Within Western philosophical scholarship over the last forty years, virtue ethics has experienced a healthy and overdue scholarly revival, while Confucianism has become a subject of intense interest. Not surprisingly, Western scholars have approached Confucianism through standard Western ethical models — most recently through virtue ethics. In that respect, Virtue Ethics and Confucianism, edited by Stephen C. Angle and Michael Slote, is extraordinarily timely. Whereas this intersection of Confucianism and virtue ethics is exciting, it is also potentially problematic, as we must resist succumbing to a philosophical colonialism that robs the Confucian tradition of its richness by making it intelligible only through the lens of a foreign Western model. Instead, the two traditions should be placed into a robust discourse that permits comparison but also allows the uniqueness of Confucianism to help scholars rethink and broaden rigid ways of understanding virtue ethics or contemporary ethical problems.
This volume carefully immerses the reader into that larger comparative conversation by including contributors trained in the West and in China as well as those who disagree about the merits of the comparative exercise itself. Divided into four larger parts, the editors wisely chose to keep each contribution relatively short. Although this sacrifices depth, it provides the curious scholar with an opportunity to choose from a wide variety of issues and questions on the cutting edge of this emerging field. Moreover, the pieces are detailed enough to allow the reader to use it as a springboard for jumping into more technical and extended treatments of specific [End Page 1300] issues. This book will greatly serve professionals, undergraduates, and graduate students.
The first part focuses on the notion of virtue and asks whether (or how) Confucianism should be seen as a form of virtue ethics. Philip J. Ivanhoe’s “Virtue Ethics and the Chinese Confucian Tradition” places Mencius and Wang Yangming in dialogue with the “virtue of flourishing” seen in Aristotle and the “virtue of sentiment” seen in Hume. Ivanhoe sees them as closer to the virtue of flourishing, but discusses how they both broaden our understanding of it. Bryan Van Norden, in his “Toward a Synthesis of Confucianism and Aristotelianism,” argues that since the content of flourishing is determined a posteriori, we should engage with the insights of different traditions, noting Confucianism’s contribution: the need for strong relationships. Pushing further, Van Norden notes that a pluralistic conception of flourishing would include artistic creation, acquisition of skill, appreciation, and freedom — the latter of which would lead us beyond Confucianism and Daoism.
Liu Liangjian’s “Virtue Ethics and Confucianism: A Methodological Reflection” takes on Peter Singer’s claim that virtue ethics is doomed by the fact that no human teleology is articulable in a modern and fully naturalized world. Following G.E.M. Anscombe, Liu argues that Mencius sees human teleology (what we “ought” to develop) in a descriptive way: as what the human fundamentally “needs.” When an agent has immediate awareness of this need, knowledge translates directly into action, collapsing the is/ought gap. Liu ends with the suggestion that when an agent acts on her needs (she self-cultivates), her nature (and thus the need of self- cultivation) changes; as such, Liu argues that a dialogue with the Confucian tradition not only helps us to bypass Singer’s challenge, but also reveals an interesting way to challenge the typical Western conception of human nature as fixed and determinate.
Wong Wai-ying’s more critical “Confucian Ethics and Virtue Ethics Revisited” raises suspicions about Confucianism’s ability to enrich how we think about virtue or about the content of a flourishing life, and Lee Ming-hui’s forcefully argued “Confucianism, Kant, and Virtue Ethics” objects to connecting Confucianism and virtue ethics (he prefers deontology) and argues as well as that virtue ethics is not a distinctive third ethical theory. Lee presents many interesting points to consider, but overreaches on occasion. First, he makes the overly broad (and unjustified) suggestion that if virtue ethics prizes right motivation, it is really just deontology in disguise...