The theory of human nature continues to be popularised in philosophical and biological debates. The nature of something refers to the idea that some traits are an expression of an animal’s inner essence, while other traits are developed because of the animal’s environment. For example, one may debate whether particular breeds of dogs are naturally aggressive or whether their environment necessitates that aggression is key to the dog’s survival. The phrase ‘human nature’ refers to something that all humans share universally. It assumes that there is an essential quality in human behaviour that makes humans distinctly human and not animal-like. In medieval scholarship, it was believed that thing that makes humans especially distinct is the existence of the soul– the first principle of life that is present in all of us. Although biological in that the soul makes up part of living organisms, the soul is not material or corporeal, but made of more ethereal properties (Pasnau, 2011). Descartes followed this line of thinking by making a distinction between the natural world, which simply involved bodies in motion, in comparison to the human world, where individuals were believed to possess an immortal soul.
But what is this essential soul like? Is it kind and good-natured or, as Hobbes posited, are humans naturally self-centred and power-hungry? In the text The Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville reinforced the negative view of human beings as innately selfish and unruly. Thus, it was the duty of law and education to civilise or domesticate humans and make them fit to exist in an ordered society. Discourses and systems of thought and knowledge had to be governed by rules, logic, and grammar that, if taught from an early age, would start shaping the consciousness of individuals. Such an approach could instil values of order in humans to help them control their inner urgers or bestial tendencies. While some people are more susceptible to slipping through the system and being overpowered by their nature, becoming victims of uncontrollable sexuality, insanity or criminality, throughdiscipline, punishment, and normalization techniques, bodies can be ordered and made easier to control (Foucault, 1975; Gutting & Oksala, 2018).
In Chinese history, reflections on human nature (xing性) began to enter the literary tradition around the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, during the conflict period in the Eastern Zhou dynasty that resulted in significant political, economic, and social changes throughout China. According to sinologist A. C. Graham (1967), it was the doctrines of the Individualists that first posed the problem of human nature when reflecting on the role of Heaven influencing people’s private lives. Unlike Confucius whose philosophy was aimed at creating optimal conditions for social harmony and coexistence, Individualists put emphasis on the necessity for people to take care of their health and body to maintain a good quality of life. According to the Lüshi chunqiu, the most important task is “to keep intact what Heaven has [granted]” (1.2), which includes maintaining one’s health, desires, and ambitions. To avoid disrupting Heaven and the natural flow of life. Individualists argued that humans should stick to their nature and seek to satisfy their desires and ambitions with moderation, and avoid involving themselves in any conditioning, such as political and social life, that could negatively impact the sereneness of achieving their life path. The idea here is that human nature is neither good nor bad, but the essence of humans is to achieve their goals and maintain that sense of tranquillity in life that comes from satisfying one’s desires.
In the first century, Chinese meteorologist, astronomer, and philosopher Wang Chong emphasized the goodness and badness of human beings. Human nature in his writings is described as being malleable since taking part in goodness will cultivate good human nature, while taking part in badness is what leads to evil human traits and behaviours (Lun heng, 1.13). Gaozi, who is only known from the Menciusand who Confucianists identified as a Daoist, disagreed with Wang Chong’s views. For Gaozi, the goodness and badness of people and morality itself is socially constructed and based on the culture that people exist in. For instance, some actions may be considered good and noble in culture X, whereas they are shunned and made taboo in culture Y. In this sense, human nature has nothing to do with being good or bad because we all initially have no conception of right and wrong before we are taught that goodness is what is praiseworthy and positive whereas badness is what should be punished. While Xunzi agreed with Gaozi in that he argued that morality is culture-based, Xunzi went further to state that the origins of evil come from negative feelings that are rooted in human nature. That is not to say that humans are evil, rather that they deliberately violate the rules of morality and sometimes even take pleasure in doing so. This is because people have no conception of morality. At birth, all humans are morally blind, and it is only later that we learn what we should do to exist in an ordered society. If people were inherently good, then there would be no need for people to learn rituals and social norms and keep their desires and impulses in check. Xunzi states that people desire order and goodness and since desire comes from a lack (we only desire what we do not have), then it follows that people are not inherently good. In fact, without learning the Way, feelings like fear, jealously, and greed would inevitably lead people into conflict and disorder.
