Summaries of RWCP 2018 Papers, Commentaries, and Discussions

Thanks to the scrupulous work of several graduate student rapporteurs, I am able to share summaries of all the papers presented at the recent 2018 meeting of the Rutgers Workshop in Chinese Philosophy. Read on!

Moral Sentimentalism Grounded in Naturalistic Realism:

Railton’s Humean Sentimentalism vs. Confucian Sentimentalism

Summary by Eddy Keming Chen

JeeLoo Liu (California State University, Fullerton) compares and contrasts Railton’s moral sentimentalism with Confucian sentimentalism. Liu suggests that while the former view is ultimately anti-realist, the latter view combined with ethical naturalism is a genuinely realist position.

First, Liu reviews Hume’s sentimentalism from which Railton draws his inspirations. Hume compares ethical properties to secondary qualities such as color. Nevertheless, Hume attempts to establish objectivity for morality by appealing to a universal inner moral sense in human nature. As Hume puts it, “There exists some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species” (Hume 1751, Section I). On Hume’s view, sentimentalism suggests that moral objectivity is not grounded in an external system or measures of right and wrong. Rather, right and wrong are responses of the mind. Hence, it is prima facie difficult to hold Humean sentimentalism and ethical realism at the same time.

Second, Liu argues that Railton’s realist interpretation of Humean sentimentalism is ultimately anti-realist. On Railton’s view, even if our moral judgments are dependent on our responses, they can nonetheless be grounded in the objective reality, because there are genuine properties in the world that can cause our responses. That is, in making moral distinctions, we are responding to actual features of the world that answer to our moral concepts. These actual features in the world are the dispositions in the objects that produce the “fitting” responses from us. Even though our concepts “virtue” and “vice” are response-dependent, they are still responding to genuine properties in the world— dispositions that exist in the object. The human sentiments can pick out these worldly properties by probabilistic induction.

Liu raises several worries about this view: (1) we do not have the same degree of consensus or convergence in moral beliefs as we have in secondary qualities such as color and heat; (2) moral learning does not guarantee true moral beliefs, as many moral scenarios are often sui generis and inductive learning requires more patterns or regularities that are more wide-spread; (3) evaluative properties are not independently characterizable; (4) intersubjectivity is not objectivity.

Third, Liu suggests that Confucian sentimentalism can offer a genuinely realist position. Liu argues that naturalistic ethical realism requires that one locate value in the world itself. On the Confucian view, some values do not result from human construction or social convention. There are natural values in the world that can be observed by humans. For example, life is intrinsically valuable, not just for things having subjectivity but for all living things. Instead of using induction to connection human sentiments to these normative facts of nature, the Confucian view is that there is an a priori connection between human nature and normative facts. For example, according to Mencius, humans are equipped with inborn moral sprouts that under proper cultivation will reliably track normative facts. Normative facts are to be discovered and observed. For Confucius, the quest for truth and the quest for virtue are inseparable.

Peter Railton (University of Michigan) responds that what is good for an individual depends on the cognitive capacities of the individual. The ground for such an attitude is an invariant notion, one that will remain the same for different species of living beings. For example, Martians appreciate different aesthetic values, because what is good depends on the cognitive capacities of the individual. However, it is still the same notion of values. As such, it is not an intersubjective notion. We could all be wrong about what is good for us. Hence, what is right and wrong does not depend on particular consensus. Railton suggests that Confucian moral sentimentalism seems to be similar to Humean sentimentalism. It has the same picture of what the source of value is: the nature of creatures.


