This video shows a talk held by the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University in 2010. Featuring Tu Weiming, Harvard-Yenching Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy and of Confucian Studies at Harvard University, and Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, the subject of discussion is Confucian-Islamic cooperation in a globalising world.
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The meaning of the word ‘humanism’ refers to the significance of human beings in society. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1949) stated, humanism “not only states the question of the human person but also that of society…of the relations between men” (p. 23). Thus, Humanism is about the development of the individual, and about maintaining good relations between people. The emphasis on society is shown in educational thought. For instance, in nineteenth century Germany, teachers of Greek and Latin were called umanista as they taught studia humanitatis or humanistic studies, including literature and history (Kristeller, 1955). Humanities faculties in today’s universities have kept this namesake as most areas of study in these fields are concerned with human nature, behaviour, and action. Subjects like philosophy and politics, for example, reflect on the meaning of humanity and the potential for human beings to achieve dignity, freedom, and significance (Manzo, 1997). However, while these traditions in the West are well-explored in the literature, Eastern philosophies such as Daoism and Sufism are often thought to focus on the supernatural and mystical. This article examines rational humanism from an Eastern perspective by focusing on Islamic and Confucian thought.
The humanist tradition of prioritising the human being’s existence, duties, and potentials is found throughout classical Islam (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). For instance, human beings are thought to be filled with God-consciousness, living to fulfil the task of serving God in their lifetimes. The Qur’an says that God “(is) the One Who (has) made you successors (of) the earth and raised some of you above others (in) ranks, so that He may test you in what He has given you.” (Surah Al-An’am, 6:165). A human’s task is to serve God and take responsibility for their reason. So even though humans are not the absolute rulers of the world, as agents of God, they are responsible for establishing good relations with God, other humans, and the earth. This involves setting up societies based on human values of freedom, peace, and tolerance.
Tan and Ibrahim (2017) also point out that Islam’s ideology of humanism gives people the hope of achieving moral perfection when guided by religion. However, the religious aspect of this statement should not be overemphasised. Although God plays a central role in Islam, the way to God and moral perfection involves cultivating human skills, including reason, empathy for others, and knowledge. Adab is an important Islamic concept here. Abi-Mershed (2009) states that adab originally meant rules of conduct in social and political relationships, but later by the eighth and eleventh century referred to ethical ways of learning and engaging in the world. Through adab, humans can achieve self-actualisation, develop peace in the world, and be closer to the moral perfection of God.
In the Confucian tradition, human relationships and right education are central to harmony and order. As the Analects states, Confucius’s son, Boyu (伯魚), said that his father taught no secret doctrine. He only asked if his son had learnt poetry and the rites (16.13). In that case, learning poetry, music, and rites among a community of friends are important rituals for attaining humanity. Throughout the Analects, it describes how Confucius tried to apply the right pronunciation to the reading of poetry, and order sections of songs in the right order (Analects, sections 7 and 9, for example). Like Islam, the potential to develop moral perfection comes from organising society according to the correct principles, and developing human character through knowledge.
The spiritual side of Confucianism is debated. For instance, some scholars note that central to Confucianism is the concept of tian or Heaven. In the Analects 7.23, Confucius states that Heaven is the author of his virtue, and only Heaven understands him (14.35). Tu Wei-ming (2001) even introduced the idea of an ‘anthropocosmic’ system to describe a worldview where the human relationship to the world is one where tian is in perfect harmony with ren (persons), forming the greater triad of tian–ren-earth relations. By existing in such a system, human beings are able to achieve moral goodness through the practice of “praiseworthy behaviours, thoughts, and actions of sage-kings” (Tan & Ibrahim, 2017, p. 5). In other words, attaining harmony with tian and human beings is an ongoing and dynamic process where culturally, socially, and cosmically, human beings can be transformed.
On the other hand, while this cosmological aspect of Confucian humanism is discussed, Kato (2016) states that Confucius avoided discussing themes such as human nature and tian in detail. Confucius’s original vision was in the practical and present, while later Confucian scholars extended his doctrines to the metaphysical and spiritual. What this means is that the original Confucian teachings can be understood in ideas about teaching and learning or for Confucius, the here and now.
Western humanism developed from the practice of rhetoric of speech in ancient Athens. In a similar way, Confucianism uses li or private and public ritual to develop social harmony and self-cultivation. Li can be thought of as a system of language and body that communicates with others. Rituals express complex emotions towards ancestors, parents, colleagues, etc., that, accompanied by sincere feelings and intentions, send messages that words alone are unable to express. For example, taking part in tea and coffee ceremonies in Chinese, Japanese, Arabian, and Serbian cultures, sends messages of respect, hospitality, and willingness to take part in social engagement.
