- The Moral Circle and the Self: Chinese and Western Approaches
Comparative philosophy as an institutionalized and academic field is still a young discipline. It could, of course, be argued that it has been practiced since the first philosophers appeared on the scene, for any philosophical activity is, after all, comparative in character. However, the discipline of comparative philosophy does not understand itself in such a broad manner as to include just any philosophical discussion, but explicitly takes traditions, cultures, or other predefined communities as terms of reference. It is therefore a fundamental challenge for comparative philosophers to do appropriate justice to the diversity, porosity, and dynamism of any such entity. Since these properties suggest inner tensions instead of a harmonized unity, and openness instead of hermetic borders, it is always an artificial, and, to some extent, an arbitrary act to draw borders between different traditions, cultures, or, for example, language communities. Thus, it is up to comparative philosophy to demonstrate that its focus is indeed productive and that it itself does not reinforce the artificiality of the involved entities. In its moderate version, comparative philosophy has to substantiate the claim that its terms of reference are at least of similar philosophical importance as other familiar and maybe equally constructed categories such as age, gender, or social class. At the same time, it remains of the utmost importance to abstain from regarding any of these notions as absolute and thereby ignore their artificial and generalizing character as well as their subjection to change.
The volume presented by the Singapore philosophers Kim-chong Chong, Sor-hoon Tan, and Chin Liew Ten addresses "issues from a comparative perspective" (Introduction) and carries the subtitle Chinese and Western Approaches. Yet, this is not a book on methodology in comparative philosophy. Nor will the readers find clearly depicted Chinese-versus-Western approaches to the problematic under scrutiny, namely, as the title of the volume informs us, "the moral circle and the self." Rather, "Chinese and Western approaches" refers, it seems, on the one hand, to the fact that the resources drawn upon by the authors of the sixteen papers collected in this volume all stem from the "Chinese and Western ethical traditions" (Introduction). On the other hand, "Chinese and Western approaches" might further refer to the geographical and cultural contexts of the contributors, most of whom are associated with Singapore, Australia, or the United States, and all of whom are specialists in either "Chinese" or "Western" philosophy.
The approaches adopted in the essays by the different authors here reflect a multiplicity that is as such paradigmatic for the discipline itself, while simultaneously [End Page 54] disclosing its multifarious self-understanding as well as the abundance of its recently "discovered" territories to be explored. The remarkable variety of approaches collected in this volume may very well emanate from the highly inclusive topic indicated in the heading. Most of the essays originate from a workshop on "Self, Family and Community: Aspects of Chinese and Western Ethics," held at the National University of Singapore in May 2000. The book under review, however, is titled The Moral Circle and the Self.
But what does the notion "moral circle" stand for? The editors explain in their introduction: "The impetus for the essays is provided by the overarching question: If ethics encompasses not just a concern for self and family but also for a wider circle of others, what resources do both Chinese and Western ethics have to motivate and to guide this expansion of concern?" The "moral circle" thus stands for the intensity (graded vs. impartial concern) and the radius (self, family, community, humanity, animals, etc.) of moral concern beyond the self and one's family. It is interesting, moreover, that the editors chose to name the volume The Moral Circle and the Self, whereas The Self and the Moral Circle would probably have been more suitable for an individualistic starting point.
The point is that all...