This paper is a draft of my contribution to Justin Tiwald, ed., Oxford Handbook of Chinese Philosophy, Oxford University Press. The paper attempts to draw out some of the radical implications of remarks on "benevolence and propriety" found in Daoist texts. The full draft is available here. An abstract follows.

A Daoist Critique of Morality

Chris Fraser

March 2014

A striking passage from the Daoist classic Zhuangzi likens devoting oneself to benevolence and propriety and seeking to distinguish right from wrong to suffering the ancient Chinese corporal punishments of tattooing the convict’s face and amputating the nose. Commonsense morality is not merely a mistake, the passage implies. It mutilates us, leaving us blind to the features by which to navigate the Way. This astonishing rejection not just of a particular understanding of morality but of the very idea of morality as a guide to action is representative of an intriguing thread of discourse that winds through several of the classical Chinese philosophical anthologies. According to this discourse, benevolence and propriety obscure the Way and impair our ability to follow it. They are a sign of pathology, they interfere with people’s spontaneous capacities, they are redundant, and they are an obstacle to adroit action. This talk aims to elucidate these themes, explain their significance in the context of early Chinese ethics, and relate them to ethical discourse today. I explain how, given early Daoists’ understanding of the structure of action and of the factors that guide it, their critique may be surprisingly plausible. I attempt briefly to situate the Daoist critique in relation to well-known ‘morality critics’ in the West, including contemporary writers such as Nagel, Wolf, and Williams and nineteenth-century figures such as Nietzsche and James. I then consider potential objections to the Daoist position and tentatively suggest how Daoists might respond.

The following is the text of a short talk I gave at a public gathering organized by HKU students on the street in Admiralty next to Hong Kong government headquarters on October 1, China's National Day.

Much thanks to Tim Li, who translated into Cantonese for me.

The same text is cross-posted on Warp, Weft and Way for comments and discussion here.

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The People in Chinese Political Thought

Chris Fraser
October 1, 2014
Admiralty, Hong Kong

Good afternoon. I speak as a professor in the Department of Philosophy at HKU and as a permanent resident of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is my home.

Many of us at HKU are deeply proud of the actions of Hong Kong’s students this week. They have peacefully expressed their political views on issues of profound importance while observing the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience.

This week’s protest is now famous all over the world for the demonstrators’ civility and considerateness. Our young people have set a wonderful example for the entire world.

We should also thank our police for their work the past three days. The violence on Sunday was deplorable. But the conduct of the police since then has been exemplary.

Today is China’s National Day. Let’s celebrate it as participants in the continuing tradition of China’s great civilisation. We are Hong Kong people, but we are also part of China, and we are proud to carry on both our wonderful regional traditions and our broader national ones.

All around us this week, we see banners and hear speeches presenting important, vital ideals from modern, international political discourse. Universal suffrage is one of these. So is open nomination of candidates by the public.

Some people may suggest that these are “Western” ideals, but let me propose that they are not specifically “Western” notions. They are “modern” ones, especially suited to the social and political conditions of the modern world. That is one reason why they appeal to people from all over the world, not only those from Western countries.


In the 2014–2015 academic year, I will be teaching the following:

Semester 1:

PHIL2430 Chinese Philosophy: Ethics (Friday 12:30–14:20)

PHIL3810/6810 Senior Seminar (Friday 15:30–17:20)

Semester 2:

PHIL1034 Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics and Politics, East and West (Friday 12:30–14:20)

PHIL6820 Graduate Seminar (Friday 15:30–17:20)

The following paper is forthcoming in a special edition of Philosophical Topics on comparative studies of happiness, edited by my colleagues Edoardo Zamuner and Timothy O'Leary.

Update: This has been published as "Happiness in Classical Confucianism: Xunzi," Philosophical Topics 41.1 (2013), 53–79.

I set out to write a general explanation of why happiness is not an especially prominent topic in early Chinese thought but quickly concluded the topic was much too ambitious for a single journal article. I found that most of my points could be made more effectively through a careful study of a single ethical system. The result is a detailed, and I hope informative, exploration of Xunzi's ethics with a relatively unusual orientation, offering an interesting interpretive twist on the grounds for Xunzi's views.

