A Ku Indeed!

Would Confucius Waterboard?

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Ethics, Politics by Chris on February 9, 2008

Well, it’s now official. We, as in the United States, torture waterboard people. Not only that, but we plan to continue to do it if the situation calls for it. To me, this is a simple case — waterboarding is torture. But although there’s plenty more that could be said about that on its own terms, I was trying to think about this in terms of Confucianism: would Confucius waterboard someone, if the situation was “appropriate”? Is torturing consistent with Confucianism?

I must be honest — I’m not positive that I know a clear-cut answer to the question (which should not be surprising, I suppose, given Confucius’ claim at 4.10 not to be “for or against” anything in advance, but rather allowing for the situation to reveal what is and isn’t appropriate).

But still, even Aristotle, a fellow virtue ethicist, said that some things could be ruled out  as vicious tout court. As Aristotle put it, there are no “moderate adulterers” (he had a few other examples, but they aren’t coming to mind). Does torture fall into this category of “vicious tout court” for a Confucian? Or would it always “depend”?

Moreover, what kind of an ethical analysis would a Confucian suggest that we use? Does the virtue of the action “depend” on the kinds of results that the X act would produce, surrendering virtue to consequentialism? Or would he suggest that torturing is a violation of an essence of humanity, leaning towards a form of deontology?

What would the virtuous agent say in such a case? How would they begin to assess? Where should we begin with this kind of analysis? I’m curious to hear what “starting assumptions” people want to toss into the pot as places where a Confucian analysis of the problem needs to start.

(By the way, there’s a piece on the US decision to embrace waterboarding here in the Washington Post. A good read. Froomkin is hardly an unbiased source, but then again, you should always go do your own due diligence. )


9 Responses

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  1. Devil's Advocate said, on February 9, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    On this the following bon mots come to mind:

    “It is better to be feared than loved, more prudent to be cruel than compassionate.”
    The Prince

    “War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.”
    On War

    Here is some of the aforementioned diligence…



  2. Mark said, on February 9, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    If we’re talking about virtues, I don’t think it’s possible to justify torture. There are surely better, less obscene, less abusive ways to deal with people than torturing them, and if a person is truly virtuous their phronesis would help them reveal another solution. That’s just my initial thoughts though.

  3. eyeingtenure said, on February 9, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    Virtues and politics don’t mix.

  4. Manyul Im said, on February 9, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    Chris, one question Confucius or Mencius might ask is, what should we think of the people who are tortured? Have they somehow lost their status as human beings because they’ve failed somehow to live up to that status. “Human” does not seem merely to be a biological category for Confucians; you have to live up to certain standards to deserve to be called by that name. So, I’m with you on the point that the answer isn’t so simple.

    By the way, there is an interpretation of Mencius by James Behuniak in his book *Mencius on Learning to be Human* that takes this line and actually applies it to the hijackers of the planes on 9/11. In his afterword, Behuniak wonders aloud if we should consider those hijackers to be human. So you can see that this way of thinking could have its followers.

    That said, I think there might be further considerations for a Confucian. For example, one might wonder what the torturer expresses in his actions–are they the actions of a gentleman? (Or would the torture be relegated to a lower class of person in the same way that the gentleman relegates butchering to others?). What would the policy of allowing torture express? Probably not benevolence.

    My own inclination is like yet a third Confucian response–we should look within and ask, “What have we done wrong so that things have come to this?”

  5. Manyul Im said, on February 10, 2008 at 12:04 am

    Oh, a fourth Confucian angle: “Do not torture others if you would not want others to torture you.” This is/was the official John McCain “straight-talk”; then he didn’t really walk the walk against the administration.

  6. Chris said, on February 10, 2008 at 9:36 am


    Good points. On Behunkiah and Mencius, I can see this interpretation, at least insofar as Mencius is willing to suggest that, say, murdering the guy on the throne isn’t really regicide if that guy doesn’t fit at least some chunk of a relevant cluster concept for the “the King of Lu” (say). I suppose a similar suggestion could be made for “human.”

    Similarly, for Confucius being human does seem to be a success term, a verb or event of sorts as opposed to a substance. Still, I would think that the cluster concept for human (for Confucius) is pretty wide (not sure about Mencius), making it hard for me to believe that Confucius would ever think of any particular person as not human (unless, say, they were raised by wolves on a desert island, or something of that sort). So I have a hard time believing he’d make that kind of Mencian jump (I can imagine Mencius, like the “regicide” saying “tortured a human? what human? Where? And where there’s no human, there’s no torture.”

