Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Special Relationships, Duties and Obligations

Following up on some things we discussed about filial piety on a previous post, I’ve had some thoughts about the nature of family relationships and their moral relevance, particularly with respect to filial piety, but with some hopes for expanding the thoughts more systematically to other aspects.

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.

The moral asymmetry, I think, is when we look at the relationship from the side of the children. What is it that they owe to us? (Or, more pressing for many of us, what do we owe our parents?). I’m not so sure how to answer that. One way to characterize the Confucian view is that children owe their parents obedience, allegiance/loyalty, and gratitude — as I suggested about Analects 13.18 in the aforementioned post. But let me introduce Analects 17.21, which says:

Zai Wo asked about the three years’ mourning for parents, saying that one year was long enough….The Master said, “If you were, after a year, to eat good rice, and wear embroidered clothes, would you feel at ease?” “I should,” replied Wo. The Master said, “If you can feel at ease, do it. But a superior man, during the whole period of mourning, does not enjoy pleasant food which he may eat, nor derive pleasure from music which he may hear. He also does not feel at ease, if he is comfortably lodged. Therefore he does not do what you propose. But now you feel at ease and may do it.” Zai Wo then went out, and the Master said, “This shows Yu’s [i.e. Zai Wo’s] want of virtue. It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. And the three years’ mourning is universally observed throughout the empire. Did Yu enjoy the three years’ love of his parents?” (Legge translation)

One way of expressing filial piety is through this expression of mourning. But it really doesn’t work well to think of this on a duty or obligation model. If we think about it on the trust model, the three years spent in “the arms of its parents” are based on what the parents already owe to the child. The parent doesn’t create a subsequent debt by caring for the child, right? But maybe the child, later in life as an adult, comes to appreciate that parental care nonetheless. At that point, it seems like that’s a nice thing, but not only isn’t it morally relevant, I’m not sure it is desirable to think of that sort of appreciation as morally relevant. “I’m really glad that I was lucky to have such caring parents” and “I’m really grateful to my parents for caring about me” are slightly different sentiments, but of a kind. Call them the “fortunate child” or “grateful child” sentiments; they are of a kind because they recognize the virtues of the parents but don’t imply that those virtues then create a debt on the child’s part.

I think for filial piety, at least, to be plausible the view has to be understood in ways that aren’t tied to the duties or obligations of children to their parents. As someone who grew up in a fairly traditional Korean family and in traditional Korean diaspora communities, I get the sense that “on the ground” the Confucian view does require a heavy sense of duty and obligation from children toward their parents — not so much of gratitude or fortune. But what should the sense of duty and obligation toward parents be based on? I don’t think it can plausibly be based on gratitude toward them; being grateful to someone doesn’t seem like grounds for owing them things or having duties toward them, at least not in a strict moral sense. Or does it?

As always, discussion is welcome!

July 8th, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Ethical Theory | 20 comments

20 Responses to Special Relationships, Duties and Obligations

  1. Justsomeguy says:

    While it is a cop-out, isn’t filial piety axiomatic in Confucianism?

    I mean, the Xiaojing kicks off by stating that filial piety is the root of all virtue. Now, in the Analects, it does seem like either ren or li should be the root of all virtue . . . but the whole which and whose Confucius thing is old hat by now.

    But filial piety is basically training wheels for both benevolence and ritual propriety. So it is good because it is the first framework in which the ethical foundations of Confucianism are encountered. If a person can’t get passed that first stage, what is the point of anything else?

    It is the same idea when Confucius talks about how the Odes are worthless if they don’t actually lead to benevolence. I’m sure Zai Wo had the Classics memorized (or was at least exceedingly familiar) but he missed the point. Just like he missed the point on filial piety.

