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Ancient Philosophy


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Ancient Ethics

How Should One Live?: Comparing Ethics in Ancient China and Greco-Roman Antiquity by Richard King (DeGruyter) Chinese and Greco-Roman ethics present highly articulate views on how one should live; both of these traditions remain influential in modern philosophy. The question arises how these traditions can be compared with one another. Comparative ethics is a relatively young discipline; this volume is a major contribution to the field. Fundamental questions about the nature of comparing ethics are treated in two introductory chapters, and core issues in each of the traditions are addressed: harmony, virtue, friendship, knowledge, the relation of ethics to morality, relativism, emotions, being and unity, simplicity and complexity, and prediction.

Is it not a pleasure when friends come from afar? Confucius, The Analects (Lunyu) I.1

On your travels you can see all humans are familiar and friend to one another. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VIII 1 1155a21-22

We now inhabit a world in which ethical enquiry without a comparative dimension is obviously defective. Alasdair Maclntyre 2004: 203

Let us begin with an account of the purpose of the symposium Ethics in Ancient China and Greco-Roman Antiquity:

Comparative philosophy brings together philosophical traditions that have developed in relative isolation from one another and that are defined quite broadly along cultural and regional lines — Chinese versus Western, for example.

This is David Wong's formulation: Philosophy is picked out by reference to traditions and their development. "Bringing together" of such traditions 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. Now, of course, not only is great diversity to be found within each tradition, different positions may, but need not, contradict one another: Plato and Aristotle cannot both be right about the good, nor can Mencius and Confucius both be right about benevolence (rén). Traditions are not monolithic, as Geoffrey Lloyd has emphasised, any more than the identities of those living in them; nor are they exclusive. One consequence of this observation is that cultural relativism cannot be taken in a simple manner. Even supposing that, at some level, ethics are relative to culture, this by no means ensures the unity or coherence of each conception of ethics.

The following remarks do not constitute a positive, independent contribution to this volume. Rather, I wish to serve up a pottage of problems, some of which I think can be solved and others which may well turn out to be intractable, referring to contributions as appropriate. What are the challenges facing our project? Much of what I have to say concerns virtue. For it is not an exaggeration to say a new epoch in modern western ethics dawned, or dawned again, when people turned back to the concept of virtue. What was true for the wider picture of ethical thought is also true for the comparative project: new ways of connecting discussions within Chinese ethics to current work became, apparently, available. For neither deontology nor utiliarianism has obvious affinities with ancient Chinese thought (on Mo Zi's concept of li use, profit, not being simply "utility", see Goldin); nor, for that matter, with Greco-Roman antiquity.

On inviting contributions to this symposium, our original idea was to pursue five topics — the good, virtue, universality, friendship and politics. And our programme has received very full treatment: the good (in the guise of norms: Wong, Sim) and virtue enjoy extensive attention in the papers: virtue is visible in many titles (Yearley, Hardy) as are connections with friendship (Szaif) and politics (Gassmann). Universality (Hubner) and its competitor, relativism (Ernst), are strongly represented among the contributions. Moral psychology and moral education, both necessary to the conception of virtue, are dealt with generously (Lloyd, Gassmann).

In the West, our problems in confronting ancient ethics do not begin when we turn to China, by any means. One variant of relativism is to ask whether the norms of antiquity, particularly Greek antiquity, are subsumable under what we understand by morality. A negative answer was given half a century ago by Elizabeth Anscombe:

