism, as Rosemont concedes in the “Epilogue,” remain strong in the West, since the myth of a free, autonomous and independent self is intertwined with our self-representation and undergirds capitalism (177). It is a myth that is so ingrained in our psyche since the Enlightenment that any proposed alternative immediately is characterized as its direct opposite, that is, collectivism or totalitarianism. It is as if the choice is a Kierkegaardian either/or: either one champions individualism all the way down or one is for the collectivism of a hive mind. Western individualism might have worked in the past in helping establishing individual rights and limited state authority; the problems that we face today demand a different kind of response, a response that is not modeled after the Us vs. Them or absolute individual liberty vs. tyrannical government. The Confucian relational approach is a perfect medium to rebuild the lost interpersonal relationships that are needed for a more cohesive and a more perfect union in this global world. It is a vision of the co-emergence of the self and the other in relation, a kind of self-identity that doesn’t hedge on some sort of immutable inner self, but instead an existential self that becomes increasing concrete with the ever expanding social roles that one lives throughout one’s lifetime.
The most important role that is demanded of us in the Confucian tradition is the role of son and daughter along with its corresponding excellence of xiao (filial reverence). But in this day and age, to revive the concept of Confucian xiao might seem old fashion and, some might even argue, oppressive to those who occupy the role of children. That familial constraint runs counter to the Western myth of a free, autonomous, independent self who cares for no one and for whom no one cares. The Hobbesian adult male sprung out of nowhere like a wild mushroom has been the standard, default vision of the self in the Western discourse on ethics and politics. As Rosemont points out, most modern western philosophers are bachelors and have no experience of family life beyond their childhood, philosophers such as Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer (119). It is no surprise to see not only a deficit on the topic of family and parent-child relation in the West, but also a skeptical attitude toward the ethical valence of Confucian xiao. In fact, Confucian xiao has been and is continued to be defined as ethically problematic (cf. Bertrand Russell 1922; Walter Slote 1998; Donald Holzman 1998; Ranjoo Seodu Herr 2003; Liu Qingping 2007). But the critique of Confucian xiao need not stand, since a careful reading of the Western canonical writings on family and parent-child relation reveals a much more oppressive family structure and relation that has been largely neglected by contemporary scholars.
For instance, in Jeffrey Blustein’s (1982) comprehensive survey, the family structure and parent-child relation in the Western canonical writings often times is modeled after the contractual master-servant relationship where the head of the household has all the authority and the children all the obedience. Although thinkers such as Seneca, Locke, and Kant have also pointed out some parental obligations such as education, protection and financial support, the fundamental aspect of parent-child relation is one of domination and submission. Nowhere in any of the writings discussed in Blustein’s comprehensive survey (1982) is it mentioned or even hinted that children have the right or obligation to remonstrate the parents. The familial bond in the western canons is more of a contractual nature than a life-long affective bond that generates the special familial obligation. Kant, in particular, notes that grown children owe their parents nothing other than the general duty of gratitude, which is connected to the love for humanity, not a special obligation that ties the child to the parent in this life and beyond (Metaphysics of Morals, “Doctrine of Right” Ch. 28-30; “Doctrine of Virtue”, Ch. 31-32; cf. Mary Gregor 1996). In comparison, the parent-child relation in Confucianism is one of affection and mutual obligation. Familial bond is not something to be discharged upon entering adulthood; in addition, Confucian emphasis on the obligation of remonstration to the social superior including one’s parents is quite refreshing, or one might even say it is a step forward ethically.
In Confucianism, relationality is the basis of our ontological existence throughout our lifetime; there is no sharp divide between the contractual dependency of childhood and the absolute freedom and equality of adulthood. Unlike in the West, as Rosemont writes, “for the Confucians there are only interrelated persons, no individual selves” (93). And if relationality is the ontological starting point of our existence, then to think of a Confucian relational person as either being self-less or altruistic in living their social roles is to miss the mark, since to live those roles is to bring forth their existential personhood that only exists in relations. In short, to be for the Confucians is to be one-in-relation-with-the-other; one is only when the other is as well. Or what is the same, as Confucius says, when seeking to establish oneself, one establishes others (Analects 6.3; c.f. Ames and Rosemont 1998). When one’s personhood is thus conceived, the natural antagonism between self and other assumed by modern Western thinkers such as Hobbes and Kant–whose writings are the basis for political rights of the individuals that has led to the excess of individualism at the expense of the second generation rights in our time–is also overcome as well.