Teaching ritual practices is a key part of Confucian education, and it places humanist values of social relationships and human capabilities at its centre. Rather than attain moral perfection through divine intervention or luck, human actions through li are what leads to learning. The Great Learning uses the analogy of “carving and grinding” when discussing moral cultivation (section 3). In general, learning is about repeating, internalising, and applying knowledge. In moral cultivation, a similar process takes place, where self-reflection, correction, and interaction with the teacher places ritual and learning within a communitarian framework (Tu, 1985; Tan & Ibrahim, 2017). With a sincere heart-mind, one can begin to understand what is to be learnt by expressing themselves with the right words. This contrasts ideas about learning that are passive and require constant repetition and remembering. Learning in Confucianism involves investigating things, imagination, and rationality. The Great Learning highlights that students, “encountering anything at all in the world…must build on what they already know of principle and probe still deeper, until they reach its limit” (cited in Gardner, 2007, p. 7-8). The student is required to dedicate themselves to questioning, problem-solving, and in Confucius’s case, learning from the old: to “review what is old as to know what is new” (Doctrine of the Mean, section 27).
Aside from the Islamic emphasis on God-consciousness, Confucianism and classical Islam both situate human beings as central agents that are required to perform moral duties in their lives. Perfection is possible if humans take part in moral education that encourages people to use their faculties of reasoning to achieve adab and li, which involves self-actualisation and building dynamic relationships with others. Such principles are increasingly relevant in the West as higher education learning and teaching becomes commercialised through vocational workplace training.
In this audio clip, The Philosopher’s Zone podcast interviews professor in philosophy Roger Ames on his thoughts on Confucian role ethics. Ames discusses the Western idea of individualism versus the Chinese relationally-constituted self, and what it means to be a person today.
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Book Extract- The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能
Since its founding in 1949, China has developed from an extremely poor country into a global power. After developing its industrial system under Chairman Mao, China opened up to the global economy and became the world’s second largest economy, maintaining a double-digit growth rate for over 30 years. To do this without engaging in war and maintaining stable domestic conditions has been unprecedented in modern history. For other countries, China represents an alternative path to development that involves applying development models that match different histories, cultures, and national and regional conditions.
In 2012, President Xi promoted the ‘Chinese Dream’ as a vision for China’s development over the next decades. Through a top-down political campaign, the Dream has been a main theme in the majority of Xi’s public speeches and in Chinese media and scholarly publications. In 2014, for example, 8,249 articles with “China dream” (zhongguo meng, 中国梦) in the title had been published within China according to the CNKI China academic journals database (Callahan, 2014). By 2017, this number has increased to 53,679 articles.
The concept of the Dream is based on China’s historical experience and the desire for rejuvenation following the Century of Humiliation (bainian guochi, 百年国耻) and colonialization by Western powers. Chinese people have been presented with many ideas describing collective aspirations for national independence, common prosperity, and the recovery of the Chinese nation from feudal backwardness. The Dream combines all of these past slogans, including ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious society’, by emphasising sustainable development, common prosperity, and independence from foreign domination through a system of socialism with Chinese characteristics guided by the Communist Party of China.
The following is an extract from Maya X. Guo’s book The Chinese Path and the Chinese School: Interviews with Leading Chinese Academics 道路自信:中国为什么能. In it, Guo interviews a number of Chinese academics on topics around China’s development, including the prospect for democracy, the future of socialism in Chinese modernisation, and Chinese maritime strategy. In the section titled Century-old Quest for Renewal: The CPC’s Evolving Narrative and Historical Mission, Guo interviews Professor Cao Jinqing from East China University of Science and Technology. The following views and opinions expressed in this extract are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Confucian Weekly Bulletin.
Maya: In his first speech after being elected China’s president on March 17, 2013, Xi Jinping gave a detailed account of the Chinese Dream, a dream of the great renewal of the nation. How do you understand this concept in the context of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) narrative?
Cao Jinqing: By proposing this concept, the CPC has revisited the narrative of the century-old pursuit of national independence and modernisation. The Chinese Dream means the completion of a modernately prosperous society in all respects when the CPC celebrates its centenary, and turning China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) marks its centenary. The Two Centenary goals are based on a historical narrative different from the CPC’s conventional narrative. The new narrative appeals to all those who remain committed to the quest for national renewal, including Chinese people on the mainland and in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as well as overseas Chinese.
