Following up on some things we discussed about filial piety on a previous post, I’ve had some thoughts about the nature of family relationships and their moral relevance, particularly with respect to filial piety, but with some hopes for expanding the thoughts more systematically to other aspects.
The Confucian ideal seems to be that the duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are central, in at least two ways:
1) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are overriding — they override any duties or obligations that derive from other relations, be they standing relations (subject and ruler, ruler and minister, subject and subject, etc.), or incidental ones based on circumstances (sheep-thief and sheep-owner, chariot-driver and someone run over by chariot-driver, etc.).
2) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are paradigmatic — they provide the paradigm, or model, for thinking about what our other duties or obligations are like and how we should think about them. So, for example, the ruler should think about his relationship to his ministers or to his subjects in ways that are modeled on the parent-child relationship.
That represents, I think, a common portrayal of the Confucian view. The questions I have are about how such a view might be justified. There are so-called “special relationships” that some contemporary moral theorists like to talk about, that are based on more or less standing relationships we find ourselves in, sometimes not entirely out of choices that we may have made. But these relationships can involve important moral aspects like trust and deep emotional bonds based on instinctive and cultivated care. The most obvious relationship like this is the parent-child relationship. But in that relationship, it’s always seemed to me like there’s an important asymmetry. As parents, we bring children into the world and it is most often out of some choice or other that we made. But of course the children had no such choice (that’s not the asymmetry I’m interested in) and for many years of their lives, they are in most ways “at our mercy” — they tacitly trust us to take care of them and to prepare them for a relatively happy adult life. Most parents love their children and so the point about trust might seem to without saying, but that’s not always the case and even loving parents don’t always feel particularly fond of their children. So, care is something that we owe to our children, as Kant (through Barbara Herman, among others) might say, even when we don’t on occasion feel like caring for them.
The moral asymmetry, I think, is when we look at the relationship from the side of the children. What is it that they owe to us? (Or, more pressing for many of us, what do we owe our parents?). I’m not so sure how to answer that. One way to characterize the Confucian view is that children owe their parents obedience, allegiance/loyalty, and gratitude — as I suggested about Analects 13.18 in the aforementioned post. But let me introduce Analects 17.21, which says:
Zai Wo asked about the three years’ mourning for parents, saying that one year was long enough….The Master said, “If you were, after a year, to eat good rice, and wear embroidered clothes, would you feel at ease?” “I should,” replied Wo. The Master said, “If you can feel at ease, do it. But a superior man, during the whole period of mourning, does not enjoy pleasant food which he may eat, nor derive pleasure from music which he may hear. He also does not feel at ease, if he is comfortably lodged. Therefore he does not do what you propose. But now you feel at ease and may do it.” Zai Wo then went out, and the Master said, “This shows Yu’s [i.e. Zai Wo's] want of virtue. It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. And the three years’ mourning is universally observed throughout the empire. Did Yu enjoy the three years’ love of his parents?” (Legge translation)
One way of expressing filial piety is through this expression of mourning. But it really doesn’t work well to think of this on a duty or obligation model. If we think about it on the trust model, the three years spent in “the arms of its parents” are based on what the parents already owe to the child. The parent doesn’t create a subsequent debt by caring for the child, right? But maybe the child, later in life as an adult, comes to appreciate that parental care nonetheless. At that point, it seems like that’s a nice thing, but not only isn’t it morally relevant, I’m not sure it is desirable to think of that sort of appreciation as morally relevant. “I’m really glad that I was lucky to have such caring parents” and “I’m really grateful to my parents for caring about me” are slightly different sentiments, but of a kind. Call them the “fortunate child” or “grateful child” sentiments; they are of a kind because they recognize the virtues of the parents but don’t imply that those virtues then create a debt on the child’s part.
I think for filial piety, at least, to be plausible the view has to be understood in ways that aren’t tied to the duties or obligations of children to their parents. As someone who grew up in a fairly traditional Korean family and in traditional Korean diaspora communities, I get the sense that “on the ground” the Confucian view does require a heavy sense of duty and obligation from children toward their parents — not so much of gratitude or fortune. But what should the sense of duty and obligation toward parents be based on? I don’t think it can plausibly be based on gratitude toward them; being grateful to someone doesn’t seem like grounds for owing them things or having duties toward them, at least not in a strict moral sense. Or does it?
