Let’s say a normative theory is a theory intended to set out whatever it is that grounds correct norms.
The Mohists had a normative theory that grounded norms on what they called benefit (lì 利). (Or they had a normative theory that based norms on the will of tiān 天, if you read them that way; but you shouldn’t.) As Chris Fraser said a couple of threads back (in this comment), this may actually have been the world’s first explicit normative theory.
It’s often implied that Mencius also had a normative theory, one that grounded norms in facts about human nature, and that’s the issue I want to raise. My view is that the Mencius never argues from claims about human nature to normative conclusions, so there’s no reason to think that its author or authors would have endorsed such a normative theory.
What we find in what may be the most famous invocations of inner goodness in the Mencius is a concern with ability. The discussion of the child by the well is about how people are capable of rén 仁 (the announced topic is the ability of rulers to be rén, but the passage invites generalisation). The discussion about King Xuān and the ox tries to show that the king has what it takes to be a virtuous king. Both passages take their normative claims for granted; there is no hint of a normative theory in either.
Elsewhere in the Mencius, we do find normative arguments, such as in the extended argument against the followers of Shén Nóng, the God of Agriculture, but there’s rarely if ever any attempt to set out a general basis for these arguments, and none of the arguments appeal to human nature.
The one tricky passage is the argument against the Mohist Yí Zhī about funerals and inclusive care. It’s often read as saying that our natural love for our parents rules out inclusive care and demands lavish funerals. But when this passage objects that Mohists are two-rooted, it means that the Mohists embraced both particularist and universalist attitudes, both love and inclusive care. (The Mohists didn’t write about love, but they did place a great deal of emphasis on, for example, filial piety.) This is best read as a complaint about Mohist psychology, which does not treat universalist attitudes (which the Mencius also advocates) as extensions of particularist ones, a point on which the Mencius follows Yǒuzǐ (hi, Bill); this is not a normative argument. And the passage does not even pretend to make a case against moderation in funerals—the funerals it describes approvingly are far more moderate than anything the Mohists advocated.
As far as I can tell, the closest the Mencius comes to embracing a normative theory is in Book 1, in which benevolent government may get grounded in the well-being of the people and in the figure of the virtuous king; and the only connection to human nature here is in the assumption that the people will respond with approval to a king who ensures their well-being.
Well, that’s how I see it, anyway. Thoughts?
Two comments. First, I think there are narrow and broad ways one could read your definition of “normative theory.” On the narrow reading, all the theory is about is norms like “Do this,” “Don’t do that,” “This is right,” “That is wrong,” and so on — with more-or-less general specifications of conduct filled in for “this” and “that.” On the broad reading, we could add norms that govern the sort of person one should be without any direct connection to behavior. “So-and-so is a good sort of person”; “such-and-such is a good disposition to develop”; and so on. Unless we use “normative theory” in this broad way, we’re going to have a hard time finding a robust enough match in Chinese *or* Greek traditions.
Second, while we will all acknowledge that the reasoning is less explicit in texts like Mencius than it is in some Greek texts, I think there are key pointers toward a broad normative theory in passages like 6A14-15 and 7B24. If one only cares about one’s physical desires (i.e., treats them as xing), then one’s moral feelings will shrivel. One will have neglected key parts of oneself. In fact, one will have neglected one’s greater parts (and various reasons are given or implied for this, including the necessity of si, given by tian, which makes possible human relationships and society). On the other hand, if one nurtures the moral feelings, the physical desires will still receive adequate satisfaction. Various passages make it clear that these are not supposed to go away, and have their own value. They are just not supposed to dominate.
That, I propose, is a normative theory grounded in facts about human nature.
I agree with Steve. Your analysis seems to assume that the relevant norms are action-guiding. Mengzi’s virtue ethics does have action-guiding implications (people who have undergone his regimen for moral development will be more likely to act in some ways than others), but its direct object of concern is usually good dispositions or states of character.
As for the norms of benevolent government, I do think that we could read Mengzi as grounding them in the welfare of the people (and perhaps also a theory of political legitimacy). But it’s interesting that he also thinks the ruler’s first obligation is to provide the people with the conditions under which their virtues can flourish. Thus Mengzi says in 1B8 that the tyrant Zhou lost his mandate to rule because he robbed the people of rén and yì. Whether this puts virtue first depends on whether he sees virtue as valuable intrinsically, or merely valuable as a major constituent of human welfare. I’m sympathetic to the latter view, but the former is at least arguable.
In addition to his discussions of benevolent government in Book 1, which you mention, I’d add 2A5, 2B8, 5A5-6, 7B4, 7B14 to the list.
Steve, I suppose it would depend on what’s supposed to make the greater parts of the body greater than the lesser parts. If that’s a fact about human nature, then that would look like an attempt to ground normative claims in human nature. But I don’t see the Mencius making that move. 7B/24 actually seems to rule it out when it acknowledges that all the parts function according to xing; the claim that we shouldn’t talk about them all as xing thus has to have some basis independent of what really is xing.
Justin, I’m not sure how you get the idea that the ruler’s first obligation is to allow the people’s virtue to flourish. You menton 1B/8, but there’s no explicit reference to the people’s virtues there (I’ve always taken it to be talking about Zhou’s own lacking virtues). The people’s virtue is part of the package in at least 1A/5, but it’s not picked out as a first obligation, and the usual focus of these texts is on the material well-being of the people.
I’d certainly agree that the Mencius doesn’t establish a normative ethic, but more for reasons that you established in the Mohist-thread: Normative ethics, like philosophy, is a Western construct. If I may paraphrase you, just as things can be philosopical without being directly engaged in philosophy, so to can things be normatively ethical without being engaged in normative ethics. I don’t think it is too hard to read the Mencius and from that establish a normative ethic; indeed, given what we know now, I think the informed reader is compelled to (shades of your tu’s worth thread) but if we place ourselves in Mengzi’s position, well, no, we couldn’t really do the whole normative-ethics stueck. But is that how the text ought be read, especially considering later developments (which I think inarguably lead to a normative ethic).
I agree that at the end of the day it’s probably material welfare itself that most concerns Mengzi. But in defense of the other reading, it’s worth noting that Mengzi tends to prioritize material welfare because it provides the economic and social conditions in which virtue can flourish. Unlike the jūnzǐ who can hold fast to virtue even under adversity, the people need a relatively stable livelihood to become and remain benevolent and righteous (3A3). The great tragedy in depriving them of this stable livelihood is it prevents them from living humane and righteous lives (1A7). This is why I think that the virtues that Zhou “robs” (賊) in 1B8 are the people’s, not Zhou’s (that plus the oddness of saying that Zhou robs himself of virtue–but I may not be doing justice to your reading here).
But just because Mengzi thinks virtue is the major reason to provide for the material welfare of the people, this doesn’t mean that it’s the only reason.
Dan, I think there’s something misleading in your contrast, and I think Steve and Justin are talking at cross purposes with you because of it. Your claim seems to be about the presence or absence of a normative theory in a very broad sense:
A. The Mozi has an action-guiding theory that is evident in the text, but the Mencius does not.
But I think what you really mean is:
B. The Mozi has in it an (i) explicit and (ii) systematic action-guiding theory, while the Mencius does not have either sort.
Claim A seems pretty strong and probably false. The easiest way to show that is to point to the sorts of passages that Steve and Justin have.
But your discussion of “grounding arguments” and “normative arguments” suggests that what you really find lacking in Mencius is some explicit connection that Mencius makes between some set of facts about human nature and action guidance. Mozi, on the other hand, explicitly puts li 利, benefit, forward as the standard by which to guide policies and actions. Not only that, Mozi seems very *systematic* about li, benefit, as the standard, whereas Mencius seems to pick and choose the rationale, ad hoc, for guidance. So, sometimes Mencius seems to care about the (beneficial or unbeneficial) consequences, other times he seems to care about what answers to yi 義, still other times he seems to care about what answers to ren 仁 (to some extent, this is only a separate standard from li, benefit, if we can clearly distinguish the goals within ren from those of seeking benefit).
I think I agree with you, if I’ve understood you correctly. I find that the Mencius resists systematization when I look for something like a moral theory. (Xunzi seems much more systematic by contrast.)
Now, let me say something somewhat from another angle about the idea of “grounding” normative theory that puts a different twist in your conjecture. Start with Mozi. He teaches that benefit is what Heaven desires, what the Sages really desired (despite what the other history-mongerers might have said), and that seeking benefit has always and will always bring about the most benefit for the world. (There’s no clear way to express “ought” in Classical Chinese for any of this–is that a problem? I don’t know.) I think that’s certainly systematic and explicit–and it *is* Mozi’s normative theory. But I don’t know that there is something I would recognize as a “grounding” for his theory. To seek benefit *just is* the primary principle of Mozi’s normative theory. This, I think, provides fodder for defenders of Mencius who might see Mencius as trying to provide something more like “a grounding” for norms. If there is something about human nature that would tell in favor of privileging certain considerations over others in thinking about what to do or how to live, then there would be a normative theory with a grounding in human nature. I don’t see Mozi trying to do that; Mozi seems engaged in the project of constructing a normative theory, but the justification of the theory itself is internal to the theory–i.e. the goal of bringing about benefit. So, I don’t really see the project of grounding in Mozi, if by grounding we mean something anterior to the normative theory that tells in favor of accepting that theory. If that all passes muster, then Mencius has at least that leg up on Mozi, whether or not Mencius was successful in the grounding attempt.
Steve, I’m unsure what you mean when you say that normative ethics is a western construct. Chinese philosophers did make normative claims, and supported them with reasons, and some of them appear to have thought pretty seriously about what in general counts in favour of normative claims. The Mohists did that, for example; but I don’t think anything in the Mencius implies that Mencius or his followers engaged in the same kind of theorising. (You could read 7A/26 as an explicit rejection of that kind of theorising.) So, if I’m right, there’s a difference here within the ancient Chinese tradition, regardless of the history of the terms I use to characterise it.
With respect to human nature, my central claim is that nowhere in the Mencius do we find an inference from claims about human nature to normative claims. None of the passages you mentioned in #1 do that, for example. So I can’t see how we’re compelled to attribute that kind of argument to the authors of the Mencius. There are normative arguments in the Mencius; they just don’t appeal to human nature, and, as Manyul says in #6, they don’t seem to reflect a systematic view of what justifies normative claims. (I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, it’s just a different thing from what we find in the Mozi and, sometimes, the Xunzi.)
Justin, I think you’re right that the virtue of the people is part of the mix, and that this is in part because of the view that most of us will behave well only if our material needs are fairly secure. I’d just add a corollary: if our material needs are secure, then most of us will behave reasonably well without any additional incentive. The implication: what the benevolent ruler needs to worry about is for the most part the material well-being of the people. But, again I agree that part of the reason for that is that this leads to a more virtuous population.
(For what it’s worth, the virtue of the general population is also part of the Mohists’ conception of social order, and thus of benefit. In particular, they take it for granted that one of the aims to be achieved by their dao is that of promoting filial piety.)