Maya: How is it different from the previous narrative? How did the previous narrative justify the CPC’s ruling status?
Cao Jinqing: The previous narrative was a Marxist-Leninist narrative. It was also a conventional narrative of the CPC. The CPC’s vision of Chinese history provides an important ideological perspective from which to explain the legitimacy of its political power. The publication of Chairman Mao Zedong’s article “On New Democracy” in 1940 marked the establishment of the Party’s conventional vision. The article answered questions about China’s past, present and future in Marxist terms: China had evolved through the stages of a primitive society, a slave society and a feudal society like other countries. Had it not been for the invasion of imperialist powers, China would have gone on to evolve into a capitalist society. The Opium War (1840-42) interrupted its routine course of development and reduced the country to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. The exploitation of imperialism and feudalism was the root cause of China’s poverty and decline. Under those circumstances, fighting against imperialism and feudalism was the top priority of the Chinese nation. Going forward, China would experience in turn a new-democratic society, a socialist society and finally a communist society.
The theory redefined the history of the Chinese nation, giving rise to a comprehensive new vision of history. This vision, which applied the philosophy of Marxist materialist history to China, was one of the most important reasons for the success of the CPC. As it satisfied their spiritual needs, it attracted numerous disillusioned and hopeless intellectuals to Yan’an, the onetime headquarters of the CPC, making the small town along the Yellow River a gathering place of China’s top talents. One of the prime reasons why the CPC defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) in the civil war was that the former seized the ideological high ground. It did so precisely by establishing a new vision of history. In keeping with this vision, Mao led the Chinese nation in advancing socialism. He exercised political power confidently because he believed he was on the side of truth.
Maya: Why is a vision of history so important? How could it make such a big impact on Chinese intellectuals?
Cao Jinqing: That’s because China is a nation imbued with a strong historical awareness. China does not have a Western-style religion or philosophy. The role of history in China is equivalent to those of history, philosophy and religious beliefs combined in the West. History maintains the cultural identity of the Chinese nation. Qing Dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng (1738-1801) made a good point when he said, “All the six classics come down to history.”
History lays the foundation of the Chinese culture. When China was a traditional agrarian society, the Chinese lived in clans. Each clan had its history, which helped it evolve by building upon past achievements. While ordinary people were attached to their clans, officials cared about their fiefdoms and the entire kingdom, which also had a history. The Chinese have long been aware of the value of visions of history. The classic works Spring and Autumn Annals and Records of the Grand Historian enabled us to identity with out common ancestor Huangdi and our common history. Visions of history are the center of the Chinese culture. At a minimum, they represent the shared cultural identity of the Han ethnic group.
After the Opium War, which marked the beginning of the modern era in China, Chinese intellectuals focused on reshaping China’s vision of history as they learned from the West to promote the country’s economic, political and cultural transition. Creating a new vision of history was considered a pivotal task for those who aspired to state power. The trailblazer in this field was Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a political thinker and reformer who accepted the Western evolutionist philosophy of history. After the May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal political movement from 1919, a group of radical intellectuals turned to Marxist-Leninism. I think the most powerful past of this theory is its vision of history, with which the CPC reconstructed China’s history based on the historical stages of the West.
Regressive history and cyclical history are two traditional Chinese visions of history. The theory of cyclical history, coupled with the Mandate of Heaven, justifies the replacement of an old dynasty by a new one and the rule of a new emperor. The CPC modified this traditional narrative and repackaged it in Marxist language. But the underlying idea remained the same: Those who gain popular support will gain state power; those who lose popular support will lose state power. The CPC’s revolutionary narrative is consistent with the Confucian view of revolution: The Party, which represented the will of the people, overthrew a regime that had lost the Mandate of Heaven…In the CPC’s narrative the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was replaced by “rules of historical development.”
The Chinese Dream has returned to the narrative of the 100-year pursuit of national independence and modernisation, a process in which the Chinese strived to save China from being conquered, bring prosperity to the nation, and catch up with Western powers.
For the latest updates on the Chinese Dream, see Xinhua’s (2016) Chinese Dream webpage.
