Slote Contra Self-Cultivation

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Moral Education (45:2), Michael Slote published “Moral Self-Cultivation East and West: A Critique.” Here is the abstract:

Moral Self-Cultivation plays an important, even a central role, in the
Confucian philosophical tradition, but philosophers in the West, most
notably Aristotle and Kant, also hold that moral self-cultivation or
self-shaping is possible and morally imperative. This paper argues that
these traditions are psychologically unrealistic in what they say about
the possibilities of moral self-cultivation. We cannot shape ourselves
in the substantial and overall ways that Confucianism, Aristotle, and
Kant say we can, and our best psychological data on moral education
and development indicate strongly that these phenomena depend
crucially on the intervention of others and, more generally, on external
factors individuals don’t control.

I would be very interested in hearing thoughts in response to this argument. If anyone does not have access to the article and would like a copy, please contact me via email.Hannah Pang detail

14 thoughts on “Slote Contra Self-Cultivation

  1. After posting about Slote’s essay, I belatedly realized that the whole issue of JME is relevant to this question, especially Heather Battaly’s “Developing Virtue and Rehabilitating Vice: Worries About Self-Cultivation and Self-Reform.” The abstract for that article reads as follows:

    Aristotelian virtue theorists have emphasized the role of the self in
    developing virtue and in rehabilitating vice. But this article argues that,
    as Aristotelians, we have placed too much emphasis on self-cultivation
    and self-reform. Self-cultivation is not required for developing virtue
    or vice. Nor will sophia-inspired self-reform jumpstart change in
    the vicious person. In each case, the external environment has an
    important role to play. One can unwittingly acquire virtues or vices
    from one’s environment. Likewise, a well-designed environment may
    be the key ingredient for jumpstarting change in the vicious person.
    Self-cultivation and late-stage self-reform are not ruled out, but the
    role of the self in character development and rehabilitation is not as
    exalted as we might have thought.

  2. It’s easy to take certain passages out of context and, as Xunzi says, “become obsessed by a small corner of truth.”

    By summarizing the entire tradition of Ruism as one of solitary self-cultivation, however, Slote ignores a massive body of counter-evidence. The entirety of The Analects portrays Confucius and his students working on self-cultivation in community. Likewise, the history of Ruism demonstrates, again and again, people working on self-cultivation in academies, village schools, and small groups.

    Even if we imprudently dismissed these examples of collaborative self-cultivation and focused solely on the texts, they are chock full of advice on finding suitable companions in the Way, choosing virtuous neighborhoods and states, etc.

    Forgive my laziness, but hunting down these references in just The Analects, Mencius, and Xunzi alone would take most of a day.

  3. Thanks, Ben; I agree that a significant part of the answer is that cultivation is not simply a solitary endeavor; “self-cultivation” is the cultivation of the self, but not necessarily by oneself, on one’s own.

    Here is how Justin Tiwald and I discuss the issue, in a draft paragraph from our book Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (forthcoming in early 2017 :-)):

    No matter what one’s model of self-cultivation, an important final question is from where one gets the motivation to engage in cultivation. Why would a self-centered person want to become less self-centered and better mesh with Pattern? Neo-Confucians repeatedly emphasize the importance of “establishing a commitment (lizhi 立志),” but how do we do this, and what does it really mean? How do we maintain such a commitment over time, in the face of temptations to quit? For anyone who has ever made, and then abandoned, a New Year’s Resolution, these have to be live questions. The Neo-Confucians offer three types of answers. First, some types of cultivation are largely outside of one’s control. Children have little choice but to engage in the rituals and other forms of Lesser Learning (see below) that their elders demand of them. Social norms keep the pressure on adults as well. So insofar as rituals are part of (self-)cultivation, this can take place at least in part without any commitment at all. The second answer is to highlight the fact—already hinted at in the prior sentence—that cultivation is often not a solo endeavor. Families, groups of friends, Neo-Confucian academies: all are contexts in which people can encourage one other to try harder and help each other out when they are struggling. Third, our individual experiences can encourage us along. ZHU Xi writes eloquently about this as a two-fold process. On the one hand, it does not take much attention to one’s world to experience unease at the disharmony all around one. And on the other hand, Zhu points to experiences that show us the nascent possibility of unobstructed harmony: of everything fitting together, everything making sense. Other thinkers, even those with a different model of cultivation from Zhu’s own, make similar reference to the “push” of unpleasant experiences and the “pull” of inspiring ones.

