Ethical Experts and Eastern Wisdom Traditions

How can Confucianism teach us about becoming good people?

Posted Nov 08, 2019

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In the enactivist account morality is rooted in active engagement and coping with the world around us, not knowing moral rules.
Source: From Pixabay at Pexels

Beginners rely on rules to achieve adequate performance in a task. For example, someone learning how to play golf might focus on rules for where to place their hands. An expert, on the other hand, focuses on high level principles without consciously thinking about these low level rules. Telling an expert golfer to concentrate on something simple—like where to put their hands—can actually mess up their performance.

Yet many guides to moral behavior, as philosopher Francisco Varela points out, are written as if we are all beginners. Like beginners, we're given rules that tell us in broad imperatives how to behave. But these rules about how to behave don’t capture what to do in many complex and nuanced situations where the details don't match the template situation where the rule should be applied. Allowing behavior to flexibly respond to this detailed contextual information is the way that an expert in ethical behavior would act.

In a slim volume called Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition, Varela describes the enactivist approach to morality, a philosophical position derived from the Eastern “wisdom traditions” of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Central to the enactivist position is the idea that the world is understood—or “enacted”—for us through our active coping with it. That means thinking is fundamentally about interacting with the world.

This is contrasted with a more traditional view of the mind, which is a passive information processing device. A traditional approach to morality would suggest that your ability to puzzle through the complex details of an ethical dilemma and arrive at the right answer indicate your "moral skill."

In an enactivist approach, moral skill involves quickly seeing what a good behavior would be and doing it. For an enactivist, being an “ethical expert” is like being an expert in golf or cooking or dancing. In important moments, your years of training kick in and you just know what to do.

The enactivist view is fundamentally a dynamic one, because it places context and history center stage. We cannot view ethical decisions as a “closed system” where there is a single, limited set of facts that are relevant and need to be processed in the right way. Situations are always open to outside forces—and the more you think about what decision to make, the more relevant information you uncover. There’s no single place where you can say “Okay, now I know everything that is morally relevant.” You can keep pulling the thread forever, and so you need to decide what information to gather—and when to start acting on what you know.

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The moral universe is like nature, with no definite boundaries. We only ever perceive a limited piece of the relevant details.
Source: From Pixaby on Pexels.

Ethical behavior always occurs in a context that has some similarities to other ethical situations as well as unique aspects. The similarities allow us to use broad strokes rules to guide our behavior, but the uniqueness means that there will not be a single, cookie cutter “best moral action.”

Relying on a fixed rule necessarily misses relevant details. For beginners, the rule is a helpful guidepost that can point you to a “good enough” moral decision. For an ethical expert, the situation may be perceived at the level of higher concepts and subtle nuance. Like with the golfer, the expert might actually “perform worse” by focusing too closely on the exact details of the rules.

Ethical behavior doesn’t just spring out of nowhere. It comes from years of cultivating yourself to be a good person. You aren’t good because you can process more “moral information” than other people, allowing you to reach the right moral decision. You are good because you have developed habits that allow you to understand the relevant moral context efficiently and effortlessly.

Drawing on the ideas of ancient Confucian philosopher Mencius, Varela suggests that this ethical expertise often begins not with a rational analysis of a situation, but with an intuitive emotional reaction. In a famous parable, Mencius describes how a ruler can develop greater compassion for his subjects by reflecting on the compassion he felt watching an ox being led to the slaughter. Mencius suggested that by cultivating this emotional response, the ruler could gradually learn to feel compassion towards all the people he ruled over.

In Mencian philosophy, people must continually cultivate themselves morally as you would cultivate a garden. The garden is never in a "completed" stage where it has achieved moral enlightenment; even a full, flowering garden requires continual watering, weeding, and other forms of maintenance. Being a good person similarly requires continually learning about and developing proper ethical attitudes towards others.

Figure by A. Danvers. Photo credits in figure.
Being ethical is a skill people develop over years of practice.
Source: Figure by A. Danvers. Photo credits in figure.

Varela’s ideas are important philosophically, but they also inspire psychology researchers. For example, the idea of thought being rooted in concrete interactions with the world underlies much research on embodied cognition.

However, his ideas have yet to have much impact on moral reasoning. I love a good moral dilemma, and I believe people’s responses to these can give some insight into how people think about morality. Perhaps just as importantly, I think they are an important part of training yourself to have ethical intuitions. 

But only studying morality through examining people’s responses to specific stories misses an important part of what makes people ethical. To really understand the complexities of moral behavior in everyday life, we need to actually study it “in the wild” and in action. Only then can we tell who is making ethical decisions efficiently, thoughtfully, and with an understanding of context. And then we can determine how to develop real ethical expertise.


Toner, J., Montero, B. G., & Moran, A. (2015). Considering the role of cognitive control in expert performance. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 14(4), 1127-1144.