  2. Manyul Im says:

    Hi JSG,

    I’m not sure about “axiomatic,” but I do think filial piety is central in the two ways above. My question, though, is not about whether filial piety is derived from some other more basic or axiomatic root, but how we should understand the sorts of things that filial piety is supposed to motivate. So, for example, filial piety somehow underwrites the funerary rites and continued honoring of one’s parents; but does that mean the f-pious person should regard such honoring as a duty, obligation, or something else? I’m suggesting that regarding it as a duty or obligation doesn’t capture the moral nature of the parent-child relationship in a very satisfactory (i.e. plausible) way.

  3. Justsomeguy says:

    I think Confucius makes it very clear that it is something they should want to do, not something that they have to do. The particulars of it are just cultural manifestations of the same principle. At least I imagine that is how Confucius would view it, what with following barbarian customs in barbarian lands. That doesn’t mean he didn’t think the Chinese/Zhou ones were better, which he almost certainly did.

    It is like the Augustinian conception of law. Law is for the damned. The saved have no need for laws, because, well, what they are doing is good anyway. The damned, on the other hand, by definition do bad things both to each other (whether or not Augustine cares about that is another issue) and to saved people.

    I think that f-piety works along a similar vein. A sage doesn’t need all those crazy funerary rituals made into a clear obligation, they would just spontaneously do them. Because a sage can’t help but realize that the Zhou rituals are correct — and if the Zhou rituals aren’t available, they’d just have to invent/discover them. Yucks who weren’t born with that kind of knowledge need a corner of the square to see the square. The codified rituals provide for that. So when we want to be filial we can look up how best to go about it. And the little people, well, they need all the help they can get. So society pressures them to perform these rituals in the hopes that maybe the meaning will be rammed through their thick skulls.

  4. Chris Fraser says:

    Manyul, if I understand your concluding paragraph properly, the issue you want to raise isn’t what did the ancient Ru (or Mohists, or Daoists) take to justify filial devotion, but what might plausibly justify it for us today. Is that right?

    If the issue is the latter question, then the answer may well be that some demands for xiào shùn behavior that we encounter in contemporary society are not morally justified, and that scope of justified demands for filial devotion is considerably narrower than, e.g., Confucius or Mencius would have thought.

    What’s particularly interesting to me is that children who are subjected to morally unjustified demands by others on grounds of xiào may nevertheless have good reasons, including perhaps broadly ethical reasons, to comply with those demands. (I’m thinking of cases in which relatives want you to do X, and, while you prefer not to do X and there are good reasons to think you are not obligated to do X, you do it anyway, for other reasons.) To my mind, such cases tell us something about the limited role of moral obligation in life.

  5. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Chris,

    Yes, that is the issue I wanted to raise, though I’m not always very comfortable with the ethical/moral distinction. Something like it makes sense to me: moral reasons outpace — or are broader than — those of moral obligation and duty. But that’s mainly terminological. There are two questions here. One is, what sorts of more broadly ethical (or moral) reasons are typically, or properly(?), relevant to filial piety? But a prior question, the one I’ve been dancing around, is whether to think of filial piety primarily along the lines of “demands” at all or of some other moral rubric — I think JSG above makes the suggestion of thinking in terms of moral desirability, or something like that. I know, from a personal, loosely Confucian, filial-son point of view that it certainly feels more like a demand-phenomenon. I don’t think that’s merely a personal hang-up on my part, however.

  6. Bao Pu says:

    Manyul: “it really doesn’t work well to think of this on a duty or obligation model. If we think about it on the trust model, the three years spent in “the arms of its parents” are based on what the parents already owe to the child. The parent doesn’t create a subsequent debt by caring for the child, right? But maybe the child, later in life as an adult, comes to appreciate that parental care nonetheless. At that point, it seems like that’s a nice thing, but not only isn’t it morally relevant, I’m not sure it is desirable to think of that sort of appreciation as morally relevant. … regarding it as a duty or obligation doesn’t capture the moral nature of the parent-child relationship in a very satisfactory (i.e. plausible) way.”

