Character development, ethical pluralism, and the practice of traditional Asian martial arts

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Philosophy | Sports Studies


Recently two iconoclastic moral philosophers - Gilbert Harman & John Doris - have argued that the very idea of character development through education is misguided because "character traits" do not exist. Most criticism of their work has aimed either at their interpretation of the psychological literature in question, or at their over simplified understanding of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

In this presentation I will examine responses to their work drawing upon the Confucian tradition of moral philosophy. The force of these replies arises from the deep consideration that the Confucian tradition has given both to the influence of situations on moral action as well as to the practical requirements of character formation.

While the Confucian perspective offers a compelling *theoretical* response to Harman and Doris's claims, the *practical* orientation of their perspective creates its own set of problems. For Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi, character formation can only be understood in relation to embodied engagement with the rituals, etiquette and rules of propriety associated with a shared and culturally prestigious model of a virtuous life. In the modern Western world there is no obvious equivalent - no widely endorsed set of embodied ethical practices through which character takes shape.

The presentation investigates one possible exception to this cultural condition - the example of character education through traditional martial arts training, with particular emphasis on Aikido. I look at how the formal etiquette of the dojo (training hall), the ethical expectations regulating interaction between students, and the moral commitments built into the techniques of Aikido can combine to satisfy the practical requirements that the Classical Confucians saw as necessary for the formation of moral virtues that could transcend the influence of contingent situations.


The slides for this presentation are not available.