Neo-Confucian Moral Perception

Steve mentioned Kai Marchal’s and Huang Yong’s papers on moral perception and motivation is his report from the Soochow University conference. I’ve been thinking about some of the issues raised in them, and since both of them (and Steve, who raises some of these issues in his book) contribute to the blog, this seems like the perfect chance to try to get clearer. I’m no expert on either Zhu Xi or Wang Yangming, so I’ll let others weigh in on the interpretive issues. I’m more interested in the general moral psychology/epistemology.

The general suggestion seems to be that in Neo-Confucianism knowing what’s right/good/humane/etc. in a matter of seeing a situation correctly, and this perception is itself motivating, so that (all things being equal) one will at minimum be disposed to act on one’s perception of the situation, or even just go ahead and act. In his paper Huang Yong discussed the idea of “besire”–a fusion of belief and desire–in Wang in particular. Believing that X is the proper thing to do in situation S and desiring to do X are one and the same mental state. Wang’s use of the Daxue example of seeing a beautiful color and loving it show the connection to perception of some kind. Steve talks about a similar idea is his book (I don’t have it with me, so I may be oversimplifying) about how sages see things differently from other people, and this perception is connected to ability to respond properly. In his paper Kai discusses this kind of interpretation of Neo-Confucianism with the more Kantian interpretation common in Taiwan which takes 理 as more like an abstract moral law which does not take into account particulars. He raises a number of issues which I found very interesting and inspired my questions here.

Foremost, is this perception necessary and sufficient for moral action? In both Steve’s and Yong”s account, it seems that it is sufficient. Hence Wang’s famous unity of knowledge and action: one who fails to act doesn’t see the situation properly. In Steve’s description of sagely action, perception and action seem very closely linked as well. So we don’t get one of the classic problems of Western moral philosophy, of how to account for people who know what is right but don’t seem motivated to do it. Is this psychologically plausible? It’s a little hard for me to accept, since I quite often come in contact with people who say they know X is wrong while showing little desire to cease X-ing. Now, one could always say they don’t really know it’s wrong or something of that order, but why not take their claim that they know/believe X to be wrong at face value? Is it really incoherent?

Then, if such perception is necessary, that would mean that people who don’t have the right perception are technically incapable of moral action. But what of the person who tries to put himself in the sage’s shoes and figure out what the right thing to do is? Could he manage to figure out what the right action is without actually perceiving the situation in the way a sage does, and if he did and acted on that conclusion, why wouldn’t this be good? We all have to start somewhere, and a common technique is virtue ethics is to imagine what a virtuous person would do in situation S and then do that. It seems to me that’s a little different than just seeing that the harmonious thing to do in S is X.

Third, is there any role for deliberation at all? To make moral awareness a matter of perception would suggest not, but then why do try to get people to change their moral assessments, sometimes even successfully? Can argument actually change someone’s perceptions? What about when one is unsure of what the right thing to do is oneself? How would thinking about it help one’s perception? Does imagined perception (“well, if I did X, would the result look harmonious to me?”) work the same way as perceiving real situations, so that it can produce trustworthy moral judgments?

I think these will do for a start.

One reply

  1. Hi David, A few quick thoughts, in the midst of a busy day!

    On the issue of whether correct perception can be sufficient — what, then, of the person who seems to “know what is right” and yet not be motivated — we might want to distinguish between two types of cases. I suppose we can imagine someone who says, “Yeah, I know I should X, I learned that in school, but I feel no motivation when faced with relevant situations.” Neo-Confucians would definitely insist that there is something superficial about this kind of “knowledge,” which doesn’t seem to be connected to viewing the world in normative terms at all.

    A different (and much more common) type of case is when there is some positive, relevant motivation present, but it is defeated by other (“self-centered [si]”) considerations. This is my reading of Larry Blum’s “Tim” example. Blum says that his moral agency has not been engaged, but this seems to me to be too strong (that might apply to the first type of case?). Wang Yangming would say that his knowing and doing have been separated by self-centeredness. Concern to avoid embarrassment would be a good example of self-centeredness defeating ethical motivation. Other plausible defeaters are things like confusion or fatigue.

    Is type 1 simply an extreme version of type 2? I don’t think so: it seems better to say that type one is an incomplete or perhaps degenerate kind of knowing.

    On the issue of necessity — and thus whether non-sages can engage in right action — I would say two things. First, although I can’t think off the top of my head of a place where any Neo-Confucians address this, there surely is a kind of value in doing the right thing without the right motivation. Contemporary virtue ethicists have tried with varying degrees of success to articulate this idea; Christine Swanton, for example, talks of “hitting the target of virtue” even when the action is not done from virtue.

    Second, I very much don’t want perception, motivation, etc. to be all-or-nothing. That goes against a basic strand of my account, which is that there is a strong continuity between average people and sages, so that differences will typically be matters of degree. All of us see things in ethical terms all the time — the experience and linked motivations are quite ubiquitous. Our level of sustained orientation (or “commitment”) to viewing things in this way is limited, though, as compared to a sage’s.

    I’m sure there’s lots more to be said on each of these issues, but let that be a start!

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