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Integral PluralismBeyond Culture Wars$

Fred Dallmayr

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780813125718

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813125718.001.0001

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(p.185) Appendix C On Love with Distinction

(p.185) Appendix C On Love with Distinction

A Chinese Debate

Integral Pluralism
University Press of Kentucky

I should be able to love my country and still love justice.

—Albert Camus

In Chinese philosophy today, an important issue is being debated: whether ethics requires us to give precedence to universal principles or sanctions particular attachments or loyalties. Specifically, the issue revolves around the ethical legitimacy of “filial piety” and a special fondness for particular persons (called “love with distinction”).1 The following reflections are offered with some hesitation. Although I have immersed myself in Chinese thought, I am neither a sinologist nor an expert on Confucian thought. So, regarding Chinese matters, I am a stranger or perhaps a distant lover, a friend from distant shores. But then it was Confucius himself who invited distant friends or lovers to draw near and participate in the conversation, saying “that friends should come to visit one from afar, is this not after all delightful?” (Analects 1:1). So, I am sufficiently encouraged by Confucius to overcome my hesitation and present these (quite limited) comments.

As I understand it, the Chinese debate raises a profound and complex question: whether filial piety, as conceived in traditional Confucian thought, is intimately tied up with ethics or whether it signals a derailment into corruption, injustice, or immorality. As can readily be seen, the central issue of this debate—though prompted by specific Confucian texts—is not narrowly limited to the Chinese setting but has a broader, perhaps even universal significance. From the literature available to me, I gather that the debate about filial piety and, (p.186) more broadly, about love with distinction, often shades over into a familiar conundrum: the relation between particularism and universalism. Some of the scholars praising love with distinction do so precisely because of its attention to particularity, to particular human beings, in opposition to vague generalities or generalizations. Scholars denouncing filial piety do so because of the same particularism, the same neglect of general or universal standards (above all, the standards of morality and justice). If this is the character of the debate—or at least a certain dimension of it—my position is difficult. Coming from abroad and not being an “insider” of the Confucian tradition, I may be suspected of leaning toward moral universalism and away from (Chinese) particularism. But things are not that simple; they rarely are.

In the exchange between Chinese philosophers Liu Qingping and Guo Qiyong, I intuitively find much that is appealing in the former’s argument, perhaps because, as an outsider, I have been influenced by Enlightenment ideas and especially by Frankfurt-style “critical theory” (with its emphasis on rational distantiation or decontextualization). Thus, even without being fully aware of it, my intellectual habitus resonates with a universal register of discourse—a register displayed by Liu when he writes that “Confucius puts the particular affection of filial piety above the universal principles of justice and honesty,” and for both Confucius and Mencius, “particular affection could override universal principles.” One should note that Liu does not entirely reject filial piety or love with distinction, but only their primacy over universal justice. “I do not entirely negate,” he writes, “the significance of kinship love or family life, but advocate that [such] affection should take its proper place in human life as a whole.” What he calls “post-Confucianism” is hence not a total rejection of the Confucian tradition but involves a simple reversal of priorities. What post-Confucianism does, he states, “is merely to turn the old framework of traditional Confucianism upside-down: to make the universal dimension of humane love, which was secondary in the old framework, primary in the new one, and to make the particular dimension of filial piety, which was primary in the old framework, secondary in the new one.” By doing so, the proposed framework will “creatively transform traditional Confucianism from a particularistic doctrine into a universalistic idea.”2

These are powerfully stirring words, especially for a reader (p.187) familiar with the Enlightenment tradition and its privileging of universal ideas over particularistic loyalties. Seen from this angle, traditional Confucianism appears hopelessly quaint and parochial; above all, the emphasis placed on love with distinction seems to be the mark of a bygone era out of step with the demands of our globalizing and universalizing age. But perhaps there is a need to be cautious; perhaps particular loyalties or affections cannot be surrendered without loss to universal principles. Perhaps it is the case that universalism and particularism are always mutually embroiled and cannot be simply rank ordered. Guo Qiyong seems to be fully aware of this embroilment. His paper emphatically pays tribute to the centrality of “humaneness” (ren) in Confucian thought, but without relinquishing the aspect of filial piety or love with distinction. For Guo, there is a process of maturation linking filial piety with universal humaneness. As he writes, “the beginning of love for one’s parents is followed by love for other people which is followed by things.” Hence, there exists “an order of love” whereby “one can gradually extend one’s love for parents to brothers, relatives, townspeople and clan, and further to all nations of the world.” Citing Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, Guo adds that humanity or humaneness “must have a ‘starting point’ which resides in filial piety and brotherly love,” for “if one does not love one’s own parents, brothers, and sisters, we cannot imagine that the person will love the parents, brothers, and sisters of others, finally forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things.”

In stressing this process of maturation, I believe, Guo Qiyong is not far removed from Aristotelian ethics. The linkage becomes even clearer in the emphasis on actual conduct—the praxis of love—vis-à-vis the mere theoretical cognition of virtues or rightness. For Aristotle, ethics is not merely a mode of knowledge but something that has to be practiced, and this practice is inevitably learned and cultivated in concretely lived situations. Although we know theoretically, or in our minds, about the existence of a universal humanity, ethical conduct toward others has to be guided by our “heart/mind (hsin),” that is, by our thought and affection or our affectionate thought, which is a concretely lived affection or a love with distinction. Following again Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, Guo observes that “the operation of the humane heart/mind is the concrete practice of humanity in real life. The reason that it begins with loving one’s parents and relatives is (p.188) that, compared with loving people and loving things, it has [practical, though perhaps not ontological] superiority and priority.” As he adds in an instructive (and again quite Aristotelian) passage: “The operation of the humane heart/mind in concrete practice, or the realization of universal love in the specific historical time and space, needs a procedure, order, or sequence, because real life and concrete practice cannot take place all at once in a vacuum…. A tree must first produce a shoot, and only then can it grow the trunk, branches, and leaves.”

