There are many images and metaphors that might serve as cores of conceptions of something for which one could use the English word “role.” One way to look for some is to look at words from other languages. I’ll look here at two, one from Greek and one from old Chinese.
Personally, I’m interested in this topic largely because I’m interested in how far we can find a concept of roles in the Analects.
位 (wèi) ––position, office, station, status, rank
I gather, and shall assume here, that the original image associated with the word wèi in connection with social relations is of a raised platform on which to sit or stand, marking the occupant’s authority or importance, so that the word was a common metonym for high office, then any office; for high rank, then rank in general (high or low). The term was also used more generally for the literal position or place of any significant party in a ritual arrangement of persons; and sometimes even more generally for position or place.
In the present discussion I shall rely heavily on my general sense of the term as spelled out above. That sense is based on looking at several hundred brief pre-Qin passages (found by search engines at ctext.org and TLS). My sense could easily be wrong, for example because I cannot easily distinguish the emphases of the word from the emphases of the texts we have. I shall give my general sense of the word little explicit defense here.
To my knowledge no scholar of early Chinese philosophy has addressed or raised the question whether old Chinese had a term for “role” as relevant to “role ethics,” but my impression is that位 (wèi) is far and away the best candidate. If it is not, then please correct me! But if it is, then the term may be illuminating about how roles and social positions were conceived in general, and hence about whether there was a general vision in line with “Confucian Role Ethics.”
(In Ames’ Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary, “位” appears once in Ames’ own voice (p. 102) and twice in quoted passages (52, 173). The CFP for the 11th East West Philosophers’ Conference (2016), on “Place,” mentions that “place” can mean “role”. Of the hundreds of papers abstracted on the Conference web site, one seems potentially relevant: “Neo-Confucian Reflections on Being Out of Place,” by Michael Harrington.)
Here are all the instances in the Analects (thanks to ctext.org and its Legge):
4.14 The Master said, “A man should say, I am not concerned that I have no wèi, I am concerned how I may fit myself for one. …” 子曰：「不患無位，患所以立 …。」
8.14 (and at 14.26) The Master said, “He who is not in any particular wèi has nothing to do with plans for the administration of its duties.” 子曰：「不在其位，不謀其政。」
10.4 … When he was passing the vacant wèi of the prince … on occupying [his place] … …過位 …復其位 …
14.44 … The Master said, “I observe that he is fond of occupying the wèi of a full-grown man; I observe that he walks shoulder to shoulder with his elders….” … 子曰：「吾見其居於位也，見其與先生並行也 …」
15.14 The Master said, “Was not Zang Wen like one who had stolen his wèi? He knew the virtue and the talents of Hui of Liu Xia, and yet did not procure that he should stand with him in court.” 子曰：「臧文仲其竊位者與？知柳下惠之賢，而不與立也。」
At least as early as around 300 BC, in at least one document (the excavated text Liude 六德, six virtues), the term was used for the six positions (六位) of ruler and minister (or subject), husband and wife, and father and son. The phrase “六位” appears in perhaps the same sense in the “Robber Zhi” chapter of the Zhuangzi. Largely because this seems to be a very rare usage of wèi, I suspect that it was an extension of the idea of political office or rank, not so much an extension of the image of a place to stand in a ritual array of persons.
(The phrase “六位” appears in the Tuan Zhuan and Shuo Gua commentaries of the Changes, in the sense of the six levels of a hexagram. And it appears in one passage in the Lost Book of Zhou in a sense I do not understand, referring to “綏、比、新、故、外、內貴”. The Guanzi refers to five kinds of soil as “five wèi”, saying they have this name because they resist erosion.)
But elsewhere in pre-Qin materials the term seems never to refer to such positions such as father, son, wife, brother, or friend; and I have not seen it used anywhere to refer to such functional positions as farmer or cook. Mencius 6A5 mentions that during a sacrificial ceremony when one’s younger brother is personating the ancestor, one may show more respect to him than to one’s uncle “because of the wèi he occupies” (在位故也). 5B7 draws a similar contrast between friendship and wèi (in the sense of political rank). However, in perhaps two places wèi is used for the positions “elder” and “younger.” Back at Mencius 6A5 we read that one should pour wine first for a mere fellow villager and only later for one’s elder brother, if the villager is slightly older, “because of the wèi he occupies” (在位故也). Perhaps the idea here is that seating is by age, so that wèi here refers to a seating assignment? The “Questions of Duke Ai” (哀公問) chapter of the Liji has Confucius speak of the wèi of ruler and minister, high and low, old and young (君臣上下長幼之位). (Legge translates “君臣” here as “father and son.”)
