Friday, November 01, 2019

How Mengzi Came up with Something Better Than the Golden Rule

[an edited excerpt from my forthcoming book, A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures]

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

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


Schooner said...

Mengzi pops up in Canadian Immigration law: Chirwa decision 1970 contains a remarkable passage clarifying the meaning of "Humanitarian & Compassionate" discretion of officers, who are to consider "those facts, established by the evidence, which would excite in a reasonable man in a civilized community a desire to relieve the misfortunes of another...". (And not: "those facts which would induce self-pity if visited upon the officer"). The decision so resonates with our sense of justice and fairness that it has stood for 50 years, while surrounding legislation got 50 annual haircuts.

SelfAwarePatterns said...

An interesting take. But I actually think there's value in acknowledging that I'm going to care more about my friends and family than total strangers. That's not to say I won't care at all about those strangers, but I have an instinctive urge and duty to care more about those closest to me. Asking me to value a stranger like someone I dearly love feels unrealistic.

A line of reasoning that actually works better for me is to treat strangers well because they're someone's son, daughter, friend, etc. If I want strangers to treat *my* friends and family well, I need to pay it forward and treat *their* friends and family well. Contribute to a more caring world so those I care about will be safer, with the added benefit that we get a more caring world.

Admittedly, this is also focused on self interest, but it's an inclusive self interest, which I do think is more accurate for (most) human psychology.

RedPillTaker said...

I think what many dislike of the golden rule but can’t put a finger on it is that it makes the assumption that all people has the same basic idea of what is in each other best self interest, which is not necessarily true (case in point, people with masochistic traits), and is an oversimplification that corresponds to the time and culture of where the golden rule was thought of, which was a simpler world.

I really like the Mengzi approach to the subject, of which I wasn’t aware, but it also makes the assumption that everyone cares an love the people that is more close to them, which I think we can all agree in our current society is not always the case and often the opposite, with people that live close to each other making a living hell for the others. Again, Mengzi lived in a much simpler world.

So what I think solves the problem is thinking the golden rule as being aware and pursuant that all our actions and inactions must always pursue the welfare of each and everyone, and, at the very least, cause not harm to anyone. (A sort of “do good, and if you can’t, at least do no harm).

I think if we could understand and live motivated by this code of conduct, we would need nothing else in the form of law.

Thanks for opening an space for discussing such important matters that are normally so overlooked and not thought of.

Martin Cooke said...

There was something like the Mengzi approach in a lot of Christian thinking, I recall. The parables about the prodigal son, and the good Samaritan and tax-collector and so forth, and later the move from Jews to Romans and others.

The prodigal son is not obviously about doing unto others, because why would one think that one would ever need such help oneself? Arguably it was about extending, to those who seemed to have taken themselves beyond the pale. Also like the Mengzi approach is the idea of living in God's family, i.e. all the Jews, or all of mankind, and not just one's own family.

Perhaps the Golden Rule was a simpler way of challenging the mass of people, by making them initiate all sorts of relationships that were not the usual ones, which were being taxed by the alien power, Rome, or were the familiar ones that people would have retreated back into. Perhaps it was never intended to be more than that.

Anonymous said...

The breakdown in Mr. Schwitzgebel's preference of philosophy is that it presumes that people will love others before they love themselves, which is simply not true. Just as people who do not trust others are themselves not trustworthy, people cannot love others who do not first love themselves. That is not to say that we should all become narcissists, just the opposite. A baby focuses only on its needs, and through the love of the parent, the child learns to love someone or something larger than itself. "I need you therefore I love you" becomes "I love you, therefore I want to be with you so I must consider your needs as well." That is the essence of non-jerkdom. People who are 'jerks' in Schwitzgebel's definition simply were never taught that lesson, probably by parents themselves equally clueless.

Motivated self-interest is at the heart of human condition. We are all jerks to one degree or another. You are so righteous when someone cuts you off on the highway, but so forgiving of yourselves the "one time" that you happen to do it to someone else. People who 'virtue signal' in the current culture are jerks because it's more important to them to have the moral high ground than it is to try and understand someone else's situation; they never realize that morality is a human concept that is a fluid as personality.

Until we start requiring people to take parenting lessons and pass a scientifically based test before they can have a license to have children, we will be stuck with jerks forever.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all of the thoughtful comments, folks!

Schooner: Interesting. I didn't know that!

SelfAware: Mengzi accepts the Confucian idea of "graded love" -- that one will care more for family than neighbor, and more for neighbor than fellow-citizen. This isn't incompatible with extension, since extension needn't mean extending *quite as much* love.

RedPill: Yes, I agree that that is another difficulty with the Golden Rule formulation. Thanks for the kind words!

Martin: I agree that the Christian tradition contains many elements, not reducible to The Golden Rule. The prodigal son is a particularly nice example, since it is so un-Golden-Rule-ish. So, I think, is turning the other cheek. All of these large moral traditions involve large webs of partly-conflicting rules and principles.