As always, discussion is welcome!
I don’t know; I’m a bit skeptical. Someone convince me otherwise.
How Confucianism could curb global warming
China openly debates the role of Eastern thought in sustainability.
By James Miller
from the June 26, 2009 edition
Kingston, Ontario – Now here’s a curveball to secular Western policy experts: China’s intellectuals are openly debating the role of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in promoting the Communist Party’s vision of a harmonious society and ecologically sustainable economic development.
Nowhere is the question of what to do about the environment more vital than in China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – especially because scientists agree that climate change disproportionately affects the poor and the disenfranchised and that climate change will affect future generations far more than the present.
Yet the general impression of China’s role in issues relating to environment is one of foot-dragging because it hasn’t bought into a Western model to address it.
But Pan Yue, China’s vice minister for environmental protection, is calling for China to capitalize on traditional Chinese religions in promoting ecological sustainability.
He says, “One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature. Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Taoist view of the Tao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society.”
And this just might work.
As The New York Times recently reported, China is in the midst of a transformation to cleaner forms of energy.
Although much of China’s energy needs are still met by inefficient, coal-fired power stations with poor track records in terms of emissions, China has begun to invest heavily in cleaner coal technology in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.
Because of this, the International Energy Agency reduced its estimate of the increase in Chinese emissions of global warming gases from 3.2 percent to 3 percent even as the same agency raised its estimate of China’s economic growth. China is managing to increase its economic output at a greater rate than its emissions.
This is good news for everyone.
But buried innocuously in the middle of this report was the startlingly frank statement of Cao Peixi, president of the China Huaneng group, China’s largest state-owned electric company.
When asked about his company’s decision to invest in more expensive but cleaner technology he replied: “We shouldn’t look at this project from a purely financial perspective. It represents the future.”
The $64,000 question facing economists and politicians across the world is how to make decisions that take into account the big picture beyond the “purely financial perspective.”
This is a hard question for Western economic and political theorists to answer, because their theories are based on the Enlightenment view of the self as an autonomous, rational individual.
But how are we to make decisions that take into account the interests of those who have not yet been born?
Being respectful to the interests of past and future generations is key to the Confucian view of the self and groups. To the question, “Who am I?” the Confucian answers, “I am the child of my parents and the parent of my children.”
Confucianism begins from the proposition that human beings are defined by kinship networks that span the centuries. From this perspective the interests of the individual are bound up with the interests of the kinship group as it extends forward and backward across the generations.
This will be a key factor in the way China handles present and future environmental issues.
Consider the views of Jiang Qing, a leading Confucian intellectual. According to a recent report by Daniel Bell, a political theorist at China’s Tsinghua Univeristy, Mr. Jiang proposes a political system that can take into account the interests of those who are typically ignored in modern democracies, such as foreigners, future generations, and ancestors.
“Is democracy really the best way to protect future victims of global warming?” he asks.
As China assumes a greater leadership role on the world stage, we can expect the emergence of a variety of models of sustainable development rooted in a plurality of cultural traditions, including Confucianism.
The time when Westernization was the only credible model of development is over.
(James Miller is a professor of Chinese studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston. He is currently researching the relationship between religion, nature, and modernization in China.)
Analects 15.24 is often cited as the “Reverse Golden Rule” and it’s easy to see why:
Zigong asked: “Is there a single teaching that can be practiced to the end of one’s life?” Confucius replied: “It is reciprocity! What you don’t desire for yourself, do not desire for others.”
The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is found in the Gospels, in Matthew 7:9-12 and Luke 6:27-31. In the latter context, the “rule” follows a discussion of how one ought to treat one’s enemies, while in the former, it is more general.
