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Why Ethical Philosophy Needs to Be Comparative

  • Joel J. Kupperman (a1)

Principles can seem as entrenched in moral experience as Kant thinks space, time, and the categories are in human experience of the world. However not all cultures have such a view. Classical Indian and Chinese philosophies treat modification of the self as central to ethics. Decisions in particular cases and underlying principles are much less discussed.

Ethics needs comparative philosophy in order not to be narrow in its concerns. A broader view can give weight to how people sometimes can change who they are, in order to lead better lives.

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1 A much fuller picture than this paper has space for can be found in my Classic Asian Philosophy: A Guide to the Essential Texts, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). See also Learning from Asian Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Chinese translation, Beijing, Renmin Press, 2009).

2 See Early Buddhist Discourses, ed. John J. Holder (Indianapolis: Hackett Books, 2005).

3 The reader should notice the importance of the word ‘recent’. There is a good deal in classical Greek philosophy that resembles some Asian philosophies, especially – as will become apparent – classical Chinese philosophy. Aristotle's account of decision procedures, for example, is similar in some respects to Confucius'. Neither however is quite as deeply preoccupied with decision procedures as Kantians, utilitarians, and Rawlsians tend to be, and Confucius in particular is much more concerned with the development of self. How you could develop the nature of your self in a way that results in a fulfilling life is a major topic in much Greek philosophy.

4 Confucius. Analects, trans. Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: Hackett Books, 2003), Book 8.8, 80. All further references to the Analects, unless otherwise noted, will be to this edition. Anyone who consults other translations should be aware that the numbering of passages sometimes varies by one from edition to edition.

5 Chuang-Tzu. The Inner Chapters, trans. A. C. Graham (Indianapolis: Hackett Books, 2001), chapter 2, 58.

6 Let me express my gratitude to the late Derk Bodde, who a long time ago alerted me to this, in relation to a symbolic recreation of the story in a rubbing from Wu Liang.

7 The Zhongyong has recently been translated by Ames Roger T. and Hall David L. as Focusing the Familiar (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001).

8 The Analects of Confucius, trans. Arthur Waley (New York: Vintage Books, 1938), 221–2.

9 Nicomachean Ethics, in Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 2, ed. John Cooper (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), #1107a, 1748.

10 Cf. Mengzi, trans. Bryan W. Van Norden (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008), Book VIIB.31, 192.

11 Cf. ‘Nuance and Ethical Choice’, Ethics 79 (1969), 105–113.

12 Isenberg's Arnold ‘Critical Communication’ in Aesthetics and Language, ed. Elton William (Oxford: Blackwell's, 1953), 131–146 was a pioneering paper along these lines.

13 Differences can be subtle. Hare indeed remarks that mature people often arrive at ‘principles that cannot be articulated in words’. See Freedom and Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 39–40. However what he refers to in this passage would not count as a principle in any normal sense, or for that matter in the sense specified in this paper.

14 For mirroring fellow minds, see Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, rev. P. H. Nidditch, 2nd. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), Book II Part II Section V, 365. Let me declare a debt, in relation to Hume's account of the self, to Baier's Annette writings, especially A Progress of Sentiments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

15 Treatise of Human Nature, Book III Part III, 608.

16 ‘The Sceptic’, in Essays. Moral, Political and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985), 171. See also 169.

17 Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109b, 1751–2.

18 The Way of Life (Daodejing), trans. R. B. Blakney (New York: Signet Classics, 2001), poem 48. P.J, Ivanhoe's translation for Hackett has ‘In pursuit of the Way, one does less every day.’

19 Chuang-Tzu. The Inner Chapters, trans. A. C. Graham (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), Chapter 2, 57.

20 Zen Flesh. Zen Bones, ed. Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki (Boston: Tuttle, 1985), Story 35, 52–3.

21 Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (London: Macmillan, 1953), para. 14, 7e.

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