Analects 2.3–Shame, Good Government, and Dao (Part One)

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.

10 responses to “Analects 2.3–Shame, Good Government, and Dao (Part One)

  1. I think your point about the situationist role of the ruler is an interesting one. I’d never thought of 2.3 in that way before. I had instead simply read it as dealing with the presence of li and/or law in society in general, irrespective of the ruler’s qualities. That said, the passage doesn’t specifically mention the ruler, though, does it? I thought it was more general in the ways I’ve mentioned. If so, a situationist reading (if it relies on the ruler) will need some support passages.

    Another question I have regards shame. Is it true that shame would be trivally one of the emotions required if we added an affective dimension to following li? For Confucius, maybe so, I’m not sure, but I’m visualizing a person who does indeed feel the right respect or gratitude, but where this isn’t itself prompted by shame. Or: shame might operate in the Analects not simply as a “negative behavior inducer” but rather as a shorthand for talking about relational presence. So it could be that if my identity has, as a constitutive part, aspects of the identity of my mother, then I’ll act in ways X, Y and Z. Moreover, to “have” that aspect of mom as a part of me might simply *be* what he means by “shame”. If that’s plausible (not sure if it is), then this would indeed make the addmition of shame trivial if emotions are required to act by li, but it would be trivial in a way that is actually quite interesting.

    I’m also wondering, a bit to the side of 2.3, if this would count as situationist: imagine a person who, in situation X, does Y reliably (it’s courageous, say). Now put X’s mother into the situation, but in a way that is really not central to the doing of Y at all (she’s off to the side, but noticed). X’s relationship to Y is a bad one; Y always makes X feel a tremendous lack of self-confidence. As a consequence, X doesn’t do Y. Does this mean that X’s behavior is situationist, do you think?

  2. Note: on 2.3 mentioning the ruler — it does, implicitly, I think, but to make it about the presence or lack of a specific type of ruler would need some extra passages, I think.

  3. Alexus McLeod

    Interesting…I wrote a comment here before and apparently it didn’t go through. Blogger is a pain sometimes (actually a lot of the time…)

    Anyway–the essence of it was that I think your worry at the end puts pressure on a problem I’ve increasingly been worried about–how situationist ethics should be understood as operating, beyond the negative anti-virtue ethics program. Part of the difficulty, I think, is trying to figure out which ways character is supposed to link up with behavior and which situation-altered behaviors count against which character traits, etc. Also, the Doris/Harman type situationist has given no explanation of how situations produce behavior, what the mechanism is, etc. Absent this, it seems unclear that we can really call any positive ethical theory “situationist”–maybe the best we can do is to show that certain ethical theories do not fall victim to situationist difficulties. The system of the Analects (as sparse as that is) is I think one example of this.

    Anyway–my earlier (lost) comments were clearer and probably more helpful–I’m typing this while pretty tired. Also–I agree that more support is necessary than just 2.3. I’ll hopefully try to address this in the next post on 2.3 (or if not in that, in a separate post very soon). I’ve been mining the Analects and the commentaries (I just got Cheng Shude’s Lunyu jishi today) for stuff.

  4. A:

    Re your first comment — use WordPress! I tried blogger and blogspot first, didn’t like them much. WordPress is very easy to use, and no problems.

  5. Hi! Very interesting ideas.

    2.3 strikes me as opposing situationism—or rather, as supporting one of the views you mention: that Confucius thinks that at least some people (those with “substance”?) can have strong global characters. Ethical discourse is mainly for these people. (The Analects doesn’t seem to address the question whether such substance is from nature or nurture, unless it argues for nuture at 17.2.)

    It seems to me that the picture in 2.3 (and 8.2, 12.1, etc.) is at least this: that the ruler’s good personal behavior is both an inspiration to the people (so that they’ll emulate it) and an earnest to the people of the ruler’s good treatment of them in future (so that they’ll reciprocate that expected good treatment). I think it would not be an inspiration if the people recognized that it did not spring from character, nor an earnest if the character were not supposed to be global.