Confucian interpersonal personhood indeed provides a viable way forward to incorporate second generation rights into our modern state and civic life. For in Confucianism, as Rosemont points out, freedom is seen “as an achievement term, not a stative one, such that we can only begin to think of becoming truly free when we want to meet our responsibilities, when we want to help others . . . , and enjoy being helped by others” (106-7). This intentional cultivation to take joy in meeting one’s inter-personal responsibilities, to have others flourish, to Rosemont, is a “spiritual practice, Confucian style” (107). It is a spiritual practice that takes the family as the starting point in preparation for full membership in our shared humanity (108). Confucian xiao that brings forth our respect for those who came before and from whom our being emerges “can be seen most vividly, most religiously and most importantly, as a strategy for strengthening the roles of and bonds between those still alive, adding significance to their lives” (132). In other words, through our respect for our common root that the living are bound together and our lives made significant. This root of commonality need not be limited to one’s family, ethnicity or culture; rather it is the root of common humanity, as Confucius puts it, within four seas all are one’s brothers (Analects 12.5). It is a spiritual vision of the world that is made ever more harmonious through the affirmation of the intertwining of oneself and others in our shared humanity.
A religious impulse, as Rosemont terms it, is a “homoversal”, a shared human attitude and behavior that conveys a sense of “being in the presence of something larger than themselves, something that was present before we came to be, something of which we can be a part now, and which will endure long after we are gone” (137). In Confucianism, religious sensibility is expressed through the medium of ritual, which is religious and secular at the same time, covering not only significant ceremonies but also all our social interactions; or rather, it is the secular made sacred through one’s embodiment of rituals (141-42). Rituals with the obvious religious root, in Confucianism, also have an aesthetic as well as an ethical dimension. As Xunzi explains perfectly, “Rites trim what is too long and stretch out what is too short, eliminate surplus and repair deficiency, extend the forms of love and reverence, and step by step bring to fulfillment the beauties of proper conduct” (Xunzi, Ch. 19; cf. Watson 1969, 100 and Rosemont 143). Taking rituals and traditions seriously as important aspects of a flourishing life, as Rosemont concludes, would serve us well to go beyond the narrowness of individualism as well as its temporality (146). For by embodying the rituals, one comes to acknowledge the co-humanity of our fellows both living and dead, with sincerity and grace, and with due measure and beauty. Indeed, rituals give Confucian personhood a sense of enduring continuity connecting the present self to the ancestral past as well as to the future generation that is yet to come. And that shared sense of common humanity in turn propels the Confucians to go beyond their immediate circles of family and friends into the world at large.
A role-bearing Confucian, as Rosemont argues, is much more equipped to deal with the problem of socio-economic injustice, since unlike other major religions, Confucian spiritual development is intrinsically connected to one’s moral life in the communal setting. Given the fact that there is no monastery in the Confucian tradition, “without others, Confucian spiritual cultivation is not possible” (163). Interestingly, George Rupp, a former dean of Harvard Divinity School, although not a sinologist, reaches the same conclusion in his assessment of world religions: “For the Confucian, there is no access to the ultimate except through social relationships” (2015, 77). In other words, a Confucian spiritual life is a social life made sacred, and the wider the web of social relations one sustains, the more significant one’s spiritual life has become.
The Confucian spiritual drive to extend, sustain and repair relationships can also be applied to deal with the trauma of criminal violations. For reconciliation is much more appealing to role-bearing Confucians than vengeance, and in order to truly overcome trauma and heal severed relationships, we must go beyond the current legal system of impersonal guilt and punishment that doesn’t restore the victim or rehabilitate the wrongdoer. Rosemont offers a Confucian inspired reading of the religious concepts of confession, repentance, atonement, forgiveness and redemption as a better and more comprehensive way to deal with social/political trauma. For, as Rosemont argues,
just as second generation human rights encompass first generation rights much more naturally than the other way around, so too, I believe, is the restorative justice attendant on reconciliation broader than legal justice, yet requires it, while legal justice is narrower than reconciliation, and does not require it (170).
In other words, in reconciliation, both the victim and wrongdoer are made better off, since their personhood is each restored in their mutual acknowledgement through atonement and forgiveness. Although reconciliation might not always be possible, it is a spiritual ideal we should all strive for and is in line with the Confucian ideal of an inclusive, harmonious community of datong where all are cared for.
So if we are serious about going beyond the assumed natural antagonism between the self and other in order to attend to the ever-widening problem of socio-economic injustice and to fashion a much more inclusive global community that is not premised based on the ontologically and ethically problematic Western individualism, we are better off taking the Confucian alterative where I and other are co-emergent relational beings, where to extend, sustain and repair one’s social life is a spiritual quest, and where our shared sense of common humanity reaches out to all four seas. Or as Rosemont boldly declares, we must take a stance Against Individualism and walk the path of a Confucian role-bearing person in her spiritual quest of an ever more inclusive and just global community.
Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. Trans. 1998. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. Ballantine Books.
Blustein, Jeffrey. 1982. Parents and Children: The Ethics of the Family. Oxford University Press.
Gregor, Mary. Trans. 1996. Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge University Press.
Herr, Ranjoo Seodu. 2003. “Is Confucianism Compatible with Care Ethics? A Critique.” Philosophy East and West 53.4 (Oct.): 471-489.
Holzman, Donald. 1998. “The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China.” Journal of The American Oriental Society 118.2 (April-June):185-199.
Liu, Qingping. 2007. “Confucianism and Corruption: An Analysis of Shun’s Two Actions Described by Mencius.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 6: 1-19.
Rupp, George. 2015. Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities. Columbia University Press.
Russell, Bertrand. 1922. The Problem of China. Allen and Unwin.
Slote, Walter H. 1998. “Psychocultural Dynamics within the Confucian Family.” In Walter H. Slote and George A. DeVos, eds., Confucianism and the Family. SUNY Press.
Watson, Burton. Trans. 1969. Hsun Tzu: Basic Writings. Columbia University Press.
Has this review been published anywhere in print?
Hi Ben. I don’t think NDPR has any print outlet — just online.
I’ve read the review but not the book and I was had a few general thoughts/questions I’d like to share:
1. Alasdair MacIntyre, among others, has made a compelling case that Ancient Greek conceptions of the self are also highly role-sensitive (or perhaps even role based). Buddhist conceptions of self are also profoundly different from post-Enlightenment Western ones in ways I’m not equipped to talk about. I’m therefore suspicious of the suggestion that Confucian relational self is the “perfect” alternative to the Western conception of the self when only comparing the former to the latter rather than to other ancient alternatives that also diverge from contemporary Western conception(s) and assumptions about the self. I’m all in favor of pulling insights from ancient Chinese traditions, but to me the idea of a relational self seems something more characteristically “ancient” rather than “Confucian.” (I’d even settle for characteristically “Ancient Chinese” since let’s not forget the Mohists and even the Daoists shared the vast majority of the assumptions about the importance of family values, relationships, and the like with the Confucians.) So assuming the first part of the book is basically true, what I’d need convincing of in the second part is why Confucianism is better than other plausible alternatives, not to the acknowledged implausible status quo.
2. Though mentioned in the review, I think there’s more to say about how Judeo-Christian family values have shaped ethical theorizing in the West. (Apologies if what follows is discussed in the book.) So far as I know, the philosophical discussion of difficult ethical questions in the West outside of a Judeo-Christian ethical framework is something only just about as old as the Enlightenment (except for in pre-Christian Greco-Roman times and non-Western traditions, as one would expect). For this reason, I think it’s a bit unfair to judge popular modern Western philosophers for their ethical omissions at a time when religion was and still is such a powerful ethical force, one largely responsible for prescribing western family values, roles, and rituals, for better or worse. The Bible tells you how to be a good son or daughter and that’s all there is to it. (Judeo-Christian influence plays a similar role with respect to rituals as well.) In other words, I think it’s less that the concept of self precluded Western philosophers from thinking about family values and relations, and more that because of Judeo-Christian norms, those things just weren’t up for grabs in pre- and even post-Enlightenment society in which Westerners were and still are doing philosophy. (Of course there’s wiggle room and interplay and it could be a combination of both.)
3. The connection between the western conception of the self and the problems of global capitalism seems odd to me. I thought the classic Marxist critique of capitalism and capitalist ideology is that it undermines people’s autonomous rationality, not that it reinforces it. Capitalism rests on the assumption that people are free and autonomous rational beings, true, but the problems with capitalism come from the fact that it doesn’t actually honor that assumption, as it tends to perpetuate inequality and oppression. Presumably a better system would be one in which people’s autonomy and rationality are actually respected, not one in which they aren’t in favor of a relational conception of self or some such.
Hi Frank – great to see you again!
I have a question for Rosenlee and Rosemont, and now it’s a question for Frank and McIntyre too: What do you mean by “self” here?
Anyway I do think Aristotle and Plato articulated and defended “Confucian Role Ethics” with great clarity, depth and sophistication. Did any Confucians?
