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  • Dependence, Deference, and Meritocracy:Some Questions for Aaron Stalnaker
  • Bradford Cokelet (bio)
Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority. By Aaron Stalnaker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

I. Introduction

It is my pleasure to comment on Aaron Stalnaker's ambitious and thought-provoking book Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority. Early on Stalnaker tells us that the "central topic" of his study is "mastery or expertise at living well, as understood by the early Ru." In addition, the book aims to highlight the contemporary relevance of this ancient account of virtue and virtue acquisition. I will begin with a summary and overall assessment and then pose some questions. [End Page 504]

Stalnaker admits that ancient Ru ideas and practices need to be updated and revised to fit our modern individualist world, but he also thinks they have something important to offer us. For example, while they need updating when it comes to gender roles, he thinks Ru-inspired ideas can help us improve our general thinking about how people achieve autonomy and live well. Most generally, his argument suggests that Ru-inspired ideas and practices can help us improve our political, cultural, economic, and social institutions so that they better foster communities of autonomous, virtuous people who are living well together.

Stalnaker believes that Confucian ideas and practices will be especially valuable to Westerners today because he thinks our culture and practices have been deformed by an ideology of rugged individualism. Roughly, rugged individualism valorizes independence, ambition, individual achievement, profit, and victory, while it denigrates dependence, deference, and expertise, and it undervalues people who excellently play various support, care, and teaching roles.

Stalnaker's Ru-inspired ideas about virtue and virtue-cultivation are well placed to challenge this ideology because they emphasize that virtue and autonomy involve skills that are best developed through (1) community-oriented ritual training and (2) apprenticeship or discipleship to a master. A master here is an authoritative mentor, teacher, or expert who has (some of) the skills that the disciple aspires to develop and who is skilled at guiding others to develop virtue and autonomy in the relevant domain, practice, or dao. Successful disciples are dependent on the master for normative guidance and are prone to willingly defer to the master's authority and expertise.

This model of virtue and autonomy cultivation directly challenges the ideology of rugged individualism because it valorizes dependence, deference, and people playing support and mentor/master roles well. When Stalnaker says that it is good to be dependent on a master and to willingly defer to the master's authority and expertise, Western readers are prone to recall their history of slavery and gender oppression and bristle; but Stalnaker anticipates such a negative reaction and aims to show how Confucian thought can help us recognize that there are both good and bad conceptions of mastery. In effect, Stalnaker's book suggests that in recoiling against truly pernicious forms of mastery we have embraced the ideology of rugged individualism, ignored the positive forms that mastery can take, and blinded ourselves to the vital roles that good mastery must play if we are to live good, autonomous lives together.

With his Ru-inspired model of virtue and the well-lived life in the background, Stalnaker floats some concrete suggestions about how we should change. Politically, he argues that we should embrace meritocratic institutions and favor sufficientarian policies. Socio-economically, he thinks we should reflect on and improve the practices and standards that shape [End Page 505] and orient people in various professions (e.g., accountants, business people, lawyers). Culturally, he thinks that we should reflect on and improve the rituals and practices that shape our shared lives. Generally, he thinks we should try to change things so that people are better able to develop virtues and live well together, and this will involve rejecting rituals and practices that dupe people into accepting the ideology of rugged individualism and developing new rituals and practices that will enable them to accept and aptly value virtue, autonomy, and good forms of dependence, deference, support, and care.

I am sympathetic to Stalnaker's background worries about the ideology of rugged individualism (at least in...


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pp. 504-512
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