After Confucius: Psychology and Moral Power

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According to everyday folk psychology, our deliberate goals and intentions, together with our character traits, explain much of our overt behavior. These ways of explaining behavior are pervasive. According to many social psychologists, they are also typically false. Instead, much human behavior is controlled by psychological processes prompted through external triggers that we do not recognize and over which we have little control. Once triggered, these processes shape our behavior in profound ways. Experiments demonstrating these effects are legion, suggesting that any number of elements can have determining sway on our behavior, whether it's a simple smile (which can make cooperation among players in strategic games more likely), or the chance finding of a dime in a payphone (which can temporarily increase the probability of the finder acting altruistically), or the presence of unappealing, half-eaten foodstuffs in an experimenter's room (which makes subjects behave moralistically when responding to unrelated experimental questions). Minor details can have major impact on our behavior, and our ignorance of this phenomenon should be of moral concern. This is the focus of my dissertation.

In particular, I argue that individuals can often agree or disagree on moral issues not because of the content of their respective beliefs, but rather because of their unawareness of (and thus inattentiveness to) the subtle impact of their immediate environments--and their own mannerisms--on moral reasoning and conduct. The effects can be considerable: How long we are willing to engage in dialogue; the degree to which we find accommodation to others acceptable; the creativity we deploy in finding mutually agreeable outcomes to problems; the significance we attach to any problems we may have--each of these crucial factors in moral deliberation can be affected profoundly by minor variations in our conduct and our situations. Take any social encounter: Even before we share our opinions and engage in serious discussion, we are already signaling various attitudes and even content-rich information about ourselves through cues arising from our facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, forms of address, and other seemingly minor details of our comportment. These cues automatically bias how others interpret our subsequent behavior, and thereby influence how our interactions with others enfold. Attending to such minor details may seem antiquated--even priggish--from a modern perspective. Yet the influence they exert should caution us against discounting their importance.

So I throw my hat in with a philosopher who did not overlook the impact of these variables, and who viewed minding them as a vital source of moral power: Confucius (fl. ca. 6th century BCE). In the Analects, we find Confucius preoccupied by very minor details of one's mannerisms and their impact on others. This led Confucius to motivate norms of conduct aimed at structuring social exchanges in ways conducive to achieving interpersonal agreement or accommodation. I argue that, for our purposes today, we can reduce his various norms to just two. The first is to 'mind manners'--in other words, to be attentive to details of one's own behavior out of consideration of its impact on others; the second is to 'give the benefit of a doubt'--to discount the impact of negative first impressions in order to allow for healthy moral relationships to develop.

Abiding by these norms can foster a form of ethical bootstrapping--that is, lifting or prompting one another towards our joint moral ends. If the social psychological literature is true, then whether or not any individual will be able to meet her ethical aims on any particular occasion will hinge on the actions and manners of her immediate interlocutors, which in turn will hinge on her own. In being mindful of the interconnectedness of our behavior, we not only affect how others react to us, but we also thereby affect the kinds of reactions we face in turn. The bootstrapping is mutual.

The deep interconnectedness of our behavior as reflected in experimental social psychology should lead us away from thinking of individuals as trapped by aspects of their psychology and determined to act in fixed ways, come what may. Instead, individuals' behavior is highly malleable; with the right prompts, even the most recalcitrant individuals can be moved in new directions. After all, people can have flourishing or accommodating moral relationships in spite of real differences in their avowed moral commitments, and deleterious or rancorous moral relationships in spite of substantive agreement on big ticket moral items. In pluralistic societies where we expect clashes of norms to occur, it is vital to uncover the conditions propitious to agreement or accommodation not just at a theoretical level but a practical level as well. This begins with what we have most control over: our manners.







Sarkissian, Hagop (2008). After Confucius: Psychology and Moral Power. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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