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January 04, 2009


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I would like to comment on the concept of xin 心 as mentioned here. I find it interesting that you separate feeling and conscious thought in relation to xin. I am not well versed in Mencius, or any Chinese philosophers for that matter, nor am I a native speaker of Chinese, but you rarely see nao 脑 or other "head" related terms in Chinese when referring to thought. From my understanding, the heart, or xin, was also considered the center of cognitive thought AS WELL AS feeling. Forgive me if I'm completely off on this, but I thought it was interesting and wondered if my impression held any water.

Hi Josh,

I am so glad you stopped by! And thank you for your comment. The above opinion in my post, I based pretty much solely on Japanese commentaries. The passage is really aiming at describing what is 惻隠之心 and then once we understand what 惻隠心 is, how this applies to proper rule.

In my japanese commentaries this is explained exclusively in terms of 感情.

I will let the China people speak up (though of course I remain partial to my Japanese reading).... and for what it's worth, I cannot speak for ancient Japanese, but in modern Japanese, while you could say 心で考える (heart can think), it is a bit of a stretch and almost could just serve as a metaphor for deep thinking. In general, it would be 心で思う (heart feels, is thoughtful) and 頭で考える (head thinks)...

I wonder if Chinese is different? Perhaps...but I think the standard translations do translate this as feeling (??)

Anyway, thanks Josh and hoping to talk to you again.


Great post, as usual.

The point your raise about Mencius is, of course, not one that Mencius himself is unaware of -- it comes up at 3A5 in his debate with the Mohist Yizi (odd that I just wrote on Bell and Mohism myself, though in a different way!).

Yizi takes Mencius' example to show that there is a universalist sense in which people will respond emotionally to the baby falling into the well. Since having the feeling doesn't depend on the relationship the person has with the baby, doesn't that prove that there is some sense of universalism?

I think Mencius' response is something like this: the example isn't meant to support universalism (or indiscriminate love), but rather is meant to show that in a situation where there is a morally salient feature that everyone would agree to, there is an incipient compassion. The feature, Mencius thinks, is that "the child will suffer harm when it has done nothing wrong".

Bell talks this way at times too, no? He says at the start that no one thinks that murdering the innocent is a good thing. That doesn't mean that they don't do so (even Mencius thinks that feeling compassion for the baby doesn't mean running to help), but it does mean that they will do their best to think of reasons why the people involved weren't innocent, or they'll try to cover up the existence of such cases. Bell's problem is not with such cases, but rather with "disputed" cases where there is no agreement. For instance, we might agree that harming the innocent is bad, but disagree on which cases highlight that principle.

Similarly, I think Mencius is suggesting here that it's just a fact that no one would disagree that in this case, the child has done no harm. So he uses this fact to show that since the interpretation is not up for grabs, it is instructive that everyone feels compassion in that situation (instructive in that it demonstrates a feature of human xing).

I would be interested to know, however, where Bell thinks "don't harm the innocent" (or whatever general undisputed principles there are) come from. A priori, or a postereori? Even in Mencius' case I think this question isn't answered (IMO). Why do we respond to cases of perceived injustice? Why is justice a salient feature to us, such that we respond to it with compassion? It is not a stretch to see that the universalist (of the kind you are rejecting) will want to get his/her claws in right here.

Perhaps part of an answer might be that such concerns are not "anti-local" but are rather local but shared by all of the local communities that we have conversations with, and this shared concern may be a feature of similarities of our empirical situations (and so their origin would a posteriori). Still, I'd be interested to see more about this from Bell's work, but I may have missed it in EmW.


I realize that this has not addressed your interesting issue here in constrasting dispositions with principles, by the way! I just wanted to get out this other point first.