ἔργον (érgon; plural ἔργα, érga) –– work, action, function
Especially as the term is used by Greek ethical writers, érga are the valuable activities or contributions specifically associated with kinds of things. Examples of érga are the distinct functions of different tools, or of the different parts of a machine or of a living organism, and the qualitatively distinct contributions of different people to projects such as sailing a ship, defending or governing a city-state, or robbing a bank. One may speak of the érgon of a practice or body of knowledge such as household-management. Aristotle spoke also of the general érgon of human beings as such, while acknowledging that the very idea stood in need of some defense, and that there are also specific érga of e.g. wives, citizens, sculptors, and generals.
If we seek a similar term in the Analects, I think the closest may be 用 as Youzi uses it in 1.12: “礼之用和为贵…” (“Achieving harmony is the most valuable function of ritual propriety,” trans. A&R). For discussion, and examples of similar usage of 用 in other texts, see here. Compare Confucius’ verb 用 in the phrase “焉用__”. In four of the five passages where he is reported as using that phrase, we might most naturally translate it by “Of what use is __?” or “What’s the use (value, point) of __?”. The five items whose value he questions by that phrase are: eloquence (佞), killing [the vicious] (殺), [knowledge of] farming (稼), such an aide (彼相), and an ox knife, for carving a chicken (牛刀).
One might be tempted, momentarily, to identify the distinction between wèi and érgon with the distinction between an office and its duties, or more broadly the distinction between a social position (sheriff, butler, sister, farmer) and the specific function associated with that position.
But that is not quite what the terms mean. For one thing, the term érgon is too wide, and (at least in Confucius’ time) wèi is too narrow. Spleens, wheels, and ritual are good examples of things that have érga, but they are poor examples of offices or officeholders with duties. In the Analects, the term wèi seems always to refer to a position of authority in government, or the court platform that marks such a position. In other early texts the term seems almost always to apply to those things or to someone’s assigned place to stand or sit in mourning rites.
The terms wèi and érgon can each be applied in connection with a social position that has duties or a function; but the two terms would seem to bring very different pictures to bear on that phenomenon. Here I shall set out what seem to me to be some of the main differences, as it seems to me, with wild oversimplification, in a table. Then I’ll discuss the points at more leisure. Of course the pictures that the terms suggest need not be wholly followed by philosophers who use the terms.
X’s érgon or function is X’s
In Confucius’ time, Y’s wèi is Y’s
characteristic or key contribution,
elevation, i.e. authority and privilege,
hence most directly implying norms for X (or evaluative propositions about what X does).
hence most directly implying norms for other parties.
The classic differences among érga are qualitative differences.
The classic differences among wèi are non-qualitative (rank, territory).
X has a certain érgon because of the kind of thing X is.
Y has a certain wèi because Y was assigned that wèi.
The salient collective norm is positive: the parts should perform their érga well, to carry out some collaborative activity.
The salient collective norm is negative: the parties should stick to their wèi, to preserve an orderly array.
Active relations among érga are vertical (one is for the sake of another) or horizontal (complementary contributions).
Active relations among wèi are vertical (one outranks another) to various degrees, e.g. zero.
The term is least apt at the top; the ultimate end is maybe not a function.
The term is least apt at the bottom; the lowest rank is no elevation.
There is a close prima facie tie between the idea of érga and common usage of the word “good” (in Greek or English).
There is no prima facie direct tie between the idea of wèi and the common use of any general ethical term (?).
1. Activity versus position
Concretely, something’s érgon is what it does, its work, what it most characteristically helpfully does.
Concretely, a wèi is a place to sit or stand; it is an elevation, or a position in an array. More abstractly, around Confucius’ time, it is a position of authority and honor.
2. Whose responsibilities?
X’s érgon is what X does. When we speak of the érgon of an office, or of an officer as such, we think of the duties: what that officer is supposed to do, which can be done well or poorly. Others’ duties to or toward the officeholder are not part of the picture, not directly included in her érgon.
