Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Filial Piety, Fathers & Sons Revisited

I saw this (Associated Press) article about the son of the Holocaust Museum shooting suspect:


WASHINGTON – The son of a white supremacist accused of killing a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said Monday the shooting was unforgivable and he wished his father had died instead.

Erik von Brunn told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he and his father James didn’t like each other. The interview followed ABC’s release Sunday of comments by the son that his father had long burdened their family with his white supremacist views and that James should have died in the attack.

“I loved my father. But what he did was unforgivable,” Erik von Brunn, 32, said.

James von Brunn, 88, has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of 39-year-old Stephen T. Johns, who was black.

ABC played a short video of Johns’ mother Jacqueline Carter reacting to Erik’s statements about his father.

“I hope that in time his son will be able to forgive his dad and find some peace within his heart also,” Carter said.

In response, Erik von Brunn told ABC, “Forgiveness is very difficult right now.”

“You know, the only bond we had was father and son. We didn’t like each other very much.” …


Something about this didn’t feel right. I can understand condemning the father’s actions–maybe condemning the father as a person, too. But the idea of wishing that one’s father had been the one killed in the tragedy seemed morally strange to me. That got me thinking about the famous (infamous?) Analects passage, 13.18:

The Duke of She informed Confucius, saying, “Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.” Confucius said, “Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” (Legge translation)

This passage has always struck me as indefensible from the point of view of contemporary ethical theories (though, if anyone wants to give it a go, have at). But something like it lurks about, at least in my consciousness, that makes it seem like one should–as a son–have some extra pity, compassion, or something of the sort toward one’s father, deeply disturbed and hateful an anti-Semitic as he may be.

I have two related questions here:

I. Is the Analects view, as expressed in 13.18, defensible by some contemporary moral theoretic approach?

II. Would it make sense to read Confucius ironically here? By that I mean, would it make sense to read Confucius here as using ‘直’ (“upright”) ironically, in an oblique indictment of his own locality’s standards? (I can’t think of anyone who’s taken that reading…)

Comments welcome!

June 15, 2009 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius


  1. Interesting questions.

    I. I think the answer is clearly ‘yes’ for a consequentialist IF adopting this practice leads to better consequences overall. It’s not crazy to think that it might.

    A charitable way of reading the passage here–given the rest of the Analects–is that the family members will cover for one another but neither encourage this type of behavior nor rest happy without some further moral redress. Perhaps the family can set things right or make amends without getting the law involved. (The crime, after all, isn’t murder; it’s stealing a sheep. Serious no doubt, but maybe not unforgivable.) Perhaps ‘covering’ here can be understood as acting as an intermediary between the families, or otherwise working so as to preserve the family member’s good name while balancing the moral score.

    Contrast this with the practice of ratting on family members, turning them over to authorities without making efforts to reform them or set things right. This can lead to suspicion or mistrust within the family, or an erosion of close familial bonds, which can be undesirable. In such a scenario, the consequences of not turning family members over to authorities might be best overall.

    Of course, this is a charitable reading of the passage, but I think it’s a plausible one, given the rest of the Analects. Family members helping one another do the right thing is a prominent enough theme to license such a reading IMO.

    At any rate, you asked if it *could* be defensible, and I think it could.

    More generally, such behavior can be justified given certain versions of moral particularism. In certain cases, the moral expert (or otherwise competent moral judge) can decide that covering up for a family member is the right thing to do, principles be damned!!

    II. Not a chance. :)

    Comment by Hagop Sarkissian | June 15, 2009

  2. Hi Hagop,

    Interesting possibility with the consequentialist justification. I was actually thinking someone might offer up a justifcation based on non-consequentialist views that put extra weight on “special” relationships (a la Bernard Williams’s discussions).

