Goldin's Confucianism

I’ve written a review of Paul Goldin’s book, Confucianism, for Dao. I don’t know when it (the review, that is) will come out, but I’ve posted roughly the first half of it below. [Addendum (1/19/12): some general discussion of the book by Bill Haines and others starts at comment 17.]


In this lively, concise and erudite volume on Confucianism, Paul Goldin aims to provide an introduction to its core concepts and ideas. Roughly half of the original sources on which Goldin draws comes from what, after Zhu Xi, are called the Four Books of Confucianism. He draws on the Analects to extract his discussion of “Confucius and his disciples” (the title of Chapter One), includes brief discussion of the Great Learning, and provides overview of Mencius’s teachings through the Mencius. The fourth of the Four, the Zhongyong (Application of Equlibrium in Goldin’s translation), is “cited at the appropriate junctures” (p. 6).  The other half of the book draws on the Canon of Filial Piety, the Xunzi, and very briefly on some relevant sources from the Song Dynasty to the recent present.

Concision about Confucianism is difficult. It seems to have been mandated in this case by the Ancient Philosophies series of the publisher which exists “especially for students” and “offers a clear yet rigorous presentation of core ideas,” according to the publisher website description ( Part of the difficulty is identification of Confucianism’s “core” from a scholarly point of view. The publisher’s description of the series establishes parameters that may be problematic in identifying such a core. For example, the emphasis on Confucianism’s ancient origins may excessively marginalize the innovative, dynamic quality of recent and current philosophical views whose proponents regard themselves as shapers of the tradition – perhaps as even being at the core of Confucianism as a living tradition. Locating that core in the ancient world gives too swift an impression of recent and contemporary Confucians as mere commentators, or creators of the proverbial footnotes to the ancients. Likewise, the emphasis on core ideas may suggest too quickly that Confucianism, as a philosophy, is largely doctrinally centered when in fact ideas and teachings tend to be on a par with certain kinds of practices, institutions, and rituals that arguably are equally well qualified as “Confucian.”

Goldin negotiates this terrain pragmatically, in his Introduction. Offering an “exacting yet workable definition of Confucianism” Goldin states:

I shall use the term “Confucianism” to refer to the philosophy of Confucius (551-479 BCE), his disciples, and the numerous later thinkers who regarded themselves as followers of his tradition. This definition is … flexible enough to admit the literally hundreds of philosophers who considered themselves as his latter-day disciples. Like any vibrant and long-lived tradition, Confucianism was never a monolith. …But competing Confucians rarely doubted each other’s sincerity or commitment to applying the Master’s teachings to the exigencies of their day. (pp. 1-2)

What supports the claim of workability for Goldin’s definition is that it allows inclusion of teachings that are canonically controversial for a long historical stretch – those of Xunzi – as well as those that have been accepted as falling well within any of the bounds of orthodoxy suggested from time to time.  Xunzi, I imagine, is the rare case alluded to by Goldin where sincerity and commitment to Confucius’s teachings were often doubted, to say the least.

On the other, exclusionary end Goldin’s definition aims to prevent the “tendency to associate everything Chinese with Confucianism” (p. 4). Perhaps because the definition is tacitly tied to actual, recorded teachings of professed followers of Confucius, Goldin believes it is possible to leave out of the bounds of Confucianism a variety of cultural aspects from the history of China that are often called “Confucian” but are not explicitly discoverable in text. In particular, feminist criticisms of Confucianism for promoting objectionable sexist features of Chinese society – patriarchal structure in general or foot-binding specifically – are singled out for dismissal based partially on lack of text-based principled Confucian support for them. Goldin argues, in part:

Confucianism sanctions actions and habits if and only if they are conducive to the cultivation of morality; making oneself more attractive for the marriage market [which was the original purpose of footbinding] would never have qualified as a sufficient concern. (p.  2-3)

There is a quick response to this argument and even if it only furthers the conversation rather than settling anything, it would seem important for Goldin to address. Highly influential on Confucian thinking about society is Mencius’s assertion that not producing posterity is the greatest failure of filial duty (Mencius 4A26). For a woman in Ming dynasty China and to a lesser degree in the Qing – the periods in which footbinding is most widely practiced, attractiveness for marriage is not a mere vanity or economic necessity, as it may be in other places or times. Though it may come apart from cultivation of morality, a woman’s becoming a wife and bearing children is essential for satisfying the Confucian moral standard of filial piety, a standard that is relatively silent in most respects about women’s specific piety. So there is a short, clear argument from Confucian moral principle – “Confucian” in Goldin’s own sense – in conjunction with contingencies of social mores surrounding marriageability, to the promotion of footbinding in those particular periods of Chinese history. That holds whether or not, as Goldin offers, “some of the most prominent devotees of footbinding were men who praised it for erotic, not moralistic, reasons” (p. 3). Erotic origin and men’s fetishizing are beside the point, morally speaking, for the girls and women who mutilated themselves with excruciatingly painful and physically injurious discipline. They did so dutifully for the sake of marriageability and its ultimate Confucian point of providing heirs for the continuance of pious moral devotion to ancestry.

In addition to the Introduction’s defense of Confucianism in this regard, there is a prominent follow-up in the Appendix, “Manhood in the Analects” (pp. 115-20), in which Goldin goes further to problematize charges that Confucianism is sexist, by invoking Chenyang Li’s recent feminist-ethics rendering of Confucian masculinity and its virtues. There is also an interesting discussion of the problems that infect the late 19th to early 20th century Weberian indictment of Confucianism as an impediment to the development of capitalism in China (pp. 105-7). By contrast, however, Goldin is far less critical of the more recent views in which, contra Weber, Confucianism is attributed a positive role in promoting the success of capitalism in Asia (p. 107).  That positive role for Confucianism in the success of the “dragons” of economic growth in the latter half of 20th century Asia is based on problematic causal hypotheses between Confucianism and national economies, similar to those Goldin criticizes between Confucianism and patriarchy.[1] Goldin’s choices in these regards give the impression of his exposition as being framed within an apologia for Confucianism as much as in an introduction to it. That impression does not necessarily damn the work, of course, if the voices critical of Confucianism have a tendency to obscure its understanding. However, Goldin’s Introduction and Appendix, which bookend and frame his expository discussion, could be more even handed about the viability of criticism leveled against Confucianism.

We should distinguish apologetics from the valuable practice of trying to present a set of philosophical teachings in their best light so that it is understandable why their proponents find them reasonable and attractive. Goldin provides plenty of this in his substantive discussions of the figures and texts that are presented as the Confucian core. The lead chapter on Confucius provides an example. Goldin ties together in a programmatic way, four connected concepts in the Analects: zhong 忠, shu 恕, ren 仁, and li 禮. Part of the trickiness in presenting these concepts at the introductory level is that providing an immediate translation into English tends to begin the lesson off badly. Goldin does a measured job of introducing them first in conceptual discussion and then providing either the standard translation or discussion of various translation possibilities thereafter. For example shu, rendered simply as reciprocity, lends itself to misdiagnosis. It is easy to jump all too quickly from the Analects teaching about shu in 15.23, “What you yourself do not desire, do not do to others,” to the belief that it “would require fathers to treat their sons in the same manner that sons treat them – a practice that no Confucian has ever considered appropriate” (p. 16). It is worth noting that the 15.23 quip seems quite minimal from a moral point of view – it is a dictum against treating people in certain ways, not a directive for treating them well. Moreover, the standard seems in one way very self-centered: the standard for treatment of others is dictated by one’s own desires, not by empathetic concern for the desires of others.

To fill out the concept of shu in a way that is interesting and appealing, Goldin interprets it as applying not to relationships between individuals, but between roles: “Shu is a relation not between two individuated people, but between two social roles. How does one treat one’s father? In the same way that one would want to be treated by one’s son if one were a father oneself” (ibid.). As Goldin notes, nothing in the Analects indicates this reading to be accurate, but he cites Zhongyong 13 here as support. As Goldin translates:

Zhong and shu are not far from the Way. What you would not suffer others to do to you, do not do to them. There are four things in the Way of the Noble Man, none of which I have been able to do. I have not been able to serve my father as I demand of my son. I have not been able to serve my lord as I demand of my servant. I have not been able to serve my elder brother as I demand of my younger brother. I have not been able to do unto my friends as I demand of them. (ibid.)

Drawing on his recently published research, Goldin then explicates zhong’s importance within this framing of reciprocity as sensitive to social roles. Zhong, he argues, is about “being honest with oneself in dealing with others” (p. 17) rather than the generic sense of loyalty or the Neo-Confucian understanding of “making the most of oneself” (ibid). For, as Goldin points out, reciprocity “is instantly perverted if it is applied dishonestly, but self-deception is not always easy to discover and root out if one does not vigilantly review one’s own actions” (p. 17). Along similar lines, Goldin argues that ren and li, usually glossed as humaneness or benevolence and ritual or rites respectively, cannot be understood correctly without being connected to the goal of role-sensitive reciprocity. In such ways, Goldin’s discussion about the teachings attributed to Confucius in the Analects constructs systematicity in material that is difficult to systematize – and in a very plausible direction.

[1] See for example, Jun Sang-In (1999) “No (logical) place for Asian values in East Asia’s Economic Development” Development and Society 28:2, 194-204;

73 replies on “Goldin's Confucianism”

  1. Thanks Manyul – that’s a wonderful review, in the less common sense.

    There is a quick response to this argument and even if it only furthers the conversation rather than settling anything, it would seem important for Goldin to address. … … So there is a short, clear argument from Confucian moral principle – “Confucian” in Goldin’s own sense – in conjunction with contingencies of social mores surrounding marriageability, to the promotion of footbinding in those particular periods of Chinese history.

    Toward going further in the conversation, and using ‘Confucian’ in Goldin’s sense:

    On the history of and debate about footbinding and Confucianism, my ignorance is as the surface of a pond on a calm day. Is it true that footbinding was a stable practice enforced at least among the educated classes, whose education was primarily Confucian, for the better part of a millennium?

    I’ve been under the impression that the main decision about whether a person’s feet were to be bound was made in the person’s fairly early childhood, and that after a few years there was basically no going back. So that the main immediate moral question would have been, not so much whether to do this to oneself, but rather whether to it to one’s child, toward providing posterity for oneself and one’s forebears. Is that right?

    I wonder whether it is fair to say that while the consideration that urged people to live up to the expectations is one of Confucian principle, the expectations or demands themselves were “contingencies of social mores.” If the suggestion is that Confucian principle had nothing to say about those expectations one way or the other, that seems like a serious charge.

    What would have been the operative expectations and interests, that Confucianism stably tolerated? Did even Confucian literati tend on the whole to have an erotic interest in dominating the weak? Was the problem a more general interest in domination, by the husband or by his mother, unchecked by morality? Or was the problem usually just modes of thought and organization that impeded ordinary human moral perception and effective cultural criticism – say, an overvaluing of tradition, an undervaluing of clear abstract thought, and/or a social system that made the arbiters of morality ultimately servants of and supplicants to more powerful men with undeveloped moral palates?

    Why does Confucianism overvalue filial piety so? The root of the idea seems to be in the small text at the most central core of Confucianism: LY 1.2. Perhaps the defense of Confucius himself depends on recognizing that there is pretty good evidence that this text comes from someone outside the chain of Confucius’ students, and does not relay his views …

  2. Hi Bill — exactly the sort of conversational furtherance that I imagined some imaginary interlocutors carrying out.

    Based on the scholarship I’ve read, footbinding was remarkably stable during the Ming despite the obvious pressures one would expect against it: it was very painful and injurious, both to the mothers and daughters involved, and it made moving about and work inside the home very difficult — we’re not talking about the Ming 1-percenters who could have had servants do everything for them. It was not until the Qing dynasty’s attempts to wipe out the practice that it became destabilized. The ruling ethnic group of the Qing, the Manchu, had some culturally based opposition to footbinding, regarding it as a detestable aesthetic product of Han ethnicity (along with top-knots; the Manchus preferred braided male hair). In part, this goes to the contingencies of social mores and how they may be disentangled more easily in concept than in practice. The Manchus were more easily willing to regard footbinding as bathwater to throw out, while not throwing out Confucian teachings of filial piety. Interestingly, there’s no record of Ming Confucian opposition to footbinding. Here, complicity between the duties of Confucian filial piety and contingent mores seems very intimate in practice even if they are separable in concept. Perhaps one could oppose footbinding using Confucian teachings that are not based on filial piety but on other things. The quip from Confucius in Analects 3.4 about frugality being preferable to extravagance with regard to ritual might provide a starting point: dutifulness is preferable to attractiveness in being a wife; or some other such start to the argument may be in the offing. Again, where are the Ming Confucians on this? Nowhere at all. The fact that, for the sake of marriageability, women were dutifully subjecting themselves and their very young daughters to excruciatingly painful regimens might have caused someone to say something against the practice — one would think, anyway. But there’s no recorded opposition until the Qing, as far as I’m aware.

    The clear response to this would be to repeat the idea that the principle of filial piety is separable from its application through particular contingencies of a social context and that the principle can’t be blamed for the particular necessities of its application. You can’t blame the principle for how it is applied by some people in a certain time. So, Confucianism is off the hook. But then it seems like a principle can’t ever be blamed for anything that actually happens, on those grounds. On the other hand, maybe the rejoinder to that should be that, like the proverbial guns, it is people who should ever really get the blame for harming other people. That’s not a trivial point, but I’m a little suspicious of that general line of thinking.

    When you wonder about overvaluing filial piety, one way to interpret that is to wonder whether it is valued by Confucians out of proportion to the amount of actual early teachings about it. My initial thought in response is that what is emphasized in Confucianism may not always be measured best by the amount of didactic text concerning it. Here, what matters is how Confucianism’s “core” is identified…

  3. Thanks for the background, Manyul!

    (De Bary says something about 1.2 being Confucianism’s utter core, but I can’t recall where.)

    Analects 3.4 about frugality being preferable to extravagance with regard to ritual might provide a starting point: dutifulness is preferable to attractiveness in being a wife; or some other such start to the argument may be in the offing.

    You’re saying that point would oppose footbinding?

    Anyway I don’t think Confucianism (always in Goldin’s sense here) has to stretch things quite that far to find some early idea that would tend to lean against tormenting and hobbling oneself and one’s children. For example, there’s the idea that one should seek for friends people who are at least one’s equal, and that moral development benefits from experience outside the home. And there’s Zengzi’s concern for his hands and feet at LY 8.3.

    More importantly, there are the golden and silver rules, and some general ideas about care and kindness especially (or even?) to one’s subordinates and the weak (e.g. LY 5.26). A moral guidance system that was neutral on such matters, leaving them in the area of contingency, would be missing something.

    The question for me is how, given that Confucianism reflects ordinary human decency in those ways, it could have failed so badly in the matter of footbinding.

    (Other schemes have their problems too. For example, American liberalism had its slavery and genocide, and its friends should be concerned about whether these were contingent.)

    Is it contingent to Confucianism to think that women and men are fundamentally different (I mean, to fail to perceive their natural similarity in moral and intellectual capacity), so that it is an accident that Confucians have thought spouses are more like parent/child than friend/friend?

    Is it contingent to Confucianism to overvalue children’s duties to parents rather than parents’ duties to children? (I meant, value too highly.)

    Is it contingent to Confucianism to favor modes of social order that discourage social criticism from below?

    The worry is that the stunting of natural human moral common sense is not contingent to Confucianism, but rather is a predictable product of Confucianism in practice.

    The ruling ethnic group of the Qing, the Manchu, had some culturally based opposition to footbinding, regarding it as a detestable aesthetic product of Han ethnicity

    Do you mean to suggest that moral common sense did not contribute to their detestation? (“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie …”)

    I wonder whether there has been any discussion, in Confucianism, of the plausibility of the proposition that providing posterity for one’s forebears is the most important part of the filial piety that is the root of virtue. If not, then I think one might question the moral seriousness of the Confucian argument for footbinding (given the mores)!

  4. Hey Bill. No, I meant that the type of reasoning in Analects 3.4 — that in the pursuit of important duties (of ritual, say), it is important to be sensitive to important needs of the time — would be the right approach to a Confucian argument against footbinding. Roughly, that in the pursuit of filial piety, the need to prevent injury to women would be an important need to address.

    As I was falling asleep last night, I thought: there is of course the Xiaojing — Classic of Filial Piety — which states prominently the first section: “The body and hair are received from one’s parents; one dare not harm them.” 身體髮膚,受之父母,不敢毀傷. That could easily be used to argue against the practice of footbinding — but why wasn’t it in the Ming? (The Xiaojing had already been widely disseminated and canonized in the Song.)

    Moral common sense is tricky. What was the difference between the Han men of the Ming and the Manchu men of the Qing? It would be hard to argue that the latter just had more moral common sense. The more likely thing is that there was in fact a lot of cultural investment in or divestment from the aesthetic of footbinding in the Ming and Qing, respectively. Is it so apparent that something that involves painful and injurious discipline is wrong to some kind of “common sense”? Maybe the insider point of view complicates that and that’s why there wasn’t the kind of outrage one might expect from outsiders who stumbled onto the practice, for example from missionaries of imperial Western powers in China during the late Qing.

  5. Hi Manyul,

    On the Xiaojing, maybe the answer is that Confucianism only selectively recalled that its texts can be regarded as addressed also to women?

    I didn’t mean to claim that the Manchus had more moral common sense. I don’t know about them. They may just have developed/preserved different parts of it. Smith can perceive things Jones doesn’t, even if Smith is blind and Jones deaf.

    The question about the missionaries is interesting.

    • (I guess part of my background assumption/vision about what’s natural is that for the most part, it is natural for humans to live in social orders that involve only moderate coercion and indoctrination – as before the rise of large-scale organized agriculture. Where most people can stand up for themselves to some extent, there naturally develops a certain basic complex of care, respect, and reciprocity.)

  6. I have actually skimmed this book while in the bookstore.

    To start, I would like to say that I appreciate Goldin for his effort to promote Confucianism to students. I also learned a few things, e.g. the “lost books of Mencius”. (I wasn’t aware of that before.)

    Reading the review, I remembered why I disagreed with Goldin’s explanation of Confucianism. We may distinguish between two different “Confucianisms” prevalent today. One understanding is the traditional one – Four Books and Five Classics. The other tries to isolate a “core” of Confucian ideas based on the Analects, Mencius and Xunzi.

    Goldin obviously subscribes to the second understanding. Personally speaking, I don’t think Confucianism can be isolated from Chinese culture in general. It doesn’t make sense even from the perspective of scholarship – As an analogy, it would be like trying to isolate a “philosophical core” from Aquinas while ignoring the fact that he was a Christian. (This is not to speak of the fact that many passages from the Analects are unintelligible without reference to contemporary facts.)

    (Furthermore, it seems that the “philosophical core” which some scholars derive from the Analects usually end up being some sort of modern liberalism, concerned with things like gender equality and children’s rights. Do we really believe that Confucius was basically a Democrat in Spring and Autumn China?)

    Now, in response to the above commentators’ assertions about filial piety and the position of women – The answers to all of these can be found in the Five Classics. If we read the Commentary of Zuo, we will find that even filial actions which would be considered unwise with respect to Xiaojing and Lunyu are often praised despite reservations.

    My basic position, therefore, is:

    (1) Confucius was definitely sexist (in that he believed women and men to be inherently different). To distinguish between men and women is one of the four fundamental principles of lijiao which cannot be altered.


    Some Confucians in the Ming Dynasty did not agree with footbinding. Others did. There is a trend in both Chinese and Western scholarship to play up the views of scholars who opposed footbinding. The reality, however, is that most people (Confucians or otherwise) did not see this as a problem.

    A true defense of Confucianism would be to defend the complementarian view of gender differences rather than to minimise it.

    (2) Unless one rejects every Confucian text other than the Analects, there is no doubt that filial piety is a core part of Confucianism.

    • I agree with (2) and a number of other points here.

      The quote is from the Da Zhuan大傳 section of the Liji, recording the rules instituted by the Zhou founders.

      Legge translates it thus:
      “The appointment of the measures of weight, length, and capacity; the fixing the elegancies (of ceremony); the changing the commencement of the year and month; alterations in the colour of dress; differences of flags and their blazonry; changes in vessels and weapons, and distinctions in dress: these were things, changes in which could be enjoined on the people. But no changes could be enjoined upon them in what concerned affection for kin, the honour paid to the honourable, the respect due to the aged, and the different positions and functions of male and female.”

