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.