This post expands a question I asked once in the old Discussions section.
It is sometimes said that the (or a) Ruist picture of moral psychology stresses family because Ruists stress the development of moral sensibilities starting with people’s earliest relationships, which are their childhood relationships at home. So … what about household servants?
Having the right attitudes in my family relationships tends to give me the right attitudes in my political relationships.
Where right family attitudes prevail in society, the right political attitudes tend also to prevail.
Differences in family culture from region to region, or from time to time, tend to be accompanied by analogous differences in political culture.
Idea #2 is very abstract, and can be understood simply in terms of order versus disorder, or natural respect versus the lack of it. Idea #3 contemplates a variety of kinds of stable order, and perhaps a variety of forms of government.
Where might idea #3 appear in the Chinese tradition?
Palgrave Macmillan has published P. Steven Sangren, Filial Obsessions: Chinese Patriliny and Its Discontents. A work of anthropology, but it looks to have much to say to philosophers interested in issues related to filial piety. More information here.
Here and there I have argued that Confucius did not think family virtue is the root of ren 仁; far from it. In defense of that claim I’ll now try to answer the question: how then do so many scholars think he did?
Confucius’ remark at Analects 1.6 is often cited to show that he thought proper moral development begins with filial piety and then extends that attitude to ever-larger groups of people (ever less intensely). I shall argue that the remark does not display such a view. Confucius did not in general envision moral progress as extension.
Many hold that for Confucius the family is the model for organized political society in some sense; that Confucius regarded the norms for relations beyond the family as largely based on the norms for relations with kin. Here I follow Joseph Chan in challenging that view.
Someone said to Confucius, “Master, why don’t you engage in government?” The Master said, “The Book of Documents says, ‘Filial! But be filial, and a friend to your brothers, thus contributing to government.’ Why then do that other kind of ‘engaging in government’?”
Here are some reasons to think that Youzi did not regard family as the root of humanity or of the Way. (I used to think he did.)
Most of my argument focuses on defending a view held by Soothill, Leys, Chin, and maybe Lau and Slingerland: that by 弟 in Analects 1.2, Youzi meant elder-respect, a virtue commonly associated specifically with life outside the family. It would follow that according to 1.2, only one of the two parts of the root of humanity is specifically a family virtue. If 孝 and 弟 have something relevantly in common for Youzi, family isn’t it.
Did Confucius think that if one of us has general virtue, or some particular virtue such as courage or filial piety, that general or particular virtue will have a substantial tendency to spread directly to the people around her, even if she holds no government position?
Here I’ll survey Confucius’ statements in the Analects and conclude that the answer is No. Confucius probably did not hold that view. (I gave the opposite reading in both my published papers on Chinese philosophy.)