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  • Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy
  • Alexus McLeod
Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy. By Bryan W. Van Norden. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv + 412. Hardcover $90.00.

Bryan Van Norden's Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy is a major contribution to the philosophical study of early Chinese thought, especially in the area of the Ruism (Confucianism) of the Analects and the Mengzi (Mencius). It is a work of enormous scope that attempts to understand three key figures in the early Chinese philosophical tradition: Kongzi, Mozi, and Mengzi. In his endeavor to reconstruct the various views of and the debates between these thinkers, Van Norden uses what he calls a "contemporary analytic" method and sees the main clash between the early Confucian thinkers and the Mohists as, respectively, a debate between virtue ethicists and consequentialists.

Although the book's title may suggest that the main theme is an exploration of the debate between Ruists and Mohists, the section on the Mohists (chapter 3) seems to me mainly an aside, showing us briefly an alternative tradition to the Ruism of Kongzi and Mengzi. The bulk of the book concerns Kongzi (chapter 2), Mengzi (chapter 4), and a consideration of the ways in which Ruism might be adapted to the concerns of the modern world (chapter 5). In many ways, this is a book more about understanding Ruism and its promise for contemporary ethics than it is about either virtue ethics or consequentialism. While there is less consideration of the reasons for thinking that Ruism endorses virtue ethics than one might like, there is no denying that this book advances the debate surrounding this controversial question, and also presents a point of view and arguments that no one in the field addressing the questions it deals with surrounding Ruism, its connection with virtue ethics, and its usefulness to contemporary ethics can afford to neglect.

The book is comprised of five chapters: an excellent introduction in which Van Norden argues for his methodology; a chapter on Kongzi and early Ruism in which he offers an interpretation of the Analects as presenting a virtue ethics; a chapter on the early Mohists, including a consideration of their consequentialism and a long section arguing that the Mohists were indeed concerned with "truth"; a massive chapter on Mengzi (the largest in the book), in which Van Norden attempts to offer [End Page 554] an account of both the argumentation in the Mengzi and an account of how the ethical system presented in the Mengzi conforms to the standards of a virtue ethics; and a chapter called "Pluralistic Ruism," in which Van Norden considers the potential for Ruism to be useful in contemporary ethics.

To my mind, the most interesting chapters are the introductory chapter on methodology, the chapter on Kongzi, and the chapter on Mengzi. In his introductory chapter, Van Norden offers some argument for the position that it is profitable to use "virtue ethics" as a theoretical model for early Ruism. He spends the first part of the chapter defending his use of what he calls an "analytic philosophical perspective," which he defines as "finding, interpreting, and evaluating arguments in the [classical] texts; clarifying the meaning of the texts by spelling out interpretive alternatives and examining whether each text is self-consistent" (p. 2). He contrasts this with other interpretive approaches, including the "postmodern," the hallmark of which is (according to Van Norden) that "one does not regard as objectively warranted any claims to truth." While I wonder whether Van Norden has been sufficiently charitable to interpretive work falling outside the "analytic" tradition as he defines it, such as the work of David Hall and Roger Ames (who, I take it, would not interpret the Ruists, e.g., as eschewing any claims of truth, but only ones in which truth is construed non-pragmatically), I find his illustration of the analytic method a good and useful one.

The second part of his introductory chapter attempts to describe the features of a virtue ethics, and there is a brief third part on argumentation in early China. Although Van Norden convincingly argues against some objections to...


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