    Let me riff a bit on II. Do you (or others) think irony of this sort just absent in Confucian writings? in early Chinese thought in general? in Asian culture even more generally, if that means anything? I remember thinking something like this while I was studying Chinese in Taipei. Of course that might have been just lack of irony in Taipei. But it did also occur to me at the time that–reverting now to my Korean diasporic upbringing–the Koreans I knew were never especially good at or comfortable with irony, facetiousness, sarcasm, or other such related affects. This isn’t meant to be off topic; I think these thoughts are related to assessing the possibility in II. Of course I may be doing too much armchair sociology here–but what else is an armchair good for?

    Comment by Manyul Im | June 15, 2009

  3. II. No way. That’s got to be the bread and butter of what makes Confucians so antagonistic to Mohists!

    I. At my stage, I hold almost all ethical quandaries with a grain of salt, since taking a view that takes normative speech to be full arguments of prediction with hedonistically loaded premises.

    The question seems to be one that just assumes attachment to parents. If one were raised in utter collectivism, where he knew only the bare minimum of his parents and siblings (just enough to avoid inbreeding, perhaps), but was raised under society’s broader moral guidance, would he be so partial to his parents’ welfare against swift justice for the good of the collective?

    Comment by Joshua Harwood | June 16, 2009

  4. A similar subject is treated in Plato’s Euthyphro, where Socrates befuddles the self-righteousness of one confident of prosecuting his father on the grounds that family distinction should be ignored:

    Soc. And what is your suit, Euthyphro? are you the pursuer or the defendant?

    Euth. I am the pursuer.

    Soc. Of whom?

    Euth. You will think me mad when I tell you.

    Soc. Why, has the fugitive wings?

    Euth. Nay, he is not very volatile at his time of life.

    Soc. Who is he?

    Euth. My father.

    Soc. Your father! my good man?

    Euth. Yes.

    Soc. And of what is he accused?

    Euth. Of murder, Socrates.

    Soc. By the powers, Euthyphro! how little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary man, and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to bring such an action.

    Euth. Indeed, Socrates, he must.

    Soc. I suppose that the man whom your father murdered was one of your relatives-clearly he was; for if he had been a stranger you would never have thought of prosecuting him.

    Euth. I am amused, Socrates, at your making a distinction between one who is a relation and one who is not a relation; for surely the pollution is the same in either case, if you knowingly associate with the murderer when you ought to clear yourself and him by proceeding against him. The real question is whether the murdered man has been justly slain. If justly, then your duty is to let the matter alone; but if unjustly, then even if the murderer lives under the same roof with you and eats at the same table, proceed against him. Now the man who is dead was a poor dependent of mine who worked for us as a field labourer on our farm in Naxos, and one day in a fit of drunken passion he got into a quarrel with one of our domestic servants and slew him. My father bound him hand and foot and threw him into a ditch, and then sent to Athens to ask of a diviner what he should do with him. Meanwhile he never attended to him and took no care about him, for he regarded him as a murderer; and thought that no great harm would be done even if he did die. Now this was just what happened. For such was the effect of cold and hunger and chains upon him, that before the messenger returned from the diviner, he was dead. And my father and family are angry with me for taking the part of the murderer and prosecuting my father. They say that he did not kill him, and that if he did, dead man was but a murderer, and I ought not to take any notice, for that a son is impious who prosecutes a father. Which shows, Socrates, how little they know what the gods think about piety and impiety.

    Soc. Good heavens, Euthyphro! and is your knowledge of religion and of things pious and impious so very exact, that, supposing the circumstances to be as you state them, you are not afraid lest you too may be doing an impious thing in bringing an action against your father?

    Euth. The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it?

    Comment by Pensans | June 16, 2009

  5. Hi Joshua,

    I can see why 13.18 might seem like it provides an example of the sort of “partial care” that the Mohists argue against. Two things that come to mind, though: it seems like an isolated example, even in the Analects, to the extent that the Mohist arguments seem directed either at others’ (i.e. others besides Confucius) or misdirected at Confucius’ teachings. The other thing that comes to mind is that, as I indicated, there is something lurking about that is more like a view I would attribute to Confucius: that people have a tendency (that is very natural) to cover for their fathers and sons. I’m not sure that’s an endorsement, yet. I wonder if Confucius distances himself slightly by talking about “his part of the country” rather than simply stating his surprise (the way Socrates does).

