BMCR 2013.04.15

How Should One Live?: Comparing Ethics in Ancient China and Greco-Roman Antiquity

, , How Should One Live?: Comparing Ethics in Ancient China and Greco-Roman Antiquity. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2011. viii, 343. ISBN 9783110252873. $120.00.


The fifteen essays herein began as presentations at a symposium held in 2007 to discuss the good, virtue, universality, friendship, and politics. This volume groups the essays in five parts: Methods, Ethical Theory, China, Greece and Rome, and Comparisons. The latter three contain four essays each, the first has two, the second just one, and Parts I and II together add up to a mere 29 pages. Thus the unity of this volume is to be grasped not in terms of theory or method but in terms of topics – and, for better and worse, fairly loosely at that. Four indices allow precise navigation of the volume. A list of contributors would have been welcome.

Part I (Methods) includes R. A. H. King’s “Rudimentary remarks on comparing ancient Chinese and Greco-Roman ethics” and G. E. R. Lloyd’s “Comparative ethics: some methodological considerations”. King sketches a number of problems taken up by, and connecting links among, the essays, including: how modern distinctions of applied, normative, and metaethical thinking may be recognized in ancient preoccupations with what constitutes a good life and what obligates one to live it; what use(s) the historied term ‘virtue’ may offer in comparative study (no small problem, as virtue ethics is a hot comparative category nowadays); how to take into account the evidently different psychological models debated by Chinese and Greek and Roman thinkers; and what universality, if any, comparisons may claim, especially comparisons that lean heavily on ethical conceptions of virtue. Lloyd briefly elucidates the seeming impossibility of comparison without ethnocentricity before defending comparison as a deconstruction of ethnocentrism.

In Part II (Ethical theory), Gerhard Ernst’s “Two kinds of moral relativism” exploits the modern distinction between normative ethics (answering questions like ‘How should one live?’) and metaethics (roughly, how one goes about determining an answer as to how one should live) to argue that the two are so far independent of each other that, even if normative ethical prescriptions are entirely culturally relative, the metaethical procedures that would justify them may be universally appreciable. Then a universal basis for at least certain kinds of comparison across cultural differences may be available.

Part III (China) includes Alan K. L. Chan’s “Harmony as a contested metaphor and conceptions of rightness ( yi) in early Confucian ethics”, Paul R. Goldin on “Why Mozi is included in the Daoist Canon – or, why there is more to Mohism than utilitarian ethics”, Robert H. Gassmann’s “Coming to terms with : the deconstruction of ‘virtue’ and an exercise in scientific morality”, and Lee H. Yearley on “Virtue ethics in ancient China: light shed and shadows cast”.

Considerable philosophical and political capital has been placed on the ideal of harmony in recent years (not least by the Chinese Communist Party), Chan observes, yet the ideal is remarkably diffuse. He provides an elegant study of two, partly incompatible, metaphorical extensions of he, 和, “arguably the most basic among concepts that convey a sense of harmony in Chinese philosophy” (37). He can signify conformity to the dominant, based on notions of musical harmony. It can also mean balance between divergent elements, as in harmonious flavors in cooking. Chan then interprets Mencius’ distinctive claim that rightness ( yi) is innate as an argument that harmony is not (or not always) a matter of conformity to external regulation.

Goldin challenges the “stubborn consensus” that Mohism is akin to Western utilitarianism (65). He points out that the Mozi would be lost if not for its preservation in the Daoist scriptural canon, and Daoists are hardly utilitarians. The Mozi ’s political ethics does bear striking parallels to utilitarianism. So why did Daoists of the early centuries C.E. see Mohism as a powerful spiritual precursor? First, the Mozi endorses the famous principle of universal love not only for its rational utility but as the contingent mandate of Heaven. Second, Mohists seem to have been unshakably optimistic, even fideistic, about the efficacy of Heaven. Given these features, it seems Mohists must have “regarded themselves as Heaven’s instruments”. Thus the resonance with Daoism is evident.

Gassman reconsiders the aptitude of the word ‘virtue’ to translate classical Chinese de, attending to derivation, syntactic and semantic frameworks, and indicative contexts in the ancient sources (94-5). He concludes that intrinsic excellence in performance is not the root meaning of de, but rather, that to de someone is to obligate him or her; de is power to obligate, thus to lead ( dao), in China’s “elaborate system of social obligations” (125). Gassman’s argument deserves wide notice.

Yearley unpacks the idea of virtue ethics, especially its “organic model” of virtue, which imagines moral development as cultivation of natural capacities. This model, “so plausible and so familiar” (135), nonetheless neglects important parts of human experience, for which religious and literary tropes of “transformation” or “conversion” may be more apt. Yearley shows how some classical Chinese authors (notably Zhuangzi) acknowledge this point, even while maintaining an organic model.

Part IV (Greece and Rome) contains Michael Erler on “Parrhesy and irony: Plato’s Socrates and the Epicurean tradition”, Jörg Hardy on “The knowledge about human well-being in Plato’s Laches ”, Johannes Hübner’s “Aristotle: ethics without morality?”, and Jan Szaif’s “Aristotle on friendship as the paradigmatic form of relationship”.

Erler discusses the Epicurean Vatican Sayings, arguing that the Platonic synthesis of irony and parrhesy in the figure of Socrates was rejected by Epicureans in favor of frankness as the “only acceptable base of philosophical conversation” (157). Erler points out (with minimal discussion, unfortunately) that this development in an ancient age of reason might be a useful comparative foil for understanding the Enlightenment’s scientific preference for direct disclosure along with post-Enlightenment existential styles of philosophizing, or for understanding cosmopolitan encounters among philosophical cultures today – not least the Chinese, frequently remarked upon as favoring indirect communication.

