A Ku Indeed!

Kohlberg and Confucius

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics by Chris on July 29, 2008

I’m reading Kohlberg’s old Moral Development and Behavior (1976) for today’s virtue ethics seminar. It can be tough to re-read Kohlberg again, especially after the post-Gilligan “Kohlberg is wrong!” and “Kohlberg is a tool of patriarchy!” memes thrown at you for so many years. As a result, I found myself not so much focusing on Kohlberg, but trying to figure out where Confucius would fit in all of this. I have some guesses. ‘

As anyone who has read Kohlberg knows, he breaks up moral develoment into stages. They are (roughly):


Stage 1: behavior is motivated by punishment

Stage 2: behavior is motivated by egoism


Stage 3/4: behavior is mostly motivated by the agent’s view of herself as a member of social groups and roles.


Stages 5/6: behavior is motivated by what Kohlberg calls the “prior-to-society” perspective; here the agent formulates and is motivated by abstract moral rules.

So what about Confucius? First, it should be noted that there are large differences between the specific views of Kohlberg and Confucius. So any attempt to really map one onto the other will be an uneven fit at best. But that said, I think a general mapping is possible. Let’s try this:

Stage 1 (pre-conventional): Confucius: the min. Here “the people” are motivated merely by punishments (8.9) and laws, and can be made to “follow” the path but not understand it.

Stage 2 (pre-conventional): Confucius: xiao ren. The “small” — these folks have an egoistic individualistic approach to behavior; they do what benefits them as atomic entities. At best they make agreements that serve them, and so can be made to practice altruistic behavior when it is in their long-term interests to do so.

Stages 3/4: Confucius: roughly, perhaps shi or the “Gentleman” or “knight”. What motivates the person is the desire to be a societal role-specific person. So, one’s behavior is motivated in a given circumstance by the desire to “be a good son” and so on. Rituals become important as motivators not because they are laws and one will be punished for transgressions, nor are rituals merely conventional agreements; instead, they are seen as constitutive of the person’s own identity.

Stages 5/6: the junzi. Here the person has the capacity to, in a sense, “transcend” the rituals in given cases. The person is capable of adapting (in an intuitive sense) “the spirit of the Li” to perform just the right appropriate action in context, where this might call upon the person to bend or adapt the Li in a novel way.

The move from the conventional (3/4) to post-conventional (5/6) is interesting. For Kohlberg, 3/4 persons have little ability to “think out of the box” in a sense and are trapped ‘within’ the ‘societal perspective.’ A Confucian similarity here might be the claim in the Analects that a person must, in order to be ren, be capable of shu. Here, “shu” is understood as the ability to be flexible with ritual as opposed to overbearing. In a sense, what Confucius seems to be suggesting there is that there’s a large function that ritual is playing, and one must be able to adapt in a situation so that one allows an underling (say) to depart from the exact rituals in a way that allows them to be virtuous (which would mean allowing them to best fulfill their societal role in that context, given situational circumstances).

This intuitive recognition of “the spirit of the Li” bears some similarities with Kohlberg’s notion of post-conventional thinking, though there are some dissimilarities as well. For one, Kohlberg’s thinkers literally seem to think in terms of principles are rules, whereas the Confucian junzi does not; in the latter case, it appears to be the case that adaptation to novelty is intuitive and has an aesthetic (as opposed to overly rational) foundation. Moreover, Kohlberg thinks of post-conventional thinking as, in a real sense, allowing the person to transcend society and see things as an individual rational agent. This allows the agent to see what must be done in a way that transcends the language of society. This is not Confucian. If anything, the Confucian ability to adapt does not provide access to a way of acting that is no longer role-related; instead, it provides one with an ability to see what one’s role-specific obligations are in that particular circumstance.

There’s a lot more that could be said here, but I’ll stop here at this more general level.


3 Responses

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  1. Stephen C. Walker said, on July 29, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    I agree with the limitations you identify to a Kohlbergian reading of the Lunyu. There is some literature on this topic already; cf. Roetz’s work and responses to it. I think that Kongzi would identify *strict* adherence to social norms as training suitable for children and other people not yet morally competent. (This likely does not include Yan Hui, for whom “return to the rites” need not be an instruction to apply rules unimaginatively.) The adult ideal, by contrast, involves an ability to improvise and adapt as appropriate. As such, the mature virtuous agent is always post-conventional in the sense that she uses her sensitivities to arrive at unique solutions to moral circumstances–but certainly not in the sense that she seeks an autonomous moral perspective that transcends conventions. If anything, Kongzi’s ethical expert explores the full moral potential of conventional givens.

  2. Stephen C. Walker said, on July 30, 2008 at 3:07 am

    Nonetheless, I am not sure how much mileage “min” will get as a category of persons lacking certain degrees of moral cultivation. I will suggest, against a person-making model of the relation between “min” and “ren”, that treatment of “min” in the Lunyu derives primarily from Kongzi’s characteristic audience and their intended role in society. Kongzi is trying to groom leaders–stewards, teachers, and guardians of the populace. He does not address the populace per se, but rather whichever individuals from among them might wish to embark on self-cultivation. Since he addresses potential or actual leaders, whatever their origins, the only role remaining for “min” qua topic of conversation is that of *object* for the characteristically gentlemanly verbs of stewarding, teaching, and guarding.

  3. Chris said, on July 30, 2008 at 4:49 am

    Hi Stephen,

    First — thanks for the reference! I didn’t realize that any work had already been done on this. I’ll be sure to put Roetz work in the pile for my upcoming sabbatical.

    Second — on the min. This is a tough spot, I’ll admit. I’ve taken some flack for this interpretation from Bill Haines in previous threads, as well as from Henry Rosemont (in a draft of a paper he read of mine some time ago). It’s clear (as Henry pointed out) that I’m relying on Hall and Ames’ discussion of min in _Thinking Through Confucius_, where they place min as “undifferentiated mass” in contrast with jen as “particular person” (where for H&A “particular person” is often used as a way of describing morally cultivated). Sor-Hoon Tan in _Confucian Democracy_ also builds on this portrait of min, but the treatment, far as I can tell, borrows heavily from H&A.

    Given the large numbers of people who seem to take at least a skeptical view of H&A, I agree that independent support for such a reading would be helpful. I made at least a provisional stab at this in the “Ren and Min” thread, using a paper from Gassmann, but there I can only squeeze out some slight support.

    I agree, though, that I need more support for that connection — my reading of min here is the most open to attack.

    Do you happen to know of any pieces (books/articles) that deal with the subject of min, or the subject of comparing ren/min? At some point I should probably just email Ames and ask him if there were any specific sources he used in coming up with his own interpretation, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

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