Since Confucianism is an intergenerational phenomenon, it should have unique insights into ethical issues surrounding our obligations to future generations. In the first part of this discussion, I examine two contemporary Confucian perspectives on intergenerational ethics. Proponents of Confucian Role Ethics have developed an interpretation of xiao 孝 as “intergenerational reverence” that binds the community together over time by reference to shared cultural models and evolving ethical values. The Chinese thinker Jiang Qing in turn argues for a political constitution in which the state depends not just on the will of presently existing citizens, but also serves to preserve and transmit the values of the past for the sake of future generations. While both interpretations share in common a critique of Western individualism and rights-based ethical framework, Jiang’s account of Confucian intergenerationality rests on the authority of tradition, whereas Confucian Role Ethics prioritizes the uniqueness of the situation at hand. In the second half of the discussion, I develop an alternative Confucian approach that is aligned with virtue ethics. On this view, our present virtue is the point of departure for understanding our relations with the past and future. I examine passages in early Confucian texts that suggest a notion of intergenerational virtue, which brings together various dispositions to see our own flourishing as linked with both past and future generations.
With a response from:
Susan Blake (Bard College)