      I take it that while strictly speaking the last point is reported as a Zhou meta-rule rather than as an absolute constraint on all change by later dynasties if any, still it is indicative of the Confucian outlook.

      Legge takes 此其所得與民變革者 to mean “these were things, changes in which could be enjoined on the people.” I wonder whether it might mean instead “these were things that could be changed in consultation with the people.”

  7. Many thanks to Manyul for a serious review of my book.

    Guys, my comments on footbinding took up all of one page. Based on what I see here, the argument seems to be:

    (1) Footbinding is horrible because we know it was horrible; it was painful and everyone has seen the X-rays of those poor women with bound feet.

    (2) Confucianism must be responsible in practice, even if not in theory, because people did these horrible things to their children. (Frankly, I don’t follow the reasoning behind this inference, but so be it.)

    As you might expect, I’d object to both (1) and (2). Responsible historians have to be careful not to impose their own judgments, however plausible they may seem, onto the actions of people from a different time and place. Just a little bit of reading in the scholarship on footbinding (I particularly recommend the work of Dorothy Ko) will show that many elite, literate women, i.e. who had the time and leisure to think about the question, bound their feet as a matter of pride; they certainly did not construe it as an evil imposition. Are we going to say that we can judge their choices better than they can? That’s Whiggish.

    As for (2), do you know of a Confucian treatise on footbinding? It wasn’t an issue for Confucian philosophers. Saying that Confucianism must be responsible for footbinding is a bit like saying that Christianity must be responsible for gingerbread cookies, because gingerbread cookies are found throughout the Christian world. The way I put it in the book was that these cultural phenomena “have at least as much to do with issues of class, local politics and the apportioning of power as they do with Confucianism” (p. 4). If you’re going to call ALL of that “Confucianism,” the word ceases to have any meaning; it just becomes a reductionist synonym for “traditional Chinese culture.” That’s not helpful when there is, as I argue, a coherent tradition of philosophy that can be called “Confucian” (and it’s not identical to “Chinese philosophy”).

    I don’t quite understand why people are suggesting that I don’t think filial piety is a core aspect of Confucianism. I devoted an entire section to it.

    • I would agree that we really have no right to judge women who practised footbinding in history. For most women, it was a point of pride. Even well into the Republican era, repeated government edicts could not stamp out footbinding in many regions. In reality, the abolition of footbinding is the promotion of a new class of college-educated westernised women at the expense of traditional Chinese women.

      With regard to the relationship between Confucianism and footbinding, in fact arguments with reference to Confucianism were raised by both sides when abolition became an issue. From the side in favour of footbinding, Confucian arguments included (1) distinguishing males and females and (2) promoting morality by restricting female mobility. From the side against footbinding, Confucian arguments included (1) it was never practised during the Three Dynasties, and (2) it promoted licentiousness by sexualising women.

      With respect to the relationship between traditional Chinese culture and Confucianism, I believe that (1) these two are indeed different concepts. However, (2) the traditional understanding of Confucianism was founded on the preservation and modification of Zhou Dynasty customs as contained in the Classics. Therefore, if culture refers to Zhou Dynasty customs, then it is not possible to isolate Confucianism from culture. Furthermore, (3) to understand how the Classics apply to real world situations, it is necessary to understand how previous generations of Confucians understood Confucianism.

    • Hi Paul and all — In response to Paul’s (2), I take it that the issue is thinking about *why* it wasn’t an issue. Had a Confucian philosopher in the Ming noticed the phenomenon, what would his thoughts have been? Is the lack of criticism because it wasn’t noticed, or because it didn’t seem to be at odds with Confucianism? That’s significant insofar as it tells us things about the possibilities for Confucianism, Confucian thinking, and/or Confucian discourse at the time. J&M points out that once the practice becomes explicitly controversial, “Confucian” arguments were offered on each side. In the late Ming, it is striking that one does find someone like Li Zhi arguing explicitly that the distinctions between male and female forms of self-cultivation are unjustified and bad for women (I’m thinking of Pauline Lee’s well-known article and new book), though so far as I know he does not extend this line of thinking to a criticism of footbinding.

    • Hi Paul, thanks for commenting! I agree that almost the whole thread digresses from a discussion of the book. But I would love to hear more about the book. Can you post an excerpt?

      Arguments (1) and (2) that you mention are indeed boneheadedly stupid.

      I think your refutation of (2) is well summed up here: “Saying that Confucianism must be responsible for footbinding is a bit like saying that Christianity must be responsible for gingerbread cookies, because gingerbread cookies are found throughout the Christian world.”

      Here are some of the relevant ways in which the cookie argument differs from my own explicitly tentative argument/questions about Confucianism and footbinding.

      1. “The Christian world” in the present tense tends to name a region in which specifically Christian ideas are not even prima facie dominant. (Because of deep internal conflicts within Christian doctrine and between some Christian ideas and practical reality, I think it is questionable whether there was ever a time and place where Christian ideas were in fact largely dominant; and for all I know the same doubts may be appropriate regarding Confucianism.)

      2. The cookie argument makes no mention of the specific features of Christianity that might seem to encourage gingerbread cookies, such as the Christian belief that the most central core of Christian rite is the eating of a man in the form of a cookie.

      3. Most importantly, compare these two arguments:

      A. Those kids always drink all their milk before they start eating; they’ve been doing it for years. Surely their father bears a major part of the responsibility for this.
      B. Those kids always cut off and eat the ears of their cats; they’ve been doing it for years. Surely their father bears a major part of the responsibility for this.

      The inference in A is silly, while the inference in B seems pretty solid (until we learn of some very special circumstances).

      4. While the point that the parents have never discussed the matter would weaken inference A, it would strengthen inference B.

      This brings us to the topic of argument (1), the badness of footbinding.

      My line of thought is quite different from (1) of course. (I don’t know the facts, and I didn’t know about any X-rays.) I gather that it involved years of pain, and indeed imposing years of pain on one’s own children; that it made a large contribution to inequality between the sexes, and that it was seriously physically debilitating. Each of these, if true, is a pretty strong reason to think that a practice is bad; though one can of course think of activities that meet any or all three conditions without being bad. For example, after an injury the recovery of the full ability to walk may be worth years of pain, even as an imposition on one’s own child.

      My worries about Confucianism in this connection are based on the premises that (a) the practice of footbinding as a cultural expectation is very bad in fact; that (b) a system of general moral guidance has serious problems if most of its best-educated people fail to address footbinding as something prima facie highly problematic; and that (c) the specific act of imposing footbinding on one’s child is a violation of “natural human moral common sense” (defined in such a way as to block any suggestion that most adults under the Ming had all of it).

      None of these premises involves “impos[ing one’s] own judgments, however plausible they may seem, onto the actions of people from a different time and place,” because none of them involves making any moral judgments about anybody’s action. The premises may be wrong, but they seem consistent with the points you mention from Dorothy Ko, which are about the actual motivations of individual adults (regarding binding their own feet in a cultural context they were, so far as I know, not in a position to alter).

      Premise (c) appeals to “natural human moral common sense,” and I can see how that phrase might seem to express nothing but a mindless confidence in one’s moral prejudices. Here in a little more detail is my picture: (i) ‘morality’ is pretty much a name for doing these things: appreciating that you are one person among others, respecting people (including yourself), caring about people, looking at things also from others’ points of view, and holding yourself to the standards you hope others will hold themselves to; (ii) a modicum of this activity is a natural and necessary core of the intellectual ability and tendency to understand what is going on in the human world around one, so that it is an indispensable part of (not just practical) reason about one’s life; and (iii) this activity has a significant internal tendency to lead to one’s doing it more. Coercion combined with indoctrination on large social scale (or, more generally, culture) can significantly affect the areas in which people in general do these things as a matter of course, so that it makes sense to distinguish between natural moral common sense and other moral common sense (artificial, realized, local, whatever).

      I suppose a Muslim would easily distinguish between the idea that gingerbread cookies are naturally prima facie wrong and the idea that they are in fact plainly wrong (as plainly violating God’s law). Of course there is an obvious argument to be made that gingerbread cookies are in general morally damaging; and if I learned that most people who have never been exposed to such things nor indoctrinated against them found the concept repellant, I might have to change my mind about whether they offend natural moral common sense.

      I think you are quite right to point out that sometimes we need to appeal to a principled respect for the diversity of cultures to call into question our own first impressions about whether a practice would horrify natural moral common sense. Here’s a case that Mencius might appreciate:

      What one wants from a broad system of social and moral guidance is not just the avoidance of what appears prima facie horrible to the people living under it.

  8. Bill, you’re still objecting to footbinding on the basis of criteria that make sense in our time and place, not in those of the women who practiced it. On the one hand, you say: “none of [these premises] involves making any moral judgments about anybody’s action”; on the other hand, you say: “the specific act of imposing footbinding on one’s child is a violation of ‘natural human moral common sense.'” To me, that sounds like a judgment about somebody’s action.

    We think footbinding was a horrible thing, but most people at the time–again, including people who practiced it–did not view the matter in the same way that we do. They would not have agreed that it is “very bad in fact,” as you put it. But even if, for the sake of argument, we say that footbinding is bad, I still don’t see how Confucianism is to blame for it, unless we’re calling all aspects of traditional Chinese culture “Confucian.” Are chopsticks Confucian too?

    As for gingerbread cookies–I think you could make a BETTER case that Christianity has been one of the major reasons for the popularity of gingerbread cookies than you could that Confucianism has been a reason for footbinding. Gingerbread was brought to Europe by a monk in the Middle Ages, and has long been associated with the Christmas season. In Austria, where I spent half my childhood (and I would indeed consider that part of “the Christian world”; at least, it was a profoundly Catholic nation in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, when I had my formative experiences), the Christmas season SMELLED like gingerbread. Obviously, it’s not a part of the theology, but it’s part of the way Christmas was experienced, and continues to be experienced, by literally millions of Christians.

    • Thanks for the quick reply, Paul! My account of my own conception of natural moral common sense was in fact a misrepresentation of my view; I apologize. The basic correction is that the relevant point is not that coercion/indoctrination/culture can change the extent to which people do the things that are morality (respect etc.); rather, the relevant point is that coercion/indoctrination/culture can change the concrete shape of what doing those things actually locally involves, creating circumstances in which what morality actually locally permits or even requires may be the sort of thing that would horrify moral common sense in more natural circumstances: natural moral common sense.

      I never meant to be addressing the point of view of the adult women who practiced footbinding on themselves. In the discussion with Manyul above I meant to be aiming pretty explicitly at the rest of the issue.

      I’m still very curious about a factual question I asked early on:

      I’ve been under the impression that the main decision about whether a person’s feet were to be bound was made in the person’s fairly early childhood, and that after a few years there was basically no going back. So that the main immediate moral question would have been, not so much whether to do this to oneself, but rather whether to it to one’s child, toward providing posterity for oneself and one’s forebears. Is that right?.

      From what’s been said I gather that my impression was partly wrong. But questions of degree seem important here. Anyone?

      I hope to address the question of the cookies later.

    • Well, there are lots of interesting issues I hope to get to later – including the point that my account of natural common sense leaves open the possibility that what is truly moral in the best society might well offend natural moral common sense.

  9. Sorry again, Paul, I’ve overcomplicated matters and confused myself with side issues about “natural human moral common sense.” I’d love to go into that further if anyone wants, but maybe right now I can just go around it.

    One might try to determine how much praise or blame Confucianism’s leaders and other participants have deserved, and call that project “evaluating Confucianism,” but I’m not interested in that sort of question.

    Christianity has sometimes encouraged its would-be heroes to follow paths of silence, isolation, self-mutilation, or the burning of heretics; and I think we can count that as a point against Christianity without regarding those people either as weak-willed victims or as intentional evildoers. It is certainly possible to do horribly painful, physically and morally debilitating things to oneself, out of pride or love, without being weak or a deliberate evildoer. I have been trying to stress that the idea that somebody under the Ming was performing an action they thought was horrible is no part of my point.

    The issues that have been worrying me aren’t purely idle ones. They arise rather from the fact that at least some people think that perhaps Confucianism (loose as that term is), or some significant part of it, is worth taking seriously today, e.g. as an alternative or supplement to liberalism or something else we do. For example, would American culture be improved by adopting some large chunk of Confucianism, to complement or replace what we already have? I’m game to entertain such ideas.

    Toward evaluating a body of moral thought or scheme for practical social organization, I don’t think it is reasonable to try to proceed by setting aside all our views about what is good or bad. I don’t think there’s anything questionable or even optional about using premises of the form, “X is bad.” The general question which premises are relevant to fair consideration is a difficult one, but “You’re arguing on the basis of your own ideas” is not an objection.

    I mentioned these 3 or 4 general considerations about footbinding: I gather that it involved years of pain, and indeed imposing years of pain on one’s own children; that it made a large contribution to inequality between the sexes, and that it was seriously physically debilitating. Each of these, if true, is a pretty strong [defeasible] reason to think that a practice is bad.

    The 2 or 3 considerations here other than gender inequality are considerations that I imagine Confucianism too would in general regard as counting pretty strongly toward the badness of a practice. Now, if a critic of Confucianism sticks to that kind of consideration, she might hope to show that Confucianism (a) somehow impeded social thought in general, and/or (b) was not serious about its own ideas, or at least the prettier ones (criticisms that Mill brought convincingly against Christianity). One might put these points this way: Confucianism didn’t in general see what should have been obvious (by its own or anyone’s lights): that footbinding was at least highly problematic. The worry about footbinding seems to harmonize with other reasons to think that the Confucian way of organizing society and pursuing thought impedes social thought.

    But I think the distinctiveness of the 2 or 3 springs not only from their being agreed by Confucianism. It springs also from their being very close to the core of what it is for something to be bad. It begins to be a little hard to see how someone who didn’t feel that those were strong prima facie reasons could nevertheless have mastered terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or could have the elentary virtues for everday life that are largely uncontroversial between cultures. (That’s a temptation to start talking about natural moral common sense.)

    Gender inequality slightly less close to the heart of things, I guess. But that doesn’t mean that in evaluating Confucianism we should count it at nought just because Confucians sincerely believed in inequality. It just means the issue regarding gender isn’t mainly about whether Confucian society and philosophy are somehow inherently muddle-headed; rather it’s about whether they’re wrong (and if so, whether some other large part of Confucianism isn’t inherently committed to the wrong point).

    I think inequality between the sexes is wrong. But I think it’s worth taking seriously and re-evaluating carefully insofar as there are people who think it is right and are willing to discuss it.

    I suspect that you agree with all of the 3 or 4 general standards, so that I am arguing on the basis of your values. Do they not in fact apply to footbinding? Do you not think that footbinding was in fact bad?

    But even if, for the sake of argument, we say that footbinding is bad, I still don’t see how Confucianism is to blame for it, unless we’re calling all aspects of traditional Chinese culture “Confucian.” Are chopsticks Confucian too?

    Taking the issue here to be not moral blame but rather whether footbinding is evidence that there is something undesirable about Confucianism, I’ll sum up in a paragraph the answers I had proposed:

    Allowing bad things counts against a putative scheme of comprehensive guidance, even (or especially) if it is merely silent about them [and even if the only reason it allows them is that it approves them]. Certain specific apparent features of Confucian principle seem to be specifically explanatory of its tolerance of footbinding: (a) Confucianism (or old Confucianism) thinks the sexes are fundamentally different and unequal, (b) Confucian organization impedes social and moral thought, (c) Confucianism overvalues filial duty while not being thoughtful about what counts as filial duty.

    I hadn’t suggested that Confucianism started the practice of footbinding, or even that it started during a period of Confucian dominance. I don’t know how or when it started.

    • On Confucianism and sexism: I wrote an appendix about that; the long and short of it is that pre-modern Confucians were probably sexist (by our criteria), but the philosophy itself is not inherently sexist. (I do not agree that the philosophy holds the sexes to be fundamentally unequal, but you’ll have to read my argument.) The whole question strikes me as a little silly because we don’t tend to ask whether pre-modern European philosophies were “sexist” (after all, if Confucius was sexist, certainly Plato was too). Confucianism has had to answer that charge over and over because the first European observers followed Ricci in regarding China as an essentially Confucian society, and the China that they observed was one in which gender equality was unthinkable. And my point was that it’s time to get beyond this discourse. There are many aspects of traditional Chinese culture that were no more Confucian than gingerbread cookies are Christian. But I’m starting to repeat myself.

      I don’t think footbinding would have been regarded as a matter of filial piety. Again, that would make sense only if we regard footbinding as a senseless, sadistict act that children had to bear because Confucianism told them they had to be filial. Women who bound their daughters’ feet thought they were acting in their daughters’ best interest. You might think that’s preposterous, but they didn’t. Nor, for that matter, was footbinding always imposed by mothers. Lots of women bound their own feet voluntarily, even when their feet were still large enough that they had a real choice. The clumsy maid who binds her own feet in order to imitate her superiors is a stock character in literature. Wang Ping’s Aching for Beauty discusses this.

      To some extent, I think this is an argument between historians and philosophers. I don’t study ideas outside of their context for considered methodological reasons that I’m not likely to abandon. Thus OUR view of footbinding, whether footbinding is an objectively “bad thing,” and so on matters much less to me than what practitioners of footbinding, observers of footbinding, said and wrote about it. It’s a different conception of what is meant by “understanding.”

    • [to Bill]

      Well, I must say I hold the opposite view as you.

      (1) Confucianism believes that the sexes are inherently different and should be distinguished.
      (2) It is right, precisely because it teaches this.

      I’m always alarmed when I read publications saying Confucianism is not sexist, or that somehow feminist principles can be integrated into it. This seems to me to eviscerate the core of the religion. (Feminism is really the greatest heresy of the modern world.)

      (I’m even more surprised that some mainland Chinese Confucian scholars are so accommodating to feminism, in a way that many North American religious teachers and conservative scholars would not be. Chinese Buddhists and Daoists are also far more traditional than most modern Confucians on this point.)

    • Paul, thanks for the nudge. I expect I’ll be able to get hold of your book in a week or two. I’ll say what I can now on the gender point, and then get back to you after I read your book.

      Most of my points above are independent of gender issues. Inequality between the sexes came into my argument in two ways:
      a) The idea that footbinding promotes inequality was one of 3 or 4 reasons to think footbinding is bad.
      b) Approval of inequality was one of three proposed features of Confucianism that might help explain its tolerance of footbinding.

      I think your comment here addresses inequality as relevant to (b), so that I can concede it all without much damage to my overall argument. Maybe when I see the appendix I will.

      The whole question strikes me as a little silly because we don’t tend to ask whether pre-modern European philosophies were “sexist” (after all, if Confucius was sexist, certainly Plato was too).

      There has been a fair amount of discussion about the sexism of Western philosophers and about how far it is implicated in the rest of what they say, right up to Rawls on “heads of families” in the original position. One great example (and engaging read) is Susan Moller Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family. I don’t think it’s a silly sort of question. On the other hand, Western philosophy may lend itself relatively easily to the separation of issues.

      I’ve always thought that the views about gender in the Analects are a peripheral and separable part of it – partly because it’s not a comprehensive book about morality and social life. The changes required to remove the overt sexism from the book are easy to identify and make. The collection simply doesn’t aim to address that sort of topic; or if it does, that’s not very apparent in the text. Still, the views that remain seem to have at their core the idea of respect for the tradition as a whole, and I’m under the impression that gender inequality is a main part of that. Not to mention the question of classics. Anyway questions about changing Confucius are beside the point, as our topic is Confucianism. On that I mainly have to defer to people who know much more about it than I do, such as you and Justice&Mercy.

      Since you say “gender equality was unthinkable” in Ricci’s China, in which Confucianism was somewhat extant, I take it your appendix does not argue that Confucianism in general advocated gender roles that were equal or regarded as equal, but rather argues that (a) the whole issue somehow falls outside the purview of what Confucianism claims to discuss, or at least that (b) we can abstract out a non-sexist part of Confucianism, “the philosophy itself,” to take seriously. But I guess I’ll see.

