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  • Ethics in Early China: An Anthology ed. by Chris Fraser, Dan Robins, and Timothy O’Leary
  • Howard J. Curzer (bio)
Chris Fraser, Dan Robins, and Timothy O’Leary, editors. Ethics in Early China: An Anthology. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011. xv, 312 pp. Paperback $30.00, isbn 978-988-8028-93-1.

Chris Fraser, Dan Robins, and Timothy O’Leary have assembled an impressive collection of fourteen excellent articles by distinguished scholars, focused upon themes found in the work of Chad Hansen, concerning Confucianism, Daoism, and, to a lesser extent, Mohism. The anthology is well launched by an accurate and helpful introduction that abstracts the articles while relating them to Hansen’s scholarship. Each article is self-contained, but like passages in the Analects, many [End Page 590] are enhanced by their juxtaposition alongside others treating similar issues. An article by Hansen himself concludes the anthology.

Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont’s contribution is provocatively titled “Were the Early Confucians Virtuous?” Rather than celebrating or disparaging the characters of Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi, however, Ames and Rosemont argue that the early Confucians were role ethicists rather than virtue ethicists. That is, the early Confucians believed that to be good is to discharge the duties of one’s roles (e.g., parent, sibling, spouse) rather than to acquire and act from good character traits. The argument consists of numerous contrasts between the Confucians and Aristotle. However, Ames and Rosemont’s Aristotle is not my Aristotle. Their Aristotle believed that: (a) right action consists of conformity with abstract principles rather than being context-relative, (b) people’s duties are independent of their particular roles or relationships to particular others, (c) duties are determined by reason rather than imagination or passion, (d) the point of ethics is to enable people to think clearly about ethics rather than becoming better people, (e) the target audience for ethics is a warrior aristocracy, (f) virtues may be cultivated in solitude rather than needing a community, (g) character is developed by laws rather than by imitation of role models, and (h) people are best understood as autonomous individuals rather than as embedded in families, friendships, and states. My Aristotle believed none of these things, and so I remain unconvinced that early Confucians and Aristotelian virtue ethicists are far apart.

Since Mencius argued against the Mohists, and the Mohists were consequentialists, it seems odd to think of Mencius himself as a consequentialist. Nevertheless, in “Mencius as a Consequentialist,” Manyul Im characterizes the dispute between Mencius and the Mohists as intramural: They agreed that social consequences are the only standard for evaluating people and actions and disagreed only about how best to achieve good consequences. Mencius thought that the Mohists erred by urging impartial, universal love, for that is psychologically impossible. Mohists also erred by recommending benefit to society as a guiding motive. Instead, Mencius maintained that the cultivation of virtues is the best thing people can do to benefit society. Character improvement is intrinsically valuable and also yields good consequences for society as a side effect. The Mohist strategy of urging people to love everyone and work for society’s benefit will fail.

Mencius made some pretty specific claims. For example, he claimed not just that funeral rituals build character, but that mourning should last precisely three years. The Mohists asked how such claims are to be justified. Mencius answered that tradition provides sufficient justification. In “No Need for Hemlock: Mencius’s Defense of Tradition,” Franklin Perkins observes that although this answer would be quickly dismissed as a fallacious appeal to authority in contemporary philosophic circles, it ought to be taken more seriously. Unless one is prepared to ground ethics on Platonic forms, innate ideas, natural laws, God-guaranteed [End Page 591] reason, or some other non-empirical and, hence, unpalatable foundation, one cannot do better than an appeal to generations of tradition-founding sages.

In a third article about Mohism, titled “Mohism and Motivation,” Chris Fraser argues that the Mohists presented a sophisticated, plausible picture of human motivation rather than the simplistic, excessively demanding one sometimes attributed to them. Although they described a demanding ideal, living up to that ideal was considered supererogatory...


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pp. 590-596
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