Anon: I guess I don't have quite as dark a view of the human condition as you do! I'm Mengzian enough to think that concern for close others is written deep into our psyches. It's a complex issue, though, to fully get a handle on, with lots of psychological and philosophical considerations that come together in ways that are hard to fully evaluate.

Patrice Ayme said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RedPillTaker said...

Thanks for taking the care of reading our comments. About the “turn the other cheek” I don’t see it necessarily as incoherent with the Golden Rule, in the sense that is advocating for empathy towards someone momentarily blinded by its darkness and giving that person the chance of realizing of its wrongdoing. In the context, it is an invitation to show moral integrity.

Other allegedly Judaic form of the GR is : “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary”. I like this way a bit more than the one of gospels, as it is more focused.

RedPillTaker said...

If I may, I want to post here a completely different perspective of the problem. The presentation of the idea by means of video is Visually gruesome so I advice not seeing it if you don’t like raw violence. But I think the message, perhaps very unorthodox, has merit amid of our current plights as mankind.

Patrice Ayme said...

On the limits of the Golden Rule and its generalizations:
The Golden Rule, especially in Mengzi’s version, ignores that loving depends upon discernment. It’s easier to discern those who are close-by, starting with oneself. Ignoring the lack of discernment that loving those who are far way implies, is to be blind to a reduction in knowledge, and its impact on one’s emotional intelligence.
To extend altruism at an arbitrarily large distances brings contradictions, especially in the age of globalization.

Ethics is not a flat, but curved, even twisted, space, with variable local metric (the local morality). A curved space has an event horizon, beyond which, one cannot see, let alone act. Thus straight segments parallel here, when parallel transported along different histories, will end up not parallel. This is true in differential geometry, it should be true in differential morality.

Thus if we want European or US workers to have work and be treated according to the Rights of Man, Bill of Rights, etc. we should want the same for Chinese workers. However the latter having work and dignity, may mean the former don't, so, it’s seems to be a zero sum game: the rights given to them are removed from us... Actually, it’s worse: the rights removed from here aren’t even given there.
A related application of Mengzi’s Golden Rule is when Democratic candidates want illegal aliens forcing their way into the USA to receive free medical care. Is that because they would like their neighbor to get free medical care too? It’s another case of stealing those around us to give at a distance.

When the Huns (who originated in north-central Mongolia) were roaming around western Europe, it was not only hard to want to treat Hunnish babies just like European babies, but it turned out to be impossible (for reason of agricultural productivity, the Huns wanted what the Europeans had). Ultimately the Huns had to be massacred into submission.
The most basic objection to the Golden Rule is that we are what we eat, and if we can’t eat, we can’t be.

RedPillTaker said...

Of course scarcity (which is nowadays much less real than perceived) is the main excuse for dehumanizing the ones that are not close, specially those outside the imaginary lines called country border, to the point of making them culprits of all one’s ailments, and thus making them the fondo is of hate.

Perhaps you have never heard of it, but, barring our “economic system”, which ñ creates and fosters artificial scarcity, we achieved decades ago a technological level that could provide in abundance and excess for the needs of each habitant of the planet, if only we wanted. One of the first persons to postulate this was no less than architect and engineer Maverick Richard Buckminster Fuller, who wrote “ We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

RedPillTaker said...

Can’t edit so where it says “fondo is of hate” I meant “focus of hate”.

bill zorn said...

the golden rule is terribly flawed; it is dependent upon ideology. for instance, some religious people would see stoning children for insolence as quite acceptable due to scripture, and would want this service performed for them, had they been insolent as children.

a white racist happily accepts discrimination against blacks; being discriminated against would be seen by them as appropriate for them if they were black, as their ideology supplies a premise which supports this.

schwitzgeberg's mengzi formulation seems flawed by its premise; while people may well have 'natural concern and sympathy for others around them', it is also evident that people have apathy and contempt for others around them, as well as hatred for other others around them.

RedPillTaker said...

This kind of assertions seem to have human behavior as something set in stone. The so called human nature is a resilient mythos, human psychology is resultant from interaction with the environment (being one of the most important parts of that environment the other humans). Humans are not inmutable slaves of their nature bound to repeat their mistakes for ever, we are as psychologically plastic as we can be, so all behavior is learnt. Not understanding this fact is from where all the dehumanizing cliches stem from.

chinaphil said...

This is a lovely essay. I fear that I am not as optimistic about the positive nature of the human spirit as Mencius. Cases of ill-treatment within the family are a dime a dozen; and in fact we often do the most harm to those closest to us. It's not obvious to me that this is the "right" moral rule.
But I do think it's interesting in another way: as part of moral education. To teach someone successfully, you have to start with what they know. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes can be pretty difficult, so the classic golden rule isn't necessarily a very helpful heuristic for someone learning ethics. I don't know what it's like to be a president, or to be a woman, or non-white, so imagining myself in those circumstances is very difficult; but I do have a boss, love a wife, and live around non-white people, so I have a foundation of knowledge about the way I interact with those close to me. That makes learning how to treat others easier, to a certain extent.