in Classical Chinese Philosophy

my research aims to elucidate how Confucians understood social roles, li 禮 (ritualized social norms), and whether (and how) roles and li generate individuals’ moral obligations and duties.

I work within a role ethics framework, an interpretation of Confucianism that explicates ren 仁, the ethical ideal, in terms of li and maintains that persons are constituted by their roles, that norms underwriting roles determine moral norms, and that personhood is an achievement of ren.

In one set of papers, I pose a “role dilemma” for role ethics. Inevitably, conflicts arise between one’s li-obligations and more general moral obligations. In these papers, I examine how two early Confucians, Mengzi and Xunzi, can resolve the dilemma. Some of this work has appeared in Frontiers of Philosophy in China and Asian Philosophy.

In another set of papers, I argue that although Confucian texts lack semantic analogues to “agency” or “autonomy,” they nonetheless put forward a conception of autonomy through the notion of zhi 知 (wisdom), which is a form of moral expert reasoning. The Confucian conception of autonomy is not similar to the dominant Western conception of autonomy (i.e. Kantian conceptions), but is functionally similar to the feminist notion of relational autonomy. Two of these papers are forthcoming in two leading journals in Chinese Philosophy: my paper “Wisdom, Agency, and the Role of Reasons in Mengzi” will appear in The Journal of Chinese Philosophy and “Confucian Role Ethics and Relational Autonomy” in Philosophy East and West.

"The Role Dilemma in Early Confucianism" Frontiers of Philosophy in China, 8:3, 2013, 376-87.

I present a challenge to the role ethic interpretation: How does the Confucian moral agent resolve conflicts between acting with Humaneness (仁 ren) and fulfilling the obligations associated with the norms and rituals of one’s social role? An internalist response maintains that the demands of one’s role and the demands of morality are identical, whereas an externalist response maintains that role obligations are defeasible in light of Humaneness. Neither response offers a satisfactory answer to the dilemma because externalist positions collapse into a virtue ethic or deontology and internalist responses tend towards perpetuating pernicious social role obligations (e.g. a wife’s “obligation” to be submissive to her husband).

"Mengzi's Externalist Solution to the Role Dilemma" Asian Philosophy 25:2, 2015, 188–206.

I examine whether the Mengzi offers an internalist or externalist resolution to the role dilemma. I reconstruct Mengzi’s possible answer and argue that it is thoroughly an externalist response. The reconstruction examines a number of Mengzi’s philosophical resources—“discretion” (權 quan), reflection, and extension—that might explain why norms and obligations of one’s social role are defeasible. I find these resources inadequate in forming an answer to the dilemma and argue that Mengzi’s account of human nature constrains social role obligations such that they are instrumental (and hence, defeasible) for moral cultivation but not constitutive of the demands of Humaneness. I conclude by considering how we should understand Mengzi’s externalism in relation to a role ethic.

"Wisdom, Agency, and the Role of Reasons in Mengzi" Forthcoming in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy ((final draft: 8-2014)

I examine the role moral reasons play in the Mengzi and their relationship to Mengzi’s conception of wisdom. Some commentators have argued that agency in early Chinese thought is best characterized as performance-based rather than deliberation-based. I propose that Mengzi’s conception of agency is both performative and deliberative because he understands wisdom as a sort of expert decision-making. Consequently, Mengzi relies on moral reasons of two sorts. First, duan-reasons are reasons to act so to overcome internal obstacles to action and, second, renyi-reasons are reasons to act so to achieve a goal that constitutes moral success.

“Confucian Role Ethics and Relational Autonomy in Mengzi
Philosophy East and West, 66:3 (2016) 903-922.

I examine whether the role ethics interpretation of early Confucianism possesses the resources to identify and redress gender inequality and oppression. On the face of it, Confucian role ethics seems ill suited for this task. I argue for a conception of Confucian autonomy that may satisfy role ethicists and supports feminist goals and practices. This conception is grounded in Mengzi's remarks about zhi (智 wisdom) and is a substantive account of autonomy competency. It is substantive insofar as renyi (仁義) guide junzi (君子) in identifying and determining right and wrong. Zhi-autonomy is a version of autonomy competency insofar as it emphasizes a repertoire of skills and capabilities that include duan-reactions, reflection, extension, and self-realization through renyi. Finally, I explain how zhi-autonomy helps the role ethicist address gender oppression.


1. “Wisdom, Agency, and the Role of Reasons in Mengzi,” forthcoming in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy.

2. Review of Brian Bruya’s The Philosophical Challenge from China forthcoming in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 

3. “Confucian Role Ethics and Relational Autonomy in Mengzi,” Philosophy East and West, 66:3 (2016) 903-922.

4. Confucian Role Ethics: A Critical Survey,Philosophy Compass, 11:5 (2016) 235–245.

5. “Mengzi’s Externalist Solution to the Role Dilemma,” Asian Philosophy 25:2 (2015), 188–206.

6. Review of Gary Kemp’s What Is This Thing Called Philosophy of Language, in Teaching Philosophy, 37:2 (2014), 280-284.

7. “The Role Dilemma in Early Confucianism,” Frontiers of Philosophy in China, 8:3 (2013), 376-87.


Works in Progress

Are the Fruit of Duan of the Same Species? Mengzian Virtues are Heterogeneous”

“Cultivating Xing

“Confucian Social Roles”

“Hierarchy, Injustice, and Mutuality in Confucian Social Roles”

“The Social Practices Account of Oppressive Speech”

in contemporary social philosophy

I also bring early Chinese philosophical insights to bear on contemporary debates in social philosophy about social roles and practices.

In “Confucian Social Roles” I argue for a Confucian account of social roles that emphasizes three features. First, a role is constituted by a constellation of social (li 禮) and moral (ren 仁) norms that govern social interactions. Second, each role has a two-fold normative force in virtue of (a) various social and moral norms underwriting or constituting the role and (b) the role as a locus of meaning for the role-occupier. In other words, the binding moral force of a role is its function: to develop, cultivate, and shape persons with particularly embodied values and socio-ethical understandings. Third, the Confucian account embraces the fact that many roles are involuntary and hierarchical.

I develop this third feature further in “Hierarchy, Injustice, and Mutuality in Confucian Social Roles” and argue that the hierarchical nature of roles need not be unjust and that reflection on the Confucian paradigms—parent-child, teacher-student—suggests that social hierarchies ought to prize mutuality, rather than domination and exclusion, insofar as they function for the moral benefit and self-development of those involved in the roles. This is not to deny that some role-hierarchies are in fact oppressive, but a Confucian theory of social roles suggests that such instances are oppressive because they are constituted by pernicious norms, which require revision or abandonment, or the role itself does not satisfy mutuality and the goals of moral benefit and self-development.

I am also developing a novel account of oppressive speech and drawing out the implications of this account with regard to the First Amendment. This project has two components. The first involves articulating a social practices account of oppressive speech—speech oppresses by legitimizing, engaging, or enacting social norms that oppress—and arguing that my account is better placed to explain the phenomena than current accounts, which appeal only to speech act theory. In the second, I employ my Social Practices account to argue that oppressive speech does not merit First Amendment protection, yet the government is not permitted to regulate or criminalize such speech. In this project, I utilize resources from philosophy of language, social philosophy, and legal philosophy.