A Ku Indeed!

Action Guidance and Assessment in Mencius 1A7

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Mencius by Chris on July 15, 2008

Right at the start of the Mencius, story 1A7 brings to light, I think, some very interesting questions concerning how we should understand the notion of “right” action. Particularly, 1A7 makes me wonder whether, for Mencius, action “assessment” (what is appropriate or Yi) and action “guidance” come apart, or whether they should be closely aligned (if not identical). Towards the end I speculate whether Mencius and Confucius wind up differing on this question. Below I’ll try to puzzle out my thoughts on this. It’s a meandering post, so bear with me.

Passage 1A7 is, for those who have not read it, the famous passage where King Hsuan, upon noticing that an ox is about to be sacrificed (to the great pain of the ox), claims that he cannot bear it and instead spares the animal, instead having a sheep sacrificed somewhere else (out of sight). The story serves as a backdrop for a point Mencius wants to make. Specifically, the King has asked Mencius whether he can be a good King, and if so, how to go about doing so. Mencius’ reply is that the story regarding the ox shows that he can be, and it also shows him the method of how to do so.

Being a good King, Mencius seems to suggest, involves the capacity to “extend” one’s natural capacity for benevolence to one’s people. In this case, the King clearly still has the natural capacity (evidenced by his inability to bear the suffering of the ox). So all he needs to do is to learn to extend that natural emotive capacity to his people, and he will be a good King (he would “allow the benefits of his government to reach the people,” Mencius says).

Alright, that’s clear enough. But what Mencius does not say here is that being a good King requires that Hsuan feel a certain way towards his people. What he says is that he needs to learn to do what the extension of his natural capacity for benevolence would reveal to him as needing to be done. It is because of this that I wonder if “guidance” and “assessment” might be coming apart here. Here’s what I mean:

Guidance. It looks as if what Mencius is saying is that if you learn to extend your empathy outwards, it will tell you what to do. So in this case, perhaps Hsuan can learn that his people are in need, and that his capacity for benevolence dictates that he ought to “allow the benefits of the government to reach the people.” If this is right, then it looks like:

X is Y’s moral obligation iff X is the object of X’s ideally developed powers of empathetic extension.

So, understood in this way, X’s moral duties are set by what his empathy would point him towards, if it were fully developed or extended in the way Mencius suggests.

So far, so good. So King Hsuan has a moral obligation to help his people, and this seems to be set by what an “ideal empathic agent” would see as salient in that situation.

Good, but King Hsuan is not quite at the point here he can actually feel the way that he would if he embodied that empathy in his heart/mind. In other words, he may be able to “see” that this is what he should do (maybe here a bit with Mencius’ prodding), but because he’s not used to doing it, he certainly won’t feel the right way when he does do it (assuming he does).

Yet: Mencius says that this is what he needs to do to be “a good King.” What this starts to look like is this: being a good King (or being a good __fill in social relation here__) depends on doing what the ideal empathic agent would do in that circumstance. It does not rely on feeling the right way; as such, I am tempted to think that Mencius is suggesting here that fulfilling what it means to lie at the intersection of a social relationship is set by the obligations dictated by an ideal empathic agent.

My intuition is that this is not what Confucius says. So, in this case, think of LY 2.7; the son who cares for his parents from the wrong motive is not acting as a son, and as a result cannot possibly be exemplifying Yi, or what is appropriate (I draw this from an implied argument: Confucius says that such a person doesn’t have his parents as the target of his action because his motive is wrong; consequently, I am assuming that Confucius also thinks that the agent in such a circumstance also loses the self-referential targeting – the agent doesn’t act as a son).

Note that I am not saying that Confucius thinks the son doesn’t have an obligation to help the parent. He does. But to do it from the wrong motive is still inappropriate in that it does not fulfill the social targeting I just mentioned. So guidance and “appropriateness” come apart for Confucius.

