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One of David S. Nivison's (1923–2014) most important contributions is his work in bridging philological studies and philosophical inquiry. His methodological approach resonates in spirit with an approach to the study of Chinese thought advocated by Confucian thinkers such as Zhu Xi and Tang Junyi, who both emphasize jing toward early thinkers. He pays careful attention to textual details, is respectful of cultural context, and seeks to preserve the distinctive features of Chinese traditions of thought and avoid imposing on them western philosophical conceptions. In doing so, he exemplifies the spirit of jing, a serious and cautious attitude dedicated to a proper understanding of early thinkers in their cultural context.
The Chinese ethical tradition has often been thought to oppose Western views of the self as autonomous and possessed of individual rights with views that emphasize the centrality of relationship and community to the self. The essays in this collection discuss the validity of that contrast as it concerns Confucianism, the single most influential Chinese school of thought. Alasdair MacIntyre, the single most influential philosopher to articulate the need for dialogue across traditions, contributes a concluding essay of commentary. This is the only consistently philosophical collection on Asia and human rights and could be used in courses on comparative ethics, political philosophy and Asian area studies.
In recent discussions of comparative ethics, various claims have been made about the inapplicability of certain Western notions to the Confucian conception of the person. For example, some have observed that Confucians do not have a notion of self and do not draw a distinction between mind and body. Others, while working with the notion of self, have argued that the Confucian conception of self is constituted primarily by the social roles one occupies and that the notions of autonomy and rights are inapplicable to Confucian thought. The inapplicability of these notions is seen as reflecting distinctive features of Confucian thought, features that have an important bearing on our understanding of the ethical values of Asian societies influenced by the Confucian tradition and the potential inapplicability of certain Western political ideas to such societies.
While these claims about the inapplicability of certain Western notions are suggestive, the exact content and significance of such claims remain to be explored. On the one hand, if we build substantive Western philosophical presuppositions into the notions under consideration, claims about their inapplicability become uncontroversial and of dubitable significance. For example, the claim that Confucian thinkers do not subscribe to a Cartesian distinction between mind and body or a Kantian notion of autonomy is not one that many would dispute. On the other hand, if we construe the notions under consideration in a very general manner, claims about their inapplicability appear clearly false.
East-West comparative ethics has drawn increased attention in recent years, especially comparative discussion of Confucian ethics and Western thought. Such interest stems in part from a growing concern with the political systems of Asian countries, which are often viewed as informed by Confucian values. Critics of such systems accuse them of a form of authoritarianism that is at odds with Western democratic ideals. Defenders of such systems reject the imposition of Western political ideals. Some argue that such systems are characterized by a democracy of a distinctively Asian kind, and some even argue that Western notions of rights and democracy are inapplicable to Asian political structures. Underlying this rejection of Western political ideals is the view that values espoused by Asian ethical and political traditions, and more specifically the Confucian tradition, are radically different from and no less respectable than those of Western traditions, a view that has led to a growing interest in the “Asian values” debate.
The interest in comparative ethics also stems in part from a concern to understand Asian ethical traditions as a way to unravel philosophical presuppositions behind Western ethical traditions. Setting the different traditions alongside each other helps to put in sharper focus the presuppositions that shape the development of each, thereby preparing the ground for a comparative evaluation and possible synthesis. The Confucian tradition, with its long history, rich content, and extensive influence on Asian communities, has drawn much attention in such comparative discussions.