Manyul, my intention was to assert something like your “B.” But I may have been taking it for granted that an action-guiding theory (as opposed to just a bunch of action-guiding maxims or claims) is going to be systematic, which maybe I shouldn’t have.
Again, I don’t think anything in the Mencius suggests that facts about human nature tell in favour of one normative theory, and against others. So while I can see the point of the distinction you draw, I don’t think it characterises the differences in what the Mohists and Mencians were up to.
Justsomeguy, I just realised I read your #4 as a comment from Steve—sorry about that, it was dumb of me.
I think you got my point about “grounding” vs. “constructing” a normative theory; but let me re-emphasize that it was meant to suggest that Mozi does not offer *any more* grounding than Mencius, in the more technical sense of “grounding” than you’ve been using. The way you’ve been using “grounding” is more like what I would call “systematizing”–i.e. providing systematic and principled reasons for particular norms. The stronger sense of “grounding” is more like what Kant tries to provide–some (perhaps non-normative) consideration that is logically prior to the normative theory that tells in its favor over some other possible normative theory. The Mohist theory would seem favorable given a value that is posited *within* that theory: production of benefit. The value of benefit, or its consideration, doesn’t ground Mohist normative theory–it’s just a part of that theory.
Now, the Mohists might have been engaged in the project of convincing non-believers that they, and everyone else, tacitly hold li, benefit, as their highest value whether they admit it or not, a la some modern consequentialists (Mill, perhaps?). Maybe that would be a project of grounding in the stronger sense…
Manyul, I think I get it, but suspect we disagree. Maybe you could explain how you distinguish between what is internal to the Mohists’ normative theory, and what would be external?
I’ve been looking at the arguments that the various masters give when defending their particular claims. With the early Mohists, these arguments appeal to a conception of benefit that seems to be fairly constant across the early Mohists’ writings. These arguments are not intramural—they are directed at non-Mohists. So their role is not (or not only) to set out the reasons that would move a committed Mohist. Rather, they set out reasons for someone who is not a Mohist to adopt the Mohist dao.
I suppose the contrast is in a way neatest in the arguments defending inclusive care. There the Mohists appeal to benefit (impartially conceived) to argue in effect that people in general should be moved by benefit (still impartially conceived). So we need to distinguish on the one hand the concern for benefit that’s supposed to motivate the Mohist agent, and on the other hand the appeal to benefit that justifies that concern. Which is to say that the appeal to benefit is external if not exactly to a theory then at least to the Mohists’ conception of what considerations agents should be moved by.
To put the point somewhat differently, the Mohists defended certain practices, values, and attitudes, which together constitute their dao. They defended these things by appealing to benefit. That appeal is external to their dao, and shows up in arguments targeted at people who do not endorse their dao. Doesn’t this imply that they were trying to provide their dao with an external grounding?
It might be helpful to distinguish between substantive ethical views, a substantive ethical theory, and a normative theory. Substantive ethical views are views about what is ethically right, wrong, obligatory, permissible, and so forth. A substantive ethical theory is a systematic statement of the norms reflected in such views. A normative theory is a substantive theory plus an explanation of why the substantive theory is correct—an account of the justification or grounds for that set of norms, as Dan puts it.
Almost everyone has substantive ethical views, and Mèngzǐ definitely does. Not everyone has a substantive ethical theory. A person could have views about right and wrong without having thought about how these views fit together as a system or without seeing them as issuing from certain general models, norms, or principles. I think we can agree that the Mèngzǐ does not explicitly present a substantive theory. But it’s plausible to think that Mèngzǐ and his followers have a rough, implicit substantive theory. (Their use of the word dào 道 might already be enough to suggest this, as a dào is a conception of a system of norms.)
Dan’s question concerns whether the Mèngzǐ contains a normative theory, explicit or implicit. Such a theory might suggested by, for example, a passage stating or implying that some norm or practice is right because it issues from or aligns with people’s nature. I don’t think we can defensibly get that out of the Yí Zhī passage (3A:5); there I think the claim is that a change in practices is not right unless driven by an overwhelming, unified motivation that comes straight from the heart. (An alternative way to read the passage is as implying that what makes something right is that people have an overwhelming urge to do it. I reject that reading.)
I suspect I agree with Dan’s take, but am very interested in hearing others’ suggestions (I want to have a closer look at the passages Steve cites).
As to the Mohists’ substantive theory, notice that it includes claims about both the practices we should follow and the sort of people we should be (filial, loyal, etc.). A typical statement of one of theory’s general norms is: “The rén person surely seeks to promote the benefit of the world and eliminate harm to the world.” This sort of general norm justifies practices such as inclusive care or opposition to wasteful elite entertainment. But this general norm is not the Mohists’ fundamental justification. In their normative theory, they justify it in turn by appeal to the conduct of an ideally impartial, beneficent and unselfish, consistent, noble agent (i.e., Tiān). A passage in the Mohist “Analects” adds that, to be plausible, moral norms must not have self-defeating consequences when publicized and universalized. I think all this amounts to “grounding” in the stronger sense Manyul identifies.
Steve, I read the passages you cite as implying that a person should do what’s morally good or right, or should seek to be a “grand person” (6A:15), because doing so realizes aspects of one’s nature. Specifically, one becomes a grand person by employing the heart to sī, a capacity given to us by Tiān, and if we fail to employ this capacity we’re failing to realize or employ an inherent part of ourselves–in effect failing to be who we are. You mention moral feelings, so I assume you’re tying 6A:15 to 6A:6 through their shared use of sī (a plausible approach). We then have a picture on which having, attending to, and then being moved by morally relevant feelings is part of what it is to be human. A natural way to read the text is as implying that it is therefore normatively right or good to attend to these feelings, let them move us, and thus become morally good.
I agree that this is a plausible reading of an inherently interesting position. It epitomizes certain central Mencian themes and hooks up smoothly with the text’s concern with motivation and ability.
In light of Dan’s initial question, though, what I find striking about it is that it’s mainly formal rather than substantive. It addresses the relation between virtues or norms and people’s nature, rather than the content of those virtues or norms. It might provide a justification of why people should be morally good and an explanation of how they have the motivational resources to be good. But I don’t see that it goes very far toward grounding substantive claims about the content of virtues or moral norms.
I say “goes very far” because the moral feelings mentioned in 6A:6 include compassion, repugnance, and respect, which obviously give some shape to the virtues or norms associated with them. But I don’t see that the Mèngzǐ indicates, even implicitly, how the considerations in 6A:15 and 6A:6 ground an account of the substantive norms or virtues we know Mèngzǐ and his followers endorse–ones that would lead us to save a child from an accident but not an ox from a sacrifice, to ensure the material welfare of our subjects, to care for elders, to give our parents fancy funerals, to refrain from physical contact with women other than our spouse except when necessary to save their lives, and so on.
So your proposal makes me think Dan’s original idea may be right (and that your position and his might not conflict too deeply): the Mèngzǐ is basically just not in the business of giving a normative theory. The text’s concerns are elsewhere. I should add that I don’t see this as a criticism, but simply an attempt to pin down what the text is up to. The Zhuāngzǐ is by and large not in the normative theory business either, but I don’t think we’d consider that observation a criticism.
Chris, I wonder if the distinction you make between formal rather than substantive norms is actually tracking a difference between implicit action-guidance through use of “thick” virtue terms (what you’ve called formal) versus action-guidance through use of explicit action-goals. For the Mohists, the goals of action should be benefit; thick virtue terms don’t get thrown out, as Dan points out (comment 7, fourth paragraph), but they do get recast in terms of benefit. Put this way, what Mencius is up to may not seem as “contentless” as a purely formal normative account, e.g. Kant’s CI. In fact, I think most people who go in for virtue ethics and a virtue reading of Mencius would argue that virtue concepts often resist more than the most general characterization and that knowledge of what a virtue requires more specifically in a situation is something of a particularistic judgment that isn’t formulatable a priori in contentful principles of action.
I understand you didn’t mean the distinction to provide a criticism of Mencius, but I think this is how the virtue-ethics types would respond to it.
Sure, we certainly read the Mohists that way given our backgrounds, but whether the Mohists understood it that way, much less the shi as a class, is more open.
Chris, I don’t agree that the passages Steve mentioned imply the argument you discuss, that one should be a great person because that realises certain aspects of one’s nature. I’ll make three points, then suggest another reading.
First, these passages ask us to focus on certain features of our nature rather than others, so the fact that they are features of our nature cannot be what drives the argument (if indeed there’s an argument in these passages). What the argument would need to provide is some reason to prefer certain features rather than others, but there’s no sign of any such argument (unless maybe the passage is taking its normative claims for granted, and using them to distinguish between greater and lesser parts).
Second, if the argument assumes that its target already accepts that we really ought to follow our greater parts, and also that our greater parts guide us to act virtuously (as the author(s) of these passages conceive of virtuous action), then who isn’t this argument going to beg the question against?
Third, as you point out, this gives only a formal justification of the virtues; 6A/14-15 do not even mention specific virtues.
Here’s one way to explain what’s going on. In a number of texts in the Mencius, we find concern to show that virtue can be natural for us. In none of these texts is this naturalness given as a reason to prefer a particular conception of virtue, or even to choose virtue (however conceived) over a non-virtuous life. Rather, these texts provide us with a way to think of ourselves in relation to virtue, the idea being that we should take up this way of thinking of ourselves and of virtue when we commit ourselves to being good people. That is, these passages address the psychology of someone who is or who has his/her mind set on being virtuous, not someone who needs to be convinced that it is best to be virtuous, or that a particular conception of virtue is correct.
Consider 7B/24; it sets out a perspective that it attributes to gentlemen, not presupposing that people in general already hold that perspective, and therefore not defending the value of being a gentlemen on the basis of that perspective, but precisely to set out part of what’s involved in being a gentleman. And it looks to me that seeing virtue as the exercise of one’s greater parts plays a similar role in 6A/14-15.
Why would this be an issue for the author(s) of these passages? In part I’m following Foucault in thinking that some conception of one’s relation to ethical norms is essential for ethical subjectivity. And I think this mode of subjection (to use Foucault’s expression) is especially important in Mencian self-cultivation, the idea being that thinking about goodness as natural for you, as already in some sense in you, helps you become a good person—once you’ve already committed yourself to doing that.
Manyul, if what you say is right, then two virtue theorists can disagree substantively, but they cannot express or address their disagreement in virtue-ethical terms (e.g., if they both advocate ren, but take it to require different behavior in at least some situations). Isn’t that a problem?
Justsomeguy, I’m not interested in how we can read the texts; we can read them as cookbooks if we want. The question is how should we read them, which to me implies that the question concerns in part how the Mohists understood what they were up to. I’ve sketched my view; what alternatives are there?
(Also, the Mohists probably were not shi, or at least probably did not start out that way.)
