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Olberding, Amy. Etiquette: A Confucian Contribution to Moral Philosophy
2016, Ethics 126 (2):422-446
Added by: Deryn Mair Thomas

The early Confucians recognize that the exchanges and experiences of quotidian life profoundly shape moral attitudes, moral self-understanding, and our prospects for robust moral community. Confucian etiquette aims to provide a form of moral training that can render learners equal to the moral work of ordinary life, inculcating appropriate cognitive-emotional dispositions, as well as honing social perception and bodily expression. In both their astute attention to prosaic behavior and the techniques they suggest for managing it, I argue, the Confucians afford a model useful for appropriation in contemporary efforts to address small but potent moral harms such as microinequities

Comment: This paper explores the bearing of etiquette on moral sensibility, action, and character, through the philosophy of Confucianism and its concept of 'li 禮'. The author draws attention to the fact that early Confucianism placed an uncharacteristic emphasis on the development of good etiquette as a core component of the development of a moral character. She highlights this feature of Confucian ethics, in part, because it runs counter to much of traditional ethical theory in western philosohpy - where manners and etiquette, as mere social norms, are treated as 'notoriously fallible,' imperfect and often arbitrary: not principles on which we would think to base guidelines for moral development. Olberding, however, argues in their favor: that these rules 'arise in sensitivity to human need', and that robust adherence to them cultivates not only our actions but our character when it comes to interacting with other. The argument is especially straightforward and clear, and does not require any advanced or previous exposure to Confucian ethics, making it accessible to a wide range of ability levels. It would make an interesting addition to any introductory course in ethics, but could also be used to augment a more advanced discussion about contemporary ethical debates. (There are notable connections to the work of other contemporary philosophers discussing sociality and need, including Kimberley Brownlee, Soran Reader, and Anca Gheaus.)

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