Does Zhu Xi Distinguish Prudence from Morality?


In Stephen Angle’s Sagehood, he contends that Neo-Confucian philosophers reject ways of moral thinking that draw hard and fast lines between self-directed or prudential concerns (about what is good for me) and other-directed or moral concerns (about what is right, just, virtuous, etc.), and suggests that they are right to do so. In this paper, I spell out Angle’s arguments and interpretation in greater detail and then consider whether they are faithful to one of the chief figures in Neo-Confucian thought. I begin by identifying some of the better-known ways in which moral philosophers give special treatment to prudential considerations, and say which of these Angle’s reading of the Neo-Confucians appears to rule out. After laying this groundwork, I proceed to test Angle’s interpretation against the moral thought of history’s most influential Neo-Confucian philosopher, Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), arguing that even on Angle’s own reading, there are certain respects in which Zhu preserves the distinction, although by Angle’s lights these ways are perhaps less pernicious than their contemporary equivalents. I also look closely at how Angle uses the psychological structure of humane love (ren 仁) to undermine the prudence-versus-morality distinction. Here I suggest that the better way to phrase his point is to say that prudence drops out or becomes an ethically incoherent concept, which is something quite different from rejecting or collapsing the distinction between prudence and morality.

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Correspondence to Justin Tiwald.

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Tiwald, J. Does Zhu Xi Distinguish Prudence from Morality?. Dao 12, 359–368 (2013).

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  • Neo-Confucianism
  • Zhu Xi
  • Prudence