Josh and Peony,

The thinking/feeling distinction probably shouldn't be considered a default distinction. It is not clear that the Chinese thought of there being something significant from feeling something and thinking something. That's why xin 心 seemingly does "double" duty. Also, as an aside, Aristotle also thought of the heart as the thinking organ and the brain as a cooling organ (think of it as a radiator for anmials):

"The coldness of the brain is also manifest enough. For in the first place it is cold even to the touch; and, secondly, of all the fluid parts of the body it is the driest and the one that has the least blood; for in fact it has no blood at all in its proper substance. This brain is not residual matter, nor yet is it one of the parts which are anatomically continuous with each other; but it has a character peculiar to itself, as might indeed be expected. That it has no continuity with the organs of sense is plain from simple inspection, and is still more clearly shown by the fact, that, when it is touched, no sensation is produced; in which respect it resembles the blood of animals and their excrement. The purpose of its presence in animals is no less than the preservation of the whole body. For some writers assert that the soul is fire or some such force. This, however, is but a rough and inaccurate assertion; and it would perhaps be better to say that the soul is incorporate in some substance of a fiery character. The reason for this being so is that of all substances there is none so suitable for ministering to the operations of the soul as that which is possessed of heat. For nutrition and the imparting of motion are offices of the soul, and it is by heat that these are most readily effected. To say then that the soul is fire is much the same thing as to confound the auger or the saw with the carpenter or his craft, simply because the work is wrought by the two in conjunction. So far then this much is plain, that all animals must necessarily have a certain amount of heat. But as all influences require to be counterbalanced, so that they may be reduced to moderation and brought to the mean (for in the mean, and not in either extreme, lies the true and rational position), nature has contrived the brain as a counterpoise to the region of the heart with its contained heat, and has given it to animals to moderate the latter, combining in it the properties of earth and water." (Parts of Animals, Part II)

I'm also not sure, Peony, that we can make the East/West distinction here between universalism and...anti-universalism(?) or some form of relativism. There are relativists in the West of various stripes as well as in the East.

The Confucians, Mencius included of course, seem to take a pretty strong universalist view in lots of respects, most pointedly, I think, in suggesting or arguing that the system of rituals and customs that the Zhou Dynasty instituted instantiated *the* correct patterns of human living for all humans. Those who didn't live within these patterns could be considered less than human. The Mencius 2A6 passage that you cite includes this: 無惻隱之心,非人也;無羞惡之心,非人也;無辭讓之心,非人也;無是非之心,非人也 "Those without the heart of commiseration *are not human*, without the heart of shame and chagrin are not human..."

As far as the universalism goes, I think this is clearly universalist. The thinking/feeling distinction, I'm perhaps less sure about, but I'll have to think more about it and hear from you some more. Anyway, something to chew on...

Peony > for to say that, "you must do x, because it is something we all inherently feel" is an altogether different kettle of fish than to say, "you must do x because it is objectively Right."

Neither captures my intention. I much prefer this form: "you must do x, because it is something we all inherently feel is objectively right" (small r).

Hi Manyul,

Thank you so much for checking in!! (I know how busy you are right now-- hope all is well and it's not too cold there).

Regarding xin 心 doing double duty-- that is without a doubt and the same goes for the Japanese (I imagine Korean as well). Also as I mentioned there are certainly universalist tendancies in other traditions. However
1) Unless you can show me otherwise, I stand by the statement that the Western tradition (starting a least from the Meno and continuing on in the Christian philosophies -- natural law etc.) is overwhelmingly charactericized by this framing of ethical philosophy as objective rationally conceived Truth
2) There is a significant difference between universalist thought based on a priori principles versus those based on feelings... it is like saying, "those who are unable to fall in love are not human" (something I hold to) or "those who cannot feel the suffering of a child are not human" (let us all recall the ethics of the Brothers Karamazov-- which I think this Mencius quote has FAR more in common with than the Plato quote....)

What do you think?

One last thing to tempt you with, my friend, and this is from one of my theories on falling down, and that is this,

I am an indentured servant to a philosophy professor at the University of Hiroshima who writes paper after paper analyzing what it means to aesthetics if you take mind-mody duality out of the quation. Until Meiji times, in Japanese "body" was not written like today 体 but rather as 身体 which you can see has both mind/self and body included in the term physical self. That the japanese did not strictly distinguish between mind and mody has profound implications for the _practice_ of art (that is, art was never something to be objectively viewed from a scientific "perspective from nowehere" a la Kant) but rather it was embodied practice.