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Happiness in Classical Confucianism: Xunzi


This essay contributes to comparative inquiry concerning happiness through a case study of Xunzi, a major Confucian thinker. Xunzi's ethical theory presents values and norms that fill the role of happiness indirectly, through the ideal figure of the gentleman. However, his working conception of psychological happiness and individual well-being turns on aesthetic values that go beyond the universal prudential values to which his ethical theory appeals. Hence I argue that his implicit conception of happiness actually revolves around a way of life grounded in what Susan Wolf has called ‘reasons of love.’

Download full draft of the paper here.

In the 2013–2014 academic year, I will be teaching the following:

Semester 1:

PHIL2470 Moral Psychology in the Chinese Tradition (update: Tuesdays 10:30-12:20, CPD 2.45)

PHIL2443 Xunzi (update: Tuesdays 13:30–15:20, CPD 2.45)

Semester 2:

PHIL1034 Ethics and Politics, East and West (update: Mondays 12:30-14:20, LE1—note that this is a different time from 2012-2013)

This summer I finally completed the revised version of the companion paper to my 2011 article "Emotion and Agency in Zhuangzi." The new paper is entitled "Wandering the Way: A Eudaimonistic Approach to the Zhuangzi."

The more recently completed paper was actually written first and is cited in the 2011 article and a few other places. An earlier version was presented at a conference in 2009, but because plans for an anthology based on the conference fell through, there was a long delay before I finally submitted the paper to a journal. It is now forthcoming in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy.

The new paper uses textual materials from the Zhuangzi to construct a "eudaimonistic" Zhuangist ethical ideal. By "eudaimonistic" here, I refer to a conception of the good or ideal life that is grounded in a view of human flourishing or healthy functioning. I suggest that Zhuangist eudaimonism is distinct from virtue ethics, in that the conception of human flourishing involved does not center around virtues, as they are usually understood.

In 2008 I published a preliminary study of conceptions of xu (emptiness, blankness, insubstantiality) in the Zhuangzi. I've recently completed a follow-up study tying the Zhuangzi concept of xu to Foucault's notion of "ethical work," the tasks or practices by which agents reshape themselves to become ethical adepts. Along the way I make a few remarks as well about how the concept of "flow" popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might relate to Zhuangist ideals. There's still a lot more to say about the practical side of Zhuangist thought, but I hope this latest study helps to fill in a few more pieces of the puzzle.

An extended abstract and a preprint of the full paper can be found here.

A revised version of my paper "Xunzi Versus Zhuangzi: Two Approaches to Death in Classical Chinese Thought" is now available in Frontiers of Philosophy in China 8.3 (2013), 410–427.

An updated preprint of the paper (May 2013) is available here.

This paper originated as a talk given at a research workshop entitled "Death: Philosophy, Therapy, Medicine on April 23, 2010. The workshop was sponsored by the "Philosophy, Therapy, and Medicine" research cluster of HKU's Centre for the Humanities and Medicine.  The workshop was organized by my colleague Barbara Dalle Pezze.

An abstract follows. (Read more...)

Another interesting conference coming up this spring is the International Conference on Nature and Value in Chinese and Western Philosophies to be held at Rutgers University on April 4–5, 2013. The conference is advertised as the Inaugural Rutgers Workshop on Chinese Philosophy, so let's hope it turns out to be the first in a series of stimulating events. Tao Jiang, Steve Angle, and Ruth Chang are the organizers. (Kudos to them, as organizing an event of this scope is always a lot of work.)

My talk will be on the plausibility of naturalistic approaches to ethics in the Chinese tradition and where they lead us in terms of a contemporary ethical standpoint. I argue that some version of Chinese naturalism may be defensible, but that the ethical position that emerges from critical reflection on Chinese naturalism doesn't look at all like conventional duty ethics (whether consequentialist or deontological) and sets aside core moral notions such as duty and obligation. Although the resulting view has eudaimonistic components, I don't think it can be appropriately classified as a form of virtue ethics, either.

A provisional abstract of the paper follows.


Update: The full author's manuscript of "The Mohist Conception of Reality" is now available for download here. (This is an updated version of March 2014.)

The paper will appear in a forthcoming anthology on Chinese metaphysics edited by Chenyang Li, Franklin Perkins, and Alan Chan.

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I'll be speaking next month at a conference on metaphysics in the Chinese tradition at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The conference is "Conceptions of Reality: Metaphysics and Its Alternatives in Chinese Thought," scheduled for 29-30 Mar 2013. Much thanks to Prof. Chenyang Li for organizing this event. I'll be talking about how Mohist thought sets the agenda for much of early Chinese metaphysics. A preliminary abstract follows.


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