By contrast, the image of a wèi tends rather to foreground the point that others should serve, obey, defer to, revere, and/or perhaps emulate the occupier of the wèi. Arguably these norms for others are more essentially constitutive of a wèi than are the responsibilities of the occupant of the wèi. For being on a raised platform involves the officeholder’s exaltation more vividly and directly than it involves her action. Indeed a familiar image of the main duty of the occupant of the most extreme wèi, the seat of an emperor, looks like an approximation or symbolic enactment of doing nothing. Still, this quaint fancy should not distract from the main proposal here, which is that envisioning an office as a wèi tends to emphasize the duties of others at least as much as the duties of the occupant, while the érgon of an office is what the officeholder is supposed to do, not what others are supposed to do.
(The Greek word for office, ἀρχή (archē), also means origin or beginning. The image would seem to be about the source of initiative for public action. The English word “office” derives from the Latin for doing (facere) the work (opus); the Latin “officium” means “duty.”)
3. Qualitative versus non-qualitative differences
When one thinks of different érga, one thinks of qualitative differences. Eyes are for seeing and ears are for hearing. But (I gather) the old core example of a social position that is called a wèi is the position of the ruler of a territory. One wèi would be the immediate superior of several others, and the main differences among such wèi would be differences of rank (how high? over or under whom?) or territory (where and how much?). As we might even say, such wèi differ in rank and scope, not in general function. Even the general idea of position, i.e. the spatial metaphor of location, hardly suggests qualitative differences among different positions, though different ritual positions were sometimes used to mark qualitative differences among parties.
The term wèi is sometimes used for offices generally, and in that usage it must have encompassed qualitatively different offices. A passage in the Guanzi may be explicit about this; or it may simply be applying the metaphor of a platform as a means of elevation, a bulwark of one’s high position:
There are four things in which rulership resides. They are: civil power, military power, the power to punish, and the power to be benevolent. These are the four positions in which the ruler dwells. When one relies on others for what he himself should control, it is called “being stripped of one’s handles on power.” 主之所處者四：一曰文、二曰武、三曰威、四曰德，此四位者，主之所處也。藉人以其所操，命曰奪柄。(45·1/23; tr. Rickett at TLS)
4. Essential or contingent
The concrete image of a platform to stand or sit on, or a place to stand during mourning rituals, tends to foreground the distinction between the position and the person.
As it happens, every passage in which the term wèi appears in the Analects foregrounds that distinction in one way or another. Confucius speaks of suiting oneself for position when one has none (4.14), planning for a position one is not at (8.14, 14.26), sitting in a position where one does not belong (14.44), and stealing one’s position (15.14). A narrator describes ceremonious movement to and from one’s platform, and signs of respect for a prince’s platform (the office?) though the prince is not there (10.4).
The core image for the term érgon, at least as the term is used in philosophical texts, is the idea of what a certain kind of tool or part or skill-bearer characteristically does, and what a thing of that kind does best. Thus any particular thing has its érgon because of the kind of thing it is. It would make no sense to hold a knife’s blade and cut with the handle. The parts of an organism or machine have their functions pretty much essentially; their functions are what they do.
The foundation of the argument of Plato’s Republic is laid when Socrates and Thrasymachus discuss the term érgon, or “work”:
“Would you take the work of horse or of anything else whatsoever to be that which one can do only with it, or best with it?”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Look at it this way: is there anything with which you could see other than eyes?”
“And what about this? Could you hear with anything other than ears?”
“By no means.”
“Then wouldn’t we justly assert that this is the work of each?”
“And what about this: you could cut a slip from a vine with a dagger or a leather-cutter or many other things?”
“But I suppose you could not do just as fine a job with anything other than a pruning knife made for this purpose.”
“Then shall we take this to be its work?”
“We shall indeed.”
“Now I suppose you can understand better what I was asking a moment ago when I wanted to know whether the work of each thing is what it alone can do, or can do more finely than other things.”
“Yes, I do understand,” he said, “and this is, in my opinion, the work of each thing.”
“All right,” I said, …
(352d-3b. Allan Bloom, trans. The Republic of Plato (Basic Books 1968), p. 32)
Of course, the idea that an office (e.g. ship’s captain) has its function essentially, does not imply that the person who is captain has that function essentially. And tenure in office was hardly more permanent in ancient Greece than it was in ancient China. Certainly many Greeks were happy with the idea of brief terms for high offices, and appointments by lottery.