What I’m wondering here is whether they come apart for Mencius too. If they do not, then there’s a substantial difference between Mencius and Confucius on this problem.

Perhaps a dilemma can be set up to “encapsulate” the issue. When Mencius says “hence your failure to become a true King is due to a refusal to act, not an inability to act” he can mean:

(a) that “inability” refers to his inability to feel the right way. But the King is unable, at this time, to feel the right way. So if this is the reading, there’s an “ought/can” violation here.


(b) “inability” refers to the King’s ability to act the right way, the way that the ideal empathic agent would. If this is the reading, Mencius avoids the “ought/can” problem, but winds up differing from Confucius on what it would mean to properly instantiate a social relationship (social targeting would not be dictated in part by one’s proper motive, as Confucius might be suggesting in LY 2:7).

That’s it. A meandering post for sure.


5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Stephen C. Walker said, on July 15, 2008 at 11:43 pm

    My reading of Mengzi differs from yours on a few counts.

    The rhetorical context of 1A7 militates against its being a transparent discussion of moral theory. Mengzi is not portrayed as lecturing a student on how to become an ideal moral agent (say, a sage); rather, he is lecturing a king on how to enact benevolent government. Given how much Mengzi stresses effecting actual changes in the sociopolitical world–in all those governmentally-oriented passages that virtue theory-leaning readers have put at the periphery of their concerns–I think it is quite reasonable to suppose that he didn’t expect to turn king Xuan into a sage with this exchange, nor did he necessarily think it wise to talk to Xuan the way he would talk to a student…or anybody else not in a position to dismiss or kill him if displeased. (I am of course talking about the character Mengzi, not the historical Mengzi; I am using the principle of charity in interpreting what Warring States readers would consider realistic behavior. He does call the king out more directly a couple of times, but surely he’s sensitive to the king’s position relative to his own.) As I read it, Mengzi is engaging in a complex rhetorical attempt to get the king to take seriously his own feelings (vividly), the effects his own action might have (imaginatively), and so forth. He’s trying to get the king to admit that he has no excuse not to enact benevolent government, and also trying to invite him towards it by showing him that it would in fact please his heart.

    In general I am skeptical of readings that take Mengzi to believe that actions have positive moral status only when properly motivated, or owing to some other facts about the agent’s nature and motivations. (contra e.g. Liu Xiusheng.) Some comments on Dan Robins’ Mengzi post chez Manyul brought out what I take to be Mengzi’s *ultimate* commitment, at least where political disputation is concerned: actions are morally good iff they benefit the populace. Mengzi nowhere even remotely formulates something like “X is Y’s moral obligation iff X is the object of X’s ideally developed powers of empathetic extension”, if that definition is considered to “set” (your terminology) or “ground” what counts as moral obligation. Facts about human nature enable people to know what is right and to do it, as well as to enjoy it and find solace in it. But such facts are not what ground the norms in question. It seems to me that, had Mengzi paused from his conventional modes of discourse to speculate on the grounds of moral norms, he would answer in terms of some combination of (a) tianming, (b) human well-being, where a minimal conception would be sustainable survivability for the populace, and a maximal conception some version of eudaimonia for which achievement of the minimal conception is necessary but not sufficient.

    In short, as addressing your final point, I do not believe that Kongzi and Mengzi differ appreciably regarding the relevance of motivation for evaluation of moral actions. They think it is better to be motivated, and that is probably what the sage would be like…but that does not mean that encratic or otherwise undermotivated actions would meet their scorn. Mengzi would never criticize King Xuan for “pulling on his sprouts”, if a little tugging could save thousands of lives.

  2. Chris said, on July 16, 2008 at 4:40 am

    Hi Stephen (hey, didn’t we just become Facebook friends?) —

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to reply – I appreciate it.

