Animals, Moral Agency, and Moral Status (Mark Rowlands on Youngsun Back)

I greatly enjoyed reading Youngsun Back’s intriguing paper, ‘Are animals moral?: Zhu Xi and Jeong Yakyong’s views on nonhuman animals’.

Back discusses the views of two philosopher’s, Zhu Xi and Jeong Yakyong (aka Dasan), and draws some parallels, and points of difference, between views I developed a few years ago in a book entitled Can Animals be Moral? (OUP, 2012).

I’ll begin with Dasan, as my views are almost diametrically opposed to his. Dasan closely ties the possibility of moral behavior to freedom, understood as the ability to choose between alternative possible courses of action. Thus, there are clear affinities between Dasan’s position and Kant’s dictum that ought implies can. It makes no sense to say that you ought to do a certain thing, ø, or ought not to do ø, unless you are able to choose whether or not to do ø. This, Dasan thinks, precludes the possibility of animals engaging in moral behavior because they lack this ability to choose. Their behavior is automatic, the product of inheritance and experience, and the animal has no say in whether or not it engages in a given behavior. I think the assumed picture of animals as blindly programmed to follow their instincts is extremely questionable – and Dasan does seem to be fond of questionable empirical assumptions – but let us grant it for the sake of argument. Back nicely summarizes Dasan’s position thus:

“According to Dasan, the seemingly moral actions of bees and the seemingly immoral actions of tigers have no moral values whatsoever because they cannot choose to act otherwise. They are programmed to act in the ways they act. In this regard, they achieve nothing of moral value, and thus, they cannot be praised or blamed. Their actions lack an essential element that is required to qualify as genuinely moral.” (105, emphasis is mine)

I argued in my (2012) that the problem with position is that it runs together two distinct issues. On the one hand there is the issue of the moral value of an action (roughly, whether it is a good or bad one). On the other is the issue of whether the author of the action can be praised or blamed for it. I argued that the two issues are logically quite distinct: even if a moral actor cannot be praised or blamed for what they do, because they have no control over this, it does not follow that their motivations have no moral status – that they cannot be evaluated as good or bad.

Suppose, for example, we live in what we might call hard determinism world, a world where hard determinism is true and we have no control over our actions. Perhaps we do live in hard determinism world, I don’t know. But even if we do, it would not follow that no human motivation or action has ever been morally evaluable – has never been a good or bad one. This seems to be, to say the least, wildly implausible. Would we really want to claim that hard-determinism Hitler, to use an obvious if somewhat hackneyed example, never had an evil motivation, and never performed an evil act, simply because he had no control over his actions?

Moral evaluation of an actor is one thing, and may require the assumption that they are able to control their actions. Moral evaluation of motivations and actions is quite another, and requires no such assumption.

Zhu Xi’s position is closer to the one I defend, but there are also some interesting divergences. Zhu Xi regarded the world as made up of two principles: li and qi. Li is a moral principle that underlies the world, and qi is, roughly, matter or force. Qi is what makes individual things individual, and gives rise to self-interest. The world should be li and fails to be so because of qi. Why? As Back puts it: “Simply put, li concerns what is beneficial from the perspective of the whole, and qi concerns what is profitable from the perspective of a part.” (99) Thus, li and qi are typically (not always, not necessarily, but typically) in conflict with each other: “What is beneficial for the whole is often thwarted by what is profitable exclusively to a part. In Zhu Xi’ s system, the world does not perfectly operate by the moral principle of li, because of qi.” (100)

Animals have access to li. However, this access is deficient in comparison with humans (and even more so with respect to sages). In part, the deficiency of animals stems from quantitative differences with regard to their qi. Here, qi is regarded as a something like a container of li.

Back comments: “This suggests that humans have more moral principle than animals because they have a larger container. Every now and then, Zhu Xi correlated the quantity of qi with the quantity of li.” (99) Moreover: “[B]ut at least one thing is clear: he tried to explain different moral capacities between humans and animals by employing the language of quantitative differences in qi.” (100)

I must admit, I was somewhat puzzled by this. After all, Qi is what is responsible for individualism, the accentuation of the part over the whole, and the resulting thwarting of li. Thus, it is difficult to see how having more qi (whatever that means) – can lead to having more, or better access to, li. I’m sure I’m missing something.

