Rethinking Confucian Sovereignty

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

Empirical Perspective on Mencius-Xunzi Debate

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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What's Wrong With Those Pesky "Village Worthies"?

I’ve started work on a paper that asks how issues like continence and conscientiousness look when viewed through the lens of early Confucianism. These seems like a good idea in part because of the great range of ways in which such issues are treated in recent virtue ethics/virtue theory literature: some take it for granted that conscientiousness is a virtue, and perhaps even a central one (e.g., Adams, Wallace), while others insist that it is not a virtue at all, while disagreeing about what value it may have (e.g., Slote, Roberts). How do Confucians carve up the terrain? What attitudes, states, dispositions, and so on do they recognize that might do similar work to conscientiousness and related ideas?

These are big questions that I don’t propose to seriously address in this post, though maybe I’ll go there in subsequent efforts. (I’m new to this whole blog-posting thing. One step at a time.) For today, I want to focus on the infamous “village worthies (xiang yuan 鄉愿)” who are described briefly in Analects 17:13 as “thieves of virtue” and discussed at somewhat more length in Mengzi 7B37. My questions are: what’s wrong with them, and do the two texts view them in precisely the same way?

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Bootstrapping Problem in Mencius

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 ) 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?

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…

Analogical Reasoning — not just ordinary inference?

Some commentators seem to regard “analogical reasoning” to be a distinct form of reasoning in the early Chinese philosophical context, attributable mostly to the later Mohists and to Mencius. So far as I’ve been able to understand it, the distinctiveness of such reasoning seems suspect; but I’m not 100 percent sure I’ve understood it correctly.

Part of the issue seems to be that we get an account of the method or technique of reasoning in the later Mohist canons, but we get what some people consider the most explicit, or at least self-conscious, use (or misuse) of the method in the Mencius. “Argument” in Mencius, according to most commentators, seems primarily to work on a model of analogy.

There is the statement from 3B9 of the Mencius that Mencius sees himself as engaged in bian 辯, “disputation,” in response to the Mohists. There are technical discussions in the later Mohist writings about the various modes of bian. Among them is the technique called tui 推, “to push” or “to extend.” As A. C. Graham translates the definition of the technique (A. C. Graham, Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science, 483), to tui is “…using what is the same in that which he refuses to accept and that which he does accept in order to propose the former” (tui ye zhe yi qi suo bu qu zhi tong yu qi suo qu zhe yu zhi ye 推也者以其所不取之同於其所取者予之也). So, as the later Mohists understand it, in this technique, one “pushes” the opponent’s judgment from a case he already accepts to another case, using something that both cases have in common. Hence this has often been called the method of “analogical inference.”

But now, consider the following reconstruction of so-called “analogical inference,” using the example from Mencius 1A7 that both Graham and Nivison examine as an example of such inference. The example is Xuan’s compassionate response to the ox being taken away to slaughter and the analogous case of his people, the people of Qi, who also seem to require compassionate response. Graham, Nivison, and most others think there’s an inference, then, that Mencius encourages Xuan to make.

Here’s what it seems to me to take, to go from the one case to the other:
1. Xuan ought to feel compassion for O, because O possesses F.
2. Q also possesses F.
3. Therefore, Xuan ought also to feel compassion for Q.

But it seems like we can further analyze 1 as relying on a suppressed premise, one which says something more general about feeling compassion for objects possessing F. If we push the analysis further, the entire inference involved in the case of this “analogical” inference seems most plausibly to be the following:
A. Xuan ought to feel compassion for objects that possess F.
B. O possesses F.
C. Xuan ought to feel compassion for O. (from A, B)
D. Q (also) possesses F.
E. Xuan (also) ought to feel compassion for Q. (from A, D)
A-E seems to spell out more explicitly how the Mohist principle of extending, which is the principle of applying rational pressure to treat similar cases similarly, would actually apply the rational pressure of maintaining consistency among one’s judgments. But then the technique of tui 推 is not so distinct or different from regular, boring inference. This raises two questions for me:

Q1) Have I misunderstood or misconstrued the technique?

Q2) Was I looking for something unreasonable in looking for something distinct or different in a reasoning technique in the first place? In other words, should we think, “Of course it turns out that analogical reasoning is just a familiar form of reasoning!”?

Xunzi and Mencius Meld

Some while ago (1999) I tried to argue that Mencius didn’t really believe in proactive moral cultivation because he thought of human nature as already possessing the directional force toward goodness. The only thing a ruler need do is to provide minimally stable political and economic conditions. Then, if people do not interfere with their own development or with the development of others, then everything will turn out fine, with mulberry trees growing in their seasons, the elderly not having to sweat in the fields, children being filial, etc. That puts Mencius more in line with the Daodejing’s political stance than people usually think, though of course he isn’t entirely for the rustic utopia the latter suggests.