If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modern fashion about `moral' such and such, he must be very imperceptive if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don't come together in a proper bite. We cannot then look to Aristotle for any elucidation of the modern way of talking about `moral' goodness, obligation etc. One conclusion might be: we have our institutions, including those of the norms of behaviour (in great variety) as did antiquity, and there is no call to mix the two. Such an answer, if given in advance of any investigation, carries no weight; and the mass of workers in the field of so-called "ancient philosophy", that is, Greco-Roman philosophy, would suggest that there is great interest at the very least in understanding this tradition. Now, our problems are here not merely those of conflating modern and ancient western ethics{ we are concerned with the desirability of comparing the two traditions. Here, we shall not face the general question whether philosophy existed in China, only the much more restricted question about ethics. Now, we do not mean this question in the sense that the ancient Chinese had customs (mores) by which they regulated their social affairs, distributed wealth, honour, liberty, offices, punishments and power, but whether there is a branch of reflection or discussion concerned with ethics.' Some years ago (1989), the late Angus Graham entitled a book Disputers of the Tao; this title points to the dialectical nature (in an Aristotelian sense) of normative reflections in China. And in this project we`are very much engaged in dialectic: representatives of several disciplines are collected within these covers — Hellenists, Sinologists and Philosophers. So besides the interesting historical question of how to find a suitable way of discussing those texts which would appear to be ethical in intent, and are considered so by the venerable exegetical traditions they gave rise to, there is also a question of whether these texts can "speak to us." Just as the ethics of the Greeks still play a not inconsiderable role in modern discussions (Elizabeth Anscombe notwithstanding), we may wonder whether this might also become true of Chinese ethics (Wong).

In contemporary work, the branches of philosophical ethics are metaethics, normative ethics, applied ethics. To what extent can these distinctions be useful in a discussion of ancient ethics? For ethics is not obviously divided in this way either in Greece or China. At which level should or can comparison between ethics be conducted? Greek ethics do not distinguish these questions in so many words, but it is clear that these areas are covered; for example the views that Plato has about the tyrant's life, in contrast to his view that nothing is good without the presence of the Idea of the Good.' One advantage of using the distinction between metaethics and normative ethics is that one may be able to accommodate relativism on the level of normative ethics within a universalist account of metaethical features of ethics (meaning, epistemology, ontology relating to ethical language) (Ernst).

The Socratic question asks: what kind of life should one lead? (Plato, Republic 352D, 344D-C): The question concerns all goods whatever that may affect the quality of a life. Bernard Williams' has used this question to great effect in his critique of modern moral conceptions. It is by no means clear a priori which goods are decisive for the quality of a life, unless you think it trivially true these are moral ones; so the possibility of asking this question is a gain in rationality.

In fact, this question is one that Kwong-loi Shun uses when introducing his discussion of Mencius:

In discussing the ethical thinking of Mencius and other early Chinese thinkers, I make a number of assumptions. One is that such thinking existed in China. By "ethical thinking" I mean thinking concerned with how one should live.

Of course, the interesting thing is what should or ought means in each case; and the kind of considerations that are brought to bear to decide the question; and also the particular concept of "life" is crucial to understanding the question. For the Greeks, a bios is a way of life, which Aristotle, for example, distinguishes into political, hedonistic and theoretical bioi (Nicomachean Ethics I 5). But different kinds of animals also have their particular bioi; and, conversely, humans are, famously also zôa with their zôê, animals with a life. In a Chinese context, the concept of life is also controversial: in the tradition shéng is interpreted as biologically determined through sex and food (Yang Zhu, Gao Zi) or as determined through traditional norms ("rites", ii) (Mencius, Xun Zi). A second concept, ming, may refer to the life-task set some one or else their life-span also determined by Heaven, but also more generally to carry out the task entrusted to one. Compare Confucius' potted autobiography (Lunyu II 4):

The Master said: At fifteen my will was directed at learning. At thirty I stood firm. At forty I had no doubts. At fifty I knew the command (ming) of Heaven. At sixty my ears were obedient. At seventy I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the mark.

We appear to have here a conception of a biography spent learning what
one ought to want "without overstepping the mark". This kind of life is perhaps meant as a norm, for judging the way one ought to live. The meaning of "ought" is, in the West, one of the core questions of ethics, even if it is not at all clear that in antiquity the meaning of "ought" is identical with the moral "ought" known to modern philosophy (Hubner). For what lays the obligation on one may be (one's own) well-being (Aristotle), an activity according to reason; or else universal reason or nature (Stoics); and for Plato, at least for his Philosopher Kings, it is determined by the good.