    Comment by Manyul Im | June 16, 2009

  6. Pensans,

    Thanks for bringing in the Euthyphro passage to the discussion. I know people tend to make a quick contrast between it and the Analects one, usually too quickly by my lights. I’m not sure what Socrates’ attitude is in this passage, except that he shows (mock?) surprise at the apparent impiety that Euthyphro shows by prosecuting his own father. This at least shows that the sort of expectation in Confucius’ part of the country was also the expectation (nay, the widely considered pious thing!) in 5th century Athens. I’m not actually sure Socrates, or Plato, establishes that it really is pious in the course of the dialogue, however. Or maybe it’s been a long time since I’ve read the Euthyphro all the way through…

    Comment by Manyul Im | June 16, 2009

  7. I am not a proper scholar, but I have some thoughts about 13.18 and the von Brunns. I will try to make my ideas a bit more digestible (if they are at all clear) with my favorite way of breaking things down: numbered points.

    1. In addition to Hagop’s consequentialist approach, I think that 13.18 is defensible by moral approaches emphasizing care/concern for others and relatedness over (or in concert with) social standards. These are views that would attempt to navigate and resolve conflicts by means of consideration and dialogue, rather than immediate intervention of authority. When I consider such approaches to morality, I think mainly to those espoused in writings on “feminist ethics,” from, say, Gilligan, Held…I have a long list, but not on this computer. The idea seems to be that what is ethical is not merely a matter of legality (it is a “crime” to steal a sheep or kill a man), but of connectedness (we might say it is “unreasonable” or “inhumane” to steal or kill, based on the circumstances of our relationship to others). Morality is to be found in treating others with the same human respect we desire for ourselves, and this goes back to the Confucian “Reverse Golden Rule.”

    In the specific instance of a family member committing a moral transgression (crime or not), such an ethic may compel us to regard that family member as just that (our family), and take care of them. This does not mean, as it has already been pointed out, that we should encourage or endorse their behavior. If anything, it seems only proper that we should remonstrate. A parent, of course, “out-ranks” a child (at least by many traditions), so that remonstration may only go so far. I think the younger von Brunn may have acknowledged this to some degree, and I think that his father never changing his ways must be very frustrating for him.

    2. I think that Confucius’s statement being taken sarcastically could be a possible interpretation of the passage, but it does not seem likely to me. What irony it would be if so much of Confucius were actually sarcastic comments! The problem with reading dialogue is that, often, we cannot decipher the mood of the speakers. For the sake of giving The Analects some underlying unity, I prefer to take the comment seriously and see how it fits.

    This brings up the issue of how “isolated” 13.18 may seem from one perspective, but not necessarily from others. As it has been pointed out, the strength of familial bonds is a major concept for Confucius. Another major concept seems to be a for a preference for a “virtuous” populace over a populace that is merely “law-abiding” (I am trying to cite a passage for memory here and failing miserably). Although Confucius acknowledges the importance of punishments hitting the mark in 13.3, he also places an emphasis on ruling by virtue and not coercion. The laws have a place, but they must be applied with a consideration for humanity. I think that, along with xiao, is what 13.18 espouses…at least it is what I take away from it. I see it as a contrast of blind obedience to law with consideration for family or, perhaps more broadly, loved ones. Further, if one is following what Confucius says and particularly “loving the good” (again, forgot the passage), then it seems all the more reasonable to place consideration of others above mere consideration for the law…but I am getting away from filial piety again.

    3. Manyul brings up a really interesting point with the “[his] part of the country” segment of 13.18. One of the things I find interesting about Confucianism is how malleable the socio-moral guidelines it yields might be. If we read Confucius as making his morality very personal or, at the very least, regional, we might interpret his central ideas as being very feasible, even in different regions. Confucius, personally, “follow[s] the Zhou,” way of doing things. In his part of the country, “sons cover for fathers and fathers cover for sons.” Perhaps 13.18 is not a direct challenge to the Duke of She’s concept of uprightness, as much as it is an alternative (perhaps even a more reasonable alternative).