    Hi Manyul,
    While I personally am not fond of accepting “duty” into much of my outlook in life, I do sense the early Chinese did. That early parental care was something one should repay (Bao 報). Unless the child was accidental, I guess the parents do owe their children the care they need to survive. It does seem rather cold, in the human realm, to abandon one’s parents once one is on his or her own and leave them to fend for themselves in old age. In the animal kingdom, of course, this is exactly how it is, and perhaps the early Daoists might suggest that caring for one’s parents is not morally required. Zhuangzi does mention this as part of the “good life”: “Follow the middle; go by what is constant, and you can stay in one piece, keep yourself alive, look after your parents, and live out your years” (Ch. 3), but probably did not consider it a duty. “It is not commanded, but occurs naturally” (莫之命而恆自然, Laozi 51). Early Confucians, like most people perhaps, want to see themselves as better than animals, so giving back what we have gotten seems to be the moral thing to do. It’s more complex than that of course, especially now that we openly talk about child abuse by parents. Some parents perhaps don’t even deserve a phone call from their children when they’re old.

  7. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Bao Pu,

    I think we’re largely in agreement on this. The fact that it is cold or beastly to abandon one’s parents after becoming an adult suggests that there is some kind of moral issue here. On the other hand, it needn’t be expressed in terms of an obligation or duty. Worse, as I have been suggesting, understanding it that way seems to misconstrue the moral value of the parent-child relationship.

    Of course, cold abandonment of one’s parents isn’t the only option. One could think of the relationship as changing so that once possessing common adulthood, the child and parent are equals, morally speaking, and have the ordinary sorts of duties toward one another, as any adults may have among them. That’s not exactly beastly, but I suspect that it is a kind of norm in modern societies that don’t have a heavy legacy of filial piety. Maybe the Mohists would have endorsed this sort of view as well, in early China.

    With that type of option readily available in modern society, the question then seems to shift, for me, to one about the relative pros and cons, ethically speaking, of valorizing the parent-child relationship as morally significant between an adult child and an adult parent. Care in old age is something that modern societies have tended to shift to the state as a responsibility. Has that been a detriment (leaving aside, if permissible, the question of how efficiently states have administered such care)? If so, would return to Confucian filial piety be better or worse still? I know these aren’t mutually exclusive options, but I’m wondering about the kinds of “cons” that might appear on the column under “continuing to recognize a special child-parent moral relationship into adulthood.”

  8. Chris Fraser says:

    Manyul, very tricky of you, including that aside about the Mohists, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to resist replying. For xiào is of course among the fundamental goods of Mohist ethics, which if anything they see as becoming more important later in life, when (in ancient China) elderly parents are more likely to need help from their grown children.

    In discussing xiào, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that it refers to a virtue, and associated conduct, that was widely endorsed throughout the ancient Chinese world, by the Mohists, some Daoists, and presumably others, as well as the Ru. So it’s inaccurate to think of xiào as a distinctively Ruist value, rather than simply a Chinese one. Of course, the Ru, Mo, and others may have different theories about what it involves. My own hypothesis about the Mohists is that they view it as a basic good, since the attitudes and conduct associated with it are in their view elements of social order (which in turn is a component of “benefit”).

    The Mohists emphasize the link between xiào and ensuring that one’s parents are safe and well cared for. By contrast, the Analects emphasizes respect (jìng) more (perhaps partly as a response to the Mohists). The Mencians I think might largely agree with the Mohists on the content of xiào but would add that xiào attitudes and conduct are natural human responses to the parent-child relationship and that failing to be xiào is failing to be fully human, in some normatively loaded sense of “human.”

    If we ask why xiào should be a basic good or part of zhì (social order), I think Mohist, Ruist, and Daoist answers largely converge: human beings typically live in certain sorts of family units and have certain sorts of family relations. To sustain these units and relations, something like xiào is needed, as is parental kindness () and love between siblings (). I think all three would also agree that because of our special relationship with our parents, conscientious people find themselves ill at ease unless their relationship with their parents is in order. That is, flourishing familial relationships are part of a flourishing individual life.