Confucian Democracy, Disagreement, and Public Reason:

The Groundwork for Confucian Constitutionalism

Summary by Dee Payton

Sungmoon Kim (City University of Hong Kong) gave the second talk of the day, the topic of which was his paper entitled “Confucian Democracy, Disagreement, and Public Reason: The Groundwork for Confucian Constitutionalism”. In the paper, Kim identifies a deficit in Confucian political theory, namely that it pays insufficient attention to the distinctive political circumstances generated by the social pluralism which presently characterizes East Asian societies. The account Kim develops, which he calls public reason Confucianism, is designed to address this deficit in existing Confucian political theory by articulating (1) why the fact of pluralism should be taken seriously, (2) how brute pluralism might be transformed into reasonable pluralism, (3) the specific political problems public reason Confucianism is designed to treat, and (4) what the politics of public reason Confucianism look like. Kim’s talk largely centered around points (1) and (2), which I will briefly summarize below:

Kim argues that pluralism should be taken seriously by Confucian political theorists because it is a defining feature of contemporary, politically liberal, East Asian societies. Here, Kim is particularly concerned with social pluralism which emerges from value pluralism, and which obtains when citizens of a given society hold different values and form groups by associating with others with whom they share values. Kim argues that the Confucian tradition did not have to seriously contend with social pluralism until it was ushered in by encounters with the West, but now that this form of pluralism has come to characterize East Asian societies as well, Confucian political theory ought not deny the truth of this social fact, but rather respond to it productively. And, Kim argues that such a project involves more than just integrating pluralism into Confucian political theory—it also involves providing a guide to engaging social disagreement in a manner which respects personal autonomy and promotes core democratic values.

Kim presents public reason Confucianism as a theory which accomplishes as much. In the paper, he begins his presentation of this view by remarking that, while East Asian societies may share overall Confucian outlooks and cultural characteristics in common, the overwhelming majority of East Asians hold diverse moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines, and as well as conceptions of the good life which are informed by those views. Public reason Confucianism employs the Confucian characteristics that these societies share in common as bridging capital by means of which so-called brute pluralism might be made moderate and reasonable: Here, Kim appeals to the notion of civility, which he characterizes as an attitude fellow citizens bear toward one another, and which leads them to try to diminish conflict by looking for common ground, and seeking a common good which transcends partisan interests. And, this in turn creates and sustains a shared constitutional identity among those citizens.

Furthermore, in his paper Kim writes that “civility in public reason Confucianism is promoted through the cultivation of reasons that can be broadly shared by citizens”, their disagreements set aside. In public reason Confucianism, then, civility among citizens of a particular society generates a set of public reasons shared by those individuals. Additionally, since Kim expects that civility among citizens of East Asian societies will be facilitated by their shared Confucian values, it will happen that their shared public reasons and their shared constitutional identity will be instilled with those values, as well. This constitutional identity will then serve as the foundation upon which citizens of a given society can collectively debate important matters, and the policies and laws they produce will both reflect, and be informed by, their shared identity. The resulting democratic polity will then be one which is deeply saturated with Confucian values— values which bring people together in community, and so work to unify socially pluralist societies without impinging upon the autonomy of individual citizens.

Kim’s talk was followed by comments from Stephen Macedo (Princeton University). In large part, Macedo’s comments consisted of several related requests for further specification in certain areas of Kim’s view: In particular, Macedo questioned what work Confucianism in particular was doing for the view, and to what extent public reason as Kim characterized it was playing the role of a normative requirement (in the Rawlsian sense) in addition to simply that of a critical constraint. Macedo and others in the Q&A also raised questions about the intended target audience of the theory, and worried that individuals who did not share Confucian values would be excluded from the political community.


Friends as Family and Particularized Virtues:

A Confucian Solution to the Fungibility Problem of Friendship

Summary by Jimmy Goodrich

Chenyang Li (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) gave the third talk of the conference, entitled “Friends as Family and Particularized Virtues: A Confucian Solution to the Fungibility Problem of Friendship.” The primary aims of Li’s paper is to show that  Confucianism has the theoretical resources to respond a philosophical puzzle concerning the special value of friendship.

