A Ku Indeed!

Is Dr. 90120 Confucian?

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Ethics, Values Analysis by Chris on October 9, 2007

Dr. Ray from Dr. 90120 just doesn’t seem that Confucian to me. He does martial arts and he likes to think that he’s a follower of (some kind of) Eastern thought, but I’m skeptical that he could cut it with the Master. I’ll try to briefly outline why.

The question of the ethical nature of elective cosmetic surgery has always interested me. One of the main reason is that I just find the practice bizarre, if not repulsive, so I’d like to understand my own intuitions here. After all, such people aren’t “hurting” anyone, are they?

We all know the types, and we’ve read about the worst cases in Us Weekly. People from Joan Rivers to Michael Jackson have made idiots of themselves altering their faces to the point that they don’t look human anymore. Kids ask for (and sometimes get) cosmetic surgeries for their sixteenth birthday presents (I seem to remember a My Super Sweet Sixteen girl getting one, but I could be wrong). I’ll just say it — something seems to have gone seriously wrong somewhere. Not that many of us (as a student of mine in Values pointed out) aren’t vain in our own ways, primping in the mirrors as I’m sure we all do. But there’s something really over the top about elective cosmetic surgery that just doesn’t compare to wearing matching clothes, or wanting a decent haircut, or staying in shape.

But whatever it is, is it an ethical question? Is it an ethical problem that Dr. Ray is refusing to face up to? Is it an ethical problem the patient is avoiding? These were the questions I took on in a recent article I wrote (“Why Confucian Harmony is not Consistent with Plastic Surgery,” in Teaching Ethics, vol. 6, Aug. 2007). The specifics of the article are too complicated for a blog post, but I’ll try to make the general case here for why I think a Confucian would find elective cosmetic surgery (especially repeated visits to people like Dr. Ray) ethically problematic, both for the doctor and for the patient.

1. What matters is Confucianism is human excellence. This is jen — and I’ll just understand jen here as being excellent with respect to cultivating human relationships. I realize that this is broad, but for a blog post you’ll have to bear with me.

2. A central component of jen is a cultivated disposition towards caring for others, specifically for helping them to become excellent themselves.

Thus, in a generalized sense, a jen relationship often moves back and forth between each partner playing the role of benefactor (teacher, say) and beneficiary (student, say). These roles may be lopsided in any given relationship (in the parent relationship, parents tend to be benefactors more often than beneficiaries), but any jen relationship must cultivate the capacity of each participant to play both roles. (Analect 6.20 is the central passage to support this).

3. Cultivating such a jen disposition includes seeing the world in terms of care, and feeling it in these senses as well. So seeing a friend in need means seeing a friend in need and not an obstacle or a burden, and it means feeling sympathy for that friend, as opposed to irritation due to their neediness in that given situation. (Analects 2.7 and 2.8 are central here — filial piety is not merely doing the right things, but feeling the right way about your parents while you do those things).

The junzi (exemplary person) is perfectly “attuned” to the needs of the world, seeing and feeling situations in accordance with the particular needs manifesting themselves in those scenarios — and without the need to “think about” what to do, or to “fight against” contrary inclinations (as in the case of continence).

The move to cosmetic surgery is a quick one, I think.

4. Elective cosmetic surgeries are typically (not categorically) motivated by a desire for self-recognition. Given that this desire is one of the central “pitfalls” that lie in our paths from a Confucian point of view, they must be seen with extreme suspicion. (Analect 1.16 is the locus of this insight).

5. Cultivating one’s own desire for self-recognition means that one will build habits and character traits that dispose one not to see the world in terms of jen. Instead, they will mean the cultivation of traits and habits that have you see and feel particular situations and scenarios in the world (and seeing and feeling the presence of its occupants) in terms of how the world and the people in it may best serve you (their function is to recognize you, you simply need to figure out how to trigger them to do their job). (Analect 2.1 is particularly strong here; Confucius notes that those who are raised in certain ways are unlikely to behave in certain ways — this is no accident, given that they see and feel the world in terms of their cultivated dispositions).