    I also like to think about this interpretation when considering Confucius’s comments on the Yi and Di barbarians: “If a junzi were to live among them, what uncouthness would there be?” It is not necessarily that the junzi will change the barbarians, so much as the junzi will adhere to the core tenets of Confucianism while learning the behaviors appropriate to living harmoniously with the Yi and Di.

    Bah, I am rambling, but I thought it was worthwhile to put some ideas on paper…or the Internet.

    Comment by Colin | June 16, 2009

  8. Colin,

    (…yet you write all too properly! :) )

    I think I agree that the approaches to morality on which personal relationships are central to it would have a slightly easier time of defending the sentiment. I’m not sure I see it as having to do with a contrast with legality-as-central-to-morality, though there certainly is a contrast between care-based ethics and rule-based ethics. Actually–as an aside or segway–as legalistic a society as the U.S. has, it allows for “special relationships” to trump otherwise normal legal requirements–e.g. not being required to testify against one’s spouse.

    To return to my dissatisfaction with the sentiment expressed in 13.18, I think it stems from the clear conflict that “covering” for each other has with what we, as well as, I think, the ancient Chinese and the ancient Greeks, would regard to be the demands of justice. I would expect being “upright” (“straight-bodied,” 直躬) to connote things very similar to “justice” (or, in the Greek case, being dikaion).

    I think allowing for special dispensation–permitting one not to rat on a family member–is different from praising concealment of wrong-doing. It’s the latter that seems to me to be the sentiment in question in 13.18. Could it really be virtuous to cover for one another when stealing sheep is involved? At best, it seems like it would be excusable, but not virtuous. So, I would be happier with a reading of 13.18 on which it wasn’t virtuous to cover for one’s thieving father; but the only reading that seems to me to be adequate for that is the ironic one, since the duke and Confucius are discussing who is considered upstanding in their respective regions.

    Comment by Manyul Im | June 16, 2009

  9. Manyul,

    I think you raise a good point: Why would covering for a sheep-stealing father be considered virtuous? If we consider all things, at least from our perspective, it probably seems deceitful and counter to virtue to conceal the misdeeds of our kin. I wonder, however, if the virtuous behavior is not to be gleaned from the particular act, but from its circumstances. When I say “circumstances,” I am referring again to the maintenance of the familial bonds (an issue that comes up frequently in *The Analects*). We can probably make a connection between such filial behavior with humaneness, but what about “uprightness” (or “justice”)? This is where things become a bit more difficult to navigate, but I will try to do my best.

    If we accept “upright” behavior to be the same as “just” behavior (or, as you suggest, probably very similar to just behavior), then perhaps we can preserve a non-ironic reading of 13.18 by interpreting upright/virtuous/just behavior not as being linked to a particular act alone, but to the spirit conveyed by such an act. In other words, you “cover” for your father because you love him (this seems to be expected of a humane person). Although we may not praise the act of covering up a crime, we tend to acknowledge and respect an act of love.

    For the sheep thief we might say that, in our society, there is a moral obligation that the son tell the truth about his father’s crime. If the son were to lie or merely refuse to comment (not testifying against kin in US courts), we might be willing to accept that the son was not forthcoming because he loved his father and was doing his filial duty. In a court of law, we might call this a mitigating circumstance (and, from personal experience, I can say that similar excuses/explanations have been accepted). The behavior is virtuous in that it is, supposedly, an act of love and respect (although not necessarily intended as disrespect to the authority pressing for answers). This may seem like a bit of a cop-out for an answer, but I think it is an understandable worldview to adopt.