    Slote imagines a case in his essay — the nasty factory owner happening to notice a worker’s reaction to him — that is an example of the kind of “push” that Justin and I (and Zhu Xi) have in mind. Part of what gives such experiences more oomph in a Neo-Confucian context is that they play roles within a larger program of personal improvement, rather than being the one-off experience that Slote imagines.

  4. There is a lot one could say in response to Slote’s essay from a Kantian or Aristotelian viewpoint but I want to ask some questions about Confucianism that I think he helpfully poses. Here are the three main ones:

    (Ritual) What motivates people to engage in ritual activity and how might it positively shape moral character?

    (Classics) What motivates people to study the classics and how might it positively shape moral character?

    (Exemplars) What motivates people to contemplate sages (exemplars) and and how might it positively shape moral character?

    On Slote’s view (as I read him) these are the three best candidates for Confucian practices of self-cultivation and I think he is certainly right that people who are not Confucians or scholars of Confucianism would love to hear more about (1) whether these practices can reasonably be thought of as motivated by a desire for self-cultivation or self-improvement and (2) what psychic mechanisms might explain the purported efficacy of these practices of self-cultivation.

    Slote worries that these practices are often motivated by parental demands or other forms of authoritative direction. He also seems baffled about how these practices will lead to improvement.

    I am also in the dark here and would love it if people could (a) say more about specific rituals, specific classics, and specific ways of studying the exemplars and then (b) address his questions.

    I am less skeptical than Slote but I am not much clearer on motives and mechanisms behind these Confucian practices.

    • Great questions, Brad. I’ll take a stab at a personal, non-scholarly response (N=1).

      First, what motivates me to engage in ritual, study of the classics, and contemplation of the sages?

      The answer is simple: a desire for moral self-improvement. In this way, I am no different from millions of other people from many faiths (and no faith) who want to be better people.

      Why these practices, specifically? At first, I gave them a shot because the tradition attests to their efficacy. In other words, many thousands (millions?) of Ruists over a 2,500+ year history have said, in some fashion, “Try this. It worked for me.” After I began practicing them myself, the evidence of my own experience took precedence. I tried them and found that they worked.

      How does ritual shape my moral character?

      The first thing to understand about ritual in the Ruist sense is that it isn’t just about formal ceremonies with bowing and incense. It includes those things, but also includes the ordinary day-to-day social interactions that make up most of our lives. Marrying someone is ritual, but so is shaking their hand.

      I have a social ritual, for example, wherein I immediately put away my phone, close any books, and set aside any other potential distractions and look the other person in the eye when they speak to me. This conveys to myself and the other person that they are important to me and what they’re saying is worth my full attention.

      I believe that rituals like this, multiplied over many thousands of interactions, have a cumulative effect on my moral character. The more formal ceremonies that many people associate with Ruism are extensions of this same principle.

      How does study of the classics shape my moral character?

      Again, I have to start by qualifying this a bit. When we think of “study,” we tend to think of acquiring knowledge or understanding from some text. For Ruist “study,” this is only the first step. After understanding, one works to apply the learning to one’s daily life, and to continue in this way until it becomes part of one’s personality.

      How does contemplation of the sages shape my moral character?

      In a sense, this is no different than the Christian who adheres to the “What Would Jesus Do” approach or the Greek philosophers who constantly harkened back to the example of Socrates (real or imagined) to guide their decisions and behavior.

      Unlike the Christian, however, most Ruists hold no illusions about the perfection of Confucius or anyone else held up as a sage in the tradition. We therefore take the words and deeds of the sages as an historical example to seriously consider, subject to our own critical evaluation. (Psychologically, this is pretty simple stuff, and can be explained by reading Bandura.)

      For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t put contemplation of sages on the same level as ritual or study, but that could be narrowness on my part.

      Hope this helped a little.

    • In terms of children, I’m not sure why we’d be especially concerned about “parental demands.” Just about everything they do is subject to these demands. My children wouldn’t brush their teeth unless I made some “parental demands.”

      Concerning ritual, we all impose these demands on our children on a daily basis. When my children get a gift, for example, I “demand” that they say, “Thank you.” I believe that this has a positive effect on their moral characters (i.e., inculcating the importance of gratitude) and I believed that long before I took an interest in Ruism.

    • Thanks, Ben! Those are very interesting comments. I especially like your example of a ritual you use to focus on attending to others in conversation. Perhaps, in addition to self-improvement, one motive to practicing rituals like that is that they enable to connect more deeply with others and experience more fully the world around us. PJ Ivanhoe’s work on oneness fits with this suggestion, I think, and your example really brings this out in a great way.

