Virtue and Virtuosity: Xunzi and Aristotle on the Role of Art in Ethical Cultivation

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 30:75–103 (2018)
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Christian B. Miller has noted a “realism challenge” for virtue ethicists to provide an account of how the character gap between virtuous agents and non-virtuous agents can be bridged. This is precisely one of Han Feizi’s key criticisms against Confucian virtue ethics, as Eric L. Hutton argues, which also cuts across the Aristotelian one: appealing to virtuous agents as ethical models provides the wrong kind of guidance for the development of virtues. Hutton, however, without going into detail, notes that the notion of rituals in the Confucian tradition may be able to sidestep Han Feizi’s criticism. In this essay, I wish to explore not only how the notion of rituals, alongside its corollaries in Xunzi’s Confucian program for ethical cultivation, indeed addresses Han Feizi’s criticism, but also observe that Aristotle’s tragic poetry plays functionally equivalent roles in his own understanding of ethical upbringing. I will begin by considering Han Feizi’s critique of ethical cultivation in virtue ethics as such and how it poses a specific problem for the acquisition of the ‘constitutive reasoning’ shared by Aristotle and Xunzi. I will then briefly note that this problem trades on the synthetic structure of human nature found in both Aristotle and Xunzi (the rational/irrational parts of the soul and the heartmind/five faculties), which grounds the way they understand ethical action and agency. Finally, I will suggest how both Aristotle and Xunzi understand the role of the arts in their extensive programme of ethical cultivation, allowing them to respond to Han Feizi’s attack as too narrow a construal of their respective ethical projects. It is hoped that, through this, we may gain a better sense of how more recent virtue ethicists may similarly draw on aesthetic resources for ethical development.


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