I think similarly if you have a universalism that is based on embodied engagement with the world (rather than detached or disengaged contemplation) I think this fundamentally roots this universalism in environment-- rather than in objective truth.

Finally, 無人 is ambiguous-- this could be translated I would think differently. In any case, mencius is pointing to a universally conceived and noramtive shared value-- I agree. But what is this based on? And wouldn't the answer to that be also significant?

More later...

Hi Chris and Namit,

As usual, Chris, we see everything in the same light (or shall I say, lichtung?)

Anyway, I do think Mencius is talking about a universally shared trait so in that sense I think he is saying something like this: (how's this Namit?)

"you should _feel_ x, for if you do not feel x, you would not be human as all humans do feel x"

Interestingly "feel" is not in there per se except, is it? Or isn't 情 (which may have been in that passage??) But in any event all the english translations I saw translated 心 as "feel" and Japanese translations I checked did go with 感情

Manyul might do this, "all people have a heart capable of feeling pity/compassion for child in a well"??

Dostoevskian logic anyone?

BTW, Chris, I think if Mencius is proposing this heart that can feel compassion as a universally shared human trait (emotion) then this is where the demand for dialogue and local know-how comes in (in Bell's argument at least)since it is being presented not as universal objective truth but as shared human propensity (and in fact Ivan Karamazov was tormented by humans who were intentionally cruel to children as it just didn't fit his conception of God and the ethical did it?)

That is my take, at least.

I haven't read your posts on Mozi yet since... but will do so in a bit (the Kid is awake and it is freezing in this room)...


On Bell: that seems right to me, I don't think we're in disagreement.

Our shared sprouts of benevolence (duan) and at least the basic responses to situations that they provide should provide the context for dialogue and discussion, not universal principles. The fact that Mencius thinks no human would be insensitive to the child shouldn't (I don't think) be taken to mean that benevolence can't be properly exhibited in different ways in different local (and embodied) situations. I guess my reading of the child thought experiment is to see it as yet another local (though shared) context (as opposed to evidence of a form of universalism).

Perhaps a point here is something like this: human contexts are different, but similar enough such that not being affected by the sight of a child falling in a well would be evidence of a lack of humanity. But once this is granted, that local context might serve as the "originating" point from which dialogue on matters of dispute could proceed.

That (what you said directly above) is precisely how I read both Bell and Bell disguised as Mencius.

What is "duan" is it 惻隱??

> "you should _feel_ x, for if you do not feel x, you would not be human as all humans do feel x"

Sounds pretty bad, Peony. If Mencius said this to me (and I did not feel x), I might feel pretty pissed. He is questioning my very humanity using soft terms like "feel"!

I guess it depends on what the goal is. What is the goal? To persuade others to value something? If so, it will first help to establish clearly in our own minds that when it comes to values (such as those that inform human rights), we are in the realm of metaphysics, that the very demand for "universal objectivity" is mistaken outside areas not amenable to scientific verification. Second, that since this is metaphysics, all we can do is persuade someone of our subjective values, which we presumably think are better values for the kind of world we want to live in. That's all we have -- one language game vs. another, but with real human consequences.

Third, we need to figure out what the best way to convince the other is. Pay attention to "the other" we are dealing with. As an ancient Chinese sage said, "know thy adversary." It may require some combination of pleading, arguing, requesting, reasoning, cajoling, praising, threatening, illustrating, bribing, appeasing, challenging, inviting for dinner, and many other ordinary human techniques. Alongside, I have to remain flexible to revise my faith in my values, given new discoveries. But that's all there is -- my faith in values that I believe will lead to a better world, and trying others to see it my way. A sense of humor helps too.