Gaozi and Xunzi were heavily criticized by Mencius, who outlined various positive values that he believed were innate to human beings. Using an agricultural metaphor, Mencius stated that all humans have good tendencies or “sprouts” (2A6). If these sprouts are taught and cultivated, they would inevitably grow and give life to virtues and morality in society. However, if the sprouts failed to develop, then evil would manifest in human relations. In Mencius’s theory, one could take the example of benevolence as being a sprout. All humans, at least on some occasions, feel compassion when humans and animals suffer, and this compassion always has the potential to turn into benevolent action. All humans also have the capacity to feel shame, and these feelings are expressions of righteousness. But as with any seed or sprout, these good tendencies are not fully formed. Our innate virtues are inconsistent and context-dependent. For instance, a father who is kind to a pig and spares its life from slaughter may ignore the suffering of his own hungry family. To allow good human nature to flourish, people should extend their virtuous inclinations in appropriate situations (Van Norden, 2014). The father has a higher duty in Confucian philosophy to protect his family and ensure their survival and so benevolence for family would override benevolence for pig in this starvation scenario. Thus, though we are inclined towards goodness and humaneness, benevolence is not static and involves understanding the long-term implications of certain actions and the number of lives that could be impacted by these actions. Although a difficult calculation to make, Confucianists posit that it is essential to make these calculations and live in a harmonious social order. Therefore, whether humans are innately good or evil is beside the point. All of these perspectives put forward the idea that humans have the capacity for good and that this capacity should be acted upon since it is necessary for the survival of a polity or community to have rules and standards on right behaviour and social conduct.
In Buddhist philosophy, although the Buddha never directly addressed the question of human nature, it was stated that humans have the capacity to do good and, in the right circumstances, will lean towards goodness. This is because the development of goodness conduces people to have a better and more happier life. In the Milinda Panha, a King was said to ask the Venerable sage Nagasena whether good or evil is greater. Nagasena replied that good is dominant and evil less so because doing evil leads to remorse, while doing good does not lead to remorse and when one is free from remorse, a person becomes glad, and from gladness joyful, and from joyful tranquil, and with a tranquil mind and body one can see things as they really are (passage 84). The clarity of this passage can be disputed. For example, what if one does not feel remorseful from doing something evil? Not all ‘bad’ actions cause people to feel remorse, especially if the person believes that what they are doing is a lesser evil or that such an evil is done with principled intentions (like avenging another person’s grievous wrongdoings, for instance). Likewise, some ‘good’ actions may not cause people to feel joy. Often, what one defines as good actions is dependent on the culture and context and may be conducted out of necessity and not out of good-willed intentions.
Finally, one should also ask whether all human natures are the same. A 2006 psychological study by Harris and Fiske found that a small sample size of American university students exhibited less neural activity when they were shown pictures of homeless people or drug addicts compared to when they were shown higher-status individuals. Kteiley et al.’s study also highlighted that people who opposed Muslim immigration saw Muslims as less evolved. Perhaps then the debate on human nature should start with the proposition, what are humans’ naturesconsidering that there are many types of humans and contexts where good and bad inclinations can develop. Are all people whose sprouts fail to develop bad? What about those who are not aware (or even incapable of being aware) of the consequences of their actions? Also, how should we treat people with bad tendencies? Are we obliged to put them in correctional facilities or hide them from society? It seems that human nature is both socially constructed yet constructing, universal yet historically and culturally specific, and so there should be care when making overarching claims about human goodness or badness and what people should do when someone does not fit into the narrative of an ordered, good, and socially acceptable human.
Painting by Zhang Hongnian (张红年). Retrieved from here.
Most humans experience intense emotions throughout their lives, such as love, lust, anger, and grief. In its most general sense, the nature of grief is about feeling pain and sadness. First used in 13th century France, grief is defined as the feeling of injustice, misfortune, and calamity, and derives from grever, which means to “afflict, burden, oppress” (Harper, 2017). In Latin, gravare is something which makes heavy or causes grief, coming from gravis– that which is weighty or heavy. While the expression ‘good grief’ has been used since the 1900s to express surprise or dismay, grief is a deep emotional response or a mental state when reacting to the death of someone or loss of something. Bereavement or mourning, on the other hand, indicates the process of grieving. Although there is no timeframe for grieving, mourning is meant to signify a period when grieving can properly take place.
There are many examples of how grieving takes place, and the expression of grief is culturally specific. In other words, how we experience sadness and pain is influenced by our culture’s rituals, customs, and beliefs. Generally, sobbing at the news of the death of a loved one and the experience of shock and sadness is an example of grief. From the Euro-American view, such an experience can be harmful as it destroys an individual’s assumptive world: the condition of one’s reality is altered as the loss of a loved one disrupts one’s social network and emotional health. Thus, Shear and Smith-Caroff (2002) calls the act of grieving a ‘syndrome’ as grieving often induces a person to be shocked, cry, decline to eat, neglect basic responsibilities, and so on. The extent of which grief can affect one’s life was criticised by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), who argued that grief is entirely self-centred and misguided. Since, Epicurus believed that being dead was harmless and we cannot stop death from occurring, the fear of death and sadness for someone’s death is irrational and only harms the griever.
