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  • Comments on Aaron Stalnaker’s Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority
  • Nancy E. Snow (bio)
Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority. By Aaron Stalnaker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.


Aaron Stalnaker's Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority is a significant achievement. The aim of this book is to mine the insights of the early Confucians, or Ru, for enriching Western ethical and political thought on the ethics of authority and dependence. Stalnaker does this through a meticulous and in-depth study that highlights, but is not limited to, the early Confucian thinkers Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzu. His focus is on the ways in which their approach to ritual and certain forms of authority/dependence relationships, such as master/student and father/son, have the potential to inform contemporary Western political structures and governance. The Ru thought that by learning certain virtues and skills, such as benevolence, righteousness, filial piety, and propriety—primarily through ritual—junzi (gentlemen), could be educated to become wise and virtuous. Having been educated in virtue, junzi could then become shengren (sages)—a higher stage on the path to wisdom and virtue. Degrees of expertise are envisioned in this process, but the point is that acquiring significant learning and virtue qualifies one either to rule or to advise rulers.

The Ru approach to ethics and politics is significantly different from the Western perspectives that Stalnaker discusses, which are in the liberal political tradition. In that tradition, individualism and autonomy are the key points of departure for theorizing structures of governance. By contrast, the Confucian tradition highlights wisdom and virtue acquired through training in the performance of ritual, undertaken under the guidance of an accomplished master. Individuals are ineluctably enmeshed in relationships of authority and dependence, and this network of relationships forms the basis for Confucian thought about governance. Individual liberty and, in [End Page 497] some versions of liberalism, equality are the guiding values that government should embody and seek to promote. Confucian government, by contrast, should embody and promote the Dao, or way, which is the path we should follow to achieve virtue and righteousness.

I am only peripherally familiar with the early Confucian tradition, and have learned much from reading this book. My familiarity is with the liberalism of the West, and perhaps that explains why I have more questions about Confucianism than about Stalnaker's treatment of liberalism. Since I am no expert in Confucian philosophy, I present my comments as questions for clarification or edification. They fall into three areas: persons and rituals, deference and remonstration, and gender subordination and the perils of meritocracy.

Persons and Rituals

The performance of ritual, for Confucians, is the path by means of which virtue is cultivated. All three of the early Confucians—Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi—thought this. To the best of my knowledge, Kongzi does not clearly articulate a set of assumptions about human nature (xing), but seems to assume that persons have capacities for goodness as well as for evil. Mengzi, by contrast, apparently assumes that we are basically good, contending that we have four 'sprouts', or, as I read them, basic tendencies or orientations, toward various types of goodness: benevolence, righteousness, ritual propriety, and wisdom (Stalnaker 2020, p. 94). Xunzi, according to my (imperfect) understanding, has a darker view of human nature, believing, in terms reminiscent of Hobbes, that we are basically prone to evil, and that our natural tendencies need to be curbed and reshaped in ways more consistent with goodness, so that we may truly follow the Dao. Stalnaker acknowledges that there are differences between Mengzi and Xunzi, but sets these aside, stating: "In brief, I think analysts have been overly credulous regarding Xunzi's critique of Mengzi's ideas about "human nature" (xing…) and self-cultivation, and thus missed some aspects of what these two texts nevertheless share regarding teaching, learning, and the economic and social order necessary for personal formation to succeed more than occasionally" (p. 57).

I want to push back a bit on this. Surely, assumptions about human nature would shape the kinds of rituals that each Confucian theorist would prescribe for self-cultivation, as well as for the governance of...


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