Action Guidance and Assessment in Mencius 1A7
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.