The second sage

Confucian philosopher Mengzi provides an intriguing (and oddly modern) alternative to Aristotelian accounts of human virtue

Bryan W Van Norden

Mencius, The Three Moves. Anonymous drawing, China, 20th century. Photo by AKG Images

Bryan W Van Norden

is professor of philosophy at Vassar College in New York, and a guest professor at Wuhan University in China. His latest book is Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy (2014), co-edited with Justin Tiwald.


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A man is hiking in the countryside when he suddenly sees a toddler about to fall into an abandoned well. What will he do? Many people will instinctively run toward the toddler to save him. However, some people will simply panic, freezing in the moment of crisis. A handful of people might start to move toward the child, but then stop, because they realise that the crumbling old well could collapse under their weight. Their initial impulse to save the child competes with their desire for self-preservation.

The fact is that we cannot be entirely sure what a human in this situation will do. What we can be sure of is what a human in this situation will feel: alarm that the child is in danger, and compassion for any potential suffering. What if someone did not have these feelings? What about someone who could look upon a child about to fall into a well with nothing but indifference, or perhaps even amusement? We describe those who are this unfeeling as ‘inhuman’, more like a beast than a person.

This thought experiment was formulated by the ancient Confucian Mengzi, the most influential philosopher in world history whom you have probably never heard of. He uses it to argue that, contrary to egoists, and to those who believe that human psychology is a tabula rasa, human nature is hard-wired with an incipient tendency toward compassion for the suffering of others.

Although Mengzi was born long after Confucius died, he is referred to as the ‘Second Sage’ because he shaped the form that Confucianism would take for the next two millennia, not just in China, but also in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Also known as ‘Mencius’ (the Latinisation of his name given by early Jesuit missionaries), Mengzi is attracting renewed interest among Western philosophers. Not only does Mengzi provide an intriguing alternative to Aristotelian accounts of the virtues and their cultivation, but his claims about human nature are supported by recent empirical research. Beyond the intrinsic philosophical interest of Mengzi’s thought, it behooves us to learn more about it because Chinese culture is increasingly abandoning the radical Marxism of the Mao era and returning to a reverence for traditional systems of thought such as Confucianism.

Confucius (551-479 BCE) did not regard himself as founding a school. In the Analects (the collected sayings of Confucius and his immediate disciples), Confucius said: ‘I transmit but do not innovate. I am faithful to and love antiquity.’ Of course, no one with a mind as brilliant as that of Confucius simply repeats the past. All explanation is re-interpretation. But both Confucius himself and his later followers conceived of him as transmitting the Way – the right way to live and to organise society – that had been discovered by sages even more ancient than Confucius. This Way is based upon what contemporary philosophers such as Thomas Nagel refer to as ‘agent-relative obligations’: the filial piety that I owe to my mother and father precisely because they are my parents; respect for those who are elder to me; the loyalty I owe to my friends and to my spouse; and the special affection I have for my children.

This does not mean that I should be indifferent to strangers. The whole point of the child-at-the-well story is that our compassion extends to all humans. However, as one of Confucius’s disciples put it: ‘Are not filial piety and respect for our elders the root of benevolence?’ In other words, it is in the family that our dispositions to love and show respect for others are first incubated.

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For Confucius, the cultivation of virtue was intimately connected with the problem of good government. He lived during a time when China was divided into distinct states that incessantly warred against one another for dominance. One response to this situation, illustrated by the Art of War (a work of the fourth-century BCE attributed to Sunzi), was for rulers to seek dominance by perfecting military strategy. However, Confucius argued that the Way to security and peace is by getting virtuous people into positions of government authority. These people would work to benefit the common people, and would lead through moral inspiration rather than brute force.

Mengzi was born in 372 BCE, so he never met Confucius. However, Mengzi was so inspired by Confucius’s Way that he took it upon himself to explain and defend it to the people of his generation. In the eponymous Mengzi (the collection of his dialogues, debates and sayings), he complains that ‘the words of Yang Zhu and Mozi fill the world!’ Mozi, the first systematic critic of Confucianism, was best known for advocating ‘impartial caring’, the view that we should care for everyone equally, regardless of whether they are members of our family or complete strangers. (Mohism, the school of thought Mozi inspired, is similar to Western utilitarianism in being ‘agent-neutral’ rather than ‘agent-relative’.)

both Mozi’s impartial caring and Yang Zhu’s egoism are indefensible, as they assume an impoverished conception of human nature

