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Mind & Morals

Crossing Cultures in Moral Psychology

David Wong on two ancient Chinese philosophers with very different approaches to moral reasoning.

How we develop good judgment about what to do in a particular situation? In the modern Western tradition, the dominant answer to this question comes in the form of a ‘top-down’ model of moral reasoning that derives concrete judgment from general principle but never in the other direction. It is top-down in the sense that it derives answers to ground-level practical questions from the upper reaches of abstract and general thought. Utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill sought to answer all practical moral questions by reference to the general goal of advancing social utility. For Kant the ultimate moral principle in one of his formulations required one to treat each person as an end in itself and never as a means only.

Jean-Paul Sartre expressed skepticism about the practicality of such principles through his story about a boy in occupied France during World War Two, who was torn between staying with his mother and leaving to join the Free French forces. Kant’s principle is no help to the boy, Sartre argued. If he goes, he treats his mother as a means to his end of fighting the Germans. If he stays, he treats those who fight as means to his caring for his mother. Sartre does not discuss the utilitarian principle with reference to this story, but he does emphasize the dilemma of choosing between the relative certainty of helping his mother and the possibility of contributing to a larger cause. This dilemma illustrates the difficulties utilitarians have in comparing and ranking very different possible outcomes of alternative actions. It is not just that the probabilities of some outcomes are extremely difficult to ascertain. The outcomes also represent different values. Staying to help one’s mother represents the value of personal loyalties and local connections, while joining the Free French represents a broader concern for a national collectivity. Can one plausibly agglomerate indeterminate probabilities and qualitatively different values into a homogeneous notion of the greatest utility?

Western philosophers dissatisfied with the top-down model often look back to the Aristotelian notion of a phronesis or practical wisdom that depends significantly on knowledge of particulars acquired through experience. In this article I shall explain why they would do well to look across to other cultures and in particular to the classical Chinese philosophers Mencius (whose name was latinized from ‘Mengzi’) and Zhuangzi. Mencius gives us a model that starts with certain paradigms of good concrete judgment and then has us reflecting on those judgments to see how we can ‘extend’ them to new and problematic cases. Zhuangzi’s model stands in contrast to Mencius’ in having us clear our minds of good judgment in the past. Rather, we must treat each situation as unique and as overflowing conceptual categories formed on the basis of the past. I discuss the insights such models yield, along with the prospects for reconciling what is appealing in both of them.

Mencius’ reasoning from analogy

The top-down model assumes that general principles have at least as much or more credibility than the specific judgments that can be derived from them. That is why we get specific judgments from the general principles and not the other way around. Mencius, on the other hand, placed the most trust in a class of particular judgments and feelings that arise in response to particular situations. People who see a child about to fall into a well react with alarm and distress. A beggar rejects food that is thrown upon the ground. A king looks into the eyes of an ox being led to slaughter, is reminded of an innocent man being led to execution, and spares the ox. The last judgment is part of a famous story in 1A7 of the text bearing Mencius’ name. Mencius reminds the king of this judgment to persuade him that he has the capability of being a true king and bringing peace to his people. All he has to do, Mencius states, is to take the feeling of compassion he had for the ox and apply it to his people by sparing them from over-taxation and drafting men to fight his wars of territorial expansion. This kind of ‘extension’ is the key to Mencius’ theory of how we develop as moral agents.

Mencius did not cite any general principle in extending the king’s judgment to the conclusion that he has reason to spare his people from suffering. The King’s initial judgment that he should spare the ox does not appear to be an excuse to engage in top-down reasoning such as this:

Anyone in a position to help should spare a suffering being.
The King’s people are suffering
The King is in a position to spare them from that suffering
Therefore, the King should spare them from suffering.

Mencius’ reasoning by analogy features a much more crucial role for the initial judgment that he ought to spare the ox from suffering. In the extension from this judgment that Mencius urges upon King Xuan, the case of the ox and the case of the King’s people are compared, and so are the King’s reactions to these cases. The comparison is meant to stimulate perception of relevant similarity between the two cases and the recognition that the King’s reaction to the first case requires a relevantly similar reaction to the second case. This movement indicates a concern to treat like cases alike. Mencian extension through analogy partly consists in this movement from the judgment that in a certain case one has had an appropriate reaction (e.g. compassion for the ox) to the conclusion that in a like case a like reaction is warranted (e.g. compassion in a king for his subjects).

The King should have spared the ox from its suffering.
The case in which the King could do something about his people’s
suffering is relevantly similar to the case in which the King should have spared the ox.
Therefore, the King should spare his people.

