In The Vulnerability of Integrity in Early Confucian Thought, Michael D. K. Ing explores the notions of moral integrity and moral distress in early Confucian thought. Defined as “a confidence in maintaining commitments that affirm one’s moral standing” (9), Ing offers a tragic reading of integrity as an important moral attribute to early Confucians, but also as one that is potentially vulnerable in unfortunate external circumstances. Arguing against what he subsequently defines as the “harmony thesis,” Ing emphasizes the moral significance of vulnerability not only as something that can never be completely eliminated from our daily human experience but as a potentially positive value that can function as a catalyst for moral growth. Coping with vulnerability, and even learning to appreciate it, is a crucial step in enabling aspects of a good life (4). Ing is able to advance this highly original and thought-provoking argument by drawing on what he calls “neglected texts,” primary sources that are often underutilized in modern scholarship, especially when compared to some of the more popular Confucian texts such as the Analects and the Mengzi, but can offer us new insights into key ethical concepts and issues (3). The book is divided into two sections. In chapters 1 and 2, Ing presents what he calls “the master narrative,” the notion that the cultivated Confucian moral agent, the sage, is ethically invulnerable, a figure that can maintain their integrity even in the harshest circumstances. In chapter 1, Ing surveys the prevalence of this claim within the Confucian tradition by presenting a variety of early Confucian texts and their subsequent commentaries, all of which argue that the sage’s highly cultivated moral expertise allows them to remain pure and free of feelings of remorse, anxiety, and guilt, even when their desire to serve society requires them to make hard ethical choices and participate in corrupt regimes. In chapter 2, Ing demonstrates how contemporary scholars build on the notion of these early Confucian texts to devise what he calls the “harmony thesis,” the notion that while sages might feel grief, they never regret their choices as they are always able to harmonize a plurality of values in their actions without remorse (55). The remaining chapters of this book are devoted to a critique of the harmony thesis, which, according to Ing, fails to capture the vulnerability of integrity in early Confucianism. Drawing on a wide variety of underutilized primary sources, Ing sets out to show that this thesis, often portrayed by contemporary scholars as the dominant ethical paradigm in classical Confucianism, was but one option among many in the ethical discourse of early China. In chapter 3, for example, Ing demonstrates that regret, understood as contrition for failing to act properly and as a sense of lamentation over the unfortunate results of an act, is in fact “an appropriate feeling when things we value are harmed” and can serve as a catalyst for moral exploration and growth as it involves a reevaluation of our expectation of the world (80–83). Chapter 4 continues this line of inquiry by portraying the concept of resentment as an appropriate response that arises when we are not properly recognized by those close to us. Much like regret, argues Ing, early Confucian texts did not envisage resentment as a harmful emotion but as a feeling that can lead us to channel our frustrated desires into moral action (112). These two chapters aim to show the latent positive impact of regret and remorse. In chapter 5, Ing offers yet another critique of the harmony thesis by demonstrating that not all early Confucian sources endorse a vision of the sage as an invulnerable moral agent. On the contrary, they depict a world in which irresolvable value conflicts are a real possibility and harmony is not always an option. Ing successfully demonstrates that the tragic sensibility that arises from this realization is not necessarily bad, as it enables us to cultivate a greater sense of empathy derived from the recognition that some misfortunes are unavoidable (166). Chapter 6 focuses on the figure of the sage as a conflicted figure whose self-sacrifice for the greater good sometimes requires them to compromise their integrity. Faced with a complex reality, the sages cannot always tend to all values—they have to make a choice. The fact that they understand the risks to their own moral integrity and still choose to do for others is what sets them apart from less cultivated agents and makes them worthy of being exemplary figures and models for emulation (202). The sage’s moral charisma and ability to motivate others is further investigated in chapter 7, which focuses on the emic notion of de 德, often translated as virtue or power, but is here explained through the framework of integrity. The Confucian notion of self, argues Ing, is porous in that it is partially constituted by our relationships with others. Integrity, in that context, is all about integration, bringing oneself into a state of personal wholeness—overcoming the stress of conflicting commitments—and communal wholeness: namely, influencing others to better perform their social obligations in the face of adversity (210). In the conclusion, Ing highlights the potential contribution of his work to the broader field of ethics by presenting a comprehensive and well-articulated outline of a Confucian theory of vulnerability, which emphasizes its positive aspects as a catalyst for moral self-cultivation, a trait that needs to be developed to an optimal degree through communal ritual participation (240). Drawing on the various examples presented in the previous chapters, Ing concludes that in early Confucian texts, vulnerability to pain, suffering, and regret is seen as something that is intrinsically good, an “identity-conferring experience,” as it provides us with motivation for responding to the concerns of others and developing trust. It should thus be cultivated and refined, not simply managed (255). The Vulnerability of Integrity in Early Confucian Thought is an excellent addition to a growing number of works that draw on Confucian sources to enrich the contemporary ethical discourse. Ing’s strengths as a thinker and a writer allow him to render the complex moral concepts and dilemmas described in classical Confucian sources intelligible to modern readers who are not necessarily well-acquainted with this tradition. One of the key factors that contributes to the success of this work is Ing’s decision to frame his work around etic, rather than emic, categories. His key terms, integrity and vulnerability, are derived from contemporary Western ethical literature and do not correspond with a single specific term in Chinese. This is a calculated move on Ing’s part, as it allows him to use these terms as “bridge concepts” linking the early Confucian sources with the modern reader (14). Ing is careful to articulate this position in an attempt to avoid accusations of misrepresentation of his primary sources. For him, vulnerability and integrity function as organizing categories that play an essential role in implementing his main agenda—“writing about early Confucianism… for an audience of contemporary interpreters” (10). This strategy allows Ing to offer a “strong” reading of early Confucian texts, one that adheres to sinological standards, while at the same time demonstrating their value to non-specialist readers. As such, one minor point of criticism is the sheer amount of Chinese script on almost every page. The decision to accompany every mention of an emic philosophical concept or a text title with its corresponding Chinese characters (e.g., dao 道, de 德, The Mengzi 孟子) is certainly understandable when viewed in the context of Ing’s desire for adhering to high standards of interpreting the primary sources, but it runs the risk of overwhelming the general reader. One potential solution for this problem would have been to provide the Chinese character, especially when it applied to terms that are not central to the book’s main argument such as names of historical figures or text titles, only on its first occurrence. This, however, is quite a minor issue, and non-sinological readers who can overcome it will be rewarded by a thought-provoking and clearly articulated work that offers an immense contribution to the fields of moral psychology and religious ethics. Michael Ing is swiftly distinguishing himself as one of the leading voices of the present generation of scholars who aim to enrich the contemporary ethical discourse by introducing non-Western perspectives. Ing is able to combine sinological rigor with a philosophical sensitivity, contextualizing ideas from Confucian texts before he thinks through them. His efforts in making the works of early Chinese thinkers accessible to ethicists that are interested in learning about Confucianism but do not have the training to read the original texts render this book invaluable and deserving of the highest praise. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 13, 2018
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