Women and Role Ethics

I’m writing this from the campus of the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, on a kind of wildly windy evening.  I’m here on as part of team from my own and a couple of other colleges working on a Title VI grant for curriculum development in China studies.  The focus this summer is on history, and so I’m looking forward to deepening my not so great grasp of Chinese history.  Can only make for better philosophy.

On that note, I’m going to veer back towards Chinese philosophy a bit, and try to work out in a very preliminary way some ideas I’ve been playing with regarding Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont’s reading classical Confucianism as a “role ethic.”  Because they offer this reading explicitly in opposition to characterizations of Confucianism as a kind of virtue ethic, it is tempting to suppose that Ames and Rosemont think of “role ethics” as a taxonomic term on the same level of abstraction as “virtue ethics” or “deontology”, so that we might look for other versions of role ethics (in the way we can talk about non-Aristotelian virtue ethics).  Another part of this project might be to work out the features of a role ethics in a way that abstracts from any particular cultural instantiation.

I don’t know that either or both Ames and Rosemont are interested in pursing such a project, or whether they’re sympathetic to the project if others want to pursue it, or whether they want to assert that as a role ethics Confucianism is sui generis.  As I read them, their own pressing interest is to abstract away from the textual details of the tradition just enough to highlight the place and importance of roles in Confucian thought about morality, moral education and development, politics and so on.  This suffices to point out what it provides that is absent or obscure in virtue ethics, as well as what is absent from Confucianism but typical in virtue ethics.  If they’re on the right track it also does much better at “letting the tradition speak for itself” than what we get when it is shoehorned into looking like a version of virtue ethics.  Fair enough.  What I want to suggest though is that there may be reason to want to abstract a bit further in order to allow for a role ethical criticism of Confucianism that is much in need.  This may though push the idea towards a reading that would put “role ethics’ at the same level as “virtue ethics.”

The problem I’m looking at is women in classical Confucianism, or rather the almost complete lack of women in classical Confucianism.  Consider the following argument.  If we are going to take roles seriously, we need to take gender roles seriously.  This means we must attend to the almost exclusively male world of Confucius and his followers by facing up to the fact that to the extent the texts talk about actual roles, they are mostly male roles–fathers, sons, lords, etc.  But this is to concede that to read Confucianism as a ‘role ethics’ is to grant that it has almost nothing to teach women.

To avoid this unpalatable conclusion, we might try to simply ignore gender roles and in the process take gender out of the text and out of the tradition.  We do this when we read “parent” where the text says “father”, “spouse” where it says “husband” and so on.  This is also to suggest women can learn from Confucianism, but not as women.  Rather, women must approach the texts as ungendered, as parents or offspring or siblings or spouses, but not as mothers, daughters, sisters or wives.  Of course this cuts both ways–men should looking to learn from Confucianism should ignore the gendered language as well.

This strikes me as very unsatisfactory.  It is not true to the texts, and it simply ignores one of the most philosophically striking things about the tradition, which is precisely its willingness to give considerable weight not to “relationships” (as is the case with Western care ethics), but to very specific kinds of relationships as concretely woven into a very specific cultural setting.  One would think, moreover, that this is precisely the sort of thing we would see highlighted in an interpretation of Confucianism going by the name of “role ethics.”  It is also to duck what I think are some potentially interesting if unsettling questions that are forced into view if we take the texts on their own terms.  It is commonplace to see commentators say things like there is no Confucian reason a woman cannot be a junzi. Perhaps, but this is not so obvious if we resist the temptation to simply read gender out of the tradition.  Given how little is said about women (and the misogyny in what is said), it would seem it would be more accurate to say we just don’t know what a woman (equivalent of?) a junzi would look like.  Confucius doesn’t tell us. I don’t think we should simply stipulate that she would look much like a male junzi.

A better route,  I think, is to use the idea of a role ethics itself to foreground and criticize this lacuna as well as the features of women’s roles as they were tolerated and later defended by the Confucian tradition.  If we had an theory of role ethics that was more removed from Confucianism, one grounded in values or goods that themselves transcend the cultural setting of Confucianism, it could tell us whether the traditional emphasis on gender roles is a mistake or something that can be philosophically defended. We could say also why and where the tradition–as rich as it is–fails when it comes to women. We could then begin the task of correcting its error and filling in its gaps.

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