Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

… 名可名非常名 …

Filial Piety, Fathers & Sons Revisited

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

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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.” …

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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:

葉公語孔子曰:“吾黨有直躬者,其父攘羊,而子證之。”孔子曰:“吾黨之直者異於是。父為子隱,子為父隱,直在其中矣。”
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!

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June 15, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius | 19 Comments