Dan, the problem of disagreement among the virtuous is one that most virtue-theorists are probably willing to accept. The analogy is to other less-than-systematic areas of expertise or “virtuosity.” Two wine experts might disagree about whether a particular vintage is better than another, but (1) by and large, they will agree on a wide range of wines; (2) the differences will be slight. Critics of virtue theory might point to this type of thinking as amounting to support of some form of unverifiable elitism in moral judgment, or worse for philosophers today, some form of non-natural intuitionism.
That’s a general problem, as you are probably thinking already, that might be leveled against particularistic views of moral judgment. But I think that conflates particularism with intuitionism. A particularist just thinks that in some situation–in comparison to some other, the facts that are relevant can differ in moral weight or salience depending on the full accounting of other facts that are present. Surely two “experts” could argue with one another about these matters without having to engage a priori general principles. Two junzis might have to figure out how to understand a situation in which the demands of ritual propriety strike them respectively as slightly different. And that may not boil down in the end to intuition mongering, thought that remains a possibility. For what it’s worth, I think consequentialists and Kantians have similar problems–there’s no guarantee that the facts of the situation won’t underdetermine the judgment of what action to take. So two consequentialists or two Kantians might have disagreements about difficult cases. But, as you’ve noted, they, respectively, have a predictable initial question to ask of each other (“What are you counting in your calculation of the overall consequences?” or “What maxim do you think is in question here?”). With the virtue theorists, someone might say there is also initial recourse to questions about what virtues are relevant to the situation, but I actually think that gets things wrong. A virtue theory should relegate normative judgments to *the virtuous* not to the theorists who, as much as they promote virtue theory, might not themselves be virtuous. So, the scenario we should imagine is one where two virtuous people disagree. This is all very Aristotelian, but that’s what some people like to do with Mencius.
Manyul, what you say seems to address particular, local disagreements. But what about deeper or more systematic disagreements? E.g., what do the two junzis say to another virtue theorist who denies that ritual propriety is a virtue? Or to someone (maybe a Mohist) who thinks that ren requires taking action to transform the established customs that provide much of the basis of the junzis’ expertise?
To address these questions, I think we’re going to need a distinction between the reasons that are salient for a (particular sort of) virtuous agent, on the one hand, and the reasons that might be given to justify a particular conception of virtue, on the other. It’s the latter sort of reasons that I’m talking about, and for the most part the Mencius (as I read it) is not in the business of trying to provide them.
How do virtue ethicists address this sort of disagreement? (My own lack of expertise on the virtue ethics literature is showing, I know.)
Indeed, how should we read them? I’m just saying I’m not sure a normative fashion is the best way, though it certainly is *a* way to read them.
As for how the Mohists started, I know nothing of Buddhas past and present, but I know cows exist . . . Likewise, I am familiar with the Mozi, and by they time they certainly were engaged with the shi class and probably were of the shi class.
Dan: I pretty much agree with what you say in #15 and shouldn’t have phrased the opening words of #12 as I did. After all, 6A:15 does not purport to give a normative argument, but a causal-psychological explanation of why some people are good and others not. It is part of a series of passages devoted to showing that virtue is something we all have the capacity to develop if we just employ our natural psychological resources. This is the explicit theme of 6A:6.
The argument I suggested could be developed out of 6A:15/6A:6 takes these passages out of context. I wouldn’t propose it as an interpretation of the texts. Still, I think it’s worth considering as something ancient Mencians could have tried to say to the unconverted (though there’s no evidence they did) or contemporary interpreters of Confucianism might actually say (as Steve did). Then my concern, dovetailing with yours, is that the argument is either question-begging or substantively so thin that it’s in effect an argument about why one should be moral rather than a defense of any particular normative view or conception of morality.
Manyul: You make a good point about being sensitive to how virtue ethicists might formulate normative claims. Actually, in using the formal/substantive contrast I was clumsily trying to cover both virtues and norms of action (I mentioned both). My thought was that the virtue terms in, say, 6A:6 are “thin” (relatively formal), not “thick” (substantive). Filiality (xiào 孝) is a “thick” virtue term. But rén 仁 and yì 義 are not (it’s important here not to translate rén, to preserve its generality and vagueness in the original language).
One familiar passage in the Mèngzǐ (7A:15) implicitly ties these thin virtues to the thicker ones of xiào and tì 悌. But that passage is not about normative issues. It’s about how our innate capacity to love parents and respect elder siblings shows we can be rén and yì. So it fits right into the interpretive line Dan has been developing.
Hey wait, don’t leave this thread behind yet! 🙂 I’ve been amassing some Mencius passages to use in my arsenal of responses to Dan’s thought-provoking problem of normative justification for the substantive ethical doctrines of Mencius. I had originally planned a very long response, but since I don’t know if I will succeed in my response to Dan and Chris, let me begin with 3A5, the conversation between Yi Zhi and Mencius.
Regarding 3A5, Dan says (in the post launching this thread), “This is best read as a complaint about Mohist psychology, which does not treat universalist attitudes (which the Mencius also advocates) as extensions of particularist ones… this is not a normative argument.”
Dan’s remark, for one thing, ignores the concluding bit in 3A5, which notes that Yi Zhi looked lost for a while, and then replied that he had taken Mencius’s point. Apparently, Mencius was not just complaining, but arguing a point, and that point had hit home.
Again, regarding 3A5, Chris says (in Comment 11), “…there I think the claim is that a change in practices is not right unless driven by an overwhelming, unified motivation that comes straight from the heart.”
Is 3A5 really only about change in practices (and Chris, what change in practices do you think the passage has in mind)? At the beginning of 3A5 Mencius is criticizing Yi Zhi’s adoption of the Confucian practice of giving lavish burials to his parents as inconsistent with the Mohist doctrine of frugality. But Yi Zhi in response (mis)takes the criticism to be leveled at the inconsistency of loving his parents with the Mohist doctrine of universal concern, and says the practice of the Mohist doctrine begins with one’s parents. This response in effect switches the debate to the key substantial difference between Mohist and Confucian ethical theory (impartial vs. graded concern).
Let me try to reconstruct the argument Dan and Chris are making on 3A5, and please correct me if I am wrong (because only sketchy innuendos have been made so far!):
Mencius in his response to Yi Zhi is only making a psychological observation, not presenting a normative justification. That people in general feel strongly moved to bury the remains of their parents is no normative justification for the Confucian doctrine of graded concern, but only a psychological observation about how people are motivationally driven to accept graded concern over impartial concern. Given that there is an is-ought gap between psychological facts and normative justifications, there is no normative justification in 3A5.
Let me respond to this argument, whether attributable to Dan and Chris or not. Certain facts about human psychology yield facts about normative judgments that humans tend to make. That I want X gives me prima facie normative reason to get X. That I am deeply committed to rule R (stating that one not do Y) gives me normative reason not to do Y, say in order to get the X that I want. And so on. Let me refer to the fact that one wants X, and the fact that one is committed to R, etc., as normative facts, psychological facts about a person that carry normative reason-giving force for that person. (It may be suspected that I’ve still violated the is-ought gap. There is a more complicated account I have in mind, but I will leave that for my dissertation.)
What we find in 3A5, then, is an appeal to normative facts that seem to apply to all humans, to justify the Confucian doctrine of graded concern over the Mohist doctrine of impartial concern. (7A45 is a nice statement of the Confucian doctrine.)
Yi Zhi appears to use the first gnomon of precedent to justify the doctrine of impartial concern, finding the root of the doctrine in the practice of ancient sage kings: “The Confucians… praised the ancient rulers for acting ‘as if they were tending a new-born babe.’ What does this saying mean? In my opinion, it means that there should be no gradations in love…” (Lau trans.).
[Here Yi Zhi is referring to the Kang Gao chapter of the Book of History (top of p.168 in Legge’s translation below):
Mencius, whether correctly or not, dismisses that quotation as having to do with treating people who commit crimes due to ignorance like a baby about to fall into a well through no fault of its own. (I had a different interpretation of what Mencius is saying here based on Lau’s translation, which I liked better. However, Lau’s translation seems peculiar and possibly mistaken.)]
Having dismissed Yi Zhi’s quotation as irrelevant, Mencius considers the case of those who do not bury their parents. If they are decent humans, they would not be able to bear the sight of their parents’ decomposing bodies, and judge it right (是) to bury their parents. This is a normative fact about humans that Yi Zhi too recognizes. Such normative facts are the basis for the judgment that one should give special consideration to their own kin.
Here’s a modern analogue to Mencius’s case. Suppose that you could either save your wife or a stranger, but not both. Who should you save? The widespread judgment here is that one should save one’s wife. The psychological intimacy you feel towards your own wife yields that normative judgment. If one is a utilitarian or a Kantian, one may not be willing to accept that as a moral judgment, but it is a normative judgment nonetheless. Mencius would point out that the ‘moral’ judgment that proponents of impartiality (such as the Mohists, utilitarians, and Kantians) makes in this case is inconsistent with the normative judgment issuing from the psychological intimacy felt towards one’s near and dear. One must choose one judgment over the other, and it seems one must go with the judgment that relates to normative facts about us (to repeat my earlier definition, “normative facts” are psychological facts about us that lead us to make certain normative judgments). This seems to be the point that Mencius is making against Yi Zhi, when he charges that Yi Zhi is giving two (incompatible) bases to the doctrine of impartial concern.
Mencius could go on and note (as in 6A1): we feel alienated from impartial demands that do not relate to normative facts about us, and people would reject such demands as disastrous (率天下之人而禍仁義). Thus moral demands must relate to normative facts about us.
Aren’t these normative justifications for graded concern?
(I have more to say. But I will take a longish break first.)
Don’t worry, old threads never die.
I think Chris and I pretty much agree about what’s going on in Mencius 3A/5, so I’ll try to reply on all points. Quotes from your post are in italics.
Apparently, Mencius was not just complaining, but arguing a point, and that point had hit home.
I certainly agree he was arguing a point; the question is what the point was, and what was supposed to support it. My claim: the point wasn’t that funerals should be lavish, and the argument was nothing like “we naturally φ, therefore it is good to $phi;.”
Again, regarding 3A5, Chris says (in Comment 11), “…there I think the claim is that a change in practices is not right unless driven by an overwhelming, unified motivation that comes straight from the heart.” […] Chris, what change in practices do you think the passage has in mind?
I agree with Chris about this. There are two changes in practices that the passage mentions: the one to which Yi Zhi is trying to convert the word, namely moderation in funerals; and the one in the myth that Mencius relates, about the initiation of the practice of burying the dead.
Notice: one of the only things we learn about Yi Zhi is that he is trying to convert the world to the Mohist way. And the myth at the end of the passage is about a spontaneous rejection of a prior custom. There’s an important difference: the Mohists aren’t waiting for spontaneous social change, they’re engaging in a sort of activism. This contrast is the key to the passage, as I read it.
(And note that the Mohist book on funerals is the one in which they make it most explicit that their conception of benevolence requires taking action to reform the world’s customs; it’s also the book in which they explicitly distinguish between custom and what is right.)