In Chinese philosophy, Zhuang Zhou (370-287 B.C.) had a similar opinion. In the ancient text, the Zhuangzi 莊子, which was written during the late Warring States period, the chapter ‘Perfect Enjoyment’ (至樂) particularly deals with this theme. The story goes that one day, Zhuang Zhou meets with his friend Hui Shi just after Zhuang Zhou’s wife had died. Hui Shi found that Zhuang Zhou was singing joyously and beating on a drum. Astonished, Hui Shi remarked:
“When a wife has lived with her husband, and brought up children, and then dies in her old age, not to wail for her is enough. When you go on to drum on this basin and sing, is it not an excessive (and strange) demonstration?”
Zhang Zhou replied that it is not. Initially, he had been very upset. But after reflecting on the circumstances of her being, and how she came to be through changes in the cosmos- through the intermingling of waste and dark chaos that resulted in change, breath, change again, bodily form, birth, and life- he realised that death represented just another aspect of this cycle. Just as the seasons change, his wife had simply taken part in the process of life. Understanding this, Zhuang Zhou restrained himself and his grief disappeared.
For Confucius, however, grief is not only natural and expected, it is necessary. Although Confucius also suggested looking positively at the transformative stages of life and death, where people should be more concerned about life and care less about the uncertainty of death (Qin & Xia, 2015), ritual and respect were noted to be important factors to consider when reacting to death. As Confucius states in The Analects passage 3.4, “In rites in general, rather than extravagance, better frugality. In funeral rites, rather than thoroughness, better real grief.” Put simply, in following ritual and carrying out the correct mourning practices, one should not be afraid to feel sorrow and confront loss.
In traditional China, ancestor worship was one of the ways which many people could express their grief and sorrow while receiving guidance from those who had passed. The rituals in ancestor worship acted as narratives that connected the family to individuals, their social status, and the land which they once occupied. Researchers from Webster University, Klass and Goss (2003), note that funeral rituals actually developed from Daoism as they were meant to ensure the deceased received what they needed before passing on to the other world. But once Confucianism was popularised in the following dynasties, funeral rites were re-interpreted to fit within a Confucian social framework that represented hierarchy in the family and community. Since the most important family relationship was that of the father and son, and filial piety (xiao, 孝) or respect and obligation was one of the highest regarded virtues, funeral rituals were primarily designed for sons to mourn their fathers. For instance, only the death of a father who had a son merited a full funeral ritual, while all other deaths had only part funerals. Parents whose children had died merited no ritual at all.
Although grieving is culturally monitored in that individuals, families, and communities have rules for how to display and handle emotions of grief, grieving intensively and in ways that transgress ritual was not necessarily prohibited. There is not much information in the Analects on how to respond to those grieving over the death of a loved one, so the passages that describe Confucius’s grief over the death of Yan Hui顏回 are significant. Hui or Yan Hui was one of Confucius’s most celebrated disciples, often portrayed as someone who was wise and dutiful. In passage 6.3, when Duke Ai asked which of Confucius’s disciples loved learning, Confucius replied that it was Yan Hui who never repeated his errors or became agitated. From passages 9.20-9.22, Confucius also describes Yan Hui as never lazy and observant. In that case, when Yan Hui dies Confucius chooses not to hold back on his grief lamenting, “Oh! Tian destroys me! Tian destroys me!” (11.9). When Confucius’s followers state that the Master wails beyond proper bounds, Confucius replies: “Have I? If I do not wail beyond proper bounds for this man, then for whom?” (11.10).
If grief is to be understood as a necessary precondition for the process and ritual of mourning, it is only natural that one expresses emotions that signify sadness, sorrow, or despair. However, to explain Confucius’s expression of grief which went beyond the ‘proper bounds’, it is important to not only consider the relationship between Confucius and Yan Hui, but also the attitude towards death that Confucius demonstrates when losing Hui. As Ivanhoe (2002) and Olberding (2004) highlight, the sorrow of Confucius at the death of his disciple was partly attributable to the way in which Hui’s death was wasteful: Hui was a young person who lived in accordance with the Dao, but did not get to live life to his maximum potential. In addition to this, we can understand the relationship of Confucius and Hui by what the David Hall and Roger Ames (1987) call an “actualization of a mode of being” (p. 178), where a superior person realises or creates ritual through personal signification. Put simply, the “mode of being” for Confucius on the death of Yan Hui does not, and cannot, serve as instruction for all but rather shows Confucius reacting to the moment rather than prescribing action for all.
