To explain what I think Western philosophy can get from Chinese philosophy, let me tell you one of my favourite stories. It is about a king who spares an ox but cannot spare his people suffering. The early Chinese philosopher Mencius (fourth century BCE) travelled from state to state in China, seeking a ruler who would adopt the Confucian Dao or Way. In Mencius 1A7, Mencius tries to persuade King Xuan that he could become a true king who could bring peace to his people. When the king expresses some scepticism about this possibility, Mencius asks whether it was true that the king had spared an ox being led to ritual slaughter. The king affirms this but professes some uncertainty as to what his motives were. Mencius persuades the king that he was moved by compassion for the ox, getting the king to recall seeing the ox’s trembling, which reminded him of an innocent man going to execution. Mencius concludes that the king fails to bring peace to his people not because of any inability to act but because of a simple failure to act. All that the king has to do is to take the compassion he has applied to the ox and apply it to his own people.
Mencius has a theory of human nature that underpins this attempt to stir in the king compassion toward his people. All human beings, he believes, are born with dispositions of feeling and intuitive insight that are the “beginnings” of morality.
One of these beginnings is compassion, or the “feeling that is unable to bear the suffering of others”. A manifestation of this beginning is the human reaction to the terror of an animal or the alarm and distress one feels upon seeing a child about to fall into a well.
One especially illuminating metaphor Mencius uses for such a beginning of morality is that of a barley sprout that needs the appropriate conditions (sun, fertile soil, water) and human effort put into its cultivation. Mencius tells the king that he must assure his subjects a constant means of livelihood, and he has some “wonkish” ideas for implementation that are surprisingly relevant to this day, e.g., regulating the seasons for cutting timber in the forests and not making the mesh in fishnets too fine so as to insure sustainable natural resources. A constant means of livelihood is necessary, explains Mencius, because people will fail to focus their hearts and minds on developing their moral beginnings if they must be preoccupied with mere survival for themselves and their families. (In fact, the Chinese word for the seat of thinking and feeling is literally “heart” and is best translated as “heart-mind”.)
It turns out that empirical studies of the debilitating effects of poverty on cognitive performance and the ability to regulate attention support Mencius’s view. The right environmental conditions, then, are crucial for the growth of the “moral beginnings” into full ethical virtues. Compassion is the beginning that has the potential to become ren or human-heartedness, which is the virtue of reliably caring for others in the right way and at the right time.
At the same time, Mencius does not neglect what we might call in contemporary terms the necessity of “taking personal responsibility” for one’s own character development. Most of all, one must put effort into using one’s mind to reflect upon, to focus one’s attention on, what is the most important part of the self to nurture. Those who focus on nurturing the smaller parts of lesser importance (those parts fed, says Mencius, by constant eating and drinking) become small persons, while those who nurture the greater parts (the moral beginnings) become great persons.
Mencius talks about a king who, while certainly not disadvantaged by poverty, is not making much progress towards being a true king because he has exposed his sprouts to cold for ten days and to warmth only one day. The cold is the king’s relative inattention to the sprouts, as conveyed by Mencius’ metaphor of two players learning the game of chess: one player applies himself to learning from the master while the other is thinking about shooting a swan as the master tries to teach him. In emphasising both the necessity of the right environment and personal effort, Mencius makes a good deal of sense that today’s liberals (who tend to emphasise the former) and conservatives (who tend to emphasise the latter) should heed.
It is reflecting on a manifestation of his compassion that Mencius is trying to get King Xuan to engage in when he prompts him to recall his sparing of the ox. Just how precisely Mencius was trying to do this is a matter of scholarly controversy, and I can here only present my own conclusions. The king may already know intellectually that a “true king” is one who cares for people and spares them suffering. Mencius is trying to get the king to feel his duty to care for his people in the way that he felt for the ox. When prompted by Mencius to remember what he did, the king vividly remembers the ox’s trembling. When one remembers an emotionally significant event, one to some extent relives it – has the feeling again.
In this emotionally evocative moment when the king relives feeling the ox’s fear, Mencius reminds the king of his duty to his subjects. It is a moment when his knowledge of his duty might become affectively charged, or in contemporary psychological terminology, it is a “hot” cognition. Here again some contemporary psychological studies support the Mencian conception of moral development as a process in which moral knowledge needs to be taught and reinforced in emotionally evocative situations in which a marriage between cognition and emotion takes place. Martin Hoffman’s studies of the way that children are most effectively taught moral rules against hurting others highlight the use prompting empathy for the victim, and in that moment of feeling, engaging in moral teaching.
