Morality in politics: Panacea or poison?

Submitted by James Miller on Mon, 08/16/2010 - 10:33
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TitleMorality in politics: Panacea or poison?
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsHarris, E. L.
Date Published2009
ISBN Number9781109296525, 1109296525
KeywordsPhilosophy, Political science
Abstract

In the Western philosophic tradition, virtue theory has rarely been extended to the political realm. There is a long tradition that advocates the role of virtue in ethical theory, but the implications of this tradition for political theory have largely been neglected. However, in the Chinese tradition, we very early on see the use of virtue-based theories not only in ethics but in political thought as well. Indeed, one of the most sophisticated early Confucian philosophers, Xúnzi (fl. 298-238 BCE), believes that a virtue-based political theory is a natural extension of his virtue-based ethical theory. At the same time, a prominent anti-Confucian political philosopher, Hán Feizi , was diametrically opposed to allowing virtue, or, indeed, any other moral quality, serve as the basis for political theory, arguing instead that a clear set of laws should serve as the fundamental basis. Therefore, this tradition offers us a very clear debate on the problems and promise of a virtue politics. This debate is not only of historical interest, however. To the extent that contemporary philosophers interested in the possibility of extending virtue theory to the political realm take themselves to be prescribing for everyone, as opposed to simply for those within their own cultural background, they must be willing to take into account other traditions that have wrestled with similar issues. In early China we not only see a version of virtue politics, we also see a sophisticated debate about its viability. And, while Xúnzi himself may not be capable of answering all of Hán Feizi 's objections, analyzing this debate affords us the opportunity to see how and where a particular conception of virtue politics succeeds and fails, providing contemporary philosophers not only with a set of problems that must be overcome but also with a promising way forward.

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