Perhaps this is the qualitative variations in qi. First, there are variations in the clarity of and purity of qi. Qi that is clear amounts to correct understanding of moral principles. Qi that is pure equates to the ability – perhaps will – to act on this understanding. As Back puts it: “According to this description, the clarity–turbidity (qingzhuo 清濁 ) of qi  relates to the ability to understand and the purity–impurity (chunbo 純駁 ) of qi  to the ability to act.” (100)

Clarity and purity come in degrees, and it is possible to refine turbid and impure qi to recover one’s original moral nature. With regard to this recovery, another pair of distinctions proves important: that between balanced/unbalanced and unobstructed/obstructed qi. This pair of distinctions pertain to the ability to improve one’s psychophysical – and, in particular, moral – endowments. Back writes: “Humans have this ability [i.e. to morally improve themselves] because their qi is balanced and unobstructed, but animals lack this ability because their qi is unbalanced and obstructed. Consequently, there is a categorical gap between human beings and animals with respect to the capacity for moral improvement.” (101) Back continues:

“Then, in what sense did Zhu Xi claim that certain actions on the part of animals manifest moral values? According to his view, animals are also born with moral principle, but due to the obstruction and obscuration of their qi, not only are they unable to improve their qi but they also cannot have full access to moral principle. Fortunately, though, some animals happen to have partial access to moral principle.” (101)

Finally, a metaphor, in many ways reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Back writes:

“Humans stand openly under the sun, enjoying full sunshine; but animals carry umbrellas. And yet, the umbrellas of some animals have small holes in them, which allow them to enjoy a ray of sunshine. This is the case with animals such as tigers and wolves, bees and ants, jackals and otters, ospreys, and so on. Tigers and wolves have partial access to the moral principle of benevolence and show filiality and ants and bees have partial access to the moral principle of righteousness and show loyalty. However, they are stuck with what they have. Ants and bees cannot learn to be filial, and tigers and wolves cannot learn to be loyal. They cannot broaden the holes in their umbrellas. Consequently, animals are categorically different from humans with respect to moral improvement, and they are inferior to humans with respect to their access to moral principle.” (101)

Animals can be motivated to act by the moral principle of li. However, their access to this is partial and cannot be improved. Nevertheless, they can act on the basis of moral principle. According to Back, this means that they qualify as what I have called moral subjects, creatures that can act on the basis of moral motivations even though they are not responsible for these actions, and therefore can be neither praised nor blamed for them, and so do not qualify as moral agents. As Back puts it: “Zhu Xi’ s notion of moral subject is rendered as follows: ‘X is a moral subject if and only if X is, at least sometimes, motivated to act by the moral principle of li.’” (109)

Thus, on this interpretation, Zhu Xi, shares my view of animals: they are moral subjects but not moral agents.

This claim may well be true, and I certainly have no objection to it. But there remain certain differences between our views. To begin with, Zhu Xi seems to be far more concerned than I in identifying decisive differences between humans and animals. According to him, there are two:

  • Humans, but not animals, can understand li – we can understand the principles upon which we are inclined to act.
  • Humans, but not animals, can morally improve themselves – enlarge the holes in the umbrella, ameliorating their access to li. Moral improvement lies within the abilities of humans but not animals.

I have no objection to the attempt to identify decisive differences between humans and other animals. It’s not really my thing, but if it is yours then, by all means, go for it. However, history in general has not been kind to such attempts. In part, this is because the postulated decisive differences are hostage to empirical fortune. A soul? Well, we can’t empirically establish that in humans. Play? The Homo ludens stuff? Are you kidding me, animals are better at playing than we are. Rationality? Take a look at corvids some time. Language? No, lots of animals have that. But the language has to have recursive structure. Sorry, mate: Japanese tit. And so on and so forth. Thus, with regard to Zhu Xi’s two differences, we would have to ask questions such as: Are (1) and (2) satisfied by all humans? Do all humans understand moral principle (in a way that animals can’t) and are all humans capable of moral improvement? A positive answer seems unlikely. The difference between a creature that can understand moral principle and/or improve itself morally and a creature that cannot may be a ‘decisive’ one (whatever that means), but it only imperfectly tracks the human/animal distinction.

