- Why Be Moral?Comments on Yong Huang's Book on the Cheng Brothers
In Why Be Moral: Learning from the Neo-Confucian Cheng Brothers, Yong Huang presents a comparative study on the moral philosophy of the Cheng brothers as how comparative philosophy should be done: to engage in contemporary philosophical problems and to propose solutions that could be gleaned from the ideas of ancient Chinese philosophers. His analysis provides a paradigm for comparative philosophy. I think this is the right way to do comparative philosophy—to focus on problem solving rather than textual comparison. I am very impressed both with the breadth of his knowledge of Western moral philosophy and with the depth of his analysis of the moral philosophy of the Cheng brothers. Since I share his view on how to do comparative philosophy, I will now engage Huang's book philosophically as well. In what follows, I will focus on four of the philosophical problems raised in this book, and examine whether the solutions presented by Huang on behalf of the Cheng brothers are really good solutions. I will also briefly touch on some interpretative issues at the end.
Why Be Moral?
The question considered in chapter 1 of the book is: why should I be moral? Huang says, "Obviously, this is a question raised by an egoist who is first of all concerned with his or her self-interest" (p. 27). How could an ethicist provide any convincing answer for such a person? Huang first discusses the nature of the question "Why should I do what I should do?" and he dismisses the following suggestions: (1) that the question is "illegitimate" because it is simply asking a tautological question "Why should I be moral?" (p. 31; quoting Toulmin 1964, p. 162), and (2) that the question is an unreasonable one because it is "self-contradictory"—the person asking this question is taking morality "as a mere means to an ulterior end," but morality should be the end in itself (p. 32; quoting Bradley 1935, pp. 61–62).
According to Huang, the question is really about moral motivation—"What motivations do or can I have to be moral?" He says, "The person who asks the question is not a moral skeptic. She knows clearly that she [End Page 268] should be moral but lacks the motivation to be so." A person who is motivated to be moral will never ask the question "Why should I be moral?" (p. 33). Huang thinks that this is a perfectly legitimate question. After considering how Western ethical theorists (Plato, Hobbes, Hume, Aristotle, and Kant) have failed to provide a sufficiently convincing answer, Huang argues that the Chengs' answer is "more promising." The answer, in a nutshell, is that I should be moral because I can find joy in being moral.
This answer, however, is not really satisfactory. To begin with, the kind of joy that Confucius and his prize student Yan Hui found in learning, practicing what one learns, and realizing the virtue of humaneness in oneself is not appreciated by most other people—including the other students who were following Confucius at the time. The Chengs acknowledge that when "living in poverty, while other people would be worried, only Yan Hui can find joy. This is because of his [virtue of humaneness]" (p. 45). In other words, not everyone will find joy in being moral. As a result, only someone who can be joyful in being moral will find the answer satisfactory. And yet this person would not have asked the question to begin with, since he or she is already experiencing the supreme joy. As Huang puts it, "One needs to first have knowledge and only then can one find joy" (p. 51). It would thus seem that finding joy is the outcome of one's being moral (having the knowledge of virtue and possessing the constant virtue of humaneness), rather than a goal with which to motivate oneself to be moral.
To be more precise, we need to ask what constitutes joy. Huang explains that the Confucian notion of joy is different from the common conception of joy. For the Cheng brothers, "joy" means "to be...