Chinese ethics and values
1. Characteristics of Chinese Ethics: Practical Focus and Closeness to Pre-theoretical Experience
In the Analects 13.18, the Governor of She tells Confucius of a Straight Body who reported his father to the authorities for stealing a sheep. Confucius (Kongzi, best known in the West under his latinized name, lived in the 6thand 5th century B.C.E) replies that in his village, uprightness lies in fathers and sons covering up for each other. In the Euthyphro, Socrates encounters Euthyphro (whose name can be translated as “Straight thinker”), reputed for his religious knowledge and on his way to bring charges against his father for murder. The conversation between Socrates and Euthyphro leads to a theoretical inquiry inwhich various proposed answers as to piety's ousia (essence) are probed and ultimately found unsatisfactory, but in which no answer to the piety or impiety of Euthyphro's action is given. The contrast between these two stories highlights one of the distinctive features of Chinese ethics in general: its respect for the practical problem. The practical problem discussed by Confucius and Socrates isarguably a universal one: the conflict between loyalty owed to a family member and duty to uphold public justice within the larger community. Confucius's response is one dimension of a characteristically Chinese respect for the practical problem. The nature of the problem demands a practical response. However, another dimension of a reflective respect for the practical problem is to maintain acertain humility in the face of a really hard problem. It is to be skeptical that highly abstract theories will provide a response that is true to the complexities of that problem. A tradition exemplifying such respect will contain influential works that will not pretend to have resolved recurring tensions within the moral life such as those identified in the Analects and the Euthyphro.
Confuciusgives an immediate practical answer in 13.18, but the reader and commentators have been left to weave together the various remarks about filial piety so as to present a rationale for that answer. These remarks quite often concern rather particular matters, as is the matter of turning in one's father for stealing a sheep, and the implications for more general issues are ambiguous. Do fathers and sonscover up for each other on all occasions, no matter how serious, and if there is a cover-up, is there also an attempt to compensate the victim of the wrongdoing? The particularity of these passages is tied up with the emphasis on praxis. What is sought and what is discussed is often the answer to a particular practical problem, and the resulting particularity of the remarks invites multipleinterpretations. The sayings often are presented as emerging from conversations between Confucius and his students or various personages with official positions, or among Confucius's students. One passage (11.22) portrays Confucius as having tailored his advice according to the character of the particular student: he urges one student to ask father and elder brother for advice before practicingsomething he has learnt, while he urges the other to immediately practice; the reason is that the first has so much energy that he needs to be kept back, while the second is retiring and needs to be urged forward. With this passage in mind, we might then wonder whether the apparent tension between remarks made in connection with a concept is to be understood in terms of the differences between theindividuals addressed or the context of the conversation.
All texts that have become canonical within a tradition, of course, are subject to multiple interpretations, but Chinese texts invite them. They invite them by articulating themes that stay relatively close to the pre-theoretical experience that gives rise to the practical problems of moral life (see Kupperman, 1999 on the role of experience...
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