Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Special Relationships, Duties and Obligations

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!

July 8, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Ethical Theory | 20 Comments

Rules of Gold

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.

June 17, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | 3 Comments

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 | 19 Comments

Confucius makes the “Top Ten”

A fun bit of frivolity: Brian Leiter has been running various “top philosopher” polls among his blogizens. Surprise! Confucius somehow got voted into the top ten among “Most Important Philosophers of the Pre-modern Era.” I was surprised because the (very large) blogizenship of Brian’s site, which consists of mostly professional philosophers, probably knows far, far less about Confucius than any of the other philosophers on the poll list. My guess is that most were voting on reputation. There’s currently a “Most Important Philosophers of All Time” poll running, so go cast your vote if you have time to burn (if you’re blogsurfing, you at least have some time to burn… ).

May 10, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucius | 7 Comments

Fingarette’s Confucius and Historical Contingency

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.

March 23, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | 4 Comments

Fingarette, Confucius, and the Vessel

Continuing Fingarette-palooza, begun on Chris’s, Peony’s, and Sam’s blogs:

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.

March 19, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | 7 Comments

On de 德 and se 色

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.

February 11, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, History | 22 Comments

Flourishing, the Non-moral Good, & Virtue Ethics

Here’s an issue that I think is relevant to any view about “flourishing” attributed to early Chinese philosophy. If the basic idea of flourishing is some idea about faring well, or “welfare,” we can ask what it takes conceptually to have such an idea. What comes to mind for me is that there has to be some notion of a person’s good, where that good is construed in some way independent of acting correctly–i.e. it has to be a notion of a person’s “non-moral” good. Even as I write that, I’m not quite sure what the reason for that is, but it seems important to me to keep welfare distinct from rightness. I might be totally wrong, but my philosophical instincts whisper otherwise.

The reason this seems important to me vis-a-vis early Chinese philosophy is that it seems like the non-moral good is featured in the Mohist idea of benefit, li 利. But li is not taken as theoretically central or even relevant in the Analects and the Mencius. Maybe it is important in the Xunzi, but I think that is because the Xunzi has a consequentialist view like the Mozi. If any of this is on the right track, then there is not in fact any virtue ethics in early China, in the sense that Van Norden and others think there to be. A lot rides on the idea of flourishing as relying on that of the non-moral good, and hence as being construed independently of rightness, so I wonder what can be said in favor of or against that…

June 28, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Mencius, Mohism | | 9 Comments

Such a deal…

Thanks to Yuri Pines for the link.


Parents call on Confucius for exam good fortune

By Cao Li (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-06-05 08:12

The Temple of Confucius in the center of Shanghai’s old town was unusually full Wednesday morning.

Crowds of people, most of them in their 40s and 50s, burned incense, lit candles and prayed in and around Dacheng Hall where there is a sculpture of Confucius and also where national exams were held during the times of the imperial dynasties.

The good luck notes they hung on the trellises and trees outside the hall gave away their reasons for being there. Most read something like, “Dear Confucius, please help my son/daughter in the college entrance exam”.

A visitor hangs a good-luck tablet on a shelf at the Temple of Confucius in Beijing June 3, 2008. [Asianewsphoto]

With the national examinations starting on Saturday, a growing number of parents have turned to Confucius, as a way to ease the pressure.

A cleaner at the temple, surnamed Xu, told China Daily that local people hardly ever visit the temple, but in the past week, hundreds of them had been.

“There are so many visitors coming these days, all the oil and incense burners keep filling up and I have to empty them several times a day,” Xu said.

Visitors pay 12 yuan ($1.75) for a piece of notepaper, incense sticks, two candles and a length of red ribbon.

At the Temple of Confucius in Beijing, visitors have to pay 188 yuan for a wooden tablet on which to write their wishes, although the shelf on which these are then placed is now full, the Beijing Youth Daily reported Wednesday.

One of the visitors at the Shanghai temple Wednesday was 47-year-old Ye Qing. She said she was making a wish for her son who is hoping to study telecommunication engineering at East China Normal University.

“It will work if I am sincere enough,” she said.

About 100,000 Shanghai students will sit the college entrance exam between Saturday and Monday, and their parents are doubtless all hoping for the same good fortune.

Many, like Ye, have booked hotel rooms close to the test venues.

Staff at several hotels in the city’s Minhang district said they have been taking bookings since the beginning of last month, and many are now full, the Xinmin Evening News reported.

Sun Yu, a teacher at the Shanghai Foreign Language School, said parents are prepared to do whatever they can to help their children succeed, including enrolling them in expensive, extracurricular classes.

High school student Vicky Yang said all her classmates spend at least 500 yuan a month on exam-related books and extra lessons.

“Some pay up to 20,000 yuan a semester for classes that promise to help students secure a university place,” she said.

Apart from books and classes, parents also buy their children special tonics to drink, Yang said.

“If you collected up all the empty bottles of tonic my classmates have drunk, you could make a small hill.”

June 5, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | Leave a comment

A Series of Footnotes to Confucius, Laozi–or to Me!

Picking up on something very interesting that Justin Tiwald said in the Tu string:

“I don’t think the defenders of Yili learning explicitly embraced the slogan ‘the classics comment on me’ (經注我). Still, there are a number of neo-Confucians who made statements in the neighborhood of this slogan. Lu Xiangshan is known for the shocking assertion that the ‘Six Classics are my footnotes’ (六經皆我註腳).”

We’ve all heard that Whitehead thought western philosophy has been just a long series of footnotes to Plato. It’s easy enough to imagine someone echoing Lu Xiangshan, saying, “Plato’s writings are just a series of footnotes to me.” (Who would that be? I could imagine Russell saying that over a cocktail.)

(Totally unrelated aside: Whitehead also said, and this is my favorite Whitehead quote, “A traveller who has lost his way should not ask ‘Where am I?’ What he really wants to know is, where are the other places?”)

It occurs to me that Lu Xiangshan’s assertion is really just a more strident way of describing “constructive” engagement with Confucianism, where Confucius and others are merely inspirational starting points for some new views, with Confucius providing some quotes and footnotes. Maybe the sort of projects that New Confucians are engaged in would fit this mold; maybe Van Norden’s suggestion for a neo-Mencian virtue ethics; maybe much of the comparative philosophy work that is out there where the author is using the past and trying to make it relevant to the present.

I have to ask, because in most respects, it is what I do for a living (aside from corrupting the youth), is there any independent point or value to investigating history–or more pointedly, Confucius, Laozi, et. al.–as an end in itself? I’m not exactly sure I understand the dictum to “revere the past,” or to “understand the past accurately,” as a worthwhile end in itself (unless, of course, it is on the order of stamp collecting). I used to be qualm-less about that as an endeavor, but I’m starting to have doubts (maybe I’ll have a blog-induced  career crisis). Any thoughts?

February 27, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Daoism, History | 11 Comments


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