    (The “giving back” side of xiào I would tie to a conception of these relationships as specifically reciprocal in character.)

    Those answers are pretty much what I’d offer as justifications of xiào in contemporary society. I’m not sure there are any cons, actually, to allotting special moral status to the parent-child relationship (and I think most cultures do so, even if they don’t have a word for the associated attitudes and conduct).

    So my response to the issues in your final paragraph (in #7) is to suggest that we shift focus from the justification of xiào to questions about its content. The organization and living conditions of family units and the nature of family relationships have changed much in the past century or so. Most of us (except for Xunzi) would expect that the appropriate expression of xiào might change accordingly. So the question isn’t Should I be devoted to my parents? so much as What do I need to do to count as showing the appropriate level of devotion to my parents?

    A complicating factor is of course that some Asian parents assume that the content of xiào is simply “You do what I say,” especially concerning major issues such as choice of a mate. But they may just be wrong about this.

    Manyul, your remarks also raise a different, interesting issue: To what extent does the “phenomenology” of a moral reason–for instance, whether I experience its force as that of an obligation or not–indicate the actual nature of the reason? Maybe here as in other fields phenomenological appearances can be misleading.

  9. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with you that a strong sense of filial piety is a broader Chinese (and now by legacy, East Asian) phenomenon, and not specifically Confucian (Ruist).

    My aside about the Mohists was perhaps too quick, though on a track I would defend. I think, as you also spell out, that the reasons and/or motivation for f-piety are different on the Mohist view. My thought was more specifically that the arguments in Mencius 6A4 & 5 are about Mencius’s response (and capitulation, in some sense) to a Mohist attitude, expressed or at least brought up by Gaozi.

    My understanding of that discussion is that the Mohist thinking is this: the fact that someone is *my* parent, uncle, or an elder in *my* clan, does not put them in a special relationship with me, though because of their proximity, it makes sense for me practically speaking to focus my respect and care on them. So, if someone is an elder, though not related to me in those “special” ways, he still is an elder, and that fact about him — not his special connection to me — requires a respectful and caring response (this is the what Mencius seems to admit, though he thinks it springs from a natural motive rather than response to something like a universally applicable reason).

    A “special” relationship, as I’ve been using it, generates special reasons — reasons that override, or trump, more general reasons. So, the idea of my relationship to my father being special in this sense, implies that I have certain things I ought to do or refrain from doing with regard to him that apply because he is *my* father, not merely because he is a father and I am a son. So if my father steals a sheep, I have a reason not to testify against him, even if the owner of the sheep is also a father, because my father is *my* father. The reasoning wouldn’t be generated by the major premise “All fathers’ interests should be protected” but by a special, indexed premise “My father’s interests should be protected by me.” Something like that.

    In retrospect, I guess that is the view I’ve been tacitly attributing to the Confucians. By contrast, I take your “convergence” view to be more Mohist, which I think takes my relationship to my father to be special in a much looser sense — I have “special” responsibilities to him because I happen to be situated in a better position than other people’s children to care for his interests, long-term.

    That’s kind of an oblique response to you, but I’m thinking out loud (and sideways). I also have some thoughts about your “phenomenology of moral reasons” question, but I’ll have to get to that later today.

  10. Chris Fraser says:

    Hi Manyul,

    Maybe we disagree about the Mohists, because in my view they hold roughly the position you’re suggesting they do not.

    As I interpret them, their stance is that the core social relations of father-son, ruler-subordinate, and elder-younger brother place us in special relationships with others—”special” in the sense that they generate reasons or motives for action that are distinctive of such relationships and different from those we have with respect to “outsiders.” The Mohists think those relationships are a good thing, and so they encourage people to act on the associated reasons or motives (balanced, of course, with other, more general reasons, so that we don’t pursue the interests of our family or political community by injuring outsiders).

