Moral Psychology in Chinese Thought

Edward Slingerland (University of British Columbia)

June 2-5, 2015

600 Renwen Building
Renmin University of China
2 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Tuesday, June 2
Moral Spontaneity, Trust and the Paradox of Virtue

Lecture 1 PPT

Many early Chinese thinkers had as their spiritual ideal the state of wu-wei, or effortless action. By advocating spontaneity as an explicit moral and religious goal, they inevitably involved themselves in the paradox of wu-wei—the problem of how one can try not to try—which later became one of the central tensions in East Asian religious thought. In this talk, I will look at the paradox from both an early Chinese and a contemporary perspective, drawing upon work in social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and evolutionary theory to argue that this paradox is a real one, and is moreover intimately tied up with problems surrounding cooperation in large-scale societies and concerns about moral hypocrisy.

Wednesday, June 3
The Moral Mind: Metaphor and Meaning in Early China

Lecture 2 PPT

Western scholarship on early Chinese thought has been dominated by two attitudes toward the role of metaphor in early Chinese thought. One has been to ignore the foundational role of metaphor and analogy in early Chinese texts, seeing metaphor-based arguments as reducible to propositional—and therefore properly philosophical—statements. Another has been to see metaphor and analogy as uniquely Chinese modes of apprehending the world. According to this view, Western philosophy since the time of ancient Greece has been literal, analytic, logical and dualistic; Chinese thought, in contrast, is portrayed as “holistic,” uniquely image-based, and therefore not properly “philosophical.” In this talk I argue that both of these views of the role of metaphor in early China are mistaken, and have in fact served to distort our view of early Chinese thinkers. Although metaphor and analogy do indeed play a foundational, irreducible role in early Chinese philosophical rhetoric, this dependence of image-schematic concepts is by no means a unique feature of “the East.” Drawing on a large body of empirical work from a variety of fields in the cognitive sciences, I will attempt to demonstrate that all human cognition is heavily dependent on imagistic conceptual structures and cross-domain projections. What is unusual about early Chinese thought was the conscious attention that thinkers devoted to developing vivid and consistent sets of interlocking metaphors and metaphorical blends, which makes metaphor and blend analysis a particularly crucial tool when approaching these texts. I will conclude by reviewing an encouraging recent trend in the study of Chinese thought where, explicitly or not, scholars from a variety of backgrounds have begun to take metaphor more seriously as a foundational bearer of philosophical meaning in early China.

Thursday, June 4
Confucian Moral Psychology and Cognitive Science

Lecture 3 PPT

In this talk I will argue that recent work in cognitive science and social psychology suggests that the sort of “cognitive control” that plays a central role in modern deontology and utilitarianism is actually a very weak foundation upon which to build an ethical education system. Human rationality is, in fact, not particular dependable in day-to-day situations, which means that a style of ethics that focuses on habits and automatic emotions, rather than reasoning styles, might be expected to do a better job of getting people to reliably act in an ethical manner. I will argue that the early Confucian emphasis on moral spontaneity, moral emotions, and the inculcation of virtuous habits is based upon a much more empirically defensible model of human cognition, portraying early Confucian virtue ethics as involving a kind of “time-delayed cognitive control.” Virtue ethics involves a system of ethical training that acknowledges (explicitly or not) the limitations of individual, in-the-moment cognitive control, and therefore designs a system of training regimes and ethical guidelines—themselves the products of cognitive control—which are to be internalized and automatized. Virtue ethics might this be seen as a clever way of getting around the limits of human cognitive control abilities, embedding higher-level desires and goals in lower-level emotional and sensory-motor systems.

Friday, June 5
Confucian Virtue Ethics and the Situationist Critique

Lecture 4 PPT

Virtue ethics has recently been mooted as a potentially more psychologically realistic, and therefore empirically plausible, model of ethics than the currently-dominant deontological and consequentialist models. Its claim to psychological plausibility, however, has been challenged by the situationist critique, which argues that the very notion of character traits or virtues is empirically indefensible. This talk will review evidence suggesting that strong versions of the situationist critique of virtue ethics are empirically and conceptually unfounded, and will further argue that, even if one accepts that the predictive power of character may be limited, this is not a fatal problem for early Confucian virtue ethics. Early Confucianism has explicit strategies for strengthening and expanding character traits over time, as well as for managing a variety of situational forces. The talk concludes by suggesting that Confucian virtue ethics represents a more empirically responsible model of ethics than those currently dominant in Western philosophy.