Response to Stephen Angle, Susan Blake, and Jiyuan Yu



Jiyuan Yu generously organized a panel discussion at the 2009 Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association on my translation:  Mengzi:  With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2008).  The commentators were Yu himself, Stephen Angle and Susan Blake.  I am deeply indebted to all three commentators for their generous praise of my translation, and the care with which they have formulated their criticisms.  A version of their comments was published in 2010.[1]  However, it proved impractical for me to reply in that venue.  Consequently, I shall make my response available here.

I. Response to Angle

I sometimes use the language of obligations and prohibitions to explicate the virtues of benevolence and righteousness.  However, Angle notes that to focus on obligations is to turn our attention away from issues of character and virtue, which I claim are at the center of Mengzi’s ethics.  In addition, part of what is distinctive of most forms of virtue ethics is that they acknowledge degrees of human ethical development, and encourage us to aspire to ever higher levels.  Since obligation seems to be an all-or-nothing affair, it undercuts these features of virtue ethics.

One “cheap” answer to Angle is that I sometimes use an alternative formulation of the virtues that is more character-based, saying that benevolence is “the virtue that consists in having, and acting on, compassion for others; for Confucians it should extend to everyone but be strongest for close family members,” while righteousness is “the virtue that consists in avoiding what is shameful or dishonorable, even when one could acquire wealth or social prestige by doing so.”[2]  However, this is not an adequate response for two reasons.  First, I should pick one formulation and stick with it.  Second, my alternative formulations leave open the question of how compassion and disdain respond to features of the world.  What is it that makes it unrighteous to accept a bribe, but righteous to violate ritual by grabbing your sister-in-law to save her from drowning?  How does benevolence demand that King Xuan show kindness to his suffering subjects, yet also justify Shun’s giving a stipend and nominal government position to his corrupt brother?[3]

To some extent, the language of obligations and prohibitions may be appropriate as long as we add individual character to the ethical context.  I find helpful Angle’s invocation of Swanton, who argues that we are ethically limited by our current level of character, but required to continually aspire to higher levels.[4]  Consequently, it may be obligatory for Yu to stay away from home for years while he works to save China from flooding,[5] while all that is obligatory for me (right now) is to finish this reply instead of watching TV.  However, I am also obligated to aspire to become like Yu, as much as I can.

Angle suggests that a Confucian’s goal in ethical reflection is to find “a harmonious solution — one that will honor all the relevant aspects of this particular situation.”[6]  I find this congenial to my own views.[7]  The phrase “relevant aspects” might seem hopelessly vague.  But its use is simply an honest acknowledgement of the fact that we cannot determine what is ethically relevant without a particular context.  For me, as a 21st century father in the U.S. with two children on a rainy Saturday afternoon, to “honor all the relevant aspects of this particular situation” might be to spend some time playing video games with my son, some time drawing with my daughter, and some time sitting together quietly reading.  For a “sage” like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was a leader of the German anti-Nazi Resistance, the “relevant aspects” of his situation demanded something much more dramatic and heroic.

One might also object that “harmony” is pleasant-sounding but contentless.  Angle does a good job, though, of explicating what a commitment to harmony amounts to.[8]  He notes that Confucians are fond of examples drawn from music and cooking, in which we routinely evaluate “better” and “worse” without thinking there is some mechanical decision procedure that determines the answer.  This helps shed light on how ethics can lack the sort of objectivity found in mathematics, while not lapsing into full subjectivity.[9]

II. Response to Blake

For reasons of space, I can only address the second of Blake’s two lines of objection to my interpretation of Mengzi.[10]

I hold the unimaginative view that “impartial caring” means caring equally for the well-being of everyone.[11]  For the Mohists, this leads to a sort of consequentialism, in which actions or policies are judged by the extent to which they benefit humans overall.  In contrast, Confucians advocate “differentiated caring,” meaning that one should care more for, and has a greater obligation toward, those bound to one by ties such as kinship, friendship, etc.

Blake offers a “less ambitious” reading of impartial caring:  “we refrain from harming others for our own benefit, and…we provide material assistance as we can for some small group of people outside our family.”  Blake has two arguments for her interpretation:  (1) the “less ambitious” reading makes better sense out of what the Mohists say, and (2) Mengzi “does not explicitly attack the Mohists” on the doctrine of impartial caring.  I want to challenge both claims.