As a result, cosmetic surgery cultivates “pettiness” (hsaio jen) as opposed to an exemplary nature (much of book four of the Analects is devoted to the issue of being motivated by benevolence and not pettiness). Given that petty people cannot have excellent relationships (Confucius says that petty people form networks as opposed to friendships, seeing others in terms of their value for advancing their own projects), as they will always see others (and their own selves) as tools or “vessels” (in Confucian speak), having cosmetic surgery harms the person in question (harm here is more than physical harm). If that person is harmed, then so too will those around that person, given that the petty person in question will not seek to cultivate their own excellences. As such, the relationships that person partakes in will not be harmonious (think of 13.23 here, where the exemplary person avoids making those within a relationship ‘homogeneous’ — but I suspect strongly that a person who seeks plastic surgery often will surely have just that thing in mind when interacting with relational partners).

As a result, it is clear that if being jen is what it means to “be ethical” in Confucianism, then a person who elects to have cosmetic surgery is not cultivating jen — the opposite actually — and as a result cultivates a petty disposition that is the opposite of what ‘being ethical’ means.

Further, we have to ask: what is the doctor’s role? The doctor in Confucianism has a relational obligation to care for the patient. But in Confucianism “care” is not merely physical — it is moral and spiritual as well (and inseparably so). As a result, the doctor would be forced to reject the patient’s request for elective surgery.

One common complaint here is this: the patient is autonomous, and has freely elected to have the surgery. As a result, the doctor has no ethical right to refuse the patient. From the Confucian perspective, however, ‘autonomy’ seen in this light is not a consideration that trumps others. If anything, it is the relational rights that belong to the relationship itself that matter; and this is the ‘right’ for cultivation and excellence. This more all-encompassing right extends beyond the patient and to those with whom the patient is related. They too, from the Confucian doctor’s perspective, have a stake in the outcome of this decision. As such, the doctor does not attend only to the patient’s wishes, but to the larger health of the relationships out of which the patient is constructed.

Dr. Ray needs to chill with the karate and pick up the Analects. Although, on the other hand, it would mean a serious career change for him, unless he was willing to go into reconstructive surgery, which would be an whole different subject, I’d argue.

That was a pretty quickly written post, likely unclear in places. I welcome comments!


2 Responses

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  1. Alexus McLeod said, on October 9, 2007 at 4:26 am

    Hi Chris–
    this seems right to me. A relevant passage is Analects 1.3: “Eloquent words and a commanding visage do not often (indicate one as) ren.” Insofar as what the doc is doing is giving people a “commanding visage”, then what he’s doing is at least indifferent to ren. But, as you suggest, it’s even inimical to ren, as it cultivates the notion that one’s “visage” is an important part of what one ought to cultivate. Confucius seems to say that not only is it unimportant, but that we can easily spot someone who is not ren by noting their concern with it.
    Great blog, by the way! Good to see a fellow Confucian UConn-er! I’m working on my dissertation there on Confucius and virtue ethics with Joel Kupperman right now.

  2. adamqp said, on October 10, 2007 at 3:47 am

    I see this issue somewhat differently from the Confucian perspective, since it seems to me that even if cosmetic surgery isn’t the best path to virtue, it would at best be an amoral practice as opposed to an immoral or unethical one. But that’s a much bigger topic in general.

    The particular problem that I’ve been thinking about with this (very good) post, is in people’s motivations for getting cosmetic surgery. We like to think that body-modification, cosmetic surgery, and such practices are about showing off for other people and getting them to like us, but it may just as often (if not more often) be the case that the real motivation is that people who seek out such practices are unhappy with themselves. That is, the people they are seeking recogniton and validation from are actually themselves. Given that a principal obstacle to many people’s having compassion is an uncomfortableness with compassion for oneself, perhaps there is something slightly noble in the desire for cosmetic surgery from a certain angle.

    The fact is, of course, that people who seek validation from themselves in this way often don’t get it, and can be propelled to Michael Jackson-style extremes, so there’s an error in judgment about the means to being able to like oneself. But since seeking recognition from others is usually only part of the problem, perhaps it’s not that cosmetic surgery is anti-jen so much as people who are not living excellently are more inclined towards trying badly to get to jen make use of cosmetic surgery.

    I guess what I’m saying is that cosmetic surgery seems to be a symptom of living without jen (of pettiness) rather than the cause of the pettiness, and if so then it’s hard to be too awfully down on it.

    And then there’s a deeper question: can one go from subtle self-loathing straight to “jen”, or might it sometimes be necessary to seek out recognition from others in order to boost one’s self image to where one has a chance of having compassion for others?

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