For Confucius, Yan Hui’s death signified not only the loss of a good student and friend, but the closing of developmental avenues for Confucius himself. With the “dramatic and final rupture in the relationship between him and his treasured disciple, Confucius laments over “the Confucius who never was” (Olberding, 2004, p. 294). To understand the phrase “the Confucius who never was”, it should be noted that the Chinese concept of self is inextricably linked to communal relationships. As a result, when one member of a community is lost, other members of the community are affected in ways where their own sense of selves are altered because of the self’s relational nature. Confucius sense of self was altered in that Hui’s death signified the loss of a friend and the loss of a Confucius who could never be as Confucius could no longer learn by interacting with Hui.
Contrasting the traditional view of Confucianism as a mode of philosophy that suppresses individuality and emotions (see Ho, 1995), the practice of grieving in passage 11.9 Analects highlights that there is flexibility in mourning practices. Sometimes it may be appropriate to transgress ritual if it is useful to help one deal with emotional pain and bereavement. Because we live through others just as others influence, shape, and live through us, grief cannot be a matter of theoretical instruction, but an immediate reality.
As opposed to dualism, Chinese philosophy is characterised by various systems of thought that synthesize opposing views to create a holistic way of thinking. However, this does not necessary have to align with the strong “holist” position, which argues that Chinese thought lacks any concept of dualism and is radically different from Western thought. For example, Roger Ames (1993) and François Jullien (2007) both adopt the strong holist view by claiming that the idea of the body as a material substance was foreign to the Chinese: “the body is a ‘process’ rather than a ‘thing,’ something ‘done’ rather than something one ‘has’” (Ames, 1993, p. 168). Put simply, there is no perfectly clear divide between mind and body: in classical Chinese, there is not even a single word that corresponds to ‘body’ or ‘mind’ alone. Instead, body and mind were understood by terms such as xin心 (the heart-mind) that suggest the physical body and mind are like two points on a spectrum, with some features potentially falling on one side of the line or the other, rather than being split apart as either mind or body. It should be noted, as Slingerland (2013) does, that the holistic perspective is not unique to China or the “East”. Aristotle, for instance, based his theory of ethics on ‘virtues’, a type of intelligent and emotional capacity that was linked to both the body and mind (Wiggins, 1975).
Generally, Chinese thought is known to accommodate contrasting views, especially with the emergence of the three schools of thought: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This article specifically looks at the relationship between Confucianism and Daoism, and how Chinese thought manages to unite these two distinct philosophies.
Daoism (sometimes transliterated as ‘Taoism’) is an encompassing school of thought native to China that is based on a range of philosophical texts and thinkers, the most famous being the Dao De Jing (The Book of the Way and Its Power) – possibly from the 4th century BCE. Often linked with naturalistic or mystical religions, Daoist concepts are based on the teachings of Laozi (老子, meaning “Old Master”) who is said to have lived during the same time as Confucius. Laozi may have been the author of the Dao De Jing which is also known as the Laozi. While Daoism seems to contrast Confucianism by leaning towards mysticism, it is usually allied with Confucius’ thought compared to other philosophical traditions like Mohism and Legalism, for example. Fraser (2010) states that the Confucian idea that li (ritual propriety or ceremony), a traditional code specifying behaviour appropriate for individuals according to their social roles, was disputed by Mozi (the founder of Mohism) who did not identify with high culture and found ritual to be an unconvincing moral guide. The founder of Legalism, Shi Huangdi, also turned away from Confucian teachings by arguing that instead of obligations, people were driven by self-interest and it was the job of the state to control and punish those who did not abide by its laws (Eno, 2010).
Daoism emerged when people began protesting the growing despotism and rigidity of rules during Confucius’s time, and arguably shared some emphasis with Confucianism on applying principles to this world rather than on speculating abstract thought. But, instead of being an “ally” to Confucianism, as Schipper (1993) argues, Daoism largely represented an alternative, critical perspective that diverged from Confucian thought.
One example is in relation to concepts of identity and selfhood. The self in Confucianism is described by Ho (1995) as a ‘subdued self’ as individuals are not encouraged to pursue their own ambitions and desires, but to respond to social requirements and obligations. In The Analects, this is expressed by the term ‘loyalty’ (zhong, 忠) in passage 1.4 when Master Zeng says,
Each day I examine myself upon three points. In planning for others, have I been loyal? In company with friends, have I been trustworthy? And have I practiced what has been passed on to me?
