PhD Update 6 – Submission!

Hello, Strangers!

It’s been a while. I’m going to blame the final weeks of my PhD being filled with an overwhelming amount of work and anxiety. The last round of revisions took all of the motivation I had left in me. I wrote this over the past week or so, relishing my relative freedom since submission.

My present freedom is relative, because I have now started in my full-time, non-academic job. I want to be a bit vague on the details, at least in public, but what I can say is that I have a research administration role at a medium-sized university based in Victoria.

With the start of this new job, I am also coming to grips with the death of my academic career, at least in the standard sense. For the last few years, in my head at least, the path was clear, if difficult. I would submit my thesis, keep going for precarious teaching gigs while I build up my publication record, and hope for the best in the Octagon.. er.. I mean the job market. With the onset of the pandemic, as well as a shift in my life priorities, this is no longer of any significant interest to me (I mean, if I got a fancy tenured gig at a good place, sure, but in the real world..).

There are a number of reasons why I changed my mind. Over the past year we’ve all seen the egregious way universities in Australia and elsewhere have reacted to the pandemic. I don’t want to go into the well-documented history of wage-theft, mass-firings, and government-enforced austerity that has rocked the sector here. And it isn’t the case that I wasn’t aware of these problems before – but the pandemic has accelerated the rot in a way that is hard to overlook.

The few job opportunities that I have available in my field are difficult when it comes to planning a life. They are wonderful opportunities – for the kind of person that is willing and able to travel internationally for a 12 or 24 month contract with little or no hope of renewal. My partner had once graciously agreed that if I was to get such a job offer, she’d agree to move with me, but as I get older and my life priorities shift towards wanting stability, I am simply unable to apply for this kind of jobs. I would absolutely love to work with some of the people who are currently advertising post-docs, and I might forever be envious of the people who end up getting these positions. But I have life goals that make me not want to be moving across continents every year or two.

A different aspect of my changing perspective is the somewhat arbitrary nature of success. So much in academia depends on pure luck, manifesting in getting sympathetic reviewers in journals, in getting the right supervisors, in stumbling upon a topic that’ll be hot in the literature, in having the right kind of background to not get in your own way, to be healthy both physically and mentally, etc. And though I have been lucky in many of these ways, the fact that so much of success is outside of your hands, means that even if you are doing absolutely everything right, there’s still no guarantee of a stable gig, or of getting the right publication opportunities. Consider how many brilliant papers get rejected every year, just because of the whims of reviewers.

And no matter what one accomplishes, there is always another grant that needs to be applied for, another paper that needs to be submitted, another round of student assessments that need grading over the weekend, all just to keep one’s head above the water..

With these sort of challenges comes a heavy toll on one’s mental health that manifests itself in many ways. In my case it is a constant anxiety deep in the core of my soul. I have some other stuff going on too, in that regard, that I might discuss better another time. In general though, the constant uncertainty about the future, the constant pressure to keep putting in more work for smaller and smaller rewards, and the inadequacy one can experience at every step, all add up to a number of mental health risks. I am seeing a therapist, which is immensely helpful, and it has made me realise that I don’t value certain parts of the kind of career I had hoped I could have.

It’s not all bad, of course. There are aspects of the academic life that are immensely pleasurable. During my PhD, I got to work on my project for almost four years, during which I could pursue my ideas however I thought was best. I was able to travel to beautiful places to think and discuss my ideas with people who are now my friends. I had the opportunity to teach and to write and to think for a living. I worked with a mentor I consider to be an absolute superstar. And these are the things that attracted me to this kind of career in the first place.

But in the end, I need to worry about myself and my family. I don’t have any family that I can lean on for financial support, so getting by on precarious teaching gigs isn’t much of an option for me. I’m not in a position to travel across continents every year or two while I hope to land a tenure track job. I don’t have an elite pedigree or a superstar’s publication record. The reality is that most doors into academia have closed for me.

All this said though, I don’t feel this is a sad post, or a sad moment in my life.

I have been lucky to get an administrative post at a university which allows me access to a library and the long-term stability I want. My job is interesting and demands the kind of skills one gains during a philosophy PhD program. I work with researchers in fields wildly new to me, so I get to learn about a whole new range of topics. While I won’t ever get the kind of prestige that comes from ever fancier academic titles, I have the resources and time I need to continue my research and other writing projects that matter to me. I even have enough leave at work that if I want to go to a conference or two during the year, I can.

In the short term, I have a few academic projects that I want to see to completion – this includes submitting a few papers and a book proposal based on my thesis. These things can all happen partly because of my new gig, since I have all of the resources I need to do any additional research. I’m most likely to get into the swing of these things after my examiners’ reports come back, but I also have a few things that are expected by editors in the near future that I need to do. Hopefully this means I can share good news about them here soon.

In the medium and long term, I don’t think I can plausibly stop myself from carrying on some sort of research programme along with some sort of writing practice. I have plans to put together some lectures and possibly another long-form research project. Beyond this, over the past year I’ve been increasingly interested in writing short fiction and poetry, as well as in writing philosophy for a more general audience. Without the kinds of pressures that I would face in a teaching and research job, I am able to pursue these projects in whichever direction brings me most joy.

The last year has distilled what’s important to me. And as I’m sure you can gather here – I want to remain able to write, to think, to pursue ideas. An academic career, however, though it can centre those things, has ceased to be the only way I can imagine living this kind of life. And at this point, I am very excited to see how things end.

Confucianism as Virtue Ethics

[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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.