    So I understand them as committed to the view that it’s precisely because a certain man is *my* father that there are certain ways I should treat him. The agent’s actions aren’t produced by the general premise that, for instance, “elders should be cared for,” along with the premise that “this elder is nearest to me, so I should take care of him first.” They issue from reasons such as “Dad is hungry” or “Mom is tired,” as these interact with the virtue of xiào.

    On one common interpretation, the Mohist justification for xiào is that xiào conduct promotes the benefit () of all. I think this is mistaken, though; on my reading, xiào for the Mohists is among the goods that constitute “benefit.” The value of special relationships for them is basic, not derived or instrumental. Accordingly, I think the reasons generated by such relationships are basic for them, too. So their (implicit) position is that you have special reasons to take care of your parents just because they’re your parents. (I say “implicit” because they talk mainly about virtues, not reasons.)

    It’s also important to distinguish the reasons that justify some norm from those that motivate agents who follow it. The Mohists can give general reasons to explain why they think xiào is justified—these amount to articulating their conception of social order (zhì). But that doesn’t mean that people who perform xiào acts are motivated by those general reasons. They could be motivated by a commitment to the welfare of the people close to them.

    Anyway, sorry if we’ve gone off an a tangent from the original topic. But we can bring things back easily enough. The initial issue was roughly, How is it that the contingent fact that I happen to stand, through no action of my own, in such-and-such a relation to someone generate what appear to be obligations on my part—as Ruists, Mohists, and Daoists all seem to assume they do. Perhaps an appropriate way to understand what’s going on is to resist appealing to general principles and to stay focused on the particular relations—again, as I think the Ruists, Mohists, and Daoists all do. That is, here we are, standing in these distinctive relationships, in which we and others direct various emotions and expectations toward one another. What follows? My “New Daoist” hypothesis is that xiào is a word for a certain way of responding to and coping with these emotions and expectations, which are there whether we like it or not.

  11. Chris Fraser says:

    (I should add that it’s sloppy of me to use the theory-laden term “obligations” in my last paragraph above. Actually, neither Ruists, Mohists, nor Daoists would think of the normative “pull” we experience because of special relationships specifically in terms of a notion of “obligation.” I’m using the word just as a convenient shorthand for the sorts of normative force they would acknowledge.)

  12. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Chris. I think we should reserve judgment on whether we disagree about the Mohists until I have a firmer view about them. I like your proposed reading of how they fit special relationships into their larger account of benefit.

    About the initial issue, I think there’s something particularly interesting about xiao because there seems to be something very much like duty or obligation, whether we use those terms or not, that is supposed to be part of the attitude of children to parents within xiao. I think I still want to say that a plausible account of it would fall somewhere in the orbit of gratitude and some kind of associated loyalty rather than of owing something to the parents. I just don’t see how children can plausibly owe something to their parents when a) the parents made the choices that brought about the children’s existence; b) at least minimal care of children by the parents seems to be something parents owe to them, largely because of (a); and c) appreciation of parenting that goes beyond minimal care seems appropriate to express (on the part of children) through enjoyment in making the parents happy, not through a sense of duty or of obligation. (Those are thoughts I have reflecting both from my experiences as a child and as a parent, by the way.) Does this view I’m suggesting seem more “Western” than East Asian, if that makes any sense? Does that matter?

  13. Chris Fraser says:


    I agree that a parallel to loyalty is crucial in understanding xiao, and I think this is stressed in early Chinese sources (later developing into the san gang, wu lun formula, I suppose). Xiao toward parents is paralleled by zhong toward political superiors. (In a few texts, we actually find xiao used to refer to both the attitude of children toward parents and that of political subordinates to superiors.) As to the link with gratitude, I think it reflects the implicitly reciprocal nature of xiao. By that I mean that xiao isn’t an isolated or solitary virtue, but is paired with ci, the caring attitude of parents toward children. So without being based on or derived from gratitude, xiao probably overlaps it in various respects.