First, consider the following quotations from the Mohist essay “Impartial Caring (III)”:

  • If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another?  For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.[12]
  • … in order to be a superior person in the world, one must regard the well-being of one’s friends as one regards one’s own well-being; one must regard the parents of one’s friends as one regards one’s own parents.[13]
  • …when Kings Wen and Wu ruled, they allocated everything equitably, rewarding the worthy and punishing the wicked without showing any partiality to their relatives or brothers.[14]

If all the Mohists meant to endorse was “refraining from harming others for one’s own benefit” (and the occasional act of charity) they picked a very misleading way of making their point.  To an audience that was well aware of the Confucian position, the Mohist statements above could not plausibly be interpreted as anything other than a rejection of differentiated care.[15]

Furthermore, a serious problem with the “less ambitious” reading of impartial caring is that it makes the “Practicability Argument” seem unmotivated. Why use an extreme example of behavior modification like soldiers marching onto burning ships to their certain deaths if all the Mohists are encouraging us to do is to not harm others and to provide minimal aid?  On the “less ambitious” reading the Mohists are using a grotesque, and hence less plausible, example to defend the practicality of a very minimal and inherently plausible behavioral change. However, if the Mohists did hold the “more ambitious” reading, we can see immediately why they need examples of radical behavior modification to defend the practicality of their position.[16]

However, not everything the Mohists say is so obviously in line with the “more ambitious” reading.  Blake is struck by the Mohists’ Filial Piety argument, which claims that filial children should be committed to impartial caring. If filiality involves greater concern for one’s own parents, and filiality entails “impartiality,” then impartiality cannot mean equal concern for all.  However, careful attention to the Filial Piety argument shows the intellectual sleight of hand that allows the Mohists to pull the impartial rabbit from the filial hat:

Does a filial son who seeks what is beneficial for his parents want other people to care for and benefit his parents or does he want other people to dislike and steal from his parents?  According to the very meaning of filial piety, he must want other people to care for and benefit his parents.  … Should one first (先) care for and benefit the parents of another, expecting that they in turn (然後) will respond by caring for and benefitting one’s own parents?  Or should one first dislike and steal from other people’s parents, expecting that they in turn will respond by caring for and benefiting one’s own parents?  Clearly one must first care for and benefit the parents of others in order to expect that they in turn will respond by caring for and benefitting one’s own parents.  And so for such mutually filial (交孝) sons to realize unlimited good results, must they not first care for and benefit other people’s parents?[17]

Look carefully at how the Mohists characterize filial piety in this passage.  To be filial is to seek to benefit one’s own parents; because of this, a filial child wants others to benefit his parents; the best way to achieve this is to first benefit the parents of others.  Now consider what the Mohists do not say.  They do not say that a filial child cares more for his own parents than the parents of others. They also do not say that we should benefit our own parents first and simply avoid harming the parents of others.   They say just the opposite:  we should not only benefit the parents of others, we should do it first, and then they will benefit our parents. This is a utopian vision in which the highest filial piety is ensuring that every elder is equally cared for; when we all take care of everybody, your own parents will be taken care of too.  The Mohists invent a new expression, “mutually filial,” to describe this unorthodox practice.  (This is as unconventional as “mutual parenthood.”)  For Confucians, rightly or wrongly, what this leaves out is the greater concern that a filial child has for her own parents.

Finally, Mengzi (a contemporary source who was at the center of philosophical debate in his era) does in fact attribute to the Mohists the “demanding reading” of impartial caring.  He asks the avowed Mohist Yi Zhi whether he truly holds “that one’s affection for one’s nephew is like one’s affection for a neighbor’s baby?”  (Note that Yi Zhi does not deny that this is an accurate representation of the Mohist position.)  Elsewhere, Mengzi says that “impartial caring…is to not have a father.”  Furthermore, in explaining what impartial caring means to Mozi, Mengzi says, “If scraping himself bare from head to heels would benefit the whole world, he would do it.”[18]  There is no hint here (or in the text of the Mozi) that such actions are regarded as supererogatory.

Dan Robins (whose work Blake identifies as an influence on her interpretation of the Mohists) states that the relevant passages from the Mengzi are simply “based on a misinterpretation” of the Mohist view.[19] But any quick dismissal like this violates the interpretive Principle of Humanity, because it leaves us with no explanation for Mengzi’s error.[20]  Such an explanation will be difficult to come by, because there is every reason to believe that Mengzi was well informed about Mohism.  Not only did he debate an avowed Mohist, he claims that “the doctrines of Yang Zhu and Mozi fill the world.”  There may be an element of hyperbole in this (as in Mengzi’s descriptions of Mohist doctrine), but even an exaggeration would not make sense unless its audience found an element of truth in it.  Furthermore, and I think this is very significant, Mengzi apparently had direct knowledge of converts from Mohism to Confucianism:  “Those who defect from the Mohists always turn toward Yang Zhu.  Those who defect from Yang Zhu always turn toward Confucianism.”[21]  It is, of course, possible that Mengzi has fundamentally misunderstood a major doctrine of his own era that he has discussed and debated with contemporaries.  However, if we want to go that route, we need an explanation of an extraordinary error.[22]

