Yu, Jiyuan. The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue.
Aristotle famously described friends to be like mirrors, wherein a person may see himself more truly. Jiyuan Yu employs this image in his comparative study of Confucian and Aristotelian ethics. He argues that by comparing these two moral traditions we may come to understand them better and above all come to "a better understanding of virtue and human perfection." Of course, Yu is aware of the charge that these two ethical systems so removed in time, place, culture, and so forth are incommensurable. Nevertheless, he thinks that this objection may be overcome by a careful comparison of the topics on which the two traditions seem to converge: teleology, the role of human nature in ethics, and the importance of custom and politics.
In many respects Yu's project is quite successful. This is especially the case when he draws attention to the teleological structure shared by both traditions. Aristotle's ethics famously moves from an understanding of the human good as excellence (eudamonia) to an account of virtue, which instantiates the human good, to a description of the highest activity of contemplation. Yu explains that there is a similar but distinct structure to be found in Confucian ethics. "De" is the sort of habit that leads to "ren," human excellence, which reaches its fulfillment in "cheng," the fully complete human being. This is the ultimate end of humanity, because in this state man mirrors the dao of heaven, the pattern or form of all things.
Yu shows that a comparison of these two systems highlights the importance of a fixed and yet dynamic account of human nature. For Aristotle, the good of the human person can only be discovered once man's characteristic function is identified. This task Aristotle accomplishes in 1.7 of the Nicomachean Ethics wherein he identifies reason as humanity's characteristic function. Yu identifies a similar structure in Confucian ethics. Mencius, a student of Confucius, states that "xing" (translated as heart/mind) is that which distinguishes human nature from the other animals. It contains the four roots of humanity, which are perfected by corresponding virtues: compassion is perfected in benevolence; the sense of shame is perfected in duty; the inclination to show respect develops into the habit observance (piety); and the sense of right and wrong develops into wisdom. What Yu shows is that in both Aristotelian and Confucian ethics goodness is identified with the development of humanity's natural potential. Thus, the foundation of both ethical systems consists in a twofold realization, namely, the recognition of what a human being is, along with a vision of what he may become if he fulfills the potential of what he is. To put it in formulaic fashion: nature, potency, and actualization. This is intriguing, because it suggests that there is something permanently attractive about this sort of teleological structure for those wishing to articulate a realist moral theory. On these grounds, Yu has good reasons to think that a comparison of Aristotle and Confucius may lead to a better understanding of virtue and human perfection. Nevertheless, there is an element of incommensurability that Yu's account fails to treat adequately.
Commensurability is a concept open to a wide variety of interpretations. Nevertheless, there are two tests generally agreed upon. The first demands that there be at least enough of a shared conceptual structure to facilitate accurate translation. For example, although Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and Scotus may have all disagreed in important ways their theories could be adequately translated through common concepts such as form, substance, and so forth. The second requirement of commensurability concerns justification. Do two thinkers share a standard by which their competing claims may be adjudicated? Again this is so (to some degree) among thinkers in the same tradition. Thus, although Bonaventure was more Augustinian in doctrine and Thomas more Aristotelian, their competing accounts could be judged by a shared standard: the canons of Aristotelian logic and Catholic tradition. Do Confucian and Aristotelian ethics sufficiently share conceptual structures and criteria of justification necessary to overcome the possibility of incommensurability? I think the initial response must be in the negative on both counts.
Upon further inspection, the very teleological structure that appears to draw Aristotle and Confucius together actually sets them apart. It shall be recalled that in Yu's explanation of Confucius's account of the human good there are four terms (de, ren, cheng, and dao) whereas for Aristotle there are only two: virtue (arete) and excellence (eudamonia). We may of course add a higher form of Aristotelian excellence that includes contemplation, but the imbalance persists. Virtue, excellence, and contemplative excellence roughly mirror de, ren, and cheng, but there is nothing in Aristotle's ethics that obviously corresponds to dao and I think this is of great importance.