Hardy gives a close reading of the Laches in service of a “non-reductive interpretation” of virtue as knowledge (so-called “Socratic intellectualism”) (172). The view of Socrates in the Laches, Hardy argues, is that the knowledge that is virtue comprises both theoretical and practical knowledge of good and bad and so includes the character-trait of perseverance which motivates one to act courageously in service of the good.

A number of philosophers in recent years have contrasted Aristotle’s virtue ethics with morality, by which they mean ethics that seek rules or laws of right conduct. Instead, they seek “ethics without morality”. Hübner argues that this is a mistaken view of Aristotle. He accepts the rather narrow definition of morality involved, parsing it to uncover three central concerns of morality: to evaluate conduct as right or wrong, to demonstrate the obligatory nature of right actions, and to show that every relevant actor is equally obligated by the same norms of right and wrong. He finds all three concerns in Aristotle’s ethics, so complicating images of virtue ethics as a refuge from modern ‘morality’.

Szaif thinks that Aristotle’s ethics does contrast with modern morality and that this shows up vividly on the topic of friendship. Friendship matters much to Aristotle because it enables special human excellences to flourish: mutual goodwill that supersedes normal self-interest, even self-sacrifice for the sake of a friend. For Szaif, then, Aristotelian friendship is not moral in the modern sense, since friendship must be intensely partial, even elitist. Still, Aristotle’s account of what makes friendship important, and particular friendships such goods, may be a corrective to modern misunderstandings.

Finally, Part V (Comparisons) offers G. E. R. Lloyd’s “The Greeks and the Chinese on the emotions and the problem of cross-cultural universals and cultural relativism”, David B. Wong on “Complexity and simplicity in Aristotle and early Daoist thought”, Lisa Raphals’ “The ethics of prediction”, and May Sim’s “Being and unity in the metaphysics and ethics of Aristotle and Liezi”.

Lloyd’s paper speaks to controversies in contemporary cognitive science, especially whether there are basic, universal emotions, and how far emotional experience is diversified by linguistic diversity. The Stoics are known for their arguments for partial or complete extirpation of the pathē (admittedly a term not coterminous with “emotion”), but they were hardly alone in this attitude. Their psychology was distinctive, however, in setting reason over against pathē – something not found in, say, Plato or Aristotle. Despite internal variety, no extant classical Chinese source condemns emotions as such nor proposes an essentially conflictual psychology. Mencius, especially, is known for a highly positive assessment of the ethical role of feelings. Lloyd concludes that, while it is likely that there are basic universal emotional potentials, the rich evidence of Greek and Chinese philosophy provides evidence both for diversity of emotional experience and for translatability within and between cultures.

How one should live may be the first question of philosophy, says Wong. He asks about “the value of complexity and simplicity in living” (259) with reference to Aristotle, the Daodejing, and the Zhuangzi. Aristotle – at least on John Rawls’ influential interpretation – promotes the value of complexity. Complex activities are more comprehensive of the potentialities of their actors and offer more satisfaction. This fits with Rawls’ ideal for a diverse society but, Wong argues, is less true to the complexity of Aristotle’s view(s).When Aristotle argues for the supreme value of contemplation, he plainly appreciates simplicity. The Daoist classics may not extol contemplation, but they praise a simple attunement to things, enacted as wu wei (“intuitive activity”, Wong translates). Of course, wu wei is a complicated thing to achieve, and Wong has a splendid discussion of this tension in the Zhuangzi, informing his concluding endorsement of an easy-going pluralism.

Raphals addresses the ethics of prediction in light of contemporary controversies in medical ethics and public welfare. Ancient medical (and military) advocacies of prognosis contrast with contemporary physicians’ reluctance to prognosticate. As for divinatory techniques: even philosophical critiques (especially from the Warring States and Hellenistic eras) of the epistemic or moral inferiority of divinatory techniques usually reinterpret rather than deny their efficacy – consider the intense Hellenistic debates about fate and responsibility fuelled by the peculiarly Greek challenge of Skepticism. Both cultures, then, took divination to be an interpretative, not an incorrect, engagement with the world. Thus, the virtue of diviners was an eminent concern – something lacking in current controversies over ethics of prediction.

Sim observes that both Aristotle and Liezi “hold that human desires are to be tamed in order to live the proper life” yet diverge on the necessary training, the desires to be trained, the wisdom and ethics involved (304). She argues that the differences go back to a basic disagreement on the nature of the unity of the first cause or principle, leading to a stronger or weaker conception of the unity of the things caused by, or that express, the first. The definiteness of Aristotle’s primary substance contrasts with the indeterminacy, even vacuity, of Liezi’s Dao, and this correlates with contrasts in respect of theoretical knowledge, practical action, and morality.

Comparing traditions, King writes, “leaves open what the upshot is going to be. For the question remains whether one is going to find a common language subsuming both traditions, or find that, as a matter of fact, one tradition delivers the conceptual framework to discuss the other; or the traditions may, after all, remain stubbornly incompatible” (3). Thus, any systematic method or theory may be deemed too prescriptive. Still, there are excellent works in the rapidly developing fields of comparative ethics and philosophy that espouse, self-critically, various and explicit methods or theories. I would expect notice to be taken of some of them, and so a more concerted approach taken by the contributors to their shared question. The title of the volume promises more comparison than it actually delivers. Despite disappointed expectation, though, each individual essay has its rewards, and an alert reader can draw connections between them. The volume usefully and often insightfully extends current inquiry in comparative ethics.