This paper is a development of earlier attempts of mine to interpret what conception of the moral development of natural compassion is contained in the Mencius. I bring crucial features of this conception into dialogue with contemporary science on the development of empathy.
I explore conceptions of happiness in classical Chinese philosophers Mengzi and Zhuangzi. In choosing to frame my question with the word ‘happiness’, I am guided by the desire to draw some comparative lessons for Western philosophy. “Happiness” has been a central concept in Western ethics, and especially in Aristotelian and utilitarian ethics. The early Chinese concept most relevant to discussion of Mengzi and Zhuangzi concerns a specific form of happiness designated by the word le, which is best rendered as “contentment.” For both Mengzi and Zhuangzi, there is a reflective dimension of happiness that consists in acceptance of the inevitable transformations of life and death, though these two thinkers chart very different paths to such acceptance. Mengzi holds that it lies in identification with a moral cause much larger than the self. Zhuangzi is profoundly skeptical about the viability of such a path to contentment. He instead offers identification with a world that transcends human good and evil, and a way to live in the present that can be deeply satisfying. One interesting outcome of both their discussions of achieving happiness is that both come to question the importance of happiness as a personal goal.
Philosophy and anthropology need to integrate their accounts of what a morality is. I identify three desiderata that an account of morality should satisfy: 1) recognize significant diversity and variation in the major kinds of value; 2) specify a set of criteria for what counts as a morality; and 3) indicate the basis for distinguishing between more or less justifiable moralities, or true and false moralities. I will discuss why these three desiderata are hard to satisfy at the same time, and why they are controversial. Anthropologists and philosophers will differ on which ones they are inclined to reject. I argue that all three should be accepted and can be satisfied.
Practicing critical hermeneutics throws us into the tension between two requirements: first, to construe others as being like us; and second, to open ourselves to ways they may differ fundamentally from us and pose challenges to our treasured truths. In this essay I analyze the nature of this tension (with reference to Davidson's and Gadamer's philosophies of interpretation) and propose a way of reconciling them. I shall argue that the embrace of difference is in fact necessary for interpreting others to be like us. To plausibly interpret others as being like us, we need sufficient diversity within the “us.” Further, I shall argue that whom we decide to include in the “us” depends on relations of power. Throughout this argument, my illustrative cases will draw from the relationship between China and the West. I will refer to what it takes for “us” in the West to understand some central features of Confucian ethics. I will refer to efforts of contemporary Chinese thinkers to “translate” the concept of rights from the West.