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Tang Chun-I Visiting Professorship Department Seminar: Theorizing “Persons” for Confucian Role Ethics: A Good Place to Start


In 2011, I published Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary in which I argue that Confucian philosophy’s encounter with Western ethical theory is not its defining moment. Indeed, I try to use the Confucian ethical vocabulary to express its own sui generis vision of the moral life as Confucian role ethics. On reflection, I am not sure that I have been able to convey in sufficiently clear terms the Confucian conception of a relationally-constituted person. At the same time, I am persuaded that this is one of the most important contributions Confucian philosophy has to make to our contemporary ethical, social, and political discourse as a robust alternative to single actors playing to win.

G.W.F. Hegel in the introduction to his Encyclopaedia Logic famously observes that one of the most difficult problems in any philosophical investigation is the question of where to begin. In this lecture, I will argue that the appropriateness of categorizing Confucian ethics as role ethics turns largely on the conception of person that is presupposed within the interpretive context of classical Chinese philosophy. If our goal is to take the Confucian tradition on its own terms and to let it speak with its own voice without overwriting it with our own cultural importances, we must begin by first self-consciously and critically theorizing the Confucian conception of person as the starting point of Confucian ethics.

The problem of using Western categories—today, virtue ethics—to theorize Confucian philosophy is an old and persistent story. In our own time, but with deep roots in the classical Greek philosophical narrative, individualism has become a default, commonsense assumption, if not an ideology. I will argue that the vocabulary of agents, acts, generic virtues, character traits, autonomy, motivation, reasons, choice, freedom, principles, consequences, and so on, introduces distinctions that assume this foundational individualism as its starting point.

And further, I will claim that Confucian ethics by contrast begins from the wholeness of experience, and is formulated by invoking a radically different focus-field cluster of terms and distinctions with fundamentally different assumptions about how personal identities emerge in our human narratives, and how moral competence is expressed as an achieved virtuosity in the roles and relationships that come to constitute us. To fail to distinguish what I will call individual human “beings” from relationally-constituted “human becomings,” then, would mean that we have willy-nilly insinuated a contemporary and decidedly foreign notion of person into our investigation before it has even begun.


Delivered in English
All are welcome