Loyalty here means not only being faithful to one’s superiors and peers, but to align one’s interests with the social group as a whole. Ritual and patterns of conduct are forms of behaviour that allow each person to form a perfect social communion with others, reinforcing social order and harmony. This idea of selfhood is said to be present in many Confucian societies like Japan where the self is ideally directed towards more immediate social purposes rather than being distinct or individual as in the West (DeVos, 1985). In China, during the May 4th Movement (the 1919 revolution against imperialism and feudalism), intellectuals criticised Confucianism and its ideas of selfhood as being paternalistic, conservative, and even oppressive. Restricting one’s conduct for ‘social harmony’ was said to leave little room for openly expressing emotions, feelings, and individuality that may counter social norms and expectations. According to Ho (1995), such restriction even in father-son relationships, which is said to be largely marked by distance, tension, and even antagonism as each person sticks to their assigned roles (for a critique of this view, see the ‘son-covering-father’ story in the Confucian Weekly Bulletin), suggests that the Confucian ideal of selfhood is flawed in reality.
In that case, whereas Confucians stated that individuals should conform to social norms, Daoism became popular by emphasising the independence of individuals. Instead of social conventions, hierarchical organisation, and government rule, people should live their lives simply, spontaneously, and in harmony with nature. In the Dao De Jing, many passages use the term “self-so” (ziran, 自然) to describe a self that simply is, without any intention to be so. To live in a way that conforms to the Dao, human beings need to refrain from planning, striving, and purposeful action, returning to an animal-like responsiveness of acting without plans or effort (Eno, 2010). The best way to do this is through selflessness, which means to “exhibit the plainness of undyed cloth; embrace the uncarved block. Be little self-regarding and make your desires few.” (passage 19). By getting rid of social regulation and desires for status, beauty, and wealth, more room is made for simply being: existing in a detached tranquillity that joins the harmonious rhythms of Nature and the Dao.
Confucianism sets up a system where human beings are active moral agents. People plan, educate, develop, and theorise about what is the correct way of behaving and interacting with others to set up a harmonious way of being. Daoism, on the other hand, opposes this view. As another famous Daoist text, the Zhuangzi (chapter 8), states: while Confucians think they can understand, name, and control reality, Daoists find such endeavours to be a source of frustration. The Dao is the unnameable reality that cannot be grasped by the mind, though people should aim to set one’s actions in accordance with the transcendental unity that is all.
Despite having such vibrant philosophical and religious traditions like Confucianism and Daoism, which often contradict each other, there has never been a war of religions in China. One of the reasons why is because of the holistic perspective found in most of Chinese thought. One of the benefits of this is that unlike in Europe, political leaders in East Asia were for the most part unable to appropriate or justify violence based on religious difference since people were able to incorporate a range of opposing views. While not unique to China or the “East”, there are lessons to be learnt from inclusivism and alternative knowledge, especially in the globalising world.
Image: Friends Playing, 1600. Retrieved from here.
During the third century, the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus placed a placard with the Golden Rule on his palace wall. The placard read, “Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris” (What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others). In the West, the oldest reference to the Rule can be found in the writings of Isocrates, an ancient Greek rhetorician and critic of Plato. Isocrates points out that the self and the other are comparable. As he writes in Speeches (19.49), “give a just verdict, and prove yourselves to be for me such judges as you would want to have for yourselves.” To put it simply, one should use power moderately and reasonably, aiming to achieve a fair and balanced exchange with others. It is only by treating others as one would want to be treated that a system can be created that does not result in favouritism or discrimination. As some theorists argue, humans are self-interested beings that only do tasks because of the benefits that they expect to obtain, either directly or indirectly. By treating others fairly, one should expect to receive the same kind of treatment. Thus, if fair treatment is not provided, one should also expect an unfair repayment of some sort, whether this occurs in the long-term or short-term. Different religious systems have different ways of explaining how this return takes place. For Buddhism and Hinduism, cosmic justice or karma results in good or bad future consequences depending on one’s intent and behaviour. Islamic thought explains this through the ‘right of God’, who determines whether one will be punished for treating others’ unfairly. In Confucianism, proper behaviour is what leads to social harmony and effective governance, while unfairness results in moral chaos and political struggle.
