A Ku Indeed!

Family, Schmamily

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, virtue ethics by Chris on July 8, 2008

One question that frequently comes up in Confucian scholarship is the role of the family. Most commentators are agreed (though not all to the same degree) that the family is the center of Confucian philosophy, but not all agree about the status of that role. For some it is more important than others, some seeing it as a replaceable aspect of the philosophy, and others seeing it as necessary.

At least one thing is clear — the reason for the centrality to the philosophy. It is generally agreed that it is within the family that a person begins to cultivate jen. One does this, presumably, by seeing the lines between oneself and the others within that family relationship as blurred to some extent. You do not see yourself as “a self” first and then a member of the family; instead, you learn to see yourself as a son or a daughter first (in that relationship, specifically). Along with this relational blurring comes not only the role responsibilities that are correlated to being a son or a father (say), but also the desire and feeling to fulfill them. In the end, when one realizes one’s role relational responsibilities, it is not merely a cognitive affair, but also an emotional and desire-based affair as well (you don’t just ‘recognize’ that you should X, you feel a pull towards X, a desire for X, you identify with X, and so on).

Typically, these connections, taken together, can be seen as a central aspect of what it means to cultivate jen in one’s life. In a way, one cultivates one’s capacity to love or to be “benevolent” within the space of one’s own personhood. As I take it, another part of what this involves is the capacity to see one’s selfhood as also falling (within certain situations) within different types of relational hierarchies. In the family, for instance, one learns that being a son means being on the beneficiary side of things (as opposed to the benefactor, one must defer as opposed to lead); as a result, one cultivates the capacity for loyalty, for instance. As well, one learns to treat sisters and brothers in a way that expresses basic equality.

In the end, the Confucian appears to believe that what is required here is the capacity to not only cultivate those dispositions or capacities or behaviors (and sensitivity to various hierarchical structures), but also to then learn to extend those capacities outward, beyond the family. So one should seek to further extend one’s benevolence to friends, to coworkers, to a boss, to a worker, to one’s fellow citizens, and so on.

My question is about the status of the role the family plays in all of this. Is the family an instrumental means in this schema (towards the cultivation of the end of jen)? Or is acquiring jen within a family structure necessary towards that aim? In addition — because of course it could be necessary but not a constitutive part of jen, is the cultivation of good family relationships a part of what it means to be a jen person?  Essentially — is it possible to learn these things, and to cultivate these very important capacities and behaviors outside the family? And is jen definable independently of family?

On the question of the necessity of family, I recall in Hall and Ames Thinking Through Confucius that there was a throw-away comment at some point where they suggested that the family — at least as it is currently understood — is not necessary. Something, they thought, was required that would play that role, but they felt that the current way that family is understood could undergo pretty radical revisions and still function in the way that Confucius intended. Of course, no doubt, the “family” structure of Confucius’ time must have been remarkably different than the family structure of today. I don’t know enough about the family structure of ancient China, but it is plausible to me that Confucius would have a difficult time seeing the nuclear family as the definition of “family.” So it’s possible that Confucius would not see our family structure as a recognizable “family structure” — and so possibly not how he envisioned the environment for the initial cultivation of jen.

In light of this, I wonder how far we can push the notion of family and still keep the basic structure required (say) to meet the goals of Confucian philosophy. What are the limits? Clearly this is relevant to today’s debates about gay marriage, for instance, or arguments about the “completeness” of the single parent household. I’m inclined not to see the problem at least on this level; I see no reason why a gay parenting arrangement in any way would disrupt the cultivation of jen within that family. But maybe not? But if so, just how much further can the family be pushed?

10 Responses

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  1. Manyul Im said, on July 8, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Hi Chris; I see you are enjoying the seminar. Here is a long discussion of this topic on my blog : http://manyulim.wordpress.com/2008/03/21/value-of-family-in-confucianism/
    Comments 54 and onward address some textual (from Analects) and intertextual (with the Mozi) examples that might help.

    Personally, I’m not very convinced that the value of family is central or exclusive to Confucianism in the early Chinese milieu.