The ‘son-covering-father’ story in The Analects (13.18) has caused a lot of controversy. When the Duke of Sheh says that ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact’, Confucius replies that ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this [italics added].” The implication is that not disclosing a crime is morally acceptable if the criminal is a family member, raising the question as to whether filial obligation should override civil obligations or social justice. The passage mirrors a section of Plato’s Euthyphro, which examines whether prosecuting one’s father is a pious thing to do. Sophocles’s Antigone explores a similar theme by showing the struggles of Antigone and the dispute between obeying the laws of the gods, familial loyalty, and social decency.
In the last article on the Confucian Puzzle, valuing family as much as moral integrity and human worth failed to justify why the son should cover for his father’s theft. For example, if Xiao (love for the family) is understood as a convenient setting to develop love towards others (Ren), then the son is morally obliged to report the father since he would be in a position of extending family love towards others and sacrificing the means of family love towards the more important principle of loving others. On the other hand, if Xiao is of equal importance or at least as important as Ren, it is unclear how one should decide which principle to compromise. To assume that turning the father in to authorities would do more harm for the father than the sheep owner is only speculative. Imagine that the stolen sheep was the sheep owner’s only income, the last sheep in his stock, or the only meal left for his family. In such a case, surely covering for the father would do the sheep owner more harm since he would have no means of claiming compensation or recovering his stolen stock. Finally, the claim that Xiao should simply never be compromised also does not answer the puzzle. In a life-threatening situation, there is no moral reason why the son should not report the father as valuing Xiao as tradition does not adequately justify why valuing family love is more important than all other virtues.
Another approach to solving the puzzle is mentioned in Li’s (2012) article. The solution involves understanding different value systems. If family as a whole is more important than each individual and is prioritised in society, then the son should preserve his family’s flourishing by covering his father’s crime. But there are two problems with this conclusion. On the one hand, the meaning of ‘family flourishing’ is unclear. Does family flourishing refer to an increase of wealth, the closeness of the whole family, or the well-being of each family member? Likewise, individual flourishing can also mean wealth, psychological and social well-being, or even the capacity to face adversity (Faulk et al., 2012). To sacrifice individual flourishing for family flourishing is a tricky argument as there are no guidelines as to how one determines that the quality and quantity of the family’s flourishing should outweigh the quantity and quality of the individual’s or the sheep-owner’s flourishing. Such an argument essentially involves the utilitarian approach of satisfying the preferences of the majority over the minority.
When applied at large, ordering society based on familial flourishing could lead to discrimination and prejudice. Suppose that a society made of family units valued harmony within and between families. Reporting abuse in a family would risk disgracing the family, upsetting other family members, and exposing the culprit, resulting in strained family relations. So, it could be argued that keeping quiet about family abuse would be justified as it would avoid risking any damage to familial flourishing. Structuring the economy around familial wealth, where businesses and companies were all run by families, would also create an unfair advantage to in-group members (those in the families) while discriminating against qualified non-familial members. This produces a counter-intuitive moral system and goes against the Confucian ideal where humaneness is developed by setting others up and achieving access for others (The Analects, 6.30). The emphasis on Xiao, while relevant to understanding ideas of learning and devotion during the Zhou era in China, need to be taken in context. As Eno (2015) highlights, “References to filiality concern sons… it seems to tacitly assume that its readers, and the only people who matter in public society, are men. In this sense, it fails to escape the social norms of its time” (p. 6). A fundamentalist position of structuring society around familial flourishing over individual flourishing fails to take Confucian teachings and apply them to the real world.
Huang (2017) provides an alternative understanding to the case. He starts his discussion by explaining Xiao more broadly. When describing filial piety or family love, it is often assumed that to be filial involves being obedient. For instance, Confucius says that “the young should shoulder the hardest chores or that the eldest are served food and wine first at meals” (The Analects, 2.8), and that only by following and observing the father’s conduct three years after his death can the son be called filial (1.11). The act of complying with the father’s authority and dutifully carrying out his conduct shows that filiality is associated with obedience. However, as The School Sayings of Confucius (Kongzi Jiayu) states,
If a father has a remonstrating child, he will not fall into doing things without propriety; and if a scholar has a remonstrating friend, he will not do immoral things. So how can a son who merely obeys the parents be regarded as filial, and a minister who merely obeys the ruler be regarded as loyal? To be filial and loyal is to examine what to follow. (bk 9, p. 57)
Rather than understanding filial piety as blind obedience, the passage emphasises the importance of ‘remonstration’ or arguing in protest. As a result, it is only right to obey one’s parents if they ask about right things. If they ask for obedience for morally corrupt things, such as murder, then the filial child should protest against the parents’ actions. In the Xunzi, this idea is reinforced,
There are three scenarios in which filial children ought not to obey their parents: (1) if their obedience will endanger their parents, while their disobedience will make their parents safe…(2) if obedience will bring disgrace to their parents, while disobedience will bring [sic] honor to their parents…(3) if obedience will lead to the life of a beast, while disobedience will lead to a civilised life (29.2)
The passage concludes by stating that only by understanding when to obey and when not to obey can one practice reverence, respect, loyalty, and act with sincerity. Although obedience is important, since acting correctly and obediently is what creates harmony and respect, obedience without thought and reflection amounts to empty ritual.