I mention this only to inject a note of caution into the project of identifying ‘decisive’ differences between humans and other animals. My real interest lies elsewhere.

An interesting question raised by (2) is whether animals are capable of moral improvement. Is it really the case that no non-human animal has ever undergone moral improvement? Really? To address this question, we first need to recall the relevant picture of moral motivation: the one that is hospitable to the idea that animals can be morally motivated. Very roughly, this (as I argued in Can Animals Be Moral?), is motivation on the basis of moral emotions. Moral emotions are, roughly, ones that take the well-being of others as their intentional objects – whether for good or for ill. Sympathy is a moral emotion. So too is spite. Patience, I have come to think, may be one of the most important, and most underrated, moral emotions. There are many others.

From the perspective of this picture, there seems to be no compelling reason to deny that animals are capable of moral improvement. If moral education is applicable to a child, then an analogue of moral education is applicable to a dog. Of course, it takes a very different form with dogs than it does to children (I also talk about this in Can Animals be Moral?), but the point of much of this education is to try to ensure that a dog will feel the right emotions in the right circumstances.

Of course, one might deny that in the case of dogs, this is really moral education. I have a dog named Shadow, a German Shepherd from a long line of military and police dogs. He is breathtakingly aggressive towards strangers. Of course, I am attempting to address this through, in effect, a program of re-education. I think of this as moral education, but many would not accept this characterization. One who does not accept it is likely to reason as follows: all I am doing when I re-educate Shadow is reprogramming him to have certain emotions – ones that I want him to have – in certain circumstances. He has no idea what I am doing, nor why I am doing it. But if this is the objection, it is question-begging. It assumes that being moral requires understanding of moral principles. This is precisely the idea that I attack. That, in fact, is precisely the rationale for the distinction between moral subjects and moral agents. What this objection does, in effect, is collapse claim (2) into claim (1). It is the idea that moral motivation involves understanding li – understanding the principles upon which we should act – that is doing the heavy lifting here.

This conclusion is replicated if we reformulate (2) to avoid the above objection. According to this reformulation What animals are not capable of – and so what decisively separates them from us – is the desire for moral improvement. This might be right. Perhaps no nonhuman animal ever desires to morally improve itself. Of course, this raises the question of how many humans are actually desirous moral improvement, but we can overlook this. It is the capacity to desire this that is important, and not whether it is ever actually exercised.

If this is true, why can’t animals desire to morally improve themselves? If a dog can desire to run faster, why can’t it desire to become morally better? The answer seems reasonably clear. The dog knows what running is, but does not know what morality, and therefore what moral improvement, is. That is, they lack the right sort of access to li – the kind of access that gives you the requisite understanding of moral principle. Therefore, I suspect that of the two alleged decisive differences between humans and animals, (1) is by far the dominant one. In the end, it all comes down to understanding of li.

No one, as far as I know, will deny that humans understand li better than animals. Certainly, I don’t deny this. But what we should not infer from this – and was one of the central themes of Can Animals be Moral? – is that the moral behavior of animals is, therefore, some kind of second-class moral behavior. My argument for this turns on the imagined case of someone I called Myshkin, an affable soul who rejoices in the happiness of others and is dismayed by their suffering, and would do his best to alleviate this. Myshkin is unable to critically scrutinize, and so understand, his motivations. In Zhu Xi’s terms, Myshkin has no understanding of li but his actions are nevertheless guided by it. I argued that while some ways of being moral were not possible for Myshkin, there is one way he could be moral – and indeed is moral: he is motivated to act by moral emotions. Compare: there are different ways of being a murderer. You can shoot someone, poison them, stab them, etc. The fact that you choose only one method of murder, does not make you any less of a murderer. Myshkin can’t be moral in some of the ways that humans can be moral. But he can be moral in one way – he can be motivated to act by way of moral emotions – and in this way of being moral, he is the equal of any other human.

