Bishop Joseph Butler and Wang Yangming

A Comparative Study of Their Moral Vision and View of Conscience

by Peter T.C. Chang (Author)
©2015 Monographs 242 Pages


This book is a comparative study of the Anglican Bishop Joseph Butler’s and Neo-Confucianist Wang Yangming’s ethical enterprise. It first analyses, within their respective historical context, the two thinkers’ overarching worldviews and their seminal conception of conscience / liang-chih as a person's supreme moral guide. The English bishop and the Chinese philosopher-military general are then brought into dialogue by way of a comparing and contrasting of their distinct religious-philosophical traditions. In addition, Butler and Wang will be placed in a hypothetical encounter to explore how they, and by proxy Christianity and Confucianism, would critically appraise each other’s spiritual and sociopolitical endeavor. The end purpose of this study is to enhance our perception of the intriguing similarities and complex differences that exist between these two Axial Age civilizations. The author argues that dissonances notwithstanding, Butler and Wang share core values, consonances that could and should set the tone for an amiable Christian-Confucian co-existence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • 1.1 Overview of the Comparative Project
  • 1.2 The Comparative Religious Ethics (CRE) Methodological Debate
  • 1.2.1 Points of Contention: Discovered and Developed Schools
  • 1.2.2 Levels of Contentions: Descriptive and Normative
  • Descriptive Level
  • Normative Level
  • 1.2.3 Analysis of the Normative Debate
  • 1.2.4 Review of the CRE voices
  • Lee Yearley
  • David Little and Sumner B. Twiss
  • 1.2.5 This Project and the CRE Methodological Debate
  • 1.3 Appendix: Identifying the Sources
  • 1.3.1 The Framework
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • 1.3.2 Elaborating the Framework
  • Personal Interpretation
  • Existing Scholarship
  • Chapter 2: Bishop Joseph Butler’s Account of the Christian Order and Conception of Conscience
  • 2.1 Moral Vision
  • 2.2 The Christian
  • 2.2.1 Reflective Intellect
  • 2.2.2 Practical Wisdom
  • 2.3 The Moral Anatomy
  • 2.3.1 Principle of Self-Love and Benevolence, Several Passions and Affections
  • Public and Private Goods
  • Reason and Sense
  • 2.3.2 Conscience
  • 2.4 Framework of Moral Knowledge
  • 2.4.1 To Know
  • General and Particular
  • More Determinate and Less Determinate
  • Ordinary Norms and Exceptional Cases
  • 2.4.2 To Do
  • 2.5 Moral Objectivity and Diversity
  • 2.5.1 Objective Order
  • 2.5.2 Primary and Secondary Orders
  • Primary Order
  • Secondary Order
  • 2.5.3 Maintaining Objectivity in Diversity
  • Liberty and Order
  • Objectivity and Diversity
  • 2.5.4 Basis for Primary and Secondary Orders
  • Differentiated Responses
  • Religion: Natural and Revealed
  • 2.6 Moral Frailty
  • 2.6.1 Conscience Weakened
  • 2.6.2 Conscience Asleep
  • 2.6.3 The Lost Self?
  • 2.7 Moral Cultivation
  • 2.7.1 Balanced Emphasis
  • 2.7.2 Study and Spiritual Programs
  • 2.7.3 Habits
  • 2.7.4 Priority: Primary and Secondary
  • 2.8 Butler’s Specific Concerns
  • 2.8.1 Hobbes
  • 2.8.2 Deists
  • 2.8.3 Wesley
  • Chapter Conclusion
  • Chapter 3: Wang Yang-Ming’s Account of the Confucian Order and Conception of Liang-Chih
  • 3.1 Moral Vision
  • 3.2 The Chun Tzu
  • 3.2.1 Practical Wisdom
  • 3.2.2 Conceptual Insight
  • 3.3 The Moral Anatomy
  • 3.3.1 Hsin
  • 3.3.2 Liang-Chih
  • 3.4 Framework of Moral Knowledge
  • 3.4.1 To Know
  • Practical Knowledge
  • Conceptual Knowledge
  • 3.4.2 To Do
  • External Acts
  • Internal Motivation
  • 3.5 Moral Objectivity and Diversity
  • 3.5.1 Objective Order
  • 3.5.2 Conceptual Knowledge
  • The Two-Tiered Order
  • Basis for Primary and Secondary Orders
  • 3.5.3 Practical Knowledge
  • Two-Tiered Order
  • Exception to the Rule Cases
  • Maintaining Objectivity in Diversity
  • 3.6 Moral Frailty
  • 3.6.1 The Small Self
  • 3.6.2 The Lost Self?
  • 3.7 Moral Cultivation
  • 3.7.1 Institutional Setup
  • 3.7.2 Medium of Cultivation
  • 3.7.3 Stages and Priority: Primary and Secondary Expectations
  • 3.8 Wang’s Interlocutors
  • 3.8.1 Mo Tzu
  • 3.8.2 Chu Hsi
  • 3.8.3 The Buddhists
  • Chapter Conclusion
  • Chapter 4: Comparing Butler’s Christianity and Wang’s Confucianism
  • 4.1 Moral Vision
  • 4.1.1 The Transcendent
  • 4.1.2 The Goal
  • 4.1.3 The Process
  • In The Beginning
  • The Journey
  • The End
  • 4.2 Moral Self
  • 4.2.1 The Human Individual
  • Equality of All
  • Human Dignity
  • 4.2.2 Moral Anatomy: Reason, Sense, and Conscience
  • The Basic Faculties
  • Conscience
  • 4.2.3 Human Frailty
  • Misguided and Weakened Self
  • External and Internal Wrongs
  • Fall and Recovery
  • 4.3 Framework of Knowledge
  • 4.3.1 General-Particular, Innate-Extended
  • 4.3.2 More and Less Determinate
  • 4.3.3 Exceptional Cases
  • 4.4 Moral Objectivity and Diversity
  • 4.4.1 The Vision
  • 4.4.2 The Reality
  • 4.5 Moral Cultivation
  • 4.5.1 Study and Spiritual Programs
  • Study Program
  • Spiritual Program
  • 4.5.2 Institutional Support
  • Church and Academy
  • The Family
  • The State
  • 4.5.3 Strategies and Priorities
  • Differentiated Norms
  • Prioritized Effort
  • 4.6 Butler, Wang, and their Interlocutors
  • 4.6.1 Hobbes and Mo Tzu
  • 4.6.2 The Deists and Wesley; Chu Hsi and Buddhism
  • Butler and the Deists, Wang and Chu
  • Butler and Wesley, Wang and the Buddhists
  • 4.7 Butler and Wang: Historical Standing and Personal Experiences
  • Chapter Conclusion
  • Chapter 5: Wang, Butler, and the Contemporary Challenges
  • 5.1 Confucian-Christian Relationship
  • 5.1.1 Wang’s Assessment of Butler
  • 5.1.2 Butler’s Assessment of Wang
  • Conclusion
  • 5.2 The CRE Methodological Debate
  • 5.3 Yearley
  • 5.3.1 General Framework
  • 5.3.2 The Thick Self
  • 5.3.3 The Thin Self
  • 5.4 Little and Twiss
  • 5.4.1 General Framework
  • 5.4.2 The Thin Self
  • 5.4.3 The Thick Self
  • 5.5 Conclusion
  • Bibliography

