The following article in this week’s New Yorker by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has been circulating in social networks:
The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy
Despite what many of us on this blog might initially wonder, the title of the paper does not refer to Mencius’s famous thought experiment. (Instead, it refers to the famous case of an actual child in a well that led to a worldwide media circus in the 1980s.) Nonetheless, the article may be of interest to those of us working in Confucian ethics and moral psychology.
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I’d like to use this as an opportunity to think about depictions of sages in early Confucian texts (Mengzi in particular). I’ve thought, for better or worse, that the authors of these texts used the figures of the sages as representations of fully cultivated people. Yet I’ve noticed that these sages are sometimes described as falling short of perfection, and this gives rise to a question–in what ways can one be deficient, and yet still be considered a sage? Continue reading →
A cross-posting of Eric Schwitzgebel’s post on his Splintered Mind blog. Please address all comments directly to Eric; he’ll be checking in here periodically to reply.
Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, Stanley Milgram, and King Xuan of Qi
Perhaps my favorite Mencius passage is 1A7. At its core is a story of a king’s mercy on an ox.
While the king was sitting up in his hall, an ox was led past below. The king saw it and said, “Where is the ox going?” Hu He replied, “We are about to ritually anoint a bell with its blood.” The king said, “Spare it. I cannot bear its frightened appearance, like an innocent going to the execution ground.” Hu He replied, “So should we dispense with the anointing of the bell?” The king said, “How can that be dispensed with? Exchange it for a sheep.” (Van Norden, trans.)
Mencius asks the king (King Xuan of Qi):
If Your Majesty was pained at its being innocent and going to the execution ground, then was is there to choose between an ox and a sheep?… You saw the ox but had not seen the sheep. Gentlemen cannot bear to see animals die if they have seen them living. If they hear the cries of their suffering, they cannot bear to eat their flesh. Hence, gentlemen keep their distance from the kitchen.
(Note that Mencius does not conclude that gentlemen should become vegetarians. Interesting possibilities for reflection arise regarding butchers, executioners, soldiers, etc., but let’s not dally.) Continue reading →
Section 2A/6 of the Mencius tells us that the heart of deference (辭讓) is the starting point of ritual. I’ll try to convince you that this is a puzzling claim, and then suggest a solution to the puzzle.
The puzzle is that ritual obviously mobilises motives other than deference, and calls for behaviour that is not simply deferential. Think of the way that grief takes on ritualised shape in funerals: this is not just an extension of deference. So, why did it make sense to the author or authors of Mencius 2A/6 to say that deference is the starting-point of ritual?
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Section 5B/4 of the Mencius is a very interesting text. It’s one of the points at which the Mencius gets defensive about Mencius’s personal virtue. The issue here is Mencius’s willingness to accept gifts from rulers who acquired them by taking from their people. Why accept those gifts, given that you wouldn’t accept gifts from a more everyday sort of bandit?
This passage interests me in part because I’m interested in Mencian defensiveness (on which see also the earlier thread about Shun and his awful family). But that’s not the issue I want to take up here. What I’m wondering about is how (if at all) Mencius’s argument is supposed to work. Continue reading →
This post sketches part of the argument in my paper “The Warring States Concept of Xing,” which is just out in Dao 10.1 (Spring 2011). “Xing” is commonly translated as “nature,” though “spontaneous character” would be better.
There’s this idea that (in Warring States terms) it can be your xing 性 to do something even though you have no tendency to actually do it. This idea is badly wrong. And no one would take it seriously if they weren’t misreading the Mencius.
The big problem is that the Mencius seems to say that it is our xing to be good, and that people who study the Mencius are mostly trained to think that that claim somehow stands for or summarises everything else the collection has to say about human nature. And trying to interpret the claim so that it does stand for all that leads to some major interpretive troubles. Continue reading →
I’m interested in hearing what, if anything, people think the crazy stories about the sage king Shun and his awful family are doing in the Mencius. I’m thinking especially about sections 5A/2 and 5A/3, which tell us how Shun responded to his family’s attempts to murder him, but 5A/1, 4A/26, and 7A/35 are also on-topic, and maybe 4A/28 and 5A/4 (and others?) as well.
One reason I bring this up is that I know that Manyul, Steve, and I have very different ideas about this, and maybe others do too. So it should be fun to talk about. Continue reading →
This is part of an argument I’ve been developing for an embarrassingly long time. I gave it most recently at the APA in Boston last week. I’m focusing here on a point in my talk that Steve Angle took issue with in his comments.
Section 2A/6 of the Mencius famously tells us that anyone, or at any rate any person, would feel alarm and compassion at the sight of an infant about to fall into a well, and that this reaction amounts to a heart of compassion that we can “expand and fill out,” thereby becoming benevolent. One way to read this is as a call for self-cultivation: it’s saying, more or less, that each person can become benevolent by cultivating his or her heart of compassion so that gradually, over time, it develops into full benevolence. You may recognise this sort of reading, since it’s ubiquitous in the English-language Mencius scholarship. It’s also wrong.
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Starting next week, I’m going to be giving a series of lectures, collectively titled “Contemporary Confucian Virtue Politics,” at the University of Michigan. In case any reader might be in Ann Arbor, you’re more than welcome to come; information is here. I thought I would sketch out one of the ideas here and see what y’all think.
One of the thoughts motivating the third lecture (with the same title as this post) is that there is a tension within one prominent way in which sovereignty is articulated in classical Confucianism. My eventual claim is that resolving this tension requires making some significant changes to Confucianism, but that these changes have the effect of allowing the revised system to better realize its core commitments than did the original configuration. In other words, the argument that I end up making for what we can loosely call Confucian democracy is not a claim that democracy is compatible with Confucianism, but rather than it is required by Confucian commitments themselves. In making this argument, I take myself to be building on ideas of Mou Zongsan, and at certain points draw explicitly on some of his arguments.
For now, I wanted to see what folks thought about the “tension” claim. I am focused on Mencius. Roughly, the idea is this: Continue reading →
Eric Schwitzgebel, one of our contributors, is having problems registering for a WordPress ID, so he has asked me to post this podcast of a lecture that he presented on the Mencius-Xunzi human nature debate. It is also cross-posted over at his blog The Splintered Mind:
Podcast of “An Empirical Perspective on the Mencius-Xunzi Debate about Human Nature”
… given to the Confucius Institute of Scotland on Jan. 19, available for listening or download here.
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