15.24 is interesting because it raises the question of just what status this “rule”–or better yet, “teaching” (for 言)–has among the many sorts of teachings found in the Analects. In some important ways, it rubs against the idea that for early Confucianism moral virtuosity is somehow incapable of codification, or somewhat stronger, incapable of adequate articulation. Is this a rule? a principle? an articulation of the Confucian dao by the author(s) of this passage? If not any of those, then what? Those who favor a virtue-emphasis reading of the Analects tend to focus on the term for reciprocity, shu 恕, and treat it as a virtue term, though the explanation in terms of the “rule” seems added to present something like a definitional equivalence. (Here, I’m thinking of Van Norden’s discussion in “Unweaving the ‘One Thread’ of Analects 4:15″)
In 5.12, Zigong and Confucius have an exchange that is slightly different, on which Zigong comes off looking a bit too confident in himself:
Zigong said: “What I do not desire people to do to me, I also desire for it not to be done toward people.” Confucius said, “Zigong my dear, it is not you who has gotten that far.”
The phrasing, 一言, in 15.24 seems to indicate that there is something important, something on the order of a single principle, for which Zigong is asking. I wonder if there other, similarly explicit principles to be found in the Analects, if indeed 15.24 provides an explicit principle.
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…)
One of the things I just read (on my list of “things I should read before I run into this person at a conference”) is John Berthrong‘s “Boston Confucianism: The Third Wave of Global Confucianism” (Journal of Ecumenical Studies 40, nos. 1-2 (Winter-Spring 2003): 26-47). In it, Berthrong discusses at length questions about “the contested definition of Confucianism” (26) and the extent to which Confucianism can be “a portable intellectual tradition in Boston as well as Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Kyoto, and Tokyo” (ibid). At the end of the piece, he asks an intriguing question:
…wherever the Confucian Dao was seriously entertained as a philosophical and religious teaching, it was studied assiduously in the classical Chinese written language. The great Ruist scholars of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam all wrote in classical Chinese. The question before the modern Confucian community is whether there can be a Ruist movement without a mastery of the communication medium of classical Chinese. …Can a person who does not read classical Chinese be said to be a part of the Confucian Way? If not, why not? Or, if so, why so? This is an important question that should engage anyone interested in the revival of Confucianism in the twenty-first century. …[It] will be up to the Confucian community of scholars to give a reasoned answer to the question of the necessity of linguistic competence for membership as a real twenty-first-century Ruist scholar. (46-7)
Well, I’m not sure I’m a Confucian or a Ruist scholar — though I write about Confucianism/Ruism — but this seems like an interesting question to try to answer. By the way, this is tangentially relevant to Fingarette-palooza, since Fingarette is one of Berthrong’s examples, along with Robert Neville, of contemporary philosophers who “have written important works about Confucian thought” (38) but who were not “trained formally as a Sinologist although each relied on the best scholarship about Chinese thought available in their times” (ibid). Not only that — Berthrong adds more strongly that they “wrote works that often illuminated Confucianism more insightfully than did professional students of the history of Chinese thought” (39).
What say ye?
I’m just going to post on Fingarette like I’m serving hors d’oeuvres. So, here goes.
So, according to Fingarette’s Confucius, the value of the individual can’t transcend the particular set of ceremonies in which the individual is embedded. On Fingarette’s reading, Confucius is committed, then, to the value of individuals being tied specifically to the Zhou ritual ceremonies. I don’t think Confucius could say something more Rorty-like–namely, that though the particular tradition is dependent on historical contingency, with a bit of irony and reflection, we can embrace the historically contingent and imbue it with value that we recognize to be contingent, since there isn’t any non-contingent value to be had in any case. In other words, Confucius could not think of the Zhou rituals, in so many words, as being historically contingent; he thinks they are absolutely valuable. That doesn’t mean Fingarette’s Confucius is committed, in so many words, to universal values; it means he doesn’t really think in terms of universal versus historically (or culturally) contingent values. His commitment to the Zhou is naively universalist in its assumption of superiority to the norms and mores of “the barbarians.”
I might have caricatured Rorty, or Fingarette for that matter. Comments welcome, as always.
