A Chinese Ethics for the New Century: The Ch'ien Mu Lectures in History and Culture, and Other Essays on Science and Confucian Ethics

By Makeham, John | The China Journal, January 2006 | Go to article overview

A Chinese Ethics for the New Century: The Ch'ien Mu Lectures in History and Culture, and Other Essays on Science and Confucian Ethics


Makeham, John, The China Journal


A Chinese Ethics for the New Century: The Ch'ien Mu Lectures in History and Culture, and Other Essays on Science and Confucian Ethics, by David J. Munro. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2005. xlvi + 158 pp. US$33.00 (hardcover).

David Munro boasts a distinguished four-decade-long career teaching Chinese philosophy at the University of Michigan. Retired a decade ago, he continues to be an active writer and thinker. (It is a pity that his other post-retirement volume, The Imperial Style of Inquiry in Twentieth Century China [1996], has not been more widely discussed.) The ten chapters of this short book are divided into three parts. The first part consists of the three Ch'ien Mu Lectures the author delivered at New Asia College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, in 2003. The second part consists of four chapters clustered around the theme of "A Chinese Ethics for the New Century". The third part consists of three chapters on "Western Sinology". Ambrose King provides a short Foreword and Liu Xiaogan a considerably longer Introduction. Chapters 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 were previously published either in part or in whole, which may account for the relatively high level of repetition in content across some chapters.

Although the content of the volume is varied, the "single thread" running through most chapters is that Confucian ethics has a biological basis, which contemporary proponents of Confucian values should highlight and develop. Munro regularly invokes the views of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson because they endorse the idea of a common human nature, as evidenced, purportedly, by the primacy accorded to family ties (kinship love), a universal moral sense of sympathy (awareness of joy and suffering), and a predisposition to share and cooperate based on a system of reciprocal altruism. Munro sees clear resonances between these claims and what he terms the Mencian legacy of a naturally equal human nature. He argues that this connection is important because "it affirms that ethics can be grounded in the innate human condition ... Moral concepts derive from something that is inborn" (p. 63).

What he means by the "Confucian" concept of an innate human nature is the Mencian view that there are universal human emotions and thoughts, plus predispositions to act in accordance with them. It should, however, be noted that Munro disavows strong biological determinism: "Just because you know your own tendencies does not mean you are locked into submitting to them ... the fact that tendencies may have a genetic base does not mean they determine or justify behavior by an individual" (p. 10).

In addition, he seeks to substitute the metaphysical underpinning (which he variously attributes to Zhu Xi and Mencius) of "the Confucian belief in the natural equality of all people" with a biological underpinning. "The ultimate foundation of ethics lies not in a supernatural being or realm, but in what the early Confucians called the original mind found in us all at birth, and today we would call biology" (p. 56). This call to "filter the Heaven out of Mencius" (p. …

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