    • Brad: Exactly! From a Ruist point of view self-cultivation is always relational. The highest virtue in Ruism is called “ren” 仁, and it is always acted out in relationships.

  5. We do not need to ponder over the motivation in order to ‘dislike bad smell’ and ‘love beautiful color’. By the same token, ‘dynamic harmony’ makes all concerned life, or all concerned factors in one’s life sustain and thrive together. It is like heliophilous plants necessarily enjoying sunshine. Unless they turns themselves towards sunshine, they would not survive and thrive. Yes, people can try their best efforts to live a disharmonious life if they like; after all, humans are free and can do whatever they choose. However, this type of life would not sustain, and according to Ruist view, it is also uneasy, not genuinely happy and thus, short-lived. The Ruist answer to the motivation of moral self-cultivation is that, you definitely can not-cultivate, but, it is not worthy.

  6. There are certain assumptions one could bring to the table that might tend to make it mysterious how one could be motivated to become better, and therefore mysterious how one could engage in any activity (such as self-cultivation) on the basis of such a motivation.

    One such assumption is that morality is fundamentally mysterious. The question “What is morality?” is a permanently insoluble philosophical question. For it’s mysterious how one could be motivated to become more, uh, ____ .

    But surely morality is not as mysterious as all that. Its metaphysical nature or ultimate rational foundation may be tenacious mysteries, and there is legitimate controversy about practical fine points, and there’s certainly room for controversy about whether Confucius and Aristotle were talking about the same thing! But it’s not as though when we speak of morality or moral goodness or virtue we have no idea what we’re talking about. We’re talking about care and respect, honesty, and strength of character (hence temperance and courage); we’re talking about regarding yourself as one person among others, looking at things also from others’ points of view, and holding yourself to the standards you hope others will hold themselves to.

    Another such assumption is that being virtuous is normally not in one’s interest (as one might think, for example, if one tends to envision morality simply as “altruism”). For then motivation to become better would be motivation to make a bad gamble from the point of view of one’s own interest, or even one’s current aims. Confucius may have been making fun of this idea at Analects 15.35, though he speaks elsewhere of the willingness to give one’s life to avoid departing from ren.

    But caring for people, the people one has something to do with (cf. 6.30), tends to be in one’s interest. Care and respect help one to understand the people one has dealings with. Looking at things from others’ points of view helps one understand everything better. Strength of character helps one get things done. Honesty makes possible and likely the kinds of relationship that are satisfying and strengthening; and it gives one better feedback on everything in one’s life, improving one’s wisdom and competence. Etc. Etc.

    Here by speaking of what is “in one’s interest” I do not mean to be suggesting that an individual’s well-being is psychologically or rationally fundamental. (In fact I think individual well-being is a pseudo-concept; or at least, it is so inherently vague that it is quite unsuitable for any kind of basic theoretical role.) What I mean rather is that as a rough general rule, a person is likely to be more happy, and have her current leading aims better fulfilled, if she becomes a better person: more insightful, competent, and pleasing and beneficial to interact with. Virtue is normally a good gamble.

    Which is not to say that it’s within reach; that’s a different question.

  7. What bugs me the most about this essay is how it generalizes what counts as “morality” and “usefulness.” Psychologist often operationalize what they mean by “moral,” in their studies, meaning that psychology at best examines several of many moral doctrines. While this answer might rely on a great deal of intuitionism (as his essay does as well), I don’t see any intrinsic reason why any of the schools he mentions might question why their ethics need to take his claims seriously. By not contextualizing what he means by “moral” and “useful,” Slotes claims come across as a bit sneaky. But I admit that my attitutde is itself poor philosophy, and that perhaps that this journal already takes an operational definition of morality as given. All I’m really trying to say here is that it’s a bit unfair to say that Confucianism, Kantianism, and Aristotelianism aren’t necessarily positivists, and then all of a sudden scream, “hey everyone, let’s all be more positivist.” It doesn’t seem to respect the internal standards of these respective philosophical discussions as much as one would hope.

    Putting aside these issues, the discussion of emotions (情 qing) and nature is perhaps one of the least uniform discussions in the entire corpus of Confucian Philosophy. No doubt that the conversations get much much much more complicated when Buddhism’s understanding of Pattern (理 li) highjacks much of metaphysical discourse late-Tang early-Song. It is unreasonable to ask him to treat every single Confucian philosopher, but I just wanted to make sure that this was made public.

