Five Questions with New Faculty George Tsai

What drives your academic passion as a faculty member with the Department of Philosophy?

I suppose what motivates my philosophical work is curiosity that stems from puzzlement about the broadly moral dimensions of human life—that is, our moral thought, sentiments, and practices. For example, I want to better understand the role of values such as autonomy and equality, emotions such as guilt and shame, and practices such as tolerance and blame in our lives. I am also interested in how our moral ideas and non-moral ideas hang together. For example, how might our conception of liberty as a moral-political value be related to our understanding of the self, human action, and human history?

What aspects of your research are significant or unique?

My research interests are in the areas of moral and political philosophy, moral psychology, global philosophy, and experimental philosophy. I have several ongoing projects in these areas. I’ll describe three.

In one project, I’m examining the relationship between our broadly liberal commitments, on the one hand, and our social-historical understanding, on the other. For example, many people today believe that in some sense every human being deserves equal consideration and respect. But we also know that most people in the past have not shared this view. How do we explain this?  Do we have to say that those in the past were morally or cognitively deficient?  How do we account for our own achievement of liberal values and institutions?  Do we think that certain horrible activities involving expropriation, exploitation, and severe injustice were somehow necessary to the emergence of modern liberalism? I suspect that our moral and political ideas are determined in part by our understanding of the necessities of our way of life.  And at the same time, our historical understanding may also be determined in part by our liberal moral commitments. This project is part of a larger one that I’m pursuing that explores the idea that moral and political commitments are intertwined with various strands in our psychological, social, and historical understanding.

Another project examines the nature, value, and norms of close interpersonal relationships (for example, the relationship we stand to others as friends, spouses, or parents). Close relationships matter a great deal to us and to our sense of what makes for a life well lived. But contemporary philosophers have by and large focused the majority of its attention on what we owe to each other as persons, tending to concentrate on the more abstract moral relationship that we stand to each other as bearers of rights or dignity. This is of course a very important issue, but I think more attention should be directed to the morality of close interpersonal relationships. To this end, one of my current projects considers whether we can act paternalistically—or at least disrespectfully—in an interpersonal context by engaging in rational persuasion. (Imagine, say, a close friend giving you advice, or a mother warning her adult son about an upcoming decision.) I contend it’s possible to treat someone paternalistically in an interpersonal exchange by offering her reasons—particularly when this is motivated by distrust in her ability to recognize and weigh reasons and evidence that bear on her interests.

A third project I’ll mention is in the area of “global philosophy.” The idea of global philosophy is that different philosophical traditions may engage more substantially with each other to solve philosophical problems. I take this approach by exploring the early Confucian picture of human agency in order to think about how we should understand the relationship between subject and deed. Drawing on ideas that other scholars have extracted through their careful textual and historical analysis of Confucian texts, I construct an account of agency according to which the relation between subject and deed is one of actualization.  So on this picture, the subject is actualized in the action, that is, coming to be realized as a subject in the doing. This is a very different picture than a certain “standard” contemporary Western account of action, according to which there is an inner subject that is separate from and prior to the action it causes. I believe exploring how the early Confucians conceived of the relation between subject and action reveals a picture of human agency that is attractive and relevant to our contemporary moral experience.

What is your favorite course to teach?

I like teaching a number of topics, so I’m not sure I can just name one.  To name three—ethics, political philosophy, and existentialism.  One of the things I enjoy most about teaching philosophy is introducing philosophical ideas or arguments to students. I like to ask them to consider why an idea is interesting and what might have attracted a thinker to it. I also invite them to raise objections to philosophical positions, and encourage them to stand in the shoes of the philosopher they are addressing to develop replies to their initial objections.  One thing I strive to get my undergraduate students to see is the difference between the easy trick of thinking things up and the hard task of carefully thinking them through.  We all know what it is like to feel that an initially plausible position or argument is faulty in some way without being able to clearly articulate the problems with the position or argument in question.  I work to develop in my students an appreciation for the process whereby one separates with care the different strands of one’s hazy ideas, refining one’s initial impressions. When they get this, it’s very satisfying for me.

What aspects of being at UH Manoa appeal to you most?

First and foremost, it would be the intellectual and cultural vitality of this place. I value the university’s strengths in comparative scholarship, and am excited about the opportunities to learn from colleagues and students both within and outside of the philosophy department. I also greatly value teaching at a public institution, working alongside people who have a strong commitment to public education. I have only been here for one semester, but already my experiences with the students have been rewarding. I look forward to meeting and working with more of them!

What drives your interests outside of the university? What do you like to do in your free time?

I have two young children who keep me very busy and active. When I can get a break—which is not often these days—I like to read novels, play tennis, watch football (I won’t say in what order of priority!). Since arriving here, I have also much enjoyed spending free time exploring the island with my family.