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Aaron Stalnaker

Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies

Sycamore Hall, Rm. 219


Ph.D., Brown University, 2001

Research Interests

Professional Biography

I study ethics and philosophy of religion, with serious attention to both Chinese and Western theories and practices. I thus care about methods and tools of interpretation and comparison, and the relations of thought, culture, and history in diverse settings. Substantively, I am most interested in the relevance of ancient conceptions of human excellence and character formation to life in contemporary heterogeneous, democratic societies.

My first book examines and compares the accounts of ethico-religious practices of personal formation advocated by the early Confucian Xunzi and the early Christian Augustine of Hippo. It addresses contemporary debates in religious ethics about moral agency, sin and evil, and the purposeful cultivation of virtuous emotions and desires. I recently co-edited a volume with Elizabeth Bucar that presents a variety of current approaches to the comparative study of religious ethics, and argues for a capacious conception of the field. In my current book project, tentatively entitled Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority, I examine vexing issues of justice, care, and personal development within hierarchical relations that seem to be intrinsic to practices of moral cultivation, e.g., in teacher-student or “master-disciple” relations, and which are not adequately addressed in contemporary theorizing about political authority.

I founded and for five years served as chair of the Comparative Religious Ethics Group within the American Academy of Religion.


Courses Recently Taught

Publication Highlights


Religious Ethics in a Time of Globalism: Shaping a Third Wave of Comparative Analysis, edited with Elizabeth M. Bucar, Palgrave Macmillan, November 2012.

Overcoming Our Evil: Human Nature and Spiritual Exercises in Xunzi and Augustine. Moral Traditions series, ed. James Keenan, Georgetown University Press, 2006.


"Confucianism, Democracy, and the Virtue of Deference." Forthcoming in Dao: a Journal of Comparative Philosophy.

"Mastery, Authority, and Hierarchy in the ‘Inner Chapters’ of the Zhuāngzǐ." Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 95.3 (2012): 255-283.

"Xunzi’s Moral Analysis of War and Some of its Contemporary Implications." Journal of Military Ethics 11.2 (August 2012): 97-113.

"Virtue as Mastery in Early Confucianism." Journal of Religious Ethics 38.3 (September 2010): 404-428.

"Judging Others: History, Ethics, and the Purposes of Comparison." Journal of Religious Ethics 36.3 (September 2008): 425–444.

"Focus Introduction: Anthropos and Ethics: Categories of Inquiry and Procedures of Comparison." (co-authored with Mark Berkson, Thomas Lewis, and Jon Schofer). Journal of Religious Ethics 33.2 (Summer 2005): 177-185.

"Comparative Religious Ethics and the Problem of ‘Human Nature.’" Journal of Religious Ethics 33.2 (Summer 2005): 187-224.

"Spiritual Exercises and the Grace of God: Paradoxes of Personal Formation in Augustine." Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 24.2 (Fall/Winter 2004): 137-170.

"Rational Justification in Xunzi: On His Use of the Term Lǐ 理." International Philosophical Quarterly 44.1 (March 2004): 53-68.

"Aspects of Xunzi’s Engagement with Early Daoism." Philosophy East and West 53.1 (March 2003): 87-129.

Selected Lectures

"Mastery and Dependence in Early Confucianism." Versions presented at the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy annual meeting, and the American Academy of Religion annual meeting; October, November 2012

"Virtue as Mastery in Early Confucianism." Invited lecture at Harvard Divinity School, as part of a series of lectures on “Moral Worlds and Religious Subjectivities” hosted by the Center for the Study of World Religions; February, 2009.

"Confucian Democracy and the Question of Deference." Bristol lecture in ethics, Florida State University, Department of Religion; October, 2008.

"‘West’ Implies ‘East’: Comparison and the Characterization of Distinctive Civilizations.’" Presented at Georgetown University as one of four Provost's Seminars on Western civilization and its role in the intellectual agenda of the contemporary academy, December 2003

"Xunzi on Emotions." Presented at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, for a conference on Xunzi, responding to a recent anthology of critical essays, March 2001


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