Part of the reason I want to start out with this passage is because I find it extremely rich, and possibly as offering a view which looks at 政 zheng (“proper governance”) more skeptically than do earlier (date wise) passages in Book 12. Lots of other interesting stuff here as well. Anyway, on with the passage!
Analects 2.3 子曰：“道之以政，齊之以刑，民免而無恥；道之以德，齊之以禮，有恥且格
Translation: The master said, “Using proper governance to establish dao, using a penal code to establish order, the folk will escape (punishment) but will have no guiding sense of shame. Using virtue (de) to establish dao, using ritual (li) to establish order, there will be a guiding sense of shame and also a standard (ge).”
Okay. So I won’t be using the commentaries on this post, because I’m still waiting for my interlibrary loan copies of the ones I’ve ordered. But when my volumes come in, I may look back to this passage to try to pull some more out of it.
For now, then, I’ll be content in giving my own interpretation of this passage, and pointing out some keys to what I think is going on here. First, let me mention that I take this passage to be “situationist-friendly”, if not muscular evidence itself that the Analects presents us with a situationist ethics. I think the latter claim would be extremely implausible and there’s no argument that could support it, especially when we consider that situationist ethics such as that advocated by John Doris and Gilbert Harman appear to me very dependent on what they conceive of as Aristotelian virtue ethics–that is, their situationist ethics is mainly negatively formulated, arguing that human behavior is not dependent on global character traits in the way (they claim) virtue ethicists require, and that situation has a larger role to play in causing certain types of behavior than virtue ethicists can allow. This negative point, however, doesn’t really tell us anything about how a situationist ethical theory would be laid out–fleshing out such a theory would require some explanation of what situations are, their link to psychological and physiological mechanisms by which they effect behavior, and how situations can be manipulated so as to result in right action, or goodness of ‘local’ character, or whatever. Part of the difficulty I have with the philosophical literature on situationism is that the positive project seems sparse. So, my reading of Confucius and Xunzi as “situationists” is basically to read them as agreeing with Doris and Harman that there are generally no cross-situationally stable robust character traits (in normal people), and that ethical cultivation depends more on putting oneself in the right environment than attending to reasons for action, etc.
So, with that out of the way, I’ll try to explain three things in these two posts, briefly: 1) why I take 2.3 as situationist (even though I take Book 2 in general to be both later–see Brooks and Brooks–and closer to Mencius than the later books of the Analects), 2) how I see an ambivalence about zheng here that doesn’t exist in the Book 12 passages, 3) my translation of 格 ge as ‘standard’ and how this connects to point 1. Here in Part One of this post on 2.3 I will deal with point 1 above, and will discuss 2 and 3 in Part Two (there’s just too damn much to say about this stuff…)
1) 2.3 sets up an opposition between using zheng and xing (proper governance and a penal code) to establish dao and order and using de and li to do this same thing. What makes the difference between the two ways of establishing dao and order is that one way creates a guiding sense of shame (恥 chi) [I’ll leave the ge until later], and one does not, but in both cases there can be adherence to the law, or a certain type of order. However, if we consider what is operative in the case in which the people gain a guiding internal measure (chi), it seems like of the two ways, following li simply creates in one (members of the 民 min) the kinds of feelings that are appropriate to keep one ordered and following dao (that is, the feeling of shame). This feeling is generated simply through the following of the li. Depending on how we construe li here, this is a bold claim. If li is merely very specific practices divorced from one’s psychological state then the claim is strong. If li, however, includes an affective element, so that one does not count as being engaged in li if one does not have the correct attitude and emotions, then the claim that chi (guiding sense of shame) is generated by following li seems close to trivial, since it seems plausible that if certain attitudes and emotions are required for li then chi is one of these. So this leads me to think that 2.3 is claiming that by performing certain physical actions we can come to gain a particular psychological state (much like the claim that my mood will become better if I simply force myself to smile–a claim which I take it has some empirical evidence to back it up).
On the other hand, a penal code (刑 xing, also translatable as simply ‘punishment’) has to do more with negative actions and violations than with positive action. A penal code gives us a list of things we are not allowed to do and specifies punishments if we do these things. It does not, however, specify how we ought to perform all the actions for which there can be no punishment, for practical reasons. We could, one might argue, make a penal code just as detailed as the li, by basically codifying the li and listing various punishments for failure to adhere to li in any given circumstance. There are (at least) two problems with xing, however. First–law enforcement has limited scope. There could be no way one could possibly punish infringements of something as broad as the li, which pertain to every situation in one’s life. Second, and more importantly, offering punishments for failure to adhere to li assumes that such adherence is something that people would just as well not have–the reason behind their adherence on this model is that they will avoid punishment, and this is their only motivation. For this reason, the people will lack important psychological states (such as chi) which are both guiding, allowing one to use less energy in governing (the people will order themselves, the ruler will be a “pole star”, leading in a kind of wu wei fashion), and necessary to ensure that dao is realized in the state.
So how does a ruler use li to order the people? By adhering to li himself, of course. Connecting this with the points of the above two paragraphs, we can see that the reason a ruler has to resort to a penal code is that he is not himself adhering to li–because if he were, the people would adhere to li as well, using the ruler as a model for action. In following the laws established by the ruler and having no shame, the people would also be following the actions of the ruler, in neglecting li. Confucius seems to hold that both the actions and the psychology of the people are effected by the actions and psychology of the ruler. There is almost a simple mimicking relationship like that between a child and a parent operative here. The people look up to the ruler and fashion themselves after the way he is, just like a child looks up to a parent and fashions him or herself after the way the parent is. Often (most often, perhaps), this happens without our even knowing it. We simply catch ourselves acting, speaking, and thinking even in ways characteristic of our parents, teachers, or culture. (By the way Joel Kupperman has a great article on this–“Tradition and Community in the Formation of Character and Self”, and I’ve had some good conversations with Chris about this for the past couple of weeks).
If this is part of what is behind 2.3, it strikes me as very friendly to situationism. Part of the reason for this is that, in essence, it is saying that the people (min) can be made to have very different behaviors, even very different psychological states (!) simply by variation in the actions of the ruler. Notice that we are now not talking about children, who are not fully formed either psychologically or physiologically, but the min, the people, which is made up of fully formed adults. On the globalist notion of character Doris and Harman attack, characteristic responses indicative of character should be expected to obtain across a variety of situations. The responses of the min are not so, however. It’s not completely clear what to take from this, though. It could be that Confucius considers the members of the min to lack character in a robust globalist sense, while he thinks that there is such thing as this type of character, obtaining only in sages and the high level junzi (a good question to ask here is whether a junzi who is a low ranking official counts as a member of the min–which is why I’m thrilled Chris is working on a paper on the issue of figuring out what the min is). It could, on the other hand, mean that Confucius thinks that no one has character of the type in question, and is not disparaging the min. What seems clear, though, is that for most people, what goes on in the palace has a larger impact on their behavior and psychological states than does any character trait of their own.
Anyway–this was a particularly wandering and disorganized post, mostly because I thought of some new things as I wrote it. Hope it makes some kind of sense. But hey, that’s why I called this thing “Unpolished Jade” in the first place. Part two coming up.