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Moral Exemplars in the Analects: The Good Person is That by Amy Olberding (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 63, Number 3, July 2013
pp. 439-442 | 10.1353/pew.2013.0031

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In Moral Exemplars in the Analects, Amy Olberding offers a self-reflexive and thought-provoking interpretation of the Analects. Scholars of China will find her book valuable in that it provides a holistic reading of the Analects that preserves the tensions in the text. Ethicists will find it valuable in that it furthers discussion on the role of emulating paradigmatic figures in moral development.

Olberding characterizes her project as an attempt to "discern a governing logic that renders the Analects' compelling moral sensibility intelligible as moral theory" (p. 1). The difficulty of interpreting the Analects, Olberding explains, is that the text does not offer an explicit moral theory. Instead it reads more like a "moral manual" —a "compendium of practical and direct moral advice" (p. 3). The difference between a moral manual and a moral theory is that a moral theory explains why the instructions a manual offers might be successful. In more detail, Olberding draws from the work of her colleague, Linda Zagzebski, who defines moral theory as "an abstract structure that aims to simplify, systematize, and justify our moral beliefs and practices" (p. 6). This leaves the task of articulating a moral theory of the Analects largely to the interpreter.

Olberding proceeds on this basis to provide a careful account of a moral theory that on the one hand is sensitive to the concerns of a modern ethicist, and on the other remains faithful to the Analects as a culturally situated text. She begins this process by noting a primary concern in the text with emulating exemplars. Borrowing an analogy of learning from the Analects where Confucius gives a student one metaphorical corner of a square, expecting him to return with the other three, Olberding explains, "the people the text describes . . . constitute the 'one corner' from which we can infer [the other three]" (p. 10). Employing this analogy, Olberding offers an account of exemplarism as the remaining corners of the Analects' moral theory.

Exemplarism, in short, is a theory about how emulating paradigmatic figures leads people to be moral. It explains, systematizes, and justifies the pre-theoretical ability that people have to identify good models of morality (p. 24). While this involves thinking about particular acts and individuals in more general, and often abstract, concepts (such as virtue), Olberding stresses the fact that exemplars are not merely illustrations of abstract concepts; rather they "source" the concepts—meaning that they serve as a means for creating abstract concepts but also continue to remain personally significant for the moral actor and theory (pp. 42 and 102-103). In other words moral exemplars "are not merely important, but [are] indispensable and necessary " to the Analects' ethical vision (p. 11). It should also be noted that several aspects of Olberding's theory of exemplarism come from Zagzebski, who develops a theory of exemplarism in the context of Christian virtue ethics. Zagzebski appears frequently in Olberding's book.

Exemplarism, in Olberding's view, is effective in interpreting the Analects for at least three reasons: (1) it can be inferred from the Analects itself; (2) it provides the most coherent account of the text's explicit claims and its silences (where "silences" refers to gaps or omissions in concepts important for a moral theory such that secure conclusions about them cannot be drawn—in the Analects these include human nature, a model for human flourishing, and a clear sense of ren 仁) (pp. 43-44); and (3) it brings the Analects into contemporary discussions of moral theory.

The first half of Moral Exemplars sets out to explain how the Analects can be read as an exemplarist text. Chapter 2 recounts an "origins myth" for the Analects. In this origin myth "biography" and "philosophy" converge in the figure of Confucius (p. 19). Philosophically, Confucius points to examples of moral individuals and seeks to explain why they are good. Biographically, the authors of the Analects situate Confucius in the forefront of these moral exemplars. Confucius "seduces" the readers of the text with his magnetic display of virtue, and, as such, an exemplarist reading of the Analects is "an effort to discover the sources of moral seduction" (p. 21).

Chapter 3 discusses the silences in the Analects. Olberding...

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