III. Reply to Yu

 Yu’s nuanced comments are a paradigm of the sort of thoughtful engagement that comes from a close reading of the original text, its commentarial tradition, the secondary literature and various translations.  I can disagree with him about little, and only explain some of the commitments that guided my choices as a translator.

It is important that readers can recognize terms across different translations.  Consequently, sometimes I stick with a less-than-satisfactory but fairly standard translation, like “righteousness” for yi 義.  In contrast, I think it is a weakness of Brook Ziporyn’s otherwise valuable Zhuangzi translation that he renders ren 仁, yi and dao 道 as “humanity,” “responsibility” and “Course.”  This makes it hard for non-specialist readers to recognize that Zhuangzi is challenging the conceptions of “benevolence,” “righteousness” and the “Way” that they have encountered in other texts.[23]

However, in the Confucian spirit of “discretion,” I do not hold to this as an inviolable rule.  Although “principle” has become the standard translation of li 理 in rendering Neo-Confucian texts, I think it is so fundamentally misleading that it should be avoided.  Instead, I recommend “Pattern” for Neo-Confucian texts.[24]

Furthermore, as Yu notes, even if “benevolence” is a common rendering for ren, it is not the universal favorite among translators, and it clearly handles the “specific” meaning of the Chinese term better than the “general” meaning.  “Humanity” or “humaneness” does the best translation for this latter sense. However, my preference was to, whenever possible, render the same word in the same way so that readers can trace for themselves the nuances of its meanings.  I would rather allow the reader to be occasionally puzzled by an incongruous use of a term than have her be complacent with a translation that elides all the complexity of the original work.  This is part of the reason that I render 7B16 as “Benevolence is simply being human.”

Of course, sometimes the uses of a Chinese term are so different that we cannot force-fit one translation into every context.  Ming 命, for example, refers to what Heaven decrees, including the general course of history and the appointment to legitimate Kingship.  I was tempted to consistently render it “decree,” which would have encouraged the reader to explore the connection between these two notions.  But I decided that in this case readability was more important.  So 7A2 reads, “Everything is fate (ming).  But one only accepts one’s proper fate.  For this reason, someone who understands fate does not stand beneath a crumbling wall.”  But in 5A5.4, a passage explaining legitimate succession to Kingship, we find, “Heaven does not speak, but simply reveals the Mandate (ming) through actions and affairs.”  I allow a similar divergence in rendering xin 心, which is usually “heart,” but sometimes “feeling.”  (You can see both uses in 2A6.3.)

Returning to “ren,” there is another, more controversial, reason why I consistently render it as “benevolence” in the Mengzi.  Zhu Xi suggests that benevolence (ren in the specific sense) is foundational to the other virtues.  There is actually textual evidence for this in parts of the Mengzi, such as 2A7.2-3:  “If one is not benevolent though nothing prevents it, this is to fail to be wise.  One fails to be benevolent and fails to be wise.  So one lacks propriety and righteousness.”  Zhu Xi comments, “Benevolence is the heart of Heaven and Earth in giving birth to things.  One gets it first of all, and it links all four virtues together.”  Although Zhu Xi’s interpretation here (as on many points) is clearly tinged by a metaphysics alien to Mengzi, he might be correct about the relationship between ren and the other virtues.

IV. Conclusion

It is significant that, in discussing a simple translation, we have engaged so many substantive issues in the thought of Mengzi and his contemporaries.  To translate is to interpret.  To interpret is to understand sympathetically.  To understand sympathetically is to bring the text into dialogue with ourselves.  To bring the text into dialogue is to make the context of the text part of our own context.   In the end, there is an interpretive Indra’s Net, in which every phrase of the original text reflects and is reflected by the meaning of our most mundane daily utterances.  Though it may sound grandiose, this is nothing more than basic hermeneutic practice.

[1] See Jiyuan Yu, “Translation of Ren,” Stephen Angle, “Translating (and Interpreting) the Mengzi,” and Susan Blake, “Mengzi and Its Philosophical Commitments,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37:4 (December 2010):  660-683.

[2] B.W.V.N., trans., Mengzi:  With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2008), 199, 205.

