Do Ruists overemphasize filial feeling?

I was at the APA in Washington DC last week, and it was great to get a chance to hear about some very interesting work in Chinese philosophy. A couple of papers got me thinking about the reasoning behind the emphasis on filiality (xiao ) in classical Ruism. Whether Ruism gives too much weight to filiality at the expense of other values has been debated recently, and an issue in Dao a year or two ago presented some of this debate. At the conference, I started wondering about a slightly different problem: do Ruists put too much faith in the assumption that someone who is filial will have other moral virtues as well? Is there good reason to think this is generally true?

Here’s a well-known Analects passage which illustrates the importance of filiality, in my loose translation: “Youzi said, ‘It is rare that someone who is filial and fraternal will be fond of offending his superiors, and it has never been the case that one who is not fond of offending his superiors will be fond of causing trouble. The superior man gives weight to the root. When the root is established, then the Way grows. Filiality and fraternal feeling are the root of ren‘.”

What does it mean for “the root” to be established? I suggest that this could be understood as a necessary or a sufficient condition. Reading it is a sufficient condition is implausible both on textual and empirical grounds. If filiality and fraternal respect are sufficient conditions for ren, then anyone who is filial and fraternal would also be ren. Yet Youzi says only that it is rare for someone with these virtues to be fond of offending his superior, not that there are no instances. Assuming that being fond of offending one’s superior is incompatible with being ren, as the passage implies, then it looks like he is saying that there are at least a few cases of people who are filial and fraternal without being ren as well. I suspect there are more than even Youzi thinks. Certainly we can come up with examples of people who are filial and respectful of family members without having broader social virtues (organized crime families come to mind). So this reading should probably be rejected.

Is filiality then a necessary condition for being ren? This would dovetail nicely with passages in Mengzi that talk about the importance of “extending” (tui 推) or “filling out” (chong 充) the basic moral impulses (e.g., 1A7, 2A6). Though there’s not as much discussion of filiality in Mengzi, if it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for developing other moral virtues, we could understand this extension and filling out as other conditions that must be combined with filiality in order to achieve ren.

Is filiality even necessary? Certainly, if Mengzi is right, then there has to be something to extend in order to move from more immediate concern to broader concern. But does this need to be filial feeling specifically? I’m not sure why. I can’t think of any specific examples, but it seems possible to me that someone could have a very poor relationship with her parents and yet was fortunate enough to have close relationships with other people (perhaps relatives, perhaps not) in which she developed the feelings of compassion and concern which she could then extend to other people. Perhaps she would even learn to extend them to her parents. Such cases would doubtless be rare, but don’t strike me as impossible. Rather than filiality in particular, what might be necessary is some kind of trusting, intimate relationship, and then the process of extension.

Instead of emphasizing filiality and then hoping somehow this will be filled out into ren, it seems this process of extending or filling out might be more important. Even Mengzi is vague about exactly what it involves. If it is not true that everyone who is filial is also ren, then the way in which one develops broader virtues from more narrow concern seems to merit more attention.

24 replies on “Do Ruists overemphasize filial feeling?”

  1. I don’t think it’s meant to be a necessary or sufficient condition. The point is that, like a good root structure, it makes good development later more likely. You could get a plant that develops without a good root, or a plant with a good root that fails to develop, but having the root right will help make getting the tip to develop properly easier and more likely to succeed.

  2. Nice thoughts, David!

    … but it seems possible to me that someone could have a very poor relationship with her parents and yet was fortunate enough to have close relationships with other people (perhaps relatives, perhaps not) in which she developed the feelings of compassion and concern which she could then extend to other people. Perhaps she would even learn to extend them to her parents….

    Very interesting example. I think this may indeed work and could even be a lesson for Confucian mode of extension. However,

    1) apparently, the need for extension is based on the need for being consistent in one’s actions: if you treats your friends with compassion, then why not your parents…
    2) I note that ancient Chinese regarded their parents as the “primary benefactor,” so the logic is if you cannot treat those who really care for you and have done a great deal for your well being with compassion and respect, how can you treat anybody else with compassion in any “sincere” manner? (in this sense, the example above will be a case of irony in which the root and tips are reversed)
    3) In general, the logical formula of necessary/sufficient conditions might help somehow in clarifying some aspects of the Confucian teaching of xiao, but I think it might be way more important to explore its rich and complex meanings in the daily enactment…

  3. (I wrote this before seeing Huaiyu’s excellent contribution, but I’m going to post it anyway as is.)

    Hi David!

    I think you raise an extremely important pair of questions:

    1. How is filiality&fraternity supposed to support rén, and
    2. In light of the answer to the first question, what can a filial person and her neighbors do to facilitate the addition and retention of rén?

    By rights those ought to be some of the main questions that the long tradition of Confucianism has discussed. Here’s a question for anyone: what are some interesting answers the tradition developed?

    Carl, I agree that Youzi’s point is not strict necessity or sufficiency of filiality&fraternity. In fact I think it’s suprising to find someone speaking of strict necessity or sufficiency in connection with virtues, since those are typically matters of degree.

    We might distinguish between these three:

    p) X makes Y more probable than it otherwise would be.
    sp) X makes Y probable.
    np) The absence of X makes Y improbable.

    David, I think Youzi’s first point – that being a good boy at home makes it very probable that you’ll be an obedient official – is prima facie evidence that what he has in mind is (sp) rather than (np) – that is, something more like sufficiency than necessity. And his second point – that if you’re an obedient official, you certainly won’t love to stir up trouble – claims strict sufficiency, albeit of a slight virtue to an even more slight virtue.

