Dai Zhen's defense of self-interest

Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38 (s):29-45 (2011)
Abstract
This paper is devoted to explicating Dai Zhen’s defense of self-interested desires, over and against a tradition that sets strict limits to their range and function in moral agency. I begin by setting the terms of the debate between Dai and his opponents, noting that the dispute turns largely on the moral status of directly self-interested desires, or desires for one’s own good as such. I then consider three of Dai’s arguments against views that miscategorize or undervalue directly self-interested desires. I begin with the most widely recognized line of defense, which holds that the suppression of such desires makes those in positions of authority less sensitive to the mistreatment of those with whose interests they are entrusted. I call this the “Pity for the Powerless” argument. I then explore an argument that Dai offers in the form of a multi-faceted metaphor, which likens the suppression of desires to attempts to block or dam natural waterways. I call this is the “Damming the Desires” argument. I conclude with a brief summary of a third and fundamental defense implied by structural features of ethics as Dai understand them. As I read Dai, he thinks ethical appraisal is concerned first and foremost with the dispositions and resultant behavior that allow us to participate in relationships that are mutually beneficial, as opposed to those required merely for the performance of obligations to others or other-directed concern more generally. I call this the “Argument from Mutual Fulfillment.” On the view spelled out here, directly self-interested desires are not just morally tolerable, nor is the possession of them merely a necessary condition for the possession of moral virtue; instead, moral virtue is constituted in part by self-interested desires. This is the strong position that Dai endorses when he characterizes the Confucian path as the “way of mutual fulfillment.”
Keywords self-interest  desire  Dai Zhen
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