    Now, there is a potential weak-point to this argument (there always is when it comes to “moral trump rules”), and I readily acknowledge it. The case of sheep-stealing is one type of crime, but murder is another. Does the moral duty of a son to confess his father’s crime trump duty to family? In all honesty, I can see this argument going either way in modernity. Many would say that it is only reasonable to turn one’s father in, especially if one is disgusted with his actions and lifestyle. Still, I think there is a case for those who would preserve familial bonds and not speak of the father’s misdeeds. It is not an endorsement, but it is an excusable and, better yet, *understandable* act of compassion that some (perhaps many) of us may find hard to challenge.

    Alternatively, there is still that discussion of the duke and Confucius simply comparing upright behavior in their respective regions, but I do not know that this is necessarily ironic. As I said before, Confucius could just be suggesting a potentially more-viable alternative. Why more viable? Given what I know about this particular era in China’s history, and the increasing trend of individuals trying to “get in” with those in power, I think Confucius’s preference for family and integrity over a quick response to authority can be construed as another remark against such behavior. It is a warning that such individuals might appear well-intentioned, but might harbor only a desire for profit. I suppose a similar argument could be made against standing by family, though.

    I hope I do not catch much flack for it, but this actually reminds me of several incidents in *Romance of the Three Kingdoms*. A man enters the employ of a lord (on some readings, the man was adopted as a son), only to betray him for another (again, re-adopted on some readings) for personal gain…then repeats the same betrayal for personal gain again! When he is eventually captured, he begs for his life and offers his services once again. Not being fooled by a man who has already betrayed two lords, his captors execute him. A moral of this story seems to be that one should stand by family, rather than jump to betray them should a seemingly better opportunity appear.

    I hope at least some of this is clear and making sense. A friend and I were having a very similar conversation a few days ago, so I could not resist jumping in here.

    Comment by Colin | June 16, 2009

  10. Colin,

    Some very nice suggestions; I’ll have to rethink the prima facie plausibility of the sentiment expressed in 13.18, if not its ultimate defensibility.

    In the Analects, there’s at least the threat of inconsistency if we take the “reverse Golden Rule” in 15.24 seriously (“…己所不欲,勿施於人,” “…what you do not want for yourself, do not do to others”), as applied to those from whom one’s father has stolen the sheep. Another reason to prefer the ironic reading of 13.18, I think.

    Comment by Manyul Im | June 16, 2009

  11. I’m sure someone somewhere has come up with this reading before, but the closest thing I could think of to your “ironic” approach would be a reading where the zhong 中 Confucius refers to is a medium between both dangs 黨. This would mean that Confucius is critiquing both those that would turn their fathers in and those who would cover for their fathers. In this sense both groups are usurping the notion of zhi 直. True zhi 直 lies somewhere in between. This reading, I imagine, is an implicit critique of the State of Lu, and as such would certainly be the minority reading. It also doesn’t draw on any notion of irony, but gets at a similar point.

    Comment by Agui | June 17, 2009

  12. Hi Agui,

    The notion of irony I mean is just the use of 直 in “吾黨之直者” as if it were in scare quotes, as in: “the so-called ‘upright’ in my region” because, on this reading, Confucius would not agree that those who cover up for fathers or sons are in fact upright. The reading that you suggest is exactly what I had in mind, actually; I just don’t recall ever having seen the reading by anyone, either in commentary or in modern secondary literature. It is the reading I would find most plausible, however.

    Comment by Manyul Im | June 17, 2009

  13. I think I would position this reading, not along the lines of irony, but rather along the lines of concern with proper definition (i.e., zhengming, or something similar). Irony I see as a statement where what is meant is the opposite of what is said. In this case, though, Confucius would not be stating the opposite of what he means; rather his comment can be taken at face value–”In my group the notion of uprightness is different from this…”. That, of course, is the problem with his group. They take it to the other extreme.

    As for irony in early China, I think many of Sima Qian’s biographies could be read this way. His conclusions about how wonderful so-and-so is in the conclusion of each bio just don’t fit with the lengths he goes to describe the difficulties or horribleness of their lives in the body of the bio. If I remember correctly Durrant has something about this in his book, but I don’t have it in front of me and can’t give a specific source in the Shiji (perhaps the bio on Bo Yi and Shu Qi or Qin Shihuang).