To understand better how this marriage between cognition and emotion can happen, I suggest we go back to Mencius’ conception of the moral beginnings and to the sense in which they might, like barley sprouts, have a built-in direction of growth. Barley sprouts, if nourished, will grow to have a certain form characteristic of barley plants. They will not turn into wheat. Now consider the beginning of compassion. Mencius’ reference to the reaction of adults to a child about to fall into a well is plausible as a manifestation of an inborn and unlearned disposition toward compassionate feeling. But we may not have such a spontaneous reaction to a hungry homeless person on the street. Yet Mencius believes all have the potential to grow their compassion in that direction. How is that potential possible?
My reading of the Mencius is that it is supplied by our tendency to experience pleasure in acting on the moral beginnings. The point of getting King Xuan to remember his sparing of the ox may have been to remind him of how good it felt to do it, while also being reminded of his duty to his people. The remembered pleasure of acting on a moral beginning can spur one to act on it again when the opportunity arises. Mencius was attempting to guide King Xuan in getting him to remember the pleasure and to seize the opportunity again to act compassionately. The potential to grow one’s compassion, then, is supplied by a kind of feedback loop mechanism based on the pleasure of acting compassionately. This is why Mencius said that knowing how to fill out the moral beginnings is like a fire starting up or a spring breaking through. Once the process of growth gets going, it can accelerate. Mencius was onto something. In brain-imaging studies of participants who chose on the basis of ethical beliefs to give anonymously to charity, giving was correlated with the activation of reward systems in brain networks that are also activated by food, sex, drugs, and money.
The story of Xuan and the ox represents a powerful vision of how people can become good, one from which we can still learn to this day. Mencius’ metaphor of the moral beginnings of goodness in human nature articulates nicely how nature and nurture can interweave in a person’s development. It presents a viable alternative to a strong bias in contemporary thinking to explain development solely by reference to biological inheritance. The counter-reaction to this bias tends too often to insist on the dominance of culture and learning as an explanation. When taken to an extreme, the emphasis on culture suggests an implausible conception of human nature as a blank slate, leaving us with no substantial explanations of how our biology sets us up to learn through culture and why human beings have dispositions such as taking pleasure in doing for others.
Mencius’ conception of how emotion can be transformed and extended through affect-laden reflection, as illustrated by the story of King Xuan, is another corrective to two opposing one-sided tendencies in Western thinking about the relation between reflection and emotion. One tendency, represented by Kant, is to think of emotion as a threatening distraction from the kind of dispassionate and objective thinking that ideally guides human conduct. The other tendency, represented by Hume, is to think of emotion as the dominant force in human life, dictating our ultimate aims and assigning to reason the task of figuring out how best to realise those aims. This dichotomisation of reflection and emotion leaves out the interesting ways that the two can interact and interweave. Mencius is trying to help the king enlarge his compassion through thinking that is at the same time affectively charged. This conception of the relation between reflecting and feeling does not fit comfortably into either the Kantian or Humean moulds.
Looking at how the best thinkers from another tradition have dealt with large questions about human nature and the relation between reflection and emotion can suggest alternative approaches that have not been as salient in one’s home tradition. I was trained in the analytic approach and continue to hold myself to the standards of clarity and rigour of reasoning that are the distinctive features of that approach, but I have concluded that these standards are often best applied to identify what is of value and relevance from other traditions that address many of the same large questions but emphasise different standards.
One distinctive standard I especially appreciate in early Chinese philosophy is the resolve to hold itself accountable to pre-theoretical experience. By “pre-theoretical”, I mean experience that is accessible to observant and thoughtful people, whether they are philosophers or not. This is the kind of experience from which extremely well-developed philosophical theory can become completely divorced, especially when philosophers are primarily preoccupied with responding to each other’s technical arguments and cannot explain what is of interest to anyone outside their specialised fields.
As I hope my discussion of Mencius shows, the standard of accountability to pre-theoretical experience does not prevent the early Chinese philosophers from articulating big and plausible theories about human nature as a basis for moral development. But it gives these theories their distinctive character of being anchored in experiences accessible to an audience of the observant and thoughtful. Most of us have had our own moments in which we have been moved, perhaps by someone wiser and better than us, to think feelingly about where our duties lie.
Another distinctive standard of Chinese philosophy is its commitment to the practical. Mencius was traveling from Chinese state to Chinese state because he was trying to get rulers to adopt his teachings. He and other philosophers at that time were addressing the turmoil and conflict between and within the states. Mencius was following in the tradition of Confucius in holding that most of all a renewal of moral leadership was needed, and as the story of King Xuan and the ox demonstrates, he was engaged in the project of trying to help kings become moral leaders. Having to think about the practical implications of a theory, for example, a theory of how the beginnings of moral goodness are in human nature, can lead to theoretical insights. If one takes seriously the necessity of helping people to develop emotional dispositions to produce the kind of leaders needed by a society in turmoil, one might be more likely to come up with some plausible ideas, as I think Mencius did. And, as I have tried to point out along the way, contemporary scientific study has supported several of Mencius’ key ideas.