Though hailing from afar, I find much of Guo’s argument quite congenial. Over the years, I have become weary of universal “lovers” of humanity or humankind; I have found that in their everyday conduct, such lovers are often quite unloving or uncaring toward their fellow beings and sometimes even neglectful of their rudimentary responsibilities toward them. Philosophically and existentially, I detect a certain deficit of “humaneness” (ren) in an abstractly celebrated universalism—an unwillingness to accept our “human condition,” that is, our “finitude” or our finite embeddedness in time and place. As one may recall, Martin Heidegger, in commenting on human finitude, speaks of our “thrown” condition as “beings-in-the-world,” a condition that does not at all equal confinement or imprisonment but rather constitutes the precondition for our longing or striving for the more-than-finite (or infinite). Readers construing Heideggerian finitude as a vindication of parochialism or narrowly local attachments fail to take seriously the centrality of the notion of “care for Being,” where the latter carries a more than local (or in some sense “transcendental”) significance. At the same time, however, “care for Being” evaporates into a vacuous chimera unless it is instantiated in practical conduct, in the active care for fellow beings and ultimately the care for “Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things.”

Seen from this angle, filial piety and universal care are not strictly separable; they certainly resist the idea of universal lineation or rank ordering. In his defense of post-Confucianism, Liu Qingping adopts a resolute priority scheme in which universal justice always trumps filial piety and love with distinction. His main charge leveled at “traditional” Confucians is that they prefer the opposite arrangement, allowing local particularism to triumph over universalism. I am not sure that Guo is willing to subscribe to this kind of rank ordering (his paper is not entirely clear on this issue). Perhaps, to escape the lure of rank orders, (p.189) it may be advisable to turn again to Aristotle, more specifically to his notions of the “mean” (mesotes) and prudent judgment (phronesis). As Aristotle would have recognized, there may be a tension between local and more general attachments and responsibilities. The task is to navigate carefully between different attachments and responsibilities and, if possible, find a “mean” or middle point. This navigation, in turn, has to be guided by thoughtful and carefully balanced judgment, the judgment of a reasonable and broadly educated person (phronimos). I am not sure whether the Confucian tradition has a notion that parallels the idea of prudent judgment (perhaps the notion of quan, or “flexibility,” comes close). But I know that Confucianism is famous for the “Doctrine of the Mean” (chung-yung), about which Tu Weiming has written that it is not “a categorical imperative in the Kantian [universalist] sense” but rather a “standard of inspiration” or an “experienced ideal” needing to be cultivated in practical conduct.3

By way of conclusion, I want to add a further caveat (which perhaps exceeds the Aristotelian framework): in some cases, competing demands may collide so harshly that there is no midpoint, no possibility of finding a “mean” through prudent judgment. At this juncture we enter the realm of tragedy beyond resolution. Greek tragedy presents us with the exemplary case of Antigone, who was forced to choose between the general “law of the land” and her own deeper family loyalty, her love with distinction for her dead brother; since there was no way to reconcile these loyalties, her fate was sealed. In the Confucian tradition, perhaps the case of Emperor shun and his relation to his father is similar. Shun realized and accepted that it was up to the “law of the land” to apprehend his father as a murderer. For himself, however, the situation was different: his task was not to apprehend but to love his father, and he could do so only by exiling them both from the law of justice and retreating into a land of love beyond law. (I am troubled by Shun’s treatment of his brother, as recorded in Mencius, but will not comment on it here.) Turning to more modern (Western) literature, I find exemplary the case of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. By the rules of law and morality, Anna was bound to her husband and her children, and there is no indication that she was ready to willfully disregard these rules and her obligations as a wife and mother. However, something happened to her: without seeking or soliciting it, a deep passion entered her life, a very special love with distinction that (p.190) shattered all rules and ultimately her life. At this point, one can see that love with distinction, though very particular and singular, carries its own limitless horizon, an infinity that ruptures conventional norms. Paul Ricoeur speaks of the “supra-ethical” status of genuine love with respect to justice and general morality.4 It is, I believe, part of our “humaneness” (ren) to recognize and honor this “distinct” status.


(1.) For some prominent statements in this debate, see Guo Qiyong, ed., Debates on Confucian Ethics [Chinese] (Wuhan, China: Wuhan Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 2004); Contemporary Chinese Thought 31, no. 1 (Fall 2007); Huang Yong, ed., “Symposium: Filial Piety as the Root of Morality or the Source of Corruption,” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 7, no. 1 (March 2008).

(2.) My discussion relies on and quotes from these two essays: Guo Qiyong, “Is Confucian Ethics a ‘Consanguinism’?” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 6 (2007): 21–37; Liu Qingping, “Confucianism and Corruption: An Analysis of Shun’s Two Actions Described by Mencius,” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 6 (2007): 1–19.

(3.) Tu Weiming, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985), 56. See also his Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought (Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press, 1979).

(4.) Paul Ricoeur, Liebe und Gerechtigheit/Amour et Justice, ed. Oswald Bayer, trans. Matthias Raden (Tübingen: Mohr, 1990), 43–47. See also my “Love and Justice: A Memorial Tribute to Paul Ricoeur,” in In Search of the Good Life: A Pedagogy for Troubled Times (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 220–235.