    First, I should point out that this is one of those “low confidence” posts where I’m not sure that I’m right at all, but something nonetheless caught my eye in the passage. In that spirit, and so just to push that, I’ll continue here:

    1. I’m in agreement on the first big paragraph, especially the bottom part.

    2. Paragraph two: could you point out a few passages where you think it is true that Mencius accords positive moral status to an action X where that act is not properly motivated (also perhaps in light of what I say below at the bottom of this post)? I’m not asking here to challenge your reading — but rather because I’m not as familiar with the text as I am with the Analects (thanks in advance).

    3. (mid para 2): I won’t argue that Mencius does explicitly formulate any such doctrine (about ideal empathic agents). Instead, I was rather speculating about what Mencius’ claim might amount to in the end. So in the case of the King, it’s clear that in 1A7 he doesn’t know (as of yet) what his moral obligations are. Mencius is trying, as I take it, to show him the path (via extension) that would allow him to gain access to what those obligations would turn out to be.

    Here’s where my speculation is coming from: if it is true that the King would see (given the proper extension of his heart of benevolence to the situation at hand regarding his people) that he ought to X in that situation (certain features of the situation would become immediately salient to him), then it looks to me as if those obligations are set given some (implicit) ideal empathic agent, where this just means what the agent would recognize as a moral obligation, if his/her duan were properly developed.

    3. On your last paragraph – I think I agree and don’t agree. I agree with you (that such acts — in 1A7 helping the people, in 2.7 caring for parents — would not meet their scorn), I wonder if there are two senses in which this can be true. In the first sense, the actions performed suggest outwardly that one’s moral obligations are fulfilled. Xuan does what he is obligated to do if he helps his people (and a son does what he is obligated to do if he helps his parents). So on this score, there’s no reason for scorn from C or M towards these agents.

    But my worry is indeed about motivation, and whether this feature of moral behavior (if it is such a feature) points not to obligation, but rather to something else. I’m not sure what to call it, whether it be action “assessment” or what have you. It would be something analogous to “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons” where “right thing” is what I’m calling obligation and “wrong reasons” would refer to action assessment (above I speculated whether this would pertain to what is yi in the situation, but I am not sure).

    At the very least, in the case of moral education, such a situation would likely be true most of the time when working with a student (thinking of Aristotle here — do virtuous acts to become virtuous). Not something to dissuade a person from, at least while they are learning, but at the same time not the ideal case when referring to one’s moral development.

    What do you think?

  3. Stephen C. Walker said, on July 16, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Clearly the problem at issue is what “positive moral status” amounts to. This is not a tradition where performing certain acts, regardless of your motivations, will get you all the way home. I’ve never gotten the impression that *purely* act-evaluative moral theories have flourished in any cultural environment, barring admittedly mainstream versions of deontology and consequentialism. As far as I can see, the centrality of “obligation” to ethical theory has gone hand-in-hand with the evaluation of acts to the exclusion of character. “Obligation” invites piecemeal construal, whereby the moral agent has to worry about making certain right decisions as they arise. The early Confucians want you to make all the right decisions as well, but relative to prevailing 20th century ethicists they focus much more on habit and the shaping of dispositions. I’m sure I don’t need to say any of this, since it’s old hat to you, but I do it to stress a point relevant to this post: Kongzi and Mengzi never develop a concept of the “obligation” to perform certain acts as against some value-added “assessment” of the agent’s motivational state. They might have articulated it when pressed, but it does not appear to drive anything significant in their moral reflection. Rather than a split of this kind, they envision a moral life wherein agents make morally significant decisions to act, but spend most of their time doing much less “big-moment” things like cultivating their habits and sensibilities to ensure that the decision-making process goes smoothly, not to say automatically. (I’ll leave that to Zhuang and Xun.) Both these aspects of the moral life are important, BUT in the absence of any theory like deontology or consequentialism, Kongzi and Mengzi have no act-evaluative theory against which to react. Hence the question of whether one is *obligated* to be motivated in a certain way does not arise for them, as it does for certain 20th-century character ethicists.