One might compare Xun Zi:

He sets out the ten thousand things and sets up the balance in the midst of them. For this reason the multitude of differences do not manage to obstruct and so disorder (luàn) the relations (lun) [of the things to one another]. What is the balance? I say: the way. Hence it is not allowable (bit ké) for the heart not to know the way (zhi dào): if the heart does not know the way, then it thinks the way is not allowable, and thinks that what is not the way is allowable. 21.5a, b)

The subject here is the ruler, or possibly his advisors. That means that the way not only serves as a general standard for leading one's life but also as standard for political norms. Here the way (dào) serves as the standard for what is allowable (ké) in governing, and more generally leading one's life, and what is not. Because of this, it is "not allowable not to know the way". One might say: we are under an obligation to know the standard. For only then can we distinguish between what is allowable and what is not. But the precise valency of allowable (ké) in this text remains unclear: what kind of norm is the way here? What kind of obligation are we under to know it? If one were to pursue this question further in those thinkers who attach themselves to Confucius, then one would have to discuss the fundamental need for avoiding political chaos (luàn). Here, for example, is Xun Zi on the good:

What every one has always agreed was good is an orderly pattern and peaceful government. (Xing'è pián, Harvard Yenching XXIII 37, Knoblock 23.3a).

Xun Zi's remark may serve as a representative taste of "Confucian" views about the evils of social unrest. But it is clear that we are mainly talking about good rule; two further aspects are tradition and respect for one's own person (cf. Lunyu VII 1, IV 14).

The sources of normativity

Asking about what "ought" means is, as the above considerations show, connected to showing the grounds of obligation, the source of normativity, to use Christine Korsgaard's useful phrase, which answers the normative question:

When you want to know what a philosopher's theory of normativity is, you must place yourself in the position of an agent on whom morality is making a difficult claim. You then ask the philosopher: must I really do this? Why must I do it? And his answer is his answer to the normative question.

She gives us a fairly modest list of four possibilities, drawn from early modern ethics. The fourth, her preferred candidate, following Kant, is the reflexive nature of consciousness as the basis for the will's ability to legislate for itself, that is, for its autonomy. I don't think this can be found in antiquity in China or Greece; but the other three candidates may well be. A very schematic, and perhaps provocative list, with no attempt at serious specification of the various concepts might run as follows:

a) Realism (Reality or truth serves as the basis for ethical knowledge.)

  • i) Nature (Aristotle, Mencius, Stoics)
  • ii) Dao (Lao Zi, Xun Zi)
  • iii) Heaven (Mo Zi, Zhuang Zi, Mencius)
  • iv) The good (Plato; = God; cf. legitimate authority)

b) Legitimate authority (Confucius, Mencius, Stoics)

  • — ruler; fate; god(s), the good human

c) Reflexive Endorsement

  • — reflection (si) in Mencius: good knowledge, good capacity (hang zhi, Jiang néng); emotions, desires: pleasure as the canon of the good for Epicurus.

As the appearance of Mencius under all three headings makes apparent, it would appear either difficult to classify some positions, or else it might indeed turn out that these possibilities do not really exclude one another; or reveal that such positions are internally incoherent.

In this form, the question of what the source of normativity is, does not occur explicitly either in ancient China or Greece. I know of no text in which available options in either culture are discussed. But, as a matter of fact, it is subject of intensive debate, (e.g. Nicomachean Ethics I 4). Of course, claiming that ancient ethics is interested in this question is to claim that there is an interest in the grounding of ethics: "why must I do this? why must I be like this?" are questions that receive answers in many different ways. This assertion which may seem banal enough is actually in the context of comparative ethics of singular importance. For it implies that there is an interest in reasoning, at least implicitly. This goes without saying for the Greeks, but does not entirely in the case of our Chinese texts (mainly: Lunyu, Mózï, Mencius, Zhuángzi, Xunzi, Láozï, Hánfeizï, Lushà Chunqiu). In other, words, we are justified in attributing to these texts an interest in what we call metaethics.

