- Ethics Unbound: Chinese and Western Perspectives on Morality by Katrin Froese
In Ethics Unbound: Chinese and Western Perspectives on Morality Katrin Froese has written an ambitious book on comparative ethics that attempts to do many things. In [End Page 1288] part, it is about the “uneasy” relationship between ethics and egoism and the complicated connections between morality and the natural and social world. It is also about the differences between the ways Western thinkers (such as Kant and Rousseau) think about morality and the ways Chinese thinkers (principally Confucians and Daoists) do. Thus, large parts of the book are devoted to overviews of the ethical views of the thinkers she considers. To avoid the perils of overgeneralization, Froese also spends some time detailing the differences between specific Confucian and Daoist thinkers as well as those between “traditional” Western ethicists (like Kant) and the more radical critiques of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. All this in fewer than 250 pages!
Froese argues that the quest to be moral is an integral part of being human: the ethical task both connects us to other human beings and helps define our individual identities. Its bête noire is human selfishness (something moral systems seek to overcome), yet selfishness is also its Achilles heel: “egoism and ethics are … bedfellows. … Ethics is indelibly linked to the quest for identity and finding a place to stand in the social, natural, and cosmic order. It is this quest for identity and place that can unleash the spiral of egoism” (p. 4). Ethics “feasts” on the unethical as its opponent, but by “precipitat[ing] a process of moralizing which looks to exclude in order to be able to laud ourselves as ethical beings … self-righteous moralizing … [becomes] a more sinister embodiment of its dynamic” (p. 5). According to Froese, all of the thinkers discussed are aware of this dynamic, though not all are successful at resolving the tensions it produces.
Froese’s own sympathies seem to lie more with the Chinese thinkers she examines — particularly the Daoist thinkers, though she seems also quite taken with Mencius — and more with the infamous “critiquers” of bourgeois morality, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, than with either Kant or Rousseau. Kant’s moral “purism” and “legalism” focus on the individual at the expense of the community; even though he “does not advocate indifference to others,” the stress is always on the importance of individual autonomy, where each individual “represent[s] the universal” (p. 36). “The social world” for Kant, writes Froese, is “introduced through the back door and is derived from the need to assiduously protect human autonomy” (p. 47). Confucian ethics, in contrast, focuses on harmony with both the social and the natural world, a harmony that inevitably entails hierarchy and differing ethical responsibilities for people in different social positions. This view is not without perils of its own, as it can degenerate into a “narrow parochialism” that connects “the development of virtue tightly to entrenched social roles” (p. 27). It can also lead to the desire to “act virtuously in order to elicit public approval,” thereby “unwittingly “produc[ing] the kind of egoism it hopes to avert” (p. 45).
For Rousseau, the ethical endeavor is linked to the attempt to return to a state of nature in which ethics was unnecessary and we enjoyed the “contentment of the protohuman” (p. 63). “Morality” for Rousseau, Froese argues, “becomes a socially and culturally mediated effort to recapture the sense of harmony that has since been lost” (p. 63). The irony is that this “protohuman,” despite its contentment, bears “little resemblance to what we commonly perceive as human,” and thus our effort to return [End Page 1289] to this state is doomed to failure, a failure abetted by the fact that morality for Rousseau is inherently a form of “artifice” (p. 85). Froese contrasts the Rousseauian picture of the human condition with that of Mencius, who sees a return to nature as the key to human flourishing. Nature “is not lost to us” for Mencius...