- Embodied Moral Psychology and Confucian Philosophy by Bongrae Seok
Embodied Moral Psychology and Confucian Philosophy is a comprehensive and insightful book that shows how some central tenets of Confucian philosophy are supported by contemporary research in (moral) psychology. More specifically, Bongrae Seok shows “that Confucian moral philosophy is a philosophical tradition of the embodied moral mind with the potential to develop a viable theory of embodied moral psychology” (p. 49). He begins part one of his book (“Embodied Cognition and Confucian Philosophy”) with a chapter on “What is Embodied Cognition?” saying [End Page 346] that it generally refers to “the physical mechanism of a cognitive system, in the processes of gathering, processing, storing, and accessing information” (p. 4). He then presents a detailed comparative analysis of embodied cognition in light of some philosophical implications as well as how current psychological research has approached it. Seok says his overall aim is to show how cognitive science can be used to enhance moral philosophy, in particular how recent data about embodied emotions can be used to further substantiate the Confucian view of the “moral mind” (xin 心) as being the affective, embodied, and relational basis for moral agency.
In chapter 2, “Embodied Moral Cognition and Confucian Philosophy,” Seok gives various instances of how recent psychological research supports the Confucian account of “virtue” as embodied reactions to others. Mencius claimed that ceyin zhixin 惻隱之心, the pity or compassion we feel as a reaction to the suffering of others, is one of four basic emotions that make us human. Confucius took ren 仁, our loving and caring for others appropriately, to be the main “virtue” to humanize us (also one of Mencius’ four). All Confucian virtues begin as emotions that are viewed as embodied, involuntary responses to the presence, situation, or predicament of others. This is now supported by psychological research empirically substantiating that we often learn to interact with others by “mirroring” or mimicking their embodied emotional reactions. Philosophically, Confucian emotions as well as the “virtues” that grow out of them are conceived as affective embodied responses to others. This Confucian view stands in sharp contrast with how emotions have typically been viewed in the West, that is, as subjective, private, inner states. Moreover, the Confucian moral mind does not even have to mediate in the process of moral agency with deliberation and reflection. Confucian virtues are affective, embodied, social activities where we have “learned” to recognize and respond to each other intuitively and in socially appropriate ways.
Part 2 (“Aspects of Embodied Confucian Moral Psychology”) begins with Seok’s third chapter, “Moral Psychology of Confucian Philosophy,” where he explains in depth how Confucianism is an emotion-based theory of ethics. Confucians hold that personhood is relational, and also that the even greater way (dao 道) of the universe is mirrored in human moral psychology. There is a normative thread that runs through all things, and the ideal way for us to live is defined in moral terms and is linked to the ideal way of heaven. Contemporary moral psychology suggests that humans share a uniform range of moral intuitions, but it also suggests that how we respond to moral problems is deeply shaped by circumstance. We tend to pay more attention to events that are emotionally provocative and that motivate us on a personal level. Confucianism and other emotion-based moral theories have been criticized for this as lacking universalizability when we let such “contingencies” as circumstance matter morally. Against this objection, Seok argues that Confucian moral psychology provides a mechanism for moral emotions to be extended to others, even to complete strangers. Its foundational metaphysic takes all things to be related, and humanity is no exception. This is the main function of emotions: to develop into virtues that allow us all to relate to each other in mutually beneficial ways. “Love” is just such a moral emotion — through it we extend our concern to others so that we may treat them humanely and appropriately. [End Page 347]
The embodied emotion of qing 情 is the main focus...