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Reviewed by:
  • Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius
  • Christine Swanton
Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius. By May Sim. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. 237. Hardcover.

Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius by May Sim is a rich and wide-ranging work comparing two "virtue oriented" philosophers both of whom are synonymous with important traditions. These are the virtue ethics of Aristotle and what one might call the virtue-oriented role ethics of Confucius. The book is not just a catalog of similarities and differences, though these are significant. Sim also goes deeply into some fundamental issues in ethics, which, alas, have become somewhat invisible in the dominant strands of current analytic ethics: the importance of character, the centrality of roles to an ethical life, and the importance of the Doctrine of the Mean to the understanding of right action.

My discussion will focus on what I consider to be three basic issues considered at length by Sim. These may be broadly described thus: (1) The problem of moral relativism, (2) the nature of the ethics of roles, and (3) how action can be assessed as right. We consider each of these issues in turn.

1. A basic issue is that of the putative moral relativism of Confucius, in contrast with Aristotle. As Sim explicates Aristotle, he is not vulnerable to the problem of relativism since he has a standard by which to evaluate traditions and practices, namely "Aristotle's fixed metaphysics of human nature" (p. 36), and a conception of the social circumstances required to realize this nature (that is, the nature proper to human beings). These circumstances for Aristotle are "to be born free men rather than slaves, have our basic necessities supplied, and have political connections to help us accomplish our actions," and, above all, "to have other phronimoi around so that we have models after whom to tailor our habituation of the moral virtues" (p. 37). The contentious issue for Sim is whether Confucius is a moral relativist, since apparently he has ultimately no standard with which to evaluate traditional li ("normative observances"). She shows how some commentators, by interpreting shu as "interpersonal care and love," forming the "basis of zhong, li, xin, and the other Confucian virtues" (p. 43), try to provide a non-Aristotelian standard for virtue. For shu, so understood, is not reducible to tradition, but is a tradition-independent notion of love or care. However, Sim claims that ultimately the attempt is unsuccessful, and that there is a need for a "metaphysics" that "might be helpful in the reconstruction" (p. 45). My knowledge of the Confucian tradition is not up to establishing whether a certain (non-subjectivist) reading of Hume's moral metaphysics would be "helpful" here, but it strikes me that Hume, rather than Aristotle, could provide the needed assistance.

2. As explicated by Sim, the nature of the ethics of roles is a rather murky issue, particularly in relation to Confucius. It seems to me that there are four separate questions in play. [End Page 230]

  1. a. Whether or not there is in Confucius an ontological reduction of the self into roles. "[A] number of Confucian commentators have argued for a dissolution of the Confucian self into its roles and relations" (p. 154).

  2. b. Whether or not all moral obligations are reducible to role obligations. If one thinks that ethics consists entirely in "ritual propriety" and that "ritual propriety" dictates that one "disciplines oneself" according to traditional li, so that one is (ethically) reduced to "being simply a player of various roles, son, father, minister, or husband" (p. 152), then all moral obligations are reducible to role obligations.

  3. c. Whether or not role obligations trump all other obligations, including those that Kant would regard as "duties to self " (e.g., the duty to develop one's talents). "[T]he family takes priority over an individual's desires, career, and existence" (p. 152).

  4. d. Whether or not Confucius emphasizes relations and roles more than does traditional Western philosophy (where individual autonomy is a central moral concept, for example). "Confucius seems to emphasize relations" (p. 152). This claim is weaker than both (b) and (c): emphasizing role obligations and relationship is...