Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Van Norden at Aeon on The Second Sage

Bryan Van Norden has a lovely essay about Mencius at Aeon, intended for a general audience. Check it out!

November 3rd, 2016 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Mencius | 3 comments

3 Responses to Van Norden at Aeon on The Second Sage

  1. Bill Haines says:

    It’s a great essay about the third sage.

    I have a question for Bryan, if he is here. He says the Way that Confucius saw himself as transmitting

    is based upon what contemporary philosophers such as Thomas Nagel refer to as ‘agent-relative obligations’: the filial piety that I owe to my mother and father precisely because they are my parents; respect for those who are elder to me; …

    This does not mean that I should be indifferent to strangers. The whole point of the child-at-the-well story is that our compassion extends to all humans. However, as one of Confucius’s disciples put it: ‘Are not filial piety and respect for our elders the root of benevolence?’ In other words, it is in the family that our dispositions to love and show respect for others are first incubated.

    What I want to ask is whether Bryan sees Youzi’s “respect for our elders” as respect mainly for one’s elders in one’s own family, as his discussion here seems to assume. For that understanding of the term would make 1.2 a comment about the importance of family.

    By contrast, it seems to me most probable that the operative idea in Youzi’s “其为人也孝弟” is of a man putting his elders first both inside and outside the family; in brief, it’s about a man’s putting his elders first. (Even strangers.) On this reading, 1.2 is not a comment about the importance of family in general (i.e. beyond one kind of family relation), and it’s not a comment about the importance of family specifically (i.e. as opposed to non-family relations).

    It seems to me that whenever we see xiao and ti presented as a pair by Confucius in the Analects, ti refers specifically to one’s relations with people outside the family. I think the same is probably true of the Mozi. So it’s hard to think that for Youzi, 弟 as elder-respect would focus on the family.

    Also in the Mencius, it seems to me likely that whenever xiao and ti are presented as a pair with the idea that ti means respect for elders, what is meant is mainly elders outside the family. This is explicit in 3B4, which echoes Confucius:

    “filial when at home and respectful of his elders when in public”

    At 1A3 (and the same line in 1A7), a focus on non-family elders might be suggested by the contextual mention of elders in the most “outside” places:

    Legge at http://ctext.org:
    Let careful attention be paid to education in schools, inculcating in it especially the filial and fraternal (sic) duties, and grey-haired men will not be seen upon the roads, carrying burdens on their backs or on their heads.
    If one is careful about providing instruction in the village schools, emphasizing the righteousness of filiality and brotherliness (sic), those whose hair has turned gray will not carry loads on the roadways.

    The thought might be that any properly schooled man on the roadway who saw a very old person carrying a load would insist on carrying it for them, whether they knew the person or not.

    At 6B2, it seems to me that by 弟 Mencius is referring to respect for elders:

    To walk slowly behind one’s elders is called being “filial.” To walk quickly ahead of one’s elders is called being “ unfilial .” Is walking slowly something that people are incapable of? It is merely that they do not do it. The Way of Yao and Shun is nothing other than filiality and brotherliness.

    Analects 14.44 suggests to me that it was regarded as proper to walk behind one’s non-family elders, and not just in formal ritual tableaux.

    Here in 6B2, perhaps the thought behind the surprising translation of 弟 as “filiality” is that in the walking example, 弟 is standing proxy for 孝弟, in which 孝 is the core idea. But we might more plausibly take the walking example as suggesting that the core idea of 孝弟 in this passage is putting one’s elders first, i.e. 弟. Thus the Way would not be limited to the family.

    Of course, there are passages in the Mencius where 弟/悌 paired with 孝 is likely to mean subfraternity. It is not the most consistent of collections. But here my concern is with the proposition, “In those cases where弟/悌 means respect for elders, it is mainly about respect for elders within one’s family.”

  2. Manyul Im says:

    I don’t think I’ve read or thought about Nagel’s agent-relative obligations for a while, but isn’t there some controversy about whether it is supposed to pick out — or whether it can successfully pick out at all — a non-universalizable class of obligations? It seems like the fact that it is *my mother* would only be interestingly different as a reason if that could serve by itself as a reason without a further generalizable principle about why people should care for their own mothers.

    It may be that Mencius and Confucius don’t need to be attributed that kind of view in order to attribute to them concern for family members by family members — a concern that Mozi seems to share with them.

  3. Bill Haines says:

    Hi Manyul,

    As for me, what I seem to recall, but only very vaguely, is some idea that if morality is seen as comprising agent-relative requirements all the way down, that’s not consistent with a theory (like utilitarianism) that sees the source of requirements in a kind of agent-neutral good/bad (e.g. the idea that the more happiness there is the better, ceteris paribus; or the idea that it was a bad thing that the earthquake maimed so many people, or the idea that harmony is valuable).

    When Bryan writes for a general audience that the old Ru way is “based on agent-relative obligations,” maybe that need not be read as referring to ultimate foundations; the intended audience might be presumed to take it to mean that the Way largely focuses on agent-relative requirements. Either way I think it’s a very interesting interpretive idea, one that could be attractive to someone who hesitates to go all the way with “roles” and “relationships.”


    We might take advantage of the valuable sometime use of the following terms to distinguish:

    “obligations” (or “duties to someone”) as what we owe to someone
    “duties” as requirements springing from positions we occupy
    “requirements” as covering whatever we morally have to do.

    The first two are sort of agent-relative by definition.

    Regarding the supererogatory, or courses of life that would be very good but aren’t required, such as seeking high position to reform the world—I’m not sure how agent-relative the relevant standards would be (as distinct from the duties of the particular positions one happens to occupy during such a quest).


    Depending on how we define agent-relativity, even classical utilitarianism (the standard extreme foil for agent-relativity) may think ethical prescriptions are agent-relative all the way down. When it says the ultimate prescription is to find and carry out the option that would maximize net pleasure, it doesn’t mean that in an agent-neutral way. (After all, probably the most felicific option in the world is somebody else’s option.) Rather the utilitarian’s ultimate universal principle says to each of us that among the options available to her at any given time, she should take the one that, as compared to the others available to her at the time, would most promote net pleasure. She is necessarily mentioned in the account of the prescription as it applies to her. Thus the utilitarian universal principle generates only agent-relative prescriptions to particular people, just as does a universal prescription to respect one’s elders.

    So maybe the mere abstract idea of agent-relativity is too weak to be interesting, and maybe that’s the issue you are getting at.


    Still, utilitarianism seems to distinguish between goodness and rightness and say that the former is not agent-relative. Amartya Sen talks about the possibility that ultimate goodness is agent-relative in “Rights and Agency,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 11 (1982). I know this because I went farther and proposed that goodness in general is person-relative, in “Hedonism and the Variety of Goodness,” Utilitas 22:2 (2010). I mean, more robustly relative than what I described just above.


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