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East, West interacting to offer global view of virtue ethics

By Jiang Hong, Zhang Qingli | 2014-11-27 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today


 Michael Slote

Michael Slote is a profes­sor of philosophy and ethics at the University of Miami. He has been a member of the Royal Irish Academy since 1984, and he has previ­ously taught at Columbia University, University of Dublin and University of Maryland. As a leading figure and representative in the field of contempo­rary virtue ethics, he has published several works, including From Morality to Virtue, Morals from Motives, Moral Sentimen­talism, From Enlighten­ment to Receptivity: Re­thinking Our Values, and A Sentimentalist Theory of the Mind.

The philosophy of virtue has un­dergone tremendous changes since the second half of the 20th century. The ethics of virtue goes beyond the traditional realms of deontology and utilitarianism, and Michael Slote is among the most important con­tributors to the field. In recent years, Slote has developed an intense inter­est in the ethics of ancient Chinese philosophy. We sat down with Slote to discuss the dynamics of virtue ethics and ethics in ancient Chinese philosophy.


CSST: Western ethics has various sources, from Aris­totle and Kant, but you seem to favor Hume’s sentimen­talism. Why is that?


Slote: There are at least three main theories in the field of ethics. One theory is a utilitarianism. One reason why I am not utilitarian is because utilitarians say we have to have equal concern for everyone. The other approach is Kant’s rationalism. One reason why I do not agree with that is because I think empathy and feeling are components of morality, which Kant does not allow. Then there is virtue ethics, represented by Aristotle and Hume.


Aristotle had no room for empa­thy, benevolence or compassion. Aristotle thought you do not have to listen to what other people think if you are virtuous. But Mencius said you always should listen to other people. I think Mencius is right. In my philosophy, empathy means you have to see things the way that other people see them. In addition, there is no humility in Aristotle, but humility is very important to Mencius and to me. That is another reason why I prefer sentimentalism over Aristotle.


CSST : What is the differ­ence between Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Kantian moral philosophy?


Slote: Let me give you their most important difference in my opinion. According to Kant, you do not have to have any feelings or personal concern for anyone else in order to be a morally excellent person. All you have to do is to recognize your moral duty and follow your rational conscience. But I do not think that is fine morally. If you do not care about anyone else and are just concerned about doing your duty, that is not at­tractive morally.


It has no principle for real emotion or real concern. Kant believed if you are very rational, you do not have to care about anyone and you do not have to like anyone. If you are doing your duty, you are perfect. But I do not think that is perfect.


In the last 15 to 20 years in the West, everyone has become very aware of empathy. President Clin­ton and Obama both talked about empathy. It seems to most of us that empathy is morally very important, but only virtue ethics acknowledges the importance of empathy. Any good ethical theory, any set of ethical principles that you defend theoreti­cally has to be a set of principles that people can learn and be motivated by. Empathy is a way that people can be motivated. If you say that the principles of morality are based on empathy, you also have an explana­tion for why people can be good. They can be good because they have empathy.


CSST : Do you have any assumptions in terms of em­pathy?


Slote: I have very few assump­tions. If you want to hear, I think my first assumption is that we have reason to be partial. I believe people can have their own leanings instead of “impartial caring” advocated by ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi or utilitarianism. For example, we can favor our own children. Second, if someone does not care about people, that is morally criticizable. On that basis, I then assume that em­pathy is a major motivation for doing good things and that empathy is con­ceptually involved in moral thinking. The concept of moral goodness in­volves the concept of empathy. That is a very long argument in my book Moral Sentimentalism , three to four chapters. Another assumption is that if an act is wrong, it must show a lack of empathy.


CSST : You have travelled to China many times and shown intense interest in Confucianism. When did you begin to learn about Confucianism?


Slote: All through my life, I have had Chinese friends. I always get along very well with Chinese people. In the year 2007, a Sinologist asked me whether I would like to teach a seminar together with him in which we would talk about virtue ethics and Confucianism. But at that time I did not know about Confucian­ism. Then in the summer of 2008, we gave a summer seminar, and that is why I started learning Con­fucianism.


One important thing that I learned from Confucianism is yin and yang. The concept is Chinese, and most Westerners do not under­stand it. The ancient Chinese com­plementarity of yin and yang has an ethical significance that needs to be appreciated. I think of yin as a kind of receptivity and yang as a kind of rational control. I defend this idea in recently published work. And the West has emphasized control, always control, at the expense of receptivity in a way that Chinese thought hasn’t. But the Chinese haven’t, I think, rec­ognized the full philosophical and ethical significance of yin and yang.


CSST: Empathy is a sub­jective feeling, and some scholars say subject-based ethics cannot be objective, what do you think?


Slote: That is a mistake. My whole book Moral Sentimentalism tries to show that even if moral goodness is inner, it is an objective fact. Most sentimentalists thought that moral statements were not objective, but in that book, I used the theories of Saul Kripke, the famous American lin­guist, to show that moral statements can be objective. This is the first time that a sentimentalist argued moral claims are objective.


CSST: Can you elaborate more on the comparison be­tween Chinese and Western virtue ethics?


Slote: When you speak of Chinese and Western ethical culture, you could be referring to larger social val­ues or to the ethical thinking of phi­losophers. I suppose there is more of a fracture than a difference of inheri­tance between Western philosophical ethics and Chinese ethical thought. Western thinking preeminently em­phasizes rationality and reason as the basis for ethics, and Chinese thinkers typically don’t do that.


Also, in the West, reason is com­partmentalized away from other psychological functions in a way that doesn’t happen in Chinese philoso­phy. This means that it is hard for the two philosophical traditions to un­derstand each other, very hard. Since philosophy is increasingly being done in an internationalized way, the clash between Chinese and Western approaches will become increas­ingly apparent, and personally, I find the Chinese way of thinking and of putting philosophy into practice in­herently more attractive than what we have been doing all along, with minor exceptions, in the West.


There is more emphasis in the West on individual autonomy than there has ever been in China, and I think that the Chinese here might learn something useful from the West. But, on the other hand, with regard to most other basic issues of philosophical orientation, I have come to believe that China has bet­ter, more balanced answers than the Western philosophical tradition has.


I often discuss with Chinese schol­ars the relationship between Western thought and Confucian thought, between Western virtue ethics and Mencius’ virtue ethics. There are two kinds of virtue ethics in China and two kinds of virtue ethics in the West. In China, you have Confucius and Mencius, and in the West, we have Aristotle and Hume. Confucius’ virtue ethics is more like that of Aristotle, while Mencius is closer to Hume since Hume also talks about empathy. Virtue ethics in China and the West should draw upon each other. For ex­ample, no one in the West who stud­ies virtue ethics talked about yin and yang, but I do now. I am the first one.


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No.661, Oct 27, 2014.

                                                                                  Revised by Justin Ward

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