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Philosophy & Religion | Bishop Hurst Lecture Series

The Bishop John Fletcher Hurst Philosophy Lecture was initiated by the Department of Philosophy and Religion and named for the founder of American University, who was himself a philosopher. Offered annually in the spring, it brings to the American University campus some of the most distinguished thinkers from this country and abroad. As a result, our students have immediate contact with those shaping philosophical theory in many fields. The department has consistently invited lecturers who are working on the frontiers of contemporary thought and who are relevant to many other disciplines, including aesthetics, the social and natural sciences, history, literature, ethics and the philosophy of religion.

55th Annual Bishop Hurst Lecture
Spring 2014 Brochure

"Confucian Role Ethics: A Challenge to the Ideology of Individualism"

Dr. Roger T. Ames
Professor, University of Hawai'i

Friday, March 21, 2014
Butler Boardroom
2:00 p.m.


About Roger T. Ames

Roger T. Ames is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawai'i. He received his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He currently serves as president of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy (SACP), and as editor of both Philosophy East and West and China Review International.

His primary areas of research are comparative philosophy and Confucian philosophy, and he has published widely in these areas. Professor Ames often works in collaboration with other scholars to produce explicitly philosophical translations of classical texts. These have included Confucius' Analects, the Daodejing, and most recently, the Classic of Family Reverence. He is presently advocating Confucian role ethics as an attempt to take this philosophical tradition on its own terms.

About "Confucian Role Ethics: A Challenge to the Ideology of Individualism" 

In the introduction of Chinese philosophy and culture into the Western academy, we have tended to theorize and conceptualize this antique tradition by appeal to familiar categories. Confucian role ethics is an attempt to articulate a sui generis moral philosophy that allows this tradition to have its own voice. This holistic philosophy is grounded in the primacy of relationality, and is a challenge to a foundational liberal individualism that has defined persons as discrete, autonomous, rational, free, and often self-interested agents. Confucian role ethics begins from a relationally constituted conception of person, takes family roles and relations as the entry point for developing moral competence, invokes moral imagination and the growth in relations that it can inspire as the substance of human morality, and entails a human-centered, a theistic religiousness that stands in sharp contrast to the Abrahamic religions.

Confucian "role ethics"--how to live optimally within the roles and relations that constitute one--originates in and radiates out from the concrete family feelings that constitute the intergenerational relations that obtain among children and their elders and the interdependent roles that they live. Such family feeling is at once ordinary and everyday, and yet at the same time, is arguably the most extraordinary aspect of the human experience.

In a Confucian world, because persons are born into family relations that are considered constitutive of their persons, their "natures" (xing) (or perhaps better, "natural tendencies") are a combination of native instinct and the cultivated cognitive, moral, aesthetic, religious sensibilities provided by their family locus and initial conditions. That is, persons from their inchoate beginnings are to be understood as embedded in and nurtured by unique, transactional patters of relations, rather than as discrete entities defined by common traits. The notion of li, or "achieving propriety in one's roles and relations," locates moral conduct within a thick and richly textured pattern of relations.

The key vocabulary of what we call "role ethics" (as an alternative to deontic, utilitarian, and virtue ethics) is the language relevant to the Confucian pursuit of community. Li is the communal grammar that situates persons in meaningful, reciprocal roles and relations within their families and communities. Given that each unique situation presents us with alternative possibilities, yi, or an achieved sense of "appropriateness," reports upon the ongoing adjustments that are necessary to optimize the significance of these relations, and in so doing, to deepen and to extend them to become an increasingly robust source of meaning. And it is only by beginning with family reverence (Xiao) at home and then extending these same feelings to other members of the community that persons are able, in the fullness of time, to become virtuosic in their relations, and thus consummate in their conduct (ren).

The cultivated and distinctive individuality--defined relationally--that is achieved through associated living is the ultimate reward for living the complex moral life. For this reason, Confucian terms such as ren and de--"consummatory conduct" and "excellence" respectively--far from being uniformities, are generalizations made from the life histories of particular persons, and are thus often illustrated by appeal to particular models of conduct rather than by invoking abstract principles or definitions. That is, instruction in Confucian role ethics is largely effected through emulation. 


List of Past Lectures

54. 2013 Beate Roessler, University of Amsterdam, "Changing Norms of Friendship: Social Relations in the Age of Social Network Sites"

53. 2012 Susan Brison, Dartmouth College,"The Embodied Self: Trauma, Narrative, and Personal Identity"

52. 2011 Ladelle McWhorter, University of Richmond, "Savages and Throwbacks: A Foucauldian Genealogy of Racism in the 20th Century"

51. 2010 Claudia Card, University of Wisconsin, Madison, "Evils and Inexcusable Wrongs"

50. 2009 Simon Critchley, New School for Social Research, “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die”

49. 2008 Robert Bernasconi, University of Memphis, “The Policing of Race Mixing and the Birth of Biopower”

