Reasons? We Don’t Need No Stinking Reasons!

One of the key differences between Confucius and Aristotle (or perhaps the western virtue ethical tradition in general) is the focus on reason in the cultivation of virtue–which is central to Aristotle, and completely missing in Confucius. For Aristotle, a “natural disposition” which one has and which predisposes them to a certain type of action, does not count as an “excellence” unless this disposition is supported by right reason. A person who performs generous actions does not have the virtue of “generosity” unless their actions are in conformity with right reasons, which, in this case, would have to do with the knowledge of the goodness of acts of generous type for one’s character, with the intention being to aim at eudaimonia, etc. One who is generous not for these reasons but simply because they have an innate, natural tendency to act generously (genetically inherited, perhaps), does not have the virtue of “generosity”–that is, they do not have “excellence proper” (N. Ethics, Ross translation), but “natural excellence”, which is of lower quality, and does not entail unity of the virtues. One who only has the natural excellence of generosity and not the full excellence might be unvirtuous in a number of other ways (cowardly, weak-willed, etc.), while one with the virtue of generosity will possess, of necessity, practical wisdom (phronesis), which (if I’m reading the Nicomachean Ethics correctly) ensures that one possesses all the other virtues.

I read Confucius as taking a very different line on virtue. For him, what Aristotle calls the “natural excellences” are actually superior to those which need to be learned (or supported by reasons). Analects 16.9 reads:

Confucius said: ‘Those who are born knowing it are the first class (shang); those who know it through study (xue) are next; those who have difficulty yet learn it are next; those who have difficulty and do not learn it, they are the lowest class of the people!’

This passage talks specifically about zhi zhi (“knowing it”), and thus one might claim that it is not virtue that is discussed in this passage, but knowledge of the reasons for action, or knowledge of what to do–or something like this. However, I think this is the wrong way to interpret 16.9. “Knowledge” seems to be used here, as often (but not always!) in the Analects, as performance, so that “knowing it” is here taken as identical to “doing it”. When zhi is used this way in the Analects, it is generally shown in a positive light. On the other hand, when zhi is used in the sense of “propositional knowledge” it is disparaged. And if this latter sense is what is meant in 16.9, it is unclear why those who possess such knowledge from birth (perhaps Confucius was way ahead of his time…) are ranked higher than the rest of us just because they possess it. After all, if possession of such knowledge does not necessitate performance, than one who has knowledge from birth might in practice be a xiao ren (“petty person”), while one who has to learn it might act in an exemplary fashion even approaching sageliness. So it seems likely that 16.9 is talking about something like disposition or performance, rather than propositional knowledge.

Given that this is the case, there are no virtues in the system of the Analects, by Aristotle’s lights. And it seems worse than this. Given that right reason occupies such an important place in Aristotle’s ethics, doesn’t the absence of this feature in Confucius’ ethics make it difficult to hold, as Van Norden does, that Confucius and Aristotle are simply giving two different “thick” theoretical descriptions of the same “thin” concept of virtue? Without the rational requirement, Aristotle might simply say that we are not dealing with anything like virtue, because “natural excellence” has no connection with practical wisdom, unity of the virtues, or the all-important eudaimonia!
I’ve not yet read completely through Van Norden’s Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, so I’m not sure how he confronts this difficulty, but he doesn’t say much about it in the early part of the book. I, for one, don’t buy into the “virtue” interpretation of Confucius, for a number of reasons–this being only one of them.

Any ideas on this?

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