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Sim, May. Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius.

SIM, May. Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi + 224 pp. Cloth, $85.00--Sim tells us in her introductory chapter that "My aim is to involve these authors in each other's problems and to engage both in reconsidering the contemporary difficulties to which they speak with surprising frequency in one voice, or at least genuine harmony." She succeeds admirably. One comes away from this volume with the feeling that one has audited a brilliant conversation between Confucius and Aristotle. Forced into dialogue by Sire, her authors find greater accord than disaccord on issues related to the self, to fancily life, and to social relationships.

Sim's knowledge of Aristotle, it may be noted, was achieved under the tutelage of Alasdair MacIntyre; her knowledge of Confucius derives naturally from her personal cultivation of an inherited Chinese tradition. Virtue ethics thus becomes a focal point in her presentation of both, including her discussion of rights.

In Aristotle's view, humans are by nature moral beings; each is endowed with a spontaneous sense of morality. They are naturally inclined to meet each other and to live together in families, in villages, or in larger communities; they establish political societies governed by laws that are expressions of common moral intuitions. These natural dispositions are developed through learning and training. This is especially true for those who live within the Confucian orbit. Ethical issues for the Confucian are not determined or formulated apart from the social setting in which they arise. In fact, one does not find in Confucian ethics a clear demarcation between moral rules and other sorts of rules. One finds rather in Confucian ethics a theory of virtue rather than a theory of obligation.

Both Aristotle and Confucius recognize the importance of the cultivation of moral virtue for a just society. Each acknowledges the guiding role of exemplary individuals, and each allows for context in the application of principles. Yet Confucius and Aristotle have very different attitudes toward the rule of law. Confucius tends to identify moral principles with customary norms and, unlike Aristotle, relies heavily on the exemplary person to inspire others to moral and civic virtue. Aristotle, while not denying a role for the exemplary figure, recognizes the rarity of such an individual, and consequently places greater confidence in the rule of law. Given Aristotle's understanding of human nature and purpose in nature, Aristotle is positioned to evaluate custom in the light of transcendent norms. Law, from an Aristotelian perspective, possesses greater sovereignty than custom, although Aristotle would not dismiss the role of custom in preserving a just society. Identifying another difference, Sire writes, "Aristotle sharply distinguishes the political role of the statesman from the household rule of fathers. Confucius assimilates political rule into household rule: political government is simply the father-son relationship writ large." Unlike Aristotle, Confucius offers no theoretical analysis of the state and political rule. Absent too is any explicit theory about nature and teleology.

Aristotle's analysis of the nature of law, Sire concludes, may help the Confucian understand that the rule of law is not antithetical to a respect for custom and the cultivation of virtue. On the other hand, the Confucian account of ritual propriety can supplement Aristotle's "all too brief account of unwritten law." Confucians are peculiarly sensitive to what Aristotelians call "ethos," insofar as they have an acute sense of the way in which ceremony and ritual focus and intensify custom and moral practice.

A not-insignificant contribution of this volume is that Sim, in reading Aristotle through a Confucian lens, brings out aspects of Aristotle that are often overlooked by Western eyes accustomed to reading him in the light of his metaphysics, colored by the subsequent development of his thought in Western moral and political theory.--Jude P. Dougherty, The Catholic University of America.
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Author:Dougherty, Jude P.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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