What Really Matters–Analects 13.18

I’ve been thinking again about Confucian nepotism, because of the discussion on Manyul’s blog some time back, and also because Jiyuan Yu talks a bit about it in his book (see review below).  

The catalyst for all these discussions has been Analects 13.18:  
(trans [Ames/Rosemont, modified]: The Governor of She in conversation with Confucius said, “In our village there is someone called ‘[Upright] Person’.  When his father took a sheep on the sly, he reported him to the authorities.”  Confucius replied:  “Those who are [upright] in my village conduct themselves differently.  A father covers for his son, and a son covers for his father.  [Uprightness consists of this].)
I’ve come to think that Analects 13.18 has a different purpose than some of the interpretations I’ve heard suggest.  Basically, I read 13.18 as nepotistic, sure, but also as anti-theoretical or anti-idealist (I’ll try to explain what I mean by this below).  In a sense, it seems to me that what Confucius offered was simply an example of “common sense” ethics, which of course may have been more common-sensical in the ancient Chinese world than it is for us (although my intuitions strongly agree with Confucius here).  
Consider this, from Jiyuan Yu (The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle, p. 127):  “This passage [13.18] has been a difficulty for commentators, as Confucius appears to endorse here a typical nepotistic behavior.  In Confucius’ judgment, however, this governor is not good because he encourages the disruption of filial love, the root of cultivation of all other virtues.  He must be thinking that if the son turns the father in, he undermines the basis by which all virtues are nourished.”  
Because Yu takes virtue (de) as central for Confucius, he holds that family matters are taken to be important as instructive, teaching one how to gain virtue.  But this, of course, makes Confucius into a virtue consequentialist, and takes every normative claim in the Analects to have its basis in virtue.  Of course, this is done in neither Confucius nor Aristotle.  Confucius, in particular, is nowhere so concerned with theoretical constructs, making close relationships consequentially valuable in the way Yu suggests, and Confucius’ statement in 13.18 might be seen as just such a denial.  No principle, however noble, trumps the love and responsibilities one has for one’s family, and if one takes principles as more important than family duties we can only see them as morally flawed.  
A couple of historical examples come to mind.  Famously, Mao Zedong pronounced his care for the people and his energy for fighting for their causes, yet he treated his own wives in characteristically cold and unfeeling ways (and, even more importantly, was cold toward his children).  Perhaps Mao could justify this treatment by arguing that his energy was spent for the greater benefit of the whole people of China.  A more recent example also comes to mind, that of Pakistani ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto.  She was asked by a journalist about a month before her assassination if her constantly putting herself into danger was bad for her children, who would be emotionally hurt if she were killed.  She answered that she cared about all the children in Pakistan just as much, suggesting that their needs trumped those of her own few children.  Something struck me as deeply morally wrong with this, and I think Confucius would agree.  He wouldn’t buy it in either case.  He was not, in this sense, a consequentialist.  Yu’s interpretation in essence takes Confucius to be a consequentialist with virtue playing the role of the good to be maximized, and family as good insofar as it can lead to virtue–but 13.18 seems to be a denial of that, rather than a theoretical specification of hierarchy of virtue.  
There is a moral flaw in a person, like Mao or Bhutto (or the “upright” man from 13.18), who chooses the greater benefit of the people over his or her own family.  In addition, we may be inclined to think it is a lie.  What is really psychologically operative, we might think, is some callousness or lack of concern for one’s own family, or an all-consuming ambition, rather than a great concern for the people.  We, like Confucius, would find it hard to believe that one who cares so little about family that they could sacrifice them for principle (or cares so much for principle that they could harm their family) could actually care in any real sense for people they don’t even know. (We could imagine Confucius making the inverse statement of 1.2—how could anyone ignoring filial care be ren?)   
To take another example—think of people whose sons or daughters are involved in crimes.  Do we ever hear people say: “well, if my son/daughter did that terrible thing, they ought to be punished…”?  Indeed, wouldn’t we think it rather callous if a parent did react this way?  More common, I think, is the reaction a couple had when they discovered their son had been involved in a hit and run at the University of Connecticut last year—they tried to cover it up.  He was, after all, their son—and I can’t say I would have done differently if my own son were in that situation.  Of course, this does not constitute an argument that such nepotism is morally right, but I think Confucius is simply playing on a common intuition (in his time and place) here.  “Family first” is the intuition, and it’s one I share.
This is actually one of the things I’ve always admired about the Confucius of the Analects—he he has a way of pulling us down to earth when we get carried away constructing fancy ethical theories.  
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6 responses to “What Really Matters–Analects 13.18

  1. Hi Alexus,

    I should comment on your recent posts which are all very interesting, but I’ll wait until summer.

    Mao and Bhutto may not be the most morally admirable people in the world, but even Gandhi and Jesus were known or said to have neglected their own families. That’s an uncomfortable fact about them (that gives rise to suspicions, as you observe), but so is Confucius’s nepotism I think. We are talking about tragic choices here–no choice would be entirely satisfactory. (But Analects also seems to contain anti-nepotist remarks, i.e., 11.8, 16.13.)

    If Confucius can’t be read as a virtue consequentialist, how about reading him as a foundationalist of sorts? E.g., filial piety as the foundation of ren. Analects 1.2 might suggest this, as Bill Haines has noted.

    p.s. I remember reading about the same hit-and-run incident, and thinking along the same lines.