So what exactly is the problem concerning the value of friendship? The idea is this: We seem to be friends with people for reasons. So if I were to ask you, “Why are you friends with Anika?,” you might reply, “I’m friends with Anika because she’s kind, loyal, and good fun at cocktail parties.” It seems then that in replying to my question, it makes perfectly good sense for you to point to Anika’s character traits or virtues. But suppose I then point out that Bethany is just as kind and loyal as Anika, but she’s even more fun at cocktail parties! Why not cut Anika out of your life then and form a special bond of friendship with Bethany instead? You only stand to gain! Of course, you’d rightly be put off – and perhaps even disgusted – by this suggestion. Only the most repugnant sort of individual exchanges in friends for ones with greater virtues. But why? What is it about friends and friendship that makes it the case that one shouldn’t simply remove and add friends to one’s life so as to maximize the virtuousness of one’s friends? In short: Why aren’t friends fungible?

Li begins his discussion by rejecting some of the standard solutions to the Fungibility Problem. The most plausible of these failed solutions is the ‘History Solution’. According to the History Solution, you cannot replace Anika with Bethany because you share a history with Anika. While Li has some sympathies with the History Solution he ultimately fears that it merely explains why many of us would in fact not exchange one friend for another, but that this hardly counts as a moral justification of our behavior.

Li therefore looks to Confucianism for an answer to the Fungibility problem. He finds in Confucianism two theoretical resources that may help us out: (1) The claim that Friends are Family and (2) the doctrine of particularized virtues.

How does this first of these help? Well we can start by recognizing that the moral value of familial relationships is non-fungible. The thought one could simply replace one’s sibling or parent with another sibling or parent will strike most of us as especially bizarre. People other than our actual siblings or parents simply can’t take over that social role in our lives. If what it is to stand in a friendship relation to Anika is morally the same as standing in familial relationship to Anika, then we should think that replacing Anika with another friend is equally as absurd to replacing our sibling with another sibling. Of course, this solution to the Fungibility Problem requires that friendships are just the same as familial relationships. Li finds in Confucianism the resources to make good on this premise. Li’s argument is subtle and complex, appealing to the writings of Confucius, Mencius, famous Chinese stories, and various readings of the five cardinal relationships of Confucianism. Among the most interesting considerations that Li garners in favor of the claim that Confucianism sees Friendships as morally on a par with Familial relationships is that the original meaning of the Chinese word for friendship, ‘You‘ referred to the ideal relationship between brothers.

Li sees the argument from Friends as Family as just one piece of the Confucian solution to the Problem of Fungibility, for it’s susceptible to two sorts of objections: The first is that some won’t recognize friends as non-fungible and the second is that treating friends as family is too demanding. Li sees neither of these objections as decisive, but does think that he needs to say a bit more in order to fend them off. This brings us to the second theoretical resource: The Confucian doctrine of particularized virtue.

The Confucian doctrine of particularized virtue holds that though people like Anika and Bethany may share similar virtues, these virtues manifest themselves in different ways. For example, perhaps Bethany is slightly more fun at cocktail parties because she never repeats an anecdote. Anika, on the other hand, occasionally does repeat her anecdotes. However, Anika’s anecdotes are also expertly delivered with an inimitable gusto. So even if hearing the same anecdote on more than one occasion is somehow makes Anika a little less fun, Anika’s delivery makes her fun in a different way than Bethany. Anika’s virtue as a fun cocktail party guest may therefore be incommensurable with Bethany’s virtue as a fun cocktail party guest. Insofar as Anika’s virtue is particularized in this way, it doesn’t make sense to simply exchange her as a friend for Bethany because the particularization of their virtues fails to make Bethany an actual improvement over Anika.

Following Li’s talk, Liz Harman (Princeton University) gave comments. Harman helpfully broke down the Fungibility Problem into two questions: (1) When is it morally permissible to break off a friendship? And (2) When is it morally permissible to acquire a new friendship? This is helpful because the Fungibility Problem seems to be about the connection between (1) and (2): why it’s impermissible to break off one friendship in order to start another? Lively discussion followed Harman’s comments. Among the topics discussed were whether there was a tension between the two part’s of Li’s Confucian solution, the relationship between the Confucian view of loyalty and friendship, and the role of narrative in conceptions of friendship.