The Confucian version of the Gold Rule is found in many passages in the Analects. For example, in 5.12 it is stated that when Zigong said, “What I do not wish others to do to me, I do not wish to do to others”, the Master replied that Zigong had not yet reached this level of moral development. In other words, it takes time and effort to learn reciprocity: “that which you do not desire, do not do to others.” (15.24). Others have translated the word ‘reciprocity’ in the Analects as ‘consideration’, which means to care or keep in mind someone or something over a period of time. The Latin term considerationem comes from the past participle of considerare, which from the mid-15th century referred to taking something into account (Harper, 2017). However, consideration alone does not cover the Golden Rule. While you might take something or someone into account, it does not necessarily follow that you will act on that consideration. For instance, while I might consider the neighbour’s interests in my decision to plant a tree near the neighbour’s gate, I might go through with my decision for planting the tree near the gate as this spot is ultimately better than the spot near the door, even if the neighbour may not like my decision. In that case, an element of reciprocity is important as without considering the mutual exchange of benefits or returning something the same way as it was given, the Golden Rule would not work. It involves reversibility, exchange, and consistency as we consider how to treat others as we would like to be treated. Because the Confucian idea of this exchange involves an aspect of care: treating others as honoured guests, and acting towards subordinates as though conducting a ritual (Analects, 12.2), the Golden Rule in the Confucian sense can be understood as ‘reciprocal consideration’.
There are many aspects to reciprocal consideration. For one, there are two formulations to the rule. The first describes reciprocity positively as you “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In the Bible, Luke 6:13 and Matthew 7:12 both express the rule this way and describe it as the ‘Law and the Prophets’. To know and act towards others as you would want others to act towards you is what leads to moral righteousness and mutual consideration. However, as Zecha (2011) points out, a standard objection to this version of the Rule is that many people have strange desires that others may not want to reciprocate. For example, someone who enjoys experiencing pain might wish to harm others so that others will harm them in return. To escape this problem, the negative version of “not doing to others as you would not want done to you” supposedly discourages harmful behaviour and includes an element of restraint or ‘action within appropriate limits’ when considering how to interact with others. In practice, this requires a person to become empathetic by imagining oneself as the other, or as Confucians put it, ‘compassionate’: to feel with or together with someone. Mengzi 4A9 indicates the political relevance of this exchange as it notes that “there is a way to get the people: get their hearts, and the people are got. There is a way to get their hearts: it is simple to collect for them what they like, and not to lay on them what they dislike” (Legge, 1991, p. 300). So, according to the rule, political leaders or those in authority have a duty to appeal to and feel with subordinates. Although on an individual basis, reciprocal consideration is based on the protection of the self, when applied to a larger scale, those in less powerful positions should feel that the powerful have an ultimate allegiance to the human community, rather than an interest to preserve their power. When the stakes are higher and more lives are affected by how society is organised, ruler attempts to engage in reciprocal consideration needs to be done with right intention and integrity, otherwise subordinates may question the ruler’s legitimacy. Examples of this can be seen in American or Chinese foreign politics. When actions are interpreted as one-sided, deceptive, and unfair, fear and suspicion ensue. Any attempts to explain or justify these actions by rhetoric are dismissed as empty speech, where words no longer have substance or value. As the Book of Poetry states, when “Tian (or in this case, trust and reciprocity) is poised to topple, No more of this babble!” (ode 254).
It is interesting to note the meaning of ‘empty speech’. In Confucianism, the concept of empty ritual is often discussed. Rituals are learnt ways of proper behaviour. They are actions that necessitate social harmony. While the purpose of these actions are to perform for and with others, rituals should not be morally empty. Singerland’s (2003) translation of the Analects notes that sparse ritual is better than empty excess ritual (p. 18). In other words, the point of performing public actions is that they should express inward morality. By practising ritual, one is taught to cultivate internal ethical attitudes and channel one’s emotions, improving social harmony. On the other side of this spectrum is empty speech. That is, what Moncayo (2016) calls “parrot’s empty or idle speech” (p. 23). Usually when we hear someone talk, the content of their words has meaning. The words are full and convey expression and imagery to the listener. Often, words can have double-meanings and these meanings are understood in the context of the conversation. So, to have empty speech means to speak without meaning. No information is being signified, or what is said has little substance. It becomes a case of either uttering words without saying anything, or saying something while meaning or doing something else. Talk becomes disjointed rather than connected to listeners, which ultimately leads to empty noise.
Thus, when we think of ‘reciprocal consideration’, it is not just about putting oneself in the other’s shoes. Reciprocity is about joining speech with action, with the expectation that others will do the same. Without this expectation, mutual trust and empathy become difficult to maintain and one would struggle to exist in a social community. As Confucius says, whether through human-to-human gift giving or sacrificial rites for the ancestors, it is important to be present, as it is important “for the spirits to be present” (3.17). Relationships begin to form when there is a balanced reciprocity between the ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ of any exchange.
On Confucius’ birthday (September 28), The Grand Ceremony Dedicated to Confucius (祭孔大典) is held annually as a way of paying respects to Confucius, China’s ‘First Teacher’. The event is mainly celebrated at Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, and in the Confucius Temple in Taipei, Taiwan.