I’m inclined to think that academic and common thought tends to be more sophisticated about relationships insofar as, individually and collectively, people work out their relationships for themselves. Insofar as political and social thought focuses on the character of the “One Man” rather than on exploring the pros and cons of what roles and relationships there should be (the forms of government and family, the rules assigning moral responsibilities), people are going to be less thoughtful about roles and relationships, other things being equal.
On the other hand, of course, a person and those around her are better oriented to her particular roles and relationships in practice when she has no choice but to occupy those—unless the dominant ideas about those relationships, about how to occupy them, are unrealistic. I think ideas tend to be pretty unrealistic in a society organized by strong stable vertical relationships, because such organization is a powerful engine to (a) strip the higher parties of empathy and information, hence wisdom; and (b) make the lower parties super-receptive to the feelings and ideas of those above them.
A possible difference between Greek and Chinese role ethics is that where the Chinese might be inclined to represent roles statically as places, e.g. in ritual tableaux, the Greeks thought of roles as activities or functions.
But isn’t it highly atypical of social conservatives to champion each person’s “freedom unencumbered by others as the utmost value”? There is, however, a political view at the fringes of Western practical politics and academia called “libertarianism,” which could be loosely characterized in that way.
In his practical philosophy, I think I recall, Kant said that in some sense we are each our reason, we are each reason, so that rational action is our own free action. This is to make us each in a sense the same, so one could just as well characterize it as the extreme opposite of individualism. Also the main concern of Kant’s reason seems to have been how we relate to each other. But it seems to me Kant’s comments on family life have not been influential in the West.
In harmony with Frank’s #2:
It seems to me that when Aristotle articulates “Confucian Role Ethics,” what he says is pretty uncontroversial in the West today, in and out of academia.
Aristotle thought about relationships in terms of (a) egalitarian mutual love and identification, called “friendship,” and (b) other relationships which were sort of like that model in varying ways and degrees. His word for community was commonality, koinwnia. (By contrast, Confucians perhaps take as the primary model of relationships the vertical relationship, focusing especially on the responsibilities of the lower party to the higher.) Here are some things Aristotle said that have been largely uncontroversial in the West (except perhaps for the extreme view of “brothers and comrades,” which we might apply to spouses instead; and his view of spouses, which is starting to fall out of favor):
That’s role ethics. This kind of differentiation of duties by relationship is not much questioned in the Western cultural or intellectual tradition, not even by libertarians.
But, someone might reply, the West doesn’t engage in such differentiation at the fundamental level, at the level of ethical or metaethical theory about the ultimate foundations of ethics: about (1) what morality is in general, (2) how there can be moral truths given the prima facie distinction between is and ought; (3) is there is a fundamental normative principle (or set of principles) from which morality derives, and if so what is it? Rather, what one seeks at that level is general unifying theories; and one test for such theories is that they would imply role differentiation at the level of practice (a point that grounds a standard sort of objection to utilitarianism among philosophers, and that is accepted in the usual strategies of reply).
Does anyone in the West or China use such differentiation at that level—I mean, use such concepts as father and son in the theories proposed to address these basic questions? Western philosophers use such terms in discussing the implications & and applications of proposed theories, and in testing the theories (e.g. to make sure they support the right kinds of role distinctions), but usually not in the theories themselves.
In philosophy classes, one sometimes hears of the theory “proximism” – basically, utilitarianism where the moral importance of resulting happiness or whatever is weighted by how close is the happy party’s relationship to the agent. Outside the classroom I think one doesn’t take that view seriously—rather one tries to reconstruct the practical result on a more elegant foundation.
Sometimes Anglophone philosophers use the abstract term ‘relationship’ in their most general accounts of ethics, though I think that’s a fairly recent development, from the 60s. My own view is that it’s not a promising approach to an elegant answer to “What is goodness?” but is a promising part of the most elegant answer to “What is morality?” – I think Anglophone philosophers long underestimated the difference between these two questions. Aristotle didn’t.
Some abstract Western theories specifically about morality have focused on decision-making by individuals—which is important, after all. But see the section headed “Comparative” here.
Of course, as every specialist in Chinese philosophy must be well aware, the Western equivalent (current or otherwise) of the Chinese masters is not Western “philosophers.” Rather it’s a much broader range of academics and public intellectuals.
As for philosophers in the narrow sense, nobody thinks that most modern Western philosophers are bachelors; or (what’s very different) that most modern Western philosophers on the topics Rosenlee discusses are bachelors. Rosenlee writes,
The inference to “have no experience of …” can seem to reflect a radically individualist working conception of experience. But can it seem plausible? By this logic Confucius had “no experience” of the life of sons and daughters, beyond the life of a childhood son of a mother.
Adult children or offspring, in the Chinese tradition, may remonstrate with parents. Nobody doubts that Westerners agree. How about Chinese and Western writings on child children?
Comprehensive survey of what? The signal to the reader is that this is a respected survey of once-influential or currently influential Western writings on the family (e.g. Moynihan), but it’s not a survey of that at all. A narrower thing would be a survey of writings on the family by influential Western philosophers—or, what would be very different: –by Western philosophers influential on the topic of the family). But Blustein 1982 isn’t any of those things. It’s a book on the ethics of the parent-child relation, with historical sections.
The J Phil reviewer wrote,
From the reviewer it is apparent that Blustein regards Hobbes’ view as only quasi-contractual, and Locke’s view as non-contractual.
From the review we learn of one later philosopher Blustein discusses: Rawls, who (like Kant) left no influential writings on the family, and is rather known for missing the boat on that topic. But the reviewer says Blustein’s own view is based on Rawlsian ideas on more general topics.
In the second quote above, Rosenlee wrote “often times.” Later in the same paragraph she writes more extremely,
“Canons” on what topics? “The western canon” in the singular refers to whatever set of works is taken in the West to be the main Western works on the subject in question, so “the western canons” might seem to mean the main works on all topics. On the other hand, I think it more likely that she thinks ‘canon’ means an individual work, and by “the Western canons” she means the main Western works in philosophy narrowly conceived—which overlaps hardly at all with the main influential western writings on the family.
Regarding either of those two canons, ordinary charity would demand great hesitation about a claim like hers. On what grounds does she make the claim?
Well, to be fair, we’re talking about love, and on that topic we have a certain tolerance of hyperbole.
Hi Bill. I dig the points. It’s great to see someone here with much more knowledge of Aristotle and ancient Greek stuff in general than I have. I’ve only got a bit more to say. The numbers refer to your points:
1. As to what I mean by “self,” I don’t really have a good answer. I’m pretty sure I have a self, or maybe I just am one. It/I have relationships with other selves, and I consider it/me to be pretty rational. I’m less interested in the ontology of the self than I am in the political consequences of abandoning what Rosemont and Rosenlee call individualism.
2. I’m very much in agreement with the point you brought up here about the difference in societal structures in Confucian and Greek ideas about what roles are and how they work. If it’s true that Warring States Chinese society was more focused on particular roles being fulfilled rather than on individuals being better or worse off qua individuals, I think getting at why that is is very important. Rosemont and Rosenlee seem to suggest it’s because of how ancient Chinese thinkers construed the self, but I’d suggest that it’s more due to the strong vertical power structure of ancient China. If that’s the case then it seems very difficult to motivate the idea of not merely
adopting those “vertical virtues,” but replacing modern ones with them. Given the direction the West is going with a greater awareness on things like social justice issues, dismantling oppressive power structures, etc., I can’t imagine a host of strong vertical relationships like xiao really taking hold in the West, (nor is it obvious to me why we’d be better off for it). Rosenlee mentions the possibility of reproaching one’s parents being xiao, but presumably that’s something Western people with liberal values that tend towards horizontal relationships are comfortable with doing anyway.
4. Great to see Aristotle on roles and relationships. I’d emphasize further that there are alternatives to the Confucian role ethics vision within the Chinese tradition itself, within ancient China (enter the Mohists and Daoists), and perhaps even within Confucianism (Mencius and Xunzi certainly didn’t agree on many things). As to your comments about theorizing and the foundational nature of roles and relationships, I’m of the more radical view that ancient Chinese philosophers weren’t interested in offering moral theories at all, so as to which concepts within Confucianism were foundational in a metaethical sense, I don’t think we should expect to find an answer. Based on the disagreements actually going on at the time, there’s not much evidence that metaethical questions even occurred to them. They were mostly just asking, within the context of a mostly authoritarian hierarchical society, “what’s the best way to carry on?” and “what’s the best way to rule?” Xiao, among other virtues, seemed to be a particularly important part of the Confucian answer (and the Mohist and Daoist answers too!).
5) That those Western philosophers “had no experience of family life” is really suspicious to me. The biographies of all those philosophers mentioned are far too colorful to support that assertion. Just because they weren’t interested in expounding their family relationships and the like in their philosophy doesn’t mean they never had relationships
with their families. It’s true that there are few if any Western philosophers who are renowned for being a great son or daughter, whereas, say, Mencius is famous for treating his mother so well (and vice versa), but again, as you say, philosophers just aren’t the types to be looking to for that kind of idol. Patron saints of certain roles
would be more appropriate to play the role of role model.
