Review of Metaphysics 69 (2):409-410 (2015)

Barry Allen
McMaster University
This work by an accomplished and respected comparative philosopher criticizes the Western ideology of individualism from the perspective of a Confucian morality of the family. Individualism is a name for the Enlightenment era ideology of the autonomous individual. The philosophical pillars of this ideology are Locke and especially Kant, and it runs through practically all modern moral philosophy. It is the moral psychology of classical liberalism, no less than of its libertarian and communitarian critics. They are different politically, but ontologically of a piece. Individual selves—rational, calculating, selfish, autonomous—are what we are. Rosemont thinks this ideology is philosophically wrong, morally, politically, and ecologically destructive, but also optional. We sometimes feel painted into a corner where the only alternatives seem to be unrestrained freedom or totalitarian dictatorship. Moral philosophy still awaits the end of the Cold War. It would be good for people to understand that there are more options. Rosemont thinks Confucianism is one of them—a Confucianism for post-modern or even post-Western Westerners, with an ideology of the family that Rosemont thinks is more amenable than indigenous alternatives to our moral and ecological crises. “The vision of classical Confucianism can be reclaimed today with its integrity basically intact.” Rosemont advances two points. First, Confucian moral psychology conceives of the person as the bearer of roles. We are our roles as the onion is its leaves, without a an essential core self. Placing roles at the center of moral psychology eliminates the value of impersonal rules or universal principles. There are many ways to be a good father, teacher, friend, or son. Moral decency acquires an almost aesthetic quality, as our approach to roles (our own and those of others) expresses such qualities as zest, grace, or tenderness. His second point is that the moral center of Confucian philosophy is the family. The family is largely ignored in Western ethical tradition. Plato wanted to eliminate family life for his guardians. Kant, Bentham, and Mill have nothing useful to say about the family. For Rosemont the family is the first and best school for morality. It is there, if at all, that we learn to love, trust, cooperate, and obey. Rosemont’s best pages describe the important Confucian concept of family reverence (xiao). The gist is unswerving loyalty to parents, obligations extending even beyond death. It is easy for Western people to misunderstand that. Confucian tradition has a carefully worked out idea of filial reverence, and it should not be dismissed with a label (paternalistic, dogmatic, Asiatic). Obedience is expected, but not servility. In the inter-generational family, the child obeys the parents, but also sees parents obeying grandparents. Remonstrance is expected when appropriate. Deference motivated by gratitude can be genuinely appreciative without fawning, and dissent can remain respectful and polite. Rosemont believes that filial reverence is a way of life as open to anyone today as it was to Chinese two thousand years ago. Confucianism is a relentlessly secular philosophy. It entails practically no theological or metaphysical commitments, and contains little if anything to offend modern scientific sensibilities. This moral philosophy is at once remote (from individualism) and close, familiar, a fairly straightforward account of how we actually live our lives. Rosemont carefully argues that Confucian ideas of family are flexible enough to accommodate progressive ideals, and may even be our best hope against sexism, racism, homophobia, and other anti-humanistic altitudes and behaviors. He urges this version of Confucianism as a human-centered spirituality for a global civilization suspicious of discredited universalism. All cultures are made of families. How alien can they be? Respect for and accommodation with diversity begins in the family, when people learn from infancy to enjoy contributing to the well-being of others. While it would be wrong to expect Western people to abandon their Greek or Abrahamic heritage, those values might be reordered in light of Confucian thought, which deserves to be better understood in the West. A traditional Confucian might be baffled and dismayed by things that pass for normal in modern families, but our families could be better at what they have to be anyway by absorbing Confucian wisdom. There is a growing body of literature on Confucianism and virtue ethics. It is worth noting that Rosemont’s thought is probably the leading alternative to this paradigm in comparative moral philosophy. He takes an uncompromisingly critical attitude toward this particular effort to build a bridge from West to East by attributing to the Confucians a Western virtue ethics, which is, he thinks, objectionably individualistic in all its usual forms.
Keywords Catholic Tradition  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 0034-6632
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