Through a choreographed ceremony, the 60-minute long presentation starts with three drum rolls before a procession of musicians, dancers, and participants stop every five steps and pause before continuing to their designated spot. The gates then open at the temple, welcoming the spirit of Confucius. After three bows, food and drink are offered as sacrifice, and “The Song of Peace” is played with traditional Chinese instruments. Dancers perform the Ba Yi dance (八佾舞), a dance that started in the Zhou Dynasty as a way of paying respects to people of different social positions. Yi means ‘row’ and the number of dancers depends on who is being honoured. For example, eight rows of dancers participate when paying respect to an emperor, six rows for a duke, four rows for high-ranking government officials, and two rows for lower ranking officials. Eight rows are used for the Confucius Ceremony. Each dancer holds a short bamboo flute in the left hand, which symbolizes balance, and a long pheasant tail feather in the right hand as a sign of integrity.
After incense is offered and chanting takes place, another three bows are given. The sacrificial feast is removed to symbolize it has been eaten by Confucius’ spirit. The participants move from their appointed places to watch the pile of money and prayers burn. Finally, the gates of the temple are closed and the ceremony concludes with participants and observers feasting on a ‘wisdom cake’.
Take this opportunity to reflect on Confucian teachings. These include the importance of filial piety, dutifulness, honesty, sincerity, rightness, wisdom, and courage, and try to understand how all of these concepts come together in the attitude of humanity. As Confucius says in the Analects (8.13), “Be devoted to faithfulness and love learning; defend the good dao until death.”
Since the early 2000s, a debate in the Chinese philosophy community has centered around the ‘son-covering-father’ story in the Analects. The passage goes like this:
“The Duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact’. Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this [italics added].” (Analects 13.18, Legge, 2014)
The story suggests that concealing a theft is morally acceptable if the thief is a member of your family, which in the Confucian tradition is used to promote the idea of partial love. Unlike Mo-tzu (墨翟) and his theory of universal love, where an equal love for all is the solution to social problems and the evil nature of human beings (Xu, 2007), partial love means that the love one gives to others is unequal. For example, you may fully love your parents, have no love for a stranger, and love your neighbour more than the postperson. However, does love for your parents mean that you should cover for them if they commit a crime? According to Liu (2007), the Confucian writings are well known for commending corrupt actions such as bending the law for the benefit of relatives or appointing people because of their family connections. Professors of philosophy Hall and Ames (1989) also state that “Chinese culture has traditionally been plagued with abuses that arise because of…nepotism [and] personal loyalties from special privilege” (p. 308). In that sense, the virtue of Xiao (filial piety) clashes with the virtue of Ren (benevolence), which promotes impartiality and love in accordance for all. This leads to what Li (2012) calls ‘The Confucian Puzzle’.
To explain why the son was justified in covering the father for his crime, it is important to understand the meaning of Xiao and Ren. Both Confucius and Mencius state that Xiao is the foundation of all other moral virtues. In passage 1.2 of the Analects, for instance, the philosopher Yu says that there “are few who, being filial and fraternal, are fond of offending against their superiors. There have been none, who, not liking to offend against their superiors, have been fond of stirring up confusion” (Legge, 2014). As well as forming the basis for loyalty and obedience, deference to elders and dutiful conduct are also key to forming government: “you are filial, you discharge your fraternal duties. These qualities are displayed in government” (Analects, bk. ii., c. xxi., v. 2). The importance of filial piety and duty is also expressed in Chinese cosmology and social order which legitimises the Chinese patrilineal and patriarchal family system so that family become central to human identity and power relations (Ebrey, 2003).
However, while Xiao forms the building block of morality and personhood, Ren represents the ultimate aim of Confucian thought, which is to express care and concern for other human beings. When Fan Ch’ih asked about benevolence, the Master said “it is to love men” (Analects, 12.22). Embodying Ren means that one not only wishes to establish and enlarge the self, but enlarge and establish others. By becoming benevolent, sincere, and kind, a person becomes a Junzi (君子), that is, an ideal moral actor for all human beings. Because the Junzi works on the root and cultivates filiality and respect for elders (Analects, 1.2), it follows that to be a Junzi starts with the family, before one can develop Ren and care for others.