    I think you are right (I suspect) that it should come down to what kind of character it reflects. It seems not to be benevolence, I agree. Ah, but…well, maybe. There are some odd cases in the Analects. Kuan Chung for one comes to mind. I realize this is an odd (and controversial) case in the Analects, but here, if the Master is actually praising him (the disciples surely scratch their heads on this one), it seems as if he’s suggesting a utilitarian argument, one that assumes that Kuan’s virtue is expressed by his desire to preserve the Way, even at the cost of his own dignity.

    Again, I’m just not sure how to answer the question. Although again I think the Kuan Chung passage is hard to get your finger on, it makes me wonder: is Confucius here suggesting that there is a tragic dimension of virtue at times? Perhaps Chung found himself in a tragic situation where virtue cannot provide a path where one can (a) do what is appropriate and (b) emerge unscathed in terms of the overall excellence of one’s own life. I don’t know. If so, perhaps the “ticking bomb” scenario might fit this model. Virtue may require one to waterboard, but at the same time, there’s no way that the person doing the waterboarding can escape the situation (no matter what they do) with their own arete (in the sense of the wholeness of their life) intact.

    On McCain: well put. I think that at least one thing is right here: prima facie, “shu” is exactly what the Master would require us to think in terms of. Which, until Bush, was exactly the way we did in fact think of it!

    Also – you’re right on target when you point out that the self-critical element would be a necessary part of the procedure of thinking the situation through. “What did we do to get in this spot?” is essential. Speaking in terms of current events, clearly this Confucian element to assessing situations is not popular politically (or even culturally).

  7. Million said, on February 10, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Instead of saying that Confucius would or wouldn’t condone waterboarding, I think it’s more appropriate to say he wouldn’t condone it given the present circumstances. Advocates of torture almost *always* assume that it can lead to “X” consequences [I.E. A criminal confession]. The issue here is twofold: 1) This argument is not always true. 2) This is a consequentalist argument.

    Historians have – more or less – chalked up the European “witch hunts” to sensationalism fed through the sanctioned use of torture. Confessions received under duress almost always create an environment of fear, suspicion, and accusation. Not surprisingly this seems to be the same environment that post 9-11 fears of international terrorism have developed in.

    While there are arguments made about torture (and it’s consequences) it is also worth pointing out that these same ones stem from impact on a personal level.

    Really. What trait is admirable that causes a person to half-down someone? What characteristic is positive when seeing much less hearing about waterboarding? Even half-heartedly? Confucius repeatedly hammers home “that it is right to learn.” Actively participating in an action that has historically been shown inhumane and ineffective at best displays an unwillingness to adhere to “the rites;” in this case national and international tradition regarding torture.

    We have these traditions for a reason.

    Maybe in some extreme cases torture is permissible, but I fail to see how Confucius would condone it as a matter of public policy (i.e. present circumstances).

  8. Chris said, on February 10, 2008 at 9:28 pm


    I certainly agree with you on one thing — waterboarding as a matter of public policy wouldn’t be acceptable for Confucius. I don’t doubt that for a second.

    I’m more concerned about the old “ticking bomb” scenario. And I do agree with you about the actual empirical evidence that torture doesn’t yield reliable information anyway, so it hardly seems justifiable even on pragmatic grounds.

    But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it did yield reliable information. Or perhaps even that there was no data at the time of the incident suggesting that it was ineffective.

    What then (for the Confucian)?

  9. Million said, on February 14, 2008 at 2:51 pm


    I thought about the torture thing. Intuitively, there seems to be an opening in Confucianism providing:

    1) It’s not instutionalized.
    2) It has been proven to yield information (or there is a lack thereof) as you hypothesized.

    I can’t imagine this opening being very big though and certainly not “moral.” If anything, torture might be able to be considered preferable (to alternatives) but nothing else. [We read about how there can be lose-lose situations in VE during that independent study class. My suspiction is that torture cases belong somewhere in this “group.”]

    Here’s why I don’t think torture can be moral.

    It violates the Golden Rule. “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” – Analects XV.24 The benevolant man – or an exemplar – would never wish to be tortured (there woulden’t be a need), so it shoulden’t be done to others. Of course, this assumes a harmonious state that we all fall short of.

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