I am not sure that it means anything to say that one has or is a “self,” if one doesn’t explain the term on the spot.
I haven’t read Rosemont’s book. I write as though the views Rosenlee reports in the review are her own views. Her phrasing says they are her views too, but maybe that isn’t what she means.
Rosenlee speaks of
The idea is that the views are held mainly in an extreme form: “either one champions individualism all the way down or one is for the collectivism of a hive mind.”
Here Rosenlee and/or Rosemont seem to attribute to the West in general a base and moronic view of what people are like. But I might misunderstand. Instead of attributing to the west a view of people, they might be attributing to the West a view about something else, which they call “the self,” by which they might mean a part of a person (or even something that is not necessarily a part of a person, such as something a person imagines or aims at).
I worry that the term or pseudo-term ‘self’ here serves to allow R&R to attribute to the West a view of people that we all know is not the West’s view of people. Or maybe the idea is that the West itself is pulling a trick like that. Maybe it bears repeating that most ethical theorists and practical ethicists in Anglophone academia don’t use the term ‘self’, though of course that doesn’t prove they aren’t pulling some parallel trick.
Anyway the view attributed to the West would seem to be that (a) people are (normally or naturally or most stably …) utterly asocial, with no concern for anyone else; and (b) people have no responsibility for others; above all, people should be free from others.
I think charity recoils at making attributions like these. So maybe I’m wrong to attribute them to R&R.
It’s not perfectly clear to me to whom R&R are attributing the views.
The main loci of Western discussion of what people are like is in psychology, neurology, evolutionary biology, ethnology, sociology, history, literature (including television and film), Christian and Jewish discourse, and advice books. I think the individualism that R&R attribute to the West is not dominant in those places. I suspect that on the whole it is hardly entertained in those places, with the possible exception of some advice books and some Christian stuff.
One has heard that something resembling egoistic individualism is used by economists in their predictive models, but surely it is not characteristic of economists to confuse that device with a truth about human nature (or to mention “selves”)?
Now, in one place the view of people as fundamentally egoistic and asocial is attributed by Rosenlee only to “the Western discourse on ethics and politics.” She might even mean academic discourse. I don’t myself think that Western thought on how to live and what political decisions to make is radically divorced from all those other kinds of intellectual work I listed just above.
I think the view is not widespread in the work of ethical theorists. I’ll talk about that for a few paragraphs.
A standard task of an intro ethics teacher is to cure the students of certain views that basically block the enterprise of moral philosophy (and are, I suspect, attractive to students largely for that reason, as a defense). The main ones are thoroughgoing relavitism and nihilism, but another is a rigidly egoistic view of human nature. One standard medicine against egoism, my favorite, is to point out to students that they often knowingly sacrifice their own overall long-term well-being in favor of short-term pleasure – therefore it is not true that they aim above all to maximize their own well-being. The companion medicine is to point to clear cases of self-sacrifice for others, in reality and thought experiment. The agent’s own family often figures prominently.
In my decades in world of professional ethicists and other professional philosophers, I might have seen the egoistic asocial or antisocial individualism explicitly held by some grownup professional philosophers; but if I did, I would not have taken those people’s views seriously; and I don’t think I’m especially unrepresentative in that respect. (Nozick didn’t go as far as the individualism R&R describe, but he was for a while notorious for his libertarian views. A famous hallmate of his endorsed “contempt” as a response, in a professional publication. Nozick later recanted. This was in the 1970s and 1980s.)
Let’s look at the dominant lines of theory. Setting aside recent trends heavily influenced by Aristotelian views and other ideas that R&R ought to find congenial, we might say that the two dominant simple lines in Anglophone ethical theory have been the utilitarian and the Kant-inspired. Let’s look at each of these.
I’ve already talked about Kant. He held something sort of like this – there will be some problem about exactly how to put it – he held that at least from the practical standpoint, we are each in some sense practical reason, which is the will to act only in those ways that we can at the same time will for others to act in – the will to harmony, if you like. In other words, as rational deliberators we are respect for the humanity or reason in all people. So conceived, we should be autonomous.
It makes some kind of sense to call that a fundamentally social view of people for purposes of ethics. Can it make some kind of sense to call that a fundamentally asocial and egoistic view of people, a view that assumes a “natural antagonism between self and other”?
The other long-dominant line in Western moral theory is utilitarianism. Now, even the most simplistic utilitarians do not in general hold a conception of human nature that obviously implies that the welfare of others has no moral claim on us. Nor do they champion freedom or autonomy as the fundamental value, though Mill made a powerful epistemological argument for liberty of expression.