    Comment by Agui | June 17, 2009

  14. That’s helpful, Agui; particularly the Sima Qian reference. I’ll have to go check Durrant.

    Comment by Manyul Im | June 17, 2009

  15. Moral obligation doesn’t apply to all people equally but rather is a proximal quality. When my girlfriend was bummed out recently, I purchased a pizza and a bottle of wine for her. She didn’t need the pizza nor the bottle of wine. On the other hand, the money I spent could have been used to feed several starving Africans. Am I therefore morally culpable (and probably downright evil) for the starving status of those Africans? That sort of logic can be applied to everything and anything. So we have to draw lines. Which lines and where . . . ehhh, that is kinda tricky. But Confucius thought, and I think reasonably so, that we owe the greatest moral debt to our family and our parents in particular. That doesn’t mean we don’t owe others a moral debt, it would be very difficult to argue that Confucius thought stealing was a morally permissible act in light of the Analects and the received tradition. But the debt that we owe others is less than the debt that we owe family (and especially parents) so when the conflict we need to value our proximal duties first.

    Comment by Justsomeguy | June 26, 2009

  16. Hi JSG; welcome back.

    Proximal duties seem like a useful type to distinguish in order to address the “common sense” intuition that my moral agency has more immediate relevance to those who are more closely related to me than those half-way around the world. That’s all contextual, of course. If my mother’s extended family lives in Korea and is in desperate financial straits, I may have stronger obligations to help them than the flood victims in, say, New Orleans. On the other hand, on the proximal duties view, it seems like “circumstantially” proximal parties may also enter, however temporarily, into the small circle of those to whom I have strong obligations: take the case of someone whom I have harmed by my culpable neglect, say, while driving and texting at the same time. I may not know them from the next person, but the circumstances have brought them into a special moral relationship to me. That’s how I guess I feel, at least within the proximal duties view, about the person from whom one’s father has stolen something.

    There’s also the special sort of duties that arise–ones of “justice” narrowly construed–with respect to one’s society and those fellow society members who have an expectation that I will treat them in accordance with the laws under which we live, in some kind of social contract. My duties to the stolen sheep victim also seems to fall under this kind of special duty category as well.

    Comment by Manyul Im | June 26, 2009

  17. I’m just not sure that Confucius would have ranked the special relationships in the manner that you have. Mencius may have expanded things to a more societal level but for Confucius I think that familial relationships trump those special relationships that arise due to circumstance. Ideally these things don’t conflict, right? Society ought be harmonious. But when that breaks down, loyalty to one’s family comes first. Then loyalty to others.

    Also, this isn’t just about loyalty to others. It is about property rights. While I think it would be mistaken to read Confucius and Mencius as holding proto-Maoists ideas believing that property is theft and the like, but I don’t think they were terribly keen on private property either. You’ve got things like the well-field system and royal hunting grounds which all have a public/private mix to them with a lot of permissibility. Couple that with the traditional loathing of merchants and you do have a mantra that could be read along the lines of people before things.

    In turning against his father, Upright Gong managed to put out-group before in-group (or an inferior grade of in-group over a superior grade of in-group) as well as something before someone. Both of those would consist of perversions of justice from Confucius’s standpoint.

    I agree defending such a view would be difficult under modern ethical theories because we conjoin people and their property.

    Comment by Justsomeguy | June 29, 2009

  18. I linked and copied the thread to another area where I play around and a poster there had a very interesting response as per the original question:

    I can see good ol’ egoism having no problem saying of Confucius’ position that it is permissible, and perhaps even obligatory. Here’s why: Seeing the father harmed, even in the name of justice, is something way more devastating than letting the misdeed committed by the father go undealt with by the state. We suffer through those we love. Seeing the father suffer, the son, too, would suffer, assuming that the father-son relationship is not strained or otherwise abnormal. By ratting his father out, the son would remedy the pain caused by his social conscience, but he would suffer with his father when the father is punished, and the son would also cause himself (perhaps undue) feelings of guilt for being responsible for the father’s pain. The pain caused by turning the father in (guilt + sympathetic suffering) would be greater than the pain caused by not turning the father in (bite of social conscience). Hence the son is not only permitted to not turn his father in, because as I he would decrease his pain, but he’d also be obligated because turning his father in would be impermissible. It would be impermissible because turning in the father would increase pain.