      Again, [regarding footbinding as a matter of filial piety] would make sense only if we regard footbinding as a senseless, sadistict act that children had to bear because Confucianism told them they had to be filial.

      I don’t understand why you say that. Offhand it seems pretty close to the claim that the only thing that could even seem to justify to a family the great pain of footbinding is some purpose far more important than Confucian families thought filial piety was.

      Women who bound their daughters’ feet thought they were acting in their daughters’ best interest. You might think that’s preposterous, but they didn’t.

      I would expect most women to have thought so, and in context I would not be surprised if they were right. I don’t think either point has much relevance to the arguments I’ve been making. If society enforces a requirement that your daughter never have a partner unless you cut off her feet, it may be in her plain interest that you do so, and at a certain age she may even do it to herself. Further, the deed may be morally correct in the sense of being the least bad available to the individuals under the circumstances. But nobody could think that that point has any close relevance to the justification of the requirement itself, or the defense of a putatively comprehensive scheme of guidance that tolerates it.

      Here I’m discussing a practice that is clearly somewhat different from what footbinding was, for the sake of some abstract points.

      Another of the abstract points is that even if cutting off the feet in that circumstance is morally correct, that doesn’t refute the point that one of the bad things about the general rule is that it does serious moral damage to the individuals involved, by having them make that decision. When Sophie made her famous choice, it did her moral damage, quite independently of whether she made the better choice.

      Regarding history v. philosophy, several thoughts:

      1. I guess our interests may still overlap on such causal questions as, what kind of effect on social thought can reasonably be expected from Confucian modes of social organization and Confucian modes of philosophical thought.
      2. I think the point of historical study is to contribute indirectly to practical decision-making, so that history should be investigated in such a way as to be relevant to such questions as “What does the history of Confucianism tell us about whether Confucianism is a good guide?” That doesn’t mean a historian has to address value questions, or that doing so doesn’t bring trouble; but it does mean that the best methods have to leave some place for the value gears to engage.
      3. I think that thinking one’s way into someone else’s viewpoint on what’s moral and good is hard because it involves combining two parts of their viewpoint: (a) the specific views that are probably not your own, and (b) the general view that views on those topics aren’t just hot air; they’re addressing real questions with real answers.
      4. I think that to understand people’s effort to navigate some territory, it helps to understand the territory.

    • With regard to footbinding, I think one aspect you’re neglecting is the aesthetics of it.

      In North American society today, there is general fascination with big breasts. Men appreciate big breasts, and women understand their preference for them. This aesthetics is deeply ingrained in society. Therefore, women with normal-sized breasts may jeer at women with small breasts, and women with small breasts may develop related self-esteem issues.

      In traditional Chinese society, there was a general fascination with small feet. Men appreciated small feet, and women understood their preference for them. This aesthetics was deeply ingrained in society. Therefore, women with small feet might jeer at women with large feet, and women with large feet might develop related self-esteem issues.

      The main difference between the two is (1) footbinding is a more intrusive bodily modification than breasts implants, and (2) footbinding usually begins in a non-voluntary way during childhood.

      Mothers insisted that their daughters bound their feet, in part because they knew that if the operation was successful, then it would be an asset as well as a point of pride for their daughters for the rest of their lives.

    • Thanks J&M!

      (Well, implants are more intrusive in a literal sense, but footbinding is more intrusive in the figurative sense that it takes a lot more time and pain and seriously impedes a core bodily function that is important in most departments of life.)

      I gather that another difference is that even in the wealthiest classes, North American women mostly just take what they’ve been dealt. I wonder whether there is such a thing as having natural feet so small that one wouldn’t have had to bind them?

      I’m under the impression that bound feet didn’t bear much resemblance to what one might at first understand by “small feet.” Might it be more accurate to speak of an aesthetic preference for stunted, deformed feet?

      Or maybe the preference you have in mind was not about how the feet look unclothed, but about how they look when the person is clothed. But then, it seems to me, the main noticeable and aesthetically relevant effect would be reduced mobility.

      I’m inclined to think that these aren’t merely aesthetic matters. For just offhand, I would think there must be a pretty deep conflict between genuinely caring about someone and having an aesthetic or erotic liking for her reduced mobility, a conflict that peculiar cultural circumstances (or, say, living in a minefield) might reduce but could not eradicate. I’m inclined to think something similar about physical mutilations. (Here I’m supposing that the debilitation and deformity were not themselves generally understood to be directly erotic for the women, as pain might be for a sadist’s masochistic partner.) So that any cultural imperative for footbinding, such as associating it with full respectability, would tend to do moral damage to the society.

    • With respect to reduced mobility, I once read Karl Marx’s answer to two questions: What quality do you like most in a man? And what quality do you like most in a woman? His answers to the first question was “strength”; to the second question, weakness.

      There seems to be something enduringly archetypical about this aesthetics. I’m thinking of Ban Zhao’s 女诫 – 生男如狼,犹恐其尪;生女如鼠,犹恐其虎. Also, 阴阳殊性,男女异行。阳以刚为德,阴以柔为用,男以强为贵,女以弱为美。

      I think footbinding just took things too far, when women competed with each other to have smaller feet. (You see, the West was smarter and got high heels instead. The appeal of high heels is also largely the changes to a woman’s body motion when she walks. But you can take it off and put it back on without going through years of pain as in footbinding.)

      There is also a saying: 女为悦己者容,士为知己者死. Direct erotic enjoyment might not be as important as the satisfaction of knowing one is attractive.

      With respect to clothed and unclothed, modern man is susceptible to a certain fallacy, that artifice is by definition unnatural – e.g. that clothing is artificial and therefore unnatural, and therefore that one is not natural unless one is nude. (Some version or another of Rousseau’s myth of the noble savage.) But if we look at cultures from around the world – In all cultures, people wear clothes to distinguish themselves. Therefore, some aspects of artifice are in fact natural to human nature. Accordingly, we should evaluate bound feet as with clothes on rather than with clothes off.

    • Miscellaneous responses:

      I agree with everything in your last paragraph up to the last sentence. I don’t understand the inference to the last point. Why aren’t both standpoints significant?

      My sympathetic references to “natural moral common sense” above might suggest that I think natural=right, but I don’t.

      There are lots of biological facts that would seem to be powerful forces toward determining different gender roles, e.g.
      • Men are stronger.
      • The importance of childcare seems to have hardwired men and women to be protective (in salient ways) toward small young-looking hairless people with high voices and big eyes. (Heads grow; eyeballs don’t.)
      • Childbearing & breastfeeding mean women are more likely to be responsible for early childcare, and both facts mean women tend to stay home more and be more vulnerable to attack.
      • Women have the first shot at persuading the next generation.
      • Who stays home and who goes out may make a difference to who is more likely to think and act with the benefits of cooperation. (Which way the benefit goes will depend on the kind of economy.)
      But there may also be natural facts about the way people behave in society that argue for reducing the differences where technology allows. The sort of consideration that makes equality part of justice may also argue for practices that make it psychologically easier to regard people as equal.

      I think one of the attractions of high heels for women is that they reduce inequality in height.

  10. Paul, Bill, et. al.

    It’s a tricky thing trying to figure out the relationship or lack of it between Confucianism and footbinding (and that’s what I meant to indicate in the review). To understand footbinding, we certainly have to regard it in its context. But part of that context, it seems clear to me and I think Paul has also agreed, is the ethical importance that women and girls in Ming China placed on footbinding. From there, the questions can go in different directions:

    A) We might ask what the ethical importance placed on the practice was based on or derived from. Was it Confucianism or something else — some other source of ethical value in Ming China?

    B) We might ask whether that importance was in some sense mistaken, because it didn’t follow from the ethical teachings the practice was supposed to have been derived from. Perhaps it was thought to be something one could derive from duties of filial piety, but that was mistaken.

    C) We might ask whether the practice was bad or wrong based on the very beliefs or teachings to which the practitioners and those who condoned it were committed.

    D) We might ask whether the practice caused some kind of harm or injury to women and girls that could be construed as bad for their well-being based on ideas of well-being that were plausible to attribute to those women and girls, and to the men who condoned the practice.

    E) We might ask whether the practice was bad or wrong based on some universal, non-context-based standards of human well-being by which all practices or teachings can be judged.

    I think there are some positions between D and E that could be articulated as well. But the point of my comment here is that A – D indicate questions that could be asked well within a context sensitive understanding of footbinding and that Confucianism has to be part of the discussion in the answers that are given to those questions. C and D may seem similar, but actually it makes sense to separate ideas about harm to well-being from other ways in which something might be thought wrong.

    I think if the answer to A is Confucianism — in a strong sense, based on teachings and practices, not merely as a gloss for some fantasy of monolithic Chinese culture — then based on our answers to B through D, we can form an interesting defense or critique of Confucianism that is contextually bound. This is all by way of prolegomena to any future discussion of the topic, for me anyway.

    • We’re going to have to agree to disagree about footbinding.

      Manyul speaks of “men who condoned the practice.” “Condoned”? That’s a revealing word. You can’t “condone” something that isn’t objectionable in the first place.

      We seem to be stuck on the notion that footbinding was bad and that Confucian structures are to blame for helping to perpetuate the practice. That point of view was right at home in 1919, but has been invalidated by modern scholarship.

    • My fault, Paul; poor choice of words, even if (admittedly) revealing. I intended to be neutral regarding the answers to the questions; perhaps “accepted” would be better.

      I don’t think modern scholarship on footbinding has settled the issue about whether, by Confucianism’s own lights, the practice was acceptable or unacceptable. Your considered position seems to be that Confucian teachings are neither here nor there with regard to it. My view is that trying to answer questions like A – D might shed some light on the relationship as having some strands of connection, either showing Confucianism as an ethical philosophy that would condemn footbinding or that would find it acceptable, independent of judgment about whether that makes it a bad ethical philosophy in some culturally transcendent sense (which, I would agree, would be a judgment fraught with the kinds of problems about context insensitivity to which you’ve referred).

    • Paul,

      I think this is the first time you’ve said that you positively think foodbinding wasn’t a bad thing. It hadn’t occurred to me earlier that you might actually think so; I had read differently each of the things you said that approached this point. Now I understand why you weren’t moved by my response to your gingerbread/chopsticks comparison.


      I think I agree with all of what you say here.

      A – D indicate questions that could be asked well within a context sensitive understanding of footbinding and that Confucianism has to be part of the discussion in the answers that are given to those questions.

      I’d say the same thing about E.

  11. I want to bring some nuance to the traditional Chinese attitude towards female footbinding. It was critiqued in pre-1919 China. In the famous Qing fantasy novel, 鏡花緣, the novelist 李汝珍 describes, in amazing detail, a man who visits some 女兒國 and has to go through the footbinding process because the “king” 國王 (not 女王, even though the king is a woman) falls for him and wants to make him her royal “concubine” 王妃. In case you haven’t read it, it is quite a piece of work. At least one reading of this is that it is a sophisticated and imaginative practice of the age-old teaching of Confucius, 己所不欲,勿施於人, from a woman’s perspective (of course just a woman, not the woman), even though the novelist is a man. Critique was not done on cultural ground (Manchu vs. Han) or aesthetic ground, but on the ground of moral imagination which is at the core of 己所不欲,勿施於人. Just my two cents, for whatever its worth.

    • Thanks, Tao! For anyone who wants to learn a little bit more about Li Ruzhen (c. 1763 – c. 1830) and his Flowers in the Mirror, here is a site that summarizes a few scholars’ comments. There are also English and Chinese Wikipedia entries on him, which each have a few references to more authoritative sources. (Interesting, they disagree about when the book was published.)

  12. Turning away from the question of footbinding …

    Here’s a question about internal v. imported standards that I’m going to be thinking about as I read the book. I hope Paul will answer it now, but I’ve pestered him enough for one week.

    Manyul reports that in Paul’s book, “feminist criticisms of Confucianism … are singled out for dismissal based partially on lack of text-based principled Confucian support for them.” And Paul writes on this thread, “pre-modern Confucians were probably sexist (by our criteria), but the philosophy itself is not inherently sexist.”

    But claims about different qualities and roles are present in Confucian texts, and (I think) quite prominent in those places where gender is touched on.

    The question I’ll be thinking about is whether in distinguishing Confucian “principle” and “philosophy” from other aspects of Confucianism, Paul is using a conception of “principle” and “philosophy” that regards the statements “Men and women are fundamentally different” and “Men and women have different duties” as not being, themselves, statements of philosophy or principle. That is to say, does Paul conceive the question about the sexism of Confucian “philosophy” and “principle” in such a way that his negative answer turns out to be a mere tautology and thus wholly uninformative about and unresponsive to what Confucians actually said or thought?

    Or is he using a conception of “philosophy” and “principle” that would allow claims about moral difference to be points of philosophy or principle?

    A related question is whether the conception is one that is found in Confucianism itself.

    Manyul quotes Paul arguing from a general premise about Confucianism: “Confucianism sanctions actions and habits if and only if they are conducive to the cultivation of morality; making oneself more attractive for the marriage market [which was the original purpose of footbinding] would never have qualified as a sufficient concern.”

    Now, Confucianism seems to have held that men and women have different moral duties. Would foodbinding have helped women cultivate their Confucian moral duties? Would it have seemed to promise to help? Insofar as we think that’s likely, we think Paul’s premise tends to oppose the conclusion he draws from it here – –

    – – unless (a) we can bring to the table a conception of “morality” that rules out the idea that different kinds of people, or at least men and women, have different “moral” duties, or (b) we can find in Confucianism a conception, translatable as “morality,” that rules out the idea that for different kinds of people, or at least men and women, “moral” requirements may differ in kind or degree.

    • Sorry, when I wrote “…Paul’s premise tends to oppose the conclusion he draws from it here” I was badly misremembering the conclusion I had just finished quoting. I was thinking rather about a different kind of possible Confucian moral argument for footbinding: wives should be submissive, indoors, non-threatening, decorative, etc.

  13. I’m afraid I don’t understand the distinction between “principle” and “philosophy” that is being attributed to me. Did I make that distinction somewhere in the book?

    I really don’t get the fixation on footbinding. (Bill says, “Turning away from the question of footbinding …,” but then before long asks, “Would footbinding have helped women cultivate their Confucian moral duties?”)

    If you want to make the argument that Confucianism is sexist and Confucian domination of society led to unjust practices like footbinding, you have to explain why it took so long. No ancient Confucian had ever even heard of footbinding. (You’d also have to explain why footbinding did not take hold in other Confucian societies, such as Choson Korea.) If you want to make the argument that footbinding is immoral even by Confucian standards, and that Confucians were therefore a bunch of hypocrites for failing to stamp out the practice, then so be it, as long as you acknowledge that this is an anachronistic judgment. I myself don’t go for that sort of Whiggishness.

    I think we can all agree that Confucians in 2011 would not bind their daughters’ feet.

    I don’t have more to say about footbinding–other than, perhaps, repeating my plea that Dorothy Ko’s work has to be considered in any discussion of the subject.

    • I know Ko’s work and part of the interest for me is exactly the point she makes, that the women and girls involved took moral pride in it, having claimed it and marked it as part of women’s exclusive domain. My interest in it has to do with the nature of the underlying morality that the women adapted to it — is it Confucian wholly, partly, essentially, mistakenly, or what?

      Feminist criticisms could, perhaps, take the women’s attitudes to be reasonable from the agent-perspective, but to be part of a phenomenon of victimization under an overall objectionable system of oppression. That assumes the possibility of making judgments about oppression from a perspective external to the target culture or practice, of course.

      Separately: I think judgments of inconsistency can be made without accusations of hypocrisy. It would be interesting to me whether a case for inconsistency could be made between Confucian teachings and footbinding, or alternatively whether Confucian teachings underdetermine the moral value placed on its practice by its practitioners. I don’t really care whether anyone was a hypocrite.

      By the way, I hope no one has the impression that my book review dwells on the issue of footbinding; it does not. I do think the discussion we’re having here about footbinding, Paul’s book aside, is helping me to think through some things and I appreciate everyone’s input so far.

  14. Hi Paul


    I’m afraid I don’t understand the distinction between “principle” and “philosophy” that is being attributed to me.

    I took them as interchangeable. I did ask about “distinguishing Confucian ‘principle’ and ‘philosophy’ from other aspects of Confucianism.”

    I really don’t get the fixation on footbinding. (Bill says, “Turning away from the question of footbinding …,” but then before long asks, “Would footbinding have helped women cultivate their Confucian moral duties?”)

    Sorry. To rephrase my new question: I wonder whether your conclusion that Confucian philosophy (or principle) didn’t include sexist material might simply reflect a conception of philosophy you are bringing to the table, such that statements specifically about genders or their differences (in qualities or duties) simply don’t count as philosophical statements.

    I mentioned footbinding as an illustrative example, partly because the only quote from you on one general aspect of my general question used footbinding as an example. The general question is a simple one, and answering it doesn’t require any mention of the footbinding example.

    The general question again: When you identify some and only some parts of what Confucians and their books said as Confucian “philosophy,” what conception of “philosophy” are you using? Is it perhaps one that requires that a claim be universal in order to be philosophical, where we understand that requirement in such way that it implies that the many statements we find in Confucian books about just one or the other sex, or asserting basic differences or inequalities in abilities or roles, would not count as philosophical statements? And similarly, when you identify a direction of cultivation as “moral,” are you using a conception of “moral” that would instruct us, in case we find Confucians seeming to say that men and women have different moral duties, to rule that those aren’t really “moral” duties?


    Departing now from anything about the new topic, I’ll reply to some other things in your latest comment.

    If you want to make the argument that [1] Confucianism is sexist and [2] Confucian domination of society led to [a] unjust practices like [b] footbinding, you have to explain why it took so long. No ancient Confucian had ever even heard of footbinding. (numbering added)

    I agree regarding [2b] at least. But I have not claimed that Confucianism led to footbinding. I have made arguments and proposed hypotheses about the explanation and implications of its tolerating footbinding. As I wrote above, “I hadn’t suggested that Confucianism started the practice of footbinding, or even that it started during a period of Confucian dominance. I don’t know how or when it started.”

    If you want to make the argument that footbinding is immoral even by Confucian standards, and that Confucians were therefore a bunch of hypocrites for failing to stamp out the practice, then so be it, as long as you acknowledge that this is an anachronistic judgment. I myself don’t go for that sort of Whiggishness.

    Here are some things that can really happen, and so have real causes and effects.

    a) A person can have bad or unjust standards and practices.
    b) A person can miss some things (e.g. about morality) that should be obvious, on account of being wrongheaded in some way.
    c) A person can fail to live up to her standards, can be hypocritical.
    d) A person can advocate practices that in fact stunt moral perception.

    Similarly, I think it can happen that an educated elite does one or more of those things. I also think it can happen that a set of ideas and practices (e.g. Confucianism, Christianity, what have you) can be such that its adherents will tend to do one or more of those things. I think that’s the main reason it matters what general ideas and practices we adopt.

    I wonder whether your conception of historical interpretive method has as a protocol the refusal to recognize any instance of an elite doing (a), (b), or (c), or instances of an “ism” being such that its followers do (a), (b), or (c).

    If so, I wonder how the results of that method could feed into any serious discussion of the strong or weak points of any “ism.”

    I think the charity that yields the most understanding is a mean between extremes.

  15. Concerning footbinding buy this movie and watch it In this film the footbound speak, not revising historian to speak who tells relativist american professors what they want to hear. Ko’s book Cinderella’s Sisters praised by those who want to see powerless women in history empowered after facts. Perhaps she truly says women wanted to bind their daughters feet to make them gain status yes. But women of Djibouti want to perform type 3 pharaonic circumcision we call it to their daughters to cutting away everything outside. Is this not ‘bad’? No, says the relativist, D Ko or P Goldin perhaps, because the women of Djibouti want to give this gift to their daughters and they choose to do so. Is their dominant cultural tradition in responsible–causal? moral?–for the pharaonic circumcision? No, says the American professor relativist, because a historian wrote a book and said so.