Korsgaard approaches the normative question from the way it was answered in the 17th and 18th centuries in the West, and she does not imply the answers given are the only one's available. And when we extend the historical frame to include the Greeks and the Chinese, this is just as well; although in fact her four suggestions are flexible enough to encompass some of the answers on offer elsewhere. Presumably no one would claim to have deduced a priori the only possible sources of normativity. Aristotelian dialectic starts from what the many or the wise or both groups think (Nicomachean Ethics VII 1 1145b2-7, Metaphysics B 1 999a24-36), with the purpose of saving the phenomena; in this question at least we would do well to follow him.

Virtue ethics

The revival of virtue ethics seems to offer an important bridge between China and Greece. Lists of virtues abound in Greek and Chinese ethics. Whether or not one thinks that virtue is a useful addition to the modern ethical arsenal, for comparisons such as those under discussion here, virtue is bound to be an important topic, since it is essentially connected to Greek conceptions of well-being (eu zên, eudaimonia) (Yearley).

Why virtue? It is very probable that few if any contemporary readers have used the word "virtue" or its translation in anger, that is: without scare quotes, in a situation untouched by professional philosophy." But this need not mean that we do not need the thing, even if we do not use the word.

Nonetheless, words are where we must start, even if they are the second best way of sailing. The on-line Thesaurus Linguae Saricae, introduced by Christoph Harbsmeier at the symposium, will provide an invaluable resource for mapping Western normative terms onto Chinese ones. A brief remark about terms will have to suffice here. We are familiar with aretê and its meaning of excellence. Its meaning is then generalised from that in functional situations (tools, artisans), and situations in which (traditional) social roles (soldier, wife) are performed well, to meaning virtues belonging to humans or rational agents. As such, they perform their functions well, if with aretê.

Less familiar, perhaps, is the Chinese conceptual arsenal. So here are some "virtue" terms in Chinese:

  • — dé: power or authority, which is present through way of life or ancestry, and which places others under an obligation (Gassmann). Not merely a disposition (a species of quality, rather than a relation), more a kind of power exercised on subjects by rulers, and conversely. Not identical with character, although it may be connected to character.
  • — rén: "benvolence", "humaneness", a mode of conducting rites, especially
    the quality of the On zï, the "gentleman", i.e. the ruler or his advisors.
  • — yi: "justice, righteousness", especially the relation between ruler and subject or minister.
  • — zhi: "knowledge", especially of people, but also of the way (dào) i.e. the order and regulations of heaven and of the spirits and of rites (Ií).

Some comparative remarks:

  • — Note justice in Aristotle as the whole of virtue insofar as it concerns others (Nicomachean Ethics V 1 1129b27ff). This suggests connections with dé, rén and yi.
  • — How does virtue relate to forms of knowledge? Zhi appears to be just one virtue among the others. For the Greeks, forms of knowledge are fundamental to virtue. Is virtue constituted by knowledge (Plato sometimes), or is it guided by knowledge, which itself constitutes a kind of virtue (Aristotle)?
  • — These Chinese concepts are "political"; and for Aristotle and Plato at least, ethics is merely a branch of politics. This similarity may, however, mask a different weighting of interest in individual and community.

It is to be noted that none of these terms is a general term such as "virtue"; Aristotle's view of justice, a particular virtue which may also be general, may be a useful comparison. One might take virtue as a genus with different species falling under it; but that would be rash. The unity of virtue remains problematic in both cultures. It is moot in Greece, for example, if possession of one virtue implies necessarily the possession of the others (Hardy). What about China? In Lt nyu XIV 23 Confucius suggests that self-denial (shu) may combine all he has to say on leading one's life. Another question concerns completeness: Is this list of virtues open-ended or in principle subject to closure? Here we may contrast e.g. the four "cardinal" virtues from Plato's Republic (courage, justice, temperance, wisdom) with the lengthy Aristotelian lists. In the Lunyu we have different lists, whereas Mencius would appear to be committed to four (benevolence, justice, knowledge and rites).