Mengzi argued that Mozi’s impartial caring makes ethical demands of humans that are impractical, given the limitations of human nature. In a debate with a follower of Mozi, Mengzi asked whether he ‘truly believed that a person loves his neighbour’s child as much as his own nephew’. Mengzi also argued that the Mohist position is ultimately incoherent. Both Confucius and Mozi agreed that the Way is dictated by Heaven, a more or less anthropomorphic higher power. But human nature is implanted in humans by Heaven, so there can be no justification for morality other than what is implicit in our Heaven-given nature. In short, there is only one foundation for the Way (our innate dispositions, which favour our friends and relatives), but the Mohists act as if there were a second one (the doctrine of impartial caring, which warps our nature).

Yang Zhu, the other major critic of Confucianism during Mengzi’s era, was an egoist. We are naturally self-interested, Yang Zhu claimed, and both Confucianism and Mohism pervert our nature by demanding that we sacrifice ourselves for others. Mengzi agreed with Yang Zhu that Mozi’s philosophy ignores the constraints that human nature places on morality. But where Yang Zhu went wrong, according to Mengzi, was in the mistaken belief that there is nothing to human nature other than our self-interested desires. As the thought experiment of the child-at-the-well suggests, compassion for other humans is part of human nature. Mengzi also argues that humans have a sense of shame that can at least compete with our self-interested motivations. As evidence, he notes that even beggars who are barely surviving day-to-day are ashamed to accept handouts given with contempt. In short, both Mozi’s impartial caring and Yang Zhu’s egoism are indefensible, because both assume an impoverished conception of human nature. Mozi ignored our innate partiality toward friends and family, while Yang Zhu ignored the moral emotions that clearly are a part of our nature.

Mengzi does not naively assume that all humans are fully virtuous. He acknowledges that our innate compassion and sense of shame are only incipient. We often fail to have compassion for those we should, or fail to be ashamed of what is genuinely despicable. Using an agricultural metaphor, he refers to our innate dispositions toward virtue as ‘sprouts’. This metaphor is carefully chosen. The sprout of a peach tree cannot bear fruit, but it has an active tendency to develop into a mature, fruit-bearing tree if given good soil, the right amounts of sun and rain, and the weeding of a prudent gardener. Similarly, the ‘sprout of benevolence’ – manifested in our spontaneous feeling of alarm and compassion for the child about to fall into a well – and the ‘sprout of righteousness’ – manifested in a beggar’s disdain to accept a handout given with contempt – are not fully formed, but can develop into genuine virtues given the right environment and cultivation.

How do we make sure that our moral sprouts bloom into actual virtues? Ethical cultivation is a topic that has been neglected by most Anglo-American philosophers in the past century, who have tended to focus on more abstract, and less ‘messy’, conceptual problems. Classical Western philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle did discuss ethical cultivation; however, Mengzi’s view on this topic seems more plausible in many ways. Aristotle said that human nature is neither good nor evil, but it allows us to be habituated to virtue. However, Aristotle emphasised that virtue requires doing the right thing out of the right motivation. If we are not innately good, how can habituation, becoming accustomed to doing the right thing, ever give us the right motivation? It seems that habituation can give us, at most, behavioural compliance with virtue, not virtue itself.

In contrast, Plato argued that our souls innately love the good, and retain a dim knowledge of the transcendent truths they were exposed to before they were embodied. The way to purify the soul and recover the knowledge of these truths, Plato claimed, is by the study of pure mathematics and philosophy. This theory of cultivation as recollection explains how we can act with the right motivations from the very beginning of moral cultivation. But Platonic ethical cultivation involves giving up our ordinary attachments to our family and an almost ascetic indifference to our physical bodies. Plato summarised the implications of his view by stating that ‘the one aim of those who practise philosophy in the proper manner is to practise for dying and death’, because he strives to transcend his sensual desires and attachment to his body. In contrast, Mengzi’s suggestion that the path of ethical cultivation is through rich commitments to family, friends and other individuals in our community provides a much more appealing view of the goal of human life.

Mengzi recognised that humans are partly responsible for their own ethical development, but (like Plato and Aristotle) he held that society should create an environment conducive to virtue. He advised rulers that their first task is to make sure that the common people’s physical needs are met. To punish the people when they steal out of hunger is no different from setting traps for them, according to Mengzi, and he offered detailed, practical advice on almost every aspect of government policy, from tax rates to farm management. In addition, Mengzi made explicit that a ruler who cannot provide for the needs of the common people has no legitimate claim to authority. He asked one ruler what he would do if one of his subordinates was bad at his job. The ruler replied: ‘Discharge him.’ Mengzi then asked what should be done if his own kingdom were in disorder. The ruler, clearly seeing what this implied about his own legitimacy, abruptly changed the topic.

