The 31st GJS Seminar (162nd Tobunken/ASNET Seminar)Theorizing “Person” for Confucian Role Ethics: A Good Place to Start

Date and time: February 9th, 2017 (Thur.), 2:00-4:00PM
Venue: First Meeting Room (3F), Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, The University of Tokyo
Speaker: Roger T. Ames (Berggruen Fellow, Department of Philosophy, Peking University)
Language: English

Abstract: 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 monograph 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. That is, individualism has become an ideology when, in our own post-Marxist, post-collectivist era, it has garnered a monopoly on human consciousness without any serious alternative to challenge it. I will argue that the language of virtue ethics broadly in appealing as it does to 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.
(Open to Public)

Organizer: The Global Japan Studies Network (GJS)
Co-organizer: Institute for Advanced Studeis on Asia (IASA), Network for Education and Research on Asia (ASNET)
Contact: gjs[at]