The Role Dilemma in Early Confucianism

Frontiers of Philosophy in China 8 (3):376-387 (2013)
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Recently, Sean Cordell has raised a problem for Aristotelians who seriously consider social roles: When the demands of the role conflict with the demands of morality, which norms ought one follow? However, this problem, which I call the role dilemma, is not specific to Aristotelians. Classical Confucians face a similar problem. How do Confucians resolve conflicts between the demands of humaneness (ren 仁) and the demands of social roles and the social norms (li 礼) that govern these roles? Confucians who favor humaneness, maintaining that other demands are defeasible, offer an externalism about roles. This response is similar to the Aristotelian argument that the demands of human excellence trump other demands. Consequently, Confucian externalism collapses into a virtue ethic. Confucians who favor the demands of li offer an internalism about roles. However, internalism is undesirable because it implies relativism and condones oppressive social institutions. The Confucian role ethicist must offer a tenable solution that steers clear of the pitfalls of both externalism and internalism. Although I do not advance a solution here, I believe a tenable alternative exists. The goals of this paper, instead, are to demonstrate that classical Confucians face the role dilemma and to initiate a discussion about the theoretical apparatus required of Confucian role ethics in order to distinguish it from other ethical theories. I conclude with some programmatic remarks about additional questions and problems that ought to be addressed.



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John Ramsey
University of California, Riverside (PhD)

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