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  • Li in the Analects:Training in Moral Competence and the Question of Flexibility
  • Karyn Lai

It is proposed here that the Confucian li, norms of appropriate behavior, be understood as part of the dynamic process of moral self-cultivation. Within this framework li are multidimensional, as they have different functions at different stages in the cultivation process. This novel interpretation refocuses the issue regarding the flexibility of li, a topic that is still being debated by scholars. The significance of this proposal is not restricted to a new understanding of li. Key features of the various stages of moral development in Confucian thought are also articulated. This account presents the picture of a Confucian paradigmatic person as critically self-aware and ethically sensitive.

The concept of li and its role within the Confucian tradition remains a topic of debate and inquiry among contemporary scholars. This is largely due to the prominence of the concept for those attempting to understand and interpret the tradition and, more importantly, for those who seek to establish its contemporary significance.1

The account I propose involves a novel reading of the Confucian concept of li in the Analects. In this account, I track the various meanings of li through three stages of moral cultivation, culminating in the acquisition of moral competence which is marked by an attitude of equanimity (Analects 9 : 29).

In the three stages of moral development that I describe, li have different roles and exhibit different degrees of flexibility. The first is the novice's stage during which li are essential in inculcating correct forms of behavior. At this stage, adherence to the dictates of li introduces the learner to the appropriate proprieties in different contexts. The second stage is an experimental one during which the learner extracts principles from these behavioral forms through constant practice. The emphasis at this stage is on the learner testing out his application of moral principles. This is a stage of inquiry and is perhaps the most intensive and active learning phase. The third phase is marked by the deliberations of the mature, cultivated person, who has a good grasp of the principles and ideals encoded and realized in meaningful social interaction. At this stage, li have a different significance as compared with the first stage. They do not function as instruments of rote learning but rather are channels for meaningful self-expression.

The three stages are presented in three separate sections only to achieve some clarity in exposition and to identify some characteristic features of each of the stages. In practice, the stages are continuous; the progression from one stage to the next is fluid and may not be clearly marked or distinguishable.

Stage 1: The Moral "Beginner" and Strict Adherence to Li

Rote practice is an important and useful instrument in many aspects of human development. Especially in the pre-social and pre-rational stages of early childhood, the repetitive aspect of rote learning is a major mode of learning. It is understood that, in these early stages, a child does not have the resources to consider objectively his actions and their implications. Hence, imitation of the positive and exemplary behaviors of role models is a primary aspect of learning at this stage. The child is taught to replicate "good" behaviors, these being reinforced in his daily behaviors and interactions. [End Page 69]

A key function of behavioral rote learning rests in the setting of parameters of acceptable and appropriate behavior. Given that relational responsibilities and obligations is a major theme in Confucian thought, the frameworks and institutions for developing appropriate behavior in relational interactions are particularly important. A primary function of the Confucian li is to provide parameters of appropriate behavior that indicate and reinforce the respective positions of people engaged in interaction.2 Hence, it is clearly articulated in Analects 20 : 3 that "someone who does not understand the observance of ritual propriety (li) has no way of knowing where to stand."3

In his discussion of the various functions of li, Antonio Cua suggests that one of them is the "delimiting" function. In this connection, the translation of li as "rules of propriety" is most fitting. Cua rightly describes this...


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