George D. Beischer and Susan Fox Beischer Professor of Philosophy, Duke University
Much of my work concerns differences and similarities in moral values. I argue that the best explanation of such differences and similarities draws from the relevant human sciences and takes the form of a naturalistic conception of moralities as normative guides serving to promote and structure social cooperation and to structure reasonably coherent motivational priorities for individuals. There is no single true or justified morality, but there are objective constraints on what a true or most justified morality could be, given its functions and certain widespread motivational propensities of human beings.
I have sought to address the sad neglect in the contemporary philosophical literature of rich traditions of moral thought and practice other than the well-studied traditions centered in Western Europe and North America. I have focused on early Confucianism and Daoism in particular. Reflection on the different emphasis placed on the values of relationship and community in Confucian as compared to Western traditions has played an important role in motivating my conclusion that there is no single true morality. I hold in the possibility of productive exchange and mutual learning between such culturally diverse traditions.
Moral differences and similarities form the terrain for the ethics of disagreement. We try to resolve disagreements by finding the right answer. Since in many cases that’s going to take a long time, if ever, I have argued for an ethic of accommodation premised on the ubiquity and persistence of disagreement and on the need to preserve constructive relationship with those who disagree with us. One of the constraints on all true moralities is that they include the value of accommodation.
My interests in Confucianism intersect with issues in moral psychology and epistemology. The early Confucians developed sophisticated teachings weaving together theory and practice guided by the aim of producing people of moral excellence. I have argued that they make significant contributions to moral psychology through their combination of practical focus on how to accomplish that aim, close attention to concrete moral experience, and fruitful ways of thinking about human nature. Furthermore, the early Confucians’ way of conceiving the interaction between reflection and emotion in particular can enter into productive dialogue with Kantian and Humean conceptions of reason and emotion.
Daoism displays a healthy skepticism about the human tendency to pronounce that one is in definitive possession of all the truth. It identifies the ego-driven needs that such pronouncing seeks to satisfy (lessons philosophers would do well to take to heart), and much of the Zhuangzi is therapy designed to liberate us from these needs. The ultimate aim is to reveal new perspectives that are obscured by our certitudes. Some of my most recent research is directed toward articulating clearer conception of Daoist ways of understanding the world that go below the level of conscious awareness and articulation. It need not be as mystical as it is often taken to be and connects with of the most interesting recent science on implicit learning.