East Asian and Comparative Ethics: the Case of Filial Piety
by Philip J. Ivanhoe
My research focuses on East Asian and Western philosophy and religion; I have a particular interest in ethics. I have published translations of classical works of Chinese philosophy, and much of my research begins with the study of such original texts. One aspect of my work is the effort to bring traditional East Asian philosophy into conversation with contemporary Western ethics. For example, I have written a paper for a forthcoming volume on applied virtue ethics that argues for filial piety as a virtue. For my contribution to Monsoon, I would like first to describe some of my motives for engaging in such work. I will conclude with a sketch of my paper.
The virtue of filial piety may seem a tad out of date to many modern Western readers. But instead of accepting this response as authoritative, we should see that it raises several issues that are part of why this topic is particularly important. The first thing to ask is why is it that this particular virtue might strike certain readers as less or unimportant? While to some this may seem like a natural response, that alone is not a good reason to accept such a response as decisive. If, as many philosophers argue, virtues are traits of character that help one fare well in the face of a common set of human challenges, then filial piety should be a central concern. For in one way or another, as human beings, we all have to work our way through the special relationship we have with our parents. While traditional beliefs about filial piety may be out of date, the fact that humans have an enduring, distinctive, and emotionally charged relationship with their parents remains as true today as it was in the past and as true in the West as it is in the East.
The second point that needs to be made is that while filial piety may strike many modern Western readers as a bit old fashion, this is certainly not the case for readers in East Asian communities and many other people throughout the world. Many Chinese intellectuals find it quite odd that Western ethical philosophers for the most part disregard issues like filial piety and instead seem obsessed with the obscure and apparently intractable metaphysical problems associated with topics like abortion. The inordinate amount of attention paid to abortion in contemporary philosophical writing strikes educated observers outside the West, and some within it, more as a matter of anthropology—a manifestation of the Judeo-Christian context of Western philosophy—than evidence of the overriding philosophical importance of this particular problem. These two points offer clear illustrations of the value of cross-cultural studies of the virtues and are good examples of the kinds of concerns that motivate, guide, and sustain my own work. By bringing these cross-cultural differences to light, I hope to broaden our own self-understanding as well as our understanding of East Asian traditions.
In my essay, I first explore and discard some of the traditional justifications for filial piety. This part of the paper seeks to identify some of the reasons people in early China thought one had an overriding duty to obey, respect, and love one’s parents while alive and sacrifice to and revere them after they have died. I argue that what I call the “genetic argument”—the idea that we owe our parents filial piety out of gratitude for their begetting us—is not at all persuasive. Similarly, I do not think the religious obligation of continuing one’s family line is a secure basis for grounding anything like a duty of filial piety. While these arguments have been important for traditional views about filial piety and remain important for some people today, they do not offer compelling philosophical reasons for most modern people. They also suffer from the excessive demands that they place upon filial children. Such a conception of filial piety seems to trump every other ethical concern and leaves little room for the reasonable interests of even very good children.
If we abandon these aspects of the traditional conception of filial piety, there still remains a wealth of good reasons for regarding filial piety as an important virtue. A virtue is a trait of character that enables us to fare well in the various spheres of human endeavor. Having and exercising the virtues makes our lives and the lives of those around us better. And so courage is a virtue because human beings cannot avoid severe and dangerous challenges in the course of living a decent life. Courage enables us to pursue the good in the face of such threats; it helps our lives and the lives of those around us go better. Filial piety enables us to fulfill, in the most satisfying and reasonable manner possible, the particular challenges governing the relationship we have with our parents Since my account eschews the genetic argument, it applies equally well to parents who adopt a child as it does to biological parents (though there are good reasons to see special obligations in regard to the latter). According to my view, filial piety is a natural and satisfying response to the protection, nurture, attention, support, and love that good parents provide for their children. It is often focused through a sense of gratitude for all that they have done for one, but its deepest and more secure foundation is the recognition and appreciation of their love. Filial piety is distinctive because parents offer a unique range of care. They not only protect and nurture us in direct ways; they also play an important part in developing our character and encouraging our interests. In these ways, they play a critical role in forming us into the people we become.
East Asian societies see significant similarities between the roles of good parents and good teachers and this helps us to understand why they believe that we also owe the latter a type of filial regard. In a general way, these and other people have helped us to become who we are. To feel no gratitude, reverence, or love is to fail to recognize how dependent we in fact are on many other people. It is to be in the grip of a form of denial, a state that prevents one and those around one from enjoying the satisfaction and joy of a healthy and fulfilling parent-child relationship. Early Confucians further claimed that filial piety is the “root” of other important virtues. I defend this claim by pointing out that our parents’ love for us is our first experience of someone caring for another for that person’s sake. Experiencing this caring for another firsthand or observing it from the third-personal point of view gives us our first real sense of what it is to recognize and care for another. Responding to such care may indeed be our first ethical act. It does not seem unreasonable to understand such actions as the “root” of virtues such as benevolence and as an important source for ethical sensibilities in general.
There are many additional points that can be made about filial piety as a virtue and its role in East Asian societies. My essay is only an initial foray into rich and complex philosophical terrain. I hope though that this brief description conveys to you both some of the general motivations I have for pursuing such work and some of the particular insights that the topic of filial piety offers for the contemporary study of ethics.
Philip J. Ivanhoe is a visiting professor in the department of philosophy. He is teaching Introduction to Chinese Philosophy this spring semester.