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Professor Seeks to Understand China’s ‘Moral Crisis’

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Home to 20 percent of the world’s population, China’s evolving moral psychology is the focus of a Cal State Fullerton professor of philosophy’s latest research.

In his new project, “Understanding China’s Changing Moral Psychology,” Ryan Nichols is using an interdisciplinary approach to study what some people say is the country’s moral transformation as it continues rapid economic development and inches closer to global industrial dominance.

Nichols, who recently received a three-year grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation expected to total more than $200,000, will begin his project by convening a group of international scholars in 2019.

What are the goals of your research project?

China’s so-called “moral crisis” has been discussed across fields such as anthropology, philosophy, social theory, personality, cross-cultural and personality psychology, macroeconomics, microeconomics, neuroimaging, religion, sociology and more.

The project will assemble a team of leading scholars at a workshop in Hong Kong, where we will engage in critical conversations about our research. Ultimately, we will produce a volume of papers that discuss the nature of Chinese morality from several different perspectives, which will be translated into Chinese. The main outcome is to catalyze a broader range of scholarship on this problem so we can get a much better, more nuanced perspective of the contents of Chinese morality and how it’s changing.

How did you become interested in this line of research?

I grew up in Pawnee, Illinois, a town of 2,600 people. My mom taught English as a second language at a local community college, where there were many Chinese exchange students who would often come over to our house for Thanksgiving and other holidays. That got me interested in learning about Chinese culture when I went to college.

I’m really passionate about this research because I see the world in desperate need to understand China. I hope to be a bridge-builder, creating channels of fact-based communication between Chinese culture and Western culture.

How does this work relate to what you teach at CSUF?

I primarily teach two classes: “Chinese Philosophy” and “Philosophy of Sex and Love.” The research I’m working on is very related to what I teach in the classroom. For example, while Western philosophy seeks to find the truth, Chinese philosophy is a tradition that looks to influence other people. Appreciating some of the social context and outcomes of Chinese philosophy, in my opinion, can only be done with an  interdisciplinary perspective.

China, which has a very long tradition of polygamy, makes sense to study in the context of the classroom because polygamy skews population dynamics and creates a challenging social environment with much internal conflict. In my “Sex and Love” class, we try to understand the complicated causal interactions between a polygamous marriage system, a preference for rearing sons and the rate of violence in society.

Why does understanding Chinese moral psychology matter for the West?

We want to catalyze more research in this area because most of the current research in this issue is narrow and done by a small group of psychologists with a narrow range of disciplinary talents.

The study of Chinese moral psychology is likely to lead to improvements in our understanding of and collaboration with the people of China via better-targeted research questions, resolution of methodological stumbling blocks and interdisciplinary collaboration that matters.