In other words, judgments such as the King’s decision to spare the ox form a ‘baseline’ against which all other ethical judgments are to be compared. Rather than consistency for its own sake or consistency with general principles, Mencius cares to be consistent with the baseline judgments in his reactions to new cases. That is, the baseline judgments serve as paradigms of correct ethical judgment. We determine what sort of ethical reaction to a new situation is correct by asking which cases that have yielded baseline judgments are relevantly similar. We then determine what reaction to the new situation would be sufficiently similar to the relevant baseline judgments. The reasoning is not top-down because we conduct such comparisons without the mediation of any general principle. Reasoning, in Mencius, is careful attention and comparing to a concrete paradigm.

Top-down proponents may object that this kind of analogical reasoning cannot really be different from top-down reasoning. One cannot perform the second kind of inference, they may say, without employing some general principle identifying the general characteristics that make the case of the King’s people and the case of the ox relevantly similar. For example, it might be argued that one needs a principle such as “One should spare beings from suffering when one is in a position to do so.” How else would one know that the two cases are relevantly similar without having in mind a list of general characteristics that constitute the basis of relevant similarity?

To see how this objection might be answered on behalf of Mencius, note that we sometimes attach more credibility to some particular judgments we make than to any moral principle that deductively implies these judgments. For example, I share Mencius’ judgment that one should try to prevent a child’s falling into a well. I have more confidence in that judgment than in any general principle subsuming that judgment, such as the principle that I should help any suffering, sentient creature. I confess uncertainty about such a principle. Interestingly, King Xuan in 1A7 spares the ox from slaughter but substitutes a lamb, because the ritual sacrifice must be performed. The way that Mencius discusses the King’s action implies that the King should spare an animal whose suffering he has seen, for once he has seen the animal it would be callous to send it to its death, but the importance of the ritual ceremony dictates that the King order the ceremony to be staged with another animal he has not seen. Many of us have such complicated views about the treatment of animals, which is one reason why general principles specifying the proper object of our compassion run into perplexity. To have a list of general characteristics that constitute the basis of relevant similarity is to commit oneself to a position on an infinite class of cases. Mencian reasoning by analogy requires commitment to one’s judgment on the relevance of two cases, and two cases only.

So, for example, I might have a great deal of confidence in the relevant similarity between my judgment that I have reason to help a child falling into a well and another judgment I contemplate making, e.g., that I have reason to spare an innocent person from being executed (remember the ox’s eyes reminded the King of an innocent man about to be executed). Again, that confidence I feel might be greater than the confidence I feel in any general principle that would deductively warrant the move from the first particular judgment to the second. There is the relatively innocuous principle that I have reason to help people who don’t deserve to suffer harm. But it shifts too much of the work of judgment to the question of how one determines desert. In that respect the principle seems to verge on emptiness. In another respect it seems far from trivial that one has reason to help anyone who doesn’t deserve to suffer. Perhaps it might do some people good in some circumstances to deal with suffering on their own. So I think that in at least some cases, I am entitled to be more confident in passing from particular judgment to particular judgment by way of a determination that the cases being judged are relevantly similar. I am more confident that they are relevantly similar than in my ability to identify in a general way what properties or features make them similar.

Of course, through comparing enough cases and making judgments that they are all relevantly similar, one might then be in a position to try to identify those general properties that constitute relevant similarity. In fact, this is where general principles come from for Mencius. They help to explain, but ultimately do not justify, why we judge two or more particular cases to be relevantly similar or dissimilar. Moreover, any such explanation in the form of a general principle can always be corrected in the light of fresh information. Two cases might not be relevantly similar after all, contrary to our initial judgment. Or two cases could be relevantly similar, but we might have misidentified the characteristics that constitute the relevant similarity between them. It might be that we can formulate only an incomplete list of the characteristics that constitute relevant similarity. It of course should be granted that the initial judgments from which we extend are open to correction, as well as the judgments we make about the relevant similarity between the baseline cases and new problem cases. Still, they may have more credibility than any principle intended to identify in general terms which characteristics of the compared cases make for the relevant similarity.

Mencius’ method of carefully comparing concrete situations is appropriate given his conception of the richness and complexity of situations that call us to action: situations that resist management by principle. The complaint Mencius has against the Mohists, thinkers belonging to another philo sophical school of the classical period, is that they emphasized an impartial concern for all persons at the cost of recognizing the independent moral status that special relationships have. That is, while everyone is owed a basic respect and concern, we owe those who stand in special relationships to us an extra concern over and above what we owe to others, simply in virtue of those relationships. The Confucians, and Mencius was no exception, especially prized the relationship between parent and child, and in particular the adult child’s duties to honor and serve parents.