Let me suggest here that if that isn’t Mencius’s view, then it is actually very difficult to justify Xunzi’s vehement opposition to Mencius. The view that most of us were taught to believe is that Mencius thinks humans have nascent capacity for goodness that then needs to be cultivated through education and moral training; then at the end of that process they may end up as good subjects, advisors, or the ruler. For convenience, let’s call that the “moral-training” reading of Mencius. The thing that strikes me as problematic here is that if this is indeed Mencius’s view, then there’s really no difference between it and Xunzi’s views of the matter. Or, perhaps I should say instead, either Mencius has a view that is different from Xunzi’s or Xunzi didn’t realize that his view doesn’t really differ from Mencius’s.

Here’s what I have in mind regarding Xunzi on capacities and cultivation. In the “Human Nature is Detestable” (xing e 性惡) chapter, Xunzi argues that anyone could (ke 可) become a sage like the sage-ruler Yu. But not everyone has the possessed ability (neng 能) to be a sage. As it turns out, everyone has the capacities to be ren 仁 and yi 義, benevolent and upright, but not everyone applies himself to the task of accumulating the effort and training to be good. Why is that any different from the view attributed to Mencius by the moral-training reading of him? If it isn’t different, then what is Xunzi’s beef with Mencius since they seem to hold the very same view?

Here’s some of the relevant Xunzi text (I’ve numbered the text so it’s convenient for us to talk about it; and I’ve typed in Watson’s translation):

  1. “塗之人可以為禹。”曷謂也?曰:凡禹之所以為禹者,以其為仁義法正也。然則仁義法正有可知可能之理。然而塗之人也,皆有可以知仁義法正之質,皆有可以能 仁義法正之具,然則其可以為禹 明矣。The man in the street can become a Yu. What does this mean? What made the sage emperor Yu a Yu, I would reply, was the fact that he practiced benevolence and righteousness and abided by the proper rules and standards. If this is so, then benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards must be based upon principles which can be known and practiced. Any man in the street has the essential faculties needed to understand benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards, and the potential ability to put them into practice. Therefore it is clear that he can become a Yu.
  2. 今以仁義法正為固無可知可能之理邪?然則唯禹不知仁義法正,不能仁義法正也。Would you maintain that benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards are not based upon any principles that can be known and practiced? If so, then even a Yu could not have understood or practiced them.
  3. 將使塗之人固無可以知仁義法正之質,而固無可以能仁義法正之具邪?然則 塗之人也,且內不可以知父子之義,外不可以知君臣之正。今不然。Or would you maintain that the man in the street does not have the essential faculties needed to understand them or the potential ability to put them into practice? If so, then you are saying that the man in the street in his family life cannot understand the duties required of a father or a son and in public life cannot comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. But in fact this is not true.
  4. 塗之人者,皆內可以知父子之義,外可以知君臣之正,然則其可以知之質,可以能之具,其在塗 之人明矣。今使塗之人者,以其可以知之質,可以能之具,本夫仁義法正之可知可能之理,可能之具,然則其可以為禹明矣。Any man in the street can understand the duties required of a father or a son and can comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. Therefore, it is obvious that the essential faculties needed to understand such ethical principles and the potential ability to put them into practice must be a part of his make-up. Now if he takes these faculties and abilities and applies them to the principles of benevolence and righteousness, which we have already shown to be knowable and practicable, then it is obvious that he can become a Yu.
  5. 今使塗之人伏術為學,專心一志,思索 孰察,加日縣久,積善而不息,則通於神明,參於天地矣。故聖人者,人之所積而致矣。If the man in the street applies himself to training and study, concentrates his mind and will, and considers and examines things carefully, continuing his efforts over a long period of time and accumulating good acts without stop, then he can achieve a godlike understanding and form a triad with Heaven and earth. The sage is a man who has arrived where he has through the accumulation of good acts.

As always, let me know what you think.

The Good: Good For, Good At (shan 善), and Benefit (li 利)

Let’s see; I’m trying to figure out how to think about the ancient Chinese term shan 善, roughly “good,” in relation to the various senses of “good” that we as philosophers try to distinguish these days. This has a bearing on, among other things, what to make of the pre-Qin positions on human-nature-is-good (ren xing shan ye), bad (e 惡), neither, or both. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that shan means something more like “good at” (“competent”?), but I can’t recall exactly where–Graham? Nivison? Anyway, here are some senses of good that I’m used to hearing philosophers distinguish from among:

  1. “Good for” – this seems to be the primary “non-moral” sense of “good” that is used in discussing goods that can be indexed to individuals, groups, or things. X can be good for Y in the sense that X is of value to some end or interest of Y. We often speak of something good in this sense as a good or as goods. Such goods seem always quantifiable in this way.
  2. “Good at” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that tracks something like the Greek term for “excellence,” arete (αρετη–sorry for leaving out diacriticals; can’t seem to do them right now). X is good in this sense if X is capable or competent at doing or being something. Example: “As a golfer, Woods is really good.”
  3. “Morally or aesthetically good” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that has something to do with worth that “has no price” (to use a Kantian expression). X is good in this sense if it/he/she is praiseworthy for its/his/her own sake, not for its/his/her value to something else or at doing or being some particular thing. Examples: “That painting is good.” “She wasn’t good but she had good intentions.”