    Still, I agree with you that the text doesn’t fit the idea that sufficiency or approximate sufficiency is the only thing Youzi has in mind. The image of the 本 (root, trunk) suggests strict necessity, and what’s needed to support Youzi’s conclusion about the superior man is the idea that filiality&fraternity are necessary, not that they are sufficient. Further, as you have pointed out, David, it seems obvious that not everyone who is filial and fraternal is also rén; at least because (I guess) the former terms are common in everyday applications, while the latter term may be more at home in abstraction and eulogy, so that the former terms are more likely to be applied to non-perfect cases of the respective virtues. Given that it’s obvious, Youzi probably thought it was understood.

    I guess the image of the root/trunk probably captures Youzi’s idea pretty well. On the one hand, the home virtues are necessary; on the other hand, given decent supporting conditions (a tricky and flexible idea!) they will naturally grow organically into the larger social virtue, so that in some limited sense they are also sufficient. And on the third hand, the home virtues remain necessary; they are not like a ladder that can be kicked away, or a seed that ceases to exist. That ongoing necessity is needed to support Youzi’s point about the superior man.

    Toward getting a more detailed and better-supported view of what Youzi had in mind, I think Confucius’ statements in the Analects aren’t much help. (The main idea in 1.2 seems pretty clearly not to have been an idea Confucius had.) Fortunately, it seems to me, Youzi’s other statements are very helpful toward understanding 1.2. His little treatises at 1.12 and 1.13 each make parallel claims about how some concrete face-to-face virtue or virtuous practice tends to support some analogous but broader cardinal excellence, so that it would be a mistake to try to pursue the broader excellence at the expense of the narrower one. In brief:

    1.12: Ritual (especially sacrificial festivals) models and thereby grounds social harmony, so it doesn’t make sense to pursue social harmony at the expense of ritual.
    1.13: Trustworthiness is close to (analogous to and supportive of) rightness/justice,
    and humble respectfulness in one’s personal bearing is close to ritual propriety;
    so (the proper pursuit/conduct of) each broader virtue holds fast to its narrower kin.

    (The suggestion is that 1.2 might have been inspired by a tension felt by the members of the group, between filial duties and broader public duties.)

    Thus where Mengzi gives duan(starting-points) of four cardinal virtues, Youzi gives roots/trunks of three of those plus a virtue of a community: social harmony.

    But there one or two differences. Mengzi’s starting-points are supposed to be natural; much of Mengzi’s point is that you can count on their presence in yourself and in other people. Youzi’s roots, on the other hand, are virtues or excellences of practice; Youzi’s purpose is to argue for doing them, not to argue that they can be taken for granted. (And where it is widely thought that Mengzi’s starting-points are kinds of feeling – a reading I don’t share – it seems clear that Youzi’s roots are virtues, excellent practices.)

    Thus insofar as Mengzi models his conception of the relation between filiality and rén on his conception of the relation between his four duan and the corresponding virtues, it will be especially important for him to attend to Question 2 about 推 (moving from the starting points toward the great virtues). Still, as you point out, David, Youzi too cannot afford to dismiss what I called Question 2 above: what can we do to assist the growth of the root?

    I don’t know what Youzi’s answer would be, but I have some speculations about how he would answer Question 1: how he understood the way the narrow concrete virtues supported the broad social virtues. It seems to me that his entries in Book 1 all stress similarities or analogies between the local and the broad virtues. The picture would seem to be that the local ones are to the broad ones as excellence in a flight simulator is to excellence in flight. The local virtues ground the broad ones in the way that experience in town democracy can ground a community’s abilities and virtues for large-scale democracy, or as experience in voluntary associations and exchanges can give us a sense of a social contract. The local models give us skills and other habits of thought, action, and feeling that orient us for more ambitious and abstract matters that are in some sense structurally similar. Filiality and fraternity in particular might be training in taking others seriously: in care and respect.

    (Compare the detailed analogy between filiality and ren at the beginning of Mozi 25.)

    And then, David, your point that other personal relationships might do the job just as well looks like an excellent point. But I have this worry about it. Part of Youzi’s thought may have been that care and respect for our parents and other family elders is the easiest, most natural sort of care and respect to have at first. So unless there simply are no parents or elders around (or they are pretty awful), anyone who is not specifically filial and fraternal has some pretty bad positive habits of neglect, of cussedness. (Perhaps someone whose parents are awful is seriously handicapped against the development of ren?)

    We might find in Mengzi’s example of the baby a potential criticism of the idea that concern for elders is the most natural sort of concern.

  4. Good points all; thanks for your thoughts. I’ll respond to some of these.

    1) Carl: You might be right that I’m pushing things too far by reading it in terms of necessity or sufficiency. On the other hand, I’m not a botanist, but my experience with plants is if they don’t have a good root structure, they will not grow even if other supporting conditions are present. Thus, the root metaphor seems to be a way one could express necessity. Of course, the problem with philosophical metaphors is it’s hard to tell how literally one should take them.

    2) Huaiyu: I definitely agree with your point 1). What I was suggesting was that in some cases, extension might work the other way around. One would start with showing concern for some other, and then extend it to one’s parents, rather than starting with concern for parents and extend it to others. I also agree with 2), and I think such cases would be unusual. And finally, I also agree with your last point. What I’m interested in is a) why (some) Ruists emphasize filial feeling specifically as one of, if not the best or only way, to cultivate the broader social virtues, and b) how that is actually supposed to work. Considering filiality to be the root of ren may be an answer to a) (though I’m not convinced it’s a particularly good one), but still doesn’t answer b), and there seems to be little discussion of it in the early tradition. Perhaps someone more familiar with Neo-Confucianism can chime in.

    3) Bill: As usual, you raise a lot of interesting points, and I’ll have to respond selectively. Regarding the point that virtues are matters of degree and thus not amenable to being defined in terms of strict necessity or sufficiency, I guess I don’t really agree. That virtues are a matter of degree doesn’t seem to me to entail that they don’t have necessary or sufficient conditions. If one subscribes to the idea of the unity of virtue, then all virtues are necessary conditions for each other. It is also often recognized that someone could act in a virtuous way without necessarily having the virtue in question, so there may be conditions for having a virtue that aren’t required for acting virtuously on particular occasions.