    Nivison’s initial probing of Mengzi as a virtue ethicist derived from Mengzi’s view that there is *something* deficient about improperly motivated action, but I think Nivison pushed this view too far (tui, to use a Mengzian expression). The entire contemporary literature on 1A7 draws on Nivison’s reading Mengzi to demand a quite substantial motivational change in King Xuan–a change that would cause Xuan to benefit his people out of a stable disposition to do so, rather than encratically. Aside from 2A2 (pulling on sprouts), a favorite locus classicus justifying this reading has been 4B19, where Mengzi says the sage kings “acted from renyi, didn’t enact renyi”. Both 2A2 and 4B19 correctly point to Mengzi’s belief that the ideal moral agent is properly motivated (or, minimally, properly constituted psychologically), but do not lend any support to the idea that Mengzi is trying to get kings to be ideal moral agents in his interviews with them. They also do not demonstrate that Mengzi had a clear or strict conception of motivational states that would “make or break” the status of moral activity. So in answer to your question 2: I think the burden of proof lies on the other side. 7B11 is another passage that springs to mind criticizing the improperly motivated person, but in none of the passages noted does Mengzi make use of the kind of either-or evaluation that I associate with moral systems centered on obligation. One place to look for what you’re after (moral assent given to actions undertaken without proper motivation) would be the numerous governmental interviews where Mengzi simply does not talk about motivation at all. I’m not sure how relevant it is, but the line that popped into my head was “Build higher walls and dig deeper moats, and defend them side-by-side with the people. If they would rather die than abandon you, then all is not lost.” Mengzi may hold that proper motivational dispositions are essential to developing the requisite charisma (de) to carry out acts like these, so he simply never problematizes scenarios like “successfully carrying out such actions but without proper motivational dispositions”.

    This sentence confuses me: “it looks to me as if those obligations are set given some (implicit) ideal empathic agent”. You’ll need to clarify what “set” means. We are certainly “given” an ideal empathic agent, by Mengzi’s conception of the possibilities of human nature. The obligations of the ideal empathic agent *are* “set” for him, epistemically, by the fact that he is such an agent. But they exist entirely independent of him and his psychological development. Actually I cannot be sure of this last conclusion, since Mengzi might argue that human nature does set the parameters of what could be considered moral. But it’s essential to note that he never says anything like this. Which again is understandable if, regardless of what he actually thought, his main goal was to get other people to follow his dao: autism and selfishness beckon with any position that morality “comes from me”, and Mengzi would have every reason to avoid that outcome.

  4. Chris said, on July 17, 2008 at 7:14 am


    Thanks for the reply, and the depth (it’s very helpful to me in sorting out my own thoughts).

    I’ll break up my reply in terms of your paragraphs (I get lost if I don’t break it up that way).

    P1. There are a couple of points here. First, I think we’re in agreement that the texts do not represent purely act-evaluative theories (well, insofar as they present “theories” at all). I also agree that the early Confucians stress the development of dispositions and habits (virtues), though at this point (as I’ve discussed with Bill Haines on this blog before) I’m not sure exactly how to cash those out (dispositions, specifically) in these specific texts, as I’m not sure these things “map on” to Western notions exactly.

    I think you are right to point out that obligation is a problematic concept to use here, for a number of the reasons you highlight, at least specifically (given the subject here) the fact that it highlights acts over character. A few thoughts on this, though:

    a) With respect to C, relational roles do seem to have content that structure what it means to occupy or inhabit such roles in a meaningful sense (Li). Perhaps this is where some of the notion of “obligation” is seeping in (at least on my reading). Sons have “obligations” to follow such-and-such Li if they expect to inhabit the role of son in a meaningful sense. I don’t have the version here in front of me, but my memory is telling me that Lau treats Li in this way (in a deontic manner almost) in his translation of Lunyu (in fact, doesn’t he think of Yi as ‘right action’?), but I may be misremembering or confusing Lau with someone else.

