Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Mencius: How Much Do We Owe Our Fellow Citizen?

Mencius, public domain image.
C/o the Wiki Commons
I've been working my way through the David Hinton translation of Mencius for quite a while because I think that anyone who is interested in Daoism should also have a bit of an understanding of Confucianism too. Indeed, the temple that introduced me to the Way not only made the Classic of Filial Piety one of its core texts, it allowed Confucians (the "priests of Ru") to perform rituals in the building. (According to my teacher, the Temple belonged to the geographic community, not any one particular religion. Indeed, he once suggested that it be named "the People's Temple". Unfortunately, the association of this name with the infamous Jones Town cult meant that the board of directors opposed this suggestion.)


Consider this passage:
"These days, if someone in your house gets in a fight, it's fine to rush out and rescue them with your hair hanging loose and your cap untied. But if it's someone from your village that's fighting, then it's wrong. In fact, it's perfectly fine if you just bolt your door and ignore it."     
Mencius, David Hinton Trans, Chapt VIII, Section 29

Of course, Mencius doesn't really think "it's perfectly fine to just bolt your door and ignore it". Indeed, earlier on in this section he talks about Yu and Hou Chi. "Yu the Great" was a legendary ruler of China who introduced the people to hydraulic engineering as a means of controlling flooding. And Hou Chi (or "Hou Ji") was the hero who introduced Northern China to growing millet---China's first staple crop. Mencius says of these men that whenever Yu heard of a person drowning he felt that it was his fault. Hou Ji felt the same way whenever he heard of someone starving. Mencius is contrasting Yu and Hou Ji to the "ordinary man" of his day---who simply doesn't want to get involved unless he has "skin in the game".


This raises an interesting question. How should we react towards the sufferings of complete strangers? Here's another take on the issue, from the excellent movie "The Third Man".

Harry Lime (the character played by Orson Welles) says something to the effect of: "Look at those little people on the street. To us they look like little more than ants. Who cares if they live or die---especially if you can make a lot of money in the process? (Tax-free, no less!)" He then goes on to make a dubious claim about culture, namely that the Swiss have had 500 years of peace, democracy, and, prosperity and have produced little more than the cuckoo clock; whereas Italy at the time of Borgias was a cesspool  of violent intrigue yet it produced the great art of the Renaissance.

I wrote "dubious" because actually the cuckoo clock is a German invention and at the time of Borgias the Swiss had the most powerful army in Europe. This meant that their soldiers were in high demand, which is why the Pope to this day is protected by Swiss mercenaries. This is an important point to consider, because Lime is expressing a very persuasive bit of sophistry in an attempt to convince his friend to work for him instead of the police. And what he does is pretty awful---he steals antibiotics, dilutes them, and, sells adulterated product to desperate people with sick children. Indeed, Lime's friend decides to hand him over to the police after they show him a ward full of children who suffered permanent brain damage as a result of treatment with Lime's shoddy medicine. (Think "meningitis".)


So who should we believe? Mencius or Lime? When a person dies should we feel responsible like Yu the Great did? Or should we simply see them as "ants" that are probably better off dead anyway?

The first thing to remember is that this isn't a logical argument. Confucianism isn't about rational analysis according to the canons of reason. Instead, it's about introspection of our emotions. The traditional Confucian argument is that people are innately concerned about the well-being of others. And the archetypal image that they present in support of this idea is the child crawling towards the open well. The argument is that almost everyone would prevent the child from falling in. But this raises the question posed by Harry Lime---what if you really don't care? What if money really is more important to you than the well-being of others. This isn't a hypothetical question, as illustrated by the crazy behaviour of businesses around the world. Consider, if you will, the actions of milk producers in China who put melamine in their product because it will "spoof" the protein testing system that defines quality of milk.

If you go back to Harry Lime's monologue in the above YouTube clip, around the 1:30 mark he starts to introduce a general theory about people's motivation.  
"Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't, why should we? They talk about "the people" and "the proletariat"---I talk about "the suckers" and "the mugs". It's the same thing. They have their "five year plans" and so have I."
Think carefully about this argument. It is an attempt by Lime to move from the relatively easily-defended position of saying "it isn't true that all people care about others" to the totally indefensible position of "it is actually true that nobody cares about others".  This point of view is totally ridiculous. Obviously a great many people care about what happens to other people, which is why there was outrage around the world when people found out companies were putting melamine in milk used in baby formula.


Is it possible that Lime really believes that "everyone does it"? I think that he just might. Consider the following line of argument. The world we live in is, bye-and-large, an abstraction. Instead, the people we interact with is very limited:  our immediate family, who we work with, and a small number of friends. And some of us know a lot fewer people than others. I have a very wide circle of friends and acquaintances from all my years in politics. Other people I meet, however, seem to only know co-workers and family members. Others have wider circles of friendship---but they are limited to a particular subculture, such as a church or other religious organization. Increasingly, I suspect that a significant fraction of the population have self-selected themselves into a subculture of like-minded people who only really interact with people who also see things much the same way.

What if someone is surrounded by criminals like Harry Lime? Could he eventually honestly say "Nobody thinks in terms of human beings---"? He's not right, but he's making an understandable statistical error---he's generalizing about a much larger population based upon an analysis of a non-randomly selected sample: the criminal underworld. If you live in that milieu and never