    Your expansion of Youzi and comparison with Mengzi is interesting, and I certainly agree that for both of them, how one is supposed to move from the starting point (the trunk(s) and the four sprouts, respectively) is a big question, and so to me it’s surprising they didn’t give more attention to it, or that it wasn’t challenged more. I recall the Mohists and Ruists debating whether one should have differentiated or impartial care, but I don’t recall debates over how to progress to broader concern (maybe because the Mohists had such an impoverished psychology).

    Finally, I absolutely agree with your last point, and the type of case I described where someone did not have filial feelings while having concern for others would definitely be an outlier. On the other hand, there is a somewhat similar famous case discussed in Mengzi and elsewhere: Shun and his parents. Now, Shun is filial, which is where the examples diverge, but how Shun got to be filial is a mystery, and one would think Mengzi in particular would have been interested in explaining this. His parents must have taken care of him enough for him to survive at any rate, and maybe they only started treating him horribly later. But the text depicts someone who had every reason not to grow up to be filial and ren, and managed to do so anyway. How did he do it? This looks like a great place to discuss what other conditions are helpful in developing virtues, and yet there is no discussion of it (in Mengzi, at least).

  5. David and Bill,

    Looking at the way xiào is discussed in Mencius, it seems like filiality is emphasized as a result or accomplishment — a virtue rather than a feeling — not as foundational/basic in the way that Mencius regards the four heart-minds to be. For that reason 2A6/6A6 discussions by Mencius don’t identify xiào as part of the human endowment to fill out or extend. Even in the 3A5 passage where Mencius argues against Yizhi, the argument is about the developmentally or emotionally prior sources of filiality. Qīn 親 is discussed, but the dialectic suggests that neither Yizhi nor Mencius could simply take it for granted that it was a feeling that was essentially family-specific, since that was the very point contested by the Mohists.

    One way to put this is that xiào, like rén, is the end result of extending or filling out the more primary feelings in Mencius, so that’s the wrong type of relationship to look for between those two virtues. The question should be about some issue of primacy or hierarchy among virtues, with some related questions about the unity of virtues in Confucian thought.

    Or have I misunderstood either or both of you?

    • Hi Manyul,

      In regard to Mengzi specifically, in addition to some of the passages Bill mentioned in his comment below, I had in mind 4A27 and 7A15, which specifically connect serving and caring for one’s parents to ren. Neither uses the term xiao, but it doesn’t seem going too far out to see these as related to it.

    • Hi David – How do you understand 實 in 4A27? As pith or core, analagous to 本 as the trunk? Or as “fruit” in the sense of attractive outcome? Or in another way?

    • Van Norden’s translation is “core” and I think that makes sense. Comparing it with 7A15, I think a reading of “fruit” is basically ruled out. However, I haven’t looked at any commentaries to see if they take it in that sense, and that would be interesting.

  6. Hi Manyul!

    You’re right that I was wrong to suggest that the natural givenness of the origins is a directly relevant point of comparison between Youzi’s view of development and Mengzi’s view of development of ren from filiality, for purposes of the questions David raised. The natural givenness of Mengzi’s origins is indirectly relevant, I think, in this sense: that it might help illuminate Mengzi’s conception of extension.

    I don’t think David made any such mistake. I think his suggestion, which I was also trying to play along with, was that Mengzi might have seen the development of ren from filiality as a process similar to the development of the virtues from the starting-points (duan), not that Mengzi had actually said that it was. The most relevant passages might be 4A19, 4A28, 7A15, and the end of 2A6.

    The whole matter is complicated by the fact that (as Dan has emphasized) Mengzi seems to say in 6A6 that the natural hearts are the virtues, and seems to muddle the matter in similar ways in 7A15.

    Except for the passages I’ve just listed, I don’t think there’s any place where Mengzi suggests that one virtuous practice is a proper root of another (unless we take his four hearts themselves to be virtuous practices). Being nice to oxen or fish is relevant to ren, but it’s not supposed to be prior in the standard order of development or maintenance.

  7. Hi Bill; thanks for the clarification. In 1A3, 5, and 7 it seems like filiality, at least among the people, is a result of the rén of the ruler, mediated by the improved economic and political circumstances that are brought about for them. So the direction of causal process there seems to be from rén of those who govern to the filiality of those who are governed. I suppose we could assume the improved circumstances allow the basic feelings behind filiality to express themselves more naturally.

    I guess David’s question is more concerned with the relationship between filiality and rén within the same person. The Xiaojing says (in ch. 1) that filiality is the root of dé 夫孝,德之本也. I don’t like the term “virtues” for dé, since it isn’t really a category term under which virtue terms like rén and xiào fit the way that the English terms “benevolence” and “filiality” fit under “virtues.” I’d be interested to know whether the rhetoric of a term like běn 本, root, is exclusionary — i.e. that it designates only one thing to the exclusion of others. Off hand, I would expect there to be more than one thing that could be comprised by a thing’s root.

    David’s question about whether filiality might be overemphasized in Ruism seems too broad. Text by text, it might vary. Do practitioners emphasize it? Does scholarship emphasize it? Scholarship from which era or strain? I’m not sure we can answer the question purely conceptually since the concept might be understood differently by different folks in the tradition.

    • Analects 8.2 reports that Confucius said, “…君子篤於親,則民興於仁…” (“When those who are in high stations perform well all their duties to their relations, the people are aroused to virtue [ren].” – Legge)

      If we combine this point with the idea that the effectiveness of rule by virtue is that the people copy the ruler’s good qualities, then we seem to have filiality generating ren by way of some kind of similarity. I’m not sure that’s the right way to read the passage. For one thing, I think rule by virtue is supposed to work by other mechanisms beyond copying, such as the people’s gratitude and reciprocation.

