Chapter 5 of my Sagehood book is concerned in various ways with the scope of ethics. On p. 92, I articulate some of my conclusions as follows:
…There is no morality-versus-prudence distinction. Instead, everything matters. The style and form with which one acts are important, though not in a way that can be detached from other aspects of the situations in which we find ourselves. There is, to be sure, a great emphasis on avoiding selfishness. But when everything matters, we are included: it is appropriate that we matter to ourselves, though we must be careful that we do not become so focused on our own immediate concerns that we view things in a skewed way.
In some recent discussions with colleagues, my claim that there is no morality-versus-prudence distinction (in either Neo-Confucianism or classical Confucianism, though the details and evidence will differ somewhat between the two cases) has met with some resistance. I am aware of two sources for the idea that there is, or must be, such a distinction:
- A Kantian reading of Confucianism, according to which the pure moral heartmind is fundamentally distinct from other sorts of physical and affective capacities. According to Mou Zongsan’s interpretation, the moral heartmind accesses (or even partly creates or constitutes) noumenal moral reality via “intellectual intuition,” which is fundamentally different from regular, sensory intuition. One source of evidence for this reading is the famous Korean four-seven debate, concerning the relationship between the Four Beginnings (si duan) and the Seven Feelings (qi qing). The idea is that while the Four (on most but not all accounts) are always good (and, on this reading, “moral”), the Seven are only sometimes good, and this good is of a distinct kind, namely “prudential.” In any event, one can see use made of a moral-versus-prudential (or “non-moral good”) in some of Wong Wai-ying‘s essays, for example.
- From the perspective of the Western tradition, we can also arrive at a morality-versus-prudence distinction if we distinguish rational self-concern from other-directed morality. This distinction might be rooted in an emphasis on the difference between reason and empathic care, as it is for Michael Slote (The Ethics of Care and Empathy, ch. 7), or it might have some other basis. If we take the key idea here to be morality=other and prudence =self, then while it is not based in the reason-versus-care distinction, I believe we can find this idea in some writings of the 20th century Confucian Feng Youlan. (This English-language essay explicates some of what I have in mind.) He insisted that Neo-Confucians problematically dichotomized value into “moral (daode and tianli)” and “immoral (budaode and renyu).” He says that there also needs to be a category of “non-moral (fei daode).” Concern with one’s non-moral good would then be prudential. He isn’t all that clear about what “moral” means, but seems to equate it with a purely other-oriented attitude, as in “exhausting the self on behalf of the other (jinji weiren 盡己為人).”
With all this in mind, I wonder if y’all have any thoughts on the simple question: who is right? Also, are there other kinds of theoretical or textual bases for defending (or resisting) a morality-versus-prudence distinction in Confucianism?