Friday, May 21, 2010

The Confucian Way (2): Filial Piety and the Practical Syllogism

If we consider the large number of people whose way of life in China has been shaped by it for 2,000 years, the Analects must be considered one of the two or three most influential books in all of human history. For that reason, any general view of human nature and human culture must give some account of the Confucian tradition as it arises in the Analects. Consequently, it's important for my defense of Darwinian natural right to show how it can make sense of that Confucian tradition as one expression of our evolved human nature.

Of course, for those of us who are Westerners with little knowledge of Chinese culture and language, reading the Analects is difficult. This book is a collection of short conversations that Confucius has with his students and other people. These conversations assume a knowledge of early Chinese history and of the individuals with whom Confucius speaks. They present Confucius as offering terse comments with almost no elaboration, which often leave the reader confused as to what exactly he's saying. Furthermore, the Chinese language--particularly, classical Chinese--suggests a complex multiplicity of meanings that cannot be fully conveyed in an English translation. The best that the English reader can do is to compare different English translations that have notes on Chinese history and the difficulties of translation. It also helps to learn something about the tradition of commentaries on the text, so that reading the book becomes a conversation with those commentators who have struggled over 2,000 years to think through the puzzles offered by the book.

I have found that Edward Slingerland's translation of the Analects, published by Hackett Publishing in 2003, satisfies most of these needs. Not only does he offer brief comments on the relevant history and on the ambiguity of the language, he also adds to each passage a brief survey of what some of the leading Chinese commentators have said about the passage. And yet I still find it necessary to compare Slingerland's translations with those of others--particularly, the classic translations by James Legge and Arthur Waley and the more recent translations by D.C. Lau and by Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont. In this post, I'll rely primarily on Slingerland's translations.

From the opening of the book, we are presented with Confucius as a teacher devoted to learning, whose learning is directed to the practical matters of social relationships and social behavior. The primary relationships are those within the family, and so the primary standards of behavior are filial piety and respect for elders. Master You (one of Confucius' students) says:

"A young person who is filial and respectful of his elders rarely becomes the kind of person who is inclined to defy his superiors, and there has never been a case of one who is disinclined to defy his superiors stirring up rebellion.

"The gentleman [junzi] applies himself to the roots. 'Once the roots are firmly established, the Way [dao] will grow.' Might we not say that filial piety and respect for elders constitute the root of Goodness (or authoritative conduct) [ren]" (1.2).

Thus, family life provides a model of social order based on hierarchy, with children being subordinate to their parents and younger family members being subordinate to the older ones.

A few passages later family life is situated within four great human relationships: husband-wife, parent-child, lord-minister, and friend to friend (1.7). The first three are relationships of superior to subordinate. But true friendships are relationships between equals (1.8), which resembles what Aristotle says about friendships of virtue as a relationship of mutual respect based on shared moral character.

Much of the teaching of Confucius concerns the importance of "ritual" (li) in organizing all human relationships and the need to restore the ancient rituals that once secured good social order. Much of that ritual is tied to filial piety and ancestor worship.

For example, Confucius laments that people of his time no longer observe the ancient mourning rituals, which required that sons mourned the death of his parents for three years, during which he ate only the simplest food, wore rough clothing, refrained from the pleasures of music and sex, and lived in a mourning hut. Confucius was criticized by those who thought this was impractical and who doubted that this was done even in ancient times. Zai Wo suggested that one year was long enough, after all this would imitate the one-year cycle of the seasons, and thus conform to the order of Heaven. Here's the response of Confucius:

"The Master asked, 'Would you feel comfortable then eating your sweet rice and wearing your brocade gowns?'

"'I would.'"

"The Master replied, 'Well, if you would feel comfortable doing so, then by all means you should do it. When the gentleman is in mourning, he gets no pleasure from eating sweet foods, finds no joy in listening to music, and feels no comfort in his place of dwelling. This is why he gives up these things. But if you feel comfortable do them, then by all means you should!"

"After Zai Wo left, the Master remarked, 'This shows how lacking in Goodness this Zai Wo is! A child is completely dependent upon the care of his parents for the first three years of his life--this is why the three-year mourning period is the common practice throughout the world. Did Zai Wo not receive three years of care from his parents?" (17.21)

Of course, a three-year mourning period really is not "the common practice throughout the world," unless one assumes, as Confucius does, that the Chinese world is the world. We can see that this is a cultural practice that varies across time and space. The mere fact that Confucius has to debate this shows that many Chinese have decided to change this practice even for themselves. So here's a case of cultural relativism.

But we can also see that some kind of ritual standard of mourning can be justified as rooted in the universal human nature of parental care. One of the most important features of human social life is that human beings are born as children dependent on parental care, and therefore the first and most primordial social relationship is parent to child. Filial piety secures this relationship, and we would expect the emotional tie of children to parents to be expressed as mourning when the parents die. Confucius points to this by suggesting that a three-year period of mourning shows a fitting recompense for the three years of infant dependence on parental care. So while the exact requirements for mourning parents are to a large degree culturally arbitrary and changeable, the practice of such mourning is not completely arbitrary if it reflects the natural emotions of a natural human relationship rooted in human biology.