At the beginning of 3A5 Mencius is criticizing Yi Zhi’s adoption of the Confucian practice of giving lavish burials to his parents as inconsistent with the Mohist doctrine of frugality.
Here’s the criticism: “In ordering mourning, Mohists take frugality to be the way to do it. Yizi thinks to convert the world to this. How could he take it to be not right and not consider it noble? However, Yizi was lavish in burying his parents; this was to use what he considers base to serve his parents.”
This says nothing about inconsistency. The charge is that because he valued moderation, being lavish was disrespectful and hence unfilial. (Related question: what sort of funeral is appropriate for a parent who is a Mohist? Not, surely, a lavish one.)
But Yi Zhi in response (mis)takes the criticism to be leveled at the inconsistency of loving his parents with the Mohist doctrine of universal concern, and says the practice of the Mohist doctrine begins with one’s parents.
Problem: there’s no inconsistency between loving one’s parents and caring inclusively. Care, for the Mohists, is a sort of concern that is satisfied to the extent that a person’s needs will be taken care of; in standard conditions, this does not imply that one will actually have to do anything for strangers, because their needs will for the most part be taken care of in the context of their own lineages. (The exceptions the Mohists mention include old men without wives and orphans without parents.)
This response in effect switches the debate to the key substantial difference between Mohist and Confucian ethical theory (impartial vs. graded concern).
For graded concern to be inconsistent with inclusive care, it must imply something like this: all things considered, it’s better if society is set up in such a way that my lineage is better off than other lineages. Do the ru really think that? (Wumazi, who shows up arguing against inclusive care in MZ 46, does, but he’s probably not a ru.)
Let me try to reconstruct the argument Dan and Chris are making on 3A5[. …] Mencius in his response to Yi Zhi is only making a psychological observation, not presenting a normative justification.
More precisely: he’s arguing against what he takes to be a psychological consequence of Mohist views.
[Chris and Dan: ] That people in general feel strongly moved to bury the remains of their parents is no normative justification for the Confucian doctrine of graded concern, but only a psychological observation about how people are motivationally driven to accept graded concern over impartial concern.
No. Moderate burial has nothing to do with inclusive care. And nothing Mencius says in the passage implies that people have a natural preference for lavish funerals.
[Chris and Dan:] Given that there is an is-ought gap between psychological facts and normative justifications, there is no normative justification in 3A5.
The is-ought gap implies that if there were such an argument in the text, it would be a bad one; but there are bad arguments in the Mencius, so this I wouldn’t defend my interpretation this way.
Let me refer to the fact that one wants X, and the fact that one is committed to R, etc., as normative facts, psychological facts about a person that carry normative reason-giving force for that person. […] What we find in 3A5, then, is an appeal to normative facts that seem to apply to all humans, to justify the Confucian doctrine of graded concern over the Mohist doctrine of impartial concern.
The only claim in the passage that could play the role you’re setting out here is the (implied) claim that we love our family more than strangers. But the Mohists would have agreed to that, and wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with it.
Having dismissed Yi Zhi’s quotation as irrelevant, Mencius considers the case of those who do not bury their parents. If they are decent humans, they would not be able to bear the sight of their parents’ decomposing bodies, and judge it right (是) to bury their parents.
But why is this relevant? Not because Mohists were opposed to burial; the burials they advocated were far less spare than the ones Mencius describes here. As I said above, I think it’s relevant because it provides a model of social that is incompatible with Mohist activism (for want of a better word).
This is a normative fact about humans that Yi Zhi too recognizes. Such normative facts are the basis for the judgment that one should give special consideration to their own kin.
That someone wants her parents to be buried when they die amounts to a desire for special consideration only if she thinks other people’s parents shouldn’t be buried (or at least that it matters less in some agent-neutral sense that they get buried).
Here’s a modern analogue to Mencius’s case. Suppose that you could either save your wife or a stranger, but not both. Who should you save?
I’m snipping your detailed discussion, which is based on your interpretation of inclusive care, which you already know I reject.
It may be that the Mencians and the Mohists would come down on different sides of this issue, at least in some instances. They never discuss it (in general, they never discuss hard cases), so we can’t be sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Still, the Mohists place a great deal of weight on the attitudes we have towards the people in our family, and I can’t imagine they would give those attitudes no weight in discussing this issue, especially since impartiality gives no basis for choosing.
This seems to be the point that Mencius is making against Yi Zhi, when he charges that Yi Zhi is giving two (incompatible) bases to the doctrine of impartial concern.
What do you think these bases are? Your interpretation seems to entail that Mohists recognised only one, impartial basis. Or are you taking this simply as an ad hominem argument against Yizi? I suppose that could be right, and you wouldn’t be the first, but if that’s how we read it, it makes the argument pretty uninteresting (who cares about Yizi?).
I’ll stop there, and wait for the rest of your argument.
Dan, while you are here and commenting, and also to Chris, let me make a general point (unconnected to my Comment 20). I think we are all agreed that Mencius is not as systematic in the presentation his ethical views (as say the Mohists). If that’s right, then a charitable approach to Mencius’s ethical position would have to piece it together from different passages, no? Focusing on certain isolated passages, such as 6A14~15 would be inadequate as an approach. And showing that Mencius does not have a normative theory (in the sense Chris defines in Comment #11) in these isolated passages would not be sufficient to show that Mencius does not have a normative theory.
So, to be more specific, Chris notes that 6A14~15 gives a formal account of justification, and not a justification of specific virtues. And you (Dan) note in Comment #15: “In none of these texts is this naturalness given as a reason to prefer a particular conception of virtue.” (Though I disagree, at least in the case of 3A5). My point here is that precisely because the presentation of Mencius’s ethical view is unsystematic, we have to piece it together as a coherent body of doctrines from the passages grounding the virtues in human nature (6A1 on), from the the account of practical deliberation (6A12~15), from the passages discussing the four sprouts and how they are to be nurtured, and from the passages discussing extension (tui) in general as well as the extension of the particular virtues of filiality and fraternal respect to benevolence and rightness. That would make for a very long comment, which is why I’m reluctant to write it.
So my charge is that you are not being charitable enough to the position that there is a normative theory in the Mencius, which grounds morality in general, as well as Confucian morality, in human nature.
p.s. Thanks for your detailed comments to my previous Comment #20. I see more clearly what you and Chris are aying about 3A5, but I think you obstinately fail to see much of what I say about it (but you probably think I’m stubbornly refusing to accept your view too).
Boram, I’m not sure I’m obstinately failing to see it so much as thinking it doesn’t really speak to any genuine disagreement between Mencians and Mohists. I agree that if you care about something (in a non-Mohist sense of “care”) then that’s a pretty good prima facie reason for thinking that it matters, especially if most other people care about the same sorts of things and caring about those things doesn’t lead to conflict. I just don’t think the Mohists had to disagree with that, or that they thought we shouldn’t care (still in a non-Mohist sense) about our families in ways we don’t care for strangers.
It comes down to what we make of inclusive care. I take seriously the fact that the Mohists consistently take for granted the value of traditional lineage structures, and that they consistently treat filial piety as a core value. For example, throughout their arguments for inclusive care, they take it for granted that people who care inclusively will still be primarily concerned about people from their own lineages. I take this to imply that we should interpret inclusive care so that it doesn’t amount to total impartiality. I sketched my own view of how this works in #20: to care inclusively is to recognise that everyone’s well-being matters equally in agent-neutral terms. The Mohists assume that this will prevent you from harming others, but they also assume that it will require you to try to benefit strangers only under fairly precise circumstances: when they have needs that cannot be met within traditional lineage structures, when you have extra of something they lack, when you’ve made special arrangements (e.g., to look after a friend’s family), and so on.
The point is that Mencius and his followers had no special reason to reject inclusive care, and that it is no argument against inclusive care to say that we are right to care more (in the non-Mohist sense) for family than for strangers.
As for charity, I don’t grant that it is more charitable to hypothesise that whoever wrote the Mencius had systematic views that justified inferences from facts about human nature to normative claims given, first, that as I read it the Mencius does not include any such inferences, and, second, that the hypothesis entails that whoever wrote the Mencius did a really poor job of setting out what they thought. Better, I think, to conclude that they weren’t trying to set out such views. (In any case, I’d be more comfortable without appeals to charity in the first place.)
Dan, yes, I guess it’s just me who’s being obstinate then. On closer reading, your Comment #21 is insightful, and helped me reflect deeper on the text. I will address what I take to be the key points you raise in Comment #21.
(1) IMPARTIAL vs. GRADED CONCERN
Here you note two things. First, you seem to minimize the difference between impartial and graded concern. You write, “For graded concern to be inconsistent with inclusive care, it must imply something like this: all things considered, it’s better if society is set up in such a way that my lineage is better off than other lineages. Do the ru really think that?”
No. I’ve pointed out the passage I take as giving a clear statement of graded concern (7A45, van Norden trans.):
“Gentlemen, in relation to animals, are sparing of them, but are not benevolent toward them. In relation to the people, they are benevolent toward them, but do not treat them as kin. They treat their kin as kin, and then are benevolent toward the people. They are benevolent toward the people, and then are sparing of animals.”
The point is that one should act out of concern for all humanity and even for animals, but that concern should appropriately weaken as it extends outward from one’s own kin, and that one should treat the target of one’s concern proportionately to the concern’s strength.
In contrast, here is a statement of impartial concern from the Mozi, Ch.16 (Ivanhoe trans., italics mine); and perhaps you or Chris can provide a better statement):
“…If people regarded other people’s states in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own state to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself. If people regarded other people’s cities in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own city to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself. If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself….”
Second, you note that impartial concern does not exclude love of one’s parents. (I confess that I tend implicitly to assume it does exclude that, following Mencius’s line in 3B9 that the Mohist doctrine “amounts to a denial of one’s father” – Lau trans.).
I agree with that. But the differences between the Mohist doctrine and Confucian doctrine emerge when there is a conflict between, say, duty to one’s parents and the duty to one’s state or the law. For Mencius, see 7A35, where Mencius thinks that the right thing for Shun to do, if the Blind Man had killed a man, is for Shun to carry his father on his back and flee the country. For Mohists, there is the story Graham recounts in DISPUTERS OF THE TAO (originally in Lushi Chunqiu):
“When King Hui of Qin (324~311BC) refused to execute for murder the son of the Grand Master Fu Dun, he replied, ‘By the law of the Mohists whoever kills a man suffers death, whoever wounds a man suffers mutilation. This is how one deters killing and wounding.’ He executed the son himself.” (Graham, pp.41~2)
(2) YI ZHI’S TWO ROOTS:
What are the two roots that Yi Zhi is accused of using? And what are the two roots meant to support, what are they bases of?
The text is unclear on these questions and I don’t presume to know for certain. (The only thing I’m fairly certain about is that one of the two roots is natural love for one’s own kin.) My take on it was this. What needs basal support is either the doctrine of impartial concern, or Yi Zhi’s doctrine that impartial concern begins at home, or even moral doctrines broadly construed. One basal support is the natural love of one’s own kin. I take the other basal support to be whatever basis the Mohist is taken to give to the doctrine of impartial concern: either benefit as you (Dan) suggest, or the impartial will of Heaven as Chris suggests.
