- The Plasticity of the Human and Inscribing History within Biology:A Response to Donald J. Munro
Donald J. Munro's essay, "When Science Is in Defense of Value-Linked Facts," takes a stand against the fact-value dichotomy which has been heavily pronounced within the Greco-European philosophical canon. As Munro also points out, the continuing persistence of the fact-value dichotomy is traceable to Moore's discussion of the "naturalistic fallacy" (which claims that we cannot derive what is "good" from what is "pleasant") and Hume's discussion of the is-ought problem (which states that we cannot move from "descriptive" statements to "prescriptive" ones). In opposition to these two views, classical Confucian thinkers present us with descriptive statements about human commonalities, including their inborn affects. These affects are also morally relevant, because especially within the Mencian tradition they serve as the basis for various morally significant virtues, such as benevolence (ren 仁) and righteousness (yi 義). It is this moral system that Munro defends as a more convincing alternative to the dominant approaches in Western moral philosophy.
Munro in his essay discusses the interrelations between values, affects (or emotions), and facts and demonstrates that various affects that humans share in common are factually observable and that they inform various moral values. Among these affects, Munro focuses on contentment and tranquility (which embody the values of health and well-being), love and care (which embody the value of human bonding) and, finally, shame and respect (which embody the values of cooperation, harmony, and adaptation to hierarchy). Munro engages with a variety of scientific fields, ranging from primatology to neurobiology, to demonstrate that these value-laden affects are measurable and observable in humans and (in different degrees) in other animals.
As Munro demonstrates throughout his essay, people's affective tendencies are emphasized to a considerable degree within the Confucian discourse, while they are relatively underappreciated within the Greco-European philosophical canon. This is not a coincidence, because, as Judith Butler, among others, has noted, when we see binaries operating within a philosophical system, what we see is not simply binaries and oppositions co-existing without dominating over each other. Oppositions often get formulated at the expense of the exclusion and suppression of one side of the binary (mind over matter, reason over affect, and so on).1 This also means that when Mencius, let us say, famously says that the laws or patterns of the world please his heart the [End Page 918] way certain foods please his mouth,2 he is not simply privileging affect over reason or vice versa (which would presuppose their initial separateness). Instead, reason itself becomes affective, and ethics gets intertwined with matters of taste and beauty. This is what Munro wonderfully terms the "clustering" of the emotional and the cognitive factors.
That various philosophical dichotomies, including the reason-affect and fact-value dichotomies, are shaped by the cultural milieu in which they are produced seems undeniable. The fact that there is an entire philosophical tradition that is not built on a radical articulation of the fact-value dichotomy should provide us with enough motivation to at least question the validity of this very dualism. Moreover, one could also follow the lead of Munro and point to the evidence of the hard sciences, which provide further support for a moral system that relies on observations about humans' shared characteristics. This is certainly not to say, however, that such a moral system is without its critical pitfalls. In my response to Munro's essay, I would like to lay out several other criticisms that one might raise against theories of human nature and the very project of grounding various values in biological foundations. After this brief exegetical overview, which will also involve a discussion of how Munro's essay implicitly or explicitly addresses these challenges, I will attempt to chart new directions that this study may facilitate. This includes a suggestion to repurpose Confucian accounts of personhood to help us generate alternative formulations of human agency and action, followed by a general reflection on the variety of ways we could draw inspiration from the classical Confucian canon.