The same, I argued, is true of certain other animals: one’s that are caused to act by moral emotions. Because of their less understanding of li, animals cannot be moral in all the ways we can be moral. But they can be moral in one of the ways we can be moral: they can be motivated to act by moral emotions – emotions that take the well-being of others as their intentional objects.  And with respect to this specific way of being moral they are moral in the same way and to the same extent as humans.

-Mark Rowlands (University of Miami)

12 Replies to “Animals, Moral Agency, and Moral Status (Mark Rowlands on Youngsun Back)

  1. Thanks Mark for those comments, which I really enjoyed reading.

    Quick question: do we really think of praise and blame as tightly connected to control? Suppose I’m eating at a restaurant and I accidentally knock over a glass of wine which goes all over the some stranger’s pants. Regardless of whether I thought I had control or not, I think I would just feel terrible and apologize. I might even offer some money. Imagine if I didn’t apologize to that person just because it was clearly an accident. That guy would (rightly I think) be pretty angry at me.

  2. Thanks, Richard! It’s an interesting case. Of course, it’s great for me if we didn’t tightly connect praise and blame to control. But I think your example can actually be interpreted in a way that supports this tight connection. Specifically, the reason I would feel bad and/or be blameworthy derives from the suspicion that I really could/should have done better, should have been a bit more careful with my glass, etc. In other words, it is the suspicion of control that underlies the reactions. Contrast your case with this one: a psychopathic waiter stabs me in the hand, causing me to spill my wine over the stranger. Or, if you think bringing in another agent clouds the issue: the ceiling collapses on me, and in my efforts to protect my head from the falling masonry, I knock over my glass. In these cases where control clearly is lacking – i.e. where there is not even a suspicion of control – the reactions would be quite different.

  3. Thanks, Mark. I think those cases do speak in your favor.

    How about a revised case: the wine glass turned out to be far too slippery because they used a special cleaner on it and it slips out of my hand, spilling the wine onto the stranger’s lap. Even if there’s nothing I could have done, I would still feel guilty and it seems like I still owe an apology to the guy whose shirt was ruined.

  4. That’s a good one. I think you and I might have different guilt thresholds, Richard. I wouldn’t feel guilty in the circumstances you describe – unless certain other circumstances obtain. For example, suppose I didn’t realize just how impossible it was to control the glass because I did not fully appreciate how slippery it was. I might feel guilty then. But that’s the illusion of control issue again. But suppose I did realize that it was impossible to control the glass. Then I wouldn’t feel guilty. However, this is a situation where I still might regard the stranger’s anger as justified – because of certain epistemic shortcoming on his part: he is not in a position to know how slippery the glass was, for example. But this is an epistemic issue, engendering an illusion of control on his part. We might say that his anger was justifiable in the epistemic circumstances he was in but not ultimately justifiable tout court.

  5. Thanks, Richard and Mark, for your interesting exchange. So, the issue of control is not a simple matter.

  6. Before thanking him for the nice précis of my paper and his comments on Zhu Xi’s thought, I would like to thank Mark Rowlands for his wonderful book, Can Animals be Moral? (OUP, 2012). His book inspired me to think about the issue of morality in non-human animals and provided me with a succinct conceptual tool for tackling from a different angle a question that has been widely discussed in the Confucian tradition: “Can nonhuman animals have the same moral nature as human beings?” And while I was writing the paper, I kept thinking, if Mark Rowlands knew about these East Asian thinkers, how would he respond, and is there anything that he could learn from them to develop his own views? This has, fortunately, happened, and from Rowlands’ comments I am still learning from him, and I realize that there are still parts of Zhu Xi’s thoughts to be addressed and refined further, as we shall see.

    Before I respond to Rowlands’ comments, it should be clarified that his aim and the aim of these two Confucian thinkers are different. As I pointed out in my paper, Rowlands’s interest is in non-human animals: what kind of creatures are they? On the other hand, these Confucian thinkers were interested in human beings: how can we improve morally? I think this will help us to understand why Rowlands, even though sympathetic to Zhu Xi’s view, parts company with him. At any rate, I believe that their interrelated but slightly different projects can enrich each other.