The way in which remonstration is carried out is also important. Referencing the Book of Rites, Huang (2012) shows that filial children should not shout or assault their parents. Instead, one ought to “remonstrate with low tone, nice facial expression, and soft voice” (Liji 12.15). The important point is that the manner in which remonstration is carried out needs to be gentle and considerate so as to continue being respectful and righteous. Shouting or assaulting, even with good intention, could make the situation worse by upsetting one’s parents and resulting in disharmony. So, while it is wrong to stop remonstrating, it is also wrong to remonstrate incorrectly, that is, in a way that makes the situation worse and one’s parents even more angry. The extent to which remonstration should be carried out is also highlighted in the Book of Rites. As passage 12.15 points out, one ought to remain filial,
If they [one’s parents] are happy, you ought to resume gentle remonstration; if they are not happy, however, instead of letting your parents cause harm to your neighbors, you ought to use an extreme form of remonstration. If at this extreme form of remonstration your parents get angry and unhappy, hitting you with hard whips, you still ought not to complain about them; instead you ought to remain reverent and filial to them.
Rather than letting one’s parents commit a bad deed, efforts at remonstration should not be given up. Even when physically and mentally exhausted, the child has a duty to remonstrate repeatedly until the parents stop committing their wrongdoings.
When applying the understanding of Xiao as obedience and remonstration to the son-covering-father story, then it is clear that the actions of the child must be conducive to ensuring the parents’ well-being. That is the first concern for the child. The reason why Confucius emphasised non-disclosure or concealing the father’s wrongdoings relates to remonstration. Remonstrating works best if protesting against the parents’ actions is conducted in an intimate setting and carried out in a gentle manner, creating “an atmosphere favourable to such remedies” (Huang, 2012, p. 32). While there is no guarantee that giving parents space will create a favourable situation for correcting their wrongdoings, the son’s non-disclosure becomes a morally correct action as it aims to rectify not only the wrong carried out by the father but also giving the son a chance to confront and rectify the wrong-doer.
It should be noted that Confucius does not say that a filial child obstructs justice when authorities are investigating or that authorities should not investigate the case. Concealing, in this sense, does not refer to active concealment or taking part in the father’s crime. Rather, Confucius emphasises the importance of passive concealment (not reporting the father) as the correct action to remonstrate until the father corrects his actions. The passage in which the ‘son-covering-father’ story takes place does not state what correcting the father’s actions looks like. The idea of justice in Confucianism needs to be further explored.
Authenticity can mean many different things. According to Ballentine (2011), authentic is that which is genuine or real. An item from the store can be considered authentic if that item is made from the material the seller claims it is. So, a real watch or a genuine purse contrasts with a watch or purse made from less valuable material. While the less-valuable watch would still be a ‘watch’ that measures time, the fact that it is made from material other than what the seller claims it was made from makes the watch cheap, worthless, and in-authentic.
Rodriguez (2015) extends the definition of authenticity to people when he claims that authenticity means trustworthy and reliable. In other words, a person is considered authentic if they are what they claim to be. If person A states that she is honest and tells the truth to her friend, it follows that person A is an authentic person. She has proven to be reliable by doing what she said she would do, i.e: tell the truth. While person A would still be a physical person whether or not she told the truth, following through with being honest is what gives her the attribute of authenticity. Thus, authenticity is a social value that does not exist in the natural world: “what is taken as authentic is a social construction rather than an objective fact” (Carroll, 2009, p. 4).