    It seems to me that the ruler’s following li would saliently involve these things: giving palpable respect to the rules and signs of Zhou hierarchy, exemplifying various kinds of political and personal decency, and setting up many public ceremonies for people to participate in, so that they can follow li. If the ruler is a li-follower, he is palpably (or at least apparently) deserving of the people’s loyalty, emulation, and reciprocation, and so he’ll tend to get those things. Under such circumstances it would be shameful to go against the ruler or try to go behind his back. It would be an action against one’s neighbors.

    On the question of WordPress etc.: a long list of Recent Comments makes a blog a little more user-friendly, I think. I gather that’s not an option in the system you’re using now.

  6. This is a small point, but I think the notion of 道 and 齊 should be understood as verbs in this passage: If one guides them with gov’t and orders them with punishments/penal code, the folk will avoid [punishment] and lack shame.” This perhaps makes for an easier explanation, not having to interpret dao in its usual and more significant sense.

    On a larger issue, perhaps you can explain a little more about the situationalist nature of this passage. If I’m understanding you correctly it’s situationalist in the sense that it isn’t about the employment of certain virtues to lead to a certain result (contra a VE paradigm), but about creating a situation that generates certain virtues that one should not assume are universally part of human nature. I’m not entirely clear if I’m first of all getting you right, and secondly how this passage supports such a position.

    Also, please do share about your understanding of ge as ‘standard’.

  7. Aristotle and Confucians agree that the subjects of a ruler tend to adopt values from the ruler. Arguably that’s part of the subjects’ duty, as being ruled. Aristotle further says in the Politics:

    “Practical wisdom only is characteristic of the ruler: it would seem that all other virtues must equally belong to ruler and subject. The virtue of the subject is certainly not wisdom, but only true opinion; he may be compared to the maker of the flute, while his master is like the flute-player or user of the flute.” 3.IV, Jowett’s translation, grabbed from the Internet Classics Archive.

    Question: does that suggest that Aristotle is in part a situationist?

  8. Hi Bill and Master Kong:

    good points. I suppose I’ll have to take the next post to give some more argument for the situationist view before moving on to the other points I wanted to make about 2.3. I’ve been pretty busy with dissertation stuff for the past few days (including today), so I’ve not been thinking as much about this issue as I’d like to–but I’ll be back to say something about it soon. I figured I’d save responses to your more substantial points about situationism until my next post (it’ll come soon enough–sorry about my slowness on this; I start to feel really guilty every time I take too much time away from dissertation writing).

    Before this, just to address a couple of the points both of you make–

    Master Kong: You’re right that 道 and 齊 here should be understood as verbs–I understand them this way also. The key difference between the translation you offer and my own, I think, is what we take the之 here to be referring to: the people, or the state? My own reading takes it to refer to the state, which makes “dao zhi” a bit awkward, granted, but I was taking this passage to be in part concerned with the more robust sense of dao, in which case “dao zhi” would be less problematic. I think the substantial sense of dao could be combined with dao as a verb, insofar as the big, important sense of dao for Confucius is (probably) active. I think your comment brings on this brings out something really important, though. I hadn’t thought of this before, but the translation of ‘dao’ here has some important connection to an interpretation of Confucius as a kind of “externalist” about the way. If the use of ‘dao’ here is, as I’ve been reading it, meant to express the robust sense of dao, then this means that Confucius thinks dao can be realized even absent the kind of emotional commitment to the ethical project that he clearly thinks is important. If ‘dao’ is used in the “guiding” sense you suggest, this doesn’t follow from 2.3 (although it still may be true). I personally accept a kind of externalist reading of Confucius, but I don’t think 2.3 alone shows this. I think Confucius probably means dao in 2.3 in the more robust sense, your translation is probably provisionally better in that it remains neutral on the “externalist” question. This brings up lots of good questions about translation in general–whether we should strive to give the most neutral readings possible, or whether we should translate in the interpretive scheme we think is the correct one, or whether to strive for something in between…all questions I worry about a lot. You’ve given me a bit more to worry about concerning 2.3. That’s a good thing, of course🙂

