By Marcus Teo
Confucius (Kongzi; Kung-tzu) often comes to mind at the mention of Chinese Philosophy. Confucius was renowned for his positions on virtue ethics in the form of reference to one’s ren, yi, li, zhi, and xin as individual virtues. In this essay, I will refer mostly to the virtues ren, yi, and li in comparison to Western virtue ethics.
In this essay, I intend to argue that Confucian virtue ethics offer a relevant perspective in moral judgment. I will (1) examine and compare similarities to thought in Western philosophy to establish the relevance of Confucian virtue ethics, and (2) propose a dialectic feature of moral psychology by establishing a tripartite relationship between yi, li, and ren in influencing moral judgments.
Confucius explicates a strong investment in normative virtue ethics, or discussions of how someone should act based on some assessment of his character. This is especially so in the form of his discussions of possessing the above-mentioned virtues of ren, yi, li, zhi, and xin. In this section, I will explore the modern philosophical literature of Confucian virtues (in the form of ren, yi, and li) and their relevance to other Western thinkers.
“When one rules by means of virtue it is like the North Star – it dwells in its place and the other stars pay reverence to it”, opined Confucius. Here, there is an emphasis on leadership. Confucius advocates for virtue ethics to inform policy decision-making for rulers. True to form, authors such as Luo Shirong note the value of Confucian virtues in leadership – specifically the employment of ren (benevolence) in the analysis of the Analects. He notes how only an individual who whole-heartedly and persistently practices ren can be credited with possession of ren effectively. It is only then that this individual may be worthy of leadership. Comparatively, one might find this notably reminiscent of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s love theory – virtue “stems from the desire for the good of the beloved and the desire for union with the beloved”. Regarding ren, it seems trivially true that the benevolent ruler, whom – for the sake of terminology – loves his country, seeks for nothing but its betterment.
To the same effect, Confucius’ ren does not only refer to relationships between a ruler and his men. With regards to interpersonal day-to-day interactions, Confucius states that “to settle in ren is the fairest course,” and that “those who are not ren cannot long dwell in straitened circumstances, and cannot long dwell in joy” – explicating his view of ren as a desirable virtue towards which every individual should aspire. The beauty of ren as advocated for by Confucius is once again reminiscent of Aquinas’ moral theory saliently; that love, or ren, must be considered to lead a moral life. It remains instinctively true that, by process of reverse-engineering this comparison, most people seek to live moral lives – and Confucius adds that the importance of seeking ren is to fulfil that endeavour. Given the prominence of love (romantic, familial, platonic, etc.) as a construct in our daily lives, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to dismiss ren as a relevant construct in the matter.
As defined above, li refers to ritual propriety. In extenuation, however, li can also be presented as an understanding of complex social norms and the behaviour appropriate for it. When questioned about li, Confucius declares that “The nomad and forest peoples who have rulers do not come up to the people of the civilized realm”– wherein “do not come up to” refers, as per many commentaries, to “unlike”. Similarly, he also opines that “[he] can describe the li of the Xia Dynasty, but my description can’t be verified by its descendants in the state of Qi”. This presents an important distinction for Confucius’ virtue of li; it is largely up to the different cultures in which any given individual resides to discern what is morally appropriate as social norm. The concept of li is one that is independent of an individual’s birth right – it seems that it enforces itself through enculturation, or the process by which “individuals are socialised to indigenous cultural norms”. True to form in social science literature, enculturation has been widely cited as a means of integration of insertion of values into an individual. Given the direct relevance of li and the sociology of enculturation, which in itself is a concept that is prevalent and relevant in the 21st century, it seems that sociological theory lends credibility to the concept of li, especially in its interpretation as cultural norms.
Regarding ethical theory, cultural relativism comes to mind. Cultural relativism is the view that universal moral truths do not exist, and morality is up to the various cultural codes of ethics. This lends immediate credibility to the above interpretation of li, arguing for moral value in codes of conduct that are specific to each individual culture. Referring to li and cultural relativism, it seems here that Confucius suggests that an individual should be well-versed in the ethical codes of conduct within his host community.
However, it is notable that only li lines up with cultural relativism which purports the lack of universal moral truths; the other virtues he lists seem to advocate some form of universal moral truth. For example, ren seems to advocate the idea of love for another in one’s moral action, which seems to be a culturally-independent moral truth. A plausible rejoinder to this issue is that Confucius refers to cultural relativism only in one’s moral deliberation – that one should consider culture-specific codes, but should not allow for these codes to be the totality of his moral judgment. Deviating from traditional cultural relativism, its ideas of culture-sensitive morality nonetheless fits the function of li in Confucian virtue ethics. While this difference may disqualify li from being a manifestation of cultural relativism altogether, it remains that an understanding of cultural relativism contributes to one’s understanding of li in the context of moral deliberation. Arguably, this is why Confucius cites more than just li in his number of virtues – that a moral person should consider li, together with further deliberation of other moral truths such as ren.
Arguably the most prominent form of virtue in Confucian ethics, yi, refers to an individualised sense of morality; or righteousness. This is further explicated by Mencius, a classical Confucian thinker after Confucius himself, whom purports that yi is “both an attribute of an action and a rational aspect of the virtuous agent”. This points directly at an emphasis towards one’s intrinsic values. With regard to Aristotlean virtue ethics, one finds a stark similarity between yi and phronesis, or practical wisdom. Here, the similarities consist in the fact that they are rooted in tradition, advocating for one to employ them in informing one’s choices and actions. Understanding practical wisdom as “good deliberation guided by a correct conception of worthwhile ends”, yi becomes noticeably relevant. The concept of righteousness in the form of yi within a virtuous agent, once examined up-close, seems to instinctively reside in the definition of practical wisdom. It informs daily interactions with one another, informing the moral agent of his code of conduct. In this case, yi can even be a form of phronesis. That is, one’s possession of yi may be purported, also, as the possession of phronesis at the same time. The virtue of righteousness, in this sense, serves to inform deliberation when the moral agent is faced with a situation in which his moral judgment is required.
