Friday, April 27, 2012

Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, Stanley Milgram, and King Xuan of Qi

Perhaps my favorite Mencius passage is 1A7.  At its core is a story of a king's mercy on an ox.

While the king was sitting up in his hall, an ox was led past below. The king saw it and said, "Where is the ox going?" Hu He replied, "We are about to ritually anoint a bell with its blood." The king said, "Spare it. I cannot bear its frightened appearance, like an innocent going to the execution ground." Hu He replied, "So should we dispense with the anointing of the bell?" The king said, "How can that be dispensed with? Exchange it for a sheep." (Van Norden, trans.)
Mencius asks the king (King Xuan of Qi):
If Your Majesty was pained at its being innocent and going to the execution ground, then was is there to choose between an ox and a sheep?... You saw the ox but had not seen the sheep.  Gentlemen cannot bear to see animals die if they have seen them living. If they hear the cries of their suffering, they cannot bear to eat their flesh. Hence, gentlemen keep their distance from the kitchen.
(Note that Mencius does not conclude that gentlemen should become vegetarians.  Interesting possibilities for reflection arise regarding butchers, executioners, soldiers, etc., but let's not dally.)  To understand the next part of the passage, you need to know what kind of person this king was.  Skip forward to passage 1B11 where Mencius says to King Xuan:
Yan was ferocious to its people. Your Majesty went out and attacked it. The people thought that You were going to deliver them as from flood and fire. They welcomed Your Majesty with baskets and food and pots of soup. But if You kill their fathers and older brothers, put burdens on [enslave? capture? take hostage?] their sons and younger brothers, destroy their shrines and temples, plundering their valuable goods -- how could that be acceptable?
The invasion of Yan probably occurred after his sparing of the ox, but it reveals King Xuan's character: He has mercy on an ox because the ox looks like an innocent person, but at the same time he is perfectly willing to kill innocent people.  Now back to 1A7.  Mencius says to the king:
Suppose there were someone who reported to Your Majesty, 'My strength is sufficient to life five hundred pounds, but not sufficient to lift one feather. My eyesight is sufficient to examine the tip of an autumn hair, but I cannot see a wagon of firewood.... In the present case your kindness is sufficient to reach animals, but the effects do not reach the commoners.... Measure it, and then you will distinguish the long and the short. Things are all like this, the heart most of all. Let Your Majesty measure it.
I can't read Hannah Arendt's famous portrayal of Adolf Eichmann without thinking of this passage from Mencius.  Eichmann (at least in Arendt's portrayal) respects and values his Jewish acquaintances, friends, and relatives -- even at one point has a Jewish lover.  When he goes east to see the killing operations, he finds it morally horrible and can't bear to look.  Yet he masterfully shipped hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust.  Near the end, Eichmann even defied Himmler's order to stop having Jews killed, since he knew Himmler's order would be contrary to Hitler's wish.  Like King Xuan of Qi, Eichmann is merciful and soft (perhaps too soft) to those he sees, while indifferent to those outside his field of view, failing to note the similarity between the cases -- failing to "measure his heart".

You have probably heard of the Milgram experiment.  What most people remember about it is that it was amazingly easy for Stanley Milgram to convince research subjects to deliver high-voltage, maybe even fatal, shocks to another research subject.  (All shocks were actually faked.)  What some people forget, but what Milgram himself emphasizes, is that people's obedience to instructions to deliver high-voltage shocks was very much contingent on the relative distances of the victim and of the authority issuing the instructions.  If the victim was near at hand and the authority far away, almost no one complied.  If the authority was nearby and the victim neither visible nor audible, almost everyone complied.

King Xuan and Eichmann would presumably be the perfect Milgram subjects.

Think and you will get it, Mencius says.  Take the heart that is over here and apply it over there.  Note how you react in the nearby, vivid cases; then note, intellectually, the lack of relevant difference between those cases and more distant, less vivid cases. For Mencius, this attention to the natural impulses of the heart, and the rational extension of those impulses, is the key to moral development.

Worth noting in conclusion: It's not all about extending impulses of sympathy or pity, as in 1A7 (and in some recent accounts of moral development).  Mencius holds that one can also notice and intellectually extend respect, ritual propriety, and uprightness (3A5, 6A10, 7A15, 7B31).


D said...

This is a difference between my wife and myself. If she sees suffering, even in animals, she responds immediately and emotionally to it, even spending thousands of dollars on her pets' health. Yet she isn't concerned about people outside of her view. I don't feel much, but I reason about what I should do to ease the most suffering I can with my resources, and then try to take those actions. We both kind of think the other is in the wrong.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Well, now you have some ammo, D. Liken her to King Xuan of Qi!

Scott Bakker said...

Lovely parallel. A number of evopsych explanations suggest themselves: moral discounting like the 'future discounting' evinced in sayings like 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'

It also suggests why modern media is inextricably linked to modern morality: not because we have embraced 'universalism' on any rational grounds, but simply because there's no hiding from moral consequences the way we once could.

This raises the question of whether the 'rational grounds' are largely post hoc rationalizations of a technologically transformed 'moral intuitive topography.'

NChen said...

The problem of letting die is closely associated with the the issues in this post. Peter Singer and Peter Unger argue that distance shouldn't have any moral significance and therefore, we are morally obligated to donate as much as we can to save children from dying from curable diseases as we are obligated to save a drowning child from a shallow pool.

Since this seems like an unpalatable conclusion for many people and other moral philosophers, some have argued that distance does have some relevance and that the further away from the people that demand that obligation the weaker that obligation that we owe them.

However, IMO, no one has really articulated an adequate justification of this distance response. Mencius seems to be saying that it really is a lack of certain virtues such as moral consistency and moral courage that prevent people from doing the same kinds of right actions as most people that let die or people that obey authority to administer deadly shocks others or those who obey orders to send others to their deaths.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I just want to pick your mind a little. Does Mencius' stance on vegetarianism contradict all his other stances on "measuring the heart"? He is essentially saying that the gentleman should stay away from the kitchen so that because he isn't directly exposed to the suffering, he is still able to maintain his diet, even if that diet results in suffering out of sight. But his other arguments ask kings to extend their compassion to suffering for the beings out of sight. How can we reconcile (what seems to be problematic to me) his position if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is being consistent?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ stumpwatcher (great handle, by the way):

I think Mengzi would let the sage, or anyone else capable of an "unmoved heart" (2A2), into the kitchen. But the rest of us are sometimes going to be swayed by our better judgment by the circumstances. How do you know when one is being swayed inappropriately instead of responding to the true prompting of the heart? Unfortunately, Mengzi doesn't offer very much on that, but maybe that's part of what zhi (wisdom) is for.

Anyhow, that's my best brief try!

Matthew R. Dasti said...

This is a great passage. It's interesting to see that at play here is an implicit appeal to internal coherence. We start from the seeds of virtue, and by growing them, our self becomes more whole, more coherent. It is a further way to consider the Confucius identification of harmony as a central value, here, not the harmony between persons or acts, but between aspects of ourselves.

In this regard, it is also interesting to think about how Plato's Socrates uses dialectic to help interlocutors rectify their own cognitive and affective incoherence.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes! I agree that Plato's Socrates sometimes works in a similar way.