Chapter 1

Human communities exist on the basis of accepted rules governing behavior. Yet ascertaining what constitutes the appropriate code of conduct remains a contentious subject for any society. The collective body has to deal with disputed questions ranging from a person’s particular choice of practices (e.g., abortion or polygamy) to general conceptual debates over belief systems (e.g., whether the moral order is predetermined by God). Through the ages, diverse philosophical and religious traditions, such as those of Ancient Egypt and Greece, the Judeo-Christian traditions, as well as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, have sought to discern the values needed to maintain a stable and harmonious communal order. In the earliest parts of their history, the world’s major traditions in the relative isolation of their respective contexts formulated specific moral values considered essential for their particular community’s well-being. While largely oblivious to each other’s efforts, the various traditions did not make their advances in moral formation completely without external influences. Historical studies, textual analysis, and anthropological research have uncovered evidence of lending and borrowing between traditions as they developed their moral ideas. St. Paul’s systemization of Christian theology is a case in point, as Greek philosophical influence is clearly discernible.

To be sure, these cross-cultural exchanges in their earliest forms were mostly local interactions between neighboring traditions, e.g., the ancient Egyptians and the Hebrew faith, Christianity and Greek philosophy, Hinduism and Buddhism, and Confucianism and Taoism. Later, however, these interactions began to take on an intercontinental dimension. As the spirit of adventure drove some enterprising humans to traverse greater geographical distances, these pioneers carried their respective moral traditions to new cultural territories. Marco Polo’s odyssey along the Silk Road into Yuan China marked one of the earliest meetings of the Christian West and Confucian East. Merchants of the Arabian Peninsula plowing the trade routes in the Indian Ocean introduced Islam to then predominantly Hindu Southeast Asia. Of course, these initial encounters ← 11 | 12 → of the world’s major traditions were not without animosity. Marco Polo had his share of missteps in the Chinese imperial courts, and it took considerable perseverance on his part before the Yuan rulers’ favors were restored. The Buddhist migration across the central Asian plains to China is another interesting episode. After enduring a series of serious setbacks, Buddhism over time assimilated into the Confucian-dominated landscape, transforming itself into a form with indigenous Chinese features distinct from its Indian origins.

