How Mengzi came up with something better than the Golden Rule

family-training

Family Training, unknown artist, Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. Courtesy the Met Museum, New York

Eric Schwitzgebel | Aeon Ideas

There’s something I don’t like about the ‘Golden Rule’, the admonition to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Consider this passage from the ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi (Mencius):

That which people are capable of without learning is their genuine capability. That which they know without pondering is their genuine knowledge. Among babes in arms there are none that do not know to love their parents. When they grow older, there are none that do not know to revere their elder brothers. Treating one’s parents as parents is benevolence. Revering one’s elders is righteousness. There is nothing else to do but extend these to the world.

One thing I like about the passage is that it assumes love and reverence for one’s family as a given, rather than as a special achievement. It portrays moral development simply as a matter of extending that natural love and reverence more widely.

In another passage, Mengzi notes the kindness that the vicious tyrant King Xuan exhibits in saving a frightened ox from slaughter, and he urges the king to extend similar kindness to the people of his kingdom. Such extension, Mengzi says, is a matter of ‘weighing’ things correctly – a matter of treating similar things similarly, and not overvaluing what merely happens to be nearby. If you have pity for an innocent ox being led to slaughter, you ought to have similar pity for the innocent people dying in your streets and on your battlefields, despite their invisibility beyond your beautiful palace walls.

Mengzian extension starts from the assumption that you are already concerned about nearby others, and takes the challenge to be extending that concern beyond a narrow circle. The Golden Rule works differently – and so too the common advice to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. In contrast with Mengzian extension, Golden Rule/others’ shoes advice assumes self-interest as the starting point, and implicitly treats overcoming egoistic selfishness as the main cognitive and moral challenge.

Maybe we can model Golden Rule/others’ shoes thinking like this:

  1. If I were in the situation of person x, I would want to be treated according to principle p.
  2. Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
  3. Thus, I will treat person x according to principle p.

And maybe we can model Mengzian extension like this:

  1. I care about person y and want to treat that person according to principle p.
  2. Person x, though perhaps more distant, is relevantly similar.
  3. Thus, I will treat person x according to principle p.

There will be other more careful and detailed formulations, but this sketch captures the central difference between these two approaches to moral cognition. Mengzian extension models general moral concern on the natural concern we already have for people close to us, while the Golden Rule models general moral concern on concern for oneself.

I like Mengzian extension better for three reasons. First, Mengzian extension is more psychologically plausible as a model of moral development. People do, naturally, have concern and compassion for others around them. Explicit exhortations aren’t needed to produce this natural concern and compassion, and these natural reactions are likely to be the main seed from which mature moral cognition grows. Our moral reactions to vivid, nearby cases become the bases for more general principles and policies. If you need to reason or analogise your way into concern even for close family members, you’re already in deep moral trouble.

Second, Mengzian extension is less ambitious – in a good way. The Golden Rule imagines a leap from self-interest to generalised good treatment of others. This might be excellent and helpful advice, perhaps especially for people who are already concerned about others and thinking about how to implement that concern. But Mengzian extension has the advantage of starting the cognitive project much nearer the target, requiring less of a leap. Self-to-other is a huge moral and ontological divide. Family-to-neighbour, neighbour-to-fellow citizen – that’s much less of a divide.

Third, you can turn Mengzian extension back on yourself, if you are one of those people who has trouble standing up for your own interests – if you’re the type of person who is excessively hard on yourself or who tends to defer a bit too much to others. You would want to stand up for your loved ones and help them flourish. Apply Mengzian extension, and offer the same kindness to yourself. If you’d want your father to be able to take a vacation, realise that you probably deserve a vacation too. If you wouldn’t want your sister to be insulted by her spouse in public, realise that you too shouldn’t have to suffer that indignity.

Although Mengzi and the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau both endorse mottoes standardly translated as ‘human nature is good’ and have views that are similar in important ways, this is one difference between them. In both Emile (1762) and Discourse on Inequality (1755), Rousseau emphasises self-concern as the root of moral development, making pity and compassion for others secondary and derivative. He endorses the foundational importance of the Golden Rule, concluding that ‘love of men derived from love of self is the principle of human justice’.

This difference between Mengzi and Rousseau is not a general difference between East and West. Confucius, for example, endorses something like the Golden Rule in the Analects: ‘Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.’ Mozi and Xunzi, also writing in China in the period, imagine people acting mostly or entirely selfishly until society artificially imposes its regulations, and so they see the enforcement of rules rather than Mengzian extension as the foundation of moral development. Moral extension is thus specifically Mengzian rather than generally Chinese.

