Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Virtue comes from punishment!


Having been a little bored by Searle’s deliberate exclusion of ethics in my last reading, I’ve tonight opened The Routledge Companion to Ethics as an antidote.

This one’s edited by John Skorpuski, who I’ve had the pleasure to meet a couple of times, and share a pint with – so it gets bonus points (although he can be a bit of a fearsomely prickly chap if he disagrees with you).

I’m typing this as a read (hurrah for ebooks), and I’m quote excited to see the book begin with a chapter on ethical thought in China. I’ve had a passing interest in philosophical Daoism for many years, so I’m looking forward to this already.

Well – that was fascinating. This sort of piece brings home how interesting putting ideas into philosophical context can be. Yang Xiao highlights the importance of the surrounding conditions of extraordinary levels of violence to the formation of early Chinese philosophy – reminding me of the upheavals of the Reformation that helped birth modern democratic liberalism. Just as the likes of Laozi, Confucius and others sought ‘peace,order and stability’ in a violent world, so too the progenitors of liberalism sought peace and toleration.

I’m not going to try to reproduce the content – it’s simply too rich to do justice to, but Confucianism comes across as a political theory of perfectionist virtue ethics, and Mohism as a cosmopolitan version of Confucianism.

Meanwhile, Legalism as a kind of terrifying political realism/rational egoism with an unhealthy obsession with punishment:

“Punishment produces force; force produces strength; strength produces awe; awe produces virtue. [Therefore], virtue comes from punishment” (Book of Lord Shang 210).

Thankfully, the rather scary Legalist philosophy is balanced by the gentleness of Doaism (although I know from my own readings that there’s a bit of a tendency to veer off into some pretty weird mysticism at times). In fact – if you haven’t before, stop reading this and go read the Dao De Ching now – it’s beautiful (and undoubtedly online somewhere – go Google).

And that me finished – a chapter I really enjoyed. Back to Strawson next time, or shall I select at random?


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Virtue comes from punishment!

  1. I would be interested in this if I didn’t find the language so difficult to understand. It’s how I remember Latin

    • Remembering my own experiences learning Latin I can only apoligise wholeheartedly. I’ll try to make the language more accessible in future – perhaps some explanatory links would help?

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