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Confucius and Moral “Reasoning”
onfucius considers adherence to ritual a fundamental virtue, while Aristotle
makes no mention of ritual in his list of virtues. This difference in attitude
reveals the fundamental difference between the ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Confucius wants to create a list of rules to follow, justified on the grounds of received authority, while Aristotle wants to promote rational understanding of the good.
Confucius places a large emphasis on the importance of ritual in determining one’s
actions, while Aristotle speaks little about ritual. Neither tradition nor custom are
among the dozen virtues Aristotle describes in his Nicomachean Ethics. In contrast, the
ritual appears in Confucius’ Analects countless times. Confucius never provides a singular definition for ritual, but comes closest when he states: “Older people, when it comes
to rites … are mere rustics. Younger people, in matters of rites … are true gentlemen.
But when it comes to usage, I follow the older people” (Confucius 11.1). This passage
implies that ritual most closely resembles tradition; only the youth deserve praise for
following tradition because tradition means the old ways, and so old people follow tradition almost by definition. However, since the elderly have such familiarity with tradition, one should consult them to accurately determine the details of specific rituals.
Confucius sees ritual as a guide for how to act; in Book 2 Section 3, he states “Guide
[men] with virtue, regulate them with ritual, and they will … become upright.” Also,
when Yan Yuan asks Confucius how to know what actions are humane, Confucius
states “If it is contrary to ritual, don’t look at it. If it is contrary to ritual, don’t listen
to it. If it is contrary to ritual, don’t utter it. If it is contrary to ritual, don’t do it” (12.1).
These two quotes explain that ritual provides a framework for judging the morality of
different acts. In fact, when Confucius states that “In rites in general, rather than extravagance, better frugality. In funeral rites, rather than thoroughness, better real grief ”
(3.4), he implies that the specifics of the ritual matter less than the feelings that they
instill. According to Confucius, ritual should be followed not for its own sake, but because straying from tradition involves straying from principles that have lasted for centuries, and therefore not following ritual involves straying from successful principles.
Confucius treats the adherence to tradition as a virtue because his ethics has no
logical backing. Aristotle’s ethics has its basis in the idea that man must act a certain
way to achieve certain ends, and that morality involves explaining the end to strive
for and what means to use to achieve it (Aristotle 1.2). According to Aristotle, people
achieve morality only when they train themselves to follow moral behavior until such
behavior becomes instinctive, providing the purpose of virtues (Aristotle 2.1). Aristotle
further describes the exact nature of the virtues and explains that the virtues are virtuous because they present a mean between two extremes of behavior, and the mean is
good (Aristotle 2.1). In this way Aristotle provides a step-by-step rational argument in
favor of his moral code. Confucius does none of this. Instead, his ethics simply consists
of a hodgepodge of how he acts and statements of how to act without explaining how
he deduces his principles. For instance, Confucius declares that “Young people should
be filial at home, brotherly with others, circumspect, and trustworthy” (Confucius 1.6)
without providing any support for his assertion -- he assumes that people should follow whatever he says. Furthermore, Confucius does not often adequately define the
virtues he gives; for example, at one point, Confucius states that he “observes four prohibitions: no willfulness, no obstinacy, no narrow-mindedness, [and] no egotism” (9.4)
without explaining what constitutes obstinacy and egoism. Confucius phrases his ethics as commands because he believes that most people are incapable of understanding
what makes actions good or bad: “The common people can be made to follow a course,
but cannot be made to understand why they should do so” (Confucius 8.9). Confucius
states here the belief that one cannot convince people that certain courses of action are
right or wrong through rational argument, and so one must appeal to the authority of
respected men and religion instead. Since Confucius chooses not to make his case by
way of rational argument, he instead appeals to tradition and ritual. Confucius relates
his moral doctrine to religion, both through the emphasis on ritual and by frequently
calling his code of ethics “The Way” (Confucius 7.6; Confucius 8.13). As religion has
significant emotional connotations, connecting his ethics to religion creates an emotional basis for following it. Tradition and ritual provide a code of conduct that has
become ingrained into habit through cultural inertia, so through them Confucius can
control how people act without justifying his points with logical arguments.
Confucius’ ethics has no rational basis. Aristotle attempts to provide a coherent
case for what is good and why it is good. Confucius, on the other hand, simply declares
that certain acts are good because he feels they are good or because they have been
followed in the past. However, neither authority nor tradition are rational bases for
an ethical code, as authorities, even good ones, can and will be wrong on some points,
and what people believe to be true does not necessarily correspond to what is true:
people practiced slavery without moral qualms for thousands of years, but that did not
make slavery moral. Similarly, George Washington was undoubtedly a great man, but
that doesn’t mean that slavery is justified because he owned slaves. Actions use means
to achieve an end, and ethics determines the ends to achieve and the means that will
achieve them; therefore, moral principles are right or wrong based upon the nature of
reality. Only reason can discern the nature of reality consistently. Since human beings
must achieve certain ends based upon their nature in order to survive and flourish and
only reason can deduce what ends those are and how to accomplish them. Any irrational moral code will ultimately lead to death and suffering.
Confucius considers ritual and tradition virtuous, while Aristotle does not. Confucius needs people to respect ritual as he does not justify his moral code through reason,
and so must justify it on an irrational basis. Aristotle, meanwhile, does attempt to justify
his morality using reason and so does not need to appeal to tradition or authority. Since
only reason can correctly determine what acts are right and wrong, a moral code on the
basis of tradition or authority such as Confucius’ is no moral code at all. „
Works Referenced
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Martin Ostwald. Boston: Pearson, 1962.
Confucius. The Analects. Trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia UP, 2009.
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