  8. 1

    On the specific importance of filiality and fraternity rather than alternative personal relationships, to ren – –

    The reason why it seems plausible to me to say that parents and elders are the most natural first objects of care and respect is that they are the main people we encounter in childhood, the main people who care for us (thus tending to seem good and inspire reciprocity), and the main people who have power over us (thus tending to draw our attention and obedience). So that if we don’t respect and care for these people, that omission can’t be psychologically trivial like our not respecting or caring for some neighbor we rarely encounter.

    But those points have their most direct application to early development. They don’t have direct application to the psychological role of the superior person’s ongoing filiality and fraternity in grounding her continued ren, which is the point of 1.2. So I think there’s plenty of room for argument about that, and I don’t have any ready ideas about it.

    Perhaps Youzi’s picture is less applicable in societies whose organization isn’t feudal.


    David, you write, “I certainly agree that for both of [Youzi and Mengzi], how one is supposed to move from the starting point (the trunk(s) and the four sprouts, respectively) is a big question, and so to me it’s surprising they didn’t give more attention to it, or that it wasn’t challenged more.”

    (I’ve been convinced that we don’t have reason to read Mengzi’s term 端 as a plant image. But others are likely to remember the argument about this better than I do.)

    I’m not surprised that Youzi didn’t write more about this. We have very little from him. (The story in the Shiji is that the Confucian group dumped him as their leader early on — as I recall it was because Youzi couldn’t explain Confucius’ feats of astrological weather prediction, or something of that sort.) But since the idea that filiality and fraternity are the root of ren does seem to be pretty central to the Confucian cultural tradition, I’m wondering whether the long Confucian philosophical tradition has had interesting things to say in elaboration of it: of how filiality&fraternity supports ren, and how to help the process along. I simply don’t know. If there are interesting ideas I’d love to hear them; and if there aren’t, that seems interestingly telling.


    David, you write, “it looks like he is saying that there are at least a few cases of people who are filial and fraternal without being ren as well. I suspect there are more than even Youzi thinks.”
    —I think 1.2 doesn’t suggest that it’s rare to be filial without being ren. Youzi says that filiality-and-fraternity is largely sufficient for the slight virtue not-loving-disobeying, and he says that that slight virtue is strictly sufficient for the very slight virtue not-loving-to-stir-up-trouble. (I guess he means stirring up trouble on a small or large scale, depending on one’s situation.) It follows that being filial and fraternal is largely sufficient for not loving to stir up trouble, which is a much weaker claim than that most filial people are ren. I suppose the idea is that loving to stir up trouble is the polar opposite of ren, so the suggestion is that being filial tends to move one in the direction of ren.


    If he is thinking of similarity as playing a causal role, we might be able to learn something from the passage about how ren was conceived in the company Youzi kept. What is the operative similarity?

    David, you point especially to trust and intimacy as the operative features of filiality&fraternity; I hadn’t thought of that. I’d like to hear more about it. Our practice of abbreviating “filiality and fraternity” as “filiality” may unfairly suppress the idea.

    I’ve thought of the operative similarity as being about both care and respect, lumped together as something like service or putting others first (cf. Xiaojing 5 and 9). I wonder whether in the phrase “loves going against his superior,” Youzi chose the term fàn (going against) because it is broader than mere disobedience.

    The analogy in Mozi 25 goes like this (in Mei’s translation at the Chinese Text Project):

    “…The magnanimous [ren] ruler takes care of the empire, in the same way as a filial son takes care of his parents. … If the parents are poor [the filial son] would enrich them; if the parents have few people (descendants) he would increase them; if the members (of the family) are in confusion he would put them in order. … And the same is true of the magnanimous ruler in taking care of the empire: if the empire is poor he would enrich it; if the people are few he would increase them; if the multitude are in confusion he would put them in order. …”

    (Mei’s translation may suggest that the comparison here is not between ren rulership and filiality, but rather between the caring aspect of ren rulership and the caring aspect of filiality. But the translation’s “take care of” reflects 度 in the original, which seems very general.)

    Still, it’s awfully easy to read 1.2 as emphasizing obedience rather than care. The Brookses say the passage displays a conception of the virtue of the superior man as docility.

    The picture of ren in the Analects saliently involves love. But at least as saliently, it involves something like stable serenity even unto an inactivity of mind. One might have a mountainous serenity if one were obedient to a stable order of superiors or a known heavenly moral order whose practical implications are easy to see. But I suppose we tend to think of caring for others in general, as in the utilitarian picture of broad care we seem to find in the Mozi, as bringing anything but stony serenity.

    If there were a caring feudal order in place, or a comprehensive set of clear instructions from heaven that could be known to be the most effective way to promote the interests of others, then care might coincide with obedience and thus with serenity.
    (But if we then defined ren in terms of obedience alone, the ren character of the emperor would not explain the beneficence of the feudal order – unless by way of some feature of Heaven other than ren.
    (A familiar view of the etymology of ren suggests that it might have seemed a tautology that only humans can be ren , so that Heaven is not ren. I wonder if there are pre-Qin texts that say positively that Heaven is ren — can anyone think of any?))


    David, my guess is that people who maintain that the virtues are one are talking about the extreme or perfect virtues, which are as such not matters of degree.

  9. Hi Manyul – sorry, I posted my #8 before seeing your #7.

    It’s true that pine cones and pine needles spring from the same trunk! And Youzi at 1.2 does seem to contemplate that one trait can root two different traits in series.

