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The Aim of Moral Striving: A Comparative-Creative Approach to Confucius'a and Aristotle's Ethical Theories

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This essay is not primarily a comparative study—as one might initially expect—of the ethical theories of Aristotle and Confucius but more of an attempt to set out briefly certain implications of a particular approach to their philosophies. I have turned to these two important philosophers to illustrate how a comparison of philosophical theories from different ancient cultural backgrounds does raise fundamental issues even for us today regarding what we can claim about morality in particular and about philosophical knowledge in general. I regard this “comparative-creative approach”, i.e. the raising of fundamental issues resulting from a comparative study, to have its own contributions to historico-philosophical thinking.

Any reader of the ethical writings of Confucius and Aristotle will be struck by the similarities between these two who were geographically and culturally separated from each other. Both of them have exercised considerable influence on the thinking of their respective cultures and on the moral views of their societies. And yet neither of them influenced the other nor even knew of the existence of the other. The substantial similarities in the ethical theories which have come to bear their names inevitably raise questions about the general nature of moral understanding. This is not to say that a comparison of the ethical teachings of Confucius and Aristotle which revolves around their similarities would by itself constitute a proof for the universality of moral conclusions. That would be to ignore the specific differences in these two, differences which are major enough to also highlight the need to accept cultural diversity in morality. However, given their similarities and differences, what a comparison of the ethical theories of Confucius and Aristotle can do is to pave the way to an investigation of the possibility of a more global understanding of morality. At the same time it challenges one to account for the equally important consideration of the diversity of cultures as evidenced by the divergent development of Aristotelian and Confucian ethics. In other words, the point I wish to make in this essay is that a comparative study can lead to a certain questioning about what we can say regarding, in this instance, morality itself. To sharpen the discussion even more I will focus on the issue of moral striving and limit myself to addressing the question of the tension between generality and specificity of moral claims.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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