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.
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.
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.
Opening paragraph:I have been exploring the possibilities that early Chinese philosophy offers for fresh thinking about the development of ethical excellence. Today I discuss the possibilities suggested by the Xunzi's conception of how human beings should go about transforming their emotions and desires. This conception allots a crucial role for the individual's reflection on why and how to go about transforming oneself, but that reflection prompts one to enter into relationships and ritual practices with others. This relational conception provides illuminating correction to the intellectualist and individualist bias we often see in contemporary philosophical approaches to understanding moral development in the West. I shall also suggest that some forms of scientific inquiry reinforce and support the methods suggested by the Xunzi. I highlight the value of these methods as they contrast with dominant ways of thinking about the respective roles of reflection and emotion in Western moral philosophy.