    So I think that the elements of the view you’re leaning toward are indeed there in the primary sources.

    Another concept we can place in the same orbit (same solar system?) may be friendship. The comparison to friendship may be helpful in understanding xiao, in that both refer to relations, not only traits of persons. The difference, of course, is that friendships are relationships we enter into voluntary and can dissolve if we wish.

  14. Phil Hand says:

    Manyul – I’m quite interested by two ideas of yours:
    “The parent doesn’t create a subsequent debt by caring for the child, right?”
    “being grateful to someone doesn’t seem like grounds for owing them things or having duties toward them, at least not in a strict moral sense.”

    On the first, I think your conception of moral debt does seem a bit limited and mechanical. You seem to be imagining something like this:
    Person A performs act X, creating a moral debt; Person B performs act Y, paying off that debt; the moral relationship between A and B is then dissolved.

    It’s the last bit that I can’t agree with. I don’t think a relationship would be dissolved by the paying off of a moral debt. There are a couple of reasons for this.
    First, it seems very unlikely that act Y would perfectly balance out act X. There is sure to be some residual debt on one side or another, which would be experienced as an ongoing relationship.
    Second, people don’t enter into and leave relationships like that; human relationships aren’t like contracts. Even if you were to perfectly balance acts X and Y, the very act of the moral transaction would create a bond, a shared memory, whatever. Chris’s comparison with friendships is instructive, because we “can” dissolve them at will, but in practice we don’t – even though we may have no moral obligations to them, (close) friendships often stick, because of the human relationship (apropos of which, this guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2005/jan/24/features11.… is one of my favourite pieces of journalism).

    On the second point, I would say that if you believe in the earthly moral debt or duty (as opposed to that ordained by heaven), then the kind of action that would create feelings of gratitude would be exactly the kind of action that would create moral debt. It’s not a causal relationship; gratitude would be the appropriate emotional response as one assumes a moral debt.

  15. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Phil,

    Interesting points! Regarding the first point: Yes, I was using a limited, fairly mechanical conception of moral debt to make my point, but on purpose, in order to highlight the problem I see. Based a simplified idea of balancing, the shape of the problem is clearest: the parents *already* owe care to the child (for bringing the child into the world, knowing that she won’t emerge Athena-like, fully formed and armored) so by “paying” that debt, a further debt can’t subsequently be created, i.e. the child can’t then owe the parents something — obedience, respect, honor, etc. — for their care.

    I absolutely agree that paying off moral debts, unlike some other kinds debt, don’t necessarily dissolve a relationship. Situations that incur moral debts tend to involve fairly strong sentiments, so the sorts of bonds that you mention are likely to last, even if they had not existed before. I think human relationships *can* be contractual, but even some of these tend to move beyond the contracts. (e.g. We’ve liked and remained friends with some of the people with whom we’ve contracted to take care of our children — teachers, babysitters, nannies; you could be friendly with your mechanic; and so forth).

    Responding to your comments about my second point: I’m not sure I agree that “the kind of action that would create feelings of gratitude would be exactly the kind of action that would create moral debt.” I think gratitude makes you *want* to do nice things in return — the reciprocation aspect of friendly relationships. But feeling indebted? That seems less friendly and has less to do with gratitude. I know people say, “Thanks, I owe you one.” But my usual thought when someone says that to me is “No, you don’t.” And if someone insists that they owe me something in exchange for a favor, I’m slightly offended; it at least makes me think that the person isn’t really grateful as much as somewhat resentful that I’ve bound them to a return favor. I know that sounds a bit Seinfeld-ish, but that was one of the virtues of that show, that it exposed the fine line — though still a line — between gratitude and resentment.

    Or perhaps I’m now working with too narrow a conception of gratitude. I don’t think I am. I think there are distinctions to be made, but I don’t want to make them too narrowly or in ways that don’t track ordinary sentiments.

