Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Flourishing, the Non-moral Good, & Virtue Ethics

Here’s an issue that I think is relevant to any view about “flourishing” attributed to early Chinese philosophy. If the basic idea of flourishing is some idea about faring well, or “welfare,” we can ask what it takes conceptually to have such an idea. What comes to mind for me is that there has to be some notion of a person’s good, where that good is construed in some way independent of acting correctly–i.e. it has to be a notion of a person’s “non-moral” good. Even as I write that, I’m not quite sure what the reason for that is, but it seems important to me to keep welfare distinct from rightness. I might be totally wrong, but my philosophical instincts whisper otherwise.

The reason this seems important to me vis-a-vis early Chinese philosophy is that it seems like the non-moral good is featured in the Mohist idea of benefit, li 利. But li is not taken as theoretically central or even relevant in the Analects and the Mencius. Maybe it is important in the Xunzi, but I think that is because the Xunzi has a consequentialist view like the Mozi. If any of this is on the right track, then there is not in fact any virtue ethics in early China, in the sense that Van Norden and others think there to be. A lot rides on the idea of flourishing as relying on that of the non-moral good, and hence as being construed independently of rightness, so I wonder what can be said in favor of or against that…

June 28th, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Mencius, Mohism | 9 comments

9 Responses to Flourishing, the Non-moral Good, & Virtue Ethics

  1. Carl says:

    I read your question four times, and I haven’t the slightest clue what you’re asking.

  2. Bill Haines says:

    Carl, I think Manyul is asking: does anybody in pre-Qin Chinese philosophy both (a) center their ethics around a conception of the virtues and also (b) hold that what’s good about a virtue is mainly that it’s good for the person who has it, where “good for Smith” doesn’t just mean “constitutes Smith’s being a more virtuous person”?

    Manyul, it seems to me one might find something like what you’re looking for in Confucius’ idea that ren people are not anxious, the wise are not in doubt, and the brave are not afraid (9.29). There isn’t a general term here, but there’s a list, implying a similarity. Cf. also 4.2 and maybe 4.3.

  3. Bill Haines says:

    … but it has always seemed to me that saddling “virtue ethics” with the idea that the main thing that’s good about a virtue is that it’s in the interest of the bearer amounts to making “virtue ethics” a non-starter.

  4. Manyul Im says:

    Carl, sorry about the jargon. I think Bill puts it more simply and better, using the idea of “being a more virtuous person” rather than “rightness.” Putting it that way shows that it would be circular to say on the one hand that the virtues contribute to flourishing, and on the other to say that flourishing consists in living virtuously. Not all circles are vicious, but that one seems a bit too tight to make virtue ethics, so construed, interesting. Part of the problem (on my part) is that I’ve been mulling this issue in my own head for about a week, wondering if it actually is an issue, so this helps.

    Bill, the Analects passages you cite are interesting cases. I’m pretty sure the concept of “the non-moral good for a person” is available in some form or other–after all, the Mohists seem pretty explicitly to use it. I’m more interested in whether that conception of what is good for a person plays an important role the justification for living virtuously. I don’t think it has to be the “main” justification, but rather than being a non-starter, I think most virtue ethics people (e.g. Foot, Hursthouse, Annas et al) seem to think the connection of virtues to the bearer’s interest is a theoretical plus–for connection to “internal” sources of motivation as well as being more “agent-centered” in that regard.

    One thing about Hursthouse; in her SEP article on Virtue Ethics (plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/) she seems to embrace what I’ve said is too tight of a circle–virtues contribute to flourishing and flourishing is partly constituted by living virtuously. Maybe that is not too tight: virtues “contribute” constitutively in the way that a baseball player contributes to the team’s winning by belonging to the team. Maybe there’s more: Hursthouse seems to argue that the virtues contribute to “lack of inner conflict” hence provide for part of the flourishing of the bearer. She seems to treat the two sorts of “contribution” as being the same, but to me the former sounds implausible while the latter suggests some idea of flourishing that is a separate *result* of having the virtues–namely, lack of inner conflict.