But Plato and Aristotle do not foreground the contingency of people’s special functions when speaking of érga. Regarding ethics or virtue at the most general level, they discuss the function of human beings as such (tending to envision elite Greek males), or the functions of sculptors, flautists, sailors, and wives. When they approach the topic of qualitatively specific offices such as that of military general, they tend to speak of the function of e.g. generalship, which is essential to it.
5. Effective machine versus orderly array or elegant picture.
An érgon is something to do. A wèi is something to have.
Thus the collective norm suggested by the idea of érga is that each part should do its own job (and only that), while the collective norm suggested by the idea of wèi is that each party should have its own position (and only that).
Each part’s doing its own work (and only that) is the Republic’s account of justice, the overall virtue that brings all the others. Each part of the city should do its own work (érgon), as should each part of the soul. This norm has a positive and a negative side: do your work, and don’t meddle with others’ jobs.
I submit that the very idea of érga tends to emphasize the positive more than the negative aspect. The parts have to do their jobs, and then the larger project gets done. That’s the big idea. The part about not meddling is a corollary.
Compare the idea of each party having its own position (wèi) and sticking to that. Here the image may be one of composition, or of preserving an orderly array. The big idea may be the negative one: don’t meddle, don’t overstep. That’s a job for the wèi occupant. (As for his having the wèi at all, that’s at least as much about what other people do, saliently including their not overstepping.)
Compare two visions of social harmony. (A) Harmony is the complementary contributions of different key tasks or activities, accomplishing a collaborative task or activity, as in an efficient machine or purposive organization. (B) Harmony is peaceful coexistence despite differences, motivated partly by the attractively elegant arrangement of people each in their positions.
I submit that thinking in terms of érga tends to promote picture (A) more than does thinking in terms of wèi; and vice versa. Is that right?
That is not of course to make any suggestion about the visions behind words for harmony, nor would it imply that early China lacked vision (A) or emphasized (B) more. I don’t know about that. We find both visions, for example, in Ode 209, which I have argued was an inspiration for Youzi’s statement on ritual and harmony at Analects 1.12. And an important metaphor in Greek political thought was that of a soldier holding his position in the battle line—not abandoning his assigned position in the array.
6. Vertical and horizontal relations among roles
One wèi can be subordinate to another, below another. We might call this a “vertical” relation among wèi, and contrast it with the “horizontal” relation among several wèi that share an immediate superior.
One érgon can be for the sake of another, subordinate to the other. We might call that a “vertical” relation among érga, and contrast it with the “horizontal” relation of complementarity among several érga that together immediately promote another, as the left and right pallbearers carry the coffin, or our sense organs promote our perception.
Different érga are qualitatively different contributions to the higher érga they serve, but the core idea behind wèi suggests a focus on the same kind of upward-directed activity in every vertical relation: respect and service. Subordination itself, if you will. And yet the allocation of respect is a matter that arises in interactions between any two people, not just between duke and emperor or between dukes with comparably large territories. Is the respect to be equal, or not? Hence almost any interaction between two people will enact a kind of relationship that will be an analog of some main category of key political relations. (Note the concern of the Mencius with comparing ranks across parallel branches of the feudal tree, at 5B2.)
7. Home on opposite ends of the range
The vertical relations among wèi come in chains, such as the chain of feudal offices. The vertical relations among érga come in chains, as one process is for the sake of a second, which is for the sake of a third.
Despite Aristotle’s efforts, the term érgon is least appropriate at the highest end. The idea of a function is most at home as applied to tools, parts of machines, parts of organisms, and the like. We can most easily identify something’s function when we see how the thing works with other things for something further. An érgon is like a contribution, i.e. a contribution to something else.
By contrast, insofar as a wèi is an elevation, the term is most at home at the top of the ladder, the throne of the emperor. The term wèi, like the English terms ‘rank’ and ‘status’ and ‘position’, is ambiguous as referring to (a) any position or rank, (b) high position or high rank. This point suggests that among all roles (wèi), the one that would be the worst teaching-example of the idea of a “role” (wèi) would be the lowest. Upward relating—to a parent or older brother or to an elder on the street—might be a backward image of what it is in general to occupy a wèi.
8. Essential connection to ethics
For Plato and Aristotle at least, “role” (érgon) and “good” seem to be correlative concepts, anchoring a concept-cluster.
