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Title: A Xunzian theory of moral cultivation: a critique of situationism and a reconstruction of the ethics in the Xunzi
Authors: Hu, Jianping
Keywords: Humanities::Philosophy::Chinese
Issue Date: 2022
Publisher: Nanyang Technological University
Source: Hu, J. (2022). A Xunzian theory of moral cultivation: a critique of situationism and a reconstruction of the ethics in the Xunzi. Doctoral thesis, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Abstract: Philosophical situationists John Doris and Gilbert Harman have been criticizing Aristotelian virtue ethics by questioning the substantiality of character traits since 1990s. Based on their readings of some social psychological experiments, Doris and Harman argue that moral behavior is mostly influenced or even determined by external situations instead of character traits. Scholars of virtue ethics, personality psychology, education, and Chinese philosophy contribute to the character-situation debate from various perspectives. Early Confucian ethics is considered as major Non-Western ethical tradition that is able to respond to the situationist critique of virtue ethics. However, despite the existing excellent work on this topic, some important problems of situationism are not thoroughly discussed, and the Confucian form of virtue ethics in question is largely isolated from empirical studies in social psychology. This present project aims to not only challenge situationism from various aspects but also reinterpret and reconstruct the ethical ideas in the Xunzi into a dynamic interactional theory of character traits and situations that is psychologically realistic and empirically friendly. On the one hand, there are three major mistakes of situationism: (1) Doris and Harman misinterpret the relationships between the concepts of character traits, personality traits, and virtue; (2) there is a lack of attention to and discussion of longitudinal social psychological studies in situationist discourses; (3) Doris overlooks the process of internalization of situations in the dynamic interactional theory of moral cultivation. On the other hand, the Xunzian dynamic interactional theory of moral cultivation incorporates situational factors into the process of moral development: humans choose, avoid, and change certain situations, and the ritual situations or environments are capable of supporting the virtues of people through the implementation of ritual propriety 禮. Rituals in the Xunzi function through the nourishment of desires and guidance of feelings, which constitutes the basis of the internalization of external norms. The Xunzian system of moral cultivation is a lifelong process that can be divided into four stages (the petty person 小人, the well-bred man 士, the junzi 君子, and the sage 聖人) where people gradually transform themselves from selfish individuals who are mostly driven by personal interests and desires into morally more developed persons. Inspired by and empirically supported by certain psychological studies, I argue that the Xunzian dynamic interactional theory of moral cultivation can be considered as a psychologically realistic virtue-centered ethics that is able to not only respond to and challenge the situationist critiques, but also provide an example of the interdisciplinary collaboration between Chinese philosophy, Western ethics, and social psychology. The dissertation is constituted by seven chapters. The first chapter introduces the background and one methodological issue of the project, i.e., how to respond to a contemporary debate in the West with a Pre-Qin Chinese philosophical tradition. The second chapter discusses the characteristic features of virtue ethics and argues that Confucian ethics, especially the ethical theory in the book of Xunzi, can be interpreted as a form of virtue ethics. It establishes the foundation of the project by providing reasons why the moral philosophy in the Xunzi can and should respond to situationist critique of virtue ethics. In the dissertation’s third chapter, Xunzi’s theory on human nature in which humans are considered as innately selfish offers another perspective, i.e., the non-malicious vices, to criticize situationist misunderstanding of the concept of character traits. The notion of non-malicious vices can also be utilized to account for the social psychological experiments in situationist critique of virtue ethics, which questions the plausibility of the situationist account of those experiments. The fourth chapter addresses the absence of longitudinal studies in situationism. I argue that character development, instantiated by Xunzi’s four-stage moral cultivation model, is a process that requires long-term learning and practice, which cannot be fully demonstrated merely by cross-sectional experiments. The existing longitudinal studies in social psychology provide considerable evidence for the development of character traits. The fifth chapter introduces a Xunzian dynamic interactional model of situation and character, which is inspired by the dynamic interactional strategy by William Ickes, Mark Snyder, and their colleagues. The Xunzian theory of moral cultivation is interactional in the sense that people enter, avoid, and change certain situations and the situations in turn can be constructed to be conducive to moral actions and cultivation of people. The sixth chapter addresses the problem of demandingness and proposes four features of the Xunzian dynamic interactional model of moral cultivation that do not make this very ethical theory an extremely demanding one. In the conclusive chapter of the dissertation, two potential directions of further research of the project are pointed out and discussed. The contribution of this project to the scholarship is threefold. First, it reveals some major problems of situationism that are either overlooked or inadequately discussed by its opponents. Second, my project proffers a new approach to interpreting and constructing the ethical ideas in the Xunzi. Third, this present project illustrates a detailed approach to conducting cross-cultural and interdisciplinary studies between Chinese philosophy or religions (Confucianism), Western ethics (virtue ethics), and social psychology (personality psychology) on a profound level.
DOI: 10.32657/10356/157022
Schools: School of Humanities 
Rights: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0).
Fulltext Permission: embargo_20240501
Fulltext Availability: With Fulltext
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