So one is justified in asking whether it is really so attractive for comparative philosophy to use the concept of virtue: there is no Chinese concept comparable to Greek aretê. The word dé, often translated by virtue, largely for historical reasons (translated as virtus, which means power as well as virtue) is by no means obviously suited to serving as the general concept which encompasses all the virtues which one may name. One may well wonder whether a conceptual framework might be developed to find common ground for both aretê and dé, rather than the simple transposition of dé into talk of aretê. But the proof of that pudding would very much be in the eating.

For, of course, individual Chinese virtues which are named are very different indeed from Greek ones — zhi, knowledge, may sound like phronêsis or Sophia, yóng may sound like andreia (courage), but there the purely verbal similarity ends. Clearly, some virtues are closely bound to their historical and social context, for instance, filial piety (xiao), and indeed Greek conceptions of courage (in Aristotle, strictly a battle-ground affair; contrast Plato's Laches 194E-199E. See Hardy). Justice occupies a central position in Greek accounts of virtue. Not only is it the subject of Plato's Republic, which is often seen to be about the justification of morality itself. In a similar vein, if incomparably finer grained than the earlier discussion, Aristotle's analysis in Nicomachean Ethics V distinguishes between general and particular justice. General justice is claimed to be the whole of virtue insofar as others are concerned. Particular justice in turn is intimately connected with the functions of state — distribution of divisible goods (wealth, honour i.e. office, and freedom), as well as punishment and the regulation of contracts.

Here we may see important comparisons with rén, humaneness or benevolence, as a disposition (it is called a support yi in Lunyu VII 6), even if it is a traditionally aristocratic virtue (cf. Lunyu XII 1), unrealisable in all its perfection, but using the wise (shèng Lunyu VI 30) as orientation. For Confucius rén is the central concept of ethics, connected with character, well-being and others, and above all the quality of rulership or advice to the ruler. The concept would seem to be the great innovation due to Confucius, going beyond the mere performance of traditional rites to a consideration of the agent himself. This step is decisive in allowing comparison with ethics based on character, rather than traditional norms.

Not only is there (arguably) no general term in Chinese corresponding to the English "virtue", furthermore a very important question for Greek thinkers, namely the ontological status of virtue, would not appear to be asked. Virtues are more than capacities for Aristotle in that they are only present along with a history of realisation. Thus Aristotle defines virtue as a kind of disposition:

a disposition that arrives at decisions, and that depends on the mean relative to us, determined by a correct formula (orthos logos), in the way a wise man would determine it. Nicomachean Ethics II 6 1106636.

In this definition, another pivotal point comes to the fore: apparently, the wise man serves as an indicator of just what the determining, correct formula is; the good man serves as criterion, in Lee Yearley's phrase. Virtue ethics, to be an interesting ethical position, has to posit the primacy of virtue — for naturally both utilitarians and duty ethicists think that virtues are important, insofar as dispositions of persons conflict with or contribute to fulfilling duties or maximising utility. But they are derivative in these systems; they may be derivative to the kinds of action, or the motivation for actions. Yet the question of why virtue is to be taken as central to ethics, prior to other sources of normativity cannot be ducked. It has to be argued that virtue is the crucial concept. Yet the very need for this argument undermines the very hopes of virtue ethics. This can be seen by use of a variant of Prichard's famous argument about the obligation to be mora1. For if the reason for this obligation is moral, then we are moving in a circle; morality is grounded in morality. If the reason for the obligation to be moral is non-moral, well then it cannot ground morality. So too with virtue. The reason virtue is important cannot be virtue; and if something else grounds the importance of virtue, then that something else is the real reason, not virtue. In this way, we are again forced, as comparative ethicists, to face the normative question.

