[This post is a continuation of an ongoing series of posts about classical Chinese philosophy that is resulting from my participation in a reading group following Bryan Van Norden and Philip Ivanhoe’s Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. All of the posts can be seen here. ~~ MS]
In previous posts, I have already suggested some details of what kind of ethics Confucianism is. Broadly, I agree with Bryan Van Norden that it is a kind of virtue ethics. It’s worth considering this in a bit more detail, however, to help see how we might think of Confucianism in relation to Western virtue ethical traditions.
- What is Virtue Ethics?
I want to start with a brief terminological consideration. Virtue ethicists are sometimes accused of vagueness with regard to what it is they think. The other major moral families seem to have a much easier time with regard to this. Consequentialists pick some chosen value X and aim to maximise it (see Petit, 1993), and deontologists concern themselves with articulating sets of duties and obligations for us to follow (see Gauss, 2001). In short, they are theories concerned with actions – for consequentialists the key is the consequences of our actions, for deontologists the rules and obligations by which our actions come about.
Virtue ethics, on the other hand, focuses on the moral character (i.e. virtue) of agents. They place goodness ahead of rightness, on motivation as opposed to action, and on developing a set of affective dispositions towards the world which we refer to as virtues. Because virtue ethicists focus on character, they’re also concerned with questions about moral development and progress, since one ought to be able to become virtuous. For many virtue ethicists, questions about how we ought to act aren’t all that important, since right action emerges from the agent’s moral character. A good person will act well.
Not all virtue ethicists will agree on this characterisation – and indeed, some, such as Rosalind Hursthouse, try to resist the need for any sort of strict definition (see Hursthouse, 1999). The vagueness with which virtue ethics, taken in the broadest sense, is understood leads to some difficulties. For instance, it seems that any taxonomy of the virtues is open to the objection that it is incomplete or arbitrary.
There is also the question of whether it matters if a thinker, for example Kongzi, was a virtue ethicist. In many ways – it doesn’t. Confucianism is its own thing. However, articulating the theory in terms of a category such as virtue ethics can help us understand and contextualise what we are reading. So reading Confucianism as a virtue ethics can be helpful as a pedagogical device, if nothing else.
- Ren, Li, and Moral Character
There are two key terms in Confucianism. Ren, meaning goodness or humaneness, and Li, meaning ritual, etiquette or manners.
Van Norden suggests that defining Ren as humaneness is closer to how we ought to understand this term in Kongzi. First, he argues, ‘humaneness’ highlights that caring for others is a key aspect of Confucian ethics. Second, ‘humaneness’ includes the word ‘human’ – and the Chinese character for Ren includes the characters for human and the number two – implying that Ren concerns relationships between human beings.
Ren is the term for goodness, but also for describing those who are good. Kwong-Loi Shun argues that in the Analects Ren is used both more narrowly to refer to one desirable quality among others (see e.g. Analects 9.29, 14.28), and more broadly to refer to an all-encompassing ethical ideal that includes all the desirable qualities (e.g. Analects 14.4).
Li, as I have discussed previously should be understood as an amalgamation of a few terms which we usually understand as separate in English – ritual, etiquette, and manners. In Confucianism the emphasis is on adhering to socially mandated rituals and manners – in effect, knowing how to behave in any given circumstances. The Master is renowned for his ability to adhere to ritual fully in any circumstances.
Importantly, both Ren and Li emphasise our interpersonal relationships and our moral character. As Chenyang Li and Amy Olberding show, Li is about making us intelligible and palatable to others. Training ourselves to adhere to ritual is to form our moral character in such a way that our relationships to other can become virtuous. By understanding Ren as the goal of moral study, we can understand the goal of moral striving as that of strengthening and preserving our relationships to others.
At the basic level, the relationship between Ren and Li, therefore, is one of mutual dependence. Ren sets up the boundaries of what we are to strive for (i.e. goodness) and Li clarifies the practice of our moral development. And while Li seems to, at least prima facie, to emphasise a set of duties to constrain our behaviour, Kongzi makes it clear that the key is our affective attitude towards our behaviour (i.e. our character). Consider for instance passage 2.7:
“Nowadays ‘filial’ means simply being able to provide one’s parents with nourishment. But even dogs and horses are provided with nourishment. If you are not respectful, wherein lies the difference?”
It is insufficient to merely perform the actions that conform with what is required of us by Li – we must do them with the right mindset as well. The mindset comes from our character, from how well we embody Ren.
- The Virtues and Moral Development
Confucianism, like other virtue ethical theories, gives an indication of the kinds of character traits we ought to be cultivating. Ren is the general term for virtue, however, there is a broad list of particular virtues we can draw out of the Analects: humility, ability to judge character, filial piety, righteousness, dutifulness, trustworthiness, courage, etc.
In general, I think the emphasis on Ren eliminates much of the need for particular virtues. This is also emphasised by the moral value of every social interaction.
Joel Kupperman argues that what sets Confucianism apart from most Western approaches to ethics is the emphasis on everyday activities, and away from “big moment ethics” (he doesn’t mention it, but I think the Trolley problem is a prime example of the sort of thing he’s talking of). Deontology has answers for when a murderer is trying to track down our friends, but not necessarily for how to behave when we visit our parents. Consequentialism fares a bit better, but even still it only places value on the outcomes of our actions – not on how we go about them.
Via the emphasis on etiquette and ritual, Confucianism gives moral weight to the mundane and banal things we do in life. Virtue is then closely tied with our moral character. And for this reason, as Olberding argues, Confucianism relies on ritual as a way of shaping our character. Internalising the kind of norms that define propriety shapes how we interact with the world.
Here, Confucianism places a great emphasis on a continual striving for Ren. Consider for instance 15.30: “To make a mistake and yet to not change your ways – this is what is called truly making a mistake.” Or, 19.7: “The various artisans dwell in their workshops in order to perfect their crafts, just as the gentleman learns in order to reach the end of his Way.”
Goodness is something we ought to continually strive to perfect in ourselves, the way in which an artisan will continue to strive to perfect their craft.
Gauss, G.F. (2001). What is Deontology? Part One: Orthodox Views. The Journal of Value Inquiry 35:27-42.
Hursthouse, R. (1999). On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kwong-Loi, S. (2002). Rén and Li in the Analects. In B. Van Norden (Ed.) Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kupperman, J. (2002). Naturalness Revisited: Why Western Philosophers Should Study Confucius. In B. Van Norden (Ed.) Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Olberding, A. (2006). Etiquette: A Confucian Contribution to Moral Philosophy. Ethics 126: 422-446.
Pettit, P. (1993). Consequentialism. In P. Singer (Ed.), A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.