Tag Archives: Legal Reasoning

Guidance through Principles vs. Concepts/Terms–What's the Difference?

So, continuing some thoughts about language and theory in ethical thought, I’ve been thinking about what significant difference there is supposed to be between ethical guidance through principles as opposed to guidance through some form of “conceptual mastery” or even “skill mastery.”

One way to think of the difference, roughly, between Western and early Chinese ethical thought is to think of the former as emphasizing formulation of principles and guidance through them and the latter as emphasizing either mastery of some sort of “thick” ethical concepts or some set of “ethical skills.” Hence, dominant forms of ethical theorizing in the modern West seem concerned to formulate correct principles of right action so that people can adopt them for deciding how to act, in morally relevant contexts of choice. On the other hand, what seems of concern to early Confucianism seems to be to grasp the meaning and import of certain important terms such as ren 仁 (“humaneness”), li 禮 (“ritual piety”), and so forth; and/or to master certain sorts of “moral perception” skills that involve some kind of correct “connoisseur” responses and judgments–e.g. seeing something as ren or as failing to be li.

There are a few questions about the accuracy of these generalizations that call for some narrowing. Isn’t “Western” really just a gloss for a particular style of theoretical inquiry, largely in the modern era, that models itself on scientific inquiry or on legal reasoning? Shouldn’t something be said about the role of “manuals” of ritual and ceremony, e.g. the Zhouli (The Rituals of the Zhou) and the Liji (The Record of Ritual) for Confucian thinking about ritual piety? They seem to provide discursive action-guidance, and maybe even justification (as a set of rules) for particular ritual actions and attitudes, if not for the institution as a whole (which is something I take Xunzi to have been trying give). Also, the Mohists seem pretty clearly to be formulating an action-guiding principle–viz. to promote benefit.

But those sorts of questions aside, I wonder how different in practice competent application of principles could be from expressions of competence with respect to concept application or skill implementation. What I have in mind is that application of a principle, like application of a concept, actually requires a skill–call it a “connoisseurship of principle application”–that then subsumes the process under similar sorts of success-conditions as any other skill: there has to be something like a “correct perception” of when a principle applies to a situation, just as in the situation where one sees that a concept applies.

Those who know the later Wittgenstein views could maybe see a connection here–I’m not at all an expert on Wittgenstein and it’s been years and years since I read anything on his views, so that would be helpful if someone could speak to the connection or its lack. Those familiar with W.D. Ross should see some connection here, I think, because Ross’s intuitionism requires some kind of noetic perception of one’s true duty from the interactions among considerations of prima facie duties that apply to a situation. That sounds like a skill to me, not unlike skill in legal reasoning (?)–someone who knows about this could also speak to it better than I.

This is all to suggest, tentatively, that there really isn’t much difference when we get down to the business of ethical living between having a “principle-based” view and some more “skill-based” view. Or is there? I’m inclined to reduce principle-application and concept-application to considerations of skill, albeit some kind of mental or “perceptual” skill, but maybe there are problems with that…