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Reviewed by:
  • Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary by Roger Ames
  • Joel Kupperman (bio)
Roger Ames. Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011. xvii, 332 pp. Paperback $31.00. isbn 978-0-8248-3576-7.

Roger Ames has written an important book, from which I have learned, on the broad cultural context of philosophical elements in Confucianism. Social roles and their acting out in personal interactions have a central presence in this. Confucian role ethics looks primarily to the contours of our familiar and social roles for guidance. “We are … the sum of the roles we live in consonance with our fellows” (p. 122).

The analysis starts with the family: “[F]amily feelings serve as entry points for developing moral competence” (p. xiv). This process broadens out. Ames sees friendship “as an open conduit that leads from the security and stability of one’s own family out into the more uncertain and taxing social, political, and cultural realm” (p. 114).

This analysis points toward a broader picture of human life and social development than some of those that appeal to many philosophers, especially those with existentialist leanings. Individualistic approaches have encouraged us to regard our paths of life as personally chosen without being much affected by our interactions with other people. Due regard for the roles we play can correct this simplistic view.

To make this claim, however, is compatible with continuing to pay attention to individualistic elements in lives. These elements often shape and color our social interactions and the roles we play.

All of this can be linked to a general point. An insightful book, such as this one is, can be thought of as shining a light on some aspects of human life. This effect enables us to notice and see more clearly things that we otherwise might hardly have paid attention to. The light narrows and intensifies the experience. It, however, is likely to leave surrounding areas in semidarkness, and perhaps will prevent us from factoring them into our experience.

Roger Ames focuses on family life and friendship in a very constructive way. These matters have a crucial role in the personal development of almost all of us. Books that ought to give them a prominent place and major attention often virtually ignore them. Social roles also are slighted in many accounts of people’s lives. One factor is that is that much of ethics and moral psychology prefers to focus on key moments — often moments of decision — in people’s lives, rather than emphasize ongoing and continuous elements. [End Page 450]

All of what Roger Ames brings out is important and valuable. All the same, some people rebel against their family and upbringing, or in other ways seek to pursue a path of life quite different from what they started with. This decision, of course, implies new roles. But in some cases, new roles can be taken up and then abandoned in the style of a giddy comedy. Not all roles are maintained for long periods of time.

There is a striking duality in what Roger Ames has to say about roles. He is talking primarily about the place of roles in Confucianism. This is very apt in that Confucianism places great emphasis on maintenance of roles related to family or social order. However, Ames is also shedding light on roles in the life of people in general — people who may not be considered Confucians in any usual sense.

The roles that people may play at certain moments can owe a great deal to tradition, the momentary influence of other people, or, more broadly, the power of suggestion. They also may be mainly the product of obscure impulses. There also is a division between roles that are very much governed by propriety and roles that are not. One can see this division in the life of Confucius. Think of the episode (Analects 17.20) in which a messenger is sent to him in an unworthy cause. Confucius first lies and has the messenger told that he is not at home. He is then rude, playing his zithern and singing loudly as the messenger leaves. This episode might seem influenced by propriety...