Global Themes in Ethical Naturalism

Update: The conference program is here.

Later this month I’ll be attending an international workshop in Singapore called “Global Themes in Ethical Naturalism,” hosted by the Department of Philosophy of the National University of Singapore, June 27–28. My talk will be entitled “Chinese Naturalism and the Limits of Ethics.” An abstract follows.

Chinese Naturalism and the Limits of Ethics

Chris Fraser

University of Hong Kong

Early Chinese ethics is distinctive in its focus on the concept of dao (way, path, course), a normative or action-guiding notion that is explicitly naturalistic, being grounded in natural structures, patterns, and processes. Ethical theorizing centered on dao might point the way toward a defensible, non-reductive ethical naturalism. I will argue that the dialectic of early Chinese thought from Mozi through Xunzi to Zhuangzi partly fulfills this promise, by showing how natural features can provide agents with action guidance. At the same time, however, I contend that plausible versions of early Chinese naturalism do not generate the distinctive normative force—objective, universally binding obligation—often identified as specifically moral. Instead, they yield only evaluations of conduct as more or less fitting and blur the boundaries between morality, prudence, aesthetics, and etiquette. I will suggest that these results are virtues, not defects, however, as they reflect the genuine limits of ethical norms and ethical theory.