Mencius’s point (in the myth) is that one has to accept one of the two roots, natural love for one’s own kin, as the basis for moral doctrines. Further, I take the implicit argument to be that accepting this basis is inconsistent with whatever basis is given for the Mohist doctrine of impartial concern–specifically in the cases of conflicting duty I mentioned above. In such cases, if the basis of one’s moral doctrines is natural love for one’s own kin, then one should do as Shun would have done. On the other hand, if the basis is benefit to the world, then one should do as the Mohist Grand Master has done. Likewise, providing one’s own kin with lavish funerals is consistent with taking love for one’s own kin as the basis for morality, and inconsistent with taking benefit as the basis (as is argued in Mozi Ch.25, “Moderation in Funerals”).
(3) MOVING FROM FUNERALS TO LAVISH FUNERALS
Dan, you point out: “And nothing Mencius says in the passage implies that people have a natural preference for lavish funerals.” That’s right, I failed to notice it, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.
Moving from funerals per se as in the myth, to the implicit endorsement of lavish funerals, is something we have to supply from a different passage in the Mencius. This is 2B7, where Mencius himself is accused of giving a lavish funeral (to his mother). The justification for lavish funerals in 2B7 is analogous to the justification of funerals in 3A5.
2B7 (Lau trans.):
“…In middle antiquity, it was prescribed that the inner coffin was to be seven inches thick with the outer coffin to match. This applied to all conditions of men, from Emperor to Commoner. This is not simply for show (非直為觀美也). It is only in this way that one can express fully one’s filial love (然後盡於人心)…. Furthermore, does it not give one some solace to be able to prevent the earth from coming into contact with the dead who is about to decompose (無使土親膚，於人心獨無恔乎)?…”
Compare with 3A5 (Lau trans.):
“…Then one day the sons passed the place and there lay the bodies, eaten by foxes and sucked by flies. A sweat broke out on their brows, and they could not bear to look. The sweating was not put on for others to see. It was an outward expression of their innermost heart. They went home for baskets and spades.”
(4) MISCELLANEOUS COMMENTS
You write: I agree with Chris about this. There are two changes in practices that the passage mentions: the one to which Yi Zhi is trying to convert the word, namely moderation in funerals; and the one in the myth that Mencius relates, about the initiation of the practice of burying the dead.
My response: Thanks, I now better understand what Chris is saying. The passage mentions those changes, but are you sure the passage is mainly about those changes? Yi Zhi’s remark that “之則以為愛無差等” seems to turn the topic to the debate between impartial and graded concern.
Next, on Mencius’s criticism of Yi Zhi: “In ordering mourning, Mohists take frugality to be the way to do it. Yizi thinks to convert the world to this. How could he take it to be not right and not consider it noble? However, Yizi was lavish in burying his parents; this was to use what he considers base to serve his parents.”
You write: This says nothing about inconsistency. The charge is that because he valued moderation, being lavish was disrespectful and hence unfilial….
My response: I wonder how you got that from the text.
Hi Boram, thanks for posting. Interesting dialogue here. I’ll try not to repeat anything Dan’s already said, but just to add a few points.
Re #22, I think the issue isn’t one of piecing together bits of a coherent doctrine that happens to be presented unsystematically. It is: What’s the best interpretation of these unsystematic bits, considered both one by one and as a whole? Are they even concerned with normative theory? Dan’s hypothesis (first post in the thread) is: Probably not. Most of them seem concerned with the naturalness of morality or people’s capacity to be morally good, not with justifying the content of moral norms or virtues by appeal to features of people’s nature.
You mention 6A:1, so let’s consider that as an example. I think 6A:1 argues that becoming rén yì 仁義 is something consistent with people’s xìng 性 (nature), not something that violates it. I don’t see how that claim provides a normative grounding of the virtues in human nature, as you seem to suggest. For that, I’d be looking for a passage that moves from a description of some feature of human nature to a conclusion about the content of ethical norms or virtues. All I see in 6A:1 is a claim that morality is in some sense natural for us, not an appeal to people’s nature to justify a specific conception of morality.
Re #20, I think, as Dan suggests, that the hypothetical myth about the origin of burials is meant to rebut Yí Zhī’s proposed reform of burial practices. It’s true, as you say in #24, that Yí Zhī mentions inclusive care, when he says, “In care, there are no degrees, in practice, start from kin.” (I take him to be saying that, somehow, the lavish burials he gave his parents were consistent with Mohist doctrine, which does allow for special treatment of one’s family. Perhaps he’s claiming that since his parents were not Mohists, filiality required that he give them the funerals they would have wanted. This doesn’t get him off the hook for violating Mohist funeral doctrines, though.) But then the text says, “Moreover, Tiān in giving rise to things makes them one-rooted,” Here I think it changes the topic to the origin or reform of practices. So I don’t think the myth that follows concerns inclusive care. (After all, the content of the myth doesn’t seem to have anything to do with inclusive care. It concerns a change in practices, from leaving corpses exposed to burying them.)
Re #24, your point (1): 7A45 is actually consistent with the doctrine of inclusive care, but goes further, extending it to animals. The word used for the gentleman’s attitude toward animals is, after all, ài 愛 (care). The word for one’s loving attitude toward family is qīn 親. The Mohists would agree that it’s right to qīn your family but not strangers.
Dan’s point has been that inclusive care is compatible with special emotions toward kin and special treatment for them. Among the grounds for this claim are that filiality and brotherliness are core values for the Mohists, values they claim are actually promoted by inclusive care. The differences between the Mohists and Ru on this point are generally minimal, though I’d agree that 7A:35 versus the LSCQ story of Fu Dun does point to a significant difference. However, the grounds for Fu Dun’s behavior aren’t that he loves his son less than Shun loves his father. They’re that he believes adherence to fǎ 法 (models) trumps the virtue of fatherly love (慈).
Thanks for the reply. I’ll organise most of my response around some of the passages you cite.
This does imply graded concern of some sort, since it says the gentleman is concerned for his own family in a way that he’s not concerned for people in general. But this does not amount to graded care (in the Mohist sense). It would amount to that, I think, if it said the gentleman is more benevolent towards his family than towards the people in general; but to love his family isn’t to be more benevolent towards him. In other words: qin, ren, and ai imply different kinds of concern, not a weakening of one kind of concern as one moves outward from one’s immediate family.
(Chris points out that the attitude the gentleman has towards animals is ai, the same word the Mohists use for care, but I’m not sure what significance this has.)
Mozi 16. “If people regarded other people’s states in the same way that they regard their own…”
This is the most extreme statement in Mozi 16 (and it and the parallel statements in Mozi 14 and 15 are the most extreme in the triad), so if anything supports your reading of inclusive care, it’s this. But notice: the passage takes it for granted that we continue to be committed to particular states and lineages, which is incompatible with total impartiality. (This is more explicit in the parallel in Book 14, which asks, “If the world cared for one another inclusively, if they cared for others like they care for themselves, would any still be unfilial?”) And this assumption runs throughout the Mohists’ discussions of inclusive care.
What should we make of this? One possibility is that when they say we should be for (wei 為) others as we are for ourselves, they are talking specifically about the attitude they call care: we should have this attitude towards others just as we have it towards ourselves. As I’ve been interpreting Mohist care, this does not rule out partial attitudes. To get this reading, interpret “wei 為” so that it involves recognising someone’s agent-neutral worth. In less anachronistic terms, to wei people equally is (on this reading) to commit oneself to a dao governing all people that gives equal weight to each person’s well-being.
(Another possibility is that the Mohists are engaging in exaggerated rhetoric, which they were certainly capable of.)
This text charges the Mohists with rejecting their fathers, so presupposes an interpretation of inclusive care incompatible with my own. But it doesn’t get unpacked at all, and anyway it’s from someone arguing against the Mohists, so we shouldn’t put much weight on it when interpreting the Mohists (you don’t say otherwise).
Mencius 7A/35 and Lüshi Chunqiu 1.5.
I agree that there’s a conflict here, and I’m willing to accept the LSCQ passage at face value (as evidence of what Mohists actually thought). Still, Fu Dun is supposed to have acted not out of inclusive care, but out of a commitent to yi 義 and to Mohist fa 法, and the text implies that he was partial to his son. So though there’s an issue here, it’s not an issue raised by inclusive care. (I’m agreeing with Chris here.) And I continue to think it’s important that this sort of hard case does not seem to have loomed large in early Chinese moral thinking.
I also think something fairly special is going on in Mencius 7A/35 and in some other discussions of Shun, especially in MC 5. It looks to me that the various myths of Shun had gotten out of ru control, and the authors of these parts of the Mencius felt they had to regain control by putting out moralistic interpretations of Shun’s actions. If this is right, we shouldn’t take the resulting claims to straightforwardly reflect Mencian moral thinking. But maybe it’s just me who reads these stories this way.
The two roots: I take these to be attitudes, and not justifications for normative claims, so that’s part of what we’re disagreeing about. Outside this passage, do you see any place where the Mencius asserts that doctrines should have just one normative basis? As I read it, the complaint that Mohist psychology is two-rooted is based on the idea that the virtues are in some sense extensions of attitudes and sensitivities that all normal human beings start out with, and don’t have to be imposed on us from outside.
Part of our problem here is that it is not at all clear why Yizi starts talking about inclusive care. Is he just trying to change the subject? Or is he citing the fact that inclusive care is compatible with love of parents in support of lavish funerals? But he would still be violating the doctrine of moderation in funerals.
The myth: Mencius’s myth does not mention doctrines, it describes a change in custom; this is worth explaining.
The criticism of Yizi: Mencius objects that Yizi served his parents with something he deems base or ignoble. The presumption: this is the wrong way to serve your parents. Why? Presumably because you should serve your parents in ways that you value. The connection to filial piety is, I think, plain.
I agree that this passage says that filial piety demands fairly lavish funerals. The question is what it has to do with 3A/5 (which for all we know was written by different people at a substantially different time). One issue: to what extent would it make sense to use the argument against the Mohists? I don’t think it would make sense, because the resulting argument would be question-begging (the Mohists explain in some detail why they think filial piety requires moderate funerals).
Incidentally, as with the Shun passages, I think that we should recognise that in the references to Mencius’s mother’s funeral, the Mencius is being defensive, reacting in this case to criticisms of Mencius’s personal virtue. (But I wouldn’t say that affects the current discussion significantly.) (Other areas of defensiveness include Mencius’s role legitimising the invasion of Yan, and the whole issue of accepting gifts and so on from rulers.)
After a weekend away from my computer, I’ve now had a chance to read through all this; let me see if I can contribute a bit more. The two issues in which I’m most interested are: (1) whether Mencius expresses a normative theory, in Dan’s sense, or (2) whether the normative theory we find there is too thin or too unsystematic or too implicit. Let me concentrate here on (1).
