Nature and Value in Chinese and Western Thought

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.

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.