The mass devastation and environmental destruction that has resulted from the devaluation of nature in today’s capitalist economy can be considered one of the major security issues in the twenty-first century. As scholar and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva (2014) points out, ‘Nature has been subjugated to the market as a mere supplier of industrial raw material and dumping ground for waste and pollution’ (p. 14). The push by governments and corporations to unrestrictedly consume in order to develop a strong market has led to mass-scale desertification and wastage, where consumers in industrialized countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa on a yearly basis (222 million vs. 230 million tons). The United Nations Food and Agricultural report (2017) found that as one-third of the food produced for human consumption (about 1.3 billion tons) gets lost or wasted every year, uneven demographic pressures and changes in food demand in developing countries means that billions of people still face the threat of hunger, poverty, joblessness, and environmental degradation from unsustainable agricultural practices.
The monoculture system, for example, which involves growing single crops such as corn and soybeans intensively and on a vast scale, relies heavily on chemical inputs like synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2016). Currently, there is an ongoing investigation on agro-chemical company Monsanto as more than 400 lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide, most commonly used for monoculture crops, was the cause of large-scale cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded in 2015 that the herbicide was “probably carcinogenic”. With the high growth rate of the human population meaning that feeding humanity will require at least a 50 percent increase in the production of food and other agricultural products by the middle of the century, the Monsanto case (and others- see Rifai, 2017) shows that there is still a lack of environmentally sustainable approaches and technologies to facilitate farm mechanization and the large-scale extension of agricultural systems.
In China, rapid economic growth over the past three decades has resulted in extreme environmental hardships around the country. For example, two-thirds of China’s 656 cities suffer domestic and industrial water shortages (Cao et al., 2013). Moreover, China is believed to have 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air pollution and the world’s highest rate of chronic respiratory disease with a mortality rate five times that of the United States (Liu & Diamond, 2008, p. 37-38). Air pollution is estimated to contribute to about 750,000 premature deaths every year, and more than half of China’s cities are reported to be affected by acid rain (Zhang & Smith, 2002). These figures show that the Market Paradigm and the open door policies adopted by Chinese officials and corporations in their attempts to maximise wealth has been detrimental for the country’s health and environment. With the Western individualism model, which is based on the reason over nature hierarchy and the repression of the female/maternal, being inadequate to address these problems, there have been arguments that the country needs to restore environmental equilibrium through indigenous teachings and philosophies (Lindsay, 2012).
One of the proposed alternative approaches to environmental governance is based on Confucian teachings. According to this perspective, Confucianism can help China transform the country’s relationship with the environment by promoting an attitude towards nature that teaches people how to tend, cultivate, and reshape nature in order to bring about social flourishing. By the widespread adoption of such views, it is believed that those in power will be increasingly pressured to abide by environmental laws and approach policy decision-making in a way that serves both human and environmental development. The internalising of principles such as ren (仁, “benevolence”) and zhengming (正名, “reification of names”) can help to establish this. Jan Eric Christensen (2014) explains that the concept of zhengming, which involves calling things by their proper names and dealing with reality, is concerned with being aware and reflecting on one’s moral values. The method for this practice is to “recognize the meaning of the individual within the social group and within the natural universe” (p. 287). In other words, to practice zhengming is to acknowledge the role that individuals play in both the social and natural worlds. Thus, while nature is recognised to be a resource for human needs and survival, just like the rules and norms around social interaction, the use of nature is believed to be set within particular normative and cosmic constraints. The Doctrine of the Mean highlights the Confucian conception of the human-nature relationship and the duty that humans have towards nature in chapter 22. It states,
Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature. If they can fully develop their nature, they can fully develop the nature of others. If they can fully develop the nature of others, they can fully develop the nature of things. If they can fully develop the nature of things, they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can thus form a trinity with Heaven and Earth.
The passage suggests that to act sincerely and authentically is to act in accordance with our moral intelligence, which means to promote the wellbeing and flourishing of others and other species. This principle requires that every person develops the responsibility of nourishing the Heaven and Earth to be able to strive and live a life with compassion and dignity.
However, with the commodity economy resulting in people over-purchasing their food, an ecological imbalance occurs as growth in supply leads to more pollution and chemical wastage. In principle, the rules around food consumption in Chinese culture are about balancing the need to access the necessary nutrition for sustaining life and maintaining health and well-being. In the Analects, it is written that Confucius “did not eat rice that had gone sour or fish and meat that had spoiled. He did not eat food that had gone off colour or food that had a bad smell. He did not eat food that was not properly prepared, nor did he eat except at the proper times” (10.7). Such passages use Confucius as a model to convey rules about consumption and dining, illustrating a standard of moderation and the importance of dietary safety. The underlying message is that food and drinks should be consumed in moderation. When describing an exemplary or morally superior individual, the Analects notes that when drinking alcohol, Junzi people are able to hold their drink (9.16). As for Confucius, “even when there was plenty of meat, he avoided eating more meat than rice” and he “did not eat more than was proper” (10.8). The implication is that all human activities, including the most basic such as food consumption, are inseparable from the problems of value and consistency. So, by exercising righteous and proper behaviour, which involves practising constraint, can one come to an ideal state of zhonge (中和), which often translates to ‘equilibrium and harmony’. Once this is realised to the highest degree, it is believed Heaven and Earth “attain their proper order and all things will flourish’ (Chan, 1963, p. 98).
The need to exercise restraint when using the environment to attain resources and promote human prosperity is further discussed in the text Mengzi. Here it is stated that there was a time when the trees were luxuriant on the Ox Mountain but by being situated on the outskirts of a growing settlement, the trees were being constantly chopped down, so “Is it any wonder that they are no longer fine?” (Mencius 6A.8). Although this passage is used to compare the nature of humans as having a predisposition towards humanity and righteousness just as a lush mountain tends to restore itself over time, the description of the barren mountain as being the consequence of human activity shows that the early Confucians were aware of the impact that human settlement had on the environment. For Confucius, the way to avoid environmental destruction was to regulate such interaction. For instance, when fishing it was preferable to use a fishing line and not a cable with many lines attached to it, and when shooting birds to avoid shooting the roosting ones (Analects, 7.27). By not excessively extracting from the environment, the natural world would be able to recover and develop itself back to the ideal state of zhonge.
The theory that humans should dominate and conquer the natural world was never part of mainstream thinking in classical China. Despite this, the question remains as to how Confucian environmental principles can be put into practice in the modern world. More specifically, how should China, who claims to be an “ecological civilisation”, apply Confucian environmental ethics to its economic policies without harming the country’s growth? The third part of this sustainability series will provide a critical overview of China’s recent environmental projects and examine whether the application of Confucian principles is adequate to transform human-environment interaction.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Sent responses will be included in future posts.