    The point of divergence between Rowlands and Zhu Xi is on moral improvement. Zhu Xi believed that only human beings are capable of moral improvement, not animals. Rowlands warns against an attribution of a ‘decisive’ difference between humans and other animals, even though he points out that his real interest lies elsewhere.

    I defend Zhu Xi’s attempt to identify the difference between humans and other animals in three ways.

    First, Zhu Xi’s claim about the inability of moral improvement of animals should be viewed alongside his other views. Zhu Xi believed that some animals have partial, but unerring, access to moral principle and so they act morally, such as bees’ loyalty to their queen and tigers’ parental care of their cubs. In a way slightly different from Rowlands’ characterization, Zhu Xi seems to have believed that some animals act morally not merely in the same way and to the same extent as humans, but they act morally in a superior and more admirable way than many humans [except sages]. We may not find a lazy bee or a lion like Scar, Simba’s vicious uncle, in the natural world, whereas we may often find parents’ smoking in front of their children and even serial killers. Zhu Xi may have believed that any elephants who see their baby elephant drowning in the lake will never fail to try to save their baby, whereas it cannot be 100% guaranteed in the case of humans. That is to say, insofar as they have access to some aspect of morality, non-human animals will unerringly act in accordance with this morality. Humans, on the other hand, may act based on other considerations that speak against the moral ones that they understand. So, the main point is that Zhu Xi tried to emphasize the difference between human beings and other animals on the one hand, and to highlight their similarity (or even the superiority of other animals) on the other.

    Second, we should take into account the ultimate goal of Zhu Xi’s project, that is, “to make humans morally better.” In this light, his emphasis is probably less on animals, and more on humans. His actual claim is that humans should be encouraged to improve themselves morally. In my view, if Zhu Xi learned of Rowlands’s case of moral education in animals, of educating animals to feel the right emotions in the right circumstances [for instance, bees’ loyalty to their queens], he may still disagree with Rowlands, not because he thinks that animals are incapable of moral improvement, but because it is unnecessary given that some animals already feel the right emotions in certain circumstances, as in the case of elephants who will try to save their drowning baby without exception [that almost all elephants will actually do the same should be tested by scientists, though].

    Third, Zhu Xi may deny the possibility of moral improvement in some animals, because they are already in line with certain moral principles. But he would likely make a stronger point of denying the possibility of moral improvement in almost all animals. As he said, bees cannot learn to be filial [not sure this is true of bees, but at least this is how Zhu Xi understood]. Furthermore, Zhu Xi may deny the possibility of moral improvement in almost all animals, because moral improvement would not just be about “feeling the right emotions in the right circumstances”[this may apply to animals], but about “feeling the right emotions in complex situations” [this applies to humans]. Elephants will feel compassion toward their drowning baby, but what about the case like two drowning baby elephants, one, being their infant, and the other, being the infant of strangers? What about the case like starving elephants in the opposite side of the globe? Zhu Xi categorized the moral principle of li into four categories: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. The reason human beings feel compassion toward people in need is because we have a principle of benevolence; the reason human beings feel shame is because we have a principle of righteousness, and so on. Moral improvement is not only about feeling compassion toward suffering others, albeit very important and essential. However, in the actual lives of human begins, it is not easy to navigate our complex moral lives simply relying on our concern for the well-being of others [others being diverse]. In other words, moral principles of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom may often conflict with each other. If this is what Zhu Xi meant by moral improvement, this will not be possible for other animals, or not necessary for other animals, because they do not live such complicated lives as humans. This is also pointed out by Rowlands, “[other animals] can’t be moral in some of the ways that humans can be moral.” So, what I want to point out here is that when Zhu Xi denied the possibility of moral improvement in other animals, he may have meant this other way of being moral, that is particular to human beings.