Understanding authentic personhood (what it means to be a ‘real’ person) goes beyond being honest when one claims to be honest, and raises questions about how to live in the world and what it means to genuinely experience life. In Western philosophy, this question has been extensively explored where ‘being in the world’ means to think (Descartes), to be conscious (Kant), or to imagine (Hume). For Descartes, for example, to be an authentic being with an identity means to doubt and inquire. “I know that I exist and that nothing else belongs to my nature or essence except that I am a thinking thing” (Meditations VI, p. 29). In Confucianism however, the idea of individuality or self is not adequately explored. As Chen (2015) states, the idea that Confucian ethics is antipathy to individuality is a mistake as there are plenty of references to the self in both The Great Learning and The Analects. While emphasised by most Confucian texts, the value of authenticity is also often ignored and dismissed by scholars in the West. To address this gap, this article discusses both authenticity and the self in Confucian philosophy.
While there is no direct reference to what the self is in Confucian teachings, the doctrine highlights that humans are different from other beings. The Analects states, “an authentic person is not a vessel” (2.12). Personhood consists in zhixiang or having a sense of meaning in life. This means that experiencing the self and the world is about committing to some purpose: “the way of humanity consists in learning broadly, acting firmly on one’s zhixiang, inquiring seriously, and reflecting critically” (The Analects, 9.6). To have purpose and to act on that purpose is therefore what distinguishes humans from other beings. Since Confucianism is concerned with establishing harmony with others, the idea of purpose or zhixiang usually refers to ethical aspirations and concern for the common good (Chen, 2004). This relates to Heidegger’s (1962) definition of authenticity. According to Heidegger, to be oneself in the world (what he calls Dasdein or ‘being-there’) is to be in relation. Relation here refers to what one is at any moment and what one can be as life unfolds in endless possibilities. Over the course of one’s life, identity and being are always in question: “we are always projections into the future, incessantly taking a stand on who we are” (Varga, 2014). Being authentic or representing one’s self truly comes down to ownership or ‘being one’s own’, implying that to exist fully in the world means to own up to what one is and what one does. Zhixiang in Confucianism says the same thing. With a purpose, a person is able to own up to their existence by having a firm vision of how their existence should be. Without it, people “are like ships without helms…wandering around and losing in direction” (Wang, 1986, p. 26). Consistent thoughts, actions, beliefs, and choices in accordance with zhixiang allows one to focus on existence and become an authentic being.
In addition to purpose, creativity also develops the individual. Whereas zhixiang provides the self with a vision and meaning, creativity is what drives or energizes the self. In The Great Learning, it is written that “If you can renovate yourself one day, then you can do so every day, and keep doing so day after day” (Tu, 1978, p. 37). Renovating, constructing, and producing are all ways of accessing the authentic self. Creativity, in this sense, is related to ownership and originality. To be creative is to truly exist on one’s own terms as creatively gives the self energy to construct and pursue zhixiang. The Doctrine of the Mean states, “only those with the greatest sincerity under heaven can fulfil their nature” (ch. 22). Making use of one’s potentials enables the self to strive for an ethical life in which ritual, kindness, and justice can be established wherever one is.
The third attribute that makes up personhood and authentic existence is critical thinking. Like the Socratic dictum, the unexamined life is not worth living, Confucianism emphasises self-examination as a way of establishing truth, value, and meaning to existence. For instance, in The Analects Master Zeng is recorded to have said, “each day I examine myself upon three points. In planning for others, have I been loyal? In company with friends, have I been trustworthy? And have I practiced what has been passed on to me?” (1.4). Critical thinking means reflecting upon one’s action and inquiring about what one is learning in addition to reflecting and inquiring about other people’s actions and learning. As Chen (2004) notes, “without thinking things over, we cannot understand the truth of Being and be free of self-deception” (p. 19). Critical inquiry provides the setting or means to which one can be creative and pursue a sense of purpose. With it, authentic life can be experienced to a greater degree.
Finally, the most important aspect to living an authentic life is sincerity. Sincerity resembles loyalty and trustworthiness in that it means to ‘be true to oneself’. To be sincere is to not veer from the position one holds or strive to appear otherwise than one ought to (Varga, 2014). It is, as Trilling (1972) states, “the sense of being sound, or pure, or whole; or consistent in its virtuousness” (p. 12-13). In Islam, sincerity is one of the most important aspects of religious duty. For instance, Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq notes that “sincerity of action lies in this that you should not desire anyone to praise you for it except God Almighty, and intention supersedes action. Lo, verily, intention is action itself.” Al-Sadiq’s statement highlights that sincerity involves having the right intentions as whether or not one carries out a religious duty correctly, the merit of that action will be based on the truthful feelings, beliefs, and thoughts of the believer. Or as the Qur’an (17:84) states, “in accordance with his character (shakilatihi)”, which refers to the believer’s way or manner. One of the oldest elaborations of sincerity is found in chapter 20 of The Doctrine of the Mean: “To be sincere is the way of heaven. To become sincere is the way of mankind. If you are sincere you will reach the center without force”. Thus, developing sincerity is the way to establishing personhood. Since sincerity is an essential component to practicing the moral way, being sincere relates to sincerity to self and others. Only by cultivating ‘right’ emotions can a person genuinely be benevolent, righteous, and wise. Without it, ritual would be empty, kindness would be false, and practice would have no meaning. Insincerity would not only involve deceiving and diminishing others, but putting on a mask and becoming disconnected from the world.
