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  • From Philosophy to Neo-Confucianism and Back:Yong Huang's Why Be Moral?
  • Kam-por Yu (bio)

Special Features of the Book

Why Be Moral? Learning from the Neo-Confucian Cheng Brothers by Yong Huang is a work of comparative philosophy with an original approach. It is a careful and learned study of two important philosophers in Chinese philosophy, but at the same time it is an interesting and stimulating alternative introduction to fundamental philosophical problems.

Huang explains: "My interest is not in exploring the similarities and differences between Confucianism and virtue ethics in the West …, but in seeking the possible contributions Confucianism can make to contemporary virtue ethics" (p. 68). I think Huang is able to deliver very well the goods he has set out to deliver. The topics discussed are all living issues in contemporary philosophy. Such topics include: why be moral; the critique that virtue ethics is self-centered; the problem of the weakness of the will; the debate between universalism and particularism; the distinction between the political and the personal; and the idea of a moral metaphysics.

The book aspires to "argue that the Chinese thinkers' views on … [certain] Western philosophical questions are superior to those found in the history of Western philosophy itself" (p. 11), while at the same time "to make sure that the views I present here are indeed the Cheng brothers' views" (p. 13). In what follows, I would like to respond critically in exactly these two regards, namely by asking: (1) How far are the philosophical views presented by Huang superior views? and (2) How far can the views be taken as accurate representations of the views of the Cheng brothers?

Huang examines seven philosophical questions in the book. In this comment I will only engage in a discussion of three of the issues: (1) Why be moral? (2) Is morality one or many? and (3) How is morality related to human feelings? I shall comment critically on these three issues with reference to philosophical soundness and hermeneutic accuracy.

Why Be Moral?

Huang offers the dual observation that "Confucianism is a learning of self-cultivation," and "the highest goal of self-cultivation is joy (le 樂)" (p. 43). If [End Page 288] such Confucian views are justified, then there is an intrinsic relation between joy and being moral. The two are not just compatible, they are also inseparable.

Huang argues that "as long as one is in accord with morality, one can find joy in anything one encounters" (p. 45). It is not that there must be joy in what one encounters, but that the joy comes directly and intrinsically from being moral. So, as long as one's heart is in what is moral, one has the joy, and such joy cannot be changed.

I think Huang has argued very convincingly that there is an intrinsic connection between being moral and being joyful. The question is how strong such a joy is when compared with other joys, and how strong it is as a motivation for action.

It seems right to say that the immoral or amoral person cannot have real joy or complete joy, as he lacks a source of joy that comes from being moral. But this is not the same as saying that a moral person can always have a net joy in being moral, even if it is granted that alternatives other than what is moral will only bring greater pain. Even if it is true that "a Confucian sage or superior person can find it a joy to be moral" (p. 49), this does not mean that he will never find pains that can outweigh his joy. If, for example, by insisting on doing what is moral he has to see innocent people, including his family members, friends, and loved ones, being cut into pieces (say, as in the case of Fang Xiaoru, 1357–1402) while they are alive, can he still have joy? As a moral person, he will still do what is right. He will not change his mind, and maybe will not even hesitate, and will have no regrets. He may feel peaceful, calm, and undisturbed, but can he still have joy in...


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pp. 288-295
Launched on MUSE
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