A Ku Indeed!

Analects 5.26: The Internal Rewards of Excellence

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Values Analysis by Chris on September 30, 2007

Yen Yuan and Zilu being by his side, the Master said to them, “Come, let each of you tell his wishes.” Zilu said, “I should like, having chariots and horses, and light fur dresses, to share them with my friends, and though they should spoil them, I would not be displeased.” Yen Yuan said, “I should like not to boast of my excellence, nor to make a display of my meritorious deeds.” Zilu then said, “I should like, sir, to hear your wishes.” The Master said, “They are, in regard to the aged, to give them rest; in regard to friends, to show them sincerity; in regard to the young, to treat them tenderly.”

Analects 5.26 makes a clear distinction between two things: internal goods and external goods (a subject of considerable attention in the Analects). Basically the difference is this:

External good: X is an external good to Y iff X can be achieved in a way independent of Y or if Y can be understood independently of X.

Internal good: X is an internal good to Y iff X can only be achieved through participation in Y because X is logically or conceptually linked to Y.

Let’s take some examples.

Ex. 1: If I want fame and realize that saving people in distress is the way to acquire fame, then fame is an external good with respect to care. This is true because fame (X) can be achieved in a way independent of care (Y), and in addition (fame) X and care (Y) in this case are logically distinct (neither requires the other).

Ex. 2: Heaven. If I realize that the path to eternal reward is paved with good actions, then eternal life might become the external reward for doing good things. This case raises a question: it might be that heaven can only be achieved through helping others. But if heaven can be understood independently of helping others, then the two are, in fact, logically separate, even if it’s true that Heaven can only be achieved through good works.

What about internal goods? An internal good might be the achieving of a kind of excellence. It may be, however, that the only way that this excellence comes into existence is via a certain way of interacting towards others socially. Thus, interacting with others in certain ways yields excellence and cannot be understood apart from it, and in addition the only way to achieve that excellence is via that kind of goal directed behavior.

It is clear in numerous places in the Analects that Confucius argues we must be correctly motivated in order for us to walk the path of the Tao. There’s 2.16, which states that “to attack a task from the wrong end can do nothing but harm” and there’s 4.11, “The gentleman sets his heart on virtue, the petty man sets his heart on land.” or 4.12 “Conduct motivated by profit is cause for complaint.” There are an endless number of such analects. I’d argue here that Confucius is not worried by internal rewards, but rather external rewards. Moreover, he thinks that we typically achieve internal rewards as a result of being motivated by something else, and that it’s okay to even want those things in such cases. For example, we may become more excellent as a result of being good (excellence being an internal reward). Here, there’s nothing wrong with excellence, or even wanting to acquire it, because such excellence can only be understood in terms of being good (so its not that excellence is a means to an end). That said, when Confucius talks about disliking profit, he means external rewards like money, or appreciation, which can be seen as independent of the things that get us those objects.

So what is 5.26 talking about? Note that both Zilu and Hui, when asked what they are aiming for in life, aim for external goods that are not internal to Jen. Both of them seem in this analect to be aiming for the same thing — recognition. Zilu’s intentions are clear; he is showing off to the Master, claiming that (1) he would have lots of material goods and that (2) he would give them away and (3) would be big enough not to be bothered by it. Thus, he doesn’t seem to be so much interested in caring for those others, but is more interested in being recognized for his unselfish largesse. Picking up on this, Hui, in a rare moment of weakness, points out that unlike Zilu, who is a braggart, he himself would seek to be a person who didn’t brag. Of course, in doing this, Hui exposes his own competition with Zilu for the Master’s favor and recognition, thus highlighting himself as seeking the end of recognition just as much as Zilu.

Clearly, as Confucius makes clear in many places (1.16 specifically), recognition is an external good, and thus not Jen (pu jen), and thus not morally laudatory regardless of the effect of the action. Recognition can be achieved engaging in things having nothing to do with Jen, and Jen can be achieved and embodied without recognition. Like the sports player engaged in the game for money, Zilu and Hui are “playing at Jen” for recognition.

The Master’s reply is different. He seeks a clearly “other-regarding” goal that has no clear or evident “external good” component. he seeks to care for the old, and to treat his friends right, and to be tender with the young. What Confucius will receive from such activity is a sense of completeness, a sense of human excellence. Although he isn’t necessarily aiming for this, that will be his reward. What is different are two things: (a) Confucius’ aim is other-regarding, and (b) his reward is internal to the activity of caring, not external to it. Thus Confucius shows himself to be “internal” to the “game” of jen in this case, internal to the world of appropriateness (yi). Thus, his answer to the question puts him in direct opposition to that of his two favorite students, Zilu and Hui.

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