Ren, Social Properties, and Western Comparisons

The word ‘ren‘ (translated variously as “benevolence”, “human-heartedness”, “humanity”) had, for Confucius, an ineliminably social meaning. It is one of the important ethical concepts in Confucian writings, and is something that cannot, I believe, be attained to by one’s self. In one of my entries below, I discussed Analects 15.33, where Confucius speaks of the person who is able to “guard ren” (shou ren). There are many other places in the Analects where Confucius talks about those “with ren” (ren ren or ren zhe), but it is unclear to me that this entails that one has a property in the same way we today talk of one having courage, or having integrity–qualities that can be the domain of a particular individual, without consideration of what is going on in society around one.

Of course, for Aristotle, it appears that sometimes the individual’s possession of a virtue had to do with external chance–one can only be generous if one is successful at giving, rather than simply having the intention to give, for example. But even Aristotle’s virtues must be considered things had by an individual.

I believe that the notion of ren for Confucius is very different than this. We get into problems, I think, reading Confucius as an Aristotle-type “virtue-ethicist” for this reason (among others I won’t get into here). Ren cannot be thought of as a virtue in the Aristotelian sense mainly because ren cannot be possessed by one in the way a virtue can.

Confucius talks of one’s thoughts being on ren, or guarding ren. Why should we take this as meaning that one guards ren in oneself? Given the social meaning of ren, it seems more plausible to me to hold that Confucius thought that ren could be guarded simply because ren is a property of a social group, perhaps like peace or harmony (which, I know, could also be applied to individuals, but would of necessity reference different parts of individuals, –i.e. the legs are in harmony with the arms, etc.).

Ren as a property of groups can be initiated by an individuals, just as can peace within a group. So the notion of ren as a social property does not make it impossible to make sense of talk of individual involvement with ren. Most ethical properties, in fact, seem to have an individual as well as social component. However, we tend to put the emphasis on one or the other in coming to give an account of the concept–so that honesty, for example, is focused on the individual, even though there is certainly a social aspect of honesty.

I think my opposition to letting ren be cast as a virtue in the Aristotelian sense has much to do with the neglect of the ineliminably social aspects of ren that follows (which is surely the key to the concept), as well as with strong reservations about understanding ancient Chinese thinkers through the goggles of western philosophy.

4 responses to “Ren, Social Properties, and Western Comparisons

  1. I wonder if you just answered the question you posed in your other ren post. If ren is a social property – I would say social practice – then one might “guard” ren by trying to do the right thing by the ren of the group, but could be thwarted in realizing ren due the the actions of others in the group. Thus, li is critical because that is the best means to ensure that others perform ren together such that ren can be realized by all together. Ren, then, is still the “highest” virtue, and li the performative means to that social end.

  2. Hi Sam–

    I think you’re right about the ren and li relationship. I only worry a bit about calling ren the “highest” virtue, mostly because of Analects 15.33 and other similar sounding passages. It’s always seemed to me that there is an implicit moral concept in the Analects, that is danced around but never spoken about. This, I think, has to do with the “flourishing society”. Analects 15.33 points to this, when it suggests that even being able to guard ren is not enough, even if it is employed with li. Surely you’re right that li is the “performative means” through which ren is strengthened in society. I think this is the right interpretation. But it also seems that this is not enough. When 15.33 says that one can “guard ren” without using li, so we probably have to distinguish here between the two aspects of ren I mentioned in the post–the individual and social aspects (similar to the concept of “peace”). It is certainly then the social aspect of ren (like “peace in the community” rather than “individual peacefulness”) that is the more important aspect of ren for Confucius. Given this, my reservations about ren as the highest virtue come from the fact that what Confucius seems to be after here is proper functioning of society. The fact that he mentions ren (even though this is probably only the individual aspect of the term) at the beginning of 15.33 and keeps qualifying it–adding other necessary conditions of gaining the highest end, makes me think that it’s not really ren that Confucius is after. The final line of 15.33 is telling here. “If one who reaches knowledge is unable to guard ren, skillfully manages the people, but in motivating them does not use li, this person has not yet done the right thing.” The final phrase here is “wei shan ye” (literally–not yet good). The fact that Confucius at the end speaks in terms of “shan” and not in terms of “li” leads me to think that the social end (the good-in-itself) is not dependent on ren (that is, is not ren itself), but rather something that ren is very effective in bringing about. This, whatever it is (I’ve been calling it “the flourishing society”, until I can say some more about it) may be dependent on ren, but passages like 15.33 suggest it’s not necessarily connected to ren. That is, it’s not the fact that such a society is ren, or its “renness” (for lack of a better word) that makes it good, but something else, something more primitive. I’m not sure how to get at this property (if its there), but pressing the passages on ren might be one way.

    That said, I think you’re comments are right on. Thanks!

  3. Alexus, I like your thoughts on REN. It is controversial, but I’d like to see how you defend it. (I have similar thoughts about justice as a virtue, but not for REN).

    This is going beyond the Analects, but what would you say to the debate between Mencius and Gaozi on whether YI (rightness/justice) is internal or external? In this debate, it is interesting to note that both philosophers take REN as internal. I think this debate on the internality/externality of YI has some relevance. Gaozi seems to take YI as a set of external standards imposed on a person, whereas REN is internal to the person in the same sense that predilection for tasty food is internal.

    I think I can go so far as to insist that all ancient Chinese philosophers thought REN was internal in this sense: the Mohists, Xunzi, Han Fei, etc. But I’d be glad to be proven otherwise.

  4. Alex, what you are getting at, I think, is that, for Confucius, an important — and inseparable — component of ren is reciprocity. Renexists only in the interaction of the self and another. (Remember the folk etymology for the character ren: man and two. Though not accurate in terms of etymology, it does lend insight into the way the term is commonly understood.) It is in this way that ren is essential for forming the good society. A person measures his “renness” by comparing himself to others, and improves himself by emulating those who demonstrate greater ren in their interactions with others. Ritual (li) propounds the guidelines for individuals who seek to maximize their, and therefore, society’s renness. Laws (fa) are for those who don’t “get it” of their own accord, even with the guidance provided by Ritual, and who therefore need a little more help in finding the way.

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