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Bishop Joseph Butler and Wang Yangming

A Comparative Study of Their Moral Vision and View of Conscience

Peter T.C. Chang

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.
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Chapter 1: Introduction


Chapter 1 Introduction

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...

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