7 Questions with Colin Lewis, author of “Confucian Ritual and Moral Education”

Colin Lewis, instructor of philosophy and director of the UCCS Asian Studies minor, teaches, researches and writes on Chinese and comparative philosophy, as well as ethics with a focus on moral psychology.

In his newest publication, “Confucian Ritual and Moral Education,” Lewis examines how pre-Qin Confucian thought – particularly its emphasis on ritual – can contribute to modern moral behavior. Rather than being a “stuffy” topic, Lewis contends that ritual and moral education are widespread and, when applied, can lead to greater human flourishing.

Lewis answered seven questions on the new book, which illustrates how an ancient Confucian educational model can light the way toward a modern way of “being moral.”

1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?

Have you ever been bullied, cheated, or generally disrespected? These sorts of behaviors are frequently harmful and unethical, so it is understandable that we seek methods of reducing or eliminating them. This book looks to further such aims by bringing together Confucianism’s ritual approach to moral cultivation and modern theories of learning and psychosocial development.

By showing how the ancient Confucian ritual education model can be understood through the lens of contemporary developmental theory, we come to see how this ancient notion of ritual can also serve as a viable resource for moral education in our contemporary, diverse world.

2. How did you get the idea for your project?

Questions about human flourishing (both individually and socially) are what got me interested in philosophy, and developing a project with practical applications, one that might help improve prosociality, has long been a goal of mine.

Way back when I was an undergraduate, I encountered Confucian thought and was blown away by both the resonance with my own ethical-political interests, as well as how a lot of their ideas actually line up nicely with certain aspects of contemporary developmental theory. Bringing together the general question of how (and whether) we learn to “be moral” and the Confucian method of cultivating and deploying moral attitudes, judgements and actions through ritual study and practice is a project I have been looking forward to for quite a while.

3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process? 

The overall vision for the project was consistent throughout the writing process. The one “hiccup” I encountered had to do with some of the ever-evolving literature on how what we know about psychosocial development might influence moral theory, particularly by way of moral cultivation. There is an increasingly vocal community in my area that advances an interpretation that clashes with mine and, as that literature was becoming highly influential, I had to add a chapter dedicated to pushing back against that interpretation.

4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?      

Any work I do that potentially advances the pursuits of personal or social harmony is motivation; it excites me to know that my work has both theoretical and practical applications, and I like being able to share this with my students.

In this particular case, I was really excited to talk about how something that seems esoteric and stuffy, namely ritual, is actually widespread and widely applied, and that if we tap into it as a resource, it could really expand how we think about and cultivate morality in a variety of contexts.

5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?           

I find that rapid drafting works well for me, and I do not begin writing until I have a near-complete vision for what I want to do. When I have the idea in mind, I sit down and write until I am satisfied with how the idea has been depicted, and then I stop for the day. I repeat this process until I have a full draft of the article or chapter, and only then do I go back and start making adjustments.

Once I am satisfied with those adjustments, I send the draft around to two or three close colleagues that specialize in the area for feedback. I compile the feedback, redraft one or two more times, and then I submit the piece for review. The entire process involves four drafts on average and usually takes anywhere between two weeks and two months depending on the difficulty of the subject matter and whether my colleagues have time to give me notes.

6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?

“[The] Confucians regard ritual in general as a tool not only for moral cultivation, but also for structuring government. Specifically, classical Confucianism involves ritual in governance via its ability to educate, cultivate, and order the population. Their rationale for this approach is that political tools such as laws and punishments do not in and of themselves possess any capacity for rectifying human character (i.e., making people morally good).

On the contrary, appeal to laws and punishments exclusively may have an adverse effect on the moral goodness of the community. As noted by Kongzi: Guide them with government edicts, regulate them with punishments, and the people will be evasive and lack shame. Guide them with virtue, order them with ritual, and they will have shame and even order themselves.”

7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered? 

Since I started this project, I have learned a great deal about how moral education programs are approached in the U.S., some more formally than others.

In my future research, I hope to engage more with the practical aspects of the project: how do we design or choose rituals for moral education, how can we best deploy them and how can we measure the efficacy of such programs? These are questions I would love to investigate, and I hope to pursue them alongside other experts.

UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.