Aaron Stalnaker

Aaron Stalnaker

Chair, Religious Studies

Professor, Religious Studies

Adjunct Professor, Philosophy

Adjunct Professor, East Asian Languages and Cultures


  • Ph.D., Brown University, 2001

About Aaron Stalnaker

I study ethics, political theory, 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, relationships, and character formation to life in contemporary heterogeneous, democratic societies.

My first book (Overcoming Our Evil, Georgetown University Press, 2006) 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. In 2012 I 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. My recently published second book, Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority, examines early Confucian social thought in relation to contemporary ethics and political theory. In it I argue against common contemporary suspicions that both authority and dependence are intrinsically threatening to human autonomy. On the contrary, our capacity for autonomy needs to be cultivated over time through deliberate practices of training, in which we depend on the guidance of virtuous and skilled teachers. Confucian thought provides a subtle and powerful analysis of one version of this training process, and of the social supports such an education in autonomy requires—as well as the social value of having virtuous and skilled leaders. Early Confucians contend that human life is marked by numerous interacting forms of dependence, which are not only ineradicable, but in many ways good. On a Confucian view, it is natural, healthy, and good for people to be deeply dependent on others in a variety of ways across the full human lifespan. They teach us that individual autonomy only develops within a social matrix, structured by relationships of mutual dependence that can either help or hinder it, including a variety of authority relations.

My current primary research project aims to develop a general theory of religious ethics, incorporating early Chinese insights into the idea of a dao or path that people are taught to follow, and merging these with contemporary theories of social action, the uses and abuses of power, and human subjectivity and agency.

I founded and for five years served as chair of the Comparative Religious Ethics Group within the American Academy of Religion. I currently serve as co-chair of the Confucian Traditions Unit of the AAR, and am an associate editor of the Journal of Religious Ethics.


Religious Ethics in a Time of Globalism
Religious Ethics in a Time of Globalism

Shaping a Third Wave of Comparative Analysis

Elizabeth Bucar, Aaron Stalnaker

Overcoming Our Evil
Overcoming Our Evil

Human Nature and Spiritual Exercises in Xunzi and Augustine

Aaron Stalnaker

Selected journal articles & other publications

“Relations and Practices of Virtue: Replies to Commentators.” Philosophy East and West 71.2 (April 2021): 525-536.

“Striving for the Impossible: Early Confucians on Perfect Virtue in an Imperfect World.”

In Michael Slote Encountering Chinese Philosophy: A Cross-Cultural Approach to Ethics and Moral Philosophy, ed. Yong Huang (London: Bloomsbury, 2020): 179-198.

“Roles and Virtues: Early Confucians on Social Order and the Different Aspects of Ethics.” In Perspectives in Role Ethics: Virtues, Reasons, and Obligation, ed. Christine Swanton and Tim Dare (Routledge, 2020): 95-122.

“The Innocuous Legacy of Christian Ethics in Comparative Religious Ethics.” Journal of Religious Ethics 47.4 (December 2019): 778-780.

“Self-Cultivation.” In Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Xunzi, ed. Eric Hutton (Dordrecht: Springer, 2016): 35-65.

“In Defense of Ritual Propriety.” European Journal of Philosophy of Religion 8.1 (Spring 2016): 117-141.

"Confucianism, Democracy, and the Virtue of Deference." Dao: a Journal of Comparative Philosophy 12.4 (December 2013): 441-459.

Selected lectures

“Early Chinese Cosmopolitanism?  Reconsidering “Walking Two Roads” in the Zhuangzi.” To be presented at the 12th East-West Philosophers’ Conference, University of Hawai‘i. May 2022

“Dependence, Autonomy, and the Varieties of Relationship.”  Presented at the Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy, Columbia University. January 2020

“Sagehood and Tyranny: Reconsidering Some of Xunzi’s Political Ideas.” Presented at the International Society for Chinese Philosophy meeting in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. November 2018

“Striving for the Impossible: Early Confucians on Perfect Virtue in an Imperfect World.” Presented at an international conference on Michael Slote’s encounter with Chinese Philosophy, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. March 2018

“Thoughts on the Legacy of Christian Ethics in Comparative Religious Ethics.” Presented at the Society of Christian Ethics annual meeting. January 2018

“Debating Universal Empire: The Early Chinese Quest for Order.” Presented at Oxford University, Oxford, UK. July 2017

“Dreaming of a Meritocracy.” Presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. November 2016

“The Confucian Dào: Virtue as the Fruit of Shared Practices.” Presented at Oberlin College. September 2016

“An Early Confucian Theory of Shared Practice.” Presented at the 11th East-West Philosophers’ Conference, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa; and also at the 12th Annual Midwest Conference on Chinese Thought, University of Chicago. March and May, 2016

“Rethinking Dependence with the Early Confucians.” Keynote lecture given at the 24th Philosophical Collaborations Conference at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL. March 2016

“Why role ethics? Early Confucians on social order and the different aspects of ethics.” Presented at a conference on role ethics hosted by the University of Auckland Philosophy Department, Auckland, New Zealand. January 2016

Recent courses

  • REL-B 374 Introduction to Chinese Thought
  • REL-C 103 Conceptions of the Self, East and West
  • REL-D 430/R571 Religion, Virtue, and the Good Life
  • REL-R 170 Religion, Ethics, and Public Life
  • REL-R 389 Self-Cultivation and Spiritual Exercises
  • REL-R 661/R770 Religion, Power, and Authority
  • REL-R 662/R762 Comparative Religious Ethics
  • REL-R 674/R780 Practices of the Self

Awards & Honors

  • Indiana University Consortium for the Study of Religion, Ethics, and Society, Seminar grant (“Global and Comparative Approaches to Religion, Ethics, and Political Theory”), co-organized with Hussein Banai, 2018
  • Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Scholar Grant (“Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority”), 2015-16
  • College Arts and Humanities grant (“Mastery, Dependence, and the Ethics of Authority”), Indiana University, 2013-14
  • Trustees Teaching Award, Indiana University, Dept. of Religious Studies, 2007, 2013
  • New Frontiers/New Perspectives grant (“Shaping the Third Wave of Comparative Religious Ethics: A Workshop Proposal”), Indiana University 2010
  • Poynter Center Faculty Fellowship, Indiana University 2005
  • Georgetown University Summer Research Grant, 2003
  • Joukowsky Foundation award for the best dissertation in the humanities at Brown, 2001
  • Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, Spencer Foundation, 2000-2001
  • Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, U. S. Department of Education, 1995-1999
  • Dean's Fellowship, Brown University, 1994-1995
  • Phi Beta Kappa, Stanford University, 1990