    Mr Goldin wants the student’s relativism–“We seem to be stuck on the notion that footbinding was bad…”–not wanting to judge the practice ‘bad’. So do historians. It feels good not to judge for Americans I think. Feels very good to them. Much important question than is it bad is: are the women Ko writes women who make these choices because they are coerced by male dominated Confucian society or because they truly believe for themselves that breaking four toes, compacting feet, preventing walking, creating gangrene, causing daily pains, and a life spent bind and rebinding feet is what they want for their daughters. Perhaps American Professor gets their daughters footbinding as Christmas present? You think voters for Putin they want to vote Putin? What is bad Paul Goldin? Define term ‘bad’. Footbinding not? Circumcision not? State theory of obligation. Utilitarianism? Kantianism? If student relativism? Bill very right.

    New question: what *is* Confucianism responsible for? ‘Moral’ responsible and ‘causal’ responsible. Perhaps an answer to this will help us evaluate Confucianism’s past no? Big problem here is big problem for this book, for Confucian Role Ethics book too. Why talk about Confucianism? Talking Confucianism makes scholar’s job very easy no? No texts can refute claim about what Confucianism means, what Confucianism does, what Confucianism is. Confucianism is no text or texts. It becomes for American scholar, for Chinese scholar, for true Confucian scholar, what flatters it. It is definitely not what unflatters it. Confucian Role Ethics book same way: No bad filial piety. Just good. Confucianism makes perfect Confucian scholars no? Scholar ostriches? But Confucianism scholars have no defense of method I think.

    Yes, small part of book. Sorry to follow this thread about such small part. The whole book sounds interesting but footbinding это ужасно. американского профессора извиниться.

    • How dare those evil American scholars quote primary sources to challenge what we right-thinking Russians know to be true!

    • That demands a reasoned response.

      What primary sources do you mean?

      Yvgeny cites a film that I suppose has quotations from footbound women tending to show that the practice was a bad thing. But based on the trailer it seems that the film interviews women who are not of the core period under discussion, which I guess is roughly the Ming Dynasty. Was footbinding the same practice six hundred years ago? (I suppose the primary evidence would be bones.) Also, for the people in the film, the expected honor and other rewards associated with footbinding were cancelled decades ago. There has been time for new perspectives to develop.

      Similarly, you cite a book I might buy that, one might have thought, would present or at least cite primary sources tending to oppose things Manyul or I or Yvgeny have said.

      Primary sources supporting what in particular? You report the following conclusions from the scholarship on footbinding, apparently thinking mainly of Ko: “many elite, literate women, i.e. who had the time and leisure to think about the question, bound their feet as a matter of pride; they certainly did not construe it as an evil imposition.”

      (I’m sure that even the minority of women who did not have footbinding imposed on them in childhood still amount to “many women,” though I wonder whether the bulk of that minority would be in the classes that were slower to come to footbinding than the literate elite.)

      On their face the Ko conclusions you report do not lean at all against

      • Manyul’s claim that Confucian philosophy offers an ethical reason to bind one’s feet or one’s children’s feet,
      • my claim that several elements of Confucian philosophy harmonize with footbinding and several oppose it, or
      • Yevgeny’s and my argument that on the assumption that footbinding was very bad, Confucianism’s long silence on it shows bad things about Confucianism, for it is a putative comprehensive guide to life.

      Still, on your urging, I have considered whether Ko’s work might be relevant to the arguments I’ve made. The remaining possible point seems to be this: whether footbinding was indeed very bad.

      As I’ve discussed earlier, those Ko conclusions you mentioned are consistent with the claim that footbinding was bad. Do you or Dorothy Ko cite primary sources (or cite secondary sources, or give arguments) to try to show that footbinding in general was not bad, or not horribly bad?

      You seem to alude to two kinds of argument on this point:

      You seem to say that modern scholarship has shown that footbinding is not bad. You write,

      We seem to be stuck on the notion that footbinding was bad and that Confucian structures are to blame for helping to perpetuate the practice. That point of view was right at home in 1919, but has been invalidated by modern scholarship.

      As someone has suggested to me in an email, you may not have meant to say that scholarship has invalidated the notion that footbinding was bad. But I was curious to see what Ko has to say on the topic of whether footbinding was bad.

      Amazon lets us read Ko’s introduction, in which she sketches her chapters, and I have also read two substantial scholarly reviews of her book. It seems to me that she simply does not argue in the book against either of the two parts of “the notion that footbinding was bad and that Confucian structures are to blame for helping [sic] to perpetuate the practice.”

      (Many or most of the people of North Korea, it seems, took pride in their Dear Leader, and sobbed with genuine emotion when he died. I’m sure we could find ample primary texts that agree. Those points don’t show that his leadership was not bad or that he was not causally and morally responsible for “helping to perpetuate” his leadership position.)

      Regarding the badness of footbinding, especially in the Ming, Ko seems hardly to address the issue. Her publisher says “Neither defending nor condemning footbinding ….”

      Amazon lets us read Ko’s sketch of her chapters in the Introduction. From what she says, it looks as though the book focuses on excesses in discussions of footbinding in the past century or so, and only one chapter looks like it might include some direct discussion of women’s experience before the last decades of the Qing. Here is her account of that chapter:

      “In contrast, female desires were concrete, lodged in a cosmology of quotidian things that they made and that made them. Chapter 6 focuses on a key item in women’s material culture – shoes – as craft, extensions of the body-self, focal point of fashion regimes, and integuments of illusion. This chapter concludes the main body of the book with a study of the rise and fall of the cult of the golden lotus [the bound foot] by way of the history of footwear fashion and shoemaking.” (p. 5)

      Here’s all I’ve been able to learn from reviews about Ko’s relevant sources:

      In a review in China Review International (Fall 2006), Paul Ropp writes,

      “Ko examines several fifteenth-century chantefables, apparently intended for a largely female audience, which emphasized the importance of footbinding as a strategy for upward mobility, and which also revealed considerable anxiety over health concerns provoked by such extreme competition in footbinding.”

      In a featured review in the American Historical Review(Oct.2007), Harriet Evans writes,

      “Ko acknowledges the difficulty of gaining access to the female subject of bound feet. A few female
      testimonies present pain as an alternative to the voice of male privilege, yet mediated by male reporting, these testimonies cannot convey an ‘authentic’ female voice. Without adequate written descriptions of women’s subjective identification in the practice, Ko turns to the material artifacts of the practice: the shoes, and bindings, the lasts and sleeping slippers, …”

      But even if we had three bits of text from the Ming in which actual women talk about advantages of footbinding that are not analogous to the advantages of choosing to hand your wallet to a mugger, and even if we didn’t have contrary primary sources, there would be problems about the significance of that evidence. Were these women representative? Did women engage in public written discussion of the practice? Who decided which texts were preserved? How should a historian weigh three texts of that kind against, say, skeletal evidence?

      The remaining way in which you might seem to argue that footbinding was not bad is based on an unstated abstract premise that looks like it might be what Yvgeny calls “student relativism”; perhaps you can articulate the premise for us now. You say, for example:

      many elite, literate women, i.e. who had the time and leisure to think about the question, bound their feet as a matter of pride; they certainly did not construe it as an evil imposition. Are we going to say that we can judge their choices better than they can? That’s Whiggish.

      I’ll set aside the possibility that your premise is student relativism, and look for an alternative reading.

      a) If your basic thought here is only a methodological one for historians – that they should not judge – then the point has no relevance to whether footbinding was bad, it only says that historians shouldn’t be thinking about that sort of question when they work. It would follow that anyone who offered a historical argument to show that footbinding was bad, or was not bad, would be indulging in methodological vice.

      b) Wikipedia says “Whig history is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy.” Perhaps your line of thought is that we should not evaluate any old practice, because to evaluate an old practice is to suppose that our standards are better because they are later. Even if that line of thought were impressive, it would again simply argue for a refusal to hold a view, rather than for the view that footbinding was not bad.

      c) Perhaps then the mention of Whiggishness is inapposite. And perhaps your real premise is – not the student relativist view that everything a culture favors in its domain is good, but – that an individual is presumptively the best judge of what is in her own interest, so that the women whose feet were bound are the best authorities on whether footbinding was bad. Spelled out, the argument would have to be something like this:

      i) On the whole, the most authoritative judge of the effect of a practice on a person’s well-being is that person herself.
      ii) If footbinding was bad, its badness was mainly limited to its effect on those whose feet were bound.
      iii) The people whose feet were bound mainly regarded their footbinding as not bad for them.
      Those three premises imply that so far as we can tell,
      iv) Footbinding was not a bad thing.

      Is that your line of thought in the passage I quoted from you, Paul?

      If not, then I would be grateful if you would present your line of thought.

      For now I’ll make some very quick comments on that argument.

      Premise (i) does not of course say that everyone is always correct about effects on their well-being; it is a relative claim that is especially relevant to the evaluation of institutions and mores that amount to general decisions about whose choices are to be determinative on various kinds of practical matter requiring timely decision, such as whether I am to smoke. That’s rather different from an idea that no time or culture can have better insight than another into the workings of cause and effect in biology, history, the possibilities of social organization, etc. I suppose there was some ancient Roman practice that put lead into people’s blood and was thereby disastrous for generations of the leaded and their neighbors; for I think our scientists know more than theirs did.

      Premise (ii) seems to overlook the point that signifcantly incapacitating half the people in a society or a class is a loss of human resources and an entrenchment of the sense that inequality is natural. There’s more to say, but I’m being quick.

      Premise (iii) is, I gather, wholly unsupported by evidence. Granted, in a few cases footbinding was in a sense self-chosen, and in those cases the choosers presumably thought at the time of choosing that the footbinding was going to be good for them overall in the long run. But again, we should distinguish between the proposition that one person’s footbinding would be good for her in a context in which it was the only path to marriage and what Rawls calls “the social bases of self-respect,” and the question whether she and people like her would have been better off in the absence of the practice.


      Yevgeny’s report of the physical details of footbinding are far grimmer than what I had been supposing. So I went to Wikipedia and found that its report is far grimmer than Yevgeny’s. Are there sources on the other side?

    • I think I miss joke in Paul Goldin’s reply to my comment. Thank you Bill for your careful reflections on issue of footbinding and on way that certain scholars treat footbinding. To treat footbound as cheerleaders for footbinding is mistake. Well-intentioned like Ko, yes, but mistake because takes away their own perspective. Manyul’s comment below about film is quite right. Very affecting. One of the women–not the one from Shanxi I think but one from Yunnan–had courage and clear-sight into her past that surprised me. No. It awed me. Because she had done away with her self-deception. How much easier for her to pretend that the good things from her life came from footbinding but she did not do this. This film very powerful. Bill your comments are very clear. You could write a scholarly article about this calling it ‘The Meta-morality of footbinding’ perhaps. This would be interesting because such an article will illightate (a) morality of footbinding with regards to issues of coercion, including complexities of first-person coercion like this but also (b) the constant feature of scholarship about footbinding that contorts the morality of footbinding like footbinding contorts feet, crushing them into unrecognizability. I think this is something that philosophers must do to clarify to historians and sinologists some methodological problems in their work. But perhaps such article they will simply not read or not reply to. Like Goldin to your post?

      In any case I feel honored that you reflected so clearly on my comments, helping me understand these issues better. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Vygeny, and thanks too for referring us to the film. Unfortunately I’m in no position to write a critique of scholarly discussions of footbinding. I’ve read almost nothing of that sort, and I haven’t read anything about Dorothy Ko’s book that leads me to think I would disagree with some of it. I simply don’t know the material she’s talking about. As for the views Paul has expressed in a few offhand blog comments, I may already have made too heavy weather of them, in the proper forum.

      A couple of days ago I got a copy of Paul’s book, and I’m reading it now. I think it’s a good book. (I agree with his purpose of trying to conceive a philosophical Confucianism that is not committed to sexism.) I hope to start a broader discussion of the book here soon.

    • Thanks for the link, Yvgeny! I’ve watched clips of this; the contrasting feelings that women had in the late and post Qing dynasty toward what they and their mothers practiced is very compelling viewing. On the one hand, they took enormous pride in their feet; on the other hand, the way they describe how they learned to appreciate the “value” of what they were doing — and for many years when younger — having it done TO them, is very moving.

      I had an interesting talk with Dorothy Ko when we invited her up to my institution last year to lecture about her work on footbinding. My sense of things is that her work helps people appreciate the complexity of women’s involvement — to ensure that we don’t simply understand the women as voiceless victims of oppression. Also, to try to make the case that the “morality” involved in the practice was a very private one, shared among women — whether or not there was a secondary involvement by men. So, for Ko, an important aspect is preserving an account of women as agents and not merely passive victims.

      She also has some issues with an unfortunate side-effect of pictures and movies that show the feet and the shoes — namely that it encourages a prurient objectification, the kind of fascination that borders on the sort of fetish that seems to have begun the practice in the first place.

  16. Paul Goldin’s book “Confucianism” surveys classical Confucianism responsibly, helpfully, and interestingly for the beginner and for the scholar. That is an extraordinarily difficult intellectual achievement. Thank you, Paul! I shall focus here mainly on questions and disagreements, partly because I hope that Paul will respond. I won’t try to cover everything in the first post.

    Manyul highlights the official account of Confucianism in the Introduction: “I shall use the term ‘Confucianism’ to refer to the philosophy of Confucius …, his disciples, and the numerous later thinkers who regarded themselves as followers of his tradition” (1). That is, Confucianism is the conjunction of the philosophical views shared by Confucius and virtually all of the self-styled followers of his tradition (or: of his teachings: 5).

    (Paul appears to take the Analects, or its first 15 books, as being for practical purposes definitive about what we may regard as the views of Confucius.)

    Does Paul mean to include any present-day people among those whose shared convictions define “Confucianism”? He very consistently uses the simple past tense to refer to Confucians in general, which is the wrong tense if some of them are extant; but I think he does not otherwise address the matter.

    Especially if the net is meant to capture today’s leading self-styled Confucians, the task of identifying the shared views would seem to be quite difficult, and one might expect the set of shared views to be weak broth.

    A few pages on, Paul writes (5f.; spatial formatting added):

    “It is an overreaction to deny that ‘Confucianism’ can be usefully employed as a designation of a certain philosophical orientation. All Confucians shared a set of basic convictions:

    (i) human beings are born with the capacity to develop morally;

    (ii) moral development begins with moral self-cultivation, that is, reflection on one’s own behavior and concerted improvement where it is found lacking;

    (iii) by perfecting oneself in this manner, one also contributes to the project of perfecting the world;

    (iv) there were people in the past who perfected themselves, and then presided over an unsurpassably harmonious society – these people are called “sages”….

    all [Confucians] accepted that we can and must [engage in moral self-cultivation] and that it is a task of utmost urgency.”

    I am grateful for this list. A few times here at WW&W I’ve asked people what they meant by “Confucianism” in contexts where it made a big difference to the proposal at issue, and I don’t recall ever receiving a reply in the form of a list of core beliefs and/or practices. Giving such an account takes guts and is a real service, no matter whether it is correct or just a good start for debate.

    Clearly Paul’s aim here is not to give an account of the views that are distinctive of Confucianism. He doesn’t omit a point just because non-Confucians believe it too. The idea that all humans start out with a capacity for moral improvement is held by almost everyone, and I suppose most people think that deliberate self-improvement is important and plays a central role in improvement, and that virtue has some tendency to rub off on others and otherwise benefit them. Perhaps most followers of major religions believe that there were people in the past who perfected themselves.

    The claim that might be somewhat distinctive of Confucianism is the second half of point (iv). Later I shall argue that it ought to be dropped from the list. Anyway this claim may be of little practical importance, as it is a claim about past events of a kind most Confucians saw as being very distant and very rare.

    The presentation clearly signals that the five points are proposed as the shared basic convictions, i.e. that the list aims to be complete in some sense; that it explicates “Confucianism” as a philosophical orientation. But I wonder if that is anything like what Paul meant. For what is most immediately striking about the list is that it seems to say nothing about how we should live or what we should do (except that in order to live as we should, we should work hard at doing so more). There is no mention of rén or yì, zhōng or shù, reverence or respect, ritual or ceremoniousness, good faith, courage, filiality, fraternity, study, the Classics, literature, music, or feudalism; and the project of improving the world is mentioned only as something that morality contributes to as a side-effect, not as a project we ought to have. If someone who claimed to be a follower mainly of Confucius accepted this latter Slew of Values and explicitly rejected all of the Five Basic Convictions, would it ever cross our mind to doubt that she is a Confucian?

    Elsewhere in the book Paul gives more practical content to “Confucianism.” He says that shù 恕 is the cornerstone of “Confucian ethics” (15, 17), and he speaks of “the Confucian understanding” of filial piety (e.g. 36). On the other hand, it is possible that in some of these places he is simply using ‘Confucan’ to mean “Confucius’s” (cf. 30, 117).

    Conceivably Paul did not include anything from the Slew of Values because he thinks they are in some sense not basic. But offhand it seems to me easier to arrive at most of the Five on the basis of most of the Slew than vice versa, but there is room for debate.

    One might argue in another way that the list has practical content. The list speaks of ‘morality’, and the fifth point is that it is urgent that we make ourselves as moral as we can. Now, if moral requirements are real, then arguably ‘morality’ is their name, and arguably we have at least a vague idea what they are. For example, they would seem to involve care and respect for people, and lean more toward honesty than dishonesty. The fifth point would thus imply that Confucians think it urgent that we be somewhat caring, respectful, and honest, if we are not already. – – But I wonder whether Paul shares this conception of the word ‘moral’, or expects readers who come to the book to begin to find out about Confucianism to read it that way.

    Whether or not the list is intended as complete, I think that by itself it does not support the claim that ‘Confucianism’ is a useful name for a philosophy – depending of course on how we interpret it. With one exception, even collectively the views do not seem distinctive of Confuicanism; they seem virtually empty of practical content; and the one point that looks distinctive seems somewhat removed from practical relevance, and seems better classified as a point of history rather than philosophy.

    Here are some thoughts on the particular five basic convictions.

    (i) human beings are born with the capacity to develop morally

    It seems to me that the main textual evidence in the Analects that Confucius held this view is one brief and cryptic remark, 17.2 – “Nature: close to each other; practice: distant from each other” — in a book that Paul in one place calls “spurious” (14). Perhaps the remark was about every individual; but perhaps instead it was about every male (because one doesn’t think of women); or perhaps it was a comparison of Confucius’ students, or a comparison of the people of different regions (with no implications about the capacities of peasants as such, or women, etc.). Perhaps it was about morality; or perhaps instead it was about diversity of ritual or culture, or about skill in general, or wisdom, or physique. Or perhaps the thought was that when natures are similar, different practices can make a difference.

    Still, (i) seems like an extremely modest view, as it says nothing about how much development we are naturally capable of. Has there ever been anyone who rejected it?

    If what Paul meant instead was the view that we are all born able to become perfect, then (i) should probably be dropped from the list on grounds that the view is inadequately evidenced in the Analects. Indeed, easily counterbalancing the inconclusive 17.2 are passages that may suggest significant inborn moral differences (6.18, 8.9, 16.9, 17.3, 17.25), and others that may suggest that a rare gift from Heaven was important for Confucius’ own moral achievement (7.23, 9.5; cf. 3.9, 9.6). (Paul says later that Confucius thought “ordinary people cannot ever hope to match” the perfection of sages as they can hope to become rén 仁 (18). But perhaps Paul only means that once we become ordinary we have lost our chance.)

    (ii) moral development begins with moral self-cultivation, that is, reflection on one’s own behavior and concerted improvement where it is found lacking

    I find myself inclined to doubt that Confucius or his disciples or Mengzi held this view. But I am not yet prepared to discuss those doubts, for a prior matter is that it is highly unclear what (ii) means. I have five questions:

    1. Should (ii) be understood to deny that moral development begins with filiality and fraternity – that our natural filiality and fraternity tend to sensitize us to others and train our skills of attention, improving us before we start aiming at improvement?

    2. Should (ii) be understood to deny that simply following our parents’ concrete rules and instructions (or the rules of ritual) can support our development and deliver us from temptation even if we are not aiming at moral improvement?

    3. Should (ii) be understood to deny that early kind treatment by parents and others naturally makes us more trusting and loving, even if we are not working at self-improvement?

    4. Is (ii) saying that moral improvement begins with our working at being moral? That is, to engage in the relevant kind of self-cultivation, must we be aiming specifically at being more moral? Must we first grasp morality in general?

