Virtues and Roles in Early Confucian Ethics

Confluence 4 (2016)

Tim Connolly
East Stroudsburg State University
Many passages in early Confucian texts such as the Analects and Mengzi are focused on virtue, recommending qualities like humaneness (ren 仁), righteousness (yi 義), and trustworthiness (xin 信). Still others emphasize roles: what it means to be a good son, a good ruler, a good friend, a good teacher, or a good student. How are these teachings about virtues and roles related? In the past decade there has been a growing debate between two interpretations of early Confucian ethics, one that sees virtues as fundamental, and the other of which starts from roles. Recently there have been two new contributions to the debate: Virtue Ethics and Confucianism (2013), edited by Stephen C. Angle and Michael Slote, which develops the virtue ethical interpretation, and Henry Rosemont, Jr.’s Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion (2015), which defends the role-based interpretation. This paper lays out the main contours of the debate between Virtue Ethical Confucianism and Confucian Role Ethics, as well as examines the distinctive contributions of these two new works.
Keywords Chinese Philosophy  Confucius  Confucianism  Comparative Philosophy  Virtue Ethics  Role Ethics
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