    Nevertheless, I think that this will not put animals’ moral behavior into some kind of second-class moral behavior, as Rowlands worries. As mentioned, some animal’s moral behaviors are admirable as a perfect embodiment of a certain moral principle. This is the characteristics of moral behavior that is shared with sages, unerring embodiment of moral principle. Sages’ moral behavior differs from that of other animals just in scope and complexity. Sages can feel the right emotion even in a very complicated situation, and this can be achieved by moral improvement, understanding the workings of complex moral principles. However, at the final stage, sages’ action will be naturally motivated by his right moral emotions, not by his understanding. This spontaneous, effortless moral behavior is what is valued in the Confucian tradition, as Confucius, at the age of seventy, could follow his heart’s desires without overstepping the bounds of propriety (Analects 2.4). This is what I mean by Zhu Xi’s triangular model: that is, sages at the top, other animals and ordinary humans on a par. I may describe sages as “broad-scope moral subject” and nonhuman animals as “narrow-scope moral subject.” So, for Zhu Xi, understanding moral principle is the important process of being moral, but it seems to be a necessary process to achieve the final goal: that is, to be motivated to act by the right moral emotions.

    This raises a question about what exactly Zhu Xi meant by “understanding moral principles (知理).” Rowlands points out that what actually differs between humans and other animals is the desire for moral improvement, and he adds, this comes down to understanding moral principle. I still wonder about the ways in which the desire to be moral and the capacity to understand moral principle play out in Zhu Xi’s system. [This part may have been studied by other scholars, though.]

  7. I have very much enjoyed reading and learned much from the comments of Professor Rowlands and Professor Back. Looking at the question from the vantage point of Confucian thinkers who produced stories of virtuous animals in the early medieval period (220-589) provides a slightly different perspective. I would say that early medieval Confucians believed that animals could receive moral education and improve their moral selves. These thinkers believed that animals could be moral because their nature was formed by original qi, which included virtues. Since all creatures share this original qi, filial and righteousness are already in their hearts and merely have to be more fully developed through cultivation. One of the points I make in my “Noble Creatures: Filial and Righteous Animals in Early Medieval Confucian Thought” (in _Animals through Chinese History: Earliest Times to 1911_) is that these stories emphasize that animals recognize the principle of reciprocity. In stories about dogs who are loyal to their masters, the authors usually stress that the canines sacrifice themselves to save their masters because they understand and appreciate the love and care they have received. To me, this commitment to reciprocity is a form of moral education. Perhaps as puppies these dogs would not have had the knowledge or impulse to save their master. However, due to the benefits the dogs receive from their master over time, they come to understand that they are morally obligated to their master and must reciprocate in kind. Also because they share the same qi as humans, animals are also susceptible to the Confucian ideal of jiaohua “moral transformation.” There are many early medieval stories of animals whose behavior is transformed by their exposure to the extraordinary moral acts of humans. For example, Wu Xi lived beside his father’s tomb in a hut, every time he wailed, a deer would squat by the grave and issue mournful cries. In cases like this, the extraordinary filiality of a human transforms the behavior of animal, so that it replicates the human’s moral act. The author probably assumed that deer do not normally mourn the dead, but due to the power of Wu Xi’s example, the deer learns to express grief in a ritually appropriate way. The reason the deer can do so is because its qi also contains latent virtue. How these Confucian authors saw animals and humans as different is that the former did not recognize the father-son relationship, only that between mother and child; as a result, animals cannot build societies (which we now know is not true at all). Anyhow, I think both the principle of reciprocity and the belief in moral transformation led early medieval Confucians to assume that animals could morally improve themselves.

  8. I enjoyed Youngsun Back’s paper and this exchange! Just a quick remark about Zhu Xi and moral subjecthood.

    On Youngsun’s account, Zhu Xi denies moral agency to non-human animals, but not moral subjecthood. Animals can’t be moral agents because they aren’t morally responsible and thus their behavior doesn’t of itself warrant praise or blame. But they can be moral subjects because they are “motivated to act by the moral principles of li” (Back, 109). This is roughly analogous to Mark Rowlands’ account of moral subjecthood, according to which an animal is a moral subject iff it is “motivated to act by moral reasons” (Rowlands, 89).

    Youngsun also says that when human beings have involuntary moral reactions but don’t choose to act on those reactions, that too is a case of moral subjecthood without moral agency by Zhu Xi’s lights. So in the famous case of feeling “alarm and compassion” at seeing a child on the verge of falling into a well, which presumably comes packaged with some inclination (however weak) to save the child, we can safely attribute moral subjecthood to people who have that reaction but can’t yet attribute moral agency to them. To count as moral agents, they would have to voluntarily act to save the child (Back, 109-112).