This fact is surely one of the reasons that virtue ethicists are so keen on Aristotle and not Plato; it might appear that Plato clearly does not believe that virtues are the source of normativity: that honour belongs of course, to use the common if mysterious phrase, to "the Good". In contrast, Aristotle may be thought to accord human life an independence which implies that human virtue constitutes and determines human good. His arguments do not use natural sources of value above and beyond human nature or, and rather differently, apart from human life-forms. It is worth noting, however, that Aristotle does not try to justify ethics either in the style of the Republic (it is in my own interest to be just), or in a modern way (e.g. that the very concept of rationality requires all rational beings to be moral).

Does it then make sense to say that virtue grounds norms for Aristotle, if he himself makes no effort to prove this very strong link? In fact, of course, if one wishes to argue that Aristotle has a universalist ethic, in the way Martha Nussbaum does, then one will base the argument on human nature or human function. (This argument plays a central role in Hübner's paper.) This serves as Aristotle's way into the conception of virtue. He thinks a good life, one in which the peculiar function of humans is realised, is an activity of the soul with reason, in accordance with virtue (Nicomachean Ethics I 6 1098a7, 16). Even so it is debatable if Aristotle can escape Prichard's argument.

Moral psychology

Elisabeth Anscombe claimed that there was no point in doing moral philosophy since the then state of the philosophy of psychology did not allow it. Whether or not there is such a close connection between ethics and psychology is perhaps a moot point (at least some things may be said even in the absence of a satisfactory moral psychology), but it remains one of the most important topics certainly for readers of ancient ethics. One point for comparative ethics concerns the absence of a contrast between a rational and a non-rational part, made by Plato (e.g. in Republic X 602C-603B, and contrast IV 435B-441C) and taken up by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics (I 13). For there is no exact correspondence between this psychology and what the Chinese have to offer (Lloyd, Gassmann, Chan).

There are great distinctions between the various models on offer in the West, when rational and non rational parts of the soul are distinguished. For Aristotle reason is set off against desire and the vegetative part, for Plato reason is opposed to temper (thumos) and desire. Given the leading function of reason, the question is urgent what one is to do about this in China. The central question here concerns the heart (xin), or heart-mind as it is sometimes translated: it has a controlling function, and cognitive function like reason, but is also subject to emotions (Lloyd); and for Mencius humans as such have various "hearts" or senses (Gassmann).


According to one tradition in the west, one characteristic of ethics is their universality. This is a fundamental area for comparative ethics. One approach is then to ask what the grounds for universality are. This question is clearly connected to the source of normativity: if the norms are the norms for everyone, that fact is grounded in the reasons for these being the norms. But before this question can be approached we are confronted with what "universality" means. For it by no means always refers to unconditional duty, as one might expect from a Kantian standpoint.

There are many contrasts and distinctions that are relevant when considering the universality of ethics. While it may be taken as a triviality that every group of humans that continues to exist for any time at will have ways of distributing goods and making decisions, sanction some forms of behaviour and strongly favour others (a concrete morality or Sittlichkeit) it is far from obvious that there is some one kind of morality actually binding for all or that should be binding for all (cf. Ernst).

So what kinds of universality are we faced with? I think that the facets in which universality is relevant are very multifarious. A brisk look at a list of a few aspects of universality in both cultures will make this clear. We have a vague, and rather tantalising recommendation from Lao Zi not to "dismiss anyone", on the part of the holy man (Ch. 27). Aristotle thinks that all humans have the same "function" (Nicomachean Ethics I 6). Plato thinks that any individual is a locus for the love towards the kalon (good / beautiful); the good is the same for all. Mo Zi pleads for doing good to all, without regard for the familial relationships, jian ai, often translated "universal love", better rendered as "care without gradations". And, finally, Mencius has at least two crucial forms of universality: everyone possesses the four shoots (si duan), that is, very roughly, the capacities to develop ethical behaviour (IIA6.7, for the heart xin, II A6.4 cf. also VIA7.8), and he is also well known for his plea to spread rulership out to all in the empire, or, it may be translated: the world (tián xia) (VII A15.3). Xun Zi also thought that anyone in the street can become a Yu, that is, one of the legendary Kings of antiquity, renowned for his self-sacrificing rulership, if only the man in the street were ready to (XXIII.5 Knoblock, Harvard-Yenching XXIII 60). From this rapid sketch, it can be seen that the ethical phenomena one may call universalist are by no means, even within one culture, always the same.

