As part of some commentary on Paul Goldin’s new book Confucianism, Bill Haines has noted the centrality of the idea of moral perfection in Goldin’s characterization of the basic convictions of the Confucian philosophical orientation. In a subsequent comment, he questions to what degree the ideal of moral perfection was actually held by Confucius. With Bill’s permission, I’m re-posting his comments on this latter subject here, because I think they deserve more attention than they may get buried deep in a comment string. Read on, and please direct your comments to Bill, the author of what follows.
Paul’s list of five basic convictions in Confucianism has an elegant unity, in that its points center on two main ideas: “morality” and “perfection” – or on the one idea, “moral perfection.” But I wonder about the extent to which this is idea was shared by Confucius. There is at least some prima facie reason to suspect that the very idea may be profoundly at odds with Confucius’ views.
I don’t have an opinion yet about whether he actually did hold this idea, or about whether there is significant evidence either way; I haven’t thought about this question before today, nor read the Analects with the question in mind, or indeed read the Analects recently, so maybe this elaborate comment has an easy and obvious answer. Here I’ll just set out the prima facie reason to wonder.
The following oversimple view is familiar in the West: Morality has two parts. One part consists of fairly clear rules (e.g. don’t kill people, don’t steal) that can and should be completely obeyed, and that can be associated with the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Some of these rules may be associated with particular offices or positions, e.g. a borrower must return what she borrowed, and a captain must go down with the ship. The other part of morality consists of what might be called scalar values, and are more properly associated with such words as ‘bad’ and ‘better’ and ‘good’ and ‘excellent’. Examples might include virtues, like rén, wisdom, or courage; or other things like moral self-cultivation, working for peace, or succeeding in benefitting others. The more of the scalar things you do the better, other things being equal, and there may be no such thing as doing them completely or all the way.
At first glance the notion of moral perfection or flawlessness is more at home in the former part of morality; or in morality conceived on the model of that part. Here are three reasons. (1) We tend to find clear rules plausibly obligatory only when they are not beyond most relevant people’s powers to obey completely. (2) Also, human society seems to need a groundwork of clear rules to ground security, peace and cooperation, rules we can pretty much count on people to obey; and the analogous point is true on a smaller scale, e.g. in any particular organization. So it is common (if perhaps fallacious) to think of the rule part of morality as the elementary part, the part for total obedience; and the scalar part of morality as the proper focus for high aspiration. (3) Perhaps most importantly, complete obedience to any attractive set of rules is pretty much guaranteed to be conceptually possible, i.e. conceivable. In setting out the rules, one is automatically describing complete obedience, i.e. perfection by those standards. Nothing of the sort is true for scalar values. There is nothing unusual about holding a scalar value such that the idea of complete success or perfection is just as nonsensical as the idea of the greatest whole number. Hence one might well associate the idea of scalar morality, or high moral aspiration, with the rejection of the very idea of moral perfection.
It is popular recently to associate Confucianism, or at least Confucius, with “virtue ethics,” which is naturally associated with scalar values (better/worse rather than right/wrong), and with conceiving the whole of morality on the model of the scalar part. For that reason alone I think we should be careful about attributing the idea of moral perfection to Confucius and to Confucianism in general.
Not that a scalar moralist can’t believe in perfection. Indeed, virtue theory is sometimes associated with a natural teleology whereby morality is thought to be about trying to realize some ideal form for our species, or something like that, as Aristotle and Mengzi seem to have thought; and this view makes prima facie sense of the idea of moral perfection, at least in the abstract.
Still, even that kind of view can have difficulty with the idea of perfection. Think of the idea of actually drawing a perfectly straight or perfectly circular line, with pencil on paper. On the one hand there is in some sense a clear concept of perfection, and it is intelligible to aim at those perfections in our drawing. Those are the targets we should have our mental eyes on, not the drawing of an only slightly wiggly line. On the other hand, we just as readily grant that achieving such perfection is utterly impossible for anyone, even with compass and square. (I guess the image 不逾距 from LY 2.4 is not about ideals or models, but about boundaries that one can stay well within, as one may obey clear rules.)
The drawing problem arises from a tension between the ideals and the matter. Aristotle was troubled by a similar tension, I think, between his abstract ideals (the contemplative knower, e.g. God) and the limitations of the human species qua matter for that form. More familiarly, he may never have resolved the deep tension among his picture of individual perfection, his notion of humanity as an essentially social species (almost like bees), and his picture of a community’s perfection. Off the top of my head I don’t recall what signs there might be of either sort of tension in the Analects. I imagine Bryan Van Norden must have discussed such things in his book Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, but I forget.
There is, however, a different sort of potential tension in the Analects that arises from a lack: Confucius seems to have lacked a term equivalent to our ‘morality’ (and most of what he says in the Analects may be specifically about the vocation of public service or even the role of ruler rather than about norms applicable across the board). I think he may pretty much have the idea of morality anyway, and I’ve argued in print that he does. But if we find him talking about perfection in one or another part or aspect of what we call morality, we can’t simply infer that he has thought of moral perfection. For one thing, moral perfection might involve trade-offs, a balance among morality’s parts; e.g. one might think morality counsels the occasional lie. For another thing, even if there is perfection in one part of morality, there may be another part of morality regarding which perfection makes no sense.
So: is the idea of moral perfection evidenced in or alien to the Analects? Anyone?