    Bill: excellent point about Aristotle. I actually do think Confucius and Aristotle are closer on this point than some might believe. The difference I see here is mainly in the mechanism by which people under the ruler come to gain virtues themselves. In Aristotle (as far as I know–but I’ll have to look at the “Politics” as well), exemplars seem to be able to show us the right reasons for acting in ways x,y, or z. Respecting and following a ruler can itself be a character trait that one with a certain amount of virtue (or something like it) can have, and ought to have (according to Aristotle). In general, the role of the subject seems to be much more active in Aristotle than in Confucius (the quote you mention of the subject as the flute maker seems to be in following with this). In Confucius, the subject seems much more dependent on the virtues or lack of virtues of the ruler, to the extent that it often seems that there’s simply nothing we can do to gain certain virtues (like ren) if the way is not manifest in the state (if the ruler is not virtuous)–and this is the case even for the relatively conscious junzi-type. For the everyday folks (the min, xiao ren) what they are will be almost completely dependent on what the ruler is. If he is a thief, they will be thieves, if he is virtuous, so will they be. The process by which this happens, though unexplained in Confucius, doesn’t seem to be intellectual at all, but more of a kind of mimicry, like how children take on the behavioral patterns of their parents. If one’s behavior doesn’t progress beyond this stage of action based on mimicry, then one doesn’t have virtue at all (at least for Aristotle). One would also not have stable character traits, in the globalist sense. The Analects seems to suggest that the vast majority of the people are like this–the xiao ren who bend like grass. Of course, this seems to suggest that there are others who are not like this, the junzi, perhaps, who is not subject to changing behavior with the changing virtue of the ruler. This is more difficult, I think.
    This response is kind of confused, I think. I’ll have more on this later. But, I think Aristotle may have been more able to handle situationism than some contemporary virtue ethics. I think Doris is wrong about Aristotle in his criticisms of “Aristotelian based” virtue ethics, and so I’d agree that Aristotle is more “situationist” than Doris believes.

    Chris and Bill:
    Blogger indeed sucks. I wanted to change to WordPress some time back, but I found out I’d have to start the blog completely anew, because there’s no way (that I’ve been able to find, at least), to import a blog from Blogger to WordPress–I’d lose all my old posts and information unless I re-posted it (which would take a million years), and even then, I’d lose all the comments. If you guys know any ways to get around this, let me know–I’d love to get off of Blogger. Bill: I completely agree about the “recent comments” list. I’ve not been able to figure out a way to get that up on Blogger either. When I get some free time, I think I’ll mess around with the thing and give it another shot.

    Anyway–now I’ve gone and did what I said I wasn’t going to–spend too much time away from dissertation writing…

  9. Hi Alexus,

    I’m looking forward, as always, to your future comments. I’m interested in what passages you have in mind for the last part of this claim: “it often seems that there’s simply nothing we can do to gain certain virtues (like ren) if the way is not manifest in the state (if the ruler is not virtuous)–and this is the case even for the relatively conscious junzi-type.”

    I agree that Confucius at least lays more stress than Aristotle on the idea that the people will gain the virtues of the jun or junzi. But Confucius doesn’t say much about the mechanism (does he say anything?), so I’m not sure how far he thinks it’s mimicry, how far emulation, how far reciprocity, etc. If C were Mencius we might talk about the effects of economic security.

    I think for Aristotle to some extent the “people” are rulers, depending on the constitution. But then there are women and natural slaves, who can’t have proper virtue under any insitutions, not to mention the various kinds of stuntedness that characterize foreigners.

  10. I happened on your blog, where a Chinese sentence caught my eye, so I went on reading… but I couldn’t figure out a few things.

    Why translate 道 by “establish tao”? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to read it as 導tao3 meaning to lead/guide? Have a look at the parallelism:

    道 them using 政
    齊 them using 刑

    I also wonder about zheng being translated as “good government” in this sentence. Why not simply translate it as 法制禁令 “legislation, rules and restrictions,” like Zhu Xi suggests in his 四書章句集注? Would “punishments” not be fine for 刑, in which case it also fits nicely as the object of 免?

    As I’m not a native speaker of English I might have misread your translation or not have understood your motive for translating as you did, in which case please ignore my comment.

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