Moral personhood in Confucius and Aristotle

Date of Completion

January 2009






In this dissertation, I consider two different conceptions, that of Confucius and of Aristotle, of the person as moral agent, and the ways in which their views on moral personhood affect the direction of their ethical theories. The theories of both these philosophers can be considered in some sense "virtue ethical" theories, but the enormous difference between the two theories can be attributed, I argue, to very different views on what constitutes a person, on what makes for agency in general. ^ To begin, I argue against a strong reading of Alasdair Maclntyre's "incommensurability" thesis, and argue for the possibility of fruitful comparative study across traditions. I offer a way in which to engage in comparative study that relies only on translatability and sets aside the need for universally applicable "thin" concepts, which I argue can be very problematic in the cross-tradition comparative project. ^ Confucius, I argue, has a conception of the person on which personhood is partially constituted by certain communal relationships and roles. The containment of the individual (ji) in a viable community, which is created through an identification of one's own concerns and goals with those of the other members of the community, such that the failure or success of other members of the community is one's own failure or success as well (the method of jin, or "making oneself close"), is a necessary condition of personhood for Confucius. The person, for Confucius, is a "social group", which itself manifests agency. ^ The Aristotelian conception of the person and agency is quite different from the Confucian. For Aristotle, individual deliberation and choice are necessary to attain virtue, and moral personhood is defined in part by the capacity to engage in deliberation (prohairesis) and make choices based on it. Social groups cannot, unlike in Confucius, have virtue. Rationality, for Aristotle, is necessary for personhood. Thus, for Aristotle, individual mental processes fix personhood. His virtue ethics is thus focused on creation of virtue in order to bring eudaimonia (thriving) for the individual. For Confucius, in contrast, the aim of virtue is to achieve a thriving community. ^