  5. Manyul Im says:

    Here are the relevant bits of Hursthouse’s SEP piece I’m thinking of:

    [Begin quote]

    All standard versions of virtue ethics agree that living a life in accordance with virtue is necessary for eudaimonia. This supreme good is not conceived of as an independently defined state or life (made up of, say, a list of non-moral goods that does not include virtuous activity) which possession and exercise of the virtues might be thought to promote. It is, within virtue ethics, already conceived of as something of which virtue is at least partially constitutive.

    Eudaimonia in virtue ethics, is indeed a moralised concept, but it is not only that. Claims about what constitutes flourishing for human beings no more float free of scientific facts about what human beings are like than ethological claims about what constitutes flourishing for elephants. In both cases, the truth of the claims depends in part on what kind of animal they are and what capacities, desires and interests the humans or elephants have.

    The best available science today (including evolutionary theory and psychology) supports rather than undermines the ancient Greek assumption that we are social animals, like elephants and wolves and unlike polar bears. No rationalising explanation in terms of anything like a social contract is needed to explain why we choose to live together, subjugating our egoistical desires in order to secure the advantages of co-operation. Like other social animals, our natural impulses are not solely directed towards our own pleasures and preservation, but include altruistic and cooperative ones.

    This basic fact about us should make more comprehensible the claim that the virtues are at least partially constitutive of human flourishing and also undercut the objection that virtue ethics is, in some sense, egoistic.

    (v) The egotism objection has a number of sources. One is a simple confusion. Once it is understood that the fully virtuous agent characteristically does what she should without inner conflict, it is triumphantly asserted that “she is only doing what she wants to do and is hence being selfish.” So when the generous person gives gladly, as the generous are wont to do, it turns out she is not generous and unselfish after all, or at least not as generous as the one who greedily wants to hang on to everything she has but forces herself to give because she thinks she should! A related version ascribes bizarre reasons to the virtuous agent, unjustifiably assuming that she acts as she does because she believes that acting thus on this occasion will help her to achieve eudaimonia. But “the virtuous agent” is just “the agent with the virtues” and it is part of our ordinary understanding of the virtue terms that each carries with it its own typical range of reasons for acting. The virtuous agent acts as she does because she believes that someone’s suffering will be averted, or someone benefited, or the truth established, or a debt repaid, or … thereby.

    It is the exercise of the virtues during one’s life that is held to be at least partially constitutive of eudaimonia, and this is consistent with recognising that bad luck may land the virtuous agent in circumstances that require her to give up her life. Given the sorts of considerations that courageous, honest, loyal, charitable people wholeheartedly recognise as reasons for action, they may find themselves compelled to face danger for a worthwhile end, to speak out in someone’s defence, or refuse to reveal the names of their comrades, even when they know that this will inevitably lead to their execution, to share their last crust and face starvation. On the view that the exercise of the virtues is necessary but not sufficient for eudaimonia, such cases are described as those in which the virtuous agent sees that, as things have unfortunately turned out, eudaimonia is not possible for them. (Foot 2001, 95) On the Stoical view that it is both necessary and sufficient, a eudaimon life is a life that has been successfully lived (where “success” of course is not to be understood in a materialistic way) and such people die knowing not only that they have made a success of their lives but that they have also brought their lives to a markedly successful completion. Either way, such heroic acts can hardly be regarded as egoistic.

    A lingering suggestion of egoism may be found in the misconceived distinction between so-called “self-regarding” and “other-regarding” virtues. Those who have been insulated from the ancient tradition tend to regard justice and benevolence as real virtues, which benefit others but not their possessor, and prudence, fortitude and providence (the virtue whose opposite is “improvidence” or being a spendthrift) as not real virtues at all because they benefit only their possessor. This is a mistake on two counts. Firstly, justice and benevolence do, in general, benefit their possessors, since without them eudaimonia is not possible. Secondly, given that we live together, as social animals, the “self-regarding” virtues do benefit others — those who lack them are a great drain on, and sometimes grief to, those who are close to them (as parents with improvident or imprudent adult offspring know only too well.)

