Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Qi (Ch'i) and Moral Psychology

The term qi (or ch'i) is known to Westerners mainly through martial arts and new age mumbo-jumbo, and is taken to mean something like spiritual and physical vitality, or the mystical medium of that vitality. The word goes back to classical Chinese, where it originally meant "air" or "breath" and then by extension the vital energy connected with breath, working its way into early Chinese medicine and theories of the body.

Robin Wang has recently been exploring the connections between qi and moral psychology in early Chinese thought. Among other things, she notes the importance of caring for the body in the tradition -- both the moral obligation to do it but also, perhaps, the asserted connection between moral goodness and physical health. (One index of the importance of that connection in the ancient Chinese tradition is the frequency with which it is mocked by Zhuangzi.)

Confucius (if the passage is authentic) notes the connection between morality and qi thus:

There are three things the gentleman should guard against. In youth when the blood and qi are still unsettled he should guard against the attraction of feminine beauty. In the prime of life when the blood and qi have become unyielding, he should guard against bellicosity. In old age when the blood and qi have declined, he should guard against acquisitiveness" (16.7, Lau trans.).
Thus, disorders of qi are associated with a propensity toward certain moral failings. Mencius even more famously associates a "flood-like qi" with moral rightness (2A2).

There is something attractive in this view. It's uncontroversial that peace of mind is good for your health, and it's very plausible that health is generally good for your peace of mind. It may be hard to muster up the energy or will to do what's right if one is feeling substantially less than vigorous, and certain types of physical shortcomings may lead us more easily to certain sorts of moral temptations.

Yet at the same time, a concept that intimately connects physical health and moral health strikes me as highly noxious. Is the highest degree of moral propriety impossible from a wheelchair, or from one's deathbed, or from someone with chronic fatigue? It seems to me that physical disability often gives as much to us morally as it takes away (e.g., by increasing our sympathy with others or by broadening our perspective).

What the connection is between physical health and moral behavior is an empirical question, of course, but one that would be very difficult to study well. I've heard of no studies. (And any one study, anyway, would have to be highly limited.) In the meantime, I say down with the concept of qi!

P.S.: For those readers interested in Chinese philosophy who haven't noticed it yet, I recommend Manyul Im's Chinese Philosophy Blog.


Sculpin said...

Speaking as somebody with chronic fatigue syndrome, I would of course say that high moral propriety is still open to me. Full-on heroism might be trickier -- I am unlikely to go hiking through the desert Southwest borderlands looking for stray immigrants to lead to safety, for instance. But in terms of ordinary day-to-day moral propriety, I'd say that illness improved me substantially, and not only because it gave me a wider outlook.

It seems to me that a significant proportion of wrong acts are a great deal of work.

Consider belligerence -- there's all that fighting to do, and then there are the broken relationships to repair or agonize over. It's all a lot of trouble. When I had energy to burn, I'd leap into the fray and damn the consequences. Now that I've lived with fatigue for a good while, though, I've become trained to stop and think, "Do I really want to get into this? What are the consequences here?" In the long run, it's usually easier to be gentle. I have added incentive to do things the easy way. Fatigue has given me some swift, decisive lessons in the value of restraint.

It's a bit like the famous value of laziness in a programmer. A lazy programmer does things well because doing things poorly is, in the end, more trouble than it's worth.

Perhaps it's true that "all humanity's troubles are caused by man's inability to sit quietly in a room." In that case, I have an advantage; chronic fatigue has certainly trained me well in the practice of sitting quietly in a room.

There are some disabilities and illnesses I can think of that would counteract any restraint-related benefit of reduced energy -- certain brain tumors, Cluster B personality disorders. But in general, from what I've seen, even without a fatigue component, having a disability usually involves enough extra work that there just isn't much time left for going out and pursuing a really juicy moral failing.

Anonymous said...

"Yet at the same time, a concept that intimately connects physical health and moral health strikes me as highly noxious."

Me too - and refreshing for me to read, thanks.

You can't help but notice how popular the "holistic health" update on the ancient theodicy repudiated by the Book of Job has become in your fifteenth year of intractable pain and relentless disease progression from something rare and untreatable.

It's quite amazing when I know how I've lived and how I'm living, at this point mostly bedridden, battling pressure sores daily and fighting pain simply to be at the computer, to read, on such a large number of blogs, my implicit condemnation as someone who must be profoundly spiritually unwell at some level - or "sinning in secret" as Job's friends said - simply because I'm physically ill.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Cameron and Paul, for the helpful elaborations!

Sculpin said...

Having thought about if for a few days, there's another benefit to having a disability that's perhaps a little more subtle.

My experience in disability is one of constant, careful self-checking. Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a wonderful short description of self-monitoring in this essay about her narcolepsy. Like Teresa, I have all sorts of odd tricks for monitoring my energy and cognitive state. With plain old introspection not working too well (as well we all know) a chronically ill person becomes a kind of scientist studying her own self, looking for the markers in her own behavior that signify her ability level in that moment.

