Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Normative Theory in the Mencius

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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 ( 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?

Author: Manyul Im

University of Bridgeport

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