I have recently been at work on an essay called “The Analects and Moral Theory,” one part of which has been examining the idea of “Confucian role ethics,” as recently articulated by Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont. I thought it might be productive to extract some of my analysis here for discussion. In this post I look at the two key premises supporting Confucian role ethics; if folks are interested, in a subsequent post or two I have a couple different objections to the view that may be worth discussion.
At the heart of Confucian role ethics is “a specific vision of human beings as relational persons constituted by the roles they live rather than as individual selves” [Ames and Rosemont 2011, 17]. Their point is not that the roles themselves are distinctively Confucian, but rather that the idea of human as fundamentally constituted by our on-going living in roles ramifies throughout Confucian thinking in a way that renders it dramatically different from Greek or contemporary Western alternatives. Their argument in favor of a role-ethical interpretation of the Analects thus depends on two important premises. The first is a wide-ranging interpretation of early Confucian thinking that emphasizes its anti-foundational, anti-essentialist, and processural character. The second premise is that even though Confucian role ethics comes closer to virtue ethics than to Kantianism or consequentialism, relying on virtue-ethical vocabulary to understand the Analects “forces the Master and his followers more into the mold of Western philosophical discourse than they ought to be placed…and hence makes it difficult to see the Confucian vision as a genuine alternative to those with which we are most familiar” [Ibid.]. Therefore the best interpretation of Confucian ethics is as role ethics.
PREMISE ONE: The most basic difference they see between role ethics and all the standard Western ethical theories is that the latter rely on the idea of an independent principle or cause, while Confucianism does not. According to the Confucian project, Ames writes, “without appeal to some independent principle, meaning arises pari passu from a network of meaningful relationships” [Ames 2011, 91]. It is easy enough to see how Kantian and Utilitarian ethics rely on an independent principle; Ames argues that Aristotelian virtue ethics, too, depends on an independent, essentialist, reified notion of human nature, as compared to corresponding Confucian notions which are “collateral, transactional, and reflexive” [Ibid., 90]. A related contrast is that between abstraction and universalism in the Western theories, and concreteness and particularity in Confucianism. As Ames says, “the personal model of Confucius that is remembered in the Analects does not purport to lay out some generic formula by which everyone should live their lives” [Ibid., 95]. While one might be tempted to reply that particularism and a lack of “codifiability” are generally taken to be features of Aristotelian virtue ethics, Ames would respond that Aristotle still sees virtues as reified, individual capacities, as versus the relational and transactional idea of “virtuosity” that he finds in Confucianism [Ibid., 159, 180].
PREMISE TWO: This second premise is important because Ames and Rosemont are not claiming that Confucian role ethics is incommensurable with Western moral theories: it is both similar and different, and they are choosing to emphasize the differences. This is a strategic choice, reflecting not just the degree of difference but also our contemporary situation in which differences with dominant Western frameworks tend to be downplayed. They are concerned with the phenomenon of “asymmetry” between Western and Chinese discourses that Kwong-loi Shun has also highlighted. Ames and Rosemont note several instances in which, in the course of their comparisons of Aristotle and Confucius, Sim and Yu stress what seems to be lacking, missing, absent, or ignored in Confucian ethics, when seen in the light of Aristotle [Ibid., 18]. To be fair, both Sim and Yu announce that their projects are to see what each of their subjects can learn from the other, and both Sim and Yu note problems for Aristotle, including that his “insistent individualism…fails to account for the thick relations his own theory requires” [Sim 2007, 164], and his overly strong distinction between virtue and activity “inappropriately reduces the value of having virtue” [Yu 2007, 194]. I will not try to settle here whether Sim or Yu in fact give us asymmetrical comparisons, but the fact surely remains that comparative philosophy overall has been characterized by an asymmetry, and it is with this in mind that Ames and Rosemont “want to resist tailoring what we take to be a distinctively Confucian role ethics into a familiar category of Western ethical theory” [Ames and Rosemont 2011, 18].
Ames, Roger T. 2011. Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont Jr. 2011. Were the Early Confucians Virtuous? In Ethics in Early China: An Anthology, eds. Chris Fraser, Dan Robins, and Timothy O’Leary, 17-39. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Sim, May. 2007. Remastering Morals With Aristotle and Confucius. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Yu, Jiyuan. 2007. The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue. New York: Routledge.