Image: Friends Playing, 1600. Retrieved from here.
During the third century, the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus placed a placard with the Golden Rule on his palace wall. The placard read, “Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris” (What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others). In the West, the oldest reference to the Rule can be found in the writings of Isocrates, an ancient Greek rhetorician and critic of Plato. Isocrates points out that the self and the other are comparable. As he writes in Speeches (19.49), “give a just verdict, and prove yourselves to be for me such judges as you would want to have for yourselves.” To put it simply, one should use power moderately and reasonably, aiming to achieve a fair and balanced exchange with others. It is only by treating others as one would want to be treated that a system can be created that does not result in favouritism or discrimination. As some theorists argue, humans are self-interested beings that only do tasks because of the benefits that they expect to obtain, either directly or indirectly. By treating others fairly, one should expect to receive the same kind of treatment. Thus, if fair treatment is not provided, one should also expect an unfair repayment of some sort, whether this occurs in the long-term or short-term. Different religious systems have different ways of explaining how this return takes place. For Buddhism and Hinduism, cosmic justice or karma results in good or bad future consequences depending on one’s intent and behaviour. Islamic thought explains this through the ‘right of God’, who determines whether one will be punished for treating others’ unfairly. In Confucianism, proper behaviour is what leads to social harmony and effective governance, while unfairness results in moral chaos and political struggle.
The Confucian version of the Gold Rule is found in many passages in the Analects. For example, in 5.12 it is stated that when Zigong said, “What I do not wish others to do to me, I do not wish to do to others”, the Master replied that Zigong had not yet reached this level of moral development. In other words, it takes time and effort to learn reciprocity: “that which you do not desire, do not do to others.” (15.24). Others have translated the word ‘reciprocity’ in the Analects as ‘consideration’, which means to care or keep in mind someone or something over a period of time. The Latin term considerationem comes from the past participle of considerare, which from the mid-15th century referred to taking something into account (Harper, 2017). However, consideration alone does not cover the Golden Rule. While you might take something or someone into account, it does not necessarily follow that you will act on that consideration. For instance, while I might consider the neighbour’s interests in my decision to plant a tree near the neighbour’s gate, I might go through with my decision for planting the tree near the gate as this spot is ultimately better than the spot near the door, even if the neighbour may not like my decision. In that case, an element of reciprocity is important as without considering the mutual exchange of benefits or returning something the same way as it was given, the Golden Rule would not work. It involves reversibility, exchange, and consistency as we consider how to treat others as we would like to be treated. Because the Confucian idea of this exchange involves an aspect of care: treating others as honoured guests, and acting towards subordinates as though conducting a ritual (Analects, 12.2), the Golden Rule in the Confucian sense can be understood as ‘reciprocal consideration’.
There are many aspects to reciprocal consideration. For one, there are two formulations to the rule. The first describes reciprocity positively as you “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In the Bible, Luke 6:13 and Matthew 7:12 both express the rule this way and describe it as the ‘Law and the Prophets’. To know and act towards others as you would want others to act towards you is what leads to moral righteousness and mutual consideration. However, as Zecha (2011) points out, a standard objection to this version of the Rule is that many people have strange desires that others may not want to reciprocate. For example, someone who enjoys experiencing pain might wish to harm others so that others will harm them in return. To escape this problem, the negative version of “not doing to others as you would not want done to you” supposedly discourages harmful behaviour and includes an element of restraint or ‘action within appropriate limits’ when considering how to interact with others. In practice, this requires a person to become empathetic by imagining oneself as the other, or as Confucians put it, ‘compassionate’: to feel with or together with someone. Mengzi 4A9 indicates the political relevance of this exchange as it notes that “there is a way to get the people: get their hearts, and the people are got. There is a way to get their hearts: it is simple to collect for them what they like, and not to lay on them what they dislike” (Legge, 1991, p. 300). So, according to the rule, political leaders or those in authority have a duty to appeal to and feel with subordinates. Although on an individual basis, reciprocal consideration is based on the protection of the self, when applied to a larger scale, those in less powerful positions should feel that the powerful have an ultimate allegiance to the human community, rather than an interest to preserve their power. When the stakes are higher and more lives are affected by how society is organised, ruler attempts to engage in reciprocal consideration needs to be done with right intention and integrity, otherwise subordinates may question the ruler’s legitimacy. Examples of this can be seen in American or Chinese foreign politics. When actions are interpreted as one-sided, deceptive, and unfair, fear and suspicion ensue. Any attempts to explain or justify these actions by rhetoric are dismissed as empty speech, where words no longer have substance or value. As the Book of Poetry states, when “Tian (or in this case, trust and reciprocity) is poised to topple, No more of this babble!” (ode 254).
It is interesting to note the meaning of ‘empty speech’. In Confucianism, the concept of empty ritual is often discussed. Rituals are learnt ways of proper behaviour. They are actions that necessitate social harmony. While the purpose of these actions are to perform for and with others, rituals should not be morally empty. Singerland’s (2003) translation of the Analects notes that sparse ritual is better than empty excess ritual (p. 18). In other words, the point of performing public actions is that they should express inward morality. By practising ritual, one is taught to cultivate internal ethical attitudes and channel one’s emotions, improving social harmony. On the other side of this spectrum is empty speech. That is, what Moncayo (2016) calls “parrot’s empty or idle speech” (p. 23). Usually when we hear someone talk, the content of their words has meaning. The words are full and convey expression and imagery to the listener. Often, words can have double-meanings and these meanings are understood in the context of the conversation. So, to have empty speech means to speak without meaning. No information is being signified, or what is said has little substance. It becomes a case of either uttering words without saying anything, or saying something while meaning or doing something else. Talk becomes disjointed rather than connected to listeners, which ultimately leads to empty noise.
Thus, when we think of ‘reciprocal consideration’, it is not just about putting oneself in the other’s shoes. Reciprocity is about joining speech with action, with the expectation that others will do the same. Without this expectation, mutual trust and empathy become difficult to maintain and one would struggle to exist in a social community. As Confucius says, whether through human-to-human gift giving or sacrificial rites for the ancestors, it is important to be present, as it is important “for the spirits to be present” (3.17). Relationships begin to form when there is a balanced reciprocity between the ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ of any exchange.
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.