[3] See Mengzi 6A10, 4A17, 1A7 and 5A3, respectively.

[4] David S. Nivison examined a similar suggestion for interpreting Mengzi.  While Swanton attributes her insight to Nietzsche, Nivison says he found inspiration in Iris Murdoch.  See David S. Nivison, The Ways of Confucianism (Chicago:  Open Court Press, 1996), 108-110.

[5] Mengzi 4B29.

[6] Stephen C. Angle, Sagehood (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 96.

[7] See my discussion of “ethical connoisseurs” in Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007), 54-59.

[8] Angle, Sagehood, 61-74.

[9] It is too much to respond here to those who regard taste in music or cooking as completely subjective.  I shall just note that no one I know of who is deeply interested in music or food acts like their judgments are subjective.  This suggests to me that subjectivism about these topics is a result of ignorance about them.

[10] Blake was an informal student of mine while I was in Taiwan in 2005.  Since the object of education is to produce students who are capable of intelligently disagreeing with their teacher, I take indirect pride in her critique of me.

[11] “Impartial caring” is jian ai 兼愛.  As A.C. Graham notes, the Later Mohist contrast between jian and ti 體 is equivalent to whole/part or collection/individual (Disputers of the Tao [Chicago:  Open Court Press, 1989], 145).  This confirms the hypothesis that jian ai is best understood as “collective caring” or “caring for the whole” (as opposed to caring for specific individuals or parts of the whole, such as one’s own family). For the details of my interpretation of Mohist impartial caring and Yi Zhi’s revisionist Mohism, see my Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, 179-98, 301-12.

[12] Philip J. Ivanhoe and B.W.V.N., eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2005), 69.

[13] Ivanhoe and B.W.V.N., 70.

[14] Ivanhoe and B.W.V.N., 74.

[15] The suggestion by Dan Robins that the Mohists were addressing their arguments to “rulers and other members of the nobility” as opposed to Confucians is based on a false dichotomy (“The Mohists and the Gentlemen of the World,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 35, no. 3 [2008]:  386).  Humans of any culture think and act against a background of intellectual presuppositions and alternatives.  We know from a variety of early texts that Kongzi and his disciples sought and often obtained government positions.  Consequently, whatever “elite” audience the Mohists were addressing would be incapable of understanding what the Mohists said in isolation from the doctrine of differentiated caring.

[16] Dan Robins writes that the “ambitious reading” “would commit the Mohists to a radical social revolution …  The Mohists are unlikely to have overlooked this consequence, because it would have been immediate and obvious.” (Robins, 386.)  Quite so!  This is why the extreme examples of the Practicability Argument are needed.

[17] Ivanhoe and B.W.V.N., 74-75.

[18] See Mengzi 3A5, 3B9.9 and 7A26.2, respectively.

[19] Robins, 400n17.

[20] On the hermeneutic Principle of Humanity, see Richard Grandy, “Reference, Meaning and Belief,” Journal of Philosophy 70, no. 14 (1973):  439-52.

[21] See Mengzi 3A5, 3B9.9 and 7B26.1, respectively.

[22] Robins’ article is part of a special issue of the Journal of Chinese Philosophy dedicated to Mohism.  Another provocative article in this collection was Chris Fraser’s, “Mohism and Self-interest,” in which he argues against the claim that, for Mohists, “self-interest amounts to people’s only significant source of motivation” (437).  Fraser is in good company, since A.C. Graham also made this very point:  “…the Mohist conceives of the primaeval war of all against all as a clash, not between interests, but between moralities.  We may conclude that he sees individuals, even at the extreme of competition, as always recognizing some code applicable both to themselves and to others….he has no conception of an absolute egoism…” (Disputers of the Tao, 63; cf. 45-6).  I made similar observations in my Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy:  “[The Mohist view] is different from the conception of Thomas Hobbes, according to which…humans are, by nature, purely self-interested.  In other words, the Mohists hold that humans are not, by nature, purely self-interested, but also hold that there is no natural tendency for humans to converge on a particular conception of righteousness” (195-196).  However, Fraser argues for this conclusion in much more detail than either Graham or I had.

[23] See also my review of Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi, in China Review International 16:1 (2009):  147-50.

[24] As Angle notes, “We are all familiar with ethical principles like ‘respect your parents.’ …[However] Neo-Confucian ethics is a virtue-based ethics, rather than a principle-based ethics…” (Sagehood, 33).  Angle and I disagree, though, over what alternative term to substitute for “principle.”  (See my review of Sagehood in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews [17 February 2010],

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"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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