When explaining the ‘son-covering-father’ story, Confucians must explain why the son’s love towards the father should be put above the sheep owner who, according to Li (2012), has better moral ground to request that the son return the sheep and ask the father to apologise for stealing. The first argument claims that it would be unwise for the son to destroy his relationship with the father by reporting the theft. At the very least, the son can preserve the relationship with the father and then choose to take further action. Adapting Van Norden’s (2008) hypothetical case, consider the following example to support the son for covering for his father:
Suppose that my sibling was part of a cult that was responsible for killing a farmer in the 1980s. This sibling is now a productive member of society, with a good job, and happy family. Finding out about my sibling’s role in the crime, one moral choice would involve reporting the sibling and turning them in. However, for a Confucian, the reaction would be different as it would involve confronting the sibling, discovering why the crime was committed, and asking whether such a thing could happen again. If the sibling has reformed and would never commit such a crime again, it follows that prosecution is not necessary.
The only way this argument works is if the person in question is a family member. For instance, supposing that it was a stranger that stole the sheep or killed the farmer, reacting to the crimes would, in most cases, involve reporting without hesitation. Hence, valuing family relations is of utmost importance to the case as the obligations one has towards family surpasses obligations to all other relationships and institutions. The idea of family as critical to moral integrity and human worth is expressed by the neo-Confucian philosopher Yangming Wang (1996). He states:
“The love between father and son and between brothers is the place where the productivity of the human heart begins, just like the tree’s beginning from a sprout. From there the love of humanity and the care for everything develops, just as the tree’s having branches and leaves.” (p. 27)
Two conclusions emerge from this passage. The first is that as the root of morality, Xiao is a method of cultivating benevolence and compassion towards other human beings. Family life forms a convenient setting to practice Ren through family love. While this does not mean that Ren must grow through family love or one would be unable to practice benevolence in a non-family setting, considering that human nature is innately good (Mengzi, 2A6), family simply provides a contingent place for cultivating Ren “due to natural or social evolution” (Li, 2012, p. 42). So Xiao provides an important setting for practicing morality, but it is not an end to morality itself. According to this understanding, the son can choose not to cover for his father if he has cultivated enough love for others so that he is no longer confined to expressing love in the family setting. Rather than believing that Xiao is the most important moral principle (see Rosemont & Ames, 2008), the reason that the son covers for the father is because his love for others has not been cultivated enough.
The second conclusion from Wang’s passage is developed by liberal Confucian scholars who argue that while Xiao is one of the most important moral principles, it is not more important than any other moral virtues, including Ren, Li, or Yi. As professor of philosophy Tongdong Bai (2008) notes, Xiao can be taken as a “starting point, but not as a supreme end point” (p. 29). In the context of the son-covering-father story, Xiao may be more important than following the principle of justice or caring for the sheep owner because of the nature of the crime and the lack of detail in the story. But, if the father killed the innocent sheep owner, justice and the need to care for the victim’s family would override the principle of Xiao. Ideally, a harmonization of all principles should be achieved where justice, care for others, and filial duty are all valued. This would mean that while the son was justified for covering the father, he should also seek to reimburse the sheep owner and make sure that the theft does not happen again.
For Li (2012), both conclusions fail to justify why the son should cover for his father. In the first case, where Xiao is only a convenient setting for developing love towards others, the son is either capable of reporting his father or has never thought about it. If he is capable and has thought about reporting the father, then he should extend family love towards others and sacrifice the means of family love towards the more important principle of loving others. If the son has not thought about reporting the father, that does not mean that he should not. Thus, based on this understanding, the son is morally obliged to report the father. The problem with this conclusion is that it contradicts Confucius’s recommendation of covering for the father.
According to the second conclusion, where Xiao is of equal importance to all other principles or at least important as Ren, it is unclear how one should decide which principle to compromise in the stolen sheep case. Since Confucius recommends that in this particular context, Xiao should be preserved and love towards others should be compromised, one can speculate that there is something in the story that made Confucius choose Xiao over Ren. For example, perhaps the nature of the crime (theft) is not as bad or life-threatening as murder, and turning the father in for theft could do the father more harm than the sheep owner. But this is only speculative as the sheep could have been the sheep owner’s only income, the last sheep in his stock, and the only meal left for his wife and children. As Li (2012) notes, “it is conceptually unclear with regard to the idea of damage and benefit and with regard to the comparison between the damage to one and the benefit to the other” (p. 45).
In that case, there are no clear answers to the puzzle, at least not by assuming that Xiao should never be compromised. If the situation was truly life-threatening, where the father killed and continues to kill sheep owners in the village, there is no moral reason as to why the son should not report the violent father. Furthermore, assuming that Xiao is the most supreme principle also implies that those without family love or even a family are unable to live as morally as those who do practice Xiao. This is not plausible since there are many people in the world who have moral qualities and do not have or live with their families.
If you would like to submit an answer to the Confucian puzzle, email your answer to email@example.com. Sent responses will be included in future posts.