    5. It is unclear to me how (ii) fails to conflict with this passage from the Great Learning (translated on p. 32):

    “… desiring to cultivate themselves, they first rectified their hearts; desiring to rectify their hearts, they first made their intentions sincere; desiring to make their intentions sincere, they first brought about knowledge. Bringing about knowledge lies in investigating things. After things are investigated, … after knowledge comes about … after one makes one’s intentions sincere … after one’s heart is rectified, one cultivates oneself; ….”

    Perhaps Paul’s thought is that the preliminaries to cultivation do not themselves involve or directly bring any moral improvement. But if morality asks us to perform those preliminaries, then doing so would seem to constitute a moral improvement; anyway some of them look on their face like moral improvements. Perhaps instead Paul’s assumption is that the Great Learning can’t be serious about the order. Or perhaps by “cultivation” Paul means something quite different from what the Great Learning means by it. (Perhaps, for example, he counts the prior steps as part of what he means by “self-cultivation,” precisely because they are necessary preliminaries to what the classic calls “self-cultivation”; so that it if we use the term in that ancient sense, we should state (ii) as the view that moral development begins with whatever self-cultivation begins with.)

    (iii) by perfecting oneself in this manner, one also contributes to the project of perfecting the world

    I am not sure whether “perfecting oneself in this manner” here means making oneself better or making oneself perfect. Read in the former way, the claim would apply to almost everyone; read in the latter way it would apply to almost nobody. Still, the principle of the thing looks pretty much the same in either case.

    (iii) does not recommend the project of improving the world; it does not say we should all have that as one of our projects, or that the best people will, or that anyone should aim at improving the world in any other way than by aiming at a moral virtue that does not otherwise involve such a project (cf. LY 7.15). But perhaps Paul meant to suggest that we should.

    (iv) there were people in the past who perfected themselves, and then presided over an unsurpassably harmonious society – these people are called “sages”…

    The reader who needs to be told will read (iv) as saying that “sage” means a self-perfected person who then presides over a harmonious society. But I suppose most Confucians have thought that the greatest one or two sages did not preside over harmonious societies.

    I am surprised to find the second half of (iv) on the list. It seems like a historical rather than a philosophical view, and in some sense a small point. I imagine that on the whole it is not accepted by today’s leading Confucians, but I am largely unfamiliar with their work. Including the point has the effect of making “Confucianism” a non-starter today almost by definition. Even the idea that it would be a good thing for one person to “preside over” a whole society may now be a non-starter; but I think this point has a far better claim to be called part of “Confucianism.”

    Come to think of it, I wonder whether leading present-day Confucians believe in complete moral perfection even as a conceptual possibility. Can anyone tell us?

    (Mengzi may not have thought sages as such are perfect. Sages sometimes commit errors: 2B9. There have been a number of sages, and Confucius was greater than the rest: 2A2. There seems to be a level above mere “sage”: 7B25. But these are quibbles.)

    all [Confucians] accepted that we can and must [engage in moral self-cultivation] and that it is a task of utmost urgency.”

    I am inclined to agree about including this point, aside from quibbles about “utmost” and about whether all Confucians think the point applies even to sages or even under excellence social conditions.

    • If it were possible to “Like” comments, I would this one, Bill. I also in fact like it. (FYI, my full review will come out in Dao 11.2, some time this summer, I imagine.)

      With regard to iv, I also don’t see how, historically, belief in the sage kings of the past would have been particularly Confucian. Look at the Mohists, for example. Just as Confucianism shouldn’t stand in for the fantasy of monolithic Chinese culture, neither should it comprise all of Warring States culture.

    • You could add an addendum to the OP saying that general discussion of the book starts at Comment #17 … 🙂

  17. Thanks Manyul! I’m looking forward to your review. Here’s a further thought.

    Paul’s list of five basic convictions in Confucianism has an elegant unity, in that its points center on two main ideas: “morality” and “perfection” – or on the one idea, “moral perfection.” But I wonder about the extent to which this is idea was shared by Confucius. There is at least some prima facie reason to suspect that the very idea may be profoundly at odds with Confucius’ views.

    I don’t have an opinion yet about whether he actually did hold this idea, or about whether there is significant evidence either way; I haven’t thought about this question before today, nor read the Analects with the question in mind, or indeed read the Analects recently, so maybe this elaborate comment has an easy and obvious answer. Here I’ll just set out the prima facie reason to wonder.

    The following oversimple view is familiar in the West: Morality has two parts. One part consists of fairly clear rules (e.g. don’t kill people, don’t steal) that can and should be completely obeyed, and that can be associated with the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Some of these rules may be associated with particular offices or positions, e.g. a borrower must return what she borrowed, and a captain must go down with the ship. The other part of morality consists of what might be called scalar values, and are more properly associated with such words as ‘bad’ and ‘better’ and ‘good’ and ‘excellent’. Examples might include virtues, like rén, wisdom, or courage; or other things like moral self-cultivation, working for peace, or succeeding in benefitting others. The more of the scalar things you do the better, other things being equal, and there may be no such thing as doing them completely or all the way.

    At first glance the notion of moral perfection or flawlessness is more at home in the former part of morality; or in morality conceived on the model of that part. Here are three reasons. (1) We tend to find clear rules plausibly obligatory only when they are not beyond most relevant people’s powers to obey completely. (2) Also, human society seems to need a groundwork of clear rules to ground security, peace and cooperation, rules we can pretty much count on people to obey; and the analogous point is true on a smaller scale, e.g. in any particular organization. So it is common (if perhaps fallacious) to think of the rule part of morality as the elementary part, the part for total obedience; and the scalar part of morality as the proper focus for high aspiration. (3) Perhaps most importantly, complete obedience to any attractive set of rules is pretty much guaranteed to be conceptually possible, i.e. conceivable. In setting out the rules, one is automatically describing complete obedience, i.e. perfection by those standards. Nothing of the sort is true for scalar values. There is nothing unusual about holding a scalar value such that the idea of complete success or perfection is just as nonsensical as the idea of the greatest whole number. Hence one might well associate the idea of scalar morality, or high moral aspiration, with the rejection of the very idea of moral perfection.

    It is popular recently to associate Confucianism, or at least Confucius, with “virtue ethics,” which is naturally associated with scalar values (better/worse rather than right/wrong), and with conceiving the whole of morality on the model of the scalar part. For that reason alone I think we should be careful about attributing the idea of moral perfection to Confucius and to Confucianism in general.

    Not that a scalar moralist can’t believe in perfection. Indeed, virtue theory is sometimes associated with a natural teleology whereby morality is thought to be about trying to realize some ideal form for our species, or something like that, as Aristotle and Mengzi seem to have thought; and this view makes prima facie sense of the idea of moral perfection, at least in the abstract.

    Still, even that kind of view can have difficulty with the idea of perfection. Think of the idea of actually drawing a perfectly straight or perfectly circular line, with pencil on paper. On the one hand there is in some sense a clear concept of perfection, and it is intelligible to aim at those perfections in our drawing. Those are the targets we should have our mental eyes on, not the drawing of an only slightly wiggly line. On the other hand, we just as readily grant that achieving such perfection is utterly impossible for anyone, even with compass and square. (I guess the image 不逾距 from LY 2.4 is not about ideals or models, but about boundaries that one can stay well within, as one may obey clear rules.)

    The drawing problem arises from a tension between the ideals and the matter. Aristotle was troubled by a similar tension, I think, between his abstract ideals (the contemplative knower, e.g. God) and the limitations of the human species qua matter for that form. More familiarly, he may never have resolved the deep tension among his picture of individual perfection, his notion of humanity as an essentially social species (almost like bees), and his picture of a community’s perfection. Off the top of my head I don’t recall what signs there might be of either sort of tension in the Analects. I imagine Bryan Van Norden must have discussed such things in his book Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, but I forget.

    There is, however, a different sort of potential tension in the Analects that arises from a lack: Confucius seems to have lacked a term equivalent to our ‘morality’ (and most of what he says in the Analects may be specifically about the vocation of public service or even the role of ruler rather than about norms applicable across the board). I think he may pretty much have the idea of morality anyway, and I’ve argued in print that he does. But if we find him talking about perfection in one or another part or aspect of what we call morality, we can’t simply infer that he has thought of moral perfection. For one thing, moral perfection might involve trade-offs, a balance among morality’s parts; e.g. one might think morality counsels the occasional lie. For another thing, even if there is perfection in one part of morality, there may be another part of morality regarding which perfection makes no sense.

    So: is the idea of moral perfection evidenced in or alien to the Analects? Anyone?

    • ( Old Business: I was very obscure in Comment #18 just above, points (1) and (2) of the paragraph “At first glance, ….” My little thought was only that when we think of the rule part or model of morality, we commonly think of complete obedience as being well within the reach of the ordinary relevant people, so that a focus on this part or model of morality would encourage and suit the very idea of a completeness or perfection in morality, or moral perfection if we conceive all of morality by that model. )


      I’ve read through Books 1-15 of the Analects looking for material on perfection; this is my report. It’s always great fun to read the Analects looking for something one hasn’t looked for before!

      If Confucius had the concept of moral perfection, it wasn’t the sort of thing he emphasized or focused on. His followers’ conspicuous deep puzzlement about how to conceive e.g. rén (9.11) strongly suggests that he was not interested in articulating standards of perfection. He was much more concerned with identifying what was important (for his interlocutor) to focus on for practical purposes; what is good enough. For example: 1.5 “The Master said, ‘To lead a country of ten thousand chariots: respect the tasks and be trustworthy; be frugal in expenditure and care for people; and call upon the people only in the proper seasons.’” Similarly e.g. 1.6, 2.17, 4.20, 6.8, 12.6, 12.7, 13.17, 13.19, 14.12; cf. 5.1, 5.8, 13.20-1, and 1.1.

      I haven’t found any persuasive sign that Confucius had the concept of moral perfection; I’ve found some signs that he had a different view. Here are the passages that seem closest to evidencing the idea of moral perfection, and some comments.

      9.22: “The Master said, ‘There are cases in which the blade springs, but the plant does not go on to flower! There are cases where it flowers but no fruit is subsequently produced!’”

      The image suggests a natural teleology and hence perhaps a concept of human perfection, which one might identify with moral perfection. But the absence of other passages making a similar suggestion is compelling reason to think that this was not Confucius’ framework.

      11.16 “… Shi oversteps, and Shang doesn’t go far enough … one is as bad as the other.”

      If one thinks virtue is a point simply between two other achievable points on an otherwise conceivable scale, that amounts to the idea that there is such a thing as moral perfection (at least as a theoretical ideal). But the absence of other passages suggesting a similar view is compelling reason to think that this was not Confucius’ framework.

      4.3 “The Master said, “If the will be set on virtue, there will be no practice of wickedness (無惡).” (Legge’s translation)

      2.4 “…After seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without stepping over (踰) the line.”

      How high a standard is the line he is referring to? We aren’t told. Confucius did often point out that he had flaws and limitations (5.9, 5.28, 7.17, 7.22, 9.8, 14.28); but we do not know how old he was when he said those things. (Confucian readers: if you think he was perfect during much of the time he taught, you must think that humility constrained him to deny it; so you must think the standard he articulates at the end of 2.4 is not perfection.)

      6.27 “The Master said, ‘The superior man, extensively studying all learning, and keeping himself under the restraint of the rules of propriety, may thus likewise not overstep what is right (可以弗畔).’” (Legge)
      12.15: “The Master said, ‘By extensively studying all learning, and keeping himself under the restraint of the rules of propriety, one may thus likewise not err from what is right (可以弗畔).’” (Legge)

      I submit that in these passages and 2.4, the image of the line or boundary-marker refers to a distinction between right and wrong actions, or recognizably right and wrong actions, rather than perfection vs. imperfection of character or desire. I suspect that the image of not stepping over the line is supposed to sound modest.

      8.1: “The Master said, ‘Tai Bo may be said to have reached the highest point of virtuous action (至德). Thrice he declined the kingdom, and the people in ignorance of his motives could not express their approbation of his conduct.’”

      The translation is redundant in a way; the word for “reached” does double duty as “highest point of.” The root image of arrival is operative here, and inherently suppresses the idea of levels of virtue, i.e. the idea of going farther than arriving at virtue at all. Perhaps we should render the phrase as “got all the way to virtue” or “really arrived at virtue”? The thought may simply be that Tai Bo’s virtue was a good solid example of virtue. “Tai Bo – now that’s virtue.”

      8.21: “The Master said, ‘I can find no flaw in the character of Yu (吾無間然矣). He used himself coarse food and drink, but displayed the utmost filial piety towards the spirits. His ordinary garments were poor, but he displayed the utmost elegance in his sacrificial cap and apron. He lived in a low, mean house, but expended all his strength on the ditches and water channels. I can find nothing like a flaw in Yü.” (Legge)

      It’s not clear to me that the point is that Yu has no imperfection of character. I submit that what is meant is Confucius sees nothing to point out as a problem.

      8.19: “The Master said, ‘Grand indeed was Yao as a sovereign! How majestic was he! It is only Heaven that is great (大), and only Yao corresponded to it (則之). How vast was his virtue! The people could find no name for it. How majestic was he in the works which he accomplished! How glorious in the elegant regulations which he instituted!’” (Legge modified)

      This last passage suggests that Yao was distinctly greater than both Tai Bo and Yu, so that Confucius seems not to have thought of these two as having reached the pinnacle.

      Further, in 8.19 Confucius seems also to be emphasizing that on the scale on which Yao is great, there is something greater than all human beings. The suggestion seems to be be that all human beings are born incapable of the highest greatness. So if the highest greatness is moral perfection, all humans are born incapable of moral perfection. Or at least, no sages to date have been morally perfect.

      Further, the image used to represent greatness is largeness (大), and this image does not even suggest the concept of perfection. To people accustomed to abstraction, this image vividly suggests ruling out the concept of perfection. Of course, we would need more evidence than that to prove that Confucius did not have the idea of moral perfection.

      Indeed what Confucius means by greatness here may differ from morality in being broader: possibly including things that arguably do not fall within the scope of what we mean by the word ‘morality’ (when we try to report Confucius’ views): certain talents and skills, for example, or knowledge, or success in generating good results. If that is so, i.e. if Confucius operates with a comprehensive concept of greatness that does not quite fit the topic we mean by ‘morality’, then it calls into further question the idea that phrases elsewhere that do not specifically mention morality or any other particular realm – e.g. “stepping over the line” or “going too far is as bad as falling short”– are about morality rather than about something a little different.

  18. Ok, I’ll bite. My own sense is that the Analects eschews perfection as an aim. I’m afraid explaining that sense here would be difficult, but here’s a short (and inevitably loose and probably sloppy) version. My reading of the text is exemplarist so I think the most salient piece of information about this is not the claims Confucius makes, but the way he is and how the text presents him. Even without an exemplarist reading, however, I think positing an aim for moral learning that Confucius himself fails to fulfill likely problematic in reading the Analects. Put another way, if the Analects endorsed perfection as an aim, I’d expect it to present Confucius as perfect. But he’s not only not perfect, he’s not presented as such. He’s sometimes tetchy, cutting, irritable, snobbish, etc. And readings that would try to square such episodic moods or responses with perfection tend, I think, to strain credulity. A more parsimonious reading is just that Confucius is not perfect, not seen as such, and that in itself is perhaps interesting and not incidental to the effect he has on others.

    My own sense it that his imperfections play a role in the sorts of empathic identification with him that are possible and thus with motivating emulation. The analogy I use for this is our appreciation of musical performance that falls below a standard of correctness and technical flawlessness. Virtuosi are not such because they do not err, nor even in spite of their errors, but because of how their errors may contribute to appreciation of the craft in general and their mastery in particular. At the very least, it’s striking that the Analects does include much in its portrayal of Confucius that defies a perfection reading of him and indeed indicates episodic errors. I take the inclusion of such elements of Confucius to indicate that these are not only “facts” about him but are seen as somehow meaningful and salient to appreciating him qua exemplar.

    I’m sure that’s too thin an explanation to be satisfying but, for what it’s worth, I make a much more elaborate version of this argument in a chapter on Confucius in my new book. There I try to hone in on how the errors work to the favor of admiration.

  19. If I understand correctly, Paul’s explicit approach to defining Confucianism is to define it as comprising the views shared by Confucius and his (pre-modern?) self-styled followers.

    That seems a sensible general definition. If one wants to use ‘Confucianism’ as the name of an Ism, a philosophical orientation, one cannot at the same time use it as the name of a tradition, unless one identifies the tradition with a specific set of views (or methods). But it seems to me that there are two serious problems with Paul’s general definition.


    We may determine that some ideas at the core of the tradition, and attributed to Confucius by all or most of the tradition after him, may not have been Confucius’ views at all. If the long tradition was built around views incorrectly ascribed to Confucius, then Paul’s approach to defining “Confucianism” is seriously misleading, especially in a short book for beginners.

    Here are some candidate cases; are there more please?

    (1) Moral perfection. Another thread now continues the discussion, begun in #18 above, of whether the evidence in the Analects indicates that Confucius did or did not have that idea:
    Steve Angle there affirms Paul’s view that the notion of moral perfection was a focal idea for Confucianism at least after Confucius.

    (2) The foundational role of filial piety (and fraternity), as spelled out by Youzi in Analects 1.2.

    It is interesting to observe the trajectory of the role of Youzi’s various statements in presentations of Confucius’ views. Many leading late-twentieth century surveys of Confucius’ or early Chinese philosophy foregrounded Youzi’s words but introduced them with “Confucius said” (e.g. Graham, Hall&Ames, Hansen, Schwartz, and Shun). Another common device was “it is said in the Analects,” slipped in among a series of Confucius-saids. Both practices began to wane around the beginning of the new century (though they appear in important books of 2005 and 2007, respectively), sometimes in favor of simply avoiding the issues. Paul never refers to Youzi or to any of his recorded statements, though he seems to read 13.18, about how uprightness lies in sons and fathers covering up for each other, as reflecting or even emphasizing the view that “moral development begins in the family and only then radiates outwards to the rest of the world (as Mencius, again, would emphasize). Moral influence cannot be turned in the other direction” (28).

    (3) The philosophical authority of certain Classics, and whatever specially follows from that? (See Comment #7 above from Justice & Mercy.)


    Consider this simple-minded question: doesn’t Paul’s approach firmly imply that Confucianism properly defined includes the view that the sky is blue? Along with any other viewpoints or orientations that were virtually universal in premodern China, such as a high degree of sexism may have been?

    Suppose we don’t want to include those two views in our account of Confucianism. How can we amend Paul’s criterion for inclusion of views, so that it doesn’t automatically include those two as integral parts of Confucianism?

    (1) We might add that the views must be shared by all and only self-styled followers of Confucius. But that won’t do; for example, it rules out virtually all of Paul’s account of Confucianism.

    (2) We might add instead that the views must be regarded (by Confucians other than Confucius) as having come from Confucius, in some sense. But what sense? (a) That they were first discovered or articulated by Confucius? Surely not! (b) That they are explicit in records of Confucius’ views? Then the longevity of pines would be included. (c) That the self-styled followers believe them because Confucius did? That would seem to exclude any view for which Confucians have thought adequate independent grounds are available, or any view that was imprinted on them by Heaven.

    (3) We might add instead that the views must be philosophical. What that means depends on what we mean by ‘philosophy’. Some of us may regard it not as the name of a kind of topic, but rather as a name of a kind of method or way of thinking, and perhaps one not at all characteristic of Confucius or even his self-styled followers. Or for those who think that e.g. physics once fell within philosophy but then left the nest when we became less confused about it, there will be a question about this third proposed amendment: “Views that are philosophical when and where ?”

    (4) We might separately identify the main topics that Confucius and those who claim to follow him have focused on, and require that the views be on those topics. This approach might get rid of the view that the sky is blue (yes?), but preserve within “Confucianism” the view that women are lesser beings than men and should on the whole be ruled by men.

    (5) Perhaps in conjunction with some other sorting standard, we might give a view some extra points toward being part of “Confucianism” if Confucians regarded it as the ground or basis of other views that we count as Confucian. But this standard may be unworkable insofar as Confucians have not been careful about what is the basis of what. Specifically, it may be unworkable insofar as Confucians have emphasized intution and authority, and hence not focused on structures of derivation or justification except as an occasional hyperbolic rhetorical trope. Indeed, Confucius seems to stress both tradition and empiricism in practical thought about how to live, so that arguably the fundamentals for him are simply a myriad of experiences, observations, and records. And he may be quite right about that.