Virtue ethicists have often tended to move towards particularist views of ethics, in part because of the difficulty of specifying universal rules, of saying what it means to follow rules and of proving the universality of rules. Because of the connection between rationality and rules, there is a tendency here to see the limits to systematic philosophising. Virtue ethics, it is implied, is a loose way of talking compared to utilitarian or deontological strictness. This tendency is surprising in that at least in Aristotle, ethics is systematic and philosophical (Hubner), even if he does emphasise the need to slacken the claims of strictness when doing ethics (Nicomachean Ethics I 3 1094b12-1095a2). He also restricts ethics to those things which are in our power, us being in this case a polis or any sub-group of a polis. At any rate, because we are deliberating what to do, and in philosophical ethics reflecting on the process of decision making, we are restricted to our own concerns. In a similar vein, perhaps, Christine Korsgaard writes of ethical agents "acting in the first person".

Connected to the question raised above, whether one can draw up a finalised list of virtues is the problem of virtues which are relative to roles; this conception is one we meet with in both cultures. For "Confucians", the question concerns above all the virtue of the ruler and his advisers, and is conceived of as analogous to relations in a family. This process was then extended, so that one has later a classification or catalogue of female virtues illustrated by historical examples. Of course, if this is the conception, then the claims of universality of these ethics are greatly reduced; and may of course then be exploited by those who think that ethical conceptions are only ever relative to a culture and a tradition.

One aspect of virtue ethics deserves to be emphasised because of the profound effect it has on the conception of moral philosophy generally: there are no universal rules or moral laws to be used in determining actions, rather the value of actions depends on character. This is important because it runs counter to modern rationalistic ethics of all kinds. Independently of the character of agents, there is no sense in asking about the moral quality of actions. But one may well ask whether it really corresponds to what Aristotle would have said. On the one hand, he is aware of the lack of universal laws: ethics has to do with things that change and in the world of change there are no invariable generalisations. This is for example one reason for his championship of equity (epieikeia) as a principle resource of justice (Nicomachean Ethics V 10). But on the other hand, he thinks that justice also consists in obeying the law. Law in general plays a cardinal role in his ethical system. For of course his ethics is written for statesmen in specific: they have to reflect on how to run states in such a way that people turn out good and can do science and philosophy. That is to say, good laws produce good people. Thus there is an intimate connection between law and goodness, not, to repeat myself, strict universal law, but still general laws. And Elizabeth Anscombe's original strictures against law-based ethics were predicated on the claim that such ethics only make sense in the context of a God who hands down commandments. But Aristotle's ethics is not God given, and has plenty of room for law, and even for the idea that there is such a thing as law that is such above and beyond states passing laws (Nicomachean Ethics V 7). And of course, he gives a well known list of things that are quite simply not allowed, without any obvious connection with his doctrine of the mean (II 6 1107a7-12). Thus although one may think that Aristotle's virtue ethics are not based on universal formulae, there remains room for generality, at a fundamental level.

The fact that virtue ethics is not committed to strict universals of human conduct has led some of its proponents to see here limits of systematic philosophising. But even here there is room for disagreement — for example Martha Nussbaum claims to find virtues of universal value, where Alasdair Maclntyre makes no such claims. This debate is of course particularly interesting for comparative philosophy when it deals with traditions that have nothing to do with one another, as suggested by David Wong's account of the discipline from which we started. At first blush, claims to universality would have to be supported by a lot of spadework uncovering the same conception of virtue, or even the same virtues in two traditions. So here again a conceptual framework would have to be constructed, if there is no simple compatibility between virtue and the virtues in the traditions compared.



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