  16. Bao Pu says:

    Hi Manyul,

    re: “I know people say, “Thanks, I owe you one.” But my usual thought when someone says that to me is “No, you don’t.” And if someone insists that they owe me something in exchange for a favor, I’m slightly offended; it at least makes me think that the person isn’t really grateful as much as somewhat resentful that I’ve bound them to a return favor. I know that sounds a bit Seinfeld-ish…”

    This indeed sounds too Seinfeld-ish and not at all Chinese. You might find this interesting and very relevant:

    David Nivison wrote much about this as well in his articles on DE 德.

  17. Phil Hand says:

    I see your point about the parent-child relationship, but I still disagree, and I’m struggling to work out why. Here are a couple of ideas.

    1) The obligation to care wasn’t placed on the parents by the child. Therefore the child’s experience is not of a “complete transaction”; rather, it is of an act of caring by the parents. From the child’s point of view, that creates an obligation.

    2) In general, moral debts can’t ever be fully “paid off” precisely because of the relationships they create. By paying off a moral debt, you show good faith to the other party, and that in itself creates an ongoing debt of civility (stronger than the obligations of civility to all people).

    3) Maybe moral debts can’t be “paid off” at all. If I do a good turn to X, and then X does a good turn to me, perhaps there is no commensurability. In this way, moral debt could be understood as a relationship, rather than a measurable debt. I do a good turn to X, thus creating a relationship. X and I are then bound in that relationship forever, or until one of us does something (and it would have to be a negative something) to cause its dissolution. This can still be understood as moral debt in this sense: that my good turn to X places constraints on our future actions. I suppose one might imagine this in mathematical terms as regarding the two parties to a relationship as a unit, rather than two independents. I do a good deed to X, and that adds to our relationship; X does a good deed to me, and that further adds to the relationship (so it continues to impose even more restraints on us both); if either of us does bad deeds, that can subtract from the relationship, but good deeds never can. (This understanding seems compatible with that chapter on bao that Bao Pu linked to.)

    As to the gratitude thing, this was why I included the phrase “if you believe in the earthly moral debt or duty (as opposed to that ordained by heaven)”. It sounds like you don’t. Which is fine, but like Bao Pu says, my impression is that a lot of Chinese people do – they don’t have a problem with the idea that their “good deeds” create moral obligations on others. Of course, the fact that Chinese people think this way doesn’t make it Confucian…

  18. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Phil,

    What you say in 1-3 are interesting; I’m not sure they’re entirely relevant to my worry (except maybe 3), since I’m assuming that there isn’t anything initially that I owe at all to my parents for their care. Because of that, it can’t really be something I worry about paying off or that can lend itself to formation of a relationship. If debts accrue, they do later in life when it involves other things than caring for my well being — other sorts of things, like being forgiving and generous with me when I screw something up.

    Your last paragraph is more what I’m interested in. I agree with you and Bao Pu that in East Asia, people do tend to think of favors as creating debts (that’s why it’s so hard to give anyone a gift on the first attempt!). But I think in an important sense, the whole culture is either wrong about this in some instances, and in others, there’s something slightly disingenuous about it, but in a good way.

    Take the latter case. When I give someone a gift and the giftee protests fervently — usually this is with other Koreans I know — I half don’t believe it. It’s part of a ritual; you’re supposed to decline at least once and usually once more again. But that’s not because I’m doing something bad to the giftee by putting him/her into my debt. I think it’s symbolically something like the reverse: the giftee doesn’t want me to think that I owe him/her anything, which the gift symbolizes. The giftee is expressing friendly generosity, as I understand the ritual. I think this also works for other “favor” situations in which ritual declining is called for; they are all actually opportunities for both the giver and recipient to express generosity, not to symbolize debt interactions.