Dan’s view is, as I understand it, that the authors of the text take their substantive norms for granted, and concentrate on issues like convincing people that their norms *can* be followed (because it is natural) and *how* to follow them. He says that according to the text, “facts about human nature” do not tell in favor of one “normative theory” versus another (#7; here I think “normative theory” means a theory of substantive norms, in Chris’s sense). Part of Dan’s reasoning is that 7B24 makes it explicit that both physical urges and moral feelings are xing, so one cannot appeal to xing to “ground” a preference for the latter over the former. Instead, Dan suggests that “these passages address the psychology of someone who is or who has his/her mind set on being virtuous” (#15). It doesn’t “defend the value of being a gentleman” based on the claims about nature, but mere says “what’s involved in being a gentleman” (#15).
In response to this, let me try to clarify my initial claim (#1), because I persist in believing that there is an effort to articulate a grounding, normative theory here.
1. Talk of what the gentleman does (versus what the petty person does) is normative: the gentleman has things (at least approximately) right, and is superior to those who don’t. This does not on its own provide someone who is not committed to the Mencian dao to adopt it, but they should feel it making a claim on them.
2. A theme in the text is that we should (i.e., the gentleman does) focus on some aspects of our nature rather than others. In 7B24 this is put in terms of calling something xing instead of ming; in 7A21 it is what one “follows as his nature 所性”; in 6A14-15, we get parts of greater and lesser importance. Throughout, what is clear is that we should focus on our moral reactions rather than our physical reactions. (What “focus” means here is left for another time.)
3. Why is this? Dan’s right that the answer can’t simply be “because it’s our nature,” because both aspects are our nature. I think what’s missing in Chris’s reading (#12, which he admittedly backs away from later, at least as interpretation of the text) is an answer to this question. It’s also true that if the answer hangs completely on one aspect’s simply being “greater,” then we also have no solution.
4. My suggestion is that one can focus on (or nurture) the moral aspect of one’s nature without neglecting the physical aspect, but not vice-versa. One of the concerns of these passages is to use that fact that we naturally care about both sides of ourself to motivate a moral focus; at the same time, we can see the theoretical grounding going on. I believe that the contrast in the last two lines of 6A14 is precisely between one whose focus on physical desires leads to the neglect (and eventual ruin; cf. Ox Mountain) of the moral, on the one hand, and one who shows appropriate balance such that his physical desires are part of a more meaningful package than simply an “animal” desiring machine.
5. A caveat: I don’t think that this is the only thing going on in these passages, and the authors may also have been impressed with the persuasive force of saying loudly that THIS ASPECT IS GREATER, and other dubious argumentative techniques. This does not detract from my basic point, which is that there is a normative theory, in the relevant sense, that we can find in the text: it’s intended to be there, and the authors would certainly have recognized it and endorsed it.
I think that this normative theory does have some bite, though it bears more relation to Western theories at the particularist, virtue-ethical end of the spectrum than it does to those seeking one-size-fits-all rules. So much the better for Mencius, I say!
Steve, that’s an interesting thought in your fourth point. Are there any other passages where you see that argument at work?
One worry: the claim that someone who takes care of the greater part need not neglect the lesser part doesn’t get made explicit in 6A/14, so neither does the inference you’re attributing to the text’s author(s).
The last sentence of 6A14 speaks of someone who “cares about food and drink without neglecting [morality]”; I take it (because of the context, and because of the reasoning in 6A15) that this is because such a person’s focus is on morality. In other words, the text suggests that it is indeed possible to focus on morality yet not neglect physical concerns. (This is in response to your suggestion that the relevant claim doesn’t get made explicit.)
More generally, I think the same argument is behind the parallel assertions in 7B24: if we follow Graham and take xing to mean something like one’s normative nature (as opposed to the directionless life processes designated as sheng), then it is very significant that 7B24 recognizes both aspects as xing. A good instance of humankind has both physical and moral reactions, and the way become such an exeplary person is to consciously focus on some of one’s reactions — that is, to call them xing — and to simply accept the others as inevitable, but not to focus on them (that is, call them ming).
Of course there’s more to the text than these few passages. Having “few” desires fits well with this reasoning. Numerous passages suggest that it’s OK to want things (bear paw, to be King, and so on) but not to want them in ways that are inconsistent with ritual rules or the promptings of virtue. The various passages arguing for the naturalness of (at least the beginnings of) virtue are also part of this argument. I’d say quite a lot fits together when viewed in this way.
Huh, I was reading that line differently: “If someone who eats and drinks did not lose out on anything, then would their mouths and bellies be only as a foot or inch of skin?”
In support of this reading, the passage has just said that people who eat and drink are regarded as ignoble because they miss what is important. Since these are the same people mentioned in the quoted sentence, if the final sentence allows that those people can avoid missing anything, there’s a contradiction here.
Still, I’d agree that your reading makes better sense of the closing rhetorical question.
I don’t think grammar decides this issue, but I’d be happy to be corrected. There’s a sentence near the end of 3A/4 that has about the same grammar and that requires a counterfactual reading: “If big shoes and small shoes had the same price, would people make them? (巨屨小屨同賈，人豈為之哉？)” But “豈…哉” certainly doesn’t always call for a counterfactual reading.
So—I’ll have to think more about this passage.
On xing, I don’t agree with Graham that xing has a normative sense. Roughly, I think it refers to tendencies or whatever that arise spontaneously. Everyone who talks about xing would agree that this includes bodily desires, I think, but wouldn’t infer from this alone that these desires are good (Xunzi wouldn’t, for example). What I think is distinctive in the parts of the Mencius that place a lot of weight on xing is the attempt to show that virtue can emerge spontaneously under appropriate conditions.
Dan, if xing just means tendencies that arise spontaneously, what is the contrast that is being drawn in 7B24? (I’m taking ming to mean something like that which happens — or which we get — without anyone’s doing anything.)
I take it to be between conceiving of something as natural for you and conceiving of it as out of your control. The passage allows that all the various tendencies or whatever that it lists are both natural and out of our control, but claims that we should think of some of them in the one way and some of them in the other.
Steve, very interesting, plausible take (#27, point 4) on the concluding lines of 6A:14-15, which I overlooked in my earlier remark. This is a persuasive way of reading both conclusions, and thus the theme of the passages as a whole. (So the conclusion of 6a:15 shifts its theme from the opening question.) And, as you say, these claims have normative bite.
Still, I think the question we raised about the substance of that bite remains–and can’t be dismissed just by saying the Mencian position is a form of virtue ethics or particularism, not an ethics of rules. If they are doing normative theory, then virtue ethicists and particularists need to provide an account of some set of thick virtues or morally relevant values or considerations. (Of course, they can also choose instead not to do normative theory.)
The point of 6a:14-15, on your reading, is that we should be moral, because by nurturing the “grand” parts of oneself, one can also nurture the “petty” parts, but not vice versa; and in no field is it proper to sacrifice the “grand” in pursuit of the “petty.” So far, this at best only the starting point for a substantive ethical theory (even one couched in virtue terms). We can link 6a:15 to 6a:6 and appeal to the native emotions and attitudes there, but even these don’t provide much substantive bite, I think.
So what I’m wondering is: Even given your account of 6A:14-15, doesn’t a qualified version of Dan’s original hypothesis still stand?
Dan, on 7B:24, does it make sense to link xing to health here, and would that yield some normative force?
Chris, the link with health is a bit tricky.
There are texts that say that interfering with your xing leads to some kind of ailment (broadly construed), and I think this view is behind the argument of Mencius 6A/1.
But I’m less sure that claims that something is due to xing imply that it contributes to health. One reason for saying this is that there are texts, and not just the Xunzi, that attribute bad behavior to xing.
Still, it’s not a huge stretch to take Mencius 7B/24 to be saying in part that some virtuous tendencies or sensitivities or whatever are part of what it takes to be a healthy human being. If this is right (I’m not saying it is), my responses to Steve upthread would need to be qualified.
ON 3A5, HOPEFULLY FOR ONE LAST TIME:
Dan, you write, The myth: Mencius’s myth does not mention doctrines, it describes a change in custom; this is worth explaining.
Let me focus on your claim that the myth does not mention doctrines. You are probably objecting to my assumption that the myth is being used to support an ethical doctrine. So, how would we know? Well, if Mencius mentions 言 or 道 after narrating the myth, we would know, right?
Mencius does, in fact, mention 道 after narrating the myth:
“If interring their parents was indeed 是 [in the mythical situation], then there must also be the 道 in filial sons and benevolent men doing it.”
Now, as 2A6 says: 是非之心，智之端也。
The heart’s ability to judge something as right or wrong (or to approve or disapprove of it) is the beginning of knowledge. In the mythical case, the heart’s approving judgment (是) of interring the bodies of one’s deceased parents supports the Confucian principle (道) of giving funerals.
And notice also how that judgment (是) is made. First, we have the spontaneous, natural, genuine and sincere reaction stemming from the heart:
Lau trans.: “The sweating was not put on for others to see. It was an outward expression of their innermost heart.”
And though it is not mentioned in the text, we may easily infer that those who did not bury their parents reflected (思) on this genuine reaction of the heart, and made the judgment (是).
This is the procedure of getting from one’s heart what one cannot get in doctrines (言), such as the doctrine of impartial concern. We know from 2A2 that Mencius disagrees with Gaozi’s statement, that what one cannot get from 言, one should not seek in the 心. Reading between the lines, I take Mencius’s position to be, not only that we can seek in the 心 what we can’t get from 言, but that we shouldn’t accept in 言 what we can’t get from the 心.
Chris, you write in the context of 6A1: I’d be looking for a passage that moves from a description of some feature of human nature to a conclusion about the content of ethical norms or virtues.
Doesn’t Mencius’s use of the myth in 3A5, as I’ve interpreted it above, make precisely this move? If you (Chris or Dan) don’t think it does, I don’t know what would count as sufficient evidence for making that move–so let me know, give me an illustration of just what would count as making that move.
Though less sketchily, the same maneuver that I’ve described above provides justification not just for funerals per se, but lavish funerals, and a long period of mourning, in contrast to the Mohist position on these issues. There’s first the seeking in the heart for genuine, spontaneous reactions, and this is given in the passages I will mention. To use what you get in the heart as justification for the Confucian doctrines, there needs to be reflection and judgment, and these are left out in the following passages.
For lavish funerals, I mentioned 2B7 in my Comment #24. For the three-year period of mourning, there’s Analects 17.21. The basis for justifying prolonged mourning, in 17.21, is simply that the gentleman would not feel comfortable otherwise, would get no pleasure from eating sweet foods, no joy in listening to music, no comfort in his abode. If Zai Wo, who wants to reject prolonged mourning, feels comfortable doing so, then let him do it, but the suggestion is that for human beings the natural reaction to not mourning for three years is genuine discomfort. If Zai Wo doesn’t have this natural reaction, nothing more can be done to justify prolonged mourning–the appeal to the natural reaction of the heart is bedrock, here the spade is turned and one can’t dig any deeper in search of a foundational justification. Or so Mencius might say.
