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3 Where the standard resides

3 Where the standard resides

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person who is jen reaps a benefit only after overcoming difficulties (VI.22), that

a man of jen never worries (XI.29), that only a man who is jen is capable of love

and hate (VI.3), that only by setting one’s heart on jen can one be free of evil

(VI.4), that few people sustain being jen for any length of time (VI.7), but that

achieving it takes nothing more than desiring it (VII.30). A wise man will be

attracted to jen because of its advantages (IV.2), but no one can be considered

wise unless dwelling in jen (VI.1); indeed, jen appears to be a necessary

condition of wisdom (V.19), as well as a sufficient but not a necessary condition

of being a superior person (XIV.6). There are lists of lesser excellences that a

person with jen may be expected to possess, ‘A man who is strong, resolute,

simple and slow to speak is near to humanity (jen)’ (XIII.27). Also,

‘Earnestness, liberality, truthfulness, diligence, and generosity’ (Chan VII.6; cf.

‘respectfulness, tolerance, trustworthiness in word, quickness and generosity’,

Lau 1979). The closest that Confucius comes to a definition is ‘To master

oneself and return to [ritual] propriety (li) is humanity (jen)’ (Chan 1963:XII.1).

It is interesting that the Japanese, who use an identifiably Confucian

vocabulary to articulate their moral outlook, seem not to find much use for this

trait of character, which to some extent softens and introduces flexibility into the

otherwise stringent demands for unquestioning obedience to those above one in

family (parents, older brothers) and society (the emperor). In Japan, Benedict

reports (1946:117–19), the kanji character pronounced ‘jin’ and used in phrases

referring to acts (‘doing jingi’) is that which the Chinese use for jen. But ‘doing

jingi’ is used to refer to activity outside the law, either ‘above and beyond’

(charity, mercy) or in the sense of ‘outlaw’—as in the honor (‘among thieves’)

that binds people who are acting contrary to what law requires. In neither case

does it attract much approval or admiration. ‘The Japanese, [have] entirely

reinterpreted and demoted the crucial virtue of the Chinese system and put

nothing else in its place that might make gimu [unconditional obligation to the

emperor, one’s parents or one’s work] conditional’ (119). Only in Japanese

Buddhism does jin have positive connotations, as in the phrase ‘knowing jin,’

which refers to the mercy and benevolence characteristic of an ideal person


In Confucius, much less is said about another evidently central quality of

human beings, yi, commonly translated as ‘righteousness.’6 At one point,

Confucius declares that the superior man regards yi to be supreme, at least over

the quality of courage. ‘When the superior man has courage but no righteousness,

he becomes turbulent. When the inferior man has courage but not righteousness

[yi], he becomes a thief’ (Chan 1963:XVII.23). (Two further passages connect

the superior man to an interest in and understanding of yi: VI.10, VI.16.) A

Confucian of the second century BCE, Tung Chung-shu, suggests a connection

between yi and correction or rectification, ‘[yi] consists in correcting oneself and

not in correcting others. If one is not correct himself, he cannot be considered

righteous (yi) even if he can correct others’ (ibid.: 286, with ‘correct’ for

‘rectify’). Understood in this way, jen, as mastering or ‘controlling’ (Lau:


‘overcoming’) oneself converges with yi as governing or correcting (rectifying)

oneself. The former could be thought of as a goal (a state of character), the latter

as a way taken to that goal, but what one will do to travel that road will be to

practice the li. Asked to elaborate on ‘mastering oneself and returning to li,’

Confucius puts it this way: ‘Do not look at what is contrary to li, do not listen to

what is contrary to li, do not speak what is contrary to li, do not make any

movement which is contrary to li’ (Chan 1963:XII.1, with li for ‘propriety’).

This emphasis placed on li would appear to give it the role of standard or

measure in Confucian thought. The fourth-century Confucian Hsün Tzu

articulated this conclusion, viz. that the standard (fa) resides in the li.