In today’s age of globalization, the interactions of the world’s major traditions continue apace. These meetings have produced, in some contemporary religious adherents, an expressed commitment to a respectful, pluralistic coexistence. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is one embodiment of this aspiration, seeking to unify the global community around a set of common standards. However, not all share such a sanguine outlook, and elements of the contemporary religious order, e.g., sectarians and fundamentalists, have displayed only contempt for others and even stoked up the threat of a clash between civilizations.

Today’s reality of inter-connectedness presents the world’s religious traditions with exciting prospects for more profound mutual understanding that would enrich humanity. This expectation is nevertheless laden with perils, and the possibility for conflict is real and imminent. Do human civilizations possess the capability for harmonious co-existence, or is a clash of fundamental values inevitable? If the sanguine outlook is affirmed, then what indeed should constitute the common good that binds humankind together? The challenges in defining the specifics and enforcing the particulars that will ensure a stable and dignified global order remain complex.

1.1  Overview of the Comparative Project

Amid today’s anxiety over the state of cross-cultural interactions, one relationship that commands important attention is the East-West one, and in particular the Confucian and Christian relationship. The history of Confucian-Christian encounters can be traced from the arrival of the Nestorians during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) to the efforts of the Jesuit order during the Ming and Ching eras (around 1550–1700 CE), the Protestant missionary movement of the ← 12 | 13 → 19th century, and continuing through to the present day. In terms of scholarship, significant efforts have been made to build a common understanding between these two ancient traditions, especially through the translation of writings and the cross-fertilization of ideas. This work has laid critical groundwork for the Confucian-Christian relationship. Nevertheless, the quest for mutual comprehension remains unfinished.

This book represents one effort to continue this process of deepening Confucian and Christian perceptions of one another. I plan to do this by presenting a comparative study of two historical thinkers, the Anglican bishop Joseph Butler (1692–1752 CE) and the Neo-Confucianist Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529 CE). Butler and Wang are chosen because they were ardent apologists, defenders of their faiths, as it were, against the diluting influence of heterodoxy upon Christianity and Confucianism. In this regard, they present an interesting sample for a comparative study of Christianity and Confucianism. To be sure, their views represent only two strands within these ancient and complex traditions. Nevertheless, Butler and Wang are sophisticated representatives of their traditions and thus offer a fascinating study of the similarities and differences in the Christian and Confucian worldviews.

Butler’s and Wang’s signature contributions to the Christian and Confucian traditions are their unique expositions of conscience and liang-chih, respectively. (Wang’s invocation of liang-chih is generally understood as an elaboration of Mencius’ seminal notion of hsin, and liang-chih has been variously translated as “pristine knowledge,” “clear knowing,” and “conscience”; in this study, liang-chih will be referred to as and used interchangeably with “conscience.”) Butler and Wang asserted that human conscience represents the individual’s authoritative guide to right and wrong. Yet they warned that conscience is not infallible, and unless people heed its dictates and are diligent in self-cultivation, it may yet become “asleep” or “buried.” Thus, Butler’s and Wang’s contributions were also directed at organizing a self-cultivation program and securing a broader moral order that would ensure that people are schooled in sound teaching. To that end, they devoted considerable energy to refuting the erroneous doctrines of their moral adversaries: Butler confronted Thomas Hobbes, the Deists, and John Wesley, while Wang challenged the Mohists, Chu Hsi, and the Buddhists. ← 13 | 14 →

I begin this comparative study with an analysis of Butler and Wang in their historical contexts. Chapter 2 (Bishop Joseph Butler’s Account of the Christian Order and Conception of Conscience) is an exegesis of Butler’s moral project in 18th century England, and Chapter 3 (Wang Yang-ming’s Account of the Confucian Order and Conception of Liang-Chih) is an exposition of Wang’s moral response to the challenges he faced in 16th century Ming China. In explicating Butler’s and Wang’s views, the focus is on how they conceptualized the moral self and in particular their elaborations of conscience and liang-chih as the supreme guide. I will also examine Butler’s and Wang’s broader efforts to put in place rigorous self-cultivation programs, and analyze their counter-arguments against their contemporaneous rivals.

This project’s main goal is to compare Butler’s Christian and Wang’s Confucian moral enterprises. Chapter 4 (Comparing Butler’s Christianity and Wang’s Confucianism) brings the two thinkers into conversation by way of a descriptive comparing and contrasting of their diverse traditions. Among others, it will contrast their distinct sacred worldviews, and their analogous accounts of conscience and liang-chih. It is hoped that this exercise would deepen our grasp of the intriguing similarities binding Christianity and Confucianism, and the complex differences setting these venerated traditions apart.