  2. Hi Boram–

    thanks for your comments. Point taken about the examples of Jesus and Gandhi, they do seem like harder cases. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Gandhi, though, for just the reasons you mentioned. He treated his family like real crap, from what I’ve gathered. I wouldn’t go so far as to put him in the category of Mao Zedong (given that he wasn’t involved in the untimely deaths of many, many people), but I put him in pretty much the same category as Benazir Bhutto. One way he differs from her, of course, is in the historical effectiveness of his movement–but since I’m not a consequentialist that doesn’t make much difference for my appraisal. But even moderate consequentialists (like Mill) want to claim that character is appraised separately from acts, so that one’s acts may be largely right while that person is still of poor character (although I realize also radical consequentialists and virtue consequentialists like Julia Driver will want to resist this).

    I’m more worried about the example of Jesus you raise, but, for Christians at least, the difficulties here might be mitigated by the fact that he was God made flesh, and thus would be expected to have a different connection to all of humanity than would a normal person. Perhaps one could make an argument that his family consisted of all those who accepted him (I read Mark 3:31-35 in such a way–where Jesus says “everyone who does God’s will is my mother and sister and brother.”).

    Also, the foundationalist interpretation you mention sounds interesting. Jiyuan Yu says some things that suggest he reads 1.2 similarly. Where does Bill mention this? Does he develop it? I’ll have to ask him about it.

  3. Hi Alexus and Boram,

    Regarding what I’ve said about foundations and 1.2, Boram is thinking of this discussion: http://manyulim.wordpress.com/2008/03/21/value-of-family-in-confucianism/

    My thoughts about 1.2 include the ideas that
    (a) 1.2 is about family’s being fundamental in the sense that it comes first or early in the construction of character and in the understanding of morality, though not first in the order of justification;
    (b) 1.2 reflects the views not of Confucius but of Youzi, who in my view did not study with Confucius (I think Youzi’s views in various passages form a neat system which was influential but whose broad lines Confucius did not anticipate.)
    (c) While in 1.2 Youzi says family roots ren in a way, he points to other roots in other passages. In 1.12 he says society’s ritual roots social harmony, and in 1.13 he says both that being trustworthy roots being just (yi 義) and that being humble/respectful (gong 恭) roots one’s ritual propriety.

    In the way he cites the passage, Jiyuan Yu allows his readers to think Confucius is the speaker at 1.2 — both in his book and in earlier articles.

    Alexus, my intuitions agree with yours on 13.18’s point of common-sense ethics. When the Unabomber’s brother turned him in, I remember thinking that was arguably a hard case.

    What surprises me is that people take this passage to show something peculiar or non-Western about Confucius. I take it as opposing a shallow radicalism. I don’t see that we have to read it as doing something bigger – opposing principles in general, or suggesting that family duty is the number one principle, or opposing theory.

    Aristophanes’ Clouds suggests that a worry about Socrates was that he taught disrespect for parents.

    Jesus didn’t just neglect his own family, on the whole he urged his followers to neglect theirs. I made a collection from the synoptic gospels when I was teaching in Arkansas:

    As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James … and John … in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Mt 4:21,22; similar to Mark 1:20)

    To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk 9:59-62; first part is similar to Mt 8:21,22)

    “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:34-37; similar to Lk 12:49-53)

    Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Lk 18:28-30; similar to Mt 19:27-29)

    “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven.” (Mt 23:9)

    He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Lk 14:12-14)

    Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:25,26)

    (I think I remember that the Greek is misew, which suggests ‘hate’. But surely the point was just disregard or putting-aside.)

  4. Bill,
    your view on Youzi sounds very interesting. Book 1 does seem kind of different than the rest of the Analects–I always thought it was more Xunzi-ish (which is good!). It would certainly be keeping in line with the “accretion hypothesis” the Brooks’ argue for in their “The Original Analects”. I don’t remember exactly what their view is on Book 1 specifically, but your Youzi account sounds like it might fit with their view.

    Do you think that all of Book 1 represents this Youzi strain, or parts of Book 1 and some pieces from elsewhere? 1.15, for example, seems anomalous, as praise of Zigong–unless, of course, Youzi had some reason to praise Zigong. It’s a late passage in Book 1, so maybe it belongs to a different collection.

    I find the search for different strains of thought in the Analects very enjoyable, as well as important. Not enough attention has been payed to these problems in my view (I’m trying to do some work in this area in the later tradition, with some of the commentaries on Confucian works and Han dynasty stuff). I’d be very interested to see your development of the “Youzi” thesis!

  5. I’ll email you my paper. I’m thrilled that you’re interested! The paper argues that Book 1 was the first Book to be assembled, and was designed to reflect Youzi’s views — other books being more properly Confucian.

  6. Do some old commentaries suggest that there are doctrinal divisions within the Analects that match up with book divisions? I’d love to hear about that.

    I suppose that in calling Bk 1 Xunzi-ish you’re pointing out that it’s about making moral progress. I agree. I think it’s specifically about the relation between virtue and study or words.

    I think 1.15 fits the rest of Book 1 in that respect. Zigong’s question about the ode compares the refinement of character to the refinement of sayings. Zigong wants Confucius to confirm that his criticism of Zigong’s proposed slogan was minimal. Even a very good slogan can be improved.

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