Friday, August 04, 2006

The Golden Rule vs. Mencius's "Extension"

One kind of emotionally engaged ethical reflection involves putting oneself in another's shoes, as it were -- imagining what things would be like from another's perspective. This kind of empathetic or sympathetic reasoning has received considerable attention in moral psychology, from the ancient Christian "Golden Rule" "do unto others..." to contemporary moral psychologists such as (to mention just a couple, William Damon and Patricia Greenspan).

In ancient China, Confucius also employs a version of the Golden Rule ("Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire"; Analects 15.25, Lau trans.; cf. 5.12) However, the next great Confucian, Mencius, offers a subtly and interestingly different view. His focus is rather on "extending" one's concern or love or respect from those close to you (or those you can see) to others farther away.

Here's the key difference, it seems to me: Whereas Golden Rule or empathy accounts start from presumed concern for oneself first, and then transfer that concern to others (perhaps by an imaginative act), Mencian extension starts from presumed concern for others nearby and then transfers that concern to others farther away (by noting that those farther away merit similar consideration).

(For example, Mencius says, "Among babes in arms there is none that does not know to love its parents. When they grow older, there is none that does not know to respect its elder brother. Treating one's parents as parents is benevolence. Respecting one's elders is righteousness. There is nothing else to do but extend these to the world" [7A15, Van Norden trans.].)

We can, of course, allow for both means of coming emotionally to take others into account in one's ethical reasoning. Both self-concern and familial concern are deep-seated. There's something especially appealing, though, about the Mencian process. It starts less egoistically and closer to the target as it were; and it might be easier logically and emotionally to justify the shift from concern for someone nearby to someone far than to justify the shift from self-concern to other concern.


  1. Hi. Not being familiar with Mencius's view myself, I wonder if it doesn't implicitly presuppose empathy based on the self as well- it is perhaps easier to identify with the plight of familiars. To this Mencius adds that we should not stop there, but rather extend those some sentiments or considerations more broadly than comes most natural?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jennifer! Mencius wouldn't, I'm sure, deny that we can feel empathy based on the self, and that can drive moral action. But I can't think of a single passage in which he explicitly talks that way. (Probably there's a passage somewhere; I haven't gone through systematically.) Much more often, he simply takes it for granted that we will feel concern, love, respect, etc., for those either spatially or relationally near us; then he asks us to "extend" that feeling to others farther away or to treat like cases as like. I think this is psychologically and emotionally quite different from putting oneself in another's shoes. It hasn't received the kind of attention in moral psychology that empathy has received, yet it may be just as psychologically important and philosophically rich.

  3. Hi Eric,

    Just back from a trip to your neck of the woods (LA) - good hiking out there!

    In any case, your interesting post brought to mind the similar methods that the (e.g. Tibetian) Buddhist tradition employs to generate compassion. In particluar, one practice involves spreading your affection for your mother to others by, first, summoning that affection, and, second, meditating on the "fact" that others might have been your mother in a previous life.

    I also read someone - I think it was the Dali Lama - joking that this does not work so well with westerners because we have distincively complicated emotional attitudes towards our mothers. He suggested we start by calling up our emotional attitudes towards our grandmothers instead!

  4. Welcome back, Brad! That's very interesting about the Tibetan Buddhist practice. If you have a reference, I'd be interested to see it. It does seem that some of the Asian traditions take for granted as a starting point an unselfish concern for members of the family; whereas in the contemporary West we tend to take a purer egoism as the starting point.