Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Confucian Way

In October, I will be travelling to China for a week-long conference on "Evolution and Ethics" at Peking University in Beijing. The conference is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, and it's a continuation of the seminar at the University of Oxford that I helped to conduct in January.

As I indicated in my posts on the Oxford seminar, I see the debate over evolutionary ethics as showing the contrast between two opposing views of ethics--Platonic/Kantian transcendentalism and Aristotelian/Humean empiricism. The transcendentalists believe that moral order must conform to some cosmic order as dictated by God, by the nature of the universe, or by universal rational structures. Just as we discover mathematical principles as somehow woven into the constitution of the world, we should be able to discover moral principles as part of the "wisdom of the world" (in Remi Brague's phrase). On the other side, the empiricists look to the human sources of moral order: human nature, human culture, and human individuals. Human nature gives us the generic goods of life as rooted in the natural desires of the human species as shaped by evolutionary history, which would include the 20 natural desires that I have sketched. But within the constraints of human nature, human culture specifies the moral traditions of human morality as shaped by cultural history. Within the constraints of both human nature and human culture, human individuals make choices that reflect the uniqueness of their individual temperaments, abilities, and circumstances as shaped by their individual history.

A Darwinian moral psychology supports the empiricist view of morality, because it rejects the idea that morality must somehow conform to some eternal order of the cosmos--cosmic God, cosmic nature, or cosmic reason. Darwinian empiricism accepts the historical contingency of morality as shaped by the genetic history of human nature, the social history of human culture, and the personal history of human individuality.

I have argued in defense of this Darwinian empiricism. I have also argued that this Darwinian empiricism supports an Aristotelian liberalism that reconciles virtue and freedom. The moral and intellectual virtues can be rightly understood as those states of character that fulfill the natural desires of our evolved human nature, which constitute the universal goods of human life. But the ranking and specification of those natural generic goods must vary according to the variable circumstances of human individuals in particular cultural situations. Government can rightly secure the conditions for individuals to freely choose how best to develop the moral and intellectual virtues in voluntary association with other individuals in social life. But government cannot rightly impose some one substantive conception of the best life on society, because this would deny the self-directedness necessary for moral freedom. A liberal government secures individual freedom as the condition for individuals to pursue virtue in civil society.

In my paper for the China conference, I will show how my arguments for Darwinian empiricism and Aristotelian liberalism apply to the Confucian traditions of China and East Asia.

The debate between Platonic transcendentalism and Aristotelian empiricism runs through Western cultural history from Greek antiquity to the present. A similar debate runs through Asian cultural history. On the one hand, much of the philosophic and religious thought of the East suggests that moral and political order must conform to some transcendent cosmic order, and therefore the authority of government comes from its enforcement of that cosmic order on the human community. On the other hand, one can also see intimations in some Asian thought of an empiricist or naturalist view of moral and political order as rooted in natural human experience, which would be supported by Darwinian science.

To lay out this line of thinking, this will be the first in a series of posts on the evolution of Confucian moral and political thought and the implications of Darwinian biology for the Confucian tradition. My general point is to show that my conception of Darwinian natural right can be extended beyond Western culture to include Eastern traditions of thought.

The traditional dates for Confucius are 551-479 B.C. Kongzi ("Master Kong") is the Chinese name rendered into latinized English by Jesuit missionaries as "Confucius."

Confucius lived under the Zhou dynasty. By the time of Confucius' birth, the power of the Zhou kings had been in decline for centuries. Confucius looked back to the Golden Age of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-770 B.C.), when the power of the Dynasty was at its peak, as setting the highest moral and religious standards of virtue as exemplified in the life of the gentleman. Confucius devoted himself to restoring those ancient standards that had been lost in his day. Such moral and political reform would require a recovery of what Confucius called "the Way" (dao), the ancient "way" that all human beings must follow to achieve excellence.

