Moral domain not defined by norms

The inability of the Chinese language to express counterfactuals is even more intriguing. As you know, Confucius wrote his “Analects” in the Classical Chinese language. In order to see where I am heading, consider some of the thoughts that Rosemont, Jr. expresses. (Rosemont, Jr., H., “Against Relativism.” In Larson G. J. and E. Deutsch (eds.), Interpreting Across Boundaries: New Essays in Comparative Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988) Not only is there an absence of the concept of ‘morality’ in the Classical Chinese, but also the very cluster of concepts required to speak about moral issues.

Consider as a specific example the classical Chinese language in which the early Confucians wrote. Not merely does that language contain no lexical item for ‘moral’, it also does not have terms corresponding to ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, ‘autonomy’, ‘individual’, ‘utility’, ‘rationality’, ‘objective’, ‘subjective, ‘choice’, ‘dilemma’, ‘duty’, ‘rights’, and probably most eerie of all for a moralist, classical Chinese has no lexical item corresponding to ‘ought’ – prudential or obligatory (Rosemont Jr. 1988: 61).

This claim is as puzzling as it is startling: in classical Chinese it is not possible to speak of ‘moral duty’ or ‘moral dilemmas’ or ‘moral choices’. It is not even possible to formulate a rule which uses the notions of ‘ought’ – either obligatory (“All ought to do X”) or prudentially (“If one desires X then one ought to do Y”). In the western intellectual tradition, we believe it to be the ‘essence’ of a moral principle or norm that it is formulated using the ‘ought’ – either in obligatory or prudential form. Without ‘ought’, there would be no difference in kind between factual and evaluative statements. Yet, it is impossible to do precisely that in Confucianism. The philosophical significance is immense:

Speakers (writers) of languages that have no terms (or concept clusters) corresponding to ‘moral’ cannot logically have any moral principles (ibid.: 60).

But, rightly enough, we take Confucianism at least as an example of a moral system. What is the upshot of the above remark? Rosemont formulates the issue as follows:

If one grants that in contemporary western moral philosophy ‘morals’ is intimately linked with the concept cluster elaborated above, and if none of that concept cluster can be found in the Confucian lexicon, then the Confucians not only cannot be moral philosophers, they cannot be ethical philosophers either. But this contention is absurd; by any account of the Confucians, they were clearly concerned about the human conduct, and what constituted the good life. If these are not ethical considerations, what are? (ibid.: 64).

The intriguing question, apart from the truth-value of these claims, is about their intelligibility. What is the structure of the moral domain if it is not defined by norms? If one does not act morally simply by ‘following rules’, how does one learn to act in a moral way? How is an ethical judgment possible without referring to norms? How are ethical disputes settled? And, above all, how is an identification of such a domain possible at all?

What I am trying to say is that these questions arise typically (at the least) in all Asian traditions, including the Indian one. And that what has been argued as the weakness of these traditions is actually their greatest strength.