Wow, It's hard to keep up with you all...
A few points:
First, I, too, would not make too much of a feeling/thinking distinction. Confucius and Mencius clearly embed what we could understand as a rational ethical theory in a foundation of emotional attachment. That's the genius of positing family ties as the primary moral obligation: we presumably love our family and will happily fulfill these duties. But it is not just about feeling. It is developed into a theory (of sorts) that suggests that doing the right thing is also the logical thing to do (for self-preservation; for social-political order and stability; for economic prosperity).
Second, ethics isn't math. The universality of the Pythagorean Theorem is not the same as the universality of an ethical principle. The slave, after all, was a slave, and would have been treated differently, with a wholly different set of moral and legal obligations and expectations, than Socrates. We should not use a model of universality drawn from mathematics to measure moral universalism; it seems to me it would never work, East, West, North or South.
Third, Mencius would agree that we have to learn to be good. We have an innate moral sense, but it must be cultivated. There will be cultural and historical variation in the way in which morality is cultivated, but there remains a basic, universal, human capacity for moral goodness that transcends cultural context. Think about the barley:
"Mencius said: “In good years, young men are mostly fine. In bad years they’re mostly cruel and violent. It isn’t that Heaven endows them with such different capacities, only that their hearts are mired in such different situations. Think about barley: if you plant the seeds carefully at the same time and in the same place, they’ll sprout and grow ripe by summer solstice. If they don’t grow the same – it’s because of the inequities in richness of soil, amounts of rainfall,or the care given by farmers. And so, all members belonging to a given species of things are the same. Why should humans be the lone exception… (11.7) (6A.7)"
It follows from this that if we vary the circumstances, we can improve the moral behavior of the "young men" (they are the most troublesome, after all). To push it further, a person raised in a cultural context that paid insufficient attention to the care of elders (to pick something important for Confucians), that person, given the proper education and enlightenment, could be brought around to the right way of seeing things. The universality of a person's emotion-based, and reason-based, innate moral capacity will ultimately win out over cultural variations...

Hi Sam,

I think I basically agree with everything you said in your comment--however, I woke up with a bad cold which could be clouding my ability to think clearly :)

Immediately, I had two responses:
1)Regarding the feeling/rational distinction, both could be termed universal and both could be perhaps described as innate knowledge, however depending on which you hold with, I do think this can have significant practical implications in terms of both discourse style and in terms of how much environment comes into play. Chris pretty much summed up my feelings on this above when he said:

"human contexts are different, but similar enough such that not being affected by the sight of a child falling in a well would be evidence of a lack of humanity. But once this is granted, that local context might serve as the "originating" point from which dialogue on matters of dispute could proceed. "

This is one of the points I took away from Bell.

2) Regarding our universal innate moral capacity, "the devil is in the details".... Your example is one I really want to agree with. That is to say, I want to believe that all people would intuitiely feel or rationally come to the conclusion that taking care of the elderly is the right thing to do. So, let's say this is a shared universal moral intuition, then even still we do not get away from the need for locally based knowledge (cultural norms) because how that is interpreted is going to depend on that very heavily.

It won't be a matter of international law since I just do not see efficiency-based societies taking up practices that do not fit or sit well with the general world view.

So, that even if we agree, let's say US society would probably have to come to very different interpretations and very, very different means to achieve the aim than say Japan or Singapore. (because laws in japan are not as perfectly based on individual rights as in the US so that-- unless something has changed recently-- parents can be held legally responsible for their adult children's debt and vice versa.. or if a parent jumps in front of a train in suicide some family member will be required to pay the costs of the disruption etc.)

At the same time, while I am certain that there are large areas where most of humanity can agree-- what is interesting to me is that people tend to focus their attention on the other areas. So that expats in Japan tend to do the supercilious expat thing and go on about some of the lagging areas in civil rights here (compared to the US, Canada and Britain) and their tone is more often than not condescending, "well if Japan really wants to be a modern country..." but what do you do with the fact that different places view what is an innalienable rights differently? or that different philosophies will posit different fundamental principles to generate their ethical theories? (family versus autonomous individual etc). I am not sure I see the same emotional attachment as propping up the Western approaches (more of an aim toward detached, objectivity?) Your example of taking care of the elderly example is perfect I think. Will this-- as universal ethical imperative-- win out over cultural & philosophical variations?