    But I don’t think the passage you quote from Xiaojing 1 should be read as claiming that alongside ren, filiality is also a root of de. Rather, I think it’s just a rephrasing, reflecting perhaps a lack of concern with theoretical niceties such as the differences between quasi-comprehensive excellences. One reason I think so is that the immediately preceding lines, the first lesson lines in the Xiaojing, look to me like a revised version of Youzi’s LY 1.12.

    I wonder whether the evidence that de means something other than “virtue” all significantly precedes the Xiaojing? Scott?

    I would be interested to hear whether later Confucianism used 本 as something more than an ad hoc metaphor.

  10. Joshua, to your extremely interesting comment here:


    David raised a similar question toward the end of his #4 above, regarding Shun, a sage king whom Mengzi reports as having an awful father and brother but who turned out a paragon of filiality. The fact that Shun was so filial is to his extra credit, though I don’t see anything in Mengzi that looks like a genuine attempt at explanation – unless the explanation is simply the fact of freewill, and perhaps some thought that that is enough to account for people like Shun once in a blue moon.

    I suppose the moral benefits of being filial are not supposed to depend on the good qualities of the parents to whom one is filial.


    The Confucian point you want to challenge is that “family is essential in people’s moral development.” We might distinguish two versions of that claim:

    a) It is essential to a person’s moral development that she have a (close) family.
    b) Given that people are raised in families, it is essential to people’s moral development that they relate to their families in certain ways (notably filiality and fraternity).

    Only (a) argues that we ought to have families. I’m not aware of any Confucian discussions of that.


    I think your point that good parents can have bad children is a big problem for the Confucian political idea that virtue in one’s superior is powerfully transformative. That political idea would seem to imply that virtuous fathers have virtuous children (and that history is not a process of decline).

    How essential is that political idea to the Confucian defense of feudalism?

    Mengzi seems to have seen some analogy between rulership and parenthood. But in rulership he seems to emphasize not the power of the ruler’s example of virtue, but rather the attractive and improving material security that come from the ruler’s beneficence.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful response, and I apologize for my delay.

      To 2(a), that’s too bad. I was hoping that there would be at least some response hiding in some classic or commentary.

      To 2(b), I’d be on guard to this kind of phrasing, in part because then the family is no longer essential in moral development by that sort of claim, too. The claim there seems to be this: Really, children could be raised under whatever cultural institution, but regardless of the institution, it’s important that they relate to their fellowmen or guardians with filiality and fraternity. It just so happens that in China, children are raised in households by their parents. But how is that different from saying this: “We ought to be filial and fraternal to the people with whom we interact regularly?”

      My second contention with 2(b) is that the claim that we ought to act in that way turns into a naked prescription without any clear argument to defend that manner of action over any other. The arguments why we should be filial and fraternal in Confucianism rely heavily on the facts of the assumed “kinship systems” (e.g. that we should mourn mothers’ passings for three years because they bore us for three). But Kongzi couldn’t relate those prescriptions to the Trobrianders, who don’t connect sexual intercourse with parenthood, much less place any strong moral impulses on constant, monogamous marriage or “nuclear families.” The Trobrianders assume a kinship system that radically diverges from the Han kinship system (the ethnic group with which an estimated 90% of Chinese people identify themselves).

      To 1, Yang Zhu makes heavy use of Shun. He regards him as one of four paragons of wasted and miserable lives (the others being Da Yu, the Duke of Zhou, and Kongzi). Among the negative descriptions that Yang Zhu gives of Shun, we get two pictures from his own family (
      * Shun was raised under a family of unloving parents and siblings.
      * Shun himself fathered children, but his first son Shang Jun (商鈞), was “incompetent” (不才).

      Yang Zhu invoked Shun’s life to point out a kind of criticism against the Confucian virtues in sum, but one potential argument nested in that wholesale criticism is an argument that virtue is not inherited through the family. Shun’s own filiality wasn’t passed to him from his family, and arguably he didn’t pass it to his own children (though what made Shang Jun “incompetent” is not apparent). There doesn’t appear to be any other reference to Shang Jun by name in the CText archive outside of the aforesaid passage, but perhaps someone with more detailed knowledge of the life of Shun could affirm or negate that claim.

    • Hi Joshua!

      Sorry, I was unclear: with 2(a) and 2(b) I just meant to be drawing any distinction, not making any claim about what Confucians have said.

      2(b) makes no comment at all about what would happen in the absence of families, and I think the fact that 2(b) does not include in itself an argument for 2(b) is no criticism at all.

      Interesting points about Yang Zhu on Shun’s family! It reminds me that there is a second way in which the proposition that virtuous parents can have vicious children can challenge Confucian political ideas. The first way was that it undermines the Confucian premise that virtue in a superior transforms those under her. The second way is that it challenges an idea that is at least often associated with Confucianism, that in general feudal offices should be hereditary.

  11. Hi Manyul and Bill,

    I’ll certainly plead guilty to my question being too broad. Part of the reason is I’m curious if there is more attention to the relationship between being filial and being virtuous generally that I’m not familiar with, in Neo-Confucianism for example, and I hope someone will chime in there. Like I mentioned, my question was sparked by some talks at the APA that focused on pre-Qin and Han texts, so in that sense it is directed to the early tradition. But if someone wants to make the case that some kind of Ru ethic is plausible and worth taking seriously as contemporary philosophy, the issue would obviously be important. The purpose of some of the thought experiments I’ve offered (where people might be filial without being ren and possibly ren without being filial) is to try to get clearer about what the relationship between these two virtues, or narrow and broader virtue generally, and how exactly one might learn to move from one to the other. It seems to me that it’s that question of how one moves from filiality to broader concern that is the really crucial point, and that it needs to be filled in for Ruist ethics to be convincing philosophically. If there isn’t a good explanation for how that works, the emphasis on filiality seems excessive, since it might have very little to do with whether someone is virtuous generally.

