Sunday, October 2, 2016

All Power To The Meglapsychos!

Confucianism and Virtue Ethics are, at least, similar in spirit. A lot of ethical theorising consists in trying to provide rules or principles which one could, at least in theory, consult and explicitly reason with in order to work out what to do when encountering a novel or tricky scenario. Not so with either the Confucian or Virtue Ethical tradition. These latter two are ethical theories where the focus is not on rules, but rather on trying to make folk into the kind of people who of their own more-or-less spontaneous accord will make good decisions when confronted with novel situations. 

Aristotle -- ``Every philosopher has seen
a picture of this bust at least 100 times.
A serious argument in favour of selfie
culture is that it shall make the slide shows
of future philosophers less boring.''
I prefer Confucianism to most versions of Virtue Ethics that I have seen. This because: there are some incredibly authoritarian elements that often accompany Virtue Ethics. In particular in discussions of Virtue Ethics I have had with people that are sympathetic, there often seems to be a theory of ethical pedagogy that amounts to ``emulate great moral exemplars!''. Worse, it is accompanied by an ethical epistemology which makes it near impossible for us non-exemplars to judge whether or not the exemplar is doing the right thing. This has always seemed to me to make the position of moral exemplar, once attained, a kind of moral blank cheque. I can only imagine being told that ``Other people will learn what counts as good by seeing what you do -- and have no means of correcting you'' leading to abuse, domineering, and bullying. Ours not to question why, ours but to follow the exemplar -- and die. No thanks.

Of course Virtue Ethicists will have stuff to say in response to this; though I have often found these worries about authoritarianism do not seem to be at the forefront of people's mind. What impresses me is that in Confucian thought there is a lot of discussion about the use of rituals to create a more or less standardised at-least-somewhat-exemplar-independent bit of moral pedagogy. This seems to have been something people accounted for at the get go, indeed its a core part of theory. The idea seems to be to develop certain emotively charged rituals then they will shape peoples emotional responses and behavioural dispositions so that they will be the kind of people who evaluate things aright. Further, since we can observe how good people are at playing their part in these rituals, there is then a role for ritual propriety that can be interpreted precisely as a means of giving a (admittedly perhaps ineffective) behavioural check on whether a purported or previous moral exemplar really fits the bill. Maybe it will still end up being authoritarian; but at least the Confucians are trying.

Confucius -- ``The fact that Liam is presenting me as somehow
anti-authoritarian is actually pretty hilarious. Sure thing buddy.''
However, as I read this treatment of Confucianism in Barry Allen's `Vanishing Into Things', I am reminded of something that often strikes me when I read accounts of Virtue Ethics: some people obviously really like the complete non-codifiability, the utter inscrutability, of Virtue Ethical pedagogy and epistemology. Allen, it seems to me, though without often explicitly mentioning Virtue Theory, is doing all he can to interpret Confucianism as having this inscrutability feature as a way of being favourable to Confucianism. And seems a bit down on Xunzi precisely because it's hard to do that with him. I get why authoritarians and bullies like the non-codifiability part of Virtue Ethics and/or this way of reading Confucianism -- but why do people who I am very sure are not authoritarians or bullies want to preserve that element of things? It seems to be attractive to people who I really really expect to agree with politically and usually do. I just don't get it. To put it provocatively: what's up with this All Power To The Great Souled Men! ethical instinct that some otherwise egalitarian people seem to have?

(Ok in fairness it is usually but not only men, and that's probably not essential to either theory. Then again, I was given the translation of the Confucian ideal person as ``gentleman''  and ``Meglapsychos'' as `great souled man'. Also both theories have other authoritarian elements to them -- one of the virtues in a lot of Confucian theorising is basically a jumped up version of ``Do what you're told!'', and more subtly it seems that, at least, in Aristotle's Virtue Ethics in particular, some of the virtues are implicitly relying on a background social arrangement where a lot of people are providing a life of leisure for a minority. So not saying that in getting rid of the inscrutability feature you get rid of the authoritarian elements.) 

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