  20. A word or two about what I meant by “perfecting oneself.”

    First, it is a process, and Confucians, starting with Confucius himself, emphasized the process rather than the result. The Analects are not about what happens when you have perfected yourself, but about how you move in that direction. Doubtless this is because Confucius and his editors thought most people hadn’t even begun to move in that direction, and thus the first order of business was to arouse them.

    Now I do believe that sages were regarded as great human beings of the past who had perfected themselves, but I don’t mean perfection in, say, a Christian or mathematical sense. In other words, in response to the concerns voiced by Amy Olberding, the Analects CANNOT portray Confucius as “perfect” because that would undermine the very purpose of the book, which is to get people to start thinking about their moral obligations on their own terms and in their own circumstances. The text never presents models to be aped uncritically. This Confucian sort of perfection lies in responding thoughtfully and blamelessly to every situation that chance and fate should throw one’s way. Mencius’s comments on Shun are a very good example. Of course Confucian students are supposed to understand that learning from Shun does not mean acting precisely as Shun did, because they are never going to face exactly the same situations that Shun did. It means imagining how Shun might have acted in THEIR circumstances, and then having the fortitude to do it oneself.

    I am not shy about calling this process “perfection” for two reasons. First, I am not primarily concerned with the question of whether any of these ideas are appealing today. There are already (too) many people who talk about the viability of Confucianism in the modern world. Rather, my task in this book is to describe Confucianism for what it was in ancient times, and I do not seriously doubt that ancient Confucians regarded their sages as perfect exemplars. They believed all kinds of things that most people today do not take seriously. They believed in ghosts and spirits. It would be fraudulent to try to misrepresent this.

    Second, there is a good classical Chinese word for “self-perfection,” namely cheng 誠. The most influential discussion is in Zhongyong, of course. Cheng did not mean “sincerity,” as it is so irritatingly translated today. It is the same word as cheng 成, marked graphically with the speech radical so as to signal its special philosophical connotations. It means “to complete.” You’re born as you are, with unfulfilled potential and capacity, and your task in life is to complete yourself. This is very close to perficere, the Latin source of our word “perfection.”

    • Paul, would it be fair to say then that by “perfection,” you want to indicate blameless but not flawless? If so, I wonder if you could say more about that since it seems really intriguing.

      I’m a little uncertain about what you mean about the purposes of the Analects barring the presentation of Confucius as perfect. What’s the force of the “CANNOT” here with respect to any judgment about Confucius the text’s authors will have drawn? Do you mean that they cannot because Confucius is not perfect, in the relevant sense? Or is it that an affirmative judgment is suppressed for pedagogical purposes (i.e., Confucius is thought perfect but this is withheld as pedagogically inconvenient or impotent)? I suppose I think it hermeneutically strained to infer that they would have laudatory judgments about Confucius they’d actively suppress, but I take it that’s not what you intend. So too, I’d think it odd if they advocate perfecting oneself but draw no conclusions about Confucius’ own “success” on this score.

      More generally, I also wonder what premises inform the claim that perfect models would undermine motivation for moral learners. If perfection here is more nuanced than the mathematical analogy would suggest, the problem of positing an unattainable goal has less far less traction. The more that perfection incorporates practical judgment amidst the vagaries of fate and circumstance, the more difficult it becomes to see why perfect models would undermine motivation for learners or be less efficacious. No emulation-based pedagogy is going to endorse “uncritically aping,” but the room for learners to make this naïve equivalency shrinks the more perfection is hooked to the particular life circumstances and judgments of the model. I.e., if the Analects authors have the view of perfection you suggest, why would they be wary of identifying models as perfect?

  21. For the same reason that Confucius takes care never to answer questions about ren 仁 straightforwardly. Probably the most basic goal of the book is not to tell you what morality is, but to get you to embark on moral reasoning yourself; and indeed providing ready-made rules or models to follow is regarded as undermining that goal. If Confucius provides you with all the “answers,” you won’t have to think about anything for yourself, and for Confucians there is no morality if you haven’t made your own judgments based on your own reasoning. Shun might be a paragon, but if you just imitate his actions, you won’t be a paragon yourself, because Shun’s actions were the result of his responses to his own situations–and your situations aren’t going to be the same as Shun’s.

    The same logic applies to the Confucius of the Analects. (Remember that we are reading a portrayal of Confucius that his disciples, if not the disciples of his disciples, wanted us to see; we are not necessarily seeing Confucius as he himself would have wanted us to see him.) He can’t be portrayed as “perfect” in the sense that all we’d have to do in order to equal him is repeat his actions. He has emotional peccadilloes because he is human, just as we are. If he were anything other than human, his experience would be useless to us.

  22. Just to make sure I understand, you’re claiming that the Analects self-consciously eschews proposing models for emulation? And that this issues from the authors’ commitment that emulation (prima facie?) supplants the development of judgment and (inevitably?) devolves into thoughtless efforts to imitate?

    If that’s a fair representation of the view, why would we conclude that the Analects’ authors have these commitments, that they’d see “ready-made rules” and “models” as functionally synonymous in their impotence to direct thinking for oneself? The view itself seems somewhat odd. Rules and models are quite different, in part precisely because the latter are quite difficult to treat as “ready-made” as any kind of guide for conduct. Critiques of emulation-based pedagogy often come from the direction of thinking it can provide little guidance rather than a worry that it provides *too much* and is too directive. That is, models don’t readily work as “answers” because, as you said, life circumstances are too variable.

    Put simply, I have no trouble with accepting that thinking for oneself is endorsed in the text; it’s the further conclusion emulation of models is inconsistent with or actively inhibits thinking for oneself that seems in need of additional justification. These are two distinct points and can’t be folded together without more argument, I think. And the argument can’t just be that emulation is (as some sort of given?) inevitably crude formulaic imitation synonymous with rule-following. So too, even if the case can be made that thinking for oneself and emulation are inconsistent, I’m not sure what evidence we have that the Analects’ authors would have thought so. (Even if you think they eschew proffering models, you’d need some evidence that this is the reason for it.)

  23. (I wrote this reply to Paul’s #22 before seeing anything below it.)

    Hi Paul,

    Thank you for this very helpful reply. I think it may successfully dispose of my entire objection in and under Comment #18, about the idea of moral perfection in the Analects – depending on exactly what you’re saying, and I’m not sure exactly what you’re saying.

    Part of your point might be to say that “to perfect oneself” sometimes means (a) “to improve oneself”; it doesn’t always mean (b) “to improve oneself all the way”; and thus to answer Yes to my question above whether (a) is what you meant in Point (iii) of your summary of Confucianism. I gather that in this comment you use the phrase always in sense (b).

    But part of your point seems to be that what you have in mind by being “perfect” or excellent is itself only a process; that is, it isn’t a state of changelessness such as we see in the Christian or Aristotelian god or some versions of nirvana (which aren’t mainly about morality anyway, I think).

    This point, I think, goes without saying. Moral perfection, if there is such a thing, in any conception that one could imagine might be relevant to the Analects, is about how we engage in varied activity in the world. I wonder whether your list of five basic convictions might better articulate what you meant if, instead of speaking of perfecting oneself and of having perfected oneself, it spoke rather of self-improvement and of surpassing excellence. In that way it would have no implications about whether moral goodness has an inherent limit or conceptual maximum, and so would neatly sidestep my whole objection that Confucius may not have had or emphasized the idea of human moral perfection.

    There might still be a problem about later Confucians wrongly reading an idea of perfection into Confucius; I wouldn’t know. And without the specific idea of perfection, the five basic convictions look look less distinctive and less unified.

    You seem perhaps to be saying something further: that the process that is perfectness is the same process as the process of self-perfecting, so that there is in a way no difference between senses (a) and (b). That is, as you mean the term, being perfect is the same thing as fully engaging in the process of moving toward being perfect. The suggestion would seem to be that being more or less morally good is the same thing as doing more or less self-cultivation. Is that the idea?

    On the one hand, there’s much to be said for this view. Moral perfection is being and doing the morally best possible. It is natural enough to think this means simply doing the best you can do; and it’s natural enough to understand this as precisely trying one’s hardest, including thinking one’s hardest, about what to do and how to be.

    On the other hand, the idea that moral goodness and moral self-cultivation are the same thing seems highly problematic.
    (a) One wonders whether it involves a vicious circle:
    —Mommy, what is it to be morally good?
    —Dear, it’s precisely this: to work at being more so.
    (b) The idea certainly implies that moral self-cultivation does not involve moral improvement: that my moral improvement doesn’t depend on how much self-cultivation I do. Instead, it depends on how much I change my degree of self-cultivation. If I self-cultivate for a week or a year, pedal to the metal, I can’t be improving at all, for I’m perfect the whole time. (Similarly, the idea would imply that if there is such a thing as negative self-cultivation – self-dismantling, say, identical to moral badness – then a person who spends a week dismantling herself, quickly but with gradual deceleration, would be constantly improving morally on the whole: becoming less bad.)

    If your thought is not (3), but rather only that many activities characteristic of self-cultivation, such as being thoughtful, are important parts of the process that constitutes moral excellence for humans, so that they are parts of human perfectness if there is such a thing, then I agree with you. Also I think that’s a pretty mainstream version of (2). Also I agree with you that Amy’s argument here works better if that thought isn’t right. It’s harder for Confucius to display the activities characteristic of self-improvement if he doesn’t need improving.

    But I’m not sure what you’re saying about Shun. The image I had got from the passages in the Mencius was not of a careful deliberator, but rather of someone who hardly needs to deliberate, because he already has stable preferences that address the gravest dilemmas. Situations that we think of as the stuff of tragedy barely give him pause, and they leave no moral scars. Anyway I suppose that if Mencius intended to present Shun as an exemplar of moral thinking, the kind of thinking Mencius envisioned him as displaying was not the sort you seem suggest: asking oneself what some sage would have done. I am not sure what you have in mind.

  24. Hi Amy, I’m excited to learn of your book!

    As my roots are in Western philosophy, I am a little surprised by the idea that having one’s moral views and teaching informed by the concept of moral perfection would entail being perfect, or claiming to be perfect, or being regarded by one’s students as perfect. Is it your thought that if I happen to think there is such a thing as moral perfection, and/or that we ought to aim at it, I oughtn’t to teach unless I think I’m perfect?

    Might one be a working exemplarist by directing people’s attention not mainly to oneself but rather to other impressive figures?

    Perhaps in Confucius’ day there was not yet a tradition about what it is to be a moral teacher. Paul says Confucius was the first ritual expert to bring morality into the business in a big way. But I suppose an expert on ritual would have been expected to abide fully by his own rules, even more than would a putative expert on morality – unless one thinks of ritual not as a code of rules but as something like musicianship. A music teacher/critc needn’t claim to be the alpha and omega of virtuosity. Also there were many rituals that even an official expert had no standing to perform.

    On the other hand, arguably in general someone who offers to teach something is someone who does that thing; the idea of mere theory hadn’t yet come in.

    Even without an exemplarist reading, however, I think positing an aim for moral learning that Confucius himself fails to fulfill likely problematic in reading the Analects.

    But Confucius does seem to posit the aim of 仁 (Book 4) and claim not to be 仁 (14.28), and he does seem to say that he is not finished learning (7.17).

    When Confucius says to Zigong in 5.9 that neither of them is as good as Yan Hui, is he not encouraging Zigong to aim at improvement in that direction?

    When Confucius says in 5.28 that every hamlet has people who go at least as far as he in respect of 忠 and 信, should we infer that one should not aim higher?

    When Confucius says in 7.22 that when three people are walking, he is bound to have a teacher among them, for e.g. he can emulate their good qualities, isn’t he suggesting that he can and should improve?

    • Hi, Bill.
      A short, ham-fisted version of my own view would be that the moral concepts of the text and in Confucius’ own thinking emerge rather directly from scrutiny of moral exemplars. Since moral exemplars are not perfect (based on something like the we’re-all-human-after-all reasoning Paul alludes to), perfection is not an aim that has much, if any, traction in the text. Now, if by perfection we mean something more akin to what a “perfect” musical performance would be – i.e., it succeeds in a rather total way, but need not be flawless and does not become a fixed standard for all other musical performances – then I’d be more sanguine with the term being applied in interpreting the Analects. I just think when we use the term “perfection,” we’re more likely to suggest something like the former, with flawlessness rather built in or evoked. (That’s why I was curious about the possibility of separating flawlessness from blamelessness – a blameless but flawed sage seems closer to the Analects, I’d think.)

      I guess, with respect to your question, though, my thought is that it’s necessary to separate, as a heuristic, the views of Confucius and the views of the authors of the Analects. With respect to Confucius’ views, I think whether Confucius is perfect would be less in play than whether he would count himself so. On that score, even if he were perfect in either of the senses I identify, I think he’d not own it. The reason could be as simple as thinking oneself perfect (in either sense) stands for some failure at perfection. It’s a want of humility at the least. Indeed, there’s something *more* odd in being perfect and saying so than being perfect and not saying so. But I think the case utterly different with respect to the Analects’ authors.

      The Analects’ authors do seem to posit Confucius as what I call a total exemplar, someone who models in a rather fulsome way what it is to be a good person. If they counted him perfect or were operating with some form of perfection as an ideal, I’d expect that to show up in the text’s presentation. I.e., I’d find it puzzling to read the Analects’ authors as imagining that there was some achievable ideal Confucius himself failed to reach – this is not a general claim about perfection and teaching but a specific point about the apparent attitudes toward Confucius the Analects’ authors appear to hold. I suppose it comes down to this. I take the Analects’ authors as judging Confucius to have maximally succeeded at being a good person, so if their idea of maximal success includes perfection, I’m surprised by how imperfect Confucius appears to be in their presentation of him. That leads me to conclude that if there is an idea of perfection included here, it is an idea quite unlike our typical usage of that term (and thus likely warrants our eschewing that term). My own sense is that the musical performance analogy is much more salient and, as we would for musical performances, we’d do better to think in terms such as “masterful” or “virtuosic,” terms that don’t enmesh us in suggestions that flaws and errors are ruled out or are even seen as the aim. So too, these are more consonant with just the sort of passages you identify.

      I’m not really clear about how far from Paul’s view this substantively is. His usage of “perfection” may be nuanced away from the view I’d most worry about. The worries he raises about emulation inviting formulaic imitation seem in keeping with a more standard, non-figurative reading of perfection, but what he says about Confucius’ humanity may point the other way.

    • Elsewhere in the book, I discuss much of what Amy is asking about. I certainly did not state or imply that there is no notion of learning from examples in the Analects. Quite the contrary: 三人行,必有我師焉. We can (and should) learn from the examples that other people set, both positive and negative, and such examples are a major source of discussion between Confucius and his disciples. But the point is that learning from other people’s examples, and then applying whatever we’ve learned to the moral problems that arise in our own lives, is very different from mindlessly imitating their behavior, especially without regard to shifting situational demands–and it is precisely the latter that the Analects wishes to discourage. To some extent, I think we’re getting caught up in semantics. Are we supposed to emulate a model? Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by “emulate,” and it depends on what you mean by “model.”

      The word “perfection” has various connotations in English, and I’ve tried both here and in the book to specify what I meant. I think the word itself is fine, because Confucians themselves used Chinese words that would have had very similar senses in their language. For instance, take Tiandi sheng zhi, shengren cheng zhi 天地生之,聖人成之 (“Heaven and Earth engendered it; the sages perfected it”); that apophthegm is from Xunzi, but I doubt that any Confucian would have objected to it. If there were an issue, it would be specifying what cheng 成 does and does not entail. But rhetorically cheng is just as problematic as “(self-)perfection.” To take Bill’s notion of “improving oneself all the way”: for Confucians, there is no such thing as “all the way.” It’s not as though you can attain sagehood and then retire. Perfecting oneself entails perfecting oneself constantly; if a hypothetical sage were to say, “I’ve already perfected myself ‘all the way’; there is nothing more for me to do,” he would no longer be perfecting himself, and thus he would no longer be a sage.

    • Hi Paul, you write,

      To take Bill’s notion of “improving oneself all the way”: for Confucians, there is no such thing as “all the way.” It’s not as though you can attain sagehood and then retire. Perfecting oneself entails perfecting oneself constantly; if a hypothetical sage were to say, “I’ve already perfected myself ‘all the way’; there is nothing more for me to do,” he would no longer be perfecting himself, and thus he would no longer be a sage.

      Suppose Smith were to argue this way: “Jones must think there’s no such thing as becoming a perfect researcher in the sense of improving one’s research abilities all the way. Here’s how I know. If she thought that, she’d think that once she attained perfect researchership, there’d be nothing more for her to do and she could retire, which would be absurd.” —Smith’s inference doesn’t make sense.

      So I think your argument doesn’t suggest that for Confucians there’s no such thing as improving oneself all the way. It only shows that for Confucians there’s no such thing as “improving oneself all the way and then not doing anything more.” And that’s really not at issue. Of course there’s not even such a thing as being pretty good and then (while pretty good) deciding to do nothing further.

      (My argument above involving Smith and Jones doesn’t depend in any way on whether there actually is such a thing as being a perfect researcher.)

  25. Hi Amy,

    You are abbreviating some inherently complex stuff that you’ve already promulgated to us in long form, so I’m sorry!, but still I want to ask: what is the disanalogy between the line of thought you are presenting and the following argument?

    “Geometrical ideas emerge from experience with imperfect lines, rectangles, etc.; therefore they aren’t about perfect lines, rectangles, etc.”

    • Oops, Amy, my example might challenge your own acceptance of the line of thought you presented, but doesn’t at all challenge the idea that the line of thought would have seemed compelling in Confucius’ day. Socrates in the Meno argues for conscious life before birth on the grounds that what we observe in this life is clearly inadequate to ground geometrical knowledge.

    • There’s nothing in my position that would bar the forming of ideas of perfection – i.e., extrapolating from experience that which is perfect in ways experience never affords. However, I suspect that the admiration that exemplars generate and that founds the impulse to query them more closely is hooked in some non-trivial way to the fact that exemplars are not perfect (where perfect is taken in the mathematical sense). Again, my analogy throughout is between the experience of exemplars and the experience of masterful musical performance. The latter rarely, likely never, arouses appreciation because it is technically perfect or flawlessly executed. Indeed, as Kendall Walton argues, technical perfection tends to yield a distrust that inhibits appreciation. A host of factors render infelicities in performance a *part of* appreciation (I try to identify these in the book) and, moreover, infelicities ground the empathic identification with the processes of the musician on which appreciation runs. In short, that the musician is prey to error and infelicity is a feature about her that matters to our appreciation. We don’t appreciate her *in spite of* it but in part because of it. My claim is that admiration for exemplars operates in an analogous way. So, when I say I think perfection doesn’t get much traction in the Analects, I just mean that I think the admiration for exemplars on which the moral sensibility rides is one that includes imperfection as an element in admiration. In the book, I take the text’s presentation of Confucius as a case study in this. Indeed, the case of Confucius is part of what recommends this view to me. My sense is that his various infelicities feature in the text because they do in some way inform the global admiration of him the authors feel and want to commend to others.