The Zhou Dynasty began when King Wu militarily defeated King Zhow, an evil tyrant, who was the last king of the Shang Dynasty (1751-1122 B.C.), the earliest Chinese civilization for which we have archaeological and written records. The first written records are "oracle bones"--pieces of ox scapula or tortoise shells used in divination. Rulers would write questions or requests directed to the spirits of the Shang ancestors. When the oracle bones were heated, they would crack, and the patterns in the cracks would be read by the diviner as a message from the ancestral spirits. Rulers needed to maintain good relations with these spirits, especially the "Lord on High," the first human ancestor of the Shang. A ruler who had the approval of the ancestral spirits was endowed with "virtue" (de), a charismatic power that attracted supporters and allowed harmonious order in the state.

The Zhou developed a religious tradition that incorporated some of the elements of the Shang religion. The Zhou fused the Shang "Lord on High" with the Zhou tribal god tian, which can be translated as "Heaven," because tian was a supreme anthropomorphic deity associated with the sky. "Heaven" supervised and judged human affairs. Rulers who performed the ritual sacrifices to the ancestors correctly could be granted the "Mandate of Heaven," which conferred on the human ruler the Virtue to rule over the political order, just as "Heaven" ruled over the universe. But rulers who did not act correctly, and particularly those who did not perform their ritual duties correctly with sincere devotion, could lose the "Mandate of Heaven."

This conception of a "Mandate of Heaven" suggests a transcendentalist view of moral and political order as grounded in conformity to the cosmic order of spirits and gods. Confucius seemed to continue that transcendentalist view in so far as he claimed that he himself was acting with a "Mandate from Heaven" to persuade people in his corrupt age to restore the "Way" of proper gentlemanly conduct and political rule.

And yet Confucius refused to speak about or inquire into the spiritual world. He was primarily concerned about good conduct in the earthly life of human beings as mortal creatures who die with no prospects for an afterlife. His silence about spiritual and divine matters suggested that his teaching was hardly religious at all. In a few places in the Confucian texts, Confucius interpreted the ritual traditions of virtue--particularly, filial piety--as grounded in the biological nature of human life, which manifested an empiricist view of morality as conforming to natural human experience with no need for cosmic support.

The teaching of Confucius is hard to determine, however, because he left no writings of his own. Like Socrates, his thinking was passed on only through his students who reported his conversations. The Confucian texts consist of collections of short conversational exchanges based on writings that were edited long after his death. These texts eventually became the basis for the Chinese civil service examination, so that for many centuries every Chinese person in the educated classes had to memorize the Confucian teachings. Similar examinations were administered in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. The most famous of those writings is the Analects, and one might argue that no other book has had more influence on more people over a longer period of time.

The Analects will be the subject of my next post.

Some of the posts on the Oxford seminar can be found here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

Empiricists have a much more accurate view of human nature than do transcendentalists. As a consequence they are able to create political philosophies that are both more workable and more humane.

My question regarding Confucianism is what is its view of human nature, and how is it correct or incorrect.

-- Les Brunswick

Larry Arnhart said...


That's a good question. Confucius does not explicitly lay out a view of human nature to support his teaching. But as I will suggest in my comments on the Analects, Confucius implicitly assumes an appeal to human nature.

Later Confucian authors like Mencius are more explicit in their philosophic account of human nature, and this will be the subject of a post.

Troy Camplin said...

And what of Lao Tzu's Taoism?

Larry Arnhart said...


I will hope to have something to say about Daoism.

Anonymous said...

I think it might be useful to elaborate some on my comment above. I think the question of human nature is important to political philosophy for at least three reasons. For one, a good society is one that produces a rewarding life for its members, and what that would be depends on human nature. Secondly, for a good society people need to behave appropriately, and how this is to be achieved depends on what in human nature motivates behavior. Thirdly, to answer the first two questions requires knowledge, and the ability to achieve such knowledge depends on the abilities of the human mind.

Larry, in analysing Confucianism, perhaps you could look at these three aspects.

-- Les Brunswick

Stefan said...

"What can be said to be of heaven; what can be said to be of human beings? ...Oxen and horses having four feet is of heaven; putting a halter on a horse's head and piercing an ox's nose is of human beings. (Zhuangzi 17, Autumn Floods, lines 51-52)