    Regarding Slote’s comments on Confucius, I believe that Professor Angle has a possible response to Slote. I’m willing to exposit it upon request, but I’d rather not steal Professor Angle’s thunder. Instead, here’s a link to his essay:

    Finally, I believe that his treatment of Mengzi suffers from reading the analogy of sprouts as something which refers to fully formed morality. Song Dynasty Hu Hong interpreted the statement of “Human nature as good” as referring to a general tendency for Human nature to move towards goodness, not it’s final state. I don’t believe that this is a satisfactory answer for Slote though, nor that Mengzi can satisfy him.

  8. I think Slote is right that Aristotle was wrong to say that you have to be a complete fool not to know that acting a certain way makes you more likely to act that way in future. For one thing, you don’t have to be a fool to think foolish things. But I think the whole issue is given too much importance. One of the main things we mean by saying that a bad act is my fault, is that it shows my fault; if it reflects my vice. Now, my vice reflects my vice automatically. In that sense my vice is my fault, no matter how I got it.


    I am not sure why Slote is so focused on children. Confucius isn’t talking about children. Confucius isn’t even talking about most people, for the most part; he’s talking about special aspirants, for whom reading books is not something extraordinary. And today, reading good books such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin is well within almost everyone’s reach. But the idea doesn’t have to be that you read about starving strangers in order to become compassionate and raise money for OxFam. Reading any decent literature tends to ramp up one’s general everyday empathy. Studies show.

    Here’s an imaginary example of self-cultivation. I imagine some imaginary college student, in my imagination, who notices that each evening or morning he has grand ideas of what he will do in the coming day, and as each day passes other immediate projects capture his immediate attention for plausible reasons, until at the end of the day he finds that the day’s accomplishments fall immeasurably far below what he had expected. I imagine this student buying a little pocket memo book and resolving to write, at the beginning of each day, a list of at least one or two things to do in that day, and then adhering to that list no matter what its merits come to seem to be as the day advances – on the theory that this practice will train better foresight, better ability to plan, and a greater likelihood of carrying out the plans. And I imagine that it worked.

    Confucius has a similar but simpler idea: do the hard or unpleasant stuff first; eat the meat before the pudding.

    Here’s another example of a kind of self-cultivation. To become a better citizen, read a good newspaper every day. Confucius too was mainly interested in how to become a good citizen, good prospective official; only he had different kinds of things to read.

    Here’s another example of a kind of self-cultivation: when you meet a good person – when you find yourself admiring someone – think of her good qualities and how you might realize them in yourself; and when you meet a bad person – when you find yourself disapproving of someone – check yourself for similar flaws. This is Confucius’ advice. It’s not just a good way to learn and remember about goodness, it’s a good way to cultivate humility, tolerance, patience, understanding, and mercy.

    Here’s another example of a kind of self-cultivation: if there’s a concern you aspire to develop, associate with people who have that concern. One of Slote’s points, if not his main point, is that (in a process akin to empathy) one tends to absorb the values of the people one associates with. (That idea is conspicuous in the Analects and Plato; as for Aristotle I don’t recall offhand, except that I think he says somewhere in the Politics that the people of a state tend to absorb the values of the rulers, of the kind of people favored by the constitution. I don’t know if Kant addresses such topics or presupposes views on them.) But what you get from mere proximity, from that quasi-empathy, is I think only a small part of how the company of people with Concern C and the Associated Skills will promote your possession of that concern and those skills. As you associate with those people, you will want to be valued by them, and every bit of improvement you muster will help.

    If we think of self-cultivation as the acquisition of habits of restraint, like dieting, then it may seem a grim and unrewarding business. But there’s a great deal we can do that involves generating new incentive structures, new feedback systems. For example, in developing any skill we get the pleasure of each little success; that’s why even the simplest computer games can draw one in to a pointless flow experience for hours and hours (or so I imagine). And because virtues tend to bring big advantages, they tend to be surrounded by noticeable short-term benefits.

    Artificial methods can help us do the noticing, hence help the benefits motivate us. For a crude example, think of the scheme Benjamin Franklin describes in his Autobiography. He drew up a sort of graph-paper diary to record how many times a day he acted on each of thirteen virtues – rather like Zengzi’s daily checklist at Analects 1.4. The idea is simply to notice one’s successes and failures, to keep track of them. It’s not that hard to make a systematic effort to notice things of various kinds – like simply asking oneself how one would feel in the other person’s shoes.

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