Belief, Desire, and Besire (and yet Not Bizarre!):

Wang Yangming’s Anti-Humean Conception of Good Knowledge (Liangzhi)

Summary by Carolina Flores

Yong Huang (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) gave the fourth talk of the day, titled ‘Belief, Desire, and Besire (and yet Not Bizarre!): Wang Yangming’s Anti-Humean conception of Good Knowledge (Liangzhi)’, followed by comments by Liz Camp (Rutgers). The focus of his talk was on how Wang Yangming’s notion of Liangzhi provides a compelling and original counter-example to the Humean belief-desire model of motivation.

According to the Humean theory of motivation, no belief can motivate all on its own; action is always caused by a belief-desire pair. For example, my belief that helping other people is good won’t motivate me to action without an accompanying desire to do what is good. Further, in virtue of their direction of fit, beliefs and desires are fundamentally different mental states. When a belief doesn’t agree with the world, one must change one’s belief (mind-to-world direction of fit), whereas when a desire doesn’t agree with the world, one is under rational pressure to change the world so that it fits one’s desire (world-to-mind direction of fit).

Though this theory is the mainstream view in analytic philosophy, it has faced opposition. Of special relevance to Huang’s project is the view that there are besires, i.e. unitary mental states with both directions of fit with respect to the same content and which cause action. If this is right, then actions can be caused by mental states other than belief-desire pairs, disproving the Humean theory. Huang argues that Wang Yangming’s Good Knowledge (Liangzhi) provides a compelling example of such a mental state.

Liangzhi is ‘knowledge that is itself good or moral,…moral knowledge that has motivation built into it’. An example is the affective belief that a flower is beautiful and the desire to love it. Yangming’s writings suggest that these constitute a single, unitary state: ‘seeing the beautiful color belongs to knowing, while loving it belongs to acting. However, at the very moment one sees the beautiful color one has already loved it’ (Wang 1992: [1]:4). In his view, knowledge naturally inclines one to act, with no intermediate step between knowledge and that inclination.

Huang then argues that this state is not bizarre: it has both the direction of fit of belief and the direction of fit of desire. Like a desire, it demands that we change the world if it doesn’t match its content. Given background assumptions on the metaphysics of the normative domain that Huang argues Wang subscribes to, Liangzhi also reflects objective features of reality. In particular, it reflects what human nature is like, and if that particular instance doesn’t in fact reflect human nature, then we should adjust its content. If this is right, then Liangzhi provides a counter-example to the Humean belief-desire theory of moral motivation of a kind that has not been explored in contemporary analytic philosophy.

Huang’s talk was followed by comments by Liz Camp (Rutgers University), who raised worries about whether Liangzhi really has a world-to-mind direction of fit. In addition, she proposed an alternative way to accommodate besires, drawing on Ruth Millikan’s notion of pushmi-pullyu representations. While Wang’s Liangzhi is highly intellectualistic – it is the kind of state that only agents who make normative judgments have – pushmi-pullyu representations are characteristic of the simplest cognitive systems. The central idea is that, in simple animals, perceptual affordances directly produce action. Beliefs and desires as separate mental states with distinct functional roles only emerge in  more complex cognitive systems, which incorporate a large number of representations mediating between perception and action. If this is right, we should expect besires to be found at the bottom of the cognitive complexity hierarchy, and not at its top, where Liangzhi is.

Finally, there was time for lively discussion, with members of the audience raising questions about the intelligibility of combining both directions of fit; about how we should describe the cognitive lives of agents in specific cases discussed by Wang; about appealing to alternative notions like ‘appreciation’ in explaining behavior; and about the significance of the fact that Wang opts for the term ‘knowledge’ as opposed to ‘belief’ in his discussion.