Having established Confucian virtue ethics for its relevance in the current context, the following section aims to propose a manner through which Confucian virtues can be used to understand moral cognition. This will be accomplished with the specific context of li and yi in mind, and the differences they present as virtues in Confucian thought. Following that, ren is included to complete a picture of overall moral psychology. This is done by adding the construct of affection in the form of ren to the proposed interpretation of moral cognition.
Defined as a thought process involving the imagery of a given ethical scenario followed by deliberation of morally considerable factors, the question that the field begs is the operationalisation of “morally considerable factors”, or factors that an individual must consider (i.e., moral considerability) when making moral judgments. While the operationalisation of moral considerability is, in itself, an epistemological question that remains debated, it is not within the scope of the present work to argue its definition. Instead, an a priori definition will be offered: that within the variables that a moral agent may define as morally considerable, personal moral values and norms of the host community – in the sense of legal as well as general social norms – are amongst them. As thoroughly examined above, the advents of li and yi refer to differing virtues within an individual; li to an individual’s adherence to culturally appropriate moral norms and yi to an intrinsic sense of righteousness or phronesis. The question here remains – what if an individual’s personal sense of what is right disagrees with the social norms? The issue rears its head when an individual finds himself torn between his personal moral values and those of social norms. In the context of the 21st century, debates that remain rampant include discourse on gay rights, abortion, euthanasia, vegetarianism, and the like. While these debates are open to public discourse, developed states must take a legal stand on these issues, arguing for the legal status of an act carried out along the lines of these pertinent issues. Legality aside, any rational moral agent also possesses the freedom to morally deliberate these issues, deriving his personal stand on them. Is it, then, too much to imagine a discrepancy between ethical verdicts derived from both?
While it is not within the scope of this work to discuss normative statuses, it is well within its scope to deliberate on how one derives moral judgment from cognitive discourse. Taking into consideration the individual whom finds himself conflicted between norms of the state and his personal values, the following can be deduced:
- Assuming one’s rational moral agency, he may hold personal moral values that do not agree with norms of his host community;
- When confronted with such ethical issues, he must deliberate between his sense of the two virtues. Here, it can be said that the moral cognitive process involves weighing between the two virtues of yi and li;
- Dialogue (in debate) is a good manner through which two positions are weighed ethically;
- A rational moral agent is capable of internal dialogue between the two; therefore,
(Conclusion): A rational moral agent may make moral judgments based on the results of an internal debate between li and yi.
Here it seems that Confucian virtues, specifically between li and yi, presents a potential model for moral cognition. A rational moral agent must weigh between his perceptions of yi and li when they disagree, through internal debate, to derive his moral judgement. The contribution to moral psychology here resides in descriptively identifying phenomenological constructs that define moral cognition. Through this process of identification, the discrepancies between yi and li within each individual paints some description of one’s moral position relative to his host community – extenuating to plausibly describe his potential for deviant behavior in the future.
Having established the dialectical role of yi and li in moral cognition, they stand only to the effect of hard cognition. That is, while it seems sufficient for moral judgment to happen, it is almost heretical to ignore the effects of emotion in moral psychology. Insofar as a moral judgment may be reached by hard cognition alone, a moral agent, no matter how rational, is always at the mercy of his affective or emotive faculties – and this is where ren becomes relevant. Having established above that ren refers to one’s humaneness, ren fits into the apparent hole left by the above model. The argument could follow as such:
- The advent of yi and li are sufficient conditions for moral cognition to produce a moral judgment, but they are unrealistic because they fail to accord human affection its status in affecting moral judgments;
- Ren refers to the virtue of humaneness, comparatively significant by emphasising the importance of love that one has for those around him;
- Love is an emotive construct between two or more individuals;
- Ren is necessarily emotive;
- Aside from (4), ren is necessary as a virtue for dealing with social relations as explicated above; therefore,
(Conclusion) Ren is a suitable compliment to the dialogue between li and yi, emotively contributing to moral judgments.
True to form, this is in line with recent business ethics research. Pohling and colleagues, in their study of human ethical competence, find that the means of empathy and compassion aids one in transcending towards higher ethical competence, defined as one’s sensitivity towards ethical issues. Similarly, Joseph Bankard purports a direct correlation between moral (prosocial) action and well-developed emotional dispositions. Supporting the effect of emotion in moral cognition, this trend may be logically extenuated to include ren and its comparative counterpart, Aquinas’ love theory, into the equation of moral judgment. It seems, then, that ren, yi, and li form a trialogue that inform moral judgments – yi and li forming a bulk of moral cognition, but ren affectively influencing an ultimate moral judgment.
The present work has examined comparative views to Confucius’ virtues of ren, yi, and li. After purporting for its adequacy as a theory in virtue ethics, the present work extends the basic research of understanding Confucian virtue ethics to becoming applied research in its applications to moral psychology. The argument put forth in this context is that of (1) li and yi as necessary conditions for moral cognition, and (2) ren as a relevant construct to complete a Confucian model of moral psychology. While more empirical, quantitative research is necessary to discern the direct effects of Confucian virtues in the grand scheme of moral psychology, the present work argues a logical plausibility for this model of moral psychology with face validity.
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