Nation’s ethics evolves with changing times

By By Wang Xiaoxi / 09-22-2014 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The environmental ethics has become one of major subjects of research in China. Yanglingang, a small fishing village in Hunan Province, has been surrounded by power plants, paper-making factories, and chemical plants. Local residents have to use water from the polluted Yantze River.


The discipline of contemporary Chi­nese ethics continues to improve as the nation makes progress in reform and opening up. It has blossomed into a noted school of thought within Chinese philosophy and the social sciences. In recent years, this emerg­ing trend has been even more en­couraging.


Construction of ethical theories

With the coalescence of theoreti­cal construction, ethics in today’s China is on its way to developing into a full-fledged system. Studies on Marxist ethics have provided a new platform, based on which brand-new research achievements have been made. The central gov­ernment has included the subject of “classical writers' studies on the basic thoughts of ethics” into the major project of Marxist theoretical research and construction in addi­tion to commissioning the compila­tion of the textbook Ethics.


Furthermore, academic circles have conducted studies on Marxist ethics and the moral philosophies of Marx and Engels. All these elements have contributed to the concerted efforts of scholars in this field, whose innovative results have not only advanced the construction of a theoretical system for ethics but also enhanced the status of the discipline.


New theories and views that have emerged in recent years may rem­edy defects, fill in gaps and correct mistakes, enriching ethical theory and injecting dynamism into the theoretical construction of Chinese ethics. Though some amounts of bias within viewpoints are unavoid­able, objectively speaking, they have brought about adjustments and im­provements to theoretical thinking on ethics.


At the same time, a better environ­ment is being cultivated for the study of the history of ethics in China and abroad. The growing trend among scholars is to reject the deliberate use of obscure and mystifying lan­guage. And an effort is being made to avoid repetition of tired slogans and following others blindly. Instead, much attention has been paid to the essence of traditional Chinese moral and ethical thoughts as well as the best elements of the foreign traditon. As a consequence, numerous widely-recognized masterpieces have come into being, exerting great academic influence.


Moreover, the study of applied ethics has also carved out a path for itself, making irreplaceable contri­butions to the social identification of ethics. The use of theory to solve pressing problems offers valuable advice to guide decision-making for the sound development of economy and society and further contributes to theoretical evolution. Some ex­amples of this include criticism of administrative and political eth­ics toward neoliberalism as well as the modern interpretation of government integrity, fairness and justice; the proposition of moral capital, moral productivity and moral management in economic ethics; the argumentation of ethi­cal ecology and moral ecology in ecological ethics, and the concerns of mouse morals, virtual relation morals and Internet ethical codes in information ethics.


Exerting influences

It is noteworthy that the construc­tion and application of ethics and morals has begun to play an active role in everyday life, whereas it had previously been passive in that it adapted and conformed to society. As a matter of fact, in the beginning and even in the later stage of devel­opment, the discipline of Chinese ethics was incapable of dealing with major or emergent social phenom­ena due to a limited perspective and an immature theoretical system. It was also unable to offer justifiable in­terpretations for those phenomena.


As a result, Chinese ethics lagged behind and even remained silent in terms of moral introspection, infiltra­tion and leading, and it was further ill equipped to guide the economic and social construction and development by virtue of special disciplinary capa­bilities, which Chinese ethics lacked in its infancy. However, colleagues from the academic world in this field have become awakened to the fact and devoted themselves to changing the situation. And the disciplinary development, while adapting itself to the economic and social develop­ment, is also making contributions to the progress in economy and society.


For instance, in a society where it seems that public morality is not what it used to be and moral degen­eration is getting worse day by day, it is worth consideration how can we look past the outward appear­ance of a worsening situation and perceive progress in morality and development in society. From the perspective of ethics, it can be seen that people are playing a more ac­tive role, interpersonal relations are becoming more harmonious, and the influence of moral role models is growing.


Take another example: people will be at a loss as to what to do every time a serious social problem or event breaks out. In that case, ethical studies not only help people get a thorough understanding of the problem or event but also remind people, decision-makers and lead­ers in particular to value the guiding role of morality and moral codes in the building of national systems.


What’s more, the interests and desires of the vulnerable groups cannot be ignored in the process of social development, which is one of the important premises for the con­struction of a harmonious and co­hesive society. It can be concluded that the multi-perspective analysis and argumentation of ethics have provided a theoretical basis for bet­ter decision-making and improved social governance.


This shows that Chinese ethics has developed a louder and strong­er voice, articulating the disciplinary progress and greater moral influ­ence, promoting the popularity and status of the discipline and injecting more vitality into it. At the same time, it’s revealed that the discipline of ethics has played an indispensa­ble role in the rapid development of economy and society.


Overcoming shortcomings

Of course, ethics is keeping pace with the times while overcoming its own drawbacks. At present, we need to take notice of the following two defects in its development.


First, overemphasis is put on empty talk that is unrealistic. It is common practice among the aca­demic community to complicate those things that are simple while paying little attention to real problems and their solutions. In fact, ethics is supposed to explain or solve real moral issues. It will be of no use to express academic views in esoteric language if they are not founded on the basis of so­cial reality.


Second, there are vague state­ments about the essence of the dis­cipline of ethics. The discipline, the vitality of which is measured by its contributions to personal develop­ment and interpersonal harmony, is committed to becoming an applied science for guiding public behavior and promoting harmony among people. To this end, it is necessary to construct a system of codes of conduct to regulate people’s words and deeds. At present, however, the research and construction of social norms is still an impediment for the development of ethics. If the situa­tion remains unchanged for a long time, people will question the need for the discipline at all.


These two hurdles to the pro­gress of Chinese ethics should be taken seriously by academic.


To conclude, a system of Chinese ethics must stand the test of the times, represent the voice of China, and embody the Chinese style and characteristics in order to maintain its remarkable status as a noted school of thought among Chinese philosophy and social sciences.


Wang Xiaoxi is from the School of Public Administration at Nanjing Normal University.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 614, June 30, 2014.     

                              Translated by Ren Jingyun