Herbert Fingarette, in Confucius–the Secular as Sacred, chapter 5, discusses something about the relationship between ceremony and the individual’s place within it that is far more radical than either of the alternatives that currently presents itself as the “correct” reading of the moral individual within Confucius’s thought (to the extent that we can reasonably reconstruct it). Fingarette argues, or suggests really, that for Confucius the ethical value of the individual can only be a “function” (p. 75) of the value of ritual ceremony. The idea, as Fingarette construes it, is analogous to the value that a ceremonial vessel has in the context of ritual ceremony: the ceremonial vessel’s value is merely a function of the value of the ceremony, which does not depend at all on the utility of the vessel outside of that context, but on its ritual significance within the ritual. So, the analogous value of the individual human being would be a mere function of the value that human ceremony (li 禮) has. And what kind of value does that have? That’s less clear. According to Fingarette:
The shapes of human relationships are not imposed on man, not physically inevitable, not an instinct or reflex. They are rites learned and voluntarily participated in. The rite is self-justifying. The beings, the gestures, the words are not subordinate to rite, nor is rite subordinate to them…. Although the individual must cultivate himself, just as the temple vessel must be carved and chiseled and polished, this self-cultivation is no more central to man’s dignity, in Confucius’s views, than the preparation of the vessel is central. Preparation and training are essential, but it is the ceremony that is central, and all the elements and relationships and actions in it are sacred though each has its special characteristics. (78)
What could this mean? I’ll say this. It does not mean that the cultivation of the virtues in humans is somehow valuable as a function of human good–the Aristotelian picture, broadly construed, of the virtues contributing to human flourishing, which flourishing is based on human nature–or, as Fingarette puts it, “imposed on man” or “physically inevitable.” On Fingarette’s view, that would put Confucius really at odds with a more Mencian view on which, if the rituals had any value whatsoever, it would be because of their role in expressing what was indeed “imposed on man” through his nature (xing 性) by Heaven.
On the other hand, Fingarette’s reading also implies that “role-based” value of humans does not quite get Confucius’s point narrowly enough. A role has to be indexed to some role-context. Most role-based readings of Confucius, I think, read that context as that of the family and, by extension, of the state through a broadening of the family relationship types to include state relationships. But I don’t think Fingarette’s Confucius thinks this way. If Fingarette is right, Confucius isn’t concerned as much with “the family” or “the state” generically construed, but with a particular ceremonialized version of those things. It is the role, very narrowly, that a person can play within the family or state, as ritualized through the Zhou dynastic rituals, that confers upon the individual (as a “vessel” within that ceremony) the kind of value that Confucius champions.
To that extent Fingarette’s reading, I think, actually makes Confucius less relevant for contemporary concerns than he might wish to admit. Or perhaps he likes to think that we can return to the values of Zhou ritual…
Comments welcome, as always.
I’m going to piggyback on some discussion to which I was party at Peony’s and Sam’s because I wanted to see what might come up further from this blog’s clientale (patrons? target audience?). My apologies to both of the other bloggers for cloning their concerns over here, but I offer them admiration as propitiation.
The issue concerns how to understand Analects 9.18 and 15.13. In both places Confucius is quoted saying: “吾未見好德如好色者也,” widely translated as something like “I have never met one who likes virtue as much as he likes sex.” A slight variation in that is to translate se 色 as “beauty” or “the beauty of women.” I’ve never really liked this way of understanding Confucius’s point. So, here is a proposal for how to understand the sentiment in 9.18 and 15.13. (Some of this is cut and pasted from various comments I made on the other blogs):
I think se 色 really can’t mean something as narrow as sex or lust; its meaning is much broader, expressing a broader more central concern in the Analects. The “sex” translation seems flat out wrong for the following reasons. There really isn’t any independent evidence that sexual license was a temptation Confucius worried over. Nor does it seem that concubinage was an option for anyone other than the emperor or possibly a very powerful warlord (any ancient Chinese concubinage experts should correct or corroborate me on this). This line of translating seems to be a projection of much later genres of moralizing texts onto the Analects. But those issues about sexual desire and practice don’t really determine the issue as much as consideration of a more central concern for Confucius. In Analects 2.8 Confucius uses se in a context that I think is much more helpful in setting our understanding of se in the right direction:
“Zixia asked about filial piety. The Master said: ‘[Mere] appearances (se) are the difficulty. With matters to be tended, younger brothers or sons offer their service; with drink and food one partakes in order of birth. Can this really be filial piety?’”
I think this is representative of a concern that Confucius has throughout the Analects with contrasting mere, or rote, behavior that mimics real filial piety (or righteousness, benevolence, ritual, etc) and genuine possession of those characteristics. It’s his concern that the “form” of such activity be filled out with deeper content or correct context. I think that transfers also to distractions that form a category of “surface” pleasure. Appreciation of beauty, in particular, is not a mere surface pleasure for Confucius. So translation of se as ‘love of beauty’ also makes a mistake–the real trouble for Confucius is not appreciating beauty; instead it is enjoying “cheap” delights that merely mimic appreciation of beauty.
