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Reviewed by:
  • Taking Confucian Ethics Seriously
  • Eric C. Mullis
Taking Confucian Ethics Seriously. Edited by Kam-por Yu, Julia Tao, and Phillip J. Ivanhoe. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010. Pp. 225. Hardcover $75.00. Paper $24.95.

Kam-por Yu, Julia Tao, and Phillip J. Ivanhoe have collaboratively edited a volume that aims to consider the philosophical relevance of Confucian ethics. Taking Confucian Ethics Seriously views Confucian ethics as a living tradition that articulates specific ethical ideals, principles, and methods that remain applicable in contemporary contexts. In the introduction the editors emphasize that one can approach Confucian ethics by placing emphasis on philosophical retrieval or philosophical reconstruction. The former entails considering what insights the Confucian tradition can provide with regard to understanding contemporary issues in ethics. Philosophical reconstruction entails developing the Confucian tradition by focusing less on how it was originally formulated and by developing the tradition in response to contemporary issues. The editors conclude their introduction by emphasizing that the essays in the volume employ one or both of these approaches as the authors discuss an array of issues.

Heiner Roetz' essay, "What it Means to Take Chinese Ethics Seriously," considers academic work that either implicitly or explicitly does not take Confucian ethics seriously. Roetz points out that the contrastive approach, which emphasizes distinct differences between Eastern and Western philosophers, and the comparative approach, which looks for similarities between the traditions but emphasizes that Western categories and concepts should not be applied to Asian philosophies, are alike in that they both objectify Asian traditions (pp. 14-16). Instead of viewing Confucianism or Daoism in this manner, Roetz suggests that they be viewed through the lens of a "comparative hermeneutics" that sees the traditions as advancing serious validity claims that remain relevant in modern contexts (p. 22).

Kam-por Yu's "The Handling of Multiple Values in Confucian Ethics" advances a novel interpretation of the Confucian concept of zhongyong (中庸) by considering it as integral for an ethical pluralism that can readily be applied when addressing moral issues. This entails carefully observing the nuances of a moral situation and ignoring the common tendency to construe a moral problem as having only a "good" or "bad" outcome. Yu notes that moral life is seldom so cut and dry and suggests that putting zhongyong into play can keep one from artificially simplifying moral life by ignoring important moral claims (p. 46). Yu's essay is an instance of philosophical retrieval that strives to consider how zhongyong can be applied in a world that demands a robust moral pluralism.

Chun-Chieh Huang's essay, "East Asian Conceptions of the Public and Private Realms," discusses the historical evolution of the notions of public (gong 公) and private (si 私) and considers how the distinction played into political life from the Western Zhou (1045?-971 B.C.E.) to the Warring States (403-222 B.C.E.) periods. Huang notes that the conflict between the public and private realms can be found in much of Chinese history and suggests that it has yet to be resolved. In seeking a [End Page 411] conceptual solution to this problem, Confucian philosophers appealed to higher standards (tianli 天理 or tianxia 天下), but since such standards are open to interpretation, decisions regarding the interaction of public and private were historically left to the ruling elite (p. 93).

Qianfang Zhang's "Humanity or Benevolence: The Interpretation of Confucian Ren and Its Modern Implications" discusses the historical development of the Confucian concept of ren (仁) and considers the relationship between ren and the notion of benevolent government in light of politics in modern China. Zhang argues that ren can be interpreted as "humanitarian concern" or "benevolence," the former focusing on a general sense of human dignity that should be extended to others and the latter focusing on the fact that others are centers of well-being and dignity. With this distinction in mind, Zhang observes that the first understanding of ren is not sufficiently developed by classical Confucian philosophy and goes on to suggest that the second understanding - framed in terms of benevolent government - likewise has not been sufficiently practiced in historical or modern China (p. 69).

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