If the plumb line is properly stretched, then there can be no doubt about

crooked and straight; if the scales are properly hung, there can be no doubt

about heavy and light; if the T square and compass are properly adjusted,

there can be no doubt about square and round; and if the gentleman

[superior man] is well versed in ritual, then he cannot be fooled by deceit

and artifice. The line is the acme of straightness, the scale is the acme of

fairness, the T square and compass are the acme of squareness and

roundness, and the rites are the highest achievement of the Way of man.

(Watson 1963–4:95)

But how does one determine which of the many possible ritual forms should

govern our practice? Over a century before Hsün Tzu wrote, Mo Tzu and his

followers challenged the Confucians on this point (Mei 1929: 123–34, 200–11).

The Confucians, it was alleged, waste a great deal of time and resources on li.

Among the most contentious points was whether it was necessary to mourn the

death of a father for three years. (Mourning involved dress, rituals and restrictions

on activities that had undeniable economic and social costs.) Speaking of one,

Yü, who had argued that three years was far too long a time to observe mourning,

Confucius said, ‘How unfeeling Yü is. A child ceases to be nursed by his parents

only when he is three years old. Three years mourning is observed throughout

the Empire. Was Yü not given three years’ love by his parents?’ (Lau 1979:XVII.

21). In response, Mo Tzu might have noted that infants are helpless and need

three years of fairly constant attention, while it is unclear what departed spirits

need (a point that Confucius himself all but made, XI.12) and might also have

drawn attention to Yü’s own reported arguments (in XVII.21) that failing to

practice music and (other) ritual for three years will seriously damage one’s

mastery of them.

Moreover, the appeal that Confucius makes to established practice throughout

the empire might be dismissed as precisely what is in question: should we be

doing what we are in the habit of doing, or should we change our practice?

Confucius would insist that established practice cannot be dismissed as

irrelevant; a regard for li is precisely a regard for established practice, and there

must always be at least a presumption in favor of continuing established practice.


When one of his followers suggested dispensing with the sacrifice of a sheep at

the ceremony marking the new moon, Confucius replied that he himself regarded

the preservation of the ritual as more important than (the cost of?) the sheep (III.


But how far does the presumption in favor of existing practice carry?

Confucius insisted that he merely transmitted and did not innovate; he was

devoted to the ancients (VII.1). But he himself observed what may be called

‘drift’ in established practice, a change in material used for ceremonial caps, a

step moved from one part of the proceedings to another (IX.3). In one case,

Confucius accepted the new practice because it was more ‘economical’ (Chan;

‘frugal’, Lau); in the other, he insisted that the older form of ritual was better

because it was less ‘arrogant’ (Chan; ‘casual’, Lau). These judgments reflect at

least a limited preparedness to evaluate practices and make deliberate choices.

But on what basis does one make such choices? Hsün Tzu compared the li to

standards like the plumb line, the T-square, the compass and the balance scale,

and it is indisputable that compasses generate circles, that balance scales

(properly hung) determine which of two things is heavier, that edges can be

made straight and corners made square, but there appears room to dispute

whether a ritual is properly carried out or is even necessary.

If we have faith that at some point in history there were certain truly

exceptional individuals—not merely superior men (chün tzu), but sages (sheng

jen)—who have reached an even more elevated level of achievement, and if we

believe that these exceptional individuals established correct rites, then the

standard does reside with these (truly) exemplary individuals. The quotation from

Mencius at the head of this chapter is then the most accurate account of the

situation. Indeed, Hsün Tzu concedes this: ‘All ritual principles are produced by

the conscious activity of the sages; essentially they are not products of man’s

nature…. The sage gathers together his thoughts and ideas, experiments with

various forms of conscious activity, and so produces ritual principles and sets forth

law and regulations’ (Watson 1963–4:160).7

The anti-Confucian Han Fei-tzu (at one time a pupil of Hsün Tzu) also

stressed the importance of standards (fa) but had the decrees of rulers (having the

force of penal law) rather than ritual in mind when he wrote. Nevertheless, we

still find him looking to the wisdom of the past as the source of fa:

Though a skilled carpenter is capable of judging a straight line with his eye

alone, he will always take his measurements with a rule; though a man of

superior wisdom is capable of handling affairs by native wit alone, he will

always look to the laws of the former kings for guidance. Stretch the plumb

line, and crooked wood can be planed straight; apply the level, and bumps

and hollows can be shaved away; balance the scale, and the heavy and

light can be adjusted; get out the measuring jars, and discrepancies of

quantity can be corrected. In the same way one should use law (fa) to

govern the state, disposing of all matters on their basis alone.


