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.