Although individualism does not exist in Confucian thought – all individuals are relational beings that exist through and are defined by other people – it is incorrect to state that “we ought to make it a point to avoid speaking of ‘the self’ in Confucius” (Fingarette, 1991, p. 199, cited in Ames, 2011, p. 125). There is no denying that the self exists. Being an ethical person is predicated on the assumption that a subjective, metaphysical self is required to carry out one’s ethical duties and develop harmonious relationships with others. Building authentic personhood by finding purpose, being creative, inquiring critically, and carrying out sincerely is what gives one the means of relating to and being with others. It is what gives one humanity.
Since the early 2000s, a debate in the Chinese philosophy community has centered around the ‘son-covering-father’ story in the Analects. The passage goes like this:
“The Duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact’. Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this [italics added].” (Analects 13.18, Legge, 2014)
The story suggests that concealing a theft is morally acceptable if the thief is a member of your family, which in the Confucian tradition is used to promote the idea of partial love. Unlike Mo-tzu (墨翟) and his theory of universal love, where an equal love for all is the solution to social problems and the evil nature of human beings (Xu, 2007), partial love means that the love one gives to others is unequal. For example, you may fully love your parents, have no love for a stranger, and love your neighbour more than the postperson. However, does love for your parents mean that you should cover for them if they commit a crime? According to Liu (2007), the Confucian writings are well known for commending corrupt actions such as bending the law for the benefit of relatives or appointing people because of their family connections. Professors of philosophy Hall and Ames (1989) also state that “Chinese culture has traditionally been plagued with abuses that arise because of…nepotism [and] personal loyalties from special privilege” (p. 308). In that sense, the virtue of Xiao (filial piety) clashes with the virtue of Ren (benevolence), which promotes impartiality and love in accordance for all. This leads to what Li (2012) calls ‘The Confucian Puzzle’.
To explain why the son was justified in covering the father for his crime, it is important to understand the meaning of Xiao and Ren. Both Confucius and Mencius state that Xiao is the foundation of all other moral virtues. In passage 1.2 of the Analects, for instance, the philosopher Yu says that there “are few who, being filial and fraternal, are fond of offending against their superiors. There have been none, who, not liking to offend against their superiors, have been fond of stirring up confusion” (Legge, 2014). As well as forming the basis for loyalty and obedience, deference to elders and dutiful conduct are also key to forming government: “you are filial, you discharge your fraternal duties. These qualities are displayed in government” (Analects, bk. ii., c. xxi., v. 2). The importance of filial piety and duty is also expressed in Chinese cosmology and social order which legitimises the Chinese patrilineal and patriarchal family system so that family become central to human identity and power relations (Ebrey, 2003).
However, while Xiao forms the building block of morality and personhood, Ren represents the ultimate aim of Confucian thought, which is to express care and concern for other human beings. When Fan Ch’ih asked about benevolence, the Master said “it is to love men” (Analects, 12.22). Embodying Ren means that one not only wishes to establish and enlarge the self, but enlarge and establish others. By becoming benevolent, sincere, and kind, a person becomes a Junzi (君子), that is, an ideal moral actor for all human beings. Because the Junzi works on the root and cultivates filiality and respect for elders (Analects, 1.2), it follows that to be a Junzi starts with the family, before one can develop Ren and care for others.
When explaining the ‘son-covering-father’ story, Confucians must explain why the son’s love towards the father should be put above the sheep owner who, according to Li (2012), has better moral ground to request that the son return the sheep and ask the father to apologise for stealing. The first argument claims that it would be unwise for the son to destroy his relationship with the father by reporting the theft. At the very least, the son can preserve the relationship with the father and then choose to take further action. Adapting Van Norden’s (2008) hypothetical case, consider the following example to support the son for covering for his father:
Suppose that my sibling was part of a cult that was responsible for killing a farmer in the 1980s. This sibling is now a productive member of society, with a good job, and happy family. Finding out about my sibling’s role in the crime, one moral choice would involve reporting the sibling and turning them in. However, for a Confucian, the reaction would be different as it would involve confronting the sibling, discovering why the crime was committed, and asking whether such a thing could happen again. If the sibling has reformed and would never commit such a crime again, it follows that prosecution is not necessary.