Care about me not because you can imagine what you would selfishly want if you were me. Care about me because you see how I am not really so different from others you already love.


This is an edited extract from ‘A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures’ © 2019 by Eric Schwitzgebel, published by MIT Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

Eric Schwitzgebel is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. He blogs at The Splintered Mind and is the author of Perplexities of Consciousness (2011) and A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures (2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Philosophy via Facebook? Why Not?

the death of socrates

A portion of Jacques-Louis David’s 1787 painting, “The Death of Socrates.” (Scan by Mark Harden / Metropolitan Museum of Art)

By Eric Schwitzgebel

Academic philosophers tend to have a narrow view of what is valuable philosophical work. Hiring, tenure, promotion and prestige depend mainly on one’s ability to produce journal articles in a particular theoretical, abstract style, mostly in reaction to a small group of canonical and 20th century figures, for a small readership of specialists. We should broaden our vision.

Consider the historical contingency of the journal article, a late-19th century invention. Even as recently as the middle of the 20th century, leading philosophers in Western Europe and North America did important work in a much broader range of genres: the fictions and difficult-to-classify reflections of Sartre, Camus and Unamuno; Wittgenstein’s cryptic fragments; the peace activism and popular writings of Bertrand Russell; John Dewey’s work on educational reform.

Popular essays, fictions, aphorisms, dialogues, autobiographical reflections and personal letters have historically played a central role in philosophy. So also have public acts of direct confrontation with the structures of one’s society: Socrates’ trial and acceptance of the hemlock; Confucius’ inspiring personal correctness.

It was really only with the generation hired to teach the baby boomers in the 1960s and ’70s that academic philosophers’ conception of philosophical work became narrowly focused on the technical journal article.

Consider, too, the emergence of new media. Is there reason to think that journal articles are uniformly better for philosophical reflection than videos, interactive demonstrations, blog posts or multi-party conversations on Facebook?

A conversation in social media, if good participants bring their best to the enterprise, has the potential to be a philosophical creation of the highest order, with a depth and breadth beyond the capacity of any individual philosopher to create. A video game could illuminate, critique and advance a vision of worthwhile living, deploying sight, hearing, emotion and personal narrative as well as (why not?) traditional verbal exposition — and it could potentially do so with all the freshness of thinking, all the transformative power and all the expository rigor of Hume, Kant or Nietzsche.

Academic philosophers are paid to develop expertise in philosophy, to bring that expertise into the classroom and to contribute that expertise to society in part by advancing philosophical knowledge. A wide range of activities fit within that job description.

Every topic of human concern is open to philosophical inquiry. This includes not only subjects well represented in journals, such as the structure of propositional attitudes and the nature of moral facts, but also how one ought to raise children and what makes for a good sports team. And the method of writing and responding to journal-article-length expository arguments by fellow philosophers is only one possible method of inquiry.

Engaging with the world, trying out one’s ideas in action, seeing the reactions of non-academics, exploring ideas in fiction and meditation — in these activities we can not only deploy knowledge but cultivate, expand and propagate that knowledge.

Philosophical expertise is not like scientific expertise. Although academic philosophers know certain literatures very well, on questions about the general human condition and what our fundamental values should be, knowledge of the canon gives academic philosophers no especially privileged wisdom. Non-academics can and should be respected partners in the philosophical dialogue. Too exclusive a focus on technical journal articles excludes non-academics from the dialogue — or maybe, better said, excludes us philosophers from non-academics’ more important dialogue.

The academic journal article as it exists today is thus too limited in format, topic, method and audience to deserve so centrally privileged a place in philosophers’ conception of the discipline.

Research-oriented philosophy departments tend to regard writing for popular media as “service,” which is held in less esteem than “research.” I’m not sure service should be held in less esteem, but I would suggest that popular writing can also qualify as research.

If one approaches popular writing only as a means of “dumbing down” preexisting philosophical ideas for an audience of non-experts whose reactions one doesn’t plan to take seriously, then yes, that writing is not really research. If, however, the popular essay is itself a locus of philosophical creativity, in which ideas are explored in hope of discovering new possibilities, advancing (and not just marketing) one’s own thinking in a way that might strike professionals too as interesting rather than as merely familiar rehashing, then it is every bit as much research as is a standard journal article. Analogously for government consulting, Twitter feeds, TED videos and poetry.

A Philosophical Review article can be an amazing thing. But we should see journal articles in that style, in that type of venue, as only one of many possible forms of important, field-shaping philosophical work.

Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside and the author of “Perplexities of Consciousness.” He blogs at The Splintered Mind.

Source: Los Angeles Times