On Knowing Good Character: A Comparison of Adam Smith and Confucius

theory of moral sentiments confucius virtue analects virtue ethics

March 2, 2023

Both Confucius and Smith conceived of good character as being much more than the possession of a single morally good disposition. But the discernment is difficult and shows a difference between the two thinkers. 
In ConfuciusAnalects–the collection of his sayings–a particular scene is depicted repeatedly: 
5.19 Zizhang asked, “Chief minister Ziwen when thrice appointed chief minister showed no sign of pleasure; when thrice dismissed, he showed no sign of displeasure and duly reported to the new chief minister the affairs of the old. What would you say of him?”
The Master said, “He was loyal.”
“Was he ren?”
“I don’t know. Wherein would he be ren?”
“When Cuizi assassinated the ruler of Qi, Chen Wenzi possessed ten teams of horses, but he cast all that away and took his leave. Arriving at another state, he said, ‘These men are like our grandee Cuizi,’ and took his leave. What would you say of him?”
The Master said, “He was pure.”
“Was he ren?”
“I don’t know. Wherein would he be ren?”
This scene is repeated with substitutions for the student who poses the question “Is he ren?” and for the individual about whom the question is being asked. The Master always answers the same way: “I don’t know.”
What these students are seeking is a judgment of the character of the individuals described. Ren is a central concept in Confucian thought and, in context, refers to the character trait of being comprehensively good. That is, to be ren is not merely to be loyal or to be pure (as we see Ziwen and Chen Wenzi are judged to be, respectively). It is more, also, than to be persevering (Analects 4.2), reliable and trustworthy (5.8), sedulous and patient (6.22). To be ren is either the sum of all these parts or else something greater than the sum.
Adam Smith, too, conceives of good character as a whole that has parts. The parts he emphasizes can be–and have been–gathered in various ways. Deirdre McCloskey in her article "Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists," gathers them together as “bourgeois virtues” and lists them as “love, courage, temperance, justice, and self-interested prudence” (McCloskey 2008, 46). Ryan Patrick Hanley in his book Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue isolates “principal” virtues: “prudence, magnanimity, and benevolence” (Hanley 2019, 93). In Charles Griswold’s interpretation in Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, Smith systematizes virtues in accordance with a primary division between moral virtues and intellectual virtues (Griswold 1998, 184). However we enumerate and list the parts of good character, it is evident that Smith conceives of good character as being more comprehensive–much more comprehensive–than possession of a single morally good disposition.
That Confucius and Smith alike conceive of good character as a composite trait is not the main event of this comparison, however. What is more interesting is that they seem also to agree that our ability to assess the character of our fellows depends on our ability to discern their heart. 
To the intention or affection of the heart, therefore, to the propriety or impropriety, to the beneficence or hurtfulness of the design, all praise or blame, all approbation or disapprobation, of any kind, which can justly be bestowed upon any action, must ultimately belong. (TMS II.3).
Smith here indicates an identity of “heart” with good character traits. That is, to discern the “heart of another” just is to discern what character traits they possess, for the “heart” exhaustively comprises moral dispositions. 
Similarly, The Master in Analects tethers ren to the heart: “If one sets one’s heart on ren, there will be none he hates” (4.4), “Hui would go three months without his heart ever departing from ren. As for the others, their hearts merely come upon ren from time to time” (6.7), and in declaring his alignment with one student against three others, “‘There is no harm in that,’ said the Master. ‘After all, each of us is simply speaking his own heart’” (11.26).
The difficulty, for Confucius and for Smith, is in carrying out this discernment. As we see in The Master’s responses to queries about character, Confucius appears to think that discernment of heart is incredibly difficult. This is perhaps because ren (the character trait we are looking for) is difficult to conceive in the first place, but it is also because the heart is hidden and individual actions disclose only one facet of ren at a time, never disclosing the comprehensive trait.
Smith appears, at moments, to be more optimistic about our ability to discern goodness of character in our fellows. He says that the hidden intentions and sentiments of the heart “may be considered under two different aspects”: (1) in relation to the cause exciting it and (2) in relation to its goal (TMS I.1.iii). That is, by considering inputs and (expected) outputs, we can locate an individual’s operative disposition.
But Smith’s strategy, held up next to Confucius’ skepticism, can be seen for its faults. We may achieve an approximation of an individual’s character through examining the dimensions Smith isolates, but we can hardly expect to discern the heart itself. And it is there that character lies.

Want More?
Hairuo Tan's Speaking of Smith post: Great Minds Think Alike: Adam Smith & Confucius on Morality
Reading List on Adam Smith, Liberty, and Responsibility: East and West
Liberty Matters series: Deirdre McCloskey and Economists’ Ideas about Ideas
Deirdre McCloskey: The Smith Questionnaire 2020 - YouTube (8:09)
Great Antidote podcast: Ryan Hanley on the Morality of Markets