    The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t take into account the unique relationship between a father and a son, because as you know, the son becomes the father (assuming it’s not a strained relationship between the two). If the father is a crook, and if he is a dad to his son, then the son will not feel any bite in his conscience whenever he learns his dad did something illegal or immoral anymore than the father does when he’s committing the acts because he too will be a crook. And so the son would suffer even less were he to do nothing about his father’s misdeed.

    If on the other hand the father is not a dad to his son, and if society becomes the son’s dad, meaning if the son internalizes the virtues healthy for a society, then the son will will feel the bite of his conscience when he sees his father do something immoral or illegal, and this pain might be worse than the pain the son would feel watching the father suffer at the hands of the justice/social system. Also, I imagine the son not being all that sympathetic towards the father, and so the pain he would feel watching his father suffer would be even less. In this case it would be permissible for the son under egoism to turn in his dad. Indeed, it would be obligatory of him, because it would be impermissible of him to not turn his father in.

    I doubt that the one father getting away with his misdeed will cause the society to collapse to the point that the son would suffer indirectly because of it, although if this was the case then even egoism would have to say that it is impermissible for the son to not turn his father in.

    So to summarize, egoism can see Confucius’ story as moral, depending on the relationship between the father and the son…and also depending on the relationship between society and the son and the father.

    PS. What I’m saying actually makes some sense. It fits in with the story of Erik von Brunn. Brunn said he was not close to his dad, meaning that he probably did not share the father’s values, nor probably his pain. You can see how it becomes possible for Brunn to condemn his father, because his father to him is just some guy. He wouldn’t feel any great pain or personal tragedy in hearing of his dad’s passing…or, I should say, any pain greater than the one dealt to his reputation for being the father’s son.

    PSS. About the relationship between society and the son bit: I can see a society like that in America, where the family unit is composed of a bunch of individuals only vaguely more similar to eachother than to their neighbor next door, posing less of a problem for a son in this type of a situation than a society composed of a bunch of family clans. This fact is very clear for me, because for the greater part of my life I lived within a ‘family clan.’ We had our own mores and reputation. Anyone around the country who heard of a person with my last name knew exactly what kind of person they were dealing with. I chalk this up to the constant presence of family forces in the daily life of the kid. When the parents of a kid were off to work, there was always someone else from the family to give guidance or impose sanctions. Here, the kids are raised by TV. The parents are off to work for 10 hours of the day, and either asleep or tired and grumpy for the rest of the time. The father has very very little to do with the rearing of the son. The son hardly sympathies with the father, and he doesn’t share the father’s values, at least not to the degree in these other societies I’m talking about. Look at any sitcom and you’ll see what kind of role the grandparents play.

    I imagine it’s easier for an American to rat his father out than for an Albanian. In clan based societies, one’s name is one’s credit. If anyone from one’s clan fucks up, then the reputation of everyone in the clan suffers as well. You can see how this can be more incentive for a son not to rat out a father or anyone from their clan. Hell, you can probably even get utilitarianism to squeal ‘permissible’ when you’re dealing with clan based societies.

    Even if egoism is not a good normative theory, it is still an excellent descriptive theory.

    Comment by Justsomeguy | July 9, 2009

  19. Hi JSG,

    Interesting solution, one I have not heard applied to Confucianism. There is something like rational egoism going on in any eudaimonistic view — not that a contemporary eudaimonist would cop to it; nor is it clear that Confucianism is a eudaimonistic view. Nonetheless, I can see that there are interesting possibilities here.

    Comment by Manyul Im | July 9, 2009

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