I was at the APA in Washington DC last week, and it was great to get a chance to hear about some very interesting work in Chinese philosophy. A couple of papers got me thinking about the reasoning behind the emphasis on filiality (xiao 孝) in classical Ruism. Whether Ruism gives too much weight to filiality at the expense of other values has been debated recently, and an issue in Dao a year or two ago presented some of this debate. At the conference, I started wondering about a slightly different problem: do Ruists put too much faith in the assumption that someone who is filial will have other moral virtues as well? Is there good reason to think this is generally true?
Here’s a well-known Analects passage which illustrates the importance of filiality, in my loose translation: “Youzi said, ‘It is rare that someone who is filial and fraternal will be fond of offending his superiors, and it has never been the case that one who is not fond of offending his superiors will be fond of causing trouble. The superior man gives weight to the root. When the root is established, then the Way grows. Filiality and fraternal feeling are the root of ren‘.”
What does it mean for “the root” to be established? I suggest that this could be understood as a necessary or a sufficient condition. Reading it is a sufficient condition is implausible both on textual and empirical grounds. If filiality and fraternal respect are sufficient conditions for ren, then anyone who is filial and fraternal would also be ren. Yet Youzi says only that it is rare for someone with these virtues to be fond of offending his superior, not that there are no instances. Assuming that being fond of offending one’s superior is incompatible with being ren, as the passage implies, then it looks like he is saying that there are at least a few cases of people who are filial and fraternal without being ren as well. I suspect there are more than even Youzi thinks. Certainly we can come up with examples of people who are filial and respectful of family members without having broader social virtues (organized crime families come to mind). So this reading should probably be rejected.
Is filiality then a necessary condition for being ren? This would dovetail nicely with passages in Mengzi that talk about the importance of “extending” (tui 推) or “filling out” (chong 充) the basic moral impulses (e.g., 1A7, 2A6). Though there’s not as much discussion of filiality in Mengzi, if it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for developing other moral virtues, we could understand this extension and filling out as other conditions that must be combined with filiality in order to achieve ren.
Is filiality even necessary? Certainly, if Mengzi is right, then there has to be something to extend in order to move from more immediate concern to broader concern. But does this need to be filial feeling specifically? I’m not sure why. I can’t think of any specific examples, but it seems possible to me that someone could have a very poor relationship with her parents and yet was fortunate enough to have close relationships with other people (perhaps relatives, perhaps not) in which she developed the feelings of compassion and concern which she could then extend to other people. Perhaps she would even learn to extend them to her parents. Such cases would doubtless be rare, but don’t strike me as impossible. Rather than filiality in particular, what might be necessary is some kind of trusting, intimate relationship, and then the process of extension.
Instead of emphasizing filiality and then hoping somehow this will be filled out into ren, it seems this process of extending or filling out might be more important. Even Mengzi is vague about exactly what it involves. If it is not true that everyone who is filial is also ren, then the way in which one develops broader virtues from more narrow concern seems to merit more attention.