I have talked about the benefits of exploring other traditions, because a thinker like Mencius is responding to other thinkers in China, and others are responding to him. Besides learning from him, one can learn from the dialectical argumentation that links him with others. So let me briefly discuss another thinker who responded vigorously and critically to Mencius.
Xunzi directly contradicts Mencius in a chapter with a title that can be translated “Human Nature is Bad”. In that chapter, Xunzi asserts that human nature contains a love of profit, envy and hatred, and desires of the eyes and ears that lead to violence and anarchy. Human nature must be overcome and transformed to make human beings good. One of the primary means of doing this is the repeated observance of rituals, which include ceremonies that mark major passages of life such as birth, puberty, marriage and death, but also ceremonies woven into the fabric of everyday life, such as the drinking ceremony that begins a banquet in a village, or the way one respectfully greets another or gives and receives gifts. To perform such rituals correctly is to focus on expressing the respect and care that others deserve. When done correctly, repeated performance of these rituals helps to correct the undue concern for the self that is a large part of our natural inheritance.
It appears that the difference between Mencius and Xunzi is stark. But given other passages in Xunzi’s text, the difference between Xunzi’s and Mencius’ views on human nature turns out to be far more subtle and interesting. In his chapter on ritual, for example, Xunzi holds that rituals of mourning and burial, especially for the death of parents, have an especially powerful hold on people because of a natural love of one’s own kind that all creatures of blood and breath possess, human beings most of all. The power of these rituals lies in their enabling us to express powerful emotions that come naturally to us. To observe these rituals and others that focus our attention on the importance and needs of others, it turns out, is to strengthen and channel in socially constructive ways natural emotions and desires that are congenial to morality. The function of rituals is not simply to constrain the troublesome emotion and desires, in other words, but also to strengthen the morally constructive emotions. A ritual that performs both functions is the protocol of the village drinking ceremony, in which all villagers drink from a single cup in order of the seniority. In drinking according to seniority, the young learn to restrain their impulses and defer to the older, but in all drinking from the same cup, the common bond is affirmed.
So understood, Xunzi is not at all categorically opposed to Mencius’ position, especially if one recognises that Mencius acknowledged desires and emotions, such as those fed by constant eating and drinking, which could become troublesome if given undue priority. What is the difference between Mencius and Xunzi then? I believe that Xunzi thought the more troublesome part of human nature was far more powerful than Mencius thought it was. It is revealing that while Mencius acknowledged the observance of ritual to be a virtue, he did not place nearly as much importance on it as Xunzi did. One feature of ritual that might have appealed to Xunzi was the fact that it pervades human life and is performed repeatedly. It is embedded into the fabric of life because it marks the major passages and because it constitutes the protocol of various types of social interaction. To pay attention to how these ceremonies of life should be performed is to hone an instrument that can be used repeatedly for shaping human thought, feeling and conduct. Xunzi thought that repeated correction of the troublesome part and repeated reinforcement of the more constructive part of human nature was necessary.
Here again, Xunzi shows real insight that receives support from current scientific study. Rituals that encourage focusing on the importance and needs of others constitute a kind of meditation in action, and the still young but promising scientific study of various forms of meditation seems to support its effects in enhancing the ability to regulate one’s emotions and increase sensitivity to the distress of others. Studies of the effects of assuming the bodily postures and gestures of certain affective attitudes indicate that doing so actually induces the feelings. Ritual is precisely this kind of practice, in which one performs the bodily language of respect and concern for others. Here again, I cannot help but think that the practical focus of early Chinese philosophy led to Xunzi to articulate a much more subtle and plausible theory of human nature than he would have articulated if his only concern had been to publish a journal article to refute his fellow scholar Mencius. Xunzi was more serious than that. Both he and Mencius had to try to make their ideas work.
The main texts discussed here can be found in:
Bloom, Irene. Mencius. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Watson, Burton. Xunzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
The scientific studies mentioned in this paper include:
Carney, Dana R., Cuddy, Amy J. C., and Yap, Andy J. 2010. “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance.” Psychological Science 21 (2010), no. 10: 1363-1368.
Creswell, J. David, Way, Baldwin, M., Eisenberger, Naomi I., and Lieberman. Matthew D. 2007. “Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness During Affect Labeling.” Psychosomatic Medicine 69 (2007): 560-565.
Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., and Davidson, R. J. (2008). “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise.” PLoS ONE 3.3: e1897. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001897.
Evans, Gary and Pilyoung Kim. “Childhood Poverty, Chronic Stress, Self-Regulation, and Coping.” Child Development Perspectives 7, No. 1 (2013): 43–48.
Mani, Anandi, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao. “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function.” Science 341 (2013), no. 6149: 976-980.
Moll, Jorge, Frank Drueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Grafman “Human Front-Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions about Charitable Donation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103 (2006): 15623-628.