Scholarly commentators have noted that Confucius never offers anything like a "theory of human nature" such as one might see in the writings of some of the later Confucians such as Mencius. But this overlooks the many ways in which Confucius implicitly appeals to human nature, even without any explicit theorizing. These comments by Confucius on mourning rituals illustrate this, because here he clearly assumes our natural experience of parental care as a natural biological desire.

In his Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Arguments in Ancient China (Open Court, 1989), A. C. Graham points to Confucius' discussion of ritual mourning with Zai Wo as illustrating the general pattern in Confucian moral philosophy: "The issue is a matter of taste, but tastes change with knowledge and experience. The proper duration of mourning is how long you want to mourn if you fully appreciate how much your parents have done for you; the Way is what you would want to do if you had the wisdom of the sage" (29). Graham sees here a "quasi-syllogistic formula" that runs through almost all of ancient Chinese thought:

"In awareness of everything relevant to the issue I find myself moved towards X; overlooking something relevant I find myself moved towards Y.

"In which direction shall I let myself be moved?.

"Be aware of everything relevant to the issue.

"Therefore let yourself be moved towards X."

Graham explains "everything relevant to the issue" as "every fact, sensation, emotion, which moves me spontaneously in one direction or another." Whether we are really "aware of everything relevant" can only be judged by experience in seeing whether we regret an action once we become aware of something relevant that we previously overlooked. To be aware of everything relevant means that we must imaginatively work through every viewpoint across space and time that might move us. This includes imaginatively putting ourselves in the viewpoints of others, which is conveyed by Confucius' concept of shu--"likening to oneself" or "sympathetic understanding" by which we put ourselves in the places of others--which supports Confucius' formulation of the Golden Rule (15.24).

Graham's quasi-syllogism looks like Aristotle's practical syllogism in explaining human action (as well as animal movement generally) as combining cognition and desire: if I have a desire, and if I am cognitively aware some action would satisfy that desire without frustrating some stronger desire, then I pursue that action. Thought by itself cannot move me without desire.

This Confucian understanding of morality as satisfying our desires in the light of our awareness of how best to make our way in the world would not satisfy many modern moral philosophers in the West. Many philosophers would say that morality must be rooted in some transcendent reality of cosmic order outside the human mind--cosmic God, cosmic nature, or cosmic reason. For example, the Kantian would say that the moral "ought" belongs to an autonomous realm of pure reason--a "noumenal" realm--that is beyond the "phenomenal" realm of nature and human inclinations. So for Confucius to say that the morality of filial duty expresses the natural emotions of parent-child bonding can't be right, because this belongs to the prudential realm of hypothetical imperatives rather than the moral realm of categorical imperatives.

But that only shows that Confucian morality offers an empiricist alternative to the transcendentalist view of morality that dominates much of the history of modern moral philosophy. Graham writes:

"No thinker in this tradition objectivises the spontaneous in man, as morally neutral inclination to be utilized or checked in the service of ends chosen independently, by deducing from rational principles or by an Existentialist leap in the dark. To do so would lead to a quite different problematic, that of post-Kantian philosophy in the West. Is it a limitation of Chinese thought that it overlooked the approach which seems natural to ourselves? It may be more profitable to ask the questions from the opposite direction. How did I as a Westerner get trapped into pretending that I can fully objectivise the spontaneous in myself, shrink myself to a point of rational Ego pursing ends independent of my spontaneous goals, observing unmoved even my own emotions? What have I gained from following a line of thought which first detached supposedly rational ends from the goals of inclination, then failed to discover any rational grounds for them? I may indeed choose duty against present inclination, but am I not even then choosing the course which I spontaneously prefer in the perhaps rare moments when I can bring myself to see clearly from other people's viewpoints?" (387).

One might object, however, that Confucius really is transcendentalist in his view of morality as the "Mandate of Heaven." Doesn't this show that the ultimate authority of morality--the "oughtness" of moral duty--comes from its conformity to the divine or cosmic moral law of "Heaven"?

One problem, however, is that "Heaven" as a translation of tian conveys to Western minds the Biblical idea of a transcendent deity beyond or above the world that he has created, so that the Heavenly City must be separated from the Earthly City. But, even if tian had some transcendent meaning in pre-Confucian China, as providing the normative standard of the universe that human beings should imitate, Confucius himself refuses to talk about the possibility of a separate world of gods or spirits beyond the human world. In his "this-worldly" attitude, Confucius promotes a sense of the sacred as inherent in the ritualised social relationships of human life. It is said in the Analects that Confucius refuses to even discuss the possibility of spirits, divinity, or a life after death (6.22, 7.21, 8.7, 11.12). In trying to turn people to "the Way," Confucius seems to be pointing to what would be the best way for human beings to live their earthly lives if they were perfectly wise. "Human beings can broaden the Way--it is not the Way that broadens human beings" (15.29).

