Section 5B/4 of the Mencius is a very interesting text. It’s one of the points at which the Mencius gets defensive about Mencius’s personal virtue. The issue here is Mencius’s willingness to accept gifts from rulers who acquired them by taking from their people. Why accept those gifts, given that you wouldn’t accept gifts from a more everyday sort of bandit?
This passage interests me in part because I’m interested in Mencian defensiveness (on which see also the earlier thread about Shun and his awful family). But that’s not the issue I want to take up here. What I’m wondering about is how (if at all) Mencius’s argument is supposed to work.
Mencius distinguishes between genuine bandits and rulers who steal by saying that bandits are simply to be executed, with no attempt to reform them through instruction, whereas a true king would first instruct wicked rulers before resorting to execution. The passage seems to think this is just common sense, and does not try to justify it or even to explain what it has to do with accepting gifts.
What I wonder is whether we should read an implicit argument into the passage’s evident concern with ritual propriety. The passage begins with Wan Zhang asking what heart (or attitude) is appropriate to the exchange of gifts, and Mencius tells him that it is respect (gong 恭), and it is precisely the heart of respect (gongjing 恭敬) that, according to 6A/6, is the starting point of ritual. (The parallel passage in 2A/6 instead derives ritual from a heart of deference, or cirang 辭讓.) It is disrespectful, Mencius says, to refuse a ruler’s gift when it is offered with appropriate ceremony.
Wan Zhang asks the obvious question: what if a bandit offers you stolen goods, but does so with appropriate ceremony? This is where Mencius’s argument peters out, but I wonder if, implicitly, the appeal is to the ruler’s superior ritual status compared to the bandit. Maybe the bandit just can’t take on the ceremonial role of someone who can properly give away stolen goods—whereas a ruler is.
Some corollary thoughts.
We seem in this passage to have three sorts of normative judgment at issue. There is the judgment directed at those, whether rulers or bandits, who take what is not theirs: they are doing wrong. Then there is the view that associating with those who do wrong can taint you and thus shame you. And there is the judgment that in some cases you should not avoid that taint (see also 2A/9 and 3B/10, for example). How did Mencius and his followers understand the differences between these three sorts of judgment?
The view that you can be tainted or compromised by another’s wrongdoing would clearly be associated with the heart of shame and the virtue of yi, or righteousness, for which it provides the basis. Now, this is a very distinctive conception of yi. Yi here is a matter not of the rightness or wrongness of what you do, but of whether what you or someone else does lowers or demeans or taints you. Of course it is often because of its wrongness that an action demeans you. For example, it would be because it was wrong for the ruler to steal from his people that accepting his gifts would demean Mencius. But being yi here has to do with how we react to the wrongness, it is not the wrongness itself. (And one is not always reacting to an action that is morally wrong—7B/31 gives as one of its examples our reactions to disrespectful forms of address.)
All this suggests that the judgment that the ruler and the bandit have done something wrong, and the judgment that it is permissible to accept the king’s gifts, are not based in yi. The first of these seems to be a judgment of right and wrong, and we should probably relate it to the heart of approval and disapproval, which provides the basis for wisdom. In fact, this solves a problem. The heart of approval and disapproval sounds like it should provide the basis for moral judgment, but if we overlook the distinctive way yi is conceived of in these texts, it’s only natural to think that moral judgment must be a matter of yi (or anyway that’s how I always thought of it). This makes it very hard to understand what the heart of approval and disapproval could do.
Finally, the suggestion I’m making in this post is that the last of these judgments, the judgment that it is permissible to accept the king’s gifts, might derive instead from ritual propriety and the associated attitude of respect. One interesting consequence of that idea, if it’s right, is that ritual must sometimes guide the ways in which we expand our heart of shame—it must constrain our yi. But then yi is here subordinate both to ritual and to wisdom, because it is only through the exercise of wisdom (in moral judgment) that yi comes into play in this case, and it is ritual that tells us whether or not yi requires us to refuse.