(ibid.: 28)

As two recent scholars of Chinese philosophy (Graham 1989:273–8; Hansen

1992:347–52) have stressed, fa is a concept that covers more than laws; it also

applies to the standards used in the building trades.

As a result of his preoccupation with effective rule through penal laws, Han

Fei-tzu is known as a ‘legalist.’ Obviously, if it were only a question of adhering

to a standard embodied in law that had been established at some time in the past,

difficulties would be posed by the possibility of drift just as for someone like

Hsün Tzu, who sought standards embodied in ritual practices. Han Fei-tzu,

however, appears to have been prepared to calibrate his standards on the basis of

whether they served to preserve and enhance a ruler’s power (Watson 1963–4:

16–34, 84–9). Mo Tzu, who at a much earlier date had rejected Confucian li in

favor of fa, would seem to have wanted to calibrate his standards, his fa, on the

basis of whether they served to enhance the prosperity and welfare of ordinary

people (Mei 1929:30–54).

The basis of Confucian validity appears to be tradition that validates itself by

belief in the charismatic qualities of its founders (see Section 2.1), qualities to

which tradition itself testifies. The problem, as we have seen, is that even if we

accept the charismatic or exemplary status of the founders of the tradition, unless

currently living individuals are capable of determining what is ritual propriety,

there is nothing to guard against drift away from genuine ritual propriety, as

established practices are reproduced from generation to generation. Han Fei-tzu

puts the point against his opponents effectively:

Since the death of their founder, the Confucian school has split into eight

factions, and the Mo-ist school into three. Their doctrines and practices are

different or even contradictory, and yet each claims to represent the true

teaching of Confucius and Mo Tzu. But since we cannot call Confucius

and Mo Tzu back to life, who is to decide which of the present versions of

the doctrine is the right one?…Now over seven hundred years have passed

since Yin and early Chou times, and over two thousand years since Yü and

early Hsia times. If we cannot even decide which of the present versions of

Confucian and Mo-ist doctrine are the genuine ones, how can we hope to

scrutinize the ways of Yao and Shun, who lived three thousand years ago?

(Watson 1963–4:118–19)

It would be as if we used try squares and straightedges inherited from our

ancestors without any idea of how to check them to see whether over time they

had become warped—unless, that is, from time to time a sage appears who is

capable of (re)calibrating our practices to insure that by adhering to them

faithfully we will do as we should.

Confucius was reluctant to claim the status of being a sage, in which case, if we

take him at his word, he recommended what he transmitted from the past on the


basis of his faith that the ancients had fashioned the standards embodied in li

correctly. Might it still not be the case that Confucius has said enough about the

characteristics of sages (or perhaps fully accomplished superior men would be

sufficient) that we can recognize someone who has what it takes to assess our

grasp of tradition and either reassure us or set us straight? We might of course

(as subsequent generations in China thought they had) recognize that in spite of

his modesty—or partly because of his modesty—Confucius was someone whom

we could take as the standard of human relations. But has Confucius said enough

to enable us reliably to recognize the qualities of the right sort of exemplary



The analysis of virtue

Choice, the mean, reason and practical wisdom

The qualities of exemplary persons are virtues (aretai; virtutes) in the traditions

of the West. Although Confucius discusses a number of particular qualities of

this kind, it is hard to identify a character in the Chinese texts that expresses the

general concept of a moral virtue or ethical excellence.

