Happy New Year, Everyone. My new year’s resolution is to get back to my blogging. It’s been a busy six months. I’m going to see if I can get this thing back on track!
Archive for the ‘Chinese Philosophy’ Category
Anyone out there have any good information sources on assessing ethics in the classroom? If so, let me know!
A few days ago Andrew Sullivan had a post up about the recent terrible video taken in China of the small toddler who was hit by a car and left for dead in the middle of the street while passerby (many of them) did nothing, not lending a hand, and basically ignoring the horrible scene. Sullivan linked to a few explanations, one of which (George Conger’s) was that the Confucianism discourages a Samaratan ethic. This is an interesting topic (somewhat complicated, I think) but on the face, Conger is pretty much dead wrong. I wrote to Sullivan by email and he posted by response (I was the first “reader” of two commenting on the issue) today in a post, here. I’ll reproduce my reply below (I think my 15 min are now up).
It seems that discussions of Confucius are popping up everywhere on the internet. For two of the more recent discussions, see Michael Nolan’s brief (and somewhat thin) mention of Confucianism in his post “Are there Natural Human Rights?” at the philosophy blog of the New York Times and also see Rodney Taylor’s “The Role of Confucianism in Society” at the Huffington Post. The Master is making the rounds, apparently.
I found myself disagreeing (no surprise here) with a number of points Charles Krauthammer makes in his editorial in the Washington Post today, criticizing Obama’s speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — most notably on the subject of the 1967 borders. Instead of replying and pointing out where I disagreed, I found William Saletan’s reply in Slate to be on pretty much on target, so I’ll just point to it instead. I’d recommend reading them both.
This one was a little strange for me, given the fact that I am ethically opposed to veal, and haven’t eaten it since God knows when. I figured I’d let it go this time, just to see how the recipe came out. Still, I must admit, I didn’t enjoy preparing it given my opposition to veal production.
In the end, I wound up making a number of errors in this mission, each of which I briefly explain below. I ended up with a good, but not great, meal. That’s okay – there are always things to learn, so I don’t mind screw ups now and again. I have a solid idea now how to fix the problems I encountered next time — with chicken the next time around. I also now have a great new way to make a non-red sauce for pasta!
When reading the Daodejing it is easy to walk away thinking that human relationships, which are essential to the Confucian, aren’t really all that important to Laozi. I don’t think this is really true. Although there are some obvious differences between Confucius and Laozi, I think there are also some points of agreement. Given all the typical contrast that is usually drawn between them, it can be interesting to try to unearth some similarities. In this direction, poem 61 stuck out at me as laying the ground for a substantial point of agreement. On the surface, it’s about states and “international relations” but I think the subject can be more generally applied to relationships, as I’ll suggest below.
One of the many interesting subjects that comes up in the Daodejing – though surprisingly not as often as one would suppose — is death. While death comes up implicitly in a number of poems, namely in the context of giving advice about not doing this or that, as this or that may shorten life, there are not many explicit discussions of the subject itself. Poem 55 is an exception. Though it also gives some of that same kind of advice, it also explicitly mentions death itself. The more I read poem 50, the more I am inclined to read it through an existential lens . Whether it’s the right way to read 55 I am not certain (I’m not saying Laozi is an existentialist – just that the poem lends itself to an existential reading), but I know that when I do read it that way, a lot of other concepts in this rich and sophisticated book start to come together (for me) in a coherent way.
With the discussion in the post below on Daoism and the notion of “being natural” still fresh in my head, this post from Christie Wilcox in Scientific American caught my eye, where she argues that things in their “natural” states (read: without human interference) are no better off than things not in those states. Clearly, she’s no Daoist. Passed along without comment (from me), she notes:
When we picture the wild world, we see lush forests full of brightly-colored, singing birds, with monkeys swinging from branch to branch. We imagine vast prairies with herds of antelope and zebra grazing peacefully while a pack of lions naps lazily in the shade. Even when we do imagine the more gruesome aspects of the wild, we see them as OK or better than what we do because it’s “natural.” This bias for what is “natural” is pervasive, affecting our judgement on everything from sexual orientation and medical care to farming practices and clothing fibers. But there is nothing inherently better about something being natural, and the idea that something that occurs in nature without us is somehow better than something we have altered or taken part in is a dangerous fallacy.
(h/t: Andrew Sullivan)
We’re dead smack in the middle of Daodejing in my Asian Ethics course, and as is typical right around this time, students seem to be half intrigued and half utterly baffled by the text. Which is as I suppose it should be. However, each time I teach the time, I find myself in the same spot. Which I suppose again is as it should be? Obviously my confusions are not the same as theirs, but I certainly find myself more perpexed by this text than I am by the Dhammapada or the Analects, the other two texts in this course. Today, however, a student asked a question that I myself have asked about the text, one which I simply have no good answer for.
Mengzi engages in argument with Gaozi in Book 6 of the Mengzi, mostly arguing about human nature. Mengzi thinks human nature is good and so has an incipient inclination towards goodness; Gaozi thinks it is neutral, having no real predisposition one way or the other. In 6A2, Gaozi uses a metaphor to explain his position, saying:
Human nature is like swirling water. Make an opening for it on the eastern side, and it flows east. Make an opening on the western side, and it flows west. Human nature not distinguishing between good and not good is like water not distinguishing between eastern and western.
Mengzi’s reply to this, and my subsequent question, below.
My wonderings about (and wanderings through) the wisdom of Confucius have led me to a number of different fields and thinkers in philosophy. This time up: I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. I must admit, Taylor’s writing is (thick, but) good and his arguments are thought-provoking. Whether Taylor’s claims about selfhood, which seem clearly applicable to many basic and fundamental questions in Confucianimsm, are true or well-grounded I can’t say (yet). At this point I don’t care - what he says is very interesting. Early on (p. 37) he argues:
“I can only learn what anger, love, anxiety the aspiration to wholeness, etc., are through my and others’ experience of these being objects for us, in some common space….Even as the most independent adult, there are moments when I cannot clarify what I feel until I talk about it with certain special partner(s), who know me, or have wisdom, or with whom I have an affinity.”
A very provocative claim, for sure.
I wrote about this before in an earlier post – teachers and parents are again in an uproar concerning the decision by educational boards in Taiwan to made study of the Four Books (the Doctrine of the Mean (中庸), Great Learning (大學), Confucius’ Analects (論語) and the Mencius (孟子)) required reading in high school. The argument: reading the Four Books can help to guide and develop moral character. The reasons against the proposal range from the understandable – teachers worried about overwhelming workloads (both their own and those of students) — to the not-so-reasonable, namely that (a) “memorizing texts” doesn’t make anyone a better person and that (b) this requirement would mean displacing some other subject matter. In response to (a): discuss them, don’t memorize them; in response to (b): place discussion of the human experience a bit more closer to the center of the educational experience. Honestly, it won’t kill you.