The only way this argument works is if the person in question is a family member. For instance, supposing that it was a stranger that stole the sheep or killed the farmer, reacting to the crimes would, in most cases, involve reporting without hesitation. Hence, valuing family relations is of utmost importance to the case as the obligations one has towards family surpasses obligations to all other relationships and institutions. The idea of family as critical to moral integrity and human worth is expressed by the neo-Confucian philosopher Yangming Wang (1996). He states:
“The love between father and son and between brothers is the place where the productivity of the human heart begins, just like the tree’s beginning from a sprout. From there the love of humanity and the care for everything develops, just as the tree’s having branches and leaves.” (p. 27)
Two conclusions emerge from this passage. The first is that as the root of morality, Xiao is a method of cultivating benevolence and compassion towards other human beings. Family life forms a convenient setting to practice Ren through family love. While this does not mean that Ren must grow through family love or one would be unable to practice benevolence in a non-family setting, considering that human nature is innately good (Mengzi, 2A6), family simply provides a contingent place for cultivating Ren “due to natural or social evolution” (Li, 2012, p. 42). So Xiao provides an important setting for practicing morality, but it is not an end to morality itself. According to this understanding, the son can choose not to cover for his father if he has cultivated enough love for others so that he is no longer confined to expressing love in the family setting. Rather than believing that Xiao is the most important moral principle (see Rosemont & Ames, 2008), the reason that the son covers for the father is because his love for others has not been cultivated enough.
The second conclusion from Wang’s passage is developed by liberal Confucian scholars who argue that while Xiao is one of the most important moral principles, it is not more important than any other moral virtues, including Ren, Li, or Yi. As professor of philosophy Tongdong Bai (2008) notes, Xiao can be taken as a “starting point, but not as a supreme end point” (p. 29). In the context of the son-covering-father story, Xiao may be more important than following the principle of justice or caring for the sheep owner because of the nature of the crime and the lack of detail in the story. But, if the father killed the innocent sheep owner, justice and the need to care for the victim’s family would override the principle of Xiao. Ideally, a harmonization of all principles should be achieved where justice, care for others, and filial duty are all valued. This would mean that while the son was justified for covering the father, he should also seek to reimburse the sheep owner and make sure that the theft does not happen again.
For Li (2012), both conclusions fail to justify why the son should cover for his father. In the first case, where Xiao is only a convenient setting for developing love towards others, the son is either capable of reporting his father or has never thought about it. If he is capable and has thought about reporting the father, then he should extend family love towards others and sacrifice the means of family love towards the more important principle of loving others. If the son has not thought about reporting the father, that does not mean that he should not. Thus, based on this understanding, the son is morally obliged to report the father. The problem with this conclusion is that it contradicts Confucius’s recommendation of covering for the father.
According to the second conclusion, where Xiao is of equal importance to all other principles or at least important as Ren, it is unclear how one should decide which principle to compromise in the stolen sheep case. Since Confucius recommends that in this particular context, Xiao should be preserved and love towards others should be compromised, one can speculate that there is something in the story that made Confucius choose Xiao over Ren. For example, perhaps the nature of the crime (theft) is not as bad or life-threatening as murder, and turning the father in for theft could do the father more harm than the sheep owner. But this is only speculative as the sheep could have been the sheep owner’s only income, the last sheep in his stock, and the only meal left for his wife and children. As Li (2012) notes, “it is conceptually unclear with regard to the idea of damage and benefit and with regard to the comparison between the damage to one and the benefit to the other” (p. 45).
In that case, there are no clear answers to the puzzle, at least not by assuming that Xiao should never be compromised. If the situation was truly life-threatening, where the father killed and continues to kill sheep owners in the village, there is no moral reason as to why the son should not report the violent father. Furthermore, assuming that Xiao is the most supreme principle also implies that those without family love or even a family are unable to live as morally as those who do practice Xiao. This is not plausible since there are many people in the world who have moral qualities and do not have or live with their families.
If you would like to submit an answer to the Confucian puzzle, email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sent responses will be included in future posts.