    On to some more specific points:

    1) Bill, I certainly agree that in the vast majority of cases, family members are the first objects of care and respect. What I’m trying to get at with my examples is that one can’t just assume that a) care and respect for family leads to b) care and respect for others, and how one gets to b) (from whatever starting point) is actually the more important issue, whereas Ruists spend a lot of time arguing for the importance of a). Even if a) is really important, it still doesn’t explain how one moves to b), and I’m suggesting there needs to be some account of this for Ruism to be a functional ethic.

    2) On trust and intimacy, I’m mixing what Ruists say with some contemporary developmental psychology. Mengzi, for example, might be noting the importance of intimacy, depending on how one takes qin 親. Han texts, I believe, associate intimacy with the mother-chlid relationship, while the father-child relationship is supposed to be characterized by obedience on the part of the child. Trust is associated with friendship rather than parental relationships in Ruism as far as I recall, but developmental psychology highlights the importance of trust in parents for proper development and building healthy relationships with others. Seems like something Ruists could incorporate without too much of a stretch. Given that fraternal feeling is specifically for one’s older brother(s), respect fits in as well. I’ll confess I’m not trying to be too precise about what filiality and fraternity are, but just note some of the aspects that could relate to developing broader virtues.

    3) Bill, I hadn’t really been considering the political dimension–how the idea that good parents can have bad children is a threat to Ruist political ideals–but of course you’re right. Han Feizi makes a powerful critique to this effect.

    • Slingerland writes in “The Situationist Critique and Early Confucian Virtue Ethics,”
      Consider the closest thing we could find to a term for ‘honesty’ in Warring States (sixth century to third century B.C.E.) China: the virtue term xin 信, usually translated as “trustworthiness” or “reliability.” There is always a bit of debate concerning the precise connotation of traditional virtue terms such as this, and their usage also has varied somewhat from thinker to thinker and over time, but what is beyond dispute is that the scope of xin is confined to a gentleman’s professional behavior toward his colleagues, superiors, and/or inferiors,

      Ethics Jan. 2011, p. 401f

      That came as a surprise to me. Does anyone here know where such a restriction of scope of this character might have been discussed?

    • I would hazard a guess that this is based on the fact that passages in the Analects that specify whom one should be xin to, they include these groups and do not mention family members. E.g., 1.4, 1.5, 1.7, 5.26. There does seem to be a trend to apply zhong 忠 and xin 信 to non-familial relationships, as FF are used in family relationships. It probably depends on what texts one looks at, though, and I’d hesitate making that strong a claim without looking at more instances.

      I’ll reply to your later comment when I’ve had more time to think about it.

    • Thanks for those, David!

      Slingerland’s next words are indeed these: “and the idea that it should also encompass an elite male’s sexual fidelity to his wives and concubines would have been incomprehensible to the early Chinese.”

      – but that’s not the part I’m questioning. Xin seems to me to have special reference to the trustworthiness of words, and I’m not aware that Chinese practice of the time involved vows of exclusivity made by men to their wives and concubines (but see below). Anyway it makes sense to me to think that trustworthiness has its most important application to non-ascriptive relationships like friendship rather than among family members.

      I wanted to question the larger idea that Slingerland says is beyond dispute: the idea that the term xin is inapplicable outside the realm of professional relations.

      Here are some reasons to think xin was probably not limited in that way:

      It seems to me that it would be linguistically very strange indeed for there to be a term like xin restricted to professional interactions, especially very early in the development of the professional class. Ren, for example, doesn’t seem to be restricted in that way; see LY 8.2.

      If xin is so restricted, then it would seem that the language lacked a common term for trustworthiness (i.e., a term applicable to anybody). That would seem pretty weird offhand.

      So far as I can tell, we don’t have any suggestion in the texts of a kind of action that is paradigmatic for xin that would be available only to professionals in professional dealings.

      Xin seems to be connected quite with believing words, which is a matter that arises in every context.

      Even in the Analects, several passages sort of suggest that xin has wider application: 1.6, 5.28, 8.16

      It seems to me that if the term was restricted to professional relations, a natural place to draw the line would be at the boundary between official and unofficial business, not at a supposed boundary between professional and other relations (perhaps between the same unemployed people), or a boundary between real-or-aspiring-professional-people and other people.

      Thus we’d need some pretty strong evidence on the other side to put the matter colorably beyond dispute.

      Weighing on the other side, perhaps it is true that

      All the instances in the Analects are in fact meant to be about relations among professionals.

      But even if that were obviously true, it wouldn’t necessarily amount to prima facie evidence for the claim of Slingerland’s that I quoted. For the Analects is mainly about ethics for current and aspiring public servants – what Slingerland is calling “professionals,” I guess. (The same is true of most other early books, yes?) Point A would be like arguing that since all the examples of honesty in a book on French history are about French people … (For the same reason (but even more so), point A, if true, wouldn’t even be prima facie evidence that xin lacks application to marital fidelity.)

      Also I think it’s not at all clear that A is true. Of the passages you listed, which I think are pretty fairly representative, three present xin as a key virtue for relations with friends in general (pengyou 朋友 in every case), and don’t suggest any other limitation. Slingerland addresses this matter in a footnote:

      “It was pointed out by an anonymous reader that xin is a crucial virtue in interactions with one’s you 友, a term typically translated as “friends,” which might seem to undermine my claim that xin is restricted to one’s professional behavior. It is important to realize that, in the Confucian context, you refers not to random acquaintances or childhood buddies, but rather to a subset of the professional colleagues of a given “gentleman”—the cultivated scholar-politician who is the target of Confucian education—who are more or less of the same rank/seniority and with whom the gentleman, to borrow a concept from Aristotle, shares a vision of the “Good.” You marks out those colleagues whom one finds personally amenable and who also share one’s moral aspirations.”

      Is his claim here about 友 true? I don’t know.