When different values conflict, such as impartial concern for all versus special concern for those close to us, there is no ‘super-principle’ to provide us with perfectly general resolutions. The appropriate resolution to each conflict depends very much on the situation. In Mencius 7A35, Mencius is asked what the legendary sage-king Shun would have done if his father had killed a man. Mencius replies that the only thing to do would be to apprehend him. Shun could not interfere with the judge, who was acting on the law. However, Mencius continues, Shun would then have abdicated and fled with his father to the seacoast. As Mencius portrays it, then, Shun’s actions strike a balance between the different values in tension with one another. The refusal to interfere with the judge is a way of acknowledging the necessity of impartially administering a social order. At the same time, fleeing with one’s father is honoring the value of greater loyalty to family. Shun manages to honor both values at different moments in his dealing with the situation. Deduction from a principle could not yield such a balance. We are expected, however, to learn from stories such as Shun’s, precisely because they function as concrete paradigms for judgment-making in the future. When we encounter situations that pose similar-looking conflicts between impartial concern and familial loyalties, we have Shun’s judgment as a resource and a model. That model is not the same as a general principle that would deductively yield a judgment about what to do in the present situation. Rather, we make some judgment as to whether the cases are close enough in all the respects we believe to be relevant to the cases we are comparing, and if we judge the cases to be sufficient similar, we may ‘extend’ the judgment we made in a case such as Shun’s to the new case. That is, we may strike a balance similar to the balance he struck if we judge the new situation sufficiently similar to Shun’s.

Zhuangzi’s attention to the present

Zhuangzi, like Mencius, has a profound appreciation for the richness and complexity of the world, and like Mencius, his appreciation makes him suspicious of general principles as they are used in the top-down model. Inspired by the achievement of insight or wisdom in some particular cases, we create general rules that we believe will work for many other cases in the future. The unfortunate result is that our original insights and wisdom are magnified beyond the scope of their applicability. The seventeenth chapter of the Zhuangzi notes that the sage-king Yao looked for a suitable successor, found the perfect candidate in Shun, and then abdicated so that Shun could take over the throne. The result was glorious. However, when Kuai imitated Yao the result was disastrous. Tang and Wu were kings who fought and conquered. But Duke Bo also acted on that rule, fought, and lost. That is why it is impossible to establish “any constant rule.”

Zhuangzi’s skepticism about general rules runs deeper than Mencius’ because it is based on the view that our conceptualizations of the world are inevitably incomplete and distorting. We attempt to order the world by sorting its features under pairs of opposites, but opposites in the real world never match up neatly with our conceptual opposites. Real ‘opposites’ escape our attempts to cleanly separate them. Despite our best efforts, they switch places in our conceptual maps, blur, and merge into one another. That is why chapter two of the Zhuangzi says that the sage:

recognizes a ‘this,’ but a ‘this’ which is also ‘that,’ a ‘that’ which is also ‘this.’ His ‘that’ has both a right and a wrong in it; his ‘this’ too has both a right and a wrong in it.

The appropriate response to the inadequacies of our conceptual structures is to remain open to what those structures distort or hide. In chapter five, men who have had their feet amputated as criminal punishment are scorned by society, but not by their Daoist masters, who see what is of worth in them. Confucius is made a character in one story, looking like a moralistic prig in refusing an amputee an audience because of his criminal history. The amputee unfavorably compares Confucius with his Daoist master, scolding Confucius for failing to act like Heaven and Earth: “there is nothing that Heaven doesn’t cover, nothing that Earth doesn’t bear up.” In chapter one, Zhuangzi chastises his friend Huizi for failing to see beyond the ordinary, humdrum uses of some large gourds. Huizi tried using one of the gourds for a water container, but it was so heavy he couldn’t lift it. He then tried to make dippers from them, but they were too large and unwieldy. He deemed the gourds of no use and smashed them to pieces. Zhuangzi asks why he didn’t think of making the gourd into a great tub so he could go floating around the rivers and lakes, instead of worrying because it was too big and unwieldy to dip into things! “Obviously you still have a lot of underbrush in your head!” concluded Zhuangzi. He does not deny that the more ordinary uses are genuine uses for the gourds, and indeed, they are. Rather, Zhuangzi’s point is to clear the underbrush from our heads and to get an enlarged view of what is of value.

This story illustrates a fascinating duality to Zhuangzi’s skepticism that separates it from purely negative versions. Zhuangzi undermines the assumption that our own perspectives are uniquely correct not by entirely discrediting any and all perspectives (as in purely negative skepticism) but by undermining their claim to have exhausted what there is to see, and this involves opening our eyes to perspectives other than our own. We are not disabused of the notion that our ethical codes embody real values. We are compelled to recognize that other codes embody real values just as ours do.

Both Mencius and Zhuangzi reject the top-down model of judgment making, but Zhuangzi is more radical than Mencius in that his focus is entirely on the present situation and more precisely on what might be novel and unprecedented about it. Mencius seeks to found good judgment about the present situation on the model of good judgment in past situations that are relevantly similar to the present situation. For Mencius, good judgment is judgment consistent with past good judgment, even if that consistency is not mediated by general principle, as in the top-down model. For Zhuangzi, good judgment is judgment unclouded by the preconceptions we have formed from good judgments in the past. It is precisely the temptation to think that the present will conform to expectations we have formed from past successes that keeps us from paying attention to the present, just as it is. Generalizing conceptualization, expectations and preconceptions all based on the past form an obscuring and distorting filter on our vision of the present situation.

