This is the most strongly worded statement of something like behavioral determinism I’ve found in Lunheng. Interestingly enough, it comes in a chapter on government (治期 Zhi qi), and I suspect this is the reason the statement is as stark as it is. Let’s jump right in (my rough translation follows below-I haven’t tackled Zhi qi yet in my Lunheng translation, though it’s next on my list):
“When there is sufficient grain and abundant food, the heart of ritual and righteousness (liyi) grows. When ritual flourishes and righteousness is taken seriously, the foundations of peaceful order are established. Therefore in the spring of a famine year, one does not feed one’s relatives, while in the autumn harvest of an year of abundant yield, one calls together one’s neighbors (to eat). Not feeding one’s relatives is bad conduct. Calling together one’s neighbors to eat is good conduct. Production of good or bad conduct is not a matter of the substance and nature (zhi xing) of persons, rather it is a matter of whether the year is one of famine or abundance.”
Lest I get too carried away, though–the context of this quote is important. Wang is arguing against (as he so often is) the view that virtuous rulership is effective (in some way) in creating virtuous subjects, a revered Confucian position. Wang argues that this cannot be the case, as there can be virtuous rulers whose states are in disorder and whose subjects are unvirtuous. He offers a number of historical examples and examples from the classic literature to demonstrate this. He then turns to an explanation for this disconnect–what accounts for the moral quality of human behavior is the external situation, such as whether or not food is abundant. Of course, there are difficulties for this view as there are for any behaviorist/situationist view (what explains heroics, altruism in stressful situations, etc.), but what is so startling about this is that Wang says something like this, given his seeming commitment elsewhere to the efficacy of deliberate effort in creating virtuous character.
He talks in the essay 率性 Shuai xing, for example, about the “completion of character” (成為性 cheng wei xing), claiming that this completion happens through either instruction (for those with initially deficient/bad character), or preservation (in the case of those with initially good character (kind of a mix of the Mencian and Xunzian positions it seems). Interestingly, there are really two senses of xing here–that which one has naturally as a result of being born with it, and that which is “completed”. The “completed” xing sounds closest to what we generally mean by “character”, and human effort in some sense is necessary for attaining it (whether through education or actively guarding), while the raw xing is independent of human activity and given (spontaneously, of course) by 天tian.
What is interesting here is that it seems like Wang wants to be a determinist/situationist as well as to uphold the efficacy of character. But how can he do this? What differences are there between the person of good completed xing and the person of bad completed xing in a situation of famine, for example? Will it be the case that both of them will fail to feed their relatives? The above passage from Zhi qi seems to suggest so. And if this is the case more generally for external situations, how can xing play any role at all in behavior, completed or not?
I haven’t yet found any proposed solution to this in Lunheng, or even an indication that Wang is aware of the problem. It could be, of course, that he was overstating the case for determinism in order to make a broader point about rulership, and that this statement from the Zhi qi should be thought of as having the invisible preface “generally speaking…”