      Even if it is, that leaves the matter of 朋友 unaddressed.

      Here are some passages from the Book of Odes that suggest a wider scope for xin (with Legge’s translations, thanks to the Chinese Text Project):

      This person
      Has her heart only on being married.
      Greatly is she untrue to herself,
      And does not recognize [the law of] her lot

      I was to grow old with you; –
      Old, you give me cause for sad repining.
      The Qi has its banks,
      And the marsh has its shores.
      In the pleasant time of my girlhood, with my hair simply gathered in a knot,
      Harmoniously we talked and laughed.
      Clearly were we sworn to good faith,
      And I did not think the engagement would be broken.
      That it would be broken I did not think,
      And now it must be all over!

      While living, we may have to occupy different apartments;
      But when dead, we shall share the same grave.
      If you say that I am not sincere,
      By the bright sun I swear that I am.

      Slingerland must have had in mind some pretty powerful arguments. What might they have been? Since he says the matter is “beyond dispute,” surely it has bee discussed somewhere?

    • 8.
      Here are some passages from the Zhuangzi that seem to reflect a view that xin can be fully realized without official position (Legge, CTP):

      Zhuangzi, Robber Zhi 2
      Without such a course you will not be believed in; unless you are believed in, you will not be employed in office;

      Zhuangzi, The Old Fisherman
      Zi-gong replied, ‘This scion of the Kong family devotes himself in his own nature to leal-heartedness and sincerity … ‘ The stranger further asked, ‘Is he a ruler possessed of territory?’ ‘No,’ was Zi-gong’s reply. ‘Is he the assistant of any prince or king?’ ‘No;’…”

    • An unknown portion of the Liji is not from the time period Slingerland was speaking of. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that in the Liji we find the following (I give Legge’s translation and the Chinese Text Project’s numbering of passages throughout):

      Jiao Te Sheng 35
      “By the united action of heaven and earth all things spring up. Thus the ceremony of marriage is the beginning of a (line that shall last for a) myriad ages. The parties are of different surnames; thus those who are distant are brought together, and the separation (to be maintained between those who are of the same surname) is emphasised. There must be sincerity in the marriage presents; and all communications (to the woman) must be good. She should be admonished to be upright and sincere. Faithfulness is requisite in all service of others, and faithfulness is (specially) the virtue of a wife. Once mated with her husband, all her life she will not change (her feeling of duty to him) and hence, when the husband dies she will not marry (again).”

      Also we find an indication that if we distinguish professional friendship from private friendship, xin is distinctively associated with the latter:

      Qi Li I.16
      “Whenever a son, having received the three (first) gifts (of the ruler), declines (to use) the carriage and horses, the people of the hamlets and smaller districts, and of the larger districts and neighbourhoods, will proclaim him filial; his brothers and relatives, both by consanguinity and affinity, will proclaim him loving; his friends who are fellow-officers will proclaim him virtuous; and his friends who are his associates will proclaim him true.”

      Also there are lots of passages that seem to present xin as an essential part of filial service, ritual, and sacrifice. For example:

      Tan Gong I.9
      “Zi-si said, ‘On the third day of mourning, when the body is put into the coffin, (a son) should exercise sincerity and good faith in regard to everything that is placed with it”

      Ji Yi 9
      “The filial son, in sacrificing, seems never able to exhaust his earnest purpose, his sincerity, and reverence.”

      Other passages suggest the general human relevance of the virtue. For example:

      Yue Ji 50
      “(Once), when Zi-gong had an interview with the music-master Yi, he asked him, saying, ‘I have heard that in the music and words belonging to it there is that which is specially appropriate to every man; what songs are specially appropriate to me?’ The other replied, ‘I am but a poor musician, and am not worthy to be asked what songs are appropriate for particular individuals; allow me to repeat to you what I have heard, and you can select for yourself (what is appropriate to you). The generous and calm, the mild and correct, should sing the Sung; the magnanimous and calm, and those of wide penetration and sincere, the Da Ya (Major Odes of the Kingdom)”

    • Hi David. I agree with you completely that someone who is interested in a contemporary Confucianism should try to take the virtue of filiality seriously. So I think I understand your questions better. There are a couple of previous posts from 2009 in which I tried to think through some of the issues:

      Maybe some of that is helpful. Here’s a quick piece from the former post of the two:

      The Confucian ideal seems to be that the duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are central, in at least two ways:

      1) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are overriding — they override any duties or obligations that derive from other relations, be they standing relations (subject and ruler, ruler and minister, subject and subject, etc.), or incidental ones based on circumstances (sheep-thief and sheep-owner, chariot-driver and someone run over by chariot-driver, etc.).

      2) The duties and obligations deriving from family bonds are paradigmatic — they provide the paradigm, or model, for thinking about what our other duties or obligations are like and how we should think about them. So, for example, the ruler should think about his relationship to his ministers or to his subjects in ways that are modeled on the parent-child relationship.

      That represents, I think, a common portrayal of the Confucian view. The questions I have are about how such a view might be justified. There are so-called “special relationships” that some contemporary moral theorists like to talk about, that are based on more or less standing relationships we find ourselves in, sometimes not entirely out of choices that we may have made. But these relationships can involve important moral aspects like trust and deep emotional bonds based on instinctive and cultivated care. The most obvious relationship like this is the parent-child relationship. But in that relationship, it’s always seemed to me like there’s an important asymmetry. As parents, we bring children into the world and it is most often out of some choice or other that we made. But of course the children had no such choice (that’s not the asymmetry I’m interested in) and for many years of their lives, they are in most ways “at our mercy” — they tacitly trust us to take care of them and to prepare them for a relatively happy adult life. Most parents love their children and so the point about trust might seem to without saying, but that’s not always the case and even loving parents don’t always feel particularly fond of their children. So, care is something that we owe to our children, as Kant (through Barbara Herman, among others) might say, even when we don’t on occasion feel like caring for them.