The dao of heaven is the divine and permanent pattern of things--the way in which things are to be ordered. The goal of Confucius's ethics is for the human person to mirror the dao of heaven; indeed this is the point of de, ren, and cheng; each of these marks a component of the person's conformity to the dao. Thus, in Confucian ethics, the end is something over and above the completion of human nature; it is conformity to a transcendent order. Of course there is nothing deficient in such an approach, but it does mark out a difference between Aristotle and Confucius. For the former, the human end is simply human completion, whereas for the latter it is completion as well, but such completion is to be found in conformity to a divine order. The end in the Aristotelian system is simply the perfecting of what is in the agent, that is, a sort of intrinsic finality. By contrast, for Confucius, the teleology is directed towards an extrinsic end: the dao of heaven.
Moreover, for Aristotle the content of the human good is derived from human nature itself. This is not so for Confucius. To this claim it may be objected that Mencius specifically treats human nature and its development in his discussion of xing. However, Yu himself admits that in Confucius's own writings there is no theory of human nature as such. Mencius's focus on xing is a later development. For Confucius the content of the human good is found in the ancient texts that preserve the social and religious rites of the first Zhou dynasty, a golden age in which the dao of heaven was perfectly manifested in the social order. Thus it became Confucius's project to interpret, preserve, and explain the texts of this heaven inspired time. It follows that in its origin Confucian ethics is an intellectual tradition based on sacred texts, which means that it was religious in nature. Accordingly, Confucian and Aristotelian ethics are found to be incommensurable in a second way: they do not share a common standard of justification. Thus, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Confucian and Aristotelian ethics are incommensurable in terms of their conceptual structure and criteria of justification. Nevertheless, this conclusion is not the final word, for like all great intellectual traditions Confucian ethics was open to development--a development accomplished by Mencius and aptly outlined by Yu.
According to Yu, it is Mencius who shift ed the focus of Confucian ethics towards a consideration of observable human nature. It is worth noting that Mencius did so under the pressure of consequentialists and egoists' criticisms of Confucius's teaching. Mencius's goal was to provide a rational defense of Confucius's ethical beliefs and he did so in the same way as Aristotle by anchoring the truth of morality on the reality of human nature. At this point we have the development of a philosophy along side and in addition to a great religious tradition. I do not mean to suggest that Mencius abandons the dao-centered approach of Confucius altogether. Rather, from Yu's own description, it appears that Mencius provides an ascending philosophical complement to Confucius's descending (revelatory) religious tradition; he does so in a way strikingly similar, at least on the conceptual level, to the work of Christian Aristotelians during the Middle Ages. I think this analysis of the development of Confucian ethics is important for several reasons.
First, it overcomes the charge of incommensurabity. Although Yu fails to see the degree to which Mencius altered and advanced Confucian ethics, he highlights the role that Mencius places on the nature-potency-actualization formula, which serves as the foundation for a fruitful dialogue with Aristotelians. Moreover, Mencius does not restrict himself to the texts of the Zhou dynasty in order to defend the Confucian world-view; rather, he adopts an argumentative strategy similar to Aristotle's by basing himself on reason and observation. Thus, the Confucian ethics of Mencius overcomes the challenge of incommensurability both at the level of translation and justification.
Second, if my interpretation is correct, Mencius represents the philosophical development of a religious tradition. I think this is important, because it conversely reflects what happened in the Aristotelian tradition, in which Jewish, Islamic, and Christian theologians incorporated Aristotelian ethics into religious traditions. Thus in both Confucian and Aristotelian traditions we find virtue based ethics open to integration with religious traditions that stress conformity to an extrinsic, transcendent order. This suggests, perhaps, that there is an intrinsic harmony between the intrinsic teleology of virtue-based ethics and the extrinsic teleology (conformity to an external object) of the great religious traditions. In this sense, Yu's project is quite successful. Although he fails to recognize the initial incommensurability between Confucius and Aristotle and the degree to which Mencius transforms Confucian ethics, he nevertheless provides all of the information and analysis necessary to do so. As Yu predicted, a close comparison of Aristotelian and Confucian ethics does indeed lead to a better understanding of virtue and human perfection.