August 13, 2018
I’m currently reading The Path by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh.
Puett and Gross-Loh contrast Confuscius to Kant and the modern “Trolley Problem.” Kant is famous for his “Categorial Imperative” which I found compelling for its simplicity even while my classmates gravitated toward’s Mill’s Utilitarian approach.
The Path argues that Kant, who they use as a stand-in for Western philosophers more generally, seeks to strip out context from a decision to get to ground truth. That’s why it is never appropriate to lie, even to prevent murderer from finding a victim. When judging the behavior, the surrounding context of that activity is ignored.
Puett and Gross-Loh present Confucius as the antidote. His philosophy is the ultimate in local determination. Understanding what is appropriate, correct, or good cannot be postulated without fully understanding the context of the decision.
If we think about the marketplace for ideas, the Western philosophers, are on the corner selling simplicity - whether it’s Kant’s bright line or Mill’s simple equation (greatest good for greatest number). They’re purveyors of an ethical system that can be picked up off the shelf and applied to one’s life with minimal effort - the plug-and-play edition of an ethical framework.
Kitty-corner the westerners stands Confucius. As described by Puett and Gross-Loh, Confucius refuses to tell you which path to choose and what is appropriate in a situation, at least not before you contribute the local context needed to make an informed decision. That’s why when he explains what the good life is to his students, he provides multiple answers - demonstrating the point that the answer changes based on where you are. This can be powerful. A solution that adapts to the settings and the times. But it’s a tall order. Adherents need to take the time to implement it properly which, in addition to time, requires effort.
It’s possible that Confucianism is a superior offering, but when competing in a marketplace, adoption is critical. In the west, Confucius simply didn’t have the evangelists to spread the word. Confucius has a marketing problem.
Written by Stephen Weiss who lives in Chicago with his wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Follow him on Twitter!