Tiantai Buddhism: Monism without Priority

Summary by Denise Dykstra

Li Kang (Vassar College) begins her talk, “Tiantai Buddhism: Monism without Priority,” by explaining her larger project of connecting Chinese Buddhism and Western analytic metaphysics, exploring how resources from one tradition can be used to clarify issues in the other tradition. In this talk Kang addresses the Buddhist notion of interconnectedness: “everything is connected to everything else.” While there are many interpretations of interconnectedness, Kang states she is going to focus on the Tiantai version: “each one is all.”

Kang looks to clarify this statement using tools from analytic metaphysics. Specifically, Kang looks to address: what relation does ‘is’ pick out? She suggests the ‘is’ should be understood as numerical identity. While prima facia this seems incorrect, Kang argues this confusion arises because Western analytic metaphysics is accustomed to understanding identity through the lens of Leibniz’s Principle of Indiscernibility: if two objects are identical, then they cannot differ in any way. Kang suggests replacing this notion of absolute identity with Geach’s notion of relative identity. Thus, the statement ‘x is y’ would be interpreted as ‘x is identical to y relative to some index’. Formulating Tiantai interconnectedness using the notion of relative identity results in a view in which “two objects are distinct relative to a more restrictive index, but they can be identical relative to some broader index.” Kang calls this view relativist monism.

Kang ends her talk by briefly addressing why relativist monism is superior to both priority monism and existence monism. Both priority monism and existence monism are committed to the existence of the cosmos, which she holds is untrue to the Tiantai notion of interconnectedness. Relativist monism avoids this commitment. Furthermore, priority monism holds that the cosmos is basic, thus giving it a privileged status compared to its parts. Relativist monism has an “egalitarian spirit” which is also truer to the Tiantai notion of interconnectedness.

In reply to Kang, Jonathan Schaffer (Rutgers University) raises some concerns with the notion of relative identity. He points out that the relativist monist needs to hold both that there exist these notions of relativized identity (the positive thesis), and that there does not exist a notion of absolute identity (the negative thesis.) However, both are problematic.

Schaffer points out that Kang needs the negative thesis if she wants to hold that questions such as ‘Is x (absolutely) identical to y?’ are ill-posed. However, a lot is lost by adopting the negative thesis. Absolute identity is a very simple and fundamental notion that is used in a vast number of formal systems (e.g. set theory, number theory, mereology). These systems form the basis of mathematics and science. Schaffer suggests that since abandoning the notion of absolute identity would mean losing most of math and science, perhaps it is not surprising that problems could no longer be voiced regarding the statement “each one is all.”

Turning to the positive thesis, Schaffer acknowledges Kang’s suggestion of replacing the concept of absolute identity in Leibniz’s principle with relative identity, but questions how Leibniz’s principle would then be formalized. He points out that many rules of inference are based on Leibniz’s principle, so this move would require reformulations of those inference rules as well. Schaffer concludes by suggesting that priority monism might be truer to the idea of interconnectedness; although he is quick to point out it might not fit all aspects of the text.

Kang begins her rebuttal to Schaffer by pointing out there are many problems with the notion of absolute identity that are solved by adopting relative identity (e.g. Ship of Theseus, Problem of the Many.) Kang further suggests that some of Schaffer’s concerns regarding relative identity can be addressed by taking an antirealist stance toward objects. Using the example of counting water drops in the ocean, she points out that we project our own boundaries on reality, when it might be that there are no actual boundaries. Furthermore, referencing the idealizations made in formulating scientific laws, she suggests that at times simplicity and usefulness don’t coincide with reality. There might be relative features to reality that we don’t notice because they are relative to a fairly stable index. Kang argues that, given considerations such as these, relinquishing the notion of absolute identity might not seem as incredible. Kang concludes by cautioning against adopting priority monism as an interpretation of Tiantai interconnectedness, since according to priority monism the universe has independent existence; however, on the Tiantai view of interconnectedness, nothing has independence in this way.


