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Reviewed by:
  • Confucian Ethics in Western Discourse by Wai-ying Wong
  • Mathew A. Foust (bio)
Confucian Ethics in Western Discourse. By Wai-ying Wong. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. xiii + 279. Hardcover $102.60, ISBN 978-1-4742-8587-2.

Wai-ying Wong's Confucian Ethics in Western Discourse is an unusual book. The majority of its content is republished material, with Wong citing in the Acknowledgments (pp. xii-xiii) twenty previously published articles duplicated in its pages. The book is organized in four parts: The Characteristics of Confucian Ethics, Confucian Ethics in Western Discourse, The Heritage and Development of Neo-Confucianism: The Thought of [the] Cheng Brothers, and Confucian Ethics and Contemporary Cultural Phenomena. These sections are mostly composed of clusters of republished articles, with the fourth section, markedly shorter, consisting of two republished articles. Occasional interstitial additions enrich Wong's discussions, but do little to establish cohesiveness of the text as a whole. Although Wong identifies as "the core theme of this book" the effort "to clarify and distinguish among the different levels" of Confucian ethics (p. ix), this project is really only undertaken in Part One and revisited in the Conclusion. In the end, it is not evident that there actually is a core theme of this book, save for the general topic of Confucianism. Nevertheless, there is plenty of interest to be found in Wong's analyses.

In Part One, Wong divides Confucian ethics into four levels: the level of heart-mind, the level of ethical virtues and moral maxims, the level of institutional moral norms, and the level of customs and etiquette. Wong views these levels as corresponding to different realms of human existence: the spiritual/metaphysical realm, the realm of moral life, the socio-political realm, and the realm of daily life. At the same time, "The relationship between the first level and the others resembles that between a philosophy and its application" (p. 28). Although one may challenge this characterization of things, noting the permeability of these four realms, Wong is nonetheless able to construct a response to the titular question of Chapter Three, "Confucian Ethics: Universalistic or Particularistic?" Joining the four levels of Confucian ethics with resources from Western thinkers R.M. Hare and Zygmunt Bauman, Wong argues that Confucian ethics maintains a strict sense of universality as a requirement for moral principles, while at the same time preserving autonomy and uniqueness of responsibility (p. 32). The closing chapter of Part One focuses on the "human nature is good" thesis attributed to Mencius, [End Page 1] particularly as understood and developed by Mou Zongsan and Tang Junyi. Although an interesting discussion, this chapter is emblematic of the piecemeal nature of the book. Wong's not editing this chapter to explicitly connect the dots of Confucian thought about human nature with the four levels of Confucian ethics previously adumbrated is an unfortunate lost opportunity.

In Part Two, Wong engages in several comparative studies of Confucian ethics and Aristotelian ethics. Despite granting that similarities exist between the traditions, Wong insists that because Confucian ethics "regards the realization of the heart-mind of ren and yi as its ultimate goal," it "is not an agent-relative virtue ethics" in the style of Aristotelian ethics (p. 77). Moreover, Wong states, "The ultimate goal of practicing moral virtue (such as ren) is selflessness. When everyone is selfless, there is no need for virtue" (p. 96). This is a striking claim, one that I trust will spur dialogue among scholars who view Confucian ethics through the prism of virtue ethics. Wong's chapter on Aristotle's practical wisdom and Mencius's xin 心 (heart-mind) extends the comparative engagement in a novel direction. On Wong's view, xin in Mencius plays a similar role as practical wisdom in Aristotle, for xin "is an ability which defines what is good and decides what is appropriate in a particular situation" (p. 121). At the same time, Mencian xin and Aristotelian practical wisdom differ "in that the former is the transcendental ground of morality and not a mere virtue, whereas the latter is an empirical virtue which is close to 'Li yi' (禮義) in Xunzi's system" (p. 121). The reader is left with...


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