Moral agency, autonomy, and heteronomy in early Confucian philosophy

Philosophy Compass 12 (12):e12460 (2017)
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This paper discusses Confucian notions of moral autonomy and moral agency that do not follow strict and ideal notions of autonomy that one can find in many Western theories of moral philosophy. In Kantian deontology, for example, one's autonomy, specifically one's rational will to follow universal moral rules, is a necessary condition of moral agency and moral responsibility. In Confucian moral philosophy, however, this type of strict moral autonomy is rarely observed. A Confucian moral agent is often depicted as a partially heteronomous individual who often accepts and follows others' moral authority and considers external contingencies in her moral deliberations. Yet active moral agency is maintained in Confucian philosophy. In this paper, I will explain and analyze a partially heteronomous but active form of moral agency in Confucian moral philosophy. First, I will survey different notions of moral autonomy and explore philosophical theories of partial autonomy and heteronomy. Second, I will discuss, on the basis of interactive, responsive, and situated notions of the self, how Confucian moral agency can be explained without strict standards of autonomy. In Confucianism, morality or virtuosity reflects the relational, responsive, and situated nature of human being that resonates with other human beings and their environmental contingencies. Mencius, for example, acknowledges and discusses interactive or relational nature of moral action and the dependency of the moral self on external conditions of life without giving up active moral effort and full moral responsibility. Third, based on my analysis of moral autonomy and responsibility in early Confucian philosophy, I will argue that Confucian moral philosophy provides a unique way of understanding moral agency, not through self-enclosed independency but through relational and interactive interdependency of communal agency.



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References found in this work

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.Immanuel Kant - 1996 - In Mary J. Gregor (ed.), Practical Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. pp. 37-108.
The Theory and Practice of Autonomy.Gerald Dworkin - 1988 - Philosophy 64 (250):571-572.
Imagining oneself otherwise.Catriona Mackenzie - 2000 - In Catriona Mackenzie & Natalie Stoljar (eds.), Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self. New York: Oxford University Press.
Personal Autonomy and Society.Marina A. L. Oshana - 1998 - Journal of Social Philosophy 29 (1):81-102.

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