  26. It is admittedly based on a much later source (the chapter “Observing Sages and Worthies” from the Neo-Confucian anthology Reflections on Things at Hand), but some might find the following thoughts about how we can (and should) learn from non-sages, relevant to this discussion:

    It was clearly believed that much could be gained from studying the “dispositions (qixiang 氣象)” of someone who had advanced toward sagehood, even if that person still had flaws. Much of the Reflections chapter contains such descriptions, along with discussion of wherein lay the particular strengths and weaknesses of the figures discussed. Two aspects of this are worth noting. First, the fact that mere “worthies” are extensively discussed tells us that we can learn from those on the road to sagehood, and not just from sages themselves. Indeed, in many ways it is easier to learn from worthies, because there is a mys- tery surrounding full sagehood that makes it more difficult to take as a model.20 In addition, it is not at all clear that there were any sages around on whom to directly model, but one can more readily imagine that one’s teacher or other local notables could count as “worthies.” The descriptions in Reflections of the characters of both Zhang Zai and, in particular, Cheng Hao are extensive and extremely favorable. They may not have been sages, but they certainly offer excellent examples of what can be attained. Second, it is important that Neo-Confucians show how we can learn from worthies, because directly modeling on sages may well be a bad idea. We already saw, in Mencius 5B:1, the idea that sagehood is connected to “strength.” Sages can do things—in fact, can do them with ease—that less developed people may fail to do, no matter how conscientious they are. And trying, but failing, to do “what a sage would do” in a given situation might be worse than aiming at a more modest goal: worse not just in terms of consequences, but also in terms of one’s own future cultivation, since repeated failure to live up to the standard one takes as necessary could undermine one’s motivation to continue striving to be better. (Sagehood, pp. 17-18)

  27. Somebody told me long ago that the cello is basically so easy to play that a good cellist will deliberately add “imperfections” to a performance in order to – well, I forget exactly what. Maybe to make the performance sound more human or indeed simply more difficult. In any case what this and Amy’s similar comment about music suggest to me is the point that being a good or perfect X, or being morally good or perfect, involves trade-offs. The fact that excellent cello performance is largely a compound of a number of narrow excellences does not imply that every increment of one of the narrower excellences automatically implies an increment of excellence in the whole. That is to say, for example, the fact that lying is wrong in general or other things equal, does not strictlhy imply that there is no such thing as the perfect balance between verbal honesty and other goods, nor that the perfect balance necessarily involves complete honesty.

    Amy’s and Steve’s wonderful points about the value of moral imperfection in an exemplar remind me of the distinction between (a) being morally good (or morally perfect), and (b) being a good moral exemplar (or a perfect one). They challenge the idea that the point or shape (the telos) of the qualities that make a morally excellent person is determined by suitability for the office of exemplar for the world – unless of course one has the realistic thought that the emperor can be an exemplar for the world only by way of intermediate emulators who are then exemplars for others in a long chain.

    • (When I posted this I hadn’t seen Amy’s more thorough discussion above mentioning Kendall Walton.)

  28. Paul and Amy, a small point: I’m not sure what you mean by a/the “mathematical” idea of perfection. I think the concept of perfection inherently involves the notions of all and/or none, and these are important notions in mathematics. Further, I think that conceptions of perfection normally involve the notion of more and less, and limits to more and/or less. I am not sure that any notions of perfection that do not involve these ideas have appeared on the table.

    (As for the term “scalar,” I’ve mentioned it mainly as an idea that is in tension with the idea of perfection, though I was partly corrected about that.)

    Maybe what folks have meant here by “mathematical” perfection is strict perfection? For my part, when I’ve been contrasting e.g. largeness as not admitting perfection, and smallness as admitting at least indefinite approaches to perfection, I’m not concerned with anything like the distinction between strict and approximate perfection. (I’m happy to take ‘perfect’ as meaning ‘close to strictly perfect’ in anybody’s book.) Rather, throughout, I’m mainly trying to contrast views of morality or greatness that invite the idea of an inherent limit at least in the abstract, and views that are radically at odds with such a thought (as classical utilitarianism’s notion of good consequences is radically at odds with the idea of perfect consequences).

    My thought about cellos and exemplars is that (a) the fact that e.g. an excellent performance involves what might normally be counted as missteps does not quite imply that there is no such thing as a perfect performance or performer, and (b) unless we simply identify what it is to be moral with what it is to be a moral exemplar, the fact that being morally good and being a good moral exemplar pull apart at the higher levels does not imply that there is no such thing as being morally perfect.

  29. What I know best in Confucianism is the Analects. Paul’s book brings a very fresh perspective on the Confucius of the Analects. I find myself constantly surprised by his readings of passages. Bold new readings of familiar old passages are just what Confucius scholarship needs most, and they are also very stimulating to think about. I hope his readings shake things up! However, I find myself strongly disagreeing with most of what Paul says about the Confucius of the Analects.

    A. ZHONG

    In the Analects, Paul writes, loyalty is “not even close” to what zhong means (15). For “in my view zhong has an effective meaning of ‘being honest with oneself in dealing with others’” (17). He has defended this complex analysis at length in his paper, “When zhong 忠 Does Not Mean ‘Loyalty’” (Dao 7:2). The book and paper do not address the following two worries:

    First, this objectively complicated meaning is unlikely to be built into a single character unless Confucius and his associates, or rather their predecessors, not only had the concept of self-deception, but also talked about it quite a lot. Do we know of an instance when Confucius or someone else in his broad time and place mentioned self-deception? I do not recall any offhand, though Paul would know far better than I. Paul?

    Second, being honest with oneself in dealing with others is at least prima facie compatible with being an embezzler, bank robber, or serial killer.

    To support his proposal, Paul specially emphasizes LY 1.4:

    Master Zeng said: ‘Everyday (sic) I examine myself on three counts. In planning on behalf of others, have I failed to be zhong? In associating with friends, have I failed to be trustworthy? Have I transmitted anything that I do not practice habitually?’ (17). (These are exercises in paying attention to oneself, but not specifically in honesty as opposed to dishonesty with oneself.)

    Granted, Zengzi’s second and third items are kin to being honest with others, which suggests that the first item is too. But I think a far more straightforward understanding of zhong makes for a closer similarity among the three items, and also does a distinctly better job than Paul’s reading in making sense of the other passages Paul offers as key evidence.

    My proposal is that zhong is faithful service, or faithfulness in service, the trait appropriate for someone with fiduciary responsibilities, “positions of trust” as we say, such as a person’s delegate or doctor. To be zhong is to be fiduciarily responsible. (I’m offering an account, not a smooth translation! I don’t know if I’ve stolen the idea from someone. Legge sometimes translates zhong as ‘faithful’.)

    If my proposal is right, loyalty is fairly close to what zhong means; the main differences being these:

    a. “Loyalty” toward X suggests especially a context of competition or conflict between X and others, so that one thinks of the central challenge to loyalty as the attractions of siding with one of X’s rivals. zhong involves no such specific context, one just as well thinks of it as challenged by laziness, greed, vanity, or wicked city women. Being zhong is in that way like being a straight arrow, and kin to the later account of zhong as jinji 盡己 that Paul mentions (17).

    b. We tend to think of the object of “loyalty” as a person, or an organization or nation, and not to associate “loyalty” with a limited sphere of action (except in the sense that loyalty focuses on action relevant to conflict between X and others). zhong comes closer to suggesting a context of delimited areas of responsibility such as a specific charge to be carried out or specific interests to be guarded. It’s a little easier to understand being zhong toward a task or role than being loyal to a task or role.

    c. zhong and loyalty can each be thought of as a general character trait or as something one has toward just one or a few parties. But zhong is a more naturally thought of as a general trait than loyalty is.

    I won’t try to check those three implications of my reading against texts now. But here’s an exhibit:

    LY 5.19
    Zi Zhang asked, saying, “The minister Zi Wen thrice took office, and manifested no joy in his countenance. Thrice he retired from office, and manifested no displeasure. He made it a point to inform the new minister of the way in which he had conducted the government – what do you say of him?” The Master replied. “He was loyal [zhong].” “Was he perfectly virtuous?” “I do not know. How can he be pronounced perfectly virtuous?”… (Legge)

    (I agree with Paul that ‘loyal’ is not ideal here, partly because the passage does not actually mention the monarch.)

    Paul’s reading is not a very natural fit with LY 14.7: “…Can there be [zhong] which does not lead to the instruction of its object?” (…忠焉,能勿誨乎)(Legge) Nor, for what it’s worth, is it a very natural fit with LY 16.10, which lists nine aspects of the noble man’s activity and picks speech as a special arena for zhong (…言思忠…).

    The idea that zhong is about fiduciary responsibility, a leading notion in recent anglophone work on professional ethics, may undercut Paul’s understanding of LY 2.12 (“The noble man does not serve as a utensil”): he cites this passage to support his claim, “That the Confucian gentleman abhorred the idea of being a tool or a professional is undeniable” (107).

    In his paper, Paul stresses that there are some passages, especially in the Zuo Zhuan and the Mozi, that speak of a ruler being zhong toward the people. I submit that “faithful service” or “fiduciary responsibility,” while most saliently appropriate toward superiors, also tends to be important toward subordinates, and that early Chinese texts recognized this point. I have not dug through many texts for this, but I have argued that the concept of the ruler as public servant is implicit in LY 1.2 and explicit in the Xiaojing and in Mozi 25 (e.g. Comment 8.4 in the 1/24/12 string). Here for variety I’ll quote Mencius 1B6 (Legge):

    Mencius said to the king Xuan of Qi, ‘Suppose that one of your Majesty’s ministers were to entrust his wife and children to the care of his friend, while he himself went into Chu to travel, and that, on his return, he should find that the friend had let his wife and children suffer from cold and hunger – how ought he to deal with him?’
    The king said, ‘He should cast him off.’
    Mencius proceeded, ‘Suppose that the chief criminal judge could not regulate the officers under him, how would you deal with him?
    The king said, ‘Dismiss him.’
    Mencius again said, ‘If within the four borders of your kingdom there is not good government, what is to be done?’
    The king looked to the right and left, and spoke of other matters.

  30. B. LI

    It would be absurd to expect any scholar to summarize Confucius and also defend his claims adequately in under 30 small pages. The expositor’s job requires simplification for the sake of clarity, and need involve only the faintest gestures toward argument, at least if the claims made are mainstream. I hope my remarks here will be taken as challenges or questions rather than as judgments.


    The opening pages of the Confucius chapter have the effect of presenting li in the time before Confucius as being mainly the expert use of bronze vessels to petition the spirits of the dead for favors. There is no suggestion here that li had anything to do with social occasions or human interactions, distinctions of rank, seasons of nature, or funerals. The remainder of the chapter gives just two passing examples of li that Confucius recognized, both from LY 9.3: wearing a silk cap and bowing at the bottom of the stairs, in a context Paul describes as “a ceremonial hall.” The discussion of li is otherwise purely abstract, focusing on such questions as whether Confucius conceived li as “something like a code of conduct.”


    Paul offers a variety of accounts of Confucius’ conception of li, though I do not believe he means to suggest that the word is ambiguous. (For my part I’m under the impression that it was flexible in breadth.)

    (a) “Li is … embodied virtue, the thoughtful somatic expression of basic moral principles, without which the ceremonies are void.” (22)

    (b) “Far from a static code of conduct, li is the sum total of all the moral calculations that a thinking Confucian must go through before acting. Li is in constant flux….” (22)

    (c) “[To adhere strictly to li is to] act with unflagging moral awareness [and] also asses for himself the right course of action at every moment.” (23)

    (d) “The Confucian view was always the same: li can only be conventions that facilitate social interaction while also inducing its performers to improve themselves morally” (126n.26).

    To my eye, accounts (a)(b)(c) are struggling to communicate one simple idea: li is conscious moral excellence.

    I am not sure how to reconcile that point with LY 3.26, which seems to presuppose that it is possible (though perverse) to perform li without respect.

    I am a little puzzled about the relation between (a)(b)(c) and (d). First, as presented, (a)(b)(c) may suggest that there is no definitional dependence on social convention such as (d) seems to make primary. Second, (a)(b)(c) suggests that someone who fully adheres to li has little or no room for moral improvement, and is fully motivated to be moral; while (d) suggests that room for improvement is essential to li.

    In fact (d) seems to present li as a set of rules of conduct: in particular, a species of the genus social conventions. Outside of the endnote where (d) appears, there is no suggestion that li might involve social conventions.


    Paul says that the standard view of li in Confucius’ day may well have been that it is a “discrete and knowable code … that one can rely on for guidance in all matters” that one might “learn from experienced ritual masters” (20). Hence it is surprising that Paul is willing not only to deny that this was Confucius’ view, but also to make the much larger claim that it is a mistake to regard li (as Confucius saw it) as “something like a code of conduct” (20).

    I am not sure how to reconcile (d) with that larger claim.

    I shall focus mainly on apparent problems with the argument Paul presents for this claim.

    The argument begins with 12.1, where at first glance Confucius offers Yan Yuan a two-part training regimen for acquiring the virtue ren (仁): “Overcome the self and return to ritual in order to practice humanity. If you can overcome the self and return to ritual for one day, the world will bring humanity home to you. … Do not look … listen … speak … move in opposition to the rites” (19).

    At least if we set aside the fact that “one day” is hyperbole, it is just about possible to read this passage as saying that accord with the rites is the same thing as ren. I believe Paul’s argument starts from the more modest idea that this passage pretty plainly claims that li is at least a training regimen such that if you thoroughly follow it you will soon be ren and hence morally excellent.

    Paul adds a reading of LY 3.8, in which the fact that make-up is applied to a plain white surface is compared to ritual, for “ritual comes after.” Paul says this “presumably means to say that the rituals, significant though they may be, are effective only if practiced by those who have morally prepared themselves for the task. Someone who is morally alive, then, must reassess at every moment how best to perform the rites” (22). Perhaps Paul means that in order to accord with li one must first be fully virtuous, and then simply act on that (as though li were not itself effective toward providing virtue). More likely, Paul means to stress the importance of actively exercising one’s own personal judgment.

    It seems to me more plausible that the original point was in a sense the opposite: that in order to accord fully with li, which is fundamentally social, one must first overcome or erase the self in some sense, so as not to interfere with the pattern. One must become a purely receptive vehicle for the great social order, like a plain white canvas.

    Given that li is an adequate training regimen for comprehensive virtue, why think it is not “something like a code of conduct”?


    One kind of reason Paul offers is that as a matter of plain fact (which Confucius therefore presumably knew), following rules of conduct does not by itself much affect our character. For example, “One can be a perfectly wicked person and still stop unfailingly at every traffic light” (21), and “shaking hands is not in and of itself conducive to moral self-cultivation” (126n.26).

    College students may be glad to hear that their character is not at stake in their mere conduct.

    I submit that the fact that conduct shapes character is a plain fact, which Confucius therefore presumably knew.

    (Incidentally, Aristotle not only thought that mere conduct is importantly formative of character – formative of the habit of taking that sort of action – he thought that the point was extremely obvious, and furthermore he thought that the fact that it is obvious is a significant feature of the human condition, a key to moral responsibility in general (Nic.Eth. III.v.§12, 1114a10-12). Aristotle may of course have been wrong about the obviousness.)

    The examples of the traffic light and handshake are examples of very narrow single rules of conduct.
    Even if Paul were right about the impotence of those rules, and indeed about any narrow rule taken alone, that would hardly amount to an objection to the idea that li as a broad code of conduct could be transformative. Perhaps one cannot be perfectly wicked and obey all the traffic regulations.

    Consider some of the ways following a rule or code of conduct might affect one’s character.

    a) Conduct tends to affect our bodies in ways that directly affect our minds. If I make a smile, that changes my mood; if I shake someone’s hand, my body chemistry changes. Then of course there’s drinking, battle, footbinding, etc.

    b) Our conduct affects our skills and habits of attention, and other skills and habits in our practical thinking and feeling. If I have a rule of doing D in situation S, the rule will draw my attention to the things I need to attend to in order to do D in S, so I’ll develop the associated habits and skills. I will be conditioned to want what it takes, and any contrary habits of feeling will be broken. Similarly, if I have a rule of never doing Y (eating between meals, cheating on schoolwork, lying, lying with X), that will strengthen my ability and habit of not thinking about that and associated things. From childhood, G. Gordon Liddy aimed to toughen his character by a regular program of doing things he found terrifying or painful. True, regularly practicing the harp doesn’t make me a virtuoso, but it gives me the skills that will enable and incline me to be one.

    c) My conduct addresses and otherwise affects others, and thereby affects my social environment and my sense of what people are like in general. I gather that early Chinese li was largely a matter of collective conduct, such as community ceremonies. I’ve argued elsewhere that Youzi saw it as a way of displaying to each other and refreshing our commitment to live up to the basic terms of our social cooperation. And if you and I follow the same rule, we can more easily understand each other, seeing things also from each other’s points of view.

    Granted, some of these effects take more than a day (and the regimen might not be very effective if you feel you are being bullied into it). But if li is a code with main points and fine points, such that the main points prepare you for the fine ones, it may be that by the time you master the fine points you will be just about there. In 12.1 Confucius was talking about the whole set of the finest points.

    Oddly, Paul seems to recognize elsewhere that rules of conduct can affect our character, and that at least some ancient Confucians thought so. For example, in paraphrasing Xunzi on ritual he says, “We observe sumptuary regulations … in order to learn how to avoid incivility and miserliness” (76). I’ll discuss another example on another day.

    In this connection I am not sure what to make of Paul’s comments on LY 12.19, in which Confucius says one can make people follow the Way without killing those who don’t, because the noble man’s virtue affects the people’s virtue as the wind affects the grass. Paul writes, “Rulers have this power to shape the people’s conduct because of another fundamental belief of Confucius: all human conduct affects every other person near the actor. Morality spreads. ‘The virtuous are not orphans; they will have neighbors’”(24). And again, “To ‘act as a lord’ … means to be vigilant about one’s own conduct so as to provide a worthy model for the people to follow in their quest for moral self-cultivation” (25f).


    The other main reason Paul offers for thinking that li for Confucius was not “something like a code of conduct” is that in LY 2.3 Confucius “explicitly contrasts the rites with anything like a predetermined code”: “The Master said: ‘If you guide them with legislation, and unify them with punishments, then the people will avoid (the punishments) but have no conscience. If you guide them with virtue, and unify them with ritual, then they will have a conscience; moreover, they will correct themselves’” (20).

    In fact what Confucius says in 2.3 is perfectly compatible with a conception of li as a fairly static set of rules of conduct. As each of the following reasons shows, the passage does not say or imply otherwise.

    i) The explicit contrast is not between legislation and li; it is between [A] legislation + punishment and [B] virtue + li. Further, while zheng could conceivably mean “legislation,” the term also commonly encompassed other kinds of policy measure.

    ii) Even if Confucius were simply contrasting li with penal law, saying that li is not penal law is not denying similarity to any code; any more than “Fifi is not a pit bull” implies that she is not a dog, nor anything like a dog.

    iii) What is wholly inexplicit in this passage is how far “governing by legislation and punishment” is supposed to involve an extraordinary paucity of virtue and li – and vice versa.

    iv) If li is a code of conduct, the approach “governing by li (etc.)” need not mean, and probably does not primarily mean, everyone’s following li (etc.), or the ruler’s telling everyone to follow li (etc.). More likely it is supposed to refer in the first instance to the ruler’s own accord with li: in her personal affairs and in her dealings with officials and with the people (cf. LY 3.19, 13.3).

    v) Contrasting li with legislation would not suggest that li is not “predetermined,” at least if this is understood to imply that li is static, unchanging. Legislation (zheng 政) is subject to change. Indeed, part of legislation’s ineffectiveness may be that, in the absence of the ideal of the rule of law, laws are seen as expressions of the mere will of some particular person. A code regarded as unchangeable by anyone’s personal fiat would not have that weakness.

    Paul also offers in evidence LY 9.3, in which Confucius accepts one old rule and accepts a popular revision of another (21). This passage does show that Confucius didn’t regard li as a “predetermined” code, if by “predetermined” we mean not allowing for the possibility that a community might make progress toward better li.

    But it does not offer any support for the idea that what counts as li is in general, or ever, up to the individual’s moral judgment. The dilemmas Confucius faces in 9.3 arise because his authorities conflict. He chooses in each case between following current general practice and following what he calls “li.” One could read this as a statement about grounds for departing from li, or as a statement about judgment calls in case of conflicting authorities, such as we commonly find in codes that aim to be comprehensive. But I do not think one can read it as a statement of the primacy or general importance of thinking things through for oneself, implying that “li is in constant flux” or that li is ever open to adjustment by an individual.


    Paul’s Confucius seems as though engineered to appeal to young college students: youths who are excited by learning, very sensitive about being treated like children, and temporarily disoriented unto skepticism or relativism by their recent discovery of the fakery behind grand claims of authority for the simple rules equated with “right and wrong.” The aim and effect might well be to help draw students into real moral thinking, hence out of skepticism or relativism. But I think the approach is misleading about Confucius.

    Example 1. The epigraph to the chapter, offered without comment, is LY 15.28 about how people can enlarge the Way, not vice versa.

    I read this remark as a rebuke to passivity. You, my special ones, should be tramping the path smooth and plain for others. What are you waiting for? The path isn’t going to tread you. (Cf. 12.1, Mencius 7B21.)