The Confucian Challenge to Scanlon’s Contractualism

Summary by Caley Howland

Brad Cokelet (University of Kansas) and Justin Tiwald (San Francisco State University) gave the final talk of the day, in which they presented their paper, “The Confucian Challenge to Scanlon’s Contractualism.” In the paper, Cokelet and Tiwald develop a contrast between T.M Scanlon’s contractualist moral theory and Dai Zhen’s moral framework. They argue that Dai’s view should be recognized as “a serious and appealing alternative to Scanlon’s theory”. They argue that the primary difference between Scanlon and Dai’s frameworks is that Dai has a “thick” understanding of socio-moral unity, whereas Scanlon has a “narrow” picture of socio-moral unity. They last discuss the force of a Dai-inspired challenge to Scanlon – namely, that we should prefer Dai’s framework over Scanlon’s because it has more predictive power due to the fact that it values a form of social unity which robustly involves good human relationships. Cokelet and Tiwald’s talk largely focused on understanding Scanlon and Dai’s accounts as responses to Prichard’s Dilemma, and explicating Dai’s moral framework.

In H.A. Prichard’s “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” he argues that attempts to answer the question “what reason do I have to refrain from doing what is morally wrong?” run into a dilemma. On the one hand, if the answer merely appeals to the action being morally wrong, then the answer is unhelpful since it takes the reason-giving force of moral considerations for granted. On the other, if the answer appeals to some non-moral reason then it doesn’t seem to be sufficient to be called a moral consideration.

Scanlon and Dai offer broadly similar solutions to Prichard’s dilemma. They argue that the right reasons to appeal to morally are essentially about developing ideal relations with others, or “socio-moral unity”. Socio-moral unity is intuitively connected to morality, while also having strong elements that are non-normative. Scanlon argues that socio-moral unity consists in mutual recognition – the requirement that people live on terms with others that no-one could reasonably reject. Mutual recognition is narrow because it can exist between complete strangers and so does not presuppose interpersonal relationships. Dai conceives of socio-moral unity as mutual life-fulfillment – the requirement we live in such a way as to allow people to fulfill certain interests including (i) self-preservation, (ii) growth and development, and (iii) procreation. Mutual life-fulfillment does presuppose interpersonal relationships, as people’s interests obtain through interpersonal relationships (i.e. between partners, friends, family members, etc.). Cokelet and Tiwald thus challenge Scanlon, by suggesting that Dai’s thicker notion of socio-moral unity better captures our intuitions about morality and is more demanding than Scanlon’s mutual recognition account.

Following Cokelet and Tiwald’s talk, Johann Frick (Princeton University) gave comments. In Frick’s comments, he suggested that the heart of the issue between Dai and Scanlon was a monism vs. pluralism about moral wrongness. Scanlon’s account suggests a pluralism about moral wrongness because he does not capture all of the senses of moral wrongness, but instead targets failures of mutual recognition as a foundational kind of wrong, which is sufficient though not necessary for an act to be morally wrong. Dai’s account suggests a monism about moral wrongness; our talk about moral wrongness is sufficiently unified so as to have a single motivational base. Contrary to Dai’s account, Frick gave two defenses of pluralism about moral wrongness: (i) Scanlon’s mutual recognition is a special kind of moral wrong that is prior to our interpersonal relationships and (ii) mutual recognition is distinct because objections to violations of mutual recognition are unanswerable in a way that objections to other moral wrongs are not. The Q&A raised questions surrounding the role of interpersonal relationships in Dai’s framework and the aspects of Dai’s moral system that make it resistant to generalization. The Q&A also dwelled on whether the difference between Dai and Scanlon could be understood generally as Dai embracing the second horn of Prichard’s dilemma and Scanlon embracing the first horn.

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