P.S. Dan, as for 2B7, you are right that here Mencius is defending himself against opponents, and in such cases it’s prudent to be a bit suspicious of Mencius’s answers. What we should be looking for, though, is whether Mencius’s answer in 2B7 is ad hoc or not. It doesn’t seem ad hoc to me at all; it’s consistent with what he does in 3A5, and also with all the other hypothetical thought experiments (perhaps we should call them Gefühlsexperimente rather than Gedankenexperimente) where Mencius apeals to spontaneous natural reactions: 2A6 on the child about to fall into a well, and 6A10 on the beggar who would refuse to accept that one offers after trampling on it.
Then see 7B31 for how these natural aversions can be extended. Mencius does not just use that as an account of the psychological process by which natural aversions are nurtured into the virtues of benevolence, rightness, etc, though it is–importantly–that too. Extending is part of actively reflecting and inferring as well, as opposed to being passively pushed and pulled by the objects of the senses (6A15). So extending is a process of deliberation that one can fail to engage in, as in the case of King Xuan of Qi in 1A7.
Let me then repeat the most important idea of the last paragraph: extension is not just a psychological process, but also a deliberative process, and as such, can transmit normative force from foundational normative reasons to inferred doctrines, principles, etc.
(I meant to say that in a follow-up comment, but I got excited and carried away.)
Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Boram. I’m enjoying this conversation, so don’t worry about continuing it.
On the other hand, I’m noticing that my comments here are getting longer and longer, which is not really the blog way; so I’ll try to be quick this time.
On the use of the word “dao 道” in 3A/5, it’s also natural to take that as a reference to a way of acting: “…then filial sons and benevolent people who bury their parents (note: no reference here to lavish funerals) must have dao.”
A passage that clearly said “it’s human nature to love your parents, therefore loving your parents is ren” would certainly give the sort of argument that Chris and I are asking about. I’ve also allowed (in response to Steve) that 6A/14 might have a normative argument that turns in a subtler (and more appealing) way on claims about human nature. And certainly if there were a text setting out the sort of account you gave of grounding normative claims in human nature, I’d count that.
On 2B/7, it’s possible I’m being too uncharitable to whoever wrote it; I’m fairly suspicious of the regions of the Mencius that seem defensive (and you’re right that the suspicion is that the arguments in these texts are ad hoc), and maybe I shouldn’t be. They could be defending Mencius’s personal virtue and putting forward a principled argument. (And on this general theme, for extended mourning see also Mencius 3A/2.)
Finally, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that we disagree about 1A/7 (if I’m getting your point right): I don’t think the passage asks the king to engage in an inference. Mencius tells Xuan simply to “pick up this heart and apply it to them,” which doesn’t sound like it involves reflection or inference.
Presumably it is essential to what Xuan is supposed to do that the suffering of the ox is in some ways similar to the suffering of his people, but, as I read things, this is not what’s supposed to convince him he should care about the suffering of his people. At this point in the conversation, Xuan is represented as having accepted that in order to be a true king, he must protect the people; the question they’re discussing is whether he is able to do that.
Response to Dan’s Comment #36:
You write: On the use of the word “dao 道” in 3A/5, it’s also natural to take that as a reference to a way of acting: “…then filial sons and benevolent people who bury their parents (note: no reference here to lavish funerals) must have dao.”
My response: Sure, I have no objection to your reading dao. But it’s not just any way of acting, right? It’s a normative way of acting, the way one ought to act. A normative prescription that, in 3A5, clearly follows, or is associated with the judgment that it’s right (是). And a judgment that arises from what one naturally feels. It’s not clear whether the judgment is made by those in the hypothetical situation, or by us who read about it. But that difference is immaterial: as Analects 6.30 might put it, we take what we feel in our own hearts as illustrating how those people would have felt in the hypothetical situation. It works because all hearts possess the same innate(ly moral) inclinations, as Mencius claims in 6A7.
You write: A passage that clearly said “it’s human nature to love your parents, therefore loving your parents is ren” would certainly give the sort of argument that Chris and I are asking about. I’ve also allowed (in response to Steve) that 6A/14 might have a normative argument that turns in a subtler (and more appealing) way on claims about human nature. And certainly if there were a text setting out the sort of account you gave of grounding normative claims in human nature, I’d count that.
My response: So why exactly is that sort of justification missing in Mencius 3A5? You must either have a very narrow view of what counts as the requisite justification, or confine your attention so narrowly on the passage itself that you don’t see the connections to other relevant passages.
When Mencius argues that we have the four beginnings in 2A6, he uses a hypothetical situation about the child falling into a well to argue his point, a situation that triggers the spontaneous natural reaction of pity. 3A5 uses the same sort of consideration, and shows the sort of normative judgment and course of action that arises from the natural reaction. There is here justification from considerations about human nature to a normative moral judgment. Other passages (I’ve pointed 2B7 in particular) uses a similar sort of consideration for lavish funerals, which is a Confucian practice that Mohists explicitly reject. So, there is a justification in the passages from considerations about human nature to a distinctively Confucian norm.
And I don’t know why you should expect Mencius to give you a normative justification in exactly the form you state. By being “charitable”, I mean nothing more than using the principles of rationality and intelligibility found in the text itself to understand what’s going on it. I don’t mean importing our own standards of rationality and intelligibility into the text. I do mean, however, giving Mencius a holistic treatment, piecing together what is found in different passages. Just because the presentation is disjointed, does not mean that the underlying thought is. And in that sense, even Mencius himself applied the principle of charity to received texts preceding him, sorting out inconsistencies, giving a more systematic reading, and so on. Let me know if I’ve imported a standard of justification that’s not in Mencius, in showing that Mencius justifies a peculiarly Confucian doctrine from considerations about human nature. I don’t think I have.
You write: Finally, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that we disagree about 1A/7 (if I’m getting your point right): I don’t think the passage asks the king to engage in an inference. Mencius tells Xuan simply to “pick up this heart and apply it to them,” which doesn’t sound like it involves reflection or inference.
My response: And why doesn’t it sound like inference? Isn’t inference roughly taking what one takes to be true in one case and applying it to a similar case? Induction involves inferring from observed cases to unobserved cases judged to be relevantly similar. Mencian extension seems to involve extending one’s concerns from things one already cares about to things that one does not care about, but would upon reflection, becase the latter cases are relevantly similar to the former cases. The cases of the seen ox, the sheep, and the people are relevantly similar. So why didn’t the king extend his kindness to the sheep and the people? Because he “saw the ox but not the lamb”, more specifically, because of a “failure to see that one thing is the same in kind as another” (6A11, Lau trans., a passage that begins the series 6A11~15 on practical deliberation).
You write: At this point in the conversation, Xuan is represented as having accepted that in order to be a true king, he must protect the people; the question they’re discussing is whether he is able to do that.
My response: I think you made an unintentional slip here, but let me comment anyway. No, it’s already established that the king is able to take care of the people, he simply won’t do it. If he thinks things through, he will know that the the case of the people is like that of the ox and the sheep. But it seems naturally that one would care more about the people than than the animals. So, if the king’s kindness is sufficient to reach animals, then he has more than enough motivational strength to be kind to the people.
I’ll just respond to the question you address to me. You’re right, I don’t see 3A:5 as grounding a claim about the content of any particular burial practices in a description of human nature. As I indicated in #11, I do think it’s plausible to read 3A:5 as having normative significance. I tie this normative import to the claim that Tiān in creating things makes them one-rooted. I take this to imply a view about the initiation of new practices——practices should be “one-rooted,” so it’s a mistake to advocate a reform on the basis of “two roots.” “One-rootedness” is illustrated by the myth about the origin of earth burials. In the myth, people are moved by a spontaneous emotional response to change their custom from a sky burial to an earth burial. Mencius says that if it was really right for them to give their parents such a burial (I think he assumes his audience will agree it was), then there is dào in giving one’s parents an earth burial.
As Dan pointed out, nothing ties the story to any specific funeral practice beyond just a simple earth burial. So I don’t see it as an attempt to ground, say, Ruist practices in people’s spontaneous emotional responses. I’m not even sure the text should be read as implying that the people’s emotional response was what made it right to change their practice——that their response was the relevant right-making feature. All we can be sure about is that their response and actions are an example of “one-rootedness.” We might take the passage to commit its writers to the view that “one-rootedness” is a necessary condition for a justified change in practices. But I don’t think it commits them to the view that it’s a sufficient condition (fortunately for them, since that view is problematic).
The connection between the story and lavish funerals, I think, is contingent and indirect. If lavish funerals are the prevailing custom, and if people do not feel a “one-rooted” urge to change them (as apparently Yí Zhī himself did not, since he gave his parents lavish funerals), then it is right to continue them, and attempts at reform are either normatively mistaken, motivationally impractical, or both. Some interpreters might try to extend this into the stronger claim that if people have a one-rooted urge to give their parents lavish funerals, doing so is thereby right. But I don’t think the text of 3A:5 commits Mencius to this stronger claim.
I’m not sure you’re being careful enough with the facts of 1A7. You say
“Isn’t inference roughly taking what one takes to be true in one case and applying it to a similar case? Induction involves inferring from observed cases to unobserved cases judged to be relevantly similar. Mencian extension seems to involve extending one’s concerns from things one already cares about to things that one does not care about, but would upon reflection, becase the latter cases are relevantly similar to the former cases. The cases of the seen ox, the sheep, and the people are relevantly similar.”
If we grant that inference works that way, Mencius makes a pretty bad inference if that is what he calls for. That’s because the two cases are relevantly dissimilar. The one (type of) case involves two sacrificial animals, neither of which actually should be treated compassionately; that’s an important reason, we can infer, why the junzi stays out of the kitchen. But it is exactly *this* heart that Mencius thinks should be extended “over there” to the case of the Qi people. So, the heart of compassion matters to the cases, but not as something the two cases should be regarded as having in common for the purpose of inference. How would the inference go? It would have to be some form of analogical inference like this:
1. The ox is about to suffer.
2. Compassion is appropriate for the ox.
3. The people of Qi are suffering.
4. Compassion is appropriate for the people of Qi.
But of course 2 is false, or at least Mencius would regard it as false.
I’m with Dan about this; the question in 1A7 is whether Xuan is able to have compassion for the people. But, Dan isn’t being careless, that is the question that is under discussion and Mencius proves to Xuan that in fact he is capable–using exactly the reasoning you suggest: Xuan is much more capable of having compassion for the people of Qi than for mere animals, in just the way that someone who has shown himself to be capable of lifting a cart shows himself to be more than capable of lifting a feather. So, the suggestion to “extend” Xuan’s compassion to the people is like telling someone to go lift a feather. The only inference involved is in making the analogical inference from the cart-feather type cases to the ox-human case. But that’s not what extending compassion here refers to.
(I wrote a paper about this (PEW 49:1) some time ago; hopefully I’m not contradicting anything I argued there.)