  2. Chris said, on July 8, 2008 at 5:06 pm


    I don’t have the time at the moment to read through those comments (jeez — there’s quite a few, eh?). But reading through your initial post, I have a few questions (hopefully I’m not repeating something that comes up in the comments) about your three hypotheses:

    On (1): I realize there’s text deep in the comments, so I’ll need to check those later. But I’m not sure I agree that the junzi ideal is an individualistic good apart from the relationships the person is a part of. My impression is that if Confucius is a eudaimonist, say, and virtues benefit their possessor, then this is meant in a larger sense of “the self of the possessor” — and as a result the notion of the good life would be defined relationally, not individualistically.

    Also, when you say that “the character of the junzi isn’t further specified according to its embodiment in family roles” I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. I’m not sure why family being essential to the theory requires a further specification of the junzi ideal within that framework. Could be that I’m just not following you here. It could that how “being a junzi” plays out in the family is no different from the way it plays out in other relationships; still, the family could be of primary value due to its role in the development of the psychological or social features, dispositions, emotions (or whatever) that being a junzi requires.

    Your hypotheses (2) and (3) seem pretty similar. To be honest, I don’t have any principled reason to disagree with you. As I noted in my own post, I’m not sure what exactly “family” would actually mean in the early texts. Just how extended is the family in such a time? Clearly this can’t just be nuclear, but I’m not sure how big it should get either.

  3. Manyul Im said, on July 10, 2008 at 4:41 am

    Hey Chris; good questions. I think what you say–that “the family could be of primary value due to its role in the development of the psychological or social features, dispositions, emotions (or whatever) that being a junzi requires”–actually would indicate what I would consider an instrumental role for family. That would contrast with what I would consider some kind of primary value that it might have, for example, that the junzi really has value for the sake of his contribution to establishing good families. That relationship would make the junzi’s character instrumental to furthering some other end. As you’ve stated it, it would be the other way around. And to that extent, I would see the instrumental value of family life (for the sake of producing junzis) to be consistent with my thesis that the family does not have primary value.

    I agree that it is unclear how much is covered by *jia* 家, particularly since it comes to be used as something like “school of thought” or “philosophical faction” by and by. Maybe the latter is just parasitic on jia’s meaning as “clan.” It might be that who is in one’s “clan” emcompasses more than merely blood and marriage relationships, in which case the term might mean something like “community.” That’s what makes me think that there is something here that morphs easily into “civil society” gradually.

    Mencius 6A4 is an interesting case because it seems to matter whether someone is related by blood:

    Gao said, ‘There is my younger brother; I love him. But the younger brother of a man of Qin I do not love: that is, the feeling is determined by myself, and therefore I say that benevolence is internal. On the other hand, I give honour to an old man of Chu, and I also give honour to an old man of my own people: that is, the feeling is determined by the age, and therefore I say that righteousness is external.’

    Mencius answered him, ‘Our enjoyment of meat roasted by a man of Qin does not differ from our enjoyment of meat roasted by ourselves. Thus, what you insist on takes place also in the case of such things, and will you say likewise that our enjoyment of a roast is external?’

    I know the passage as a whole is problematic and hard to interpret, but it seems like Mencius is acknowledging, or rather arguing, to Gao that between ren and yi, the people who “matter” morally speaking, depend on the type of relationships that evoke certain kinds of natural feelings in us. But that isn’t restricted to family relationships. So again, the family relationships may matter as one type of relationship among others; that seems to make them less than primary.

    If this seems a bit rambly, it’s because I’m doing this at 6:30 a.m. after my two-year-old daughter woke me up to “play” at 6:00. I can’t really say to her: “Hey, this is summer; I shouldn’t have to get up until everyone else is at work!” (I’m sure those at work who are reading this blog–get back to work!–have no sympathy…)

  4. Manyul Im said, on July 10, 2008 at 5:11 am

    I should add 6A5 of Menicus to this. There, the argument again seems to be that there is a range of people who matter based on ren and yi, that the range is determined by the feelings that we naturally have, and that those feelings are not merely those related to family. Gao and his followers seem more invested than Mencius in these passages in the idea that family affection is natural and that other forms of ethical regard must have some “external” (wai 外) source.

  5. Chris said, on July 10, 2008 at 10:46 am


    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I want to sit on it for a bit to give me a chance to think through it and the Mencius passages. I’ll post a response as soon as I’ve done that.