    [End quote]

  6. Bill Haines says:

    Manyul, the Hursthouse quote is interesting. It’s not clear to me from the quote whether she grants the conceptual possibility of a nonmorally defined good that is constituted by virtuous activity. (I do.)

    It seems to me Confucius’ points about the benefits of virtue to the bearer are supposed to count in favor of virtue somehow. Only I don’t see that he takes them to be the main justifications for virtue.

    The only view I claim to be a non-starter is the view that the main justification of any trait’s being a moral virtue is that it is (or promises to be) in the (nonmorally defined) interest of the bearer. I didn’t mean “non-starter as a candidate for an example of virtue ethics” – I meant “non-starter as a view of ethics.”

    Separately, I worry that closely associating moral virtue with a conception of well-being can lead to conceptions of moral virtue that overemphasize the parts or aspects that make life go smoothly for us.

    There’s a sense of ‘good for Y’ (which I don’t identify with “in Y’s interest”) in which whatever makes Y function bettter is good for Y–except that, I think, the English phrase ‘good for Y’ might leave it indeterminate whether something that improves Y’s functioning but thereby causes later damage or destruction to Y is “good for Y.” (Think of a repair of a car that leads to its being driven and so crashed.) One could clarify matters by adding a qualification or two: “good for Y overall in the long run.” Any proper virtue of Y is inherently “good for Y in the short run,” by a conceptual argument; but conceptual arguments won’t cover the long run.

    The root value of the good functioning of a car isn’t to be cashed out mainly in benefits or improvements to the car, and I think the same goes for the functioning of people.

    Separately, more on 4.2: “仁者安仁,知者利仁” – “the ren find their peace in ren, the wise find advantage in ren” – that looks to me like distinguishing between instrumental benefit and a kind of non-instrumental nonmoral benefit, without denigrating instrumental value.

  7. Chris says:


    At the very least, Hursthouse is no Stoic; virtuous people on the rack are not happy, and all goods are not reducible to virtue. On pg. 172 of VE she suggests that “the claim is not that possession of the virtues guarantees that one will flourish. The claim is only that they are the only reliable bet…” Moreover, her view on tragedy, if I recall, leaves open the possibility that the virtuous agent — as a result of their virtue (well, plus some bad luck) — winds up with a life entirely destroyed.

  8. Phil Hand says:

    What about the rectification of names passage in the Analects? It’s not explicitly about individual flourishing, but some parts of it can be easily applied to individuals.

    [Quoting from a January post of yours]
    Confucius famously says in Analects 13.3 that the first thing to do in conducting state affairs is to “rectify names” — or “correct terms.” Otherwise, he says, “speech will not follow” (yan bu shun 言不順), with the result that “affairs will not be accomplished” (shi bu cheng 事不成), with the result that “rites and music will not flourish,” with the final result that “punishments and rewards will not be appropriate.”

    Speech not following, affairs not being accomplished and punishments and rewards not being appropriate – all of these could either directly affect individuals or could be interpreted at an individual level (though C might not have meant them to be interpreted that way).

    This passage explicitly links a Confucian “virtue” (rectifying names) with what I’m claiming could be conditions of flourishing, so that would meet Manyul’s condition that “that conception of what is good for a person plays an important role the justification for living virtuously”.

  9. Manyul Im says:

    Phil, good points about the January post. I’m not so sure that there is a tight connection to personal well-being in 13.3. There is certainly an effect on individuals if, say, punishments and rewards are not appropriate; but is it an effect on the individual’s non-moral well-being, or is it an effect on some moral aspect of individuals (e.g. whether they get what they deserve or, more progressively I suppose, whether they are properly edified by the punishment or reward)? It seems to me like the latter. I would say slightly different things about music and ritual–these seem valued by Confucius for their inherent aesthetic/moral qualities but he also seems to think such value is dependent on the moral quality of the feelings that underlie their performances. It seems to me like the *effect* of music and rituals on individuals is something that Xunzi–following Mohist influence–really introduces later as a relevant consideration to their value. I’m not sure what to say about “speech” because I’m not entirely sure what Confucius means by “yan bu shun” (言不順) aside from its being another formula for names not being rectified–but the meaning of that is still not clear to me.


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