The sensibility that Confucius expresses does not concern one arena or type of activity as opposed to a wholly other type–for example, in antiquity, between ritualized life and licentious free-for-all, or something of the sort. I think the sensibility tracks the difference between more closely related activities, namely the “real” or “deep” enjoyment/practice/performance of ritual, filial piety, music, beauty of women, and so forth, and the disingenuous or shallow enjoyment/practice/performance of that same range of things. Confucius’s concerns are focused on a declining empire, but not like the Roman decline as represented in “Caligula.” The decline lies in the loss or threatened loss of coherence, or perhaps integrity, of what he considered to be high culture (in the moral/social/aesthetic mashed-up sense). In effect, it is a type of snobbery but perhaps with less pejorative connotation. It’s like bemoaning the loss of integrity that, say, the ascendence of Kenny G represented for the true jazz aficionado. Kenny G’s performances lack “soul” or something like that, so they are se.
So, if I had to give a translation of the quote from Confucius, it would be something like: “I have never met one who prefers the deeply powerful activity as much as the easy semblance of it.”
As always, comments welcome.
[Moving up to front, to restart discussion on this topic -- see new comments]
Because it’s now come up twice, in separate places (here and here), I can’t stop thinking about this question: What does ai 愛, broadly translatable as “love,” connote? If I had the time, I would do some actual research into this. But since the antecedent of that conditional is false, I’m going to allow myself just to post the question and my initial thoughts, and see what others think. Let me paste here a version of the comment I made at Tang Dynasty Times, attempting to understand the early Chinese concept through some early Greek ones, and see what kinds of responses I get:
My sense of ai in early Chinese literature is that it is actually more like agape–along with philia–than eros. Lian 戀, along with perhaps se 色, captures the sense of eros much better. Ai seems very much reserved in Classical Chinese for these two senses:
1) kindly attachment and affection (sort of like philia and agape); benevolence, if the direction of hierarchy in the relationship is right
2) fondness; or in the verbal sense, to fancy (sort of like hao 好, in the Classical sense)
I can’t call to mind any instances of ai that I’ve come across that connote the type of longing and lustfully urgent desire that eros suggests.
Or maybe that’s too narrow a rendering of eros? Maybe. Still, I think the broad outlines of what I’m saying are right at least.
Afterthought: The meaning of agape isn’t determined by its use in Christianity. So, I don’t think that’s a factor here.
I might sound confident, but I’m happy, as always, to be set straight.
There’s a very problematic passage–I’ve always thought–in Mencius 6A: 15:
Gongduzi asked: Though equally human, but some are great men (daren 大人) and some are petty men (xiaoren 小人). Why is this?
Mencius replied: Following their greater parts (dati 大體) makes them great men; following their lesser parts (xiaoti 小體) makes them petty men.
Gongduzi asked: But being equally human, how is it that some follow their greater parts and some follow their lesser parts?
Mencius replied: The organs of the ears and eyes do not think and are wrapped up in things (bi yu wu 蔽於物). When there is interaction among things, [those organs] are only led around. The organ of the heart thinks and because it thinks, it can attain (de 得) things [i.e. control and/or transform things]; if something does not think, it cannot attain things. This is what is given to us by Heaven. First, take a stand (li hu qi da zhe 立乎其大者) on the greater; then the lesser is unable to take over. That is all there is to being a great man.
Mencius doesn’t really answer Gongduzi’s question to my satisfaction because it seems clear to me that Gongduzi can just repeat the question in this form: “But being equally human, how is it that some ‘take a stand’ on their greater parts while others do not?”
I call this a bootstrapping problem because it seems to require some kind of “super-agency” in which a person has to take a stand on the better part of herself without being able to rely on that part to guide her in taking that stand. Or so I’ve argued in “Wielding Virtue in the Mengzi” (in Conceptions of Virtue East and West, Kim-chong Chong (ed.), 2006).
Doesn’t this seem like a problem for Mencius? Is there a solution?