48. 2007 Nancy Tuana, Pennsylvania State University, "Witnessing Katrina: Feminist Contributions to Socially Responsible Science"

47. 2006 Alison M. Jaggar, University of Colorado, "The Poorest of the Poor: Justice and the Feminization of Global Poverty"

46. 2005 Debra B. Bergoffen, Professor of Philosophy, George Mason University, "From Genocide to Jusstice: Women's Bodies as a Legal Writing Pad"

45. 2004 John J. McDermott, University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Texas A & M University, "Living Without a Canopy of Ultimate Explanation"

44. 2003 Nancy Sherman, University Professor at Georgetown University and Former Distinguished Chair in Ethics, United States Naval Academy, "Stoicism and a Warrior's Anger"

43. 2002 Herman J Saatkamp, Indiana University, Purdue,“The New Genetics and Human Values

42. 2001 Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary,“The Just War Ethic, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Intervention

41. 2000 Petr Kolar, Charles IV University, Prague, “Academic Freedom in Times of Turmoil

40. 1999 Lucius Outlaw, Haverford, "On Race and Philosophy"

39. 1998 Hugo Adam Bedau, Tufts,"Anarchical Fallacies or Utilitarian Fantasies: Bentham's Critique of Human Rights"

38. 1997 Wesley Robbins, Indiana, "Pragmatism and Religious Freedom"

37. 1996 Rom Harré, Oxford, "Varieties of Relativism"

36. 1995 Amelie Rorty, Mt. Holyoke, "Rights: Educational Not Cultural"

35. 1994 David Crocker, Colorado State, "Consumption, Well-Being and Virtue"

34. 1993 Robert Sokolowski, Catholic University of America, "What is Philosophical Thinking?"

33. 1992 Thelma Lavine, George Mason, "American Philosophy and the Contradictions of Modernity"

32. 1991 Tom Beauchamp, Georgetown, "Why is the Topic of Animal Rights So Ticklish?"

31. 1989 Anthony Quinton, Oxford, "Alien Intelligences: Reflections on the Separation of Anglo-Saxon from Continental European Philosophies"

30. 1989 Joseph Margolis, Temple,"Explanation in the Human and Natural Sciences"

29. 1988 Antony Flew, Reading, "The Logic of Mortality"

28. 1987 G.E.M. Anscombe, Cambridge, "A Reputation Ruined by a Comma"

27. 1986 Basil Mitchell, Oxford, "The Enforcement of Morals"

26. 1985 Jacques Taminiaux, Louvain, "Art and Truth in Schopenhaur and Nietzsche"

25. 1982 John Lachs, Vanderbilt, "Mediation and Psychic Distance: Alienation Reconsidered"

24. 1981 Stanley Rosen, Pennsylvania State, "Philosophy and Revolution: Pre-Socratic Origins"

23. 1980 Michael Novak, Syracuse, "The Philosophy of Democratic Capitalism"

22. 1978 Albert Hofstadter, New School for Social Research, "The Courage for Truth"

21. 1976 Basil Mitchell, Oxford,"The Philosophical and Religious Dimensions of Ethics" and "Is Religious Ethics Necessary or Possible?"

20. 1974 R.M. Hare, Oxford, "Abortion"

19. 1974 Dieter Henrich, Columbia, "Autonomous Negation: A Key to Hegel's Science of Logic"

18. 1972 Stephan Körner, Yale, "The Structure and Function of Metaphysical Propositions"

17. 1972 Alasdair MacIntyre, Brandeis, "The Sources of Unpredictability in Human Affairs"

16. 1971 J.N. Findlay, Yale, "The Critical Predicament"

15. 1970 W.H. Walsh, Edinburgh, "Social and Personal Factors in Morality"

14. 1968 P.F. Strawson, Oxford, "Imagination and Perception"

13. 1968 Norman Malcolm, Cornell, Title Unknown

12. 1967 William Muehl, Yale, "Politics of the New Left"

11. 1966 Isaiah Berlin, Oxford, "Is Philosophy a Province of Knowledge?"

10. 1966 Willfred Sellars, Pittsburgh, "Science and Ethics: A Study in First Principles"

9. 1965 Paul Weiss, Yale, "Philosophy of Art and the Modern Machine Age"

8. 1964 Ernst Nagel, Columbia, "Determinism and Human Action"

7. 1963 Brand Blanchard, Yale, "The Sane and the Eccentric in Present-Day Thought"

6. 1962 Justus Buchler, Columbia,"Reflections on a Theory of Meaning"

5. 1961 A.J. Ayer, Oxford, "The Concept of a Person"

4. 1961 George Schrader, Yale, "Ethics and Existence"

3. 1960 Maurice Mandelbaum, Johns Hopkins, "Historicism: A Key to the Nineteenth Century"

2. 1959 Richard Brandt, Swarthmore, "Ethical Relativism"

1. 1958 Walter Kaufmann, Princeton, “The Significance of Martin Buber"

Roger Ames