It gets a person used to looking at her abilities relatively objectively. If I overestimate my capabilities, there are swift, obvious, and unpleasant consequences. So I screw that one up a whole lot less than I used to. I have to.

When I look at the people I know who've done things that I consider morally problematic, a significant number of them got there by pretending to be able to do what they couldn't actually do. There's a point, I think, at which incompetence and wishful thinking become a sort of wickedness. I can't say that disability actually immunizes a person against that, but I've found that living with a variable disability for a few years is a good opportunity to learn to avoid some of that kind of thing.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Very interesting thought, Cameron! It's an interesting way of thinking about a certain sort of vice: Wishful thinking and overestimation of one's competence combining to put others in a bind. I think I've been guilty of some serious instances of this recently, and it's interesting to consider your suggestion that certain sorts of disability might help one cultivate the skill to avoid this sort of thing.

Hagop said...

Hi Eric,

I've been thinking about this issue on and off for a few days. Allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment.

Can it be that we take for granted advances in medical science today? In Confucius's time, wouldn't it be reasonable to be more concerned with one's vitality and physical health--especially when one had clear relational obligations to one's family that demanded one be able to fulfill certain obligations to them? There's a clear strain of thought in early Confucianism that links concern with one's own health to the psychological well being of others. For instance, not causing your parents to be distressed over your health and well-being was considered a filial virtue.

Also (and, more controversially), I think there was an emphasis on efficacy in early Confucian ethics that made physical health paramount. We might consider at least some of the passages about qi and well-being as reflective not of a belief that morality requires physical health, but the more mundane (yet vitally important) observation that we are generally impressed with healthy, vibrant individuals. If a moral reformer is looking to persuade others to be moral, to change their policies, perhaps to subsume their own interests to the common good, it wouldn't hurt to dress well, be healthy, and otherwise look like someone who is worthy of being listened to and emulated.

Zhuangzi was correct in attacking a strong linkage between physical health and moral worth (I find parts of the Xunzi to reflect this concern as well), but there are more charitable ways of understanding the general concern within the context of early Confucian moral reform.


Anonymous said...

Right, Hagop--any model of morality that stops at "sympathy" and "perspective", without considering our capacity for moral action is incomplete.

There is no morality without commitment, and no commitment without strength. (And no strength without qi ;))

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for taking up the gauntlet, Hagop and Chris! I agree that moral action requires energy -- yet very often inaction is better than action, as Cameron has pointed out, and in some cases that may be harder if one is brimming with energy.

Chris: What kind of strength does commitment take? The kind associated with physical health? That's an empirical question, but I'd predict no relationship between physical health and moral commitment (as opposed to moral action).

On the issue of looking healthy to be effective in persuading others; well, maybe that is a psychological reality -- but it's gives qi (apart from the other features you mention) a status similar to minor instrumental goals like having a strong voice and good rhetoric. And it might be partly self-fulfilling in an unfortunate way, if the doctrine of qi is widely accepted.

Sculpin said...

Even physical strength isn't all that straightforward, when you come right down to it. I'd like to explore the physical strength side of things for a moment.

I'm a smallish woman with a slight frame. Muscle by muscle, I'm not particularly buff, and yet I can lift surprisingly heavy objects and do other things that would seem to require more strength than I have. That's because I've been a serious student of Pilates for four years.

Despite its trendiness, Pilates is actually very interesting. I've learned there to construct very efficient movement chains. In almost every case, the key has been to get out of my own way and do less, not more. (I do wind up thinking in terms of something roughly like qi, but more in terms of removing blockages to it.) Precision and understanding have compensated for lack of strength.

I see a parallel thing when I watch a good aikidoka. I've had the opportunity to watch some very good practitioners; those people have some of the most beautifully relaxed shoulders I've ever seen. Kinetic energy moves fluidly throughout their body; it's not stopped up by their trying to move. The most tremendous aikidoka I've met is a 6th-degree black belt who's about five feet tall and a hundred and ten pounds sopping wet. There's only so much muscular strength someone that size is going to be able to command, but for her it doesn't matter. She commands precision and understanding. Her power comes from not-doing.

High efficacy requires efficiency. Efficiency requires considered inaction.

Incidentally, if you want people to listen to you, it probably wouldn't hurt to be male as well as able-bodied (or at least able to pass as such) and well-dressed. But I hope we would all be significantly careful about claiming that men are the people more worthy of being listened to.

Anonymous said...

A few points that come to mind:

- The difference between commitment and action is in degree, not in kind;
- A "commitment" under no external pressure is no commitment at all;
- Keeping one's commitments under external pressure can be strenuous;
- Resistance of any kind, even that with the appearance of stasis, requires strength by definition--so having no strength means having no capacity to meaningfully fulfill one's commitments;
- There are a limited number of wells from which a human being may draw, and in this limited context, qi is a perfectly adequate name for the well(s).