I’m pretty sure these are significantly distinct, non-overlapping senses of “good,” although something, or someone, might be good in all three senses. So, let me say or ask a few things.

First, are there more senses of “good” than this that are significantly different from any of them?

Second, it seems to me like we need to figure out which sense or senses of “good” shan overlaps with or else say what other sense it has; otherwise, obviously, we don’t have a handle on what the ren xing debate is about.

Third, it seems to me like li, “benefit,” is closely allied to the first sense, “good for.”

Some initial thoughts that I have: Shan never struck me as meaning “good at” mainly because I haven’t really seen uniformly in the contexts of its use that there is an indication of what something is “shan at.” If so, then it seems like we have to settle on either 1 (good for), 3 (morally/aesthetically good), or some overlap between them. But “good for” suffers from the same contextual problem as “good at”–e.g. it isn’t uniformly clear that there is something a shan thing is “shan for.” Could shan mean something more like morally or aesthetically good? Here is a reason not to go that way too quickly, though we might end up there eventually:

It seems to me like Xunzi, in his discussion of ren xing could be understood as investigating whether it is good at producing order and harmony (which seem themselves on the other had to be li 利, goods in the good for (humans) sense); Xunzi finds that ren xing is not at all good at producing them. However, that moves Xunzi to conclude that ren xing is e 惡, which seems pretty clearly to mean that it is unseemly or ugly. But that suggests either (a) that shan overlaps in meaning between “good at” and “morally/aesthetically good” and Xunzi is equivocating between his criticism of Mencius and his conclusion about ren xing; or (b) Xunzi’s criticism isn’t really about the incompetence of innate disposition to produce order and harmony. I think I prefer (a), but could it really be that shan is so much like the contemporary English term “good” that it has that much similarity in equivocation potential? My instinct here is to be suspicious about that. Any suggestions, comments, critical remarks, interlocutory agreement?

Normative Theory in the Mencius

Let’s say a normative theory is a theory intended to set out whatever it is that grounds correct norms.

The Mohists had a normative theory that grounded norms on what they called benefit ( 利). (Or they had a normative theory that based norms on the will of tiān 天, if you read them that way; but you shouldn’t.) As Chris Fraser said a couple of threads back (in this comment), this may actually have been the world’s first explicit normative theory.

It’s often implied that Mencius also had a normative theory, one that grounded norms in facts about human nature, and that’s the issue I want to raise. My view is that the Mencius never argues from claims about human nature to normative conclusions, so there’s no reason to think that its author or authors would have endorsed such a normative theory.

What we find in what may be the most famous invocations of inner goodness in the Mencius is a concern with ability. The discussion of the child by the well is about how people are capable of rén 仁 (the announced topic is the ability of rulers to be rén, but the passage invites generalisation). The discussion about King Xuān and the ox tries to show that the king has what it takes to be a virtuous king. Both passages take their normative claims for granted; there is no hint of a normative theory in either.

Elsewhere in the Mencius, we do find normative arguments, such as in the extended argument against the followers of Shén Nóng, the God of Agriculture, but there’s rarely if ever any attempt to set out a general basis for these arguments, and none of the arguments appeal to human nature.

The one tricky passage is the argument against the Mohist Yí Zhī about funerals and inclusive care. It’s often read as saying that our natural love for our parents rules out inclusive care and demands lavish funerals. But when this passage objects that Mohists are two-rooted, it means that the Mohists embraced both particularist and universalist attitudes, both love and inclusive care. (The Mohists didn’t write about love, but they did place a great deal of emphasis on, for example, filial piety.) This is best read as a complaint about Mohist psychology, which does not treat universalist attitudes (which the Mencius also advocates) as extensions of particularist ones, a point on which the Mencius follows Yǒuzǐ (hi, Bill); this is not a normative argument. And the passage does not even pretend to make a case against moderation in funerals—the funerals it describes approvingly are far more moderate than anything the Mohists advocated.

As far as I can tell, the closest the Mencius comes to embracing a normative theory is in Book 1, in which benevolent government may get grounded in the well-being of the people and in the figure of the virtuous king; and the only connection to human nature here is in the assumption that the people will respond with approval to a king who ensures their well-being.

Well, that’s how I see it, anyway. Thoughts?

Qi (氣), Moral Psychology, Humours, and Phlogiston

I’ve been thinking about some qi-related things, but only around the periphery, so maybe you all (as usual) can help me get more into it:

  1. To what extent does “accepting” or defending Mencius’ moral psychology require acceptance of qi-cosmology or qi-physiology?
  2. Same question as 1, but with respect to Neo-Confucian moral psychology in Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).
  3. Is reverting to qi-based cosmology, physiology, medicine, psychology, etc. as problematic as it would be to revert to “humours” medical theory or phlogiston physical theory? Or is any of that problematic–my instinct is to say yes to all three but that might just be knee-jerk scientism.

My interest in this is, of course, about contemporary relevance of either Warring States or Song-Ming Dynasty Confucianism.