Recall that the Greek for “virtue” was a noun form of the adjective “good.” Something’s virtue is its goodness or excellence. Socrates in the Republic says, continuing from our previous quotation,
“All right,” I said, “does there seem to you to also to be a virtue for each thing to which some work is assigned? Let’s return again to the same examples. We say that eyes have some work?”
“Is there then a virtue of eyes too?”
“A virtue, too.”
“And what about ears? Wasn’t it agreed that they have some work?”
“And do they have a virtue, too?”
“Yes, they do.”
“And what about all other things? Aren’t they the same?”
“Stop for a moment. Could eyes ever do a fine job of their work if they did not have the proper virtue but, instead of the virtue, vice?”
“How could they?” he said. “For you probably mean blindness instead of sight.”
“Whatever their virtue may be,” I said. “For I’m not yet asking that, but whether their work, the things to be done by them, will be done well with their proper virtue, and badly with vice.”
“What you say is true,” he said.
“Will ears, too, do their work badly when deprived of their virtue?”
“Then, shall we include everything else in the same argument?”
“In my opinion, at least.
(op. cit. 353b-d)
And in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:
Well, perhaps we shall find the best good if we first find the function [érgon] of a human being. For just as the “good” or the “well” for a flautist, a sculptor, and every craftsman, and in general for whatever has a function and [characteristic] action, seems to depend on its function, the same seems to be true for a human being, if a human being has some function. (1097b24-28, tr. Irwin modified )
Incidentally, similar ideas are familiar even in 20th Century metaethics. For example, here is the core of Rawls’ “definition of good for simpler cases”:
A is a good X if and only if A has the properties (to a higher degree than the average or standard X) which it is rational to want in an X, given what X’s are used for, or expected to do, and the like (whichever rider is appropriate ).
(A Theory of Justice, 1st ed, p. 399; emphasis added)
The section I have italicized refers to the general function of Xes as such. The rough idea is that a “good X” is an X that is such as to fulfill the standard role of an X.
Is there any close general or conceptual connection between wèi and any basic concept or term of ethics, either mentioned in early China or implicit in other claims or linguistic practice?
One of the main functions of the protocols of ritual or ceremony is to mark relations of relative status or rank. And kinship positions are marked by literal positions in some rituals, though apparently only the latter were commonly called wèi.
Again, it would seem that family positions and other positions we would call “roles” were not commonly called wèi, especially in the time of Confucius. But suppose that is wrong. There might then be a general linguistic or conceptual connection, not between the word wèi and ethics in general, but between the names of particular wèi and ethics. Such a connection is of course suggested by Confucius’ remark at Analects 12.11, when a ruler troubled by recalcitrant sons and ministers asked him to comment on government. He said, 「君君，臣臣，父父，子子。」 Perhaps: “The ruler must really act like a ruler, ministers like ministers, fathers fathers, and sons sons.” Or “The ruler must be a real ruler,” etc. This cryptic comment on government is not a general ethical theory, and the statement may have been made two centuries before any family position was ever called a “wèi.” Nevertheless, it might suggest to us the following general theory binding ethics to wèi: Each wèi has an associated set of norms for the occupant, and these are the main norms of ethics.
Confucius’ string has no meaning unless each of the four terms has two distinct senses. Perhaps (1) in one sense “father” means a human sire or mere actual father, and (2) in another sense it means a good or even an ideal father—a real father, so to speak. Or perhaps each term is both a noun and a verb, with (1a) the noun simply identifying the position, and (2a) the verb indicating the good or ideal adherence to the associated norms. The distinction between having and fulfilling the duties could be marked in either way, or in both.
The worst thing, for role ethics, would be to do away with such distinctions. Surely one of the first demands a role ethicist must make upon language is that it give her a facility for distinguishing between having a role-duty and fulfilling it, or between living up to one’s role and not doing so. Whereas a policy of calling someone a “father” if and only if he is a good or ideal father would remove language’s main standard facility for that purpose. A “father” who did not live up to that role would become a conceptual impossibility. (It can’t be a problem if it can’t happen.) And if we wanted to say that we owe filial responsibilities to our ill-behaved sires, or if we wanted to discuss what the duties of a sire should be, we would still need a term, like “sire,” which we apply independently of the person’s conduct.
Is that right?