(Actually, my piece in JCP 29:2 is more straightforwardly about this issue in 1A7.)
No more 3A5 for me. Suffice it to say, Chris, that I disagree with your interpretation (Comment #38). I joined the philosophy graduate program inspired by the Mencian project of grounding morality in human nature, so I feel compelled to defend that view, and I hope you understand why I’m dragging this out in very long comments. My NEXT comment will be my last, but let me say I greatly appreciate Dan and Chris forcing me to think through this.
Manyul, thanks for the comment on extension. Again, I think I can come up with a response (relying on Nivison), but I will save that careful response for another day, and make sure to read your PEW article. As for Xuan’s being able to take care of people or not, that’s not in question at that point in the passage. Mencius takes it to be settled, and has illustrated the distinction between “not doing” and “not being able”. Xuan is able to be a true king and to take care of the people, he’s just not doing it. It’s just a matter of making the right inferences at this point that Xuan has failed to make. Whether the cases are relevantly similar or not is a tricky issue, and for the moment I’m just taking the relevantly similar feature to all three cases (ox, sheep, people) to be “(capable of) suffering from thought of death, like an innocent person about to be executed”. Your response deserves a more detailed answer, but I’m going to stay off this blog for a while, and I will also need to read your article.
This is my last comment on this thread. For real 🙂
 IMPARTIAL CONCERN vs. GRADED CONCERN
This is in response to Dan’s quining(?) of the distinction between impartial and graded concern.
Dan writes: I sketched my own view of how this works in #21: to care inclusively is to recognise that everyone’s well-being matters equally in agent-neutral terms. The Mohists assume that this will prevent you from harming others, but they also assume that it will require you to try to benefit strangers only under fairly precise circumstances: when they have needs that cannot be met within traditional lineage structures, when you have extra of something they lack, when you’ve made special arrangements (e.g., to look after a friend’s family), and so on.
That’s a plausible view, but doesn’t seem all too be different from Confucianism. The view also seems to dampen the spirit of activism that seems implicit in Mohism, and which Dan insightfully observes in Comment #21 (at the beginning of 3A5 Mencius criticizes Yi Zhi for going against this spirit). It’s making too much of a concession to conventional morality, I think, and that blunts the bite and sting of the Mohist ethical theory, making it conservative.
Sure, the chapters on impartial concern seems to respect traditional lineage structures, but also states that one should regard other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, and to do for others as one would do for oneself. So, this requirement that one should regard other people’s families as one regards one’s own is what I find incompatible with the Confucian doctrine of graded love.
If Dan says that the Mohist doctrine of impartial concern is to recommend agent-neutrally that each person should care more more their own family than another family, then that is just what the doctrine of graded concern would recommend. In that case, the Mohist doctrine becomes self-effacing, to use Parfit’s term: the doctrine of impartial concern recommends the acceptance of the doctrine of graded concern. (Dan, I don’t think you want to say that the doctrine of impartial concern is self-effacing in this way.)
On the other hand, if the Mohist doctrine is understood as saying that one should care for another family just as much as one’s own, then this is surely different from the Confucian doctrine of graded love. And this is how I understand the Mohist doctrine. And if one can benefit the state by sacrificing one’s own family, wouldn’t the Mohist be compelled to do this? In the case of states, the Mohist doctrine seems to demand just the sort of practice that Mohists engaged in: to help weak states defend themselves against stronger states, even by sacrificing their own lives. When the calculus of benefit and harm demands that one sacrifice one’s dearly beloved for the greater good, then that’s what must be done.
Whether rightly or wrongly, Mencius thought the distinction between impartial and graded concern as constituting a substantive difference between Mohism and Confucianism. In 3B9 and 7A26, Mencius specifically mentions impartial concern as a point of disagreement between him and the Mohists.
 NORMATIVE BASIS IN MOHISM
Dan proposes that benefit is the normative basis in Mohism. Chris proposes that it is the impartial will of Heaven, or as he eloquently puts it, “appeal to the conduct of an ideally impartial, beneficent and unselfish, consistent, noble agent (i.e., Tiān).”
I like Chris’s idea: it reminds one of the impartial spectator theory, but with an interesting twist.
Let me pose some problems for either account, problems that I think the Mencian normative theory grounded in human nature (if it exists) can avoid (here I am elaborating on Manyul’s insights in Comment #6).
Starting with Chris’s proposal, I should read Chris’s excellent SEP article on Mohism more closely, but there seem to be at least two ways of understanding it. The first sort of justification is: if I don’t do what Heaven desires, and do what Heaven dislikes, then I will be punished. If I do what Heaven desires and don’t do what Heaven dislikes, then I will be rewarded. So I should do what is right, because that is what Heaven desires. But is this a justification for doing what is right? To use Mill’s terminology in Ch.3 of Utilitarianism, Heaven’s rewards and punishments are only external sanctions that provide motivation for doing what is right, but do not provide justification for doing what is right.
Perhaps another way of understanding the how Heaven’s will provides justification is to take it as a standard (fa) of rightness, mainly through Heaven’s impartial actions. But taking Heaven’s impartiality as a standard seems to only tell us about the substantive content of rightness, and not an independent justification for the doctrine of impartial concern.
As for Dan’s proposal, take benefit as the justificatory basis of Mohist doctrines. Here I take benefit to be the benefit of the whole, rather than the benefit of any part within that whole. Or in other words, the greater good, and by this the Mohists seem to have in mind (usually, and from the point of view of the rulers): enriching the state, increasing the population, and orderly administration. But this justification works only if one already cares about the greater good of society. If one does not, that justification would be an external reason (to use Bernard Williams’ term) that does not connect at all to one’s motivational set. If all reasons for action are internal (stem from one’s motivatonal set), then the appeal to the benefit of society will not be a justification at all for the person who does not care about benefiting society. If there are external reasons for action, then a person who does not care about it will just say, “So what, even if it is a reason for action, it does not appeal to me in the least.”
It seems that the Yangists challenged Mohism in just this way. Yangists seem to have appealed to internal reasons for action, reasons that connect with a basic motivational set that everyone shares, a motivational set having to do with the preservation and nourishment of one’s life. So, given this basic motivational set, benefiting the world is an external reason that does not provide justification for what one ought to do.
Moreover, on the Yangist view Heaven is present in humans as their biological nature or xing. This nature includes natural, spontaneous and sincere impluses that the Yangists call zhen or “genuine”. As a Yangist chapter in Zhuangzi, Ch.31, puts it, “The genuine is what we draw on Heaven, it is spontaneous and irreplaceable” (Graham trans.). So the genuine impulses in human nature provide the internal sanctions motivating humans to do what is right, on the Yangist view.
Thus the Yangist challenge to Mohism seems to have been that while Mohism only offers external reasons or sanctions in support of their doctrines, Yangism offers internal reasons and sanctions for their view.
Mencius takes the Yangist approach. Human nature contains “genuine” impulses that are incipiently moral. These provide both the internal sanctions and internal reasons for being moral (through the psychological and deliberative process I’ve outlined in Comment #35).
So it is noted in Mencius 7B26: “Those who desert the Mohist school are sure to turn to that of Yang; those who desert the Yang school are sure to turn to the Confucianist.” (Lau trans.)
And it is noted in Huainanzi, Ch.13: “Singing to the strings and dancing to the drum to make music, deferential bows and turns to train one in ceremony, elaborate funerals and prolonged mourning to send off the dead–these Confucius advocated but Mozi condemned. Concern for everyone, elevation of worth, service to the ghosts, rejection of Destiny–these Mozi advocated but Yangzi condemned. Keeping one’s nature intact, protecting one’s genuineness, and not letting the body be tied by other things–these Yangzi advocated but Mencius condemned.” (Graham trans., in DISPUTERS, p.54)
Sorry, I’m late to the game here, and I’m not sure if this thread is still active, but I wanted to pose a question or two after skimming through the responses.
My understanding of the original post is that Mencius lacks a normative theory in the sense that he does not provide a grounding for norms (and certainly not human nature which is commonly assumed as such).
Is the assumption therefore that Mencius does not advocate norms? Or that the norms he advocates have no source? If the latter, then where do norms come from?
Hi Agui, and thanks for posting!
I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Mencius or his followers didn’t advocate norms. Your other two questions are harder to answer, because it’s not clear to me what sort of “source” you’re asking about.
If it’s a normative sorce (an ultimate justification, presumably), then the claim in the post is that the authors of the Mencius did not try to say what the source of norms is. That’s not the same as saying that norms do not have a source, though 7A/26 is easily read as implying that there is no one ultimate justification for all norms, for what that’s worth.
If it’s a psychological source you’re after, then many passages in the Mencius imply that human nature is an important source of virtue, but I’m not sure it would make sense to say that human nature is an important (psychological) source of norms even according to these passages. (I tend to think that the Mencius normally allows that the expansion of the psychological beginnings of virtue should be guided by a knowledge of norms.) In any case, one of my claims is that Mencian claims about the psychological beginnings of virtue were not intended to provide a justification of norms.
If you’re interested in a historical source, then I suppose most of the authors of the Mencius probably agreed that norms were first instituted by ancient sages, but that’s not really an issue I intended to raise.
Thanks for taking a moment to respond.
If the text advocates ‘norms’, but the authors do not appeal to human nature to justify or ground them, on what basis do these norms have any prescriptive force (I imagine this is at least part of what makes a norm a ‘norm’)?
This is why I was inquiring after the source(s) of norms (which of course may or may not be related to their grounding). Is normativity justified by the fact that sages of the past performed them? If so, doesn’t this place Mencius in somewhat of the same situation as Xunzi in terms of explaining the creation of norms?
This is all to say that your reading of individual passages is persuasive, but given that Mencius does advocate norms, and must justify them in some respect, it’s difficult to imagine an alternative justification that does not involve human nature in some way. If 禮 is a kind of norm, it would be difficult to imagine that the 辞讓之心 is not involved somehow in the creation of norms, and not somehow tied to its justification. (Or am I missing something here by perhaps assuming an improper relationship between the 心 and 性 or a unique Mencian understanding of 禮?)
Agui, my view is that (at least most of the time; I still have to think about some of what Boram and Steve have said) Mencius and his followers simply weren’t concerned with what ultimately justified norms. In this they were (if I am right) like most of us. Trying to work out a unified account of what justifies norms is a particular sort of project, and engaging in that sort of project is not a precondition for taking norms to have prescriptive force.
This is not to say that Mencius and his followers couldn’t offer justifications of particular norms; they certainly did that (the most extended example is in 3A/4, which, you’ll notice, does not appeal to human nature). It’s just that in defending particular norms, or particular normative judgements, they did not (or at least usually did not) appeal to a unified theory meant to justify all correct normative judgments.
Like Chris (above), I do not take this to be an objection to Mencian philosophy. In general, I’m pretty suspicious of the idea that all our normative judgments should be grounded in a single unified theory (which is maybe why Mencius 7A/26 stands out so much for me).