    On a quick note, though: (a) concerning your daughter, one of the people in my “house” was amazed that I get up every morning at 6am (I hit the track and gym first thing). It was pretty obvious that the person didn’t have little kids. My daughter (now 3) comes in our room every morning, at 6am on the nose, and demands that we get up and entertain her. She has little patience for our autonomy, or our beauty sleep needs. 🙂

    Also, (b) if you are coming later on to the Sim talk, Alexus and I plan to go out and get a few beers afterwards. I’m not sure if you’ve planned to go out to dinner with Sim or if you have other things arranged, but in any case I figured I’d extend an invitation.

  6. Chris said, on July 11, 2008 at 7:22 pm


    Some thoughts.

    1. I think I need to get a better sense of what you’re meaning here by “primary value.” But in the meantime, let me clarify my own position, which may include rethinking or rewording some things I’ve said.

    In my own sense of the “role” of family in the work, it is instrumental only insofar as it (the family) is a means to an end of producing good character, or junzi. However, I want to qualify “instrumental” because this is often seen as another term for “independent of” – for I suspect that in the work(s) the family structure is a necessary condition for the production of such persons/characters.

    When I said earlier that junzi should not be seen as an individualistic ideal, I think I implied that its function (the junzi’s) was to perfect (say) the family, as if that were the end. I meant to make a similar point, but towards a wider set of relationships. So, the possibility for junzi emerges from the relationships within the family, and should lead to the creation of persons who can “extend” the dispositions/benevolence they cultivate in the family into their other, more distant relationships.

    2. Thus, when I say “primary value” I don’t mean to suggest a point which appears (possibly) contradicted by 6A4 and 5, namely that family must always be given preference over other more distant relationships. It’s rather a question about the origin or source of the benevolence that characterizes the eventually successful junzi. Perhaps “original value” would be more appropriate, given that “primary” has other connotations.

    Also, on 6A4 and 5. These are very interesting passages in Mencius, and I’ll be honest I’m not precisely sure what to do with them (especially 6A4). A guess: Gao seems to be suggesting that ren stems from a natural feeling, where as yi is more of a matter of performing certain behaviors (perhaps even without feeling) in response to certain external situational factors (whiteness, elderness, etc). Further, he seems to want to argue that family relationships are related to the internality of ren, whereas other ones are related to yi (and so are external). I’m sure that just scratches the surface – these are difficult puzzles to sort out.

    Relating this to our question, though, I think my response would be that I don’t think either passage disrupts the view I’m pushing above about “original value.” It could well be the case that there is no such “relational” demarcation between internal and external such as Gao pushes. Gao wants to make family affection different in kind in its expression from other types of ethical regard. I’m not sure I want to say that – I’d rather want to suggest that (a) the character of the junzi requires an original source of affection that is different from those of other ethical relationships. It could be that ethical regard for a parent and ethical regard for a friend are both loving, but one is grounded ultimately in something different, and that (b) the type of love specific to friendship would not be sufficient (from the outset) for the cultivation of the junzi.

    At this point I am speculating, but here’s a shot at a possible filling out of this schema: it could be that the type of “original” source of love created in the family is one based on a shared sense of identity and history. I am a Panza, much as my family members are, and much the same as my Panza “clan” is. This sense of overlapping identity, I think, yields some pretty powerful connections, and as a result, some pretty powerful resultant expressions of love.

    In the sense of the friend, this is not the case. Friendships seem to be based (many times) on shared ends, not shared identities. Still, shared ends and projects build strong connections, though connections weaker than those in the family. Love is still present, just as is in the family, but its origin is based on sharing as opposed to identity.
    I suppose from here I would have to argue – though I’m not ready to do so yet! – that connections based on shared ends is not powerful enough (on their own) to generate the kinds of emotional resources or dispositions required for the junzi (and so cannot function as the “original” value), whereas those of identity can (and must).

    I have a suspicion that I may have tripped over myself in there somewhere, but I’m not sure where. 😉

    (Also, quick note — the sense of “identity” I am suggesting is formed in the family could, I have no doubt, be created in a number of differently organized structures, the nuclear family, the clan, etc — here it would look as if “family” is not necessarily a biological phenomenon, but rather seems to refer to historical connection.)