Ultimately, however, Zhuangzi is best understood as throwing up a strong caution and not an absolute barrier to our uses of the past. His own examples of people who are able to act in a supremely effective fashion presuppose an ability to respond to the present situation that has been developed and refined through long experience. Most famously, Zhungzi’s Cook Ding is able to cut up oxen so smoothly and effortlessly that it is if he is doing a dance with his knife as it zips through the spaces between the joints. He does this not through perception and understanding but through the qi, the vital energies of the body. The relevant point to be gathered from this story is that the cook only acquired such skill through long practice. His skill is knowledge of how to adjust his own movements to the spaces within oxen so that he and the oxen form seamless wholes. Similarly, the Woodcarver Qing has learned to prepare for carving his marvelous bellstands in such a way that he clears his mind of all distraction and sees the stand within the timber he has selected.

What we can learn from Mencius and Zhuangzi

Mencius and Zhuangzi present alternatives to the topdown model that are in many ways compatible with the Aristotelian alternatives that have developed within the Western tradition. However, the particular features emphasized in the Chinese models yield some distinctive insights. Mencius’ model provides a way to deal with problematic decisions by comparing them with past cases in which we have successfully made judgments about what to do. His model especially helps in those situations that are too complex for general principles to do much good, either because it is unclear what principles apply or because too many principles apply. Much of Zhuangzi’s teaching constitutes a caution about human pretensions to have mastered the lessons of the past, especially if such lessons take the form of general rules. In our eagerness to apply the lessons of the past, let us not obscure crucially relevant features of the present situation that do not fit the lessons we have drawn. Pay full attention to the present case and be alert especially to those features that don’t fit our preconceived rules.

Recent psychological research and theory about judgment formation point in the direction of Mencius and Zhuangzi. They have emphasized the value of informal, global assessments of the situation at hand rather than analytical methods relying on inferential rules or algorithms. For example, in a study of styles of judgment-making in highway engineers, Hammond, Hamm, Grassia and Pearson defined ‘intuitive’ styles of judgment as responding to situations in which there are many, continuously appearing ‘cues’ or salient features that are displayed simultaneously and apprehended perceptually, and in which there is no explicit principle, theory, or method available for organizing the cues into a judgment. The analytical style was responsive to situations, for example, in which there was quantified data available, and an explicit principle or algorithm of some sort available for organizing the cues into judgment. The researchers tested the engineers on a range of tasks that were more or less suited to the intuitive or analytical styles. The researchers found that even on the more analytically suitable tasks, 11 of 20 engineers were more successful with the intuitive style or with a style that was midway between intuition and analysis.

Recent theory attempts to accommodate such experimental results by departing from formal inferential or standard models of the mind as a digital computer with a central processing unit and a stored program. According to the latter model our minds manipulate representations of particular facts or general principles in accordance with programmable rules or algorithms. Alternatives include ‘connectionist’ models of the mind, under which information is stored in patterns of activation between input and output nodes in the neural network. Knowledge need not be explicitly represented or stored as a data structure, but in the strengths or weights of activation between nodes – how strongly a signal is relayed between input and output nodes. A triggering condition, of which we need have no distinct awareness, activates this stored information. Connectionist models offer an explanation of what goes on in ‘Mencian or Zhuangist’ reasoning, where we absorb information about complex situations in un-rule-governed ways of which we may not be conscious and may not be able to fully articulate.

If we take seriously the insights of Mencius and Zhuangzi, and the support they receive from recent psychological studies, we shall have to re-evaluate our models of education and character development. Too much of it is dominated by platitudes about communicating the right principles to the next generation. Not enough of it is a serious attempt to identify ways to cultivate the ability to make good judgments. There are interesting suggestions on this matter too in Mencius and Zhuangzi. As we might expect from a thinker who reasons by analogy to paradigms of good judgment, we find in Mencius extensive use of historical examples of people who have made good judgments under specific circumstances. We would do well to make more use in moral education of historical biographies of people who have stood up to tests of their judgment. In Zhuangzi, we find many examples of craftsmen like Cook Ding and Woodcarver Qing. Integral to the notion of a master craftsman is that he once served as apprentice to another master. Often good judgment cannot be described but must be shown by someone who already has it. We would do well to consider the idea that each of us needs, if not a master, an experienced mentor in the professions we choose and in other significant endeavors of our lives.

© David Wong 2002

David Wong is Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is co-editor with Kwong-loi Shun of a forthcoming anthology of comparative essays on Confucianism and Western philosophy.

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