I can testify that my own workwork in defense of quasi-utilitarianism involves no kind of individualism.
Nobody thinks freedom or autonomy is important to utilitarianism as such, though some utilitarians – notably Mill – have held that it is important for epistemology and happiness that people not be bossed around too much.
But psychological egoism has had a role in the history of utilitarianism. Bentham and in some sense Mill held that each person in fact cares ultimately only to maximize her own happiness. Sidgwick rejected the view. I think it is not a currently or recently popular view among utilitarians or quasi-utilitarians. (Recall at the very least that the revival of ethics as distinct from metaethics happened at about the same time as the rise of sociobiology.) And as classroom vocabulary standardly emphasizes, the egoistic view of actual motivation is no constitutive part of the moral or ethical theory called utilitarianism. A more common error among utilitarians and quasi-utilitarians is to think that “individual well-being” is a fairly definite concept, a real concept, even if we’re not sure what concretely a person’s well-being consists in. Some people who accept that concept think that people care ultimately about only their own well-being, and at first glance that sounds like the individualism that R&R describe. But an awful lot of those people think being morally good (generous, honest, etc.) is or can be essential to (or even identical with) one’s well-being, so their view turns out not to be that individualism at all.
In the IEP’s survey article on “Consequentialism,” the egoistic view of human motivation is mentioned only briefly, in one version of the sixth pro-Consequentialism argument presented. The idea is then rapidly dismissed as plainly untrue: the author (me) seems to assume the audience doesn’t need to hear any more about that.
And yet there is a certain kind of theoretical enterprise in moral theory and political philosophy that could seem to involve the individualistic view. I mean contractualism and things like that. There are many versions, most of them technically forbidding and so, if you please, tedious. These projects are respected for their sophistication, but for that reason not very widely followed, I think. One of the most accessible and influential is Rawls; let’s look at him in particular.
Rawls speaks of the principles of justice as being agreed to by mutually disinterested parties to an Original Position in which they do not know any concrete details about themselves. These could be mistaken for bare individuals who care for nothing but themselves, being taken as the ultimate arbiters of justice. But note:
To put it all more simply and in a way that covers lots of different versions of the contractualist project in moral theory, I think a common basic idea is this: Serious grownup tolerant society inevitably involves a substantial amount of real conflict of interest among strangers, so that we would do well to find and develop principles for cooperation that even fairly selfish people could still count on each other to be committed to, insofar as they’re being intelligent about it. The aim is to put regular morality on an especially stable intellectual footing, by showing that (as one might say) even its worst enemies would be wise to support it.
A parallel problem in political philosophy, worked out in various theoretical machineries, is to find a way to ground agreement about political fundamentals on the fact of the deep disagreements about pretty much everything else, which public discourse in a free society should in some sense respect. I personally think this kind of project is often misguided, but its characteristic mistakes don’t include the idea that we are all at bottom egoistic and asocial.
But maybe R&R aren’t talking about the West in general, or academic ethical and political discourse, or discourse all across the range of opinion. Maybe they’re just talking about right-wing casual ideology, the stuff of propaganda, or at least certain moments of that. And then their attribution might be right (if their terms are meaningful). I haven’t paid enough attention to know.
The family roles that Confucians were mainly concerned with were, I suppose, the roles of adults, especially in relation to the various other adults in the family: one’s parents, spouse, brothers, parents’ brothers, etc. The most important of these is one’s adult relation to one’s parents. (That’s the relation Confucius never bore to anyone.)
Does Rosenlee exclude this relation, and most of the others I’ve just listed, from her working conception of “family life”?
I think this kind of confusion of child with adult is not uncommon in recent Western writings about Confucianism.
Locke lived with other families, and for one of them he wrote a short simple book on the moral education of children (badly misread by Straussians), which might reflect his reading of the Analects, published in Latin shortly before. Locke argues for open discussion with children. In his political writings Locke followed Aristotle in arguing against confusing political relations with family relations, or thinking that these can all be handled by the same set of ideas. For there is a serious distinction between child and adult; the ruler is not our daddy or mommy. The role/relationship (adult) citizen is important. Adults can be citizens with rights that children do not have against their parents. Kant similarly compared the subjects of unlimited government to children, in “What is Enlightenment?” These are not extreme or radical points.
The ethical views of most of those nine “modern philosophers” are wholly unknown to most modern philosophers.
Rosenlee’s statement might reflect an image of “philosophy” that suits China and maybe some of the Continent, better than it fits the Anglophone world or even today’s Europe:
From these premises, one could indeed infer that the heart of the West’s ideas about how to live are in the works of the main dead people named in undergraduate philosophy survey course descriptions, such as Descartes and Berkeley.