There is a general notion, te, commonly translated ‘virtue’ in Confucian (and

other ancient Chinese) texts. It appears in the Analects as a power to exert

influence over people (II.1) and to say memorable things (XIV.4). It can be

related to a more general sense of the Greek word aret , for Aristotle’s analysis

takes for granted a point made by Plato in one of the arguments of Republic I

(353b–d) that whenever something has a function to perform, aret applies to

whatever it is that enables it to perform that function exceptionally well. This

puts aret in the general category of powers or dispositions or qualities thought

to lie at the basis of powers or dispositions. (The word ‘virtue’ is still used in

English in this sense, as in ‘the virtue of this design’; now largely obsolete

expressions speak of the virtues of certain chemicals.) The idea is applied by

Plato and Aristotle so that the virtue (or excellence) of a knife—what gives its

user the power to cut something easily—would lie in its sharpness, weight and

balance. The virtue of an eye—what gives its possessor the power to see well—

would (given our understanding of how the eye works) lie in the shape and

clarity of the cornea and the sensitivity of the cells in the retina.

As Confucius uses the word te it appears to be something unequivocally

positive, although in other texts of the period it can be applied in a negative

sense, as when we speak of the ‘virtue’ of an instrument of torture. Confucius

may have been prepared to apply te in a way that is relativized to function. An

isolated rhymed couplet attributed to Confucius (XIV.33) says that a good horse

is to be praised for its te rather than its strength, which may be read to imply that

different kinds of things have different kinds of te. Compare Aristotle: ‘The aret

of the horse makes the horse good to look at and good at running and at carrying

its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy’ (1106a 19–21). Te is spoken of


as something to hold in esteem and to try to promote not only in oneself but in

the common people (I.9). Beyond this not much is said, except that few people

understand it (XIV.4). The particular ethical excellences that Confucius

discusses are not shown to be special cases of te in any systematic way.

Aristotle (Section 1.1) locates ethical excellence within a general category of

habits or ‘states of character’ and, as we will see below, the sort of habits that

make up one’s (ethical) character are acquired dispositions to act or feel along a

variety of dimensions, each of which involves responding or feeling either to the

right degree or too much or too little. The different excellences or virtues are

distinguished by a dimension of feeling or action: courage is the right location on

a continuum of degrees of feeling fear; generosity is the right location on a

continuum of degrees of sharing one’s material prosperity. There is also an

important ‘intellectual virtue,’ which, among other things, helps to co-ordinate

these different dimensions.

Before we take up Aristotle’s detailed definition of an ethical excellence in

general, there is an apparent paradox to be resolved. This emerges when Aristotle

considers what it takes to act well in some specific manner (e.g. justly) and the way

in which we acquire the specific excellence (justice) that allows us to do so. In

specifying (1106a30–b1) what it takes to do just acts, Aristotle mentions three

things. To qualify as having done something just in the full sense, a person has to

(1) act knowingly (not do it inadvertently); (2) choose it and choose it for its own

sake (in other words do it because it is just); and (3) act from a firm and unchanging

state of character. The second of these implies that actions characterized by an

ethical excellence must be seen by a person with that excellence as worth doing

precisely because they are what a person with that excellence would do, i.e. that

person must act for the sake of doing what is just. This is close to Kant’s

requirement that we act for the sake of duty, but Aristotle makes this into a

family of requirements under concepts of various virtues rather than a single


From the last of these, however, it seems that one cannot do what is just

without already being just, having the virtue of justice. Nevertheless, we become

just, Aristotle says, by doing just acts (1105a17; and he means to imply in

general, where X is an excellence, that we become X by doing X actions). But in

the light of (3) how can we do just acts without already being just? The answer

appears to be by imitating, with conscious effort and perhaps some discomfort

(i.e. not really acting justly), what a just man would do gladly and with ease.

Eventually, our disposition to do such things (actions characterized by the

excellence, X) will become established. And when it is established, only then

will our actions qualify as excellent.

Aristotle’s account of ethical excellence in general has four important clauses


Aret [ thik ] is a stable disposition (hexis) [to act or be affected]

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3 Where the standard resides

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