Beyond the historical and comparative analyses, this book also attempts a hypothetical study involving Butler and Wang. Chapter 5 (Butler, Wang, and the Contemporary Challenges) draws on the earlier chapters’ finding to address the present-day premonition over the conflict between civilizations. Butler and Wang will be placed in an imaginary encounter with one another. And assessment will then be made on how they, and by proxy the Christian and Confucian world, would relate to each other. Despite some discords, my plan is to argue that there are accords in these traditions that could and should form the basis for a peaceable co-existence.

Before making a start on these arguments, this project will first be placed within the wider context of the comparative religion field of study. In the remaining section of this Introduction, I will present a review of the methodological debate in the Comparative Religious Ethics discipline and explain how my proposed book may be seen as a contribution to the existing scholarship. ← 14 | 15 →

1.2  The Comparative Religious Ethics (CRE) Methodological Debate

The comparative study of religion has provided a forum for inter-religious conversations. And under its broad curriculum is the sub-discipline of comparative religious ethics (CRE). Since its inception, CRE has been at the vanguard of efforts to discern whether a common ethical framework exists. In this endeavor, CRE over the past few decades has been debating the methodology with which to determine whether and to what extent there are shared values among diverse traditions. This CRE debate has proven to be spirited and contentious.

1.2.1  Points of Contention: Discovered and Developed Schools

CRE’s main task is to decipher the ethical systems, the character and structure of moral reflection, in different traditions. Therefore, the corresponding contentions pertain to the elaboration of this framework. Arguments over what constitute the character and structure have divided the CRE discipline into two camps, what I shall call, the discovered and developed schools.

The discovered school asserts that a human ethical system is founded on the existence of a priori norms. Adherents believe that human moral conduct is guided by certain pre-existing moral values that are independent of historical developments. At the comparative level, this school assumes that diverse moral traditions possess inherent commonalities, i.e., shared beliefs prior to any mutual contact. For example, it has been argued that the Confucian and Christian traditions have separately avowed the doctrine of human dignity without influence from each other’s ideas. Such a common affirmation, according to the discovered school, testifies to the fact of pre-existing norms. And as diverse traditions are deemed to already subscribe to these beliefs, the discovered school thus concludes that there is justification to enforce them because of natural consensus, e.g., all traditions can be expected to respect the dignity of all humankind.

The developed school claims that a human ethical structure is built on a posteriori norms. Adherents believe that moral deliberations ← 15 | 16 → are informed by moral values that are wholly the product of historical happenings. At the comparative level, this school argues that diverse traditions do not have inherent commonalities. Nevertheless, they do have the capacity, over time, to develop common understanding. For instance, the Confucian and Christian traditions may hold opposing views on polygamy, but in ensuing exchanges they can eventually reach a unified opinion, e.g., regard the practice as immoral. In this instance, they are deemed to have developed a shared moral stance on a particular issue. And as diverse traditions initially hold divergent opinions but through mutual influences agree on a set of binding standards, the enforcement of these norms, the developed school asserts, is contingent on the parties’ developed consensus, e.g., their continuing reproof of polygamy.

1.2.2  Levels of Contentions: Descriptive and Normative

The divide between the discovered and developed schools lies at the heart of CRE contentions. The arguments for or against their opposing views are in turn waged at two levels: descriptive and normative.  Descriptive Level

In deciphering an ethical framework, one of the CRE analyst’s goals is to ascertain and illustrate a moral tradition’s ethical system. Herein lies one realm of contention. Analysts may and do disagree with each others’ descriptions of a tradition’s moral structure. For example, the structure of the Confucian moral order remains a subject of divergent interpretations. In Thinking from the Confucius, Roger Ames and David Hall provide a detailed and influential elucidation of the Confucian order. The task at hand, as they see it, is to decide between two options:

The question we shall ultimately address is whether Confucius’ concept of order is one which requires coordination of individuals in conformity with objective laws and modes of relatedness or if this thinking presupposes a preference for ‘aesthetic order,’ involving the emergence of a complex whole by virtue of the insistent particularity of constituent details. (Ames and Hall, 1987, p. 134)

The differences in these two orders are explained further: ← 16 | 17 →

The process of rationalization tends towards uniformity and pattern regularity; the aesthetic tendency challenges this direction through its preference for uniqueness and pattern nonregularity. (Ames and Hall, 1987, p. 136)

The authors conclude that the Confucian tradition is of the aesthetic order, that is to say of the developed model, according to this book’s classification. Joseph Needham, in Human Law and the Law of Nature in China and the West, offers a different read, perceiving in the Confucian order a layout of the natural law.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (October)
ethical enterprise historical context worldviews
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 242 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter T.C. Chang (Author)

Peter T. C. Chang is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. His expertise is in comparative religion and philosophy, Christianity and Confucianism specifically. He is currently studying and analyzing the potential impact of revived religiosity on the continuing transformation of modern China.


Title: Bishop Joseph Butler and Wang Yangming
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243 pages