Perhaps it would be more tenable to argue that certain strains of "Western" thought have held to an untenable belief that rationality and emotionality can be wholly severed. We should be going to this conference.

Sam/Peony -

I don't see any reason to think that the universal trait (from the incipient duan) of benevolence might not stress a universal duty.
Our shared (human) trait of feeling compassion might thus translate into a universal duty to be compassionate. But of course, feeling compassion doesn't tell you when it is *yi* to follow through on one's compassionate feelings. Mencius, perhaps, picks the child analogy because he can't imagine how anyone would disagree -- perhaps human empirical situations just don't differ enough for difference to be plausible. But beyond these sorts of core cases, they surely will (and quickly). And here I think Peony's claim about interpretation becomes important. Sure, I need to be compassionate: but when? in what circumstances? The devil is in the details, as Peony states. But still, we have some shared "core" cases (like the child in the well) to start from when we attempt to talk about rights, or ethics, or just plain good (or yi) behavior in those disputed areas. Also, I realize Sam doesn't think "universal" ethics should proceed on a mathematical model, and I agree - -but for many folks, it should. It's not like such an approach doesn't have a long historical tradition. In fact, I'd think that most people's intuitions (pre-theoretical and perhaps post!) on human rights stem from this type of thinking.

Hi Sam,

I would be much more interested in a conference located somewhere a bit warmer-- say Hanoi? HongKong? Penang? Regarding conference subject, couldn't we hold out for a conference about the untenable belief that political practices stand apart from cultural context??
(I'm just teasing!)

But, to say that ethical principles are not like mathematical ones is fine (and I personally agree)-- but in fact, I think this type of 1) objective viewpoint from nowhere 2) derived from a priori principles has been, in fact, an aim of certain _major_ strains of Western philosophy--

No one tackled this better than Dostoevsky, either, don't you think Chris? Bulgakov will be interesting as well-- though of course I will remain focused on the gulag as metaphor for marriage themes..

By the way, Sam:
I found your example of taking care of the elderly really very intriguing. And, I think you are an interesting thinker. I wonder if I lack imagination but I just am having a hard imagining care of the elderly becoming a universally held moral tenet-- no matter how we could seek to "re-educate" people.

What do you think?

I was thinking of some time I spent in Ladakh-- years ago when I was 20. And I have this image of all these very old people not being "old." Rather than being elderly people to be cared for, it seemed they just worked and worked and functioned in very productive ways until they passed away-- as "functioning adults" right till the end.(This is just me imaginatively recalling what I saw and I could be wrong)... but I also worked on a translation for a Japanese 総務省 government paper about a year ago on longevity in japan and one of the conclusions the paper had was that until the influence of American fastfood on Okinawa, Okinawa had the highest longevity in all Japan (Japan and HK always being neck-n-neck in highest longevity rates). There were 3 reasons sited in the study: greater consumption of fish, black sugar and the way there was not a concept of the elderly but rather old people continue to be expected to be active right till the end.

I guess what I am trying to say is that the most we could do "universally" is to say that those who cannot take care of themselves (due to various reasons including being under-aged, ill or what have you) *should not* be not taken taken care of (a kind of negative imperative). Then, I am afraid to conclude, local context will be the main issue in working how interpretation??

What do you think? Conference in Hanoi?


on benevolence as duan: which are you referring to?

I believe it is 端.

Hi there Chris, I never would have guessed that-- and to my knowledge that kanji is not used in Japaanese other than the conventional "extreme" meaning. Even in the case of the Boy's Day Festival, 端午の節句 the kanji just means start of the month month of the 午)

I wrote this post on Boy's Day if you are interested in reading about how dragon boats got turned into the carp flags...????

PS: And no one has any words of wisdom about the book by Francois Jullien I linked to above? I may just go ahead and buy the japanese but reading about kant in Japanese just sounds pretty horrific to me. In fact, I don't know if I could really "go there"

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