In fact Western philosophy is a living project, a collective project, in which academics work on special problems and attend to the work of others on related problems in and out of philosophy, and comprehensive philosophical systems hardly figure; and in which most philosophers do not work on ethics at all, and most ethicists focus on fairly abstract questions rather than practical ethics, and most work on practical ethics is on ethics for special professions.
I proposed that the leaders in a stable hierarchy get bad information, and are stunted in empathy toward their inferiors. Power imbalance does that. But perhaps even more important is that in a strong stable hierarchy the higher (and lower) parties are deprived of intellectual feedback, free discussion of ideas. Not just as a predictable if unintended result of their power, but often even as a matter of policy, preserving stability. That’s predictable in strong hierarchy, whatever the ideology might say.
Norms of remonstrance seem pretty feeble in the face of all that, and dangerous to one’s family. The existence of the norm can bolster the boss’s self-esteem. That’s a function; is it a benefit?
I don’t understand how the Chinese view that adults should remonstrate against their fathers and rulers in case of disagreement is, as Rosenlee says here, “a step forward” from some lesser Western view.
There is a great deal in the review that I haven’t yet said anything about.
One might almost read this as saying that government programs supporting a social welfare safety net inherently violate e.g. the Bill of Rights because they coerce individuals to help others (via enforceable taxes).
That claim seems like a non-starter. But of course the R&R claim is different in several ways, and so could be a starter.
First, it seems, the conflict is supposed to be between e.g. the Bill of Rights and another kind of putative right, considered as a right. Somehow this kind of right is supposed to come into more thoroughgoing conflict with e.g. the Bill of Rights than does mere coercive taxation.
What is this difference, what is it for e.g. healthcare to be a right? I guess it is this: the absence of community provision of healthcare for me would be the community’s violating one of my rights, my right to healthcare, or my right to have healthcare provided by the community.
How would that be in tension with freedom of thought and expression, freedom from unwarranted search & seizure, the right to a fair trial, and the like?
A different kind of relation between healthcare or food and rights is in the old idea, stressed by e.g. Rawls, that rights to e.g. free speech become meaningless if one is materially deprived, for example if one lacks life, leisure, a room of one’s own, education, etc.; that in this way the right to liberty brings in certain welfare requirements. A familiar sort of way to phrase the point is to distinguish between (a) not violating the liberty rights and (b) providing “means to exercise those rights.”
When Rosemont says the positive rights “require[e] assistance from others to provide means to exercise those rights” (the positive rights) rather than saying they “require positive action in order not to violate those rights” she seems to be going out of her way to avoid the idea of violating positive rights: that is, avoiding the distinctive idea of a right to healthcare. Which would bring us back to question, what is the prima facie conflict between the Bill of Rights and social welfare programs supported by taxation? For example, if we were to amend the Constitution to require government-funded free basic healthcare for all, would that constitute a repeal of some aspect of one of the first ten Amendments? If so, what and how?
Second, Rosenlee does not say negative and positive rights stand in opposition, just like that. Rather she says they stand in opposition “if our conception of the self is grounded in foundational individualism.” Thus she may allow that there need not be any opposition between the two kinds of right if our conception of _______ is not grounded in the theory she has described.
Rosemont’s point in Rosenlee’s quote seems to be that to the extent that we ground the negative political rights in negative moral rights, they leave no room for the positive political rights, because the negative moral rights leave no philosophical or theoretical room for the positive moral rights.
This looks to me like a clear point based on a definite mistake: the mistake of confusing (a) a moral right to be free from coercive interference with (b) a moral right to be free of certain moral obligations. The former does not imply the latter.
There’s also the question whether, if the negative political rights are grounded in parallel negative moral rights, it must then also be the case that positive political rights can only be grounded in parallel positive moral rights, not grounded in some other way.
A third question starts from the observation that negative rights do impinge on maximum conceivable freedom or autonomy. Your negative rights tell me: don’t do this, don’t do that. Inosfar as I accept that we have negative rights against each other, I am not a fully radical individualist. Or else, radical individualism is an inherently inconsistent position, if it says (a) we all have the same rights, and (b) I have a complete right to do whatever I want and not be interfered with by anybody else. (An inconsistent position is not a position.)
As a point about culture rather than about theoretical conflict, however, Rosemont’s point need not be mistaken. It’s a commonplace that if we believed in a crude selfish ideology we wouldn’t see an obligation to help each other materially.