A great book review by Jim Holt of Deirdre McCloskey's, The Bourgeois Virtues. I laughed out loud when I read the last line: "Somewhere within this loose, baggy monster there has to be a slim, cogently argued treatise struggling to get out." To fully appreciate the humor, you'll have to read the whole thing.
One of the things that McCloskey is doing is arguing for "virtue ethics," which Holt summarizes as follows:
In the last few decades, however, an alternative to utilitarian and Kantian ethics has emerged, one that harks back to the ancient philosophers. It centers neither on acts nor on their consequences, but on character. According to “virtue ethics,” morality cannot be captured in a universal code; the right thing to do in a particular situation is what a virtuous person would do. And how do we identify a virtuous person? Aristotle defined virtue as a quality of character that makes for a life well lived. Then he characterized the good life as a life lived in accordance with virtue. Circular? Today’s virtue ethicists obviously don’t think so, but they have nevertheless struggled to come up with an account of human nature that would give some definite content to the idea of virtue.
My first thought here was, yes, this is precisely what a Confucian ethics is about: character - even if Holt, like so many American writers and thinkers, gives no thought to the possibility of a link to the Chinese ancients (and that just confirms me in my work here: we really do need to bring ancient Chinese thought into these sorts of conversations).
Confucius, however, goes a step further than Aristotle, and helps escape the potential circularity of virtue ethics. He provides a starting point for understanding how to live a good life. There is not a single, universal moral code, but there is a "root of humanity," and that is the cultivation of our closest loving relationships. We must first assure that our duties to our families and friends are fulfilled, before we assume ethical responsibilities for others. This is not to say that we do not have any duties toward strangers; rather, it is a reminder that our first duties are to those closest to us. We must have our houses in order, so to speak, before we can turn ourselves wholly to the problems of others. And that may help answer a question Holt raises:
In taking the question “What sort of person ought I to be?” as fundamental, virtue ethics entails a richer moral psychology than its rivals. Yet it is not very useful in resolving ethical dilemmas. Should I betray my friend or my country? Utilitarianism at least yields an answer (friend). Virtue ethics tells me to do what a virtuous person would do in the circumstances — scant guidance for anyone who lacks the virtuous person’s built-in ethical know-how. And the egoistic emphasis on cultivating one’s virtue can easily lead to a preening moral vanity, not to say self-infatuation. How much more likable the Kantian ideal of doing the irksome thing simply because it’s your duty, damn it.
When given the choice of friend or country, the presumptive Confucian response would be "friend," which might be overridden but only at a certain threshold of good reasons. Is Confucianism thus just a version of Kantian duty? Not quite. While duty is obviously central to Confucianism, it does not have as strong a universalizing impulse as Kant. Confucius's moral imperative is more local and intimate and concrete than Kant's. And, I think, Confucius is more open to situational considerations that might warrant apparent contradiction of universal principles - that is why it is closer to virtue ethics: a morally educated person will be able to find the right solution to particular ethical dilemmas.
Confucianism is, then, a more focused virtue ethics. When confronted with moral questions, it tells us to start with a consideration of how our responses will first effect our closest loving relationships. If those are secure, then we can seek solutions that extend our responsibilities outward to others. That is how "character" is built.