    My sense of Zhu Xi is that he clearly does want to distinguish between stronger and weaker sorts of moral subjecthood/agency, and for most purposes I really like the way Youngsun has cut that distinction. Other cases where Zhu seems to be looking for a more minimal subjecthood (in addition to the non-human animal cases) are when describing the good ethical behavior of people with little moral education or understanding of the underlying reasons or considerations for their behavior. So, for example, the Analects says that ordinary people “can be made to follow it, but they cannot be made to know it” (8.9). Zhu takes that to mean that they can respond to the normative force of the relevant moral li (由於是理之當然) but they can’t understand the reasons for the moral li (不能…知其所以然) (LYJZ 8.9). This also works well with the analysis of what Steve Angle and I call Zhu’s “second type” of moral knowledge, which occurs when someone knows what she ought to do in a particular case and cannot help but have some inclination to do it. Here Zhu seems to have in mind instances of moral knowledge and involuntary inclination just like our natural response to the child-and-well scenario (Neo-Confucianism, 122-26).

    For what it’s worth, though, I’m less certain that Zhu Xi would spell out the more robust sort of moral subjecthood in terms of moral responsibility and praiseworthiness or blameworthiness (and thus in terms of what Rowlands and others would call “moral agency”). I do think that Zhu sees responsibility and blameworthiness as factoring into assessments of agents, of course. But when he’s describing what more is needed for full virtue, he usually characterizes it in terms of having the right kind of understanding of the li, and (especially) of achieving a state of sincerity or wholeheartedness (cheng 誠). Maybe Zhu just assumes that being morally responsible is part of being sincere or wholehearted, but he doesn’t really talk in those terms. Instead, he talks about being undeceived and having various indicators of psychological unity and harmony (being “fully on board” with one’s virtuous behavior), all of which strike me as tracking a different dimension of moral assessment from those that concern attributions of moral responsibility.

    There’s much more that I like about the paper, and it raises a lot of interesting questions. I’d love to know, for example, what exactly it means to be “motivated to act by the moral principles of li.” Clearly Zhu wouldn’t accept just any sort of motivation in which li plays a causal or explanatory role. He rules out selfishly motivated behavior in which one’s conception of li plays a part, as when someone acts in accordance with li just to win friends and a good reputation.

    But that’s a big question and not easy to answer in the comments section, I realize. 🙂

  9. Thank Justin for your insightful comments.

    First, Yes! I agree with Justin that Zhu Xi had different expectations of morality depending on people, such as what kind of moral education they have access to or even what kind of qi they are born with [qi may be able to account for the former as well]. So, the triangular model [sage-ordinary humans-nonhuman animals] can be refined and elaborated further.

    Second, I think, Justin made another really important point: the framework of moral agency and moral subjecthood would not be adequate to account for Zhu Xi’s thought, particularly, the notion of moral agency. Praiseworthiness or blameworthiness based on one’s control may not work in Zhu Xi’s system. As I pointed out in my response to Mark above, what is most salient in Zhu Xi’s system seems to be his emphasis on “moral subjecthood.” I called sage as “broad-scope moral subject” and nonhuman animals as “narrow-scope moral subject.” If this is the case, we should ask if the notion of moral agency was present in Zhu Xi or even it is necessary for him. If Zhu Xi’s understanding of morality centers around moral subjecthood, we probably don’t need the notion of “moral agency” for Zhu Xi. Then, how can we account for moral responsibility? As Justin points out, moral responsibility seems to be understood in a very different term in Zhu Xi. As he points out, moral responsibility is not about whether one can control one’s action or not, but whether one is in a state of sincerity or wholeheartedness [this made me think of Richard and Mark’s exchange on wine-spilling]. I think this is one of the most important topics that should be addressed and discussed in future. Tamler Sommers, in his book, Relative Justice (2012), argues for cultural diversity of moral responsibility: in some cultures, people take strong responsibility for the actions of others, that they do not have any connection with. So, this should be the next project for many Zhu Xi scholars.