A Darwinian view of morality as grounded in human nature, without any necessary support from moral cosmology or divine law, can look to Confucian morality as an illustration of such a natural morality. Of course, there is much in Confucianism that is peculiar to the cultural traditions of ancient China; and there is much there that we might scrutinize as to whether it fully conforms to natural human desires. But we can still see the general patterns of human nature that constitute the universal character of morality.

As I have indicated in some earlier posts, scholars such as Remi Brague argue that the modern turn away from a cosmic or divine ground of morality leads to nihilism. But even Brague eventually concludes that an "autonomous ethics" of "common morality" without religion is indispensable. Religion can support morality, but it adds nothing to morality's content, and even without religion, morality can stand on its own natural ground. This "common morality" sounds a lot like Darwin's natural "moral sense," which does not require religion, although it can benefit from religious beliefs and practices. Confucianism is one major example of a moral tradition that can be understood in Darwinian terms.

Brague says that what he calls "common morality" contains "the elementary rules that permit the coexistence of individuals and the permanence of the species, what C. S. Lewis called 'the Tao.'" The reference is to Lewis's The Abolition of Man, where Lewis claims that in all human cultures through history, there is evidence for a shared morality that can be known without any particular religious beliefs. Lewis calls this universal morality "the Tao," and thus uses Confucius' term for the "Way" of human social life. Lewis concludes his book with "Illustrations of the Tao"--short quotations of moral standards from ancient texts from around the world that illustrate universal moral norms. The Analects is quoted repeatedly, including the passage I discussed above on filial piety and respect for elders as the root of goodness.

Like Confucius, Darwin saw that all of human social life is rooted in the parent-child relationship. "The feeling of pleasure from society is probably an extension of the parental or filial affections, since the social instinct seems to be developed by the young remaining for a long time with their parents, and this extension may be attributed in part to habit, but chiefly to natural selection."

Modern biological research has reinforced this conclusion by showing how the evolution of human childhood--the long period of childhood dependence on adult care--has been crucial to the evolution of human morality and culture generally. Research in genetics, neuroscience, and endocrinology show how the intellectual and emotional bonds between parents and children are biologically supported. That's why I have included "parental care" and "familial bonding" on my list of 20 natural desires.

Moreover, Darwinian science also supports the practical syllogism that Graham sees implicit in the teaching of Confucius. In the Darwinian account of morality, moral judgment requires a combination of reason and desire, awareness of the world and emotional motivation. In contrast to the extreme rationalism of much modern moral philosophy, Darwinian moral psychology stresses that reason alone does not move us, and that Hume was right about the primacy of moral emotions or desires in providing the natural inclinations that sustain our moral sense.

Darwinian science can help us to understand Confucianism as an empiricist view of morality that does not require transcendent grounds, because Confucian morality rests not on the eternal norms of a cosmic God, cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason, but on the earthly norms of human nature, human culture, and human individuals.

Of the many posts on related themes, four can be found here, here, here, and here.


Paul said...

Just because Tian,or Di aren't much discussed doesn't mean that they aren't important to Confucianism, or more broadly Ruism. As Mr. Arnhart pointed out, the Analects were composed for an audience familiar with the rituals or li of the Zhou dynasty. As is clear from a text like the Xiao Jing, public life and public ritual were meant to help man find and fulfill his proper role in the world, one which required certain relationships to Tian and Di, the earth. Hence, Tian and Di are indirectly implicated whenever Confucius talks about li. This is not to say that the Analects grounds its view of human life in transcendent nature, just that the Analects, while emphasizing human nature's primacy in determining human moral standards, isn't solely basing its morality on human emotions. It just assumes that the reader already has a rudimentary understanding of man's proper place in the world, and so leaps into the task of how it is that man can best fulfill that role.

Mopenhauer said...

Your notes on Confucian, Islamic, Christian conservatism restated in Darwinian terms, I think show how evopsych can be used to defend a cultural conservatism based on monogamous male investment in children which is the foundation of strong families.

While you might be able to defend economic libertarianism based on Darwinism, without facing the is-ought or naturalistic fallacy, I don't know if it works that way for cultural conservatism.

It seems to me that the biggest advocates of applying evopsych to life, have been male libertines who see evopsych as justifying a playboy lifestyle of being cads not dads. Now from nature, and the Is, they maybe right based on evopsych since they are enjoying the most individually enjoyable male lives they see possible. It is only when we have the Ought and a system of ethics outside of the individual, that Darwinism can be used to defend cultural conservatism. On a purely naturalistic basis, it could just as well support sexual liberation and hedonism. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.

Paul said...

Mopenhauer-I second your sentiment. Evopsych seems to be most popular with pickup artists. I think that it would be really fun to see Mr. Arnhart defend his approach against the likes of Tucker Max and Roissy in D.C. I think that in the future, writers of their ilk are going to have a much more profound influence on culture and conceptions of the good life than Christians, creationists, and all other sorts of transcendentalists. The PUAs offer young men endless amounts of sex with beautiful women, and evolutionary psychology does lend them an air of credibility. Churchgoing has been declining for a long time in the U.S.