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.
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.
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