    b) In any case, it may be that “obligation,” when seen in this larger sense of understanding how an individual may inhabit a social relationship constitutively a part of his identity, seems out of place. The Nietzschean phrase comes to mind here – striving to “become what you already are” seems in some way applicable. One aims to smoothly, as you put it, embody certain dispositions, but those dispositions are shaped by the language (Li) constituting one’s situational role. Seen in this way, “obligation” seems an odd term to use. In any case, I’ll have to think about this particular issue a bit more.

    c) I wonder if “obligation” is “made softer” if the target of obligation is not a free-floating rule or principle acting as the principle of act-evaluation (a categorical imperative, say, or a requirement to maximize utility), but rather the end of a given disposition. For example, a person might thing that utility maximization is “right” or “good” on its own, whereas another person might think that such things are good or right because they are the proper targets of benevolent dispositions (or the ends that benevolent persons take up). In the latter case, benevolence (as a disposition) might serve (in this case) as the object of evaluation, but still allow us to talk about such persons being under obligations towards certain ends. I’m not sure – just a thought.

    d) Side note – I think Slote (in 1992 book) has a chapter on reducing deontic obligation talk to virtue, but I can’t remember what it says.

    P2. Let me sidebar this interesting textual part for now, because there’s so much going on here I’m worried my reply will be a mile long!

    P3. Good question, and I’ll be honest I don’t have a definitive answer. I think by “set” I’m thinking roughly in terms of something like this. Imagine a person X with “fully developed sprouts” (an ideal case). Person X’s sprouts will dispose the agent, given situational role occupation (the person is a King here, a son there, etc) towards a rough and ready class of actions. Benevolent sons typically do X, and not Y, and so on. I think that’s all I meant: that in a given situation what I was calling “obligation” (perhaps “action guidance” is more appropriate here, it’s less loaded) points in one direction as opposed to another. The ideally developed King is “guided” by his benevolence to share the bounty of his kingdom with his subjects.

    I agree that autism is not where M wants to go: here by “comes from him” I was speaking loosely; the targets of his action guidance are independent of the King himself, but his benevolence (which springs from his human nature and is given structure by his role relationships) allows him to gain access to what those targets are. Of course, the further question remains about whether it’s more than just this – whether the King’s benevolence is required to “complete” what is moral in the situation, as opposed to just “lighting up” what is do be done. But with that question we’re back to the question of what the role of having the right motivational state is at the time of acting.

    Great points – you’ve helped me push further here, though I’m sure much of what I’ve noted above is still unsatisfactory. Please feel free to highlight all such problematic areas!

  5. Stephen C. Walker said, on July 17, 2008 at 8:27 am

    That was a very clarifying post, thanks! I think we stand largely in agreement at this point. A couple notes –

    1. Your opening example about inhabiting relational roles seems like an excellent way to probe what exactly is going on when Confucians use concepts that resemble obligation. Insofar as one is obliged to be a good son, he is obliged to be a certain kind of virtuous agent, certainly–and it seems odd to ask whether Confucians consider sons to be so obliged, since it seems to obvious that they do. But do they really? Confucians hate it when people are bad sons, and criticize them roundly while providing varying degrees of justification for this criticism. There’s obviously something terribly wrong with being a bad son as far as they are concerned. But how does this relate to any robust concept of “obligation” in the first place? I’m essentially asking how our relatively technically specific philosophical terms fare in an intellectual environment that makes far fewer theoretical stipulations. How does the aptness or inaptness of “obligation” for Confucian morality throw light on contemporary uses of the concept? Not being an ethicist myself, I feel most confident turning over the mic to you on this one!

    2. Maybe an interpretive discussion of Mengzi would fly off the rails with complexity and verbosity. But what else is the blogosphere for?! 😉 Some day soon I’ll go back to the long Dan Robins-driven discussion thread chez Manyul; in the meantime, I can only await your own reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: