A number of scholars in our field have suggested that the model of connoisseurship is helpful in understanding Confucian moral education and the nature of the Confucian moral exemplar (the junzi or sage). Eric Hutton’s “Moral Connoisseurship in the Mengzi” (in Liu and Ivanhoe, eds., Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi, 2002) is a classic essay; more recently, Hagop Sarkissian (“Confucius and the Effortless Life of Virtue,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 27:1 ) and P.J. Ivanhoe (“McDowell, WANG Yangming, and Mengzi’s Contributions to Understanding Moral Perception,” Dao ) have also developed related ideas.
I’m going to excerpt here a bit from an essay of mine that is currently unpublished, part of a volume that will eventually wend its way through the review process and see the light of day. My concern in the essay is to further develop some comparisons between Neo-Confucians and contemporary psychological literature that I began in Sagehood and continued in “A Productive Dialogue? Contemporary Moral Education and Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian Ethics,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy (2011). In particular, I refine the idea of “active moral perception” introduced in Sagehood, and as part of that process, find myself arguing against the idea that moral exemplars are best understood as people who have honed their sensitivities to moral reasons or moral properties in a connoisseur-like way. My target here is not, at least explicitly, the interpretations of Kongzi and Menzi suggested in the essays cited above, but rather to argue that a common-sense idea (supported by recent psychological research) of what moral exemplars are like, and what they do, actually fits very well with key elements of Wang Yangming’s picture. I’d love feedback!
P.J. Ivanhoe has recently argued that the development of an ethical sensibility is “a prolonged, complex, and at times difficult process that seems to have more in common with acquiring a skill or art than possessing a faculty” (Ivanhoe 2011, 281). Part of his argument is that the analogy with vision that both John McDowell and Wang Yangming employ is misleading, since, for example, “we don’t tend to believe that our understanding of redness improves with greater experience of red things in the way we feel our ability to understand and deal with issues surrounding what it is to really love or care for someone does” (Ibid). Whether or not this point is telling against McDowell, I think that Wang has a ready response. Wang’s claim is that seeing-and-reacting would be easy if we only looked, unclouded by selfishness. We do not have to learn to care for others or to feel pain at their suffering; we need to learn to eliminate biases and distractions—and learning that can be a prolonged, complex, and difficult process.
Later in his essay, Ivanhoe acknowledges that Wang may have a somewhat easier time responding to this criticism than McDowell, but makes two further points. First, Ivanhoe says that many cases of moral failure come not from selfishness but from “a simple lack of information or enough experience.” Second, he suggests that the “growth of our moral sensibilities does not feel like the spontaneous realization of a fully formed innate faculty,” but is more like the cultivation of taste by a connoisseur (Ivanhoe 2011, 283). With regard to the first, I would say that Wang has no trouble with the idea that we often lack information. Liangzhi isn’t magic: it simply responds to situations, and responds not by magically telling us facts we don’t know, but by showing us the world (insofar as we understand it) in apt moral coloration. There is nothing problematic about our need to find out details, either in order to understand the situation, or to know how best to implement our desired response. As Ivanhoe notes, Wang actually recognizes the need to “investigate many actual details” quite explicitly, even while emphasizing that the basis of one’s moral response lies not in the details but in removing selfness and preserving Universal Coherence (Wang 1983, 30 / Wang 1963, 8 (§3)).
Concerning Ivanhoe’s suggestion that moral development is more like the gradual cultivation of taste, I reply (on Wang’s behalf) that moral responsiveness is a many-times-a-day affair that we all engage in, mostly rather well. When we go wrong, it’s typically the case that we can readily come to see what the better response would have been, when it is explained to us. Moral responsiveness is not, typically, a deeply subtle matter such that only those with much training can see it. It is not like tasting the hint of cloves in bottle of fine wine—the “hint” that is so subtle that even when an enthusiastic but under-educated wine drinker like myself is told of it, I still cannot perceive it. While more could surely be said on the subject (including exploration of relevant psychological literature), I do not find it obvious that a connoisseur’s taste is the right way to understand a moral exemplar.
Even if we do not follow Ivanhoe in adopting the model of the connoisseur, we still might be tempted by the idea that the notion of skill must play a role in explaining moral development. Psychologists have engaged in extensive studies of expert or skilled behavior and of the acquisition of expertise, and are beginning to apply these frameworks to moral development (Narvaez & Lapsley 2005, 150-60). Philosopher Daniel Jacobson has argued that McDowell’s model of moral perception cannot be combined with a skill model of virtue, since the development of skills requires feedback based on concerns that we already have, whereas McDowell’s understanding of virtuous perception ties it to a distinct “space of reasons” that simply “silences” our pre-existing emotional reactions (Jacobson 2005, 400).
If this is correct, then is Wang Yangming equally vulnerable? Perhaps not, since Wang makes clear that we all already care about the deliverances of liangzhi, even though we do not always feel them as strongly and clearly as we should. Still, what would growing skill be about, on Wang’s model, if not the growing expertise of our liangzhi itself? The obvious answer for us to try out is: the skill of being more maturely committed to the Way and (consequently) less selfish. Perhaps the skill model can help us understand the gradual development of a non-selfish perspective on the world, and the increasing force with which we experience the felt goodness of liangzhi can provide the needed feedback to make skilled improvement possible. Much of what I said above about connoisseurs applies to experts as well: I think we have reason to resist a too-simple conflation of moral exemplar and moral expert.
One advantage of an engagement with Wang Yangming is that he pushes us to think about the assumptions underlying psychologists’ explanations of moral functioning. At the same time, several challenges remain for Wang and for contemporary Confucians. Wang’s talk of a unitary “good knowing” may need to be re-thought as a kind of idealization: a way of referring to a perceptual capacity that we have without needing to learn it, but which rests on various other functions that can be separately analyzed. For that matter, even if I have found Wang’s way of talking about active moral perception to be extremely insightful, we should remember that other Neo-Confucians disagreed with him on key matters of analysis and pedagogy, and perhaps they were closer to the truth than he.
Jacobson, Daniel. (2005). Seeing by Feeling: Virtues, Skills, and Moral Perception. Ethic Theory Moral Prac, 8(4), 387-409.
Narvaez, Darcia & Lapsely, Daniel K. (2005). The Psychological Foundations of Everyday Morality and Moral Expertise. In Lapsley, Daniel K., & Power, F. Clark (Eds.), Moral Psychology at the Crossroads. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 140-65.
Wang, Yangming. (1963). (Chan, Wing-tsit, Tr.) Instructions for Practical Living. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wang, Yangming 王陽明. (1983). 傳習錄詳註集評 [Record of Practice with Detailed Annotations and Collected Commentary]. Taipei: Xuesheng Shuju.