  12. A

    David, you write:
    one can’t just assume that a) care and respect for family leads to b) care and respect for others; and how one gets to b) (from whatever starting point) is actually the more important issue, whereas Ruists spend a lot of time arguing for the importance of a)

    I wonder whether you mean
    1) they spend a lot of time arguing for the importance of FF (filiality and fraternity) on the undefended assumption that FF leads to broader virtue,
    2) they spend a lot of time arguing for the importance of FF on other grounds (what grounds?), or
    3) they spend a lot of time arguing from the importance of FF.

    My casual impression is that they spend a lot of time arguing from the importance of filiality, and little time on the other projects.


    Insofar as the role of FF in rooting ren is the main Confucian reason for FF, one would expect that role to be the main sort of consideration Confucians appeal to in determining the detailed requirements of FF. I wonder if there is in fact any passage in which a Confucian authority presents that sort of consideration for that sort of conclusion. Anyone?

    The other main reason for filiality I’ve encountered is the reason based on a norm of reciprocity, or what Aristotle called “justice in exchange.” That is, our parents gave us much, so we owe them much.

    There are two main versions of this argument, I guess. The strong version appeals to the idea that our parents gave us our lives, gave us everything, so our obligations are limitless. Confucius makes the weak version of this argument at LY 17.21 – a version that does not appeal to the idea that our parents gave us our lives, or gave us everything. Because it does not appeal to that idea, it can have application to fraternity as well as filiality, and has less of a tendency to seem to support obligations that continue past the death of the parents (or more distant ancestors). Confucius in the Analects doesn’t, as I recall, mention those obligations extending beyond three years after their objects’ deaths (cf. 11.22).

    Hu Shi, if I understood and recall correctly, argues against the strong reciprocity argument for filiality on the grounds that whether your life is a benefit depends on how good or bad it is, and argues against the universality of the weak argument on the grounds that many parents care poorly for their children.

    Someone who accepts the reciprocity argument might hold that filiality (and fraternity?) directly roots the reciprocity aspect of ren (if ren has a reciprocity aspect). But the strong version presents a problem, for arguably focusing on a relationship in which adequate reciprocation is impossible would tend to weaken one’s general commitment to reciprocity.

    Another sort of argument for FF might be the idea that our natural impulses are authoritative, and FF are very natural strong impulses.

    What else?


    If nobody responds to David’s and my plea for reports of Confucian discussions of these core Confucian topics, I’m hoping that some folks who’ve been following this thread will be interested in trying to work up some arguments of our own about (Q1) whether and how FF might grow into broader virtue and (Q2) how the process might be assisted, by the person herself or by others. I’ll try to give project that more of a start here.

    I’ll focus again on (Q1), and not just because I think it’s foundational for (Q2). My sense regarding Youzi and (sometimes) Mengzi, is that when they say that FF supports ren, what they have in mind is not that FF is like the foundation of a building, requiring the superstructure to be added artificially, but rather that FF, in addition to being normally necessary, also tends of itself to grow into ren. In Youzi, we see that idea in the sufficiency of FF for slighter but broader virtues, and in the line “when the root is established the way comes to life.” (Mengzi is often specifically concerned with people who have poor foundations, like the king in 1.7.) In proportion to the strength of that tendency, the question of what we have to do to push the process along recedes in importance, and it might be better to think rather in terms of nourishing the process or refraining from blocking or undermining it.

    So how would the growth work? Let’s simplify and consider the more general idea that care and respect for the people with whom we are in closest contact leads to broader care and respect. I think broader care and respect is harder because it is more complex and more abstract. That means it requires advanced skills and habits of conception, attention and action; and it’s harder to feel as attractive; its value is harder to appreciate.

    For example, care/respect for those near to us is easier to enjoy and value for several reasons. First, they reciprocate, and we can learn to expect that, so that we build it in to the attractiveness to us of the care and respect. That is one of the reasons why we more easily sympathize with people we are in close and sustained contact with, and hence with their liking for our treatment of them. Further, as we develop the skills for effective care and respect – knowing what to say, for example – we come to enjoy and thus value it more. If we approach in this way virtually all the people we’re in close contact with, we will tend to envision people in general as proper objects of care and respect, even people we relate to only in distant abstract ways (say, by way of the broad social impact of our political or economic activity).

    (One can see how a psychologically unsophisticated moralist might be pulled away from this view. Proper virtue might seem to be about care for all, and/or respect for all; and in the sincere effort to live up to such standards one might feel as the main obstacles the insistent claims of the people with whom one is in direct contact, so that a fair account of great virtue might seem to build in a kind of impartiality or neglect of close ones, as part of the essence of principledness or proper orientation. Attachments to particular others might seem almost as paradigmatic of wrongness as attachment to self.)


    The special problem for Confucianism would seem to arise regarding the high degree of filiality it asks of adults. I think that’s what David is especially challenging. One might expect that kind of filiality to work against broad public concern. If I wanted to look further into such questions I might start here:

    Especially if we take filiality or FF as paradigmatic of ren, moral life would seem to require yi in addition, as a counterbalance to ren, ensuring that the orientation toward family would not be destructive of broader social harmony and cooperation.

    Youzi does in fact offer such counter-virtues, with advice about their respective psychological roots. Justice (義), he says, is rooted in trustworthiness. A society’s harmony is rooted in its collective ritual, and an individual’s ritual propriety is rooted in her respectful politeness. Each of these points was suppressed by Zhu Xi’s misreadings of LY 1.12 and 1.13, which are still widely followed.

    Mengzi seems vulnerable to this worry, as he offers no concrete root for yi義 except fraternity (4A27, 3B9), or maybe obedience to officials (1A1).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.