    In other sorts of cases, as in filial piety, I’m inclined to think the culture, on the whole, is wrong. There simply is nothing *inherent* about the parent-child relationship that generates moral debt on the part of the child toward the parent. So, moral debts have to be generated by further “accidental” aspects of the relationship, whatever those may be. Maybe that still leaves the parent-child relationship one in which lots of moral-debt is generated, but I think one has to say more than simply that this is due to the very nature of the relationship. I’m not suggesting that you’re saying the latter, by the way, but I think it is a typically Confucian thing to say.

  19. Phil Hand says:

    I’m a bit confounded by your last.

    You’ve gone from

    (1) “if someone insists that they owe me something in exchange for a favor, I’m slightly offended”


    (1′) “I owe him/her anything, which the gift symbolizes”.

    And from

    (2) “The parent doesn’t create a subsequent debt by caring for the child”


    (2′) “There simply is nothing *inherent* about the parent-child relationship that generates moral debt on the part of the child toward the parent. So, moral debts have to be generated by further “accidental” aspects of the relationship”.

    Both of these seem like reversals to me. First you want to say that doing favours doesn’t create moral obligations (1), then you suggest that it empirically does (1′), and one of the functions of politeness is to defuse those obligations to some extent.

    Then you say that caring for (raising? loving?) a child doesn’t create moral obligations(2). I understood the original question you were asking to be something like, do we have an obligation to be filial towards our parents (a) because it’s a moral basic, ordained by heaven, or (b) because of the way our parents have acted towards us. You seem to be trying to make an argument for a (b’) because of *some of* the ways our parents have acted towards us.

    I don’t get what distinction you’re trying to draw between “caring for my wellbeing” and “other sorts of things”. Parental love is parental love, I can certainly say that in my relationship with my boy, I don’t feel that there’s a level care that I’m obliged to give, and all the rest is somewhat above and beyond; similarly with my parents, I couldn’t distinguish the love they owed me from the extra “things” they did/gave me.

    Because I don’t understand this distinction, (2′) seems to me to be incontradiction to (2). Plus, with (2) you deny (b); with (2′) you deny (a). I don’t know what’s left!

  20. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Phil,

    You’re right; I was less than clear in that last comment. A reply and a concession:

    I don’t think there’s a reversal between 1 and 1′. What I was trying to suggest was that in the ritual of B declining favors or gifts from A, there’s a sort of presumption that the favor or gift A is giving to B symbolizes payment of some sort, perhaps a debt. (The presumption exists socially because giving something valuable to someone is often payment of some sort.) So, B politely or vehemently refuses the favor or gift (before eventually accepting it), as a way of saying to A, “No, you don’t owe me this; I will accept it as a gesture of your generosity to me instead.” So, the ritual “resolves” the situation by allowing the favor or gift from A to be recognized by both A and B in the exchange, as something *other* than a debt payment.

    A different way to understand ritual declining-then-accepting is to think that A’s favor or gift to B actually does constitute the creation of some debt for B, so B declines because B shouldn’t be too eager to be put in that position. But then eventually B accepts, in order to say to A something like, “I’m generally not eager to be indebted really, but…” and here I think something close to what you’ve been saying about debts and obligations as being normal parts of social relationships would produce: “…I’ll take this as a gesture that you want to maintain a close social connection with me, through the creation of a friendly debt, and will accept these dynamics of close connection to you.” Something like that, though as I’ve put it, things are spelled out perhaps in more detail than anyone would ever care to say out loud.

    I guess I’m not sure how to resolve the question of how the ritual is correctly understood. Perhaps empirically, based on questioning people who engage in it? I’m not sure.

    I think you’re right that I’ve tried to draw a distinction that might be very difficult to spell out, between “caring for my well being” and “other sorts of things” that my parents might do for me. There’s not a contradiction between 2 and 2′, but I do have to spell out what the “accidental” aspects of relationships are in order to make good on the distinction. I’ll have to think more about that. Thanks for the criticism.


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