Sunday, April 29, 2012

Confucian Moral Psychology

Inspired by recent lectures from Kwong-loi Shun, I want to explore a number of interesting structural concepts and distinctions in ethics and moral psychology. (Note: As a total neophyte, I may have misremembered or misunderstood parts of Shun's interpretation of Confucian moral psychology. So I make no claims to historical accuracy here. I just think that there are some interesting concepts in this vicinity worth exploring.)

(1) Ethical Self-Commitment. This may be understood as a sense of moral honour. This contrasts with both (i) non-moral honour, as when one is concerned with insults or other slights to one's social status; and (ii) neutral impartiality, where one is no more concerned about one's own virtue or moral honour than anyone else's. The agent with moral honour is particularly concerned to herself act justly, and so to avoid bringing moral disgrace upon herself. (It's an interesting question whether this constitutes an objectionable form of self-obsession.)

(2) Detachment: Third-Personal Reactive Attitudes. In rejecting non-moral honor (or what Shun calls "the physical form of anger", in contrast to the ethical form), the virtuous agent ceases to feel distinctively first-personal reactive attitudes such as resentment (where the focus is on the fact that a slight or injustice was done to oneself). Instead, one feels the same sort of moral indignation that one could feel on behalf of anyone else who was similarly wronged. (And this may be a very strong emotional response that's called for.)

Note that the details of one's response may turn on relational facts, e.g. the fact that the person who was harmed happens to be you, or your friend; but this relational fact doesn't consume your attention, or alter the qualitative nature of your emotional response. In this sense, you retain a kind of detachment or aloofness from your own ego (and the distinctively first-personal emotions that it would otherwise give rise to).

(3) Equanimity: The virtuous agent will have strong emotional reactions when appropriate to the circumstances, but will at the same time possess a kind of higher-order poise, ensuring that she is not engulfed by the emotion, and that it passes when the circumstances change.

This is connected to the idea that the agent's own virtue is what most matters, and this core interest of theirs is not threatened by mere external circumstances. One may still suffer grave harms, of course, but equanimity may follow from the recognition that your core interest remains inviolable. (There seems something attractive about this attitude, at least for its practical utility, though it really makes the "self-obsession" objection loom large: Is your virtue really more important than the life and wellbeing of your loved ones?)

(4) Mental discipline / 'purity' of thought: Here the thought is that it isn't just our actions that matter, but even the smallest mental impulses. The virtuous agent should not even be tempted by wrongdoing, nor should she experience vindictive emotions (schadenfreude, etc.). This calls for constant vigilance over one's own thoughts, though eventually the right habits of thought should become effortless and automatic.

The 'vigilance' aspect faces tricky "don't think of an elephant" issues for implementation. I think it's also an interesting question whether we should want morality to be so all-encompassing. Contrast Nagel's Concealment and Exposure, and its idea that the human psyche is inevitably messy, and our responsibility is just to refrain from expressing any of our less-pure, socially disruptive thoughts. This more relaxed view could be motivated by either (i) a practical concern that attempts at repression would be psychologically unhealthy, or (ii) a more principled concern that morality should be restricted in scope, rather than encroaching into all areas of life (e.g. some may wish to carve off a "protected sphere" that includes humour, as well as private thoughts, etc).

(Though I should flag that an all-encompassing private morality is still compatible with Nagel's cultural liberalism, for the latter is just concerned with preventing other people from trying to police your thoughts. That leaves it an open question whether you still ought to police them yourself!)

I was very struck by the kind of "two-level" psychology that emerges from this picture, with automatic first-order responses kept in check by higher-order reflection that's triggered only when necessary: it's very much akin to the kind of psychological analysis which many consequentialists (from Hare to Pettit) have proposed, and which I draw on myself in recent work. I'd be interested to see if/how a "Confucian Consequentialism" might be developed, i.e. taking the consequentialist's core normative commitments, and fitting them into the structure provided by a "Confucian"-style moral psychology, to develop a picture of the consequentialist agent.

Anyway, aside from that, I'd be curious to hear what others think of the various "choice points" that emerge from the above analysis. In which respects does the "Confucian" position (scare quotes because, again, I make no claims to historical accuracy) seem especially appealing or unappealing?


  1. Richard,

    Regarding (1), the "Confucian" might argue that one should be primarily concerned with ones own virtue, not because the virtue of others is less important, but because practically speaking one mostly can only control ones own ethical state. This would be a way to reconcile the Confucian position with a broadly consequentialist framework.

    Regarding (4), I'd like to offer some arguments for it since it is something like my own position (and self-policy!). First, since thought patters are self-reinforcing, if one indulges vicious thoughts of (e.g. inappropriate lust or resentment) it seems that over time such thoughts will inevitably affect ones behavior in one way or another.

    Secondly, it's also relevant what the *point* of morality is. If one thinks that ethics is simply instrumental for promoting human flourishing conceived in other terms, then the idea that ethics should be restricted (and nondemanding) has some intuitive appeal. On the other hand, if one thinks that human beings having good "character" is itself an essential component of human flourishing, then it makes sense that following the Tao should be demanding, if it is the most important thing to promote in oneself and (to the extent that this is possible) others.

    Aron Wall

    P.S. I am the same Aron that you briefly met a few weeks ago, at the event for prospective grad students, which I crashed because I was visiting my friend Yoaav at the time.

    1. thought patters -> thought-patterns

    2. Hi Aron! Always nice to be able to match a face to a blog persona.

      re: (1), my impression was that the especial concern for one's own virtue was not meant to be just instrumental (in such a way as might be shared even by an impartial consequentialist), but deeper and more principled than that -- hence the possibility of feeling equanimity even if everyone around you is horribly vicious.

  2. I'm not sure exactly what (4) must mean. The first picture it creates for me is a neurotic, repressed person who induces OCD in them self and possibly ends up molesting children. This is surely not a picture of the phronimos, especially when we take 'virtue' to mean "function." I.e. this is not a functional person.

    Even if this is not the aim, anyone putting the idea forth I would say has a slight moral responsibility to clarify this as puritanism can really make people neurotic and damaged.

    Perhaps it means living in such a way that certain impulses are minimized. E.g. if you're married avoid staying late at social gatherings where there's someone present you suspect is sexually interested in you. That sort of thing.

  3. I just finished reading a very interesting paper that may touch on some of the topics you talk about. The paper is called "Minor tweaks, major payoffs" by Hagop Sarkissian and can be read for free here.;rgn=main;size=200;view=image

    Sarkissian argues that there are very good reasons why classical Confucians stressed things like comportment and other so called "minor" details of ethical conduct (manners, etc), many of which people may even sometimes consider irrelevant to morality. He argues that these are not indispensable to morality and are major contributing factors to moral outcomes and consequences of situations that have moral relevance (he offers substantial evidence from behavioral science to support this).

    Attention to these minor details of behavior thus is warranted but often unnoticed or dismissed because they are believed to have little relevance when in fact they contribute substantially to morality.

    So much attention is paid to minor moral details in Confucian thought is because of the realization (apparently wholly justified by modern behavioral psychology) that major morally relevant consequences result from them and also because these "minor" details are much more under one's own control than many other things Western ethicists have focused on which modern experimental psychology has shown to be largely out of one's control.

    Sarkissian was mainly responding to the challenges posed to virtue ethics from "situationism" and argues that a Confucian ethics considerably responds to these worries whereas most virtue ethics do not address them adequately. I don't know how it might relate to consequentialism but perhaps there is enough there to draw some kind of insight.


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