    Example 2. Paul’s account of Confucius’ “ideal man” in the Appendix. “What is an ideal man? He loves learning, lives up to his words, and thinks about his relationships with others and acts accordingly” (120). Those are the main substantive points.

    Example 3. Paul’s main point about Confucius and the supernatural is offered as a comment on Confucius’ answer to Fan Chi about wisdom: “To take what is due to the people as one’s duty [務民之義], and to revere the ghosts and spirits but keep them at a distance, can be called wisdom.” Paul elaborates on Confucius’ behalf: “What exactly is ‘what is due to the people’? You have to determine this for yourself. And above all do what you think is right, not what you think the ghosts and spirits want you to do. For we can never really know what the ghosts and spirits want anyway” (13).

    I am not sure how the reader is meant to understand that comment. It easily invites at first any one of at least four radically different readings, each of them extremely problematic in general or in context.

    (i) It could be read as a statement of Individual Relativism: what’s right for you to do is automatically whatever you think is right for you to do. (But that view suggests that there is no point in studying or thinking to figure out what is right for you to do: you’re simply infallible on that topic.)

    (ii) It could be read more modestly as saying only that one should aim at what’s morally right, and therefore not at what the spirits want (unless of course one happens to have a moral obligation to a spirit, or the spirits happen to have some legislative or epistemological authority about what is moral). This reading takes it as understood that the people who were trying to do what the spirits want were doing so not because they associated morality with obedience to the spirits, but for some unrelated reason. (But in context it is unmistakably clear that the view Paul’s Confucius is rejecting is the view that the spirits are the moral authorities, so (ii) is probably not what Paul means.)

    (iii) The comment could be read as supposing that each person has inner moral opinions that she may not yet be aware of, and that furthermore these inner opinions are the main things she should obey. For example, one might think that our unconscious moral opinions are worthy of discovery and obedience if one thinks they were implanted by Heaven and that Heaven is the final authority. (But this example, at least, seems to oppose Paul’s purpose in the passage, which certainly includes suggesting a close analogy between Confucius’ move away from reliance on the spirits’ authority and the West’s move away from reliance on God; so (iii) is probably not what Paul means.)

    (iv) It could be read as saying that at least to a first approximation, (Confucius thought) the individual working alone – not placing heavy reliance on tradition, legitimately established authorities, the study of books, and/or the community’s ongoing collaborative project of moral thought – has adequate resources to figure out what she owes to the people.

    Paul, is that what you mean?

    I think it is an implausible reading of Confucius, and also an implausible view. It seems to me that “what I owe to the people” is the sort of question on which tradition and convention would have a major say. The social role of ruler is limited by traditional understandings of the rights of the people, such as the needs the government would normally respect because of their importance for agriculture; so these understandings have moral authority for the ruler as such. I suppose most people think some moral requirements are so far from being such as to be determined by the agent for herself, that they may and should be enforced against the agent, by violent means if necessary, no matter what the individual opines or decides. She should pay what she owes. She should not steal, defraud, coerce, beat, rape, or maim.

    Granted, the Analects has little to say about those basics that, for the sake of civilization, we must learn as children. I suppose that is because its conversations were mainly concerned with high aspirations for would-be public servants, not with a comprehensive picture of morality for everyone. I wonder if the Confucian tradition was misled by this writing into underemphasizing the basics.

    Example 4. Paul proposes that a main reason why Confucius did not write is that he wanted people to think for themselves. If Confucius had written, then “even with the best of intentions, his philosophy might then have become what he despised most: an authority telling you what is right in all times and places” (10).

    A scholar might breeze past this remark, taking it for mere puffery; but a student is likely to take it as an actual claim about Confucius. To the student it is likely to suggest that (a) Confucius’ work was in some large part a reaction against his contemporaries’ excessive or abusive reliance on abstract moral theory or universal rules; that (b) Confucius felt unable to articulate in writing the injunction to think for oneself, the reasons for it, the reasons why moral reality is flexible, etc.; that (c) Confucius thought no kind of writing he might do other than an account of his moral views could be helpful toward the moral development he thought urgent; and that (d) Confucius must have expected that he would be regarded as a sage by future generations. Perhaps it also suggests that (e) Confucius thought of ethics in terms of non-universal rules distinguishing right from wrong, so that the danger in writing was that these rules could be mistaken for universal rules.

    Broad rules might feel bossy to young people who don’t see their point.

    The main reason there are no “universally valid moral injunctions,” according to Paul’s Confucius, is that what we should do depends on our role relationships, and especially on the “four cardinal roles” of superior, subordinate, father, and son (26f). One wonders what role-neutral rules Confucius might have encountered. Even some of the west’s Ten Commandments are role-specific, such as the rules about obeying parents and not committing adultery.

    Example 5. The main chapter on Confucius heavily foregrounds LY 11.22, in which Confucius gives apparently conflicting answers to the same question and explains that different people should be told different things. For “in teaching, it is a mistake merely to deliver insensate lectures to audiences of students with disparate needs.”

    I am always surprised when I see 11.22 emphasized in papers whose main aims include persuading Western philosophers and departments to give more attention to Confucius. For I think the predictable reaction by Western philosophers is, “So you’re saying all we have from Confucius is fragments whose scope and significance is basically unknowable, because we don’t have the context and he didn’t follow one of the most elementary protocols of intellectual integrity and hence of excellence in thought?” I think the reaction is incorrect. But it’s predictable.

    I suppose Paul’s purpose in the main Confucius chapter is different; it’s to introduce Confucius attractively to students. A problem is that the discussion of 11.22 in effect loudly warns against boldness or even ordinary trust in reading Confucius’ views from one or a few passages. That might work against the chapter’s general expository strategy, which is to present each main point by way of strikingly bold readings of one or two fully quoted passages. The chapter must be read in conjunction with the Analects. But how are students to approach that text?


    Paul says three main things about Confucius regarding the relation between morality and the supernatural:

    a) Confucius was far more radical than his predecessors in bringing morality into the role of the ritual master, which had been mainly about technical expertise in supplicating the spirits (8).

    b) He took the spirits out of morality: morality should not be about doing what the spirits want, grounded in their demands; rather it should be grounded in human interaction and in the observation of patterns in nature (13f).

    c) He (probably?) believed in the moral authority of Heaven, conceiving the state as Heaven’s organized agent.

    These points are mutually consistent. The spirits are not Heaven, and a focus on man and nature can be integral to obedience to Heaven. But I think there are some problems.


    One problem is that (b) is presented in such a way as to suggest an analogy with the Western turn away from the authority of God toward the power of the unaided human mind, and accordingly (c) is de-emphasized. There is no discussion of the character tian (天); rather there seems to be an emphasis on the distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

    Paul doesn’t deny that Confucius believed in spirits. He says Confucius was “principially agnostic,” by which he means having the attitude about principles that an agnostic (sc. about God and the like) has about principles: that is, one doesn’t get them from supernatural beings (13).

    Unlike Heaven, of course, the spirits are people; the important ones for you are members of your family, and you may know quite a bit about their concerns. This point problematizes Paul’s point that “throughout the Analects, we see Confucius deconstructing received religion, and enjoining his disciples to think through an entirely new moral system with human interaction at its base” (13). True, a page later he adds “in the world of the living.” But the moral system may not be so different. (I’ll get to the system itself in a later comment.)

    (Paul writes (in a later chapter) that Confucius and his followers “radically interpreted” the character for filial piety, from “reverence for ancestors, [mostly having] to do with due sacrifice on their behalf (sic),” to “appropriate behavior vis-à-vis one’s parents, and not only after their death.” He then immediately quotes a passage that seems on its face to disprove the claim about the novelty of the focus on the living (LY 2.7), without commenting on the problem (34). But I am inclined to agree with the idea that in Confucius’ view, three years was basically enough.)

    —-Nature and Heaven

    To show that Confucius recommended taking guidance from the patterns we observe in nature, Paul cites two passages.

    The main one is LY 9.27: “Only after the year has grown cold does one know that the pine and cypress are the last to wither” (10).

    This remark is, among other things, “a statement about the usefulness of looking to patterns in nature as a guide through the perplexities of life.” Specifically, from the trees we learn not to jump to conclusions from too little evidence (11).

    Why would Confucius think nature has special relevance to morality? Paul doesn’t say. The point about adequacy of evidence seems to apply no more to nature than to any other topic – unless for Paul, “nature” stands for the whole of what one might investigate empirically. But I see no sign that for Confucius, trees would have suggested any such whole.

    The other passage is 17.19 – not a perfectly reliable source, as Paul concedes, but a bold and brilliant passage nonetheless.

    “The Master said: ‘I wish to be without speech.’ Zigong said: ‘If you do not speak, then what will we, your children, have to transmit from you?’ The Master said: ‘What does Heaven say? The four seasons progress by it; the many creatures are born by it. What does Heaven say?’” (14)

    It isn’t clear to me how Paul understands the argument of the concluding speech. Here are some possibilities:

    (a) The birds and bees learn what to do by observing nature, so we should do the same: reading what Heaven wrote in the book of nature, or at least learning what would be good strategy.

    (b) As we can read Heaven’s message by looking at its actions (in the form of the seasons and creatures), so the disciples should be able to learn from Confucius through his actions alone.

    Interpretation (a) seems silly. Interpretation (b) makes the remark implausibly immodest.

    (c) Since the birds and trees get along perfectly well without any guidance, we should do the same.

    Interpretation (c) seems to me an unduly optimistic view of the powers of the individual mind in the face of the complexity of moral questions facing our species, unless we suppose also that individuals are somehow automatically right. Also it seems incompatible with a detail in the remark. Confucius says the seasons progress and the creatures are born by Heaven.

    (d) Heaven gives its law to the seasons and the creatures not by speaking to them, but by implanting it in them in some other way. So Confucius’ message, entrusted to Confucius by authoritative Heaven, has already been directly implanted in the disciples. So there is no need for him to speak to them.

    On interpretation (d), the passage might then be an anticipation of Mencius, or an addition by Mencians. It would seem to conflict with Confucius’ thought elsewhere that he cannot die yet because Heaven does not want its message to die. And although (d)’s premise might be an instance of reading the book of nature, (d) does not otherwise advocate attention to “nature” in the sense of the seasons and the many creatures. (d) does, however, oppose the theme that Confucius did not look to supernatural moral authority.

    In any case, Confucius seems to have continued to speak, rather than placing full reliance on whatever argument is sketched in 17.19.

    Paul’s immediate comment after the passage is, “So much for organized religion,” by which he means at least, never mind divination (14). Perhaps all he meant to take from the passage is that Heaven does not literally speak.

    But I don’t think the passage implies a dismissal of organized religion. For one thing, if Heaven has implanted guidance in us, and the same general guidance in everyone, then arguably one has more reliable knowledge of the content of this general guidance by relying on tradition, convention, and the community of scholars or experts than by trusting one’s own introspection. (Indeed a theocratic organization might find comfort and power in a theory to the effect that the people who claim to object to its rules don’t really object, no matter what they say. The church speaks for them better than they can speak for themselves.)

    Further, as Paul himself says later regarding LY 12.11 about how lords should act as lords, ministers as ministers: “in Bronze Age politics, even the highest king, the Son of Heaven, is conceived as a lord to all other human beings but only a vicegerent of Heaven above. [This and other] dimensions of Confucius’ saying should not be overlooked” (27; cf. 30). The picture is that the state is an organization whereby Heaven exercises its lordship over all human beings.

    Now and then in the West it has been popular to ground ethics or part of ethics in “natural law.” The thought here has usually been either that (a) God (or maybe Evolution) has implanted the moral law into our minds, or that (b) human nature is such that society both needs and is capable of general voluntary adherence to certain basic rules of conduct. There’s a very nice presentation and defense of a minimal version of this view in H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law.

  33. E. SHU 恕 – THE ONE THING

    In connection with Confucius, as we have seen, Paul sometimes speaks of Confucius’ “moral system,” the importance of “basic moral principles” and “all the moral calculations that a thinking Confucian must go through before acting,” and the like. What are the basic moral principles?

    Paul calls shu 恕the “cornerstone of Confucian ethics,” and probably the “one thing in his Way” (15). Paul takes the core idea to be roughly that of the golden rule. He does not stress the difference between positive and negative versions of the rule, and neither shall I; but he does stress the need for a certain modification of the formula, as we’ll see.

    If I understand Paul’s presentation, the reason why his Confucius “never defined ren; he always talked around it” was that “he preferred to spur his students to come to their own understanding of it”; but he did articulate for them shu, such that “if we work tirelessly to make shu our regular practice, we will be on the path of humanity itself” (18f). The picture seems to be that shu is the rule of conduct.

    1. The Need for Reformulation

    Paul says the plain golden rule fails to express what Confucius had in mind, because the golden rule “would require fathers to treat their sons in the same manner that their sons treat them” (15f).

    It is unclear why Paul thinks it would require that.

    His presentation suggests that he is confusing the plain golden rule with a rule that I should treat others as they do treat me; which Confucius would oppose because “the question for a son to consider is not how his father treats him, but how he would like his own son to treat him” (16).

    (But Paul may instead be confusing the idea that () a person should be treated in the same way by all people (16). Only together can () seem to imply that all treatments of anyone by anyone should be the same, so that fathers and sons should treat each other the same way (though if the father is not following the rule, the rule would still tell the son to treat the father otherwise than as the father is treating the son). True, one could come to think the golden rule implies (>), not by a slip but from the premise that Confucius believed that all people (young and old, low and high) have the same desires as relevant to the plain golden rule. But Paul says he thinks Confucius probably did not have that view (16).)

    (On 16f. Paul discusses a problem with “ethical systems based on reciprocity,” which is that they may generate different concrete recommendations to agents with different desires. By ‘reciprocity’ he appears to mean either the plain golden rule or his modified version (or both); I cannot tell which. On their face at least, neither of those is about reciprocity; reciprocity is about exchange (actual, hypothetical, or virtual). When Confucius at 17.2 allegedly rebukes Zai Wo for inadequately respecting those who were kind to him, the implicit appeal is to a norm of reciprocity.)

    2. Against Thinking

    There are larger and more obvious problems with the golden rule that Paul does not mention. One is that in most cases that might seem to call for moral thought, different people have opposing stakes in what I might do, and in such cases the rule tends to seem to contradict itself about what I should do; so that where we need moral guidance, there is no such thing as what it tells me to do, and hence no such thing as figuring out what the rule tells me to do. It would seem to follow that insofar as the golden rule is the core of morality, trying to figure out what morality requires in even slightly hard cases is a pointless exercise: moral thinking is a fool’s game.

    Consider an example from the book: “If we observe a crime … and can do something about it, is it better to call the police or intervene personally?” (17).

    We may notice that these two options involve direct treatment of the police and of the criminal, respectively, and indirect treatment of further parties. How should I treat each party? What I would want if I were in the position of the police, the criminal, the victim, their families, my own family, etc.? Such considerations suggest that there is no such thing as acting in accord with the golden rule in a case like this. All our options involve treating someone in violation of the rule.

    Or we may simply notice that the golden rule seems to have a bunch of crazy implications, before we think about why. It can suggest that we should give surprise hugs to those we love in vain, that judges should suspend all sentences, and that teachers should give all As. It can suggest that hosts and caterers should serve only the foods they would have liked to receive, though tastes differ. It can suggest that masochists should go around whipping people, and that those who wish to be killed (the kind of people who commit “suicide by cop”) should kill.

    In my view the lesson is that we should hesitate to understand the golden rule as a rule; to understand it we have to pay close attention to the idea of a pithy saying as distinct from a rule. Steve and I have made a start on that idea here:
    One possible outcome of a better understanding might be to drive a wedge between Confucius’ claims about the “one saying” and about the “one thread.”

    Maybe that is how Paul sees it, and I am wrong to think he has in mind a rule. But then one wonders what, in his view, are the deep principles of Confucius’ morality.

    3. The Modified Version

    Based on the famous passage in Zhongyong 13 and a common-sense argument, Paul holds that Confucius’ idea of shu is better articulated “for the modern reader” not as the plain golden rule, but rather thus: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you if you had the same social role as they” (16).

    As Paul explains, he doesn’t mean “… if you and they had the same role,” for that would mean treating everyone as an equal. Nor does he mean “… if you had the role they now have,” e.g. treating any father as you would want people to treat you if you were a father. Rather, he means treating each person as you would wish that person to treat you if the role relation (if any) between the two of you were reversed.

    In mentioning social roles, Paul may mean to signal that his interpretation is narrower than Martha Nussbaum’s, which he quotes in an endnote: “The Chinese forms [of the Golden Rule] do not say, ‘Treat another as you would have that other treat you,’ but ‘Treat another as you would have anyone else related to you as you are related to that other treat you” (125n.19). But Paul does not spell out what is to count as a “role,” beyond reporting the two pairs from the Zhongyong (ruler, subject, father, son) and once using the phrase ‘social status’ instead.

    It is unclear what roles Paul has in mind in his example of choosing how to react to a crime in progress.

    It would be interesting to hear how on this conception, shu might be equipped to account for Confucius’ views about what social roles there should be; for one might think those views are parts of his Way.

    It seems to me that as a first approximation we might divide what it is to be a “father” into two parts: the biological relation and the activity of caregiving and training. What is the “social role” that the rule looks to when it recommends caregiving and training?

    4. Textual Support

    As Paul points out, while his reading of Confucius’ shu is a nice fit with a famous passage in Zhongyong 13 stressing the father/son relation and the superior/subordinate relation, nevertheless it “may not be clear in the Analects” (16). It does not easily fit the one passage in which Confucius definitely gives some detail, 6.30 on ren. This passage suggests a different kind of paradigm case for shu – the case of equals in competition or potential conflict, people among whom the vertical relations may not yet have been sorted out. Leys’ translation is typical: “what he wishes to achieve for himself, he helps others to achieve; what he wishes to obtain for himself, he helps others to obtain.” The desires mentioned are actual, not hypothetical; on Paul’s reading that would mean that Confucius’ paraphrase of the rule here can only apply to the case of people who hold the same role as each other. Thus if Confucius means here to be discussing or presenting shu in general, it seems his understanding does not fit Paul’s reading.

    Paul translates differently: “what one wishes to establish in himself one establishes in others; what one wishes to advance in oneself, one advances in others” (18). The phrasing suggests doing other people’s moral development. The inner focus may be apt for the case of Confucius’ interlocutor Zigong in relation to fellow students (especially if his concern is not about display and favor); though the conversation does seem to aim at a more generally applicable account.

    5. Derivation

    In one passage Paul talks about the point of shu. “Shu is placing oneself in the position of others, and acting toward them as one imagines they would desire. How can one possibly imagine what someone else would desire? By taking oneself as an analogy” (19, and also Dao 7:2, 169).

    Paul seems to mean, “How can I possibly imagine what someone else desires? By imagining what I would desire in her position.” That is, the point of asking myself what I would want in her position (so that I can act that way) is to figure out what she probably wants in fact (so that I can act that way).

    I have two objections. First, usually there are better ways to find out what someone wants. One might ask. Second, here it seems that shu is presented as instrumental to following what in class I have sometimes called the copper rule: “Treat people as they want to be treated.” On its face the copper rule seems both clearer and worse than the golden rule; though the copper too seems to give conflicting recommendations. In any case one might suppose that if this were Confucius’ thought he might have emphasized the copper rule instead, or at least mentioned it.

    • Apologies: a parenthetical paragraph under section 1 of my comment on Shu was garbled as a result of my ignorance of html. Here’s the whole paragraph again with different notation:

      (But Paul may instead be confusing the idea that (E) a person should treat all people the same way (e.g. as one wants to be treated), with the different idea that (Ǝ) a person should be treated in the same way by all people (16). Only together can (E) and (Ǝ) seem to imply that all treatments of anyone by anyone should be the same, so that fathers and sons should treat each other the same way (though if the father is not following the rule, the rule would still tell the son to treat the father otherwise than as the father is treating the son). True, one could come to think the golden rule implies (Ǝ), not by a slip but from the premise that Confucius believed that all people (young and old, low and high) have the same desires as relevant to the plain golden rule. But Paul says he thinks Confucius probably did not have that view (16).)

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