Reconstructing modern ethics: Confucian care ethics

Journal of Chinese Philosophy 36 (2):210-227 (2009)
Abstract
Modern mainstream ethical theories with its overemphasis on autonomy and non-interference have failed to adequately respond to contemporary social problems. A new ethical perspective is very much needed. Thanks to Carol Gilligan's 1982 groundbreaking work, 'In a Different Voice' , we now not only have virtue and communitarian ethicists, but also a group of feminist philosophers, charting a new direction for ethics that tempers modern ethics' obsession with autonomy, contractual rights, and abstract rules. Nel Noddings, in her 'Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education', further contributed to this important discussion. In this work, Noddings proposes a new kind of moral ideal. She calls it "caring." Noddings defines "caring," as a direct, felt concern and action from the one-caring toward the well-being of the cared-for. In other words, care is a state of mental engrossment and motivational displacement that impels caring actions for the happiness of the cared-for and it transcends any rule-bound moral judgment. A caring attitude is best manifest in the spontaneous emotive bond of love between a mother and a child. This human relation of unscrutinized maternal love and care should be the model of ethics. Noddings's theory evokes a vigorous debate concerning whether or not the model can withstand rigorous philosophical scrutiny as a stand-alone ethical theory. This paper first discusses the strengths and weaknesses of a pure care ethics. Secondly, it demonstrates why both the Kantian and the Aristotelian attempts are unsatisfactory, and it offers a Confucian solution to the problems of care ethics. It argues that notwithstanding gender-oppressive practices that are at times associated with Confucianism, Confucian ethics of 'ren' (humaneness) is both more compatible with care ethics and is better equipped with conceptual resources than Kantian liberalism or Aristotelian virtue ethics to handle the moral predicament of the postmodern world. The paper demonstrates that care is an inherent element of Confucian 'ren' but that 'ren' is more than Noddings's care. It examines three essential principles that can be extracted from philosophical classical Confucianism: (1) an affectionate and particularistic approach to persons, (2) the mutual conditioning of the two prominent Confucian virtues -- humaneness (ren) and ritual propriety (li), and (3) the inseparability of the familial and the political self. The last section of the paper applies Confucian care ethics to concrete cases such as the geriatric care crisis and the problem of poverty.
Keywords Chinese Philosophy  Ethics in Asian Philosophy  Care Ethics  Kant  Aristotle  Feminist Philosophy  Comparative Ethics  Applied Ethics-Geriatric Care  Public Policy-Poverty, Housing  Social Political Philosophy
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DOI 10.1111/j.1540-6253.2009.01515.x
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