  7. Manyul Im said, on July 12, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Hey Chris,

    Let’s see. By “primary” I guess I mean having value in the following two ways; both (1) having intrinsic value, and (2) being at least one of the things, if not the only thing, whose value is the basis for other things being derivatively valuable. So, for example, if the value of family relationships were primary in this sense, other things such as the way the kingdom is ruled, the type of ruler in power, or the sort of education one receives might all be held valuable insofar as they contribute to the strengthening and expression of those family bonds.

    So to the extent that the family is regarded as having value for providing a person with the right development in order to become junzi-like (which seems to be where your reading is headed) or sage-like, that value seems derivative rather than primary. Likewise, if the value of family relationships is that they help to *model* the correct ruler-subject, subject-ruler, subject-subject relationships, that seems to diminish the family relationships’ status as having primary value.

    I think someone, perhaps you, will say that this is too stringent, that in fact the value of family can be both intrinsic and instrumental to producing the those other things of value–and that the latter does not render family relationships merely derivative. Fair enough; nonetheless there is this stereotypical view of Confucianism (that scholars of China also repeat as if undeniably true) as championing or holding central the value of family relationships; and I wonder if that is a distortion–that in fact the value of the family is one among many other equally valued relationships without a “center” among them.

    I haven’t addressed all your comments, but unlike Bill I can’t keep too many points in my head at once; so I’ll stop there.

  8. Bill Haines said, on July 12, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    I use a computer!

    I wonder whether the image of centrality (concentric ripples etc) in the secondary literature is meant mainly not to express the idea that the value of social and political relations in general (politics for short) is derivative from the value of family relations, but rather to express the idea that understanding and developing proper family relationships is a necessary step toward, and necessary continuing support for, understanding and developing proper political relationships.

    I think we don’t find that sort of idea ascribed to Confucius in the Analects, but I think we do find versions of it in Youzi (1.2), Mencius (eg 4A12), and some other early texts. (Some of these texts (eg 4A12) seem to find even more basic roots or centers within the individual.) I agree with Chris that calling such a relation “instrumental” is a little misleading because it suggests the ready possibility of alternative instruments.

    I think Youzi and Mencius take the idea to support the view that it’s hard to have good reason to choose political values over family values, because skimping on family values tends to ruin the quality of one’s political participation. Thus in a way what they’re saying is that family trumps politics because of the way (some of) the value of family is derivative from the value of politics!

  9. Chris said, on July 13, 2008 at 4:51 am


    I like the way Bill puts it in his first paragraph; this, if I understand him right, gets at what I was arguing in the bottom part of my last post. In my view, to call the family the “original” (as opposed to primary, which as I’ve said is loaded) value is just to make that claim about necessary origins.

    But I think one shouldn’t want to stop there: one shouldn’t say “there is only one way to produce the junzi, this is the family, and once the family has accomplished this, we’re done.” I say this because it appears to me that being a junzi requires the cultivation of those later more extended relationships.

    Which brings me to your claims regarding value: first, if I have you right, you seem to be suggesting that the family is derivative if it is used to produce just the right political and social structures.

    I’m not sure, but I wonder if this requires smuggling in something here about independence regarding the two entities in question. Surely, if X is meant as the means towards Y, and X and Y are independent, then X’s value is merely derivative and not primary in your sense. But what if X is constitutive of Y where Y is seen as merely an extension of what X is?

    In this case, if it is the case that political and social structures are seen as proper extensions of the family relationship, and if family is the only way towards proper politics, then it would seem odd to say that the value of family is “derivative”.

    I’m trying to think of a different example that works cleanly. Perhaps self-development? The value of early psychological development in an individual is surely necessary (constitutive) to later functioning as an adult, but this doesn’t make that early development of derivative value, given its presence within the fully functioning adult.

    Perhaps the relationship between Aristotelean virtue and eudaimonia (understood as activity) is another example, I’m not sure.

    In any case, I’m not sure if this route works — it was a thought that occurred to me just now as I was typing the earlier part of the response.

    By the way, computer or no computer, Bill seems to remember not only all the points made in a post, but also all the points you’ve made in earlier posts and in *others* posts, many of which you’ve long since forgotten. 🙂

  10. Adam said, on July 14, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I don’t really know enough about Confucius to make useful comments on this post. But if anyone’s writing on this, we’d love to have you submit a paper to a conference I’m helping to organize on the ethics of the family. Check out the call for papers. It’s being run through the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum.

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