    Last but not least, what I mean by to be “motivated to act by the moral principles of li” is just like Justine mentioned, if a person is in a state of wholeheartedness without any selfish desires, he/she will act upon li. Non-human animals can do it in a particular situation; ordinary people can, from time to time, act upon li; and sages can, most of time, act upon li in many different situations, probably?

    Thank you!

  10. Keith, this is fascinating. I didn’t know that early medieval Confucians found the source of morality in original qi, something I should look into. And also, it is very interesting that unlike Zhu Xi, who tried to explain the morality of nonhuman animals through li, those early medieval Confucians relied on the principle of reciprocity in explaining the possibility of their moral transformations.

    In addition, as I mentioned, Zhu Xi’s emphasis on the inability of moral improvement of animals actually served the purpose of encouragement of moral education of human beings. Unlike animals, humans can improve themselves morally and so they should [here, can implies ought]. Now, the stories you mentioned indicate that this aim can be achieved the other way around: even animals can improve morally, hoe much more so for humans? At any rate, I assumed that animal stories by early medieval Confucians were educational. Then, I am curious whether, in addition to the stories of moral transformation of animals, there were stories of animals of moral decline.

    Thank you for sharing your research!

  11. Hi Youngsun,

    Great plug for Tamler Sommers’ book and his idea about the cultural variability in accounts of moral responsibility. I think that is really interesting and worth serious consideration.

    I find it interesting to see Dasan take a more Kantian view of moral merit: the more difficult an action is, the more moral praise the agent deserves. I find this noteworthy because philosophers who take a virtue-ethical approach tend to see the development of virtue as leading to less difficulty in doing the right thing (we find this clearly in Aristotle and more recently Philippa Foot). For example, if two people see someone drop a hundred bill, it’s the person that swiftly picks up the money and hands it back to the owner that is considered a more virtuous person rather than the person who struggles with temptation, but still ultimately hands back the money. Now, perhaps, one might say that the tempted person’s action is more meritorious because it was more challenging. But I’m not sure if that’s right. It seems that in this case at least, one ought not to have been tempted by the money in the first place.

    To what extent does Dasan take up a Confucian view about the importance of moral self-cultivation and virtuous character? I thought he would have been, at least with regard to the importance of virtue, a follower of Kongzi and Mengzi.

  12. Hi, Richard!

    Yes, I agree that those who are not even tempted are morally superior to those who try hard to overcome their temptations. However, we should take into account different levels/dimensions/scopes of moral improvement and moral excellence. I think those who overcome their temptations are praiseworthy in themselves; why we should compare them with those who are not even tempted (a level of sage, I assume)? Wouldn’t it be proper for us to put them in different categories, even provisionally?

    This reminds me of Manyul Im’s article “Emotional Control and Virtue in the Mencius” (1999). He argues, “The account of moral exemplars in the Mencius casts doubt on the view that Mencius thinks perfecting is required in order to be virtuous. The best explanation for that, I will argue, is that Mencius does not think such perfection is an attainable goal.” I think that perfect moral exemplars are playing important roles in the moral lives of many ordinary people and they are admirable as they are. However, I do not see what is the point for us to compare “those who are not even tempted” and “those who overcome the temptation.” On this issue, Zhu Xi might have replied that “isn’t it good that even the dumbest person in the world improve himself a little?” If all people in the world are able to make one step forward, this could be more admirable than one person achieve sagehood. Anyway, yes I understand your point and I agree that it is an important topic. My point is that we can, or should, find another way think about moral achievement. Thanks for raising this issue.

    On Dasan, I think, even with strong influence from the Western Learning, he was a Confucian after all, and moral-cultivation is an important part of his system. However, his focus shifted from internal virtues [virtuous characters] to outward virtuous actions to a certain extent, because he believed that his contemporary Confucians paid too much attention on the internal dimension of virtues [e.g, removing selfish desires through quiet-sitting]. This made him think that a virtuous person is actually a person practicing virtuous actions, not just a person without selfish desires and with equanimity, and so on. He, thereby, placed great emphasis on actions, and this led him to incorporate a strong sense of praise and blame as well.

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