Mencius, The Three Moves. Anonymous drawing, China, 20th century. Photo by AKG Images
Confucian philosopher Mengzi provides an intriguing (and oddly modern) alternative to Aristotelian accounts of human virtue
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…