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The values of spontaneity

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Abstract

There is a widespread intuition that acts displaying " spontaneity" possess value at least in part by having this quality. Spontaneity may be taken as the sole or primary source of an action's value or it may be thought to be a reason to further value an action that is considered good for other reasons as well, for example, because it realizes some independent worthwhile end. Spontaneous actions may be valued for a variety of reasons: These actions may be thought to be more aesthetically appealing for agents or observers, they may be valued for the joy that they engender or because they help one to relax or live longer, and so forth. Although I do not discount the importance of these kinds of values, my primary interest in this chapter is with views that accord some kind of ethical value to spontaneous actions. Many people share a belief in the value of spontaneity, but there is less of a consensus concerning what spontaneity is. We fi nd two primary senses of the word "spontaneity" in Western writings. The fi rst takes spontaneity to be that quality of actions that arise or proceed "entirely from natural impulse" or that come "freely and without premeditation or effort."1 Spontaneity in this sense is most often used to describe the activity of plants, nonhuman animals, or poets. The second sense of spontaneity takes it to be "voluntary and unconstrained action on the part of persons."2 That is, spontaneous actions are those that arise or proceed freely from an autonomous agent. Versions of this second sense of spontaneity are prominent in philosophical writings. For example, Thomas Hobbes describes voluntary actions, by which he means roughly actions that are not motivated by fear, as "spontaneous."3 One of the most elegant and infl uential expressions of this second sense of spontaneity is found in the writings of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, spontaneity is the ability to think and act in the world independently of the determinations of desire. Reason can provide an order distinct from and independent of what Nature offers, and rational agents can perceive and act in the world according to the norms and principles of such an order. Moreover, they have the ability to know that they are seeing and acting in this way.4 On such a view, spontaneous actions demonstrate the characteristic quality of Kant's distinctive notion of free will. They are expressions of an autonomous agent's unique ability to transcend the natural order and produce genuine actions as opposed to mere events. The two senses described above share the idea that spontaneous actions are characterized by the absence of constraint or external coercion, but apart from this they are different and to some degree incompatible. On the fi rst, spontaneity describes a state from which Kant's free and autonomous rational agents purportedly must break free. And yet, this sense of spontaneity is thought to provide a fi rm-though not moral-standard for plants, animals, and poets. In general, it is good when plants, animals, and poets operate without obstruction or constraint and express "natural impulse(s)" that come "freely and without premeditation or effort." According to the Kantian version of the second defi nition, spontaneous actions express the ability of rational, free, and autonomous agents to transcend the natural order. This ability serves as the ground of human dignity and when properly employed provides the basis for normative moral claims.5 In the discussion above I have followed the convention that seeks to distinguish the normative component of our two senses of spontaneity by maintaining that in the former cases we are concerned with describing the proper natural functions of plants and animals, or certain aesthetic values of poetry, while in the latter, Kantian case we are talking about moral normativity. Perhaps this distinction can be made to work, but it is not as neat as it might fi rst appear to be. For example, many people endorse the view that an ethical action that arises or proceeds with ease and "without premeditation or effort" can be morally better than one that is carried out only after prolonged consideration and with diffi culty.6 Sorting out such issues and the various aspects of these two senses of spontaneity are beyond the scope of this chapter, though I return to these two Western senses of spontaneity in the conclusion. My remarks are intended only to set the stage for my primary concern, which is to describe and analyze two early Chinese views of spontaneity.7 I take as my primary sources Confucian and Daoist texts from the pre-Qin period (i.e., before 221 bce).8 My goals are fi rst to describe two related yet distinct types of spontaneity, which I shall refer to as "untutored" and "cultivated" spontaneity, and show that they share deep and important similarities. Next, I argue that the similarities they share are the primary source of the feelings of satisfaction and joy that such actions are thought to arouse in both those who perform and those who observe them. Finally, I argue that these two early Chinese conceptions of spontaneity can help us to understand some of our own intuitions about the ethical value of spontaneity.

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