Once the people’s basic needs were met, Mengzi suggested that they should be ethically educated. Later Confucians envisioned two levels of education, the ‘Lesser Learning’ and the ‘Great Learning’. All children should participate in the Lesser Learning, which teaches the fundamentals of morality and etiquette, along with reading, writing, arithmetic and some practical skills. Promising students, regardless of their social background, go on to the Great Learning, in which they learn the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ of morality.

Mengzi’s vision of the Great Learning is suggested by a much-discussed dialogue he had with King Xuan of the state of Qi. The king’s subjects were suffering because he taxed them excessively to pay for his own luxurious lifestyle and to fund his wars of aggression against other states. Nonetheless, Mengzi told the king that he had the capacity to be a great ruler and gave the following incident as his justification. The king had been sitting up in his royal hall when he’d seen someone leading an ox through the courtyard below. He asked where it was being led and was told it was to ritual slaughter. In reply, the king said: ‘Spare it. I cannot bear its expression, like an innocent person going to the execution ground.’

The king confirmed that the story was true, but asked Mengzi what this had to do with being a great ruler. Mengzi replied:

In the present case, your kindness is sufficient to reach animals, but the benefits do not reach the commoners. Why is this case alone different? … Hence, Your Majesty’s not being a good king is due to not acting; it is not due to not being able. … Hence, if one extends one’s kindness, it will be sufficient to care for all within the Four Seas. If one does not extend one’s kindness, one will lack the wherewithal to care for one’s own wife and children. That in which the ancients greatly surpassed others was nothing else than this: they were simply good at extending what they did.

It is clear that Mengzi was suggesting that the king should ‘extend’ his compassion from the ox being led to slaughter to his own subjects. But what precisely does ‘extend’ mean in this context?

There are three major lines of interpretation. One suggestion is that ‘extend’ refers to a kind of logical inference. The king showed compassion for the suffering of the ox (Case A), and his subjects are also suffering (Case B), therefore the king ought to, as a matter of logical consistency, prevent the suffering of his subjects just as he prevented the suffering of the ox.

moral education is subtle and context-sensitive, more like teaching an appreciation for literature than how to follow a set of rules

Another interpretation is that Mengzi merely wanted to show the king that he was capable of feeling compassion for his subjects (Case B), since he was capable of feeling compassion for an ox (Case A), which is not even human. Perhaps the king was one of those fooled by the teachings of Yang Zhu into believing that only self-interest is natural, so he needed a vivid reminder of his own ‘sprout of benevolence’.

A third interpretation (defended by the moral philosopher David Wong of Duke University in North Carolina) is that Mengzi was trying to frame the suffering of the king’s people in a way that would enable the king to psychologically project his compassion from the ox to the people. In other words, Mengzi wanted to lead the king to see, not just the ox, but each of his own suffering subjects, as ‘like an innocent person going to the execution ground’. If this last view is correct, then moral education is an extremely subtle and context-sensitive task, more like teaching an appreciation for literature than teaching someone how to follow a set of rules. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Confucians such as Mengzi have emphasised the importance of studying poetry and history in educating a person’s moral sense.

Some aspects of Mengzi’s thought are no longer plausible for us today. For example, he believed that the precise details of the ritual practices and etiquette of his particular culture are hard-wired into our nature. However, the extent to which ancient Chinese debates over human nature parallel 20th-century psychological theories is striking. Skinnerian behaviourism is similar to Mozi’s view that human motivations are almost infinitely malleable, and so can be adjusted to be socially useful. Yang Zhu’s position finds its counterpart in the former fad for thinking that evolutionary theory dictates an egoistic conception of human nature.

However, as the psychologist Martin L Hoffman of New York University explains in his book Empathy and Moral Development (2000), developmental psychology supports the claim that humans do indeed have an innate tendency toward compassion. Moreover, this innate tendency is sprout-like (to use Mengzi’s vocabulary), in that it is incipient and requires socialisation and cultivation to develop into a genuine virtue. In his book The Geography of Morals (2016), Owen Flanagan of Duke University notes that Mengzi likewise anticipates the view that humans think in terms of distinct ‘moral modules’. The moral modularity thesis (developed by Jonathan Haidt at New York University, among others) suggests that humans are hard-wired to approach ethics in terms of care, loyalty, fairness, respect for authority, and sanctity. Compare this with Mengzi’s claim that humans are endowed with ‘four hearts’ of benevolence (manifested in compassion for others), righteousness (expressed in disdain to do what is shameful), ritual propriety (which Mengzi connects with both deference and respect), and wisdom. Wisdom is the only ‘heart’ that is not associated with a ‘module’. But Mengzi emphasises it because it is crucial for any virtuous person to be able to engage in deliberation about the best means to achieve the ends provided by the other ‘hearts’.

What is ethical deliberation like? Two paradigms have dominated modern Western accounts of moral reasoning: the application of rules, and the weighing of consequences. Both paradigms treat moral thinking as analogous to scientific reasoning, either in being law-like or in being quantitative. The former is most commonly associated with Kantian ethics and the latter with utilitarianism. However, Mengzi’s view of moral reasoning seems closer to that of Aristotle, who warned that it is wrong to seek the same level of precision in ethics that one expects in physics or mathematics. A rival philosopher asked Mengzi whether propriety requires that unmarried men and women not touch hands. When Mengzi acknowledged that it does, his interlocutor triumphantly asked: ‘If your sister-in-law were drowning, would you pull her out with your hand?!’ Mengzi’s opponent obviously thought that he had Mengzi trapped, but Mengzi replied: ‘Only a beast would not use his hand to pull out his sister-in-law. It is propriety that men and women not touch hands, but to pull her out when she is drowning is discretion.’ This is representative of Mengzi’s approach to ethics, which emphasises the cultivation of virtues that allow one to respond flexibly and appropriately to fluid and complex situations.

In the 1300s, the Mengzi became one of the Four Books students were required to study for the civil service examinations, which were the primary route to wealth, prestige and power in imperial China. Consequently, generations of students literally committed the text to memory up until almost the end of the last imperial dynasty in 1911. During this period, the Mengzi and the rest of the Four Books played a role in Chinese culture analogous to the Bible in European thought, permeating all aspects of intellectual and spiritual life. Conservatives cited the Mengzi to support the status quo, political reformers argued that society had lost sight of the true meaning of its teachings, and countless people sought to transform their personal lives through its guidance.

China’s government sees the wisdom of Mengzi’s comment that if the people ‘are full of food, have warm clothes, and live in comfort but are without instruction, then they come close to being animals’

To this day, many phrases from Mengzi are common idioms, including ‘to climb a tree in search of a fish’ (to use the wrong method), and ‘those who ran away 50 feet laughing at those who ran away 100 feet’ (hypocritically criticising others). However, when China suffered under Japanese and Western imperialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, modernisers blamed Confucianism for their country’s weakness. The denigration of Confucianism intensified after Mao Zedong led the Communists to victory in China’s civil war: Confucianism was rejected as part of China’s decadent ‘feudal’ past.

Since the death of Mao in 1976, China’s government has moved in a much more moderate direction. China today is Communist in name only, and visitors to Chinese cities find luxurious malls stocked with high-end consumer goods. Since so few people believe in the old ideals of Maoism, there is a felt need to find new shared values. Insights into the Analects (2006) by Yu Dan, professor of media studies at Beijing Normal University, became a surprise bestseller, reflecting the hunger of the Chinese people for positive portrayals of traditional thought. The government also seems to see the wisdom of Mengzi’s comment that if the people ‘are full of food, have warm clothes, and live in comfort but are without instruction, then they come close to being animals’. Consequently, the president Xi Jinping has been increasingly touting the value of Confucianism, routinely quoting both Confucius and Mengzi in his speeches. (His references to Confucian texts have even been anthologised in Xi Jinping: How to Read Confucius and Other Chinese Classical Thinkers.)

To a great extent, Xi’s invocations of Confucianism are as opportunistic as many Western politicians’ references to the Bible. Confucianism is less important for its actual content than as a symbol of ‘our’ identity (to which all Chinese should be loyal). However, there is a danger in telling people to revere Confucius and Mengzi. Confucianism, like every major spiritual worldview, has sometimes been co-opted by those seeking to maintain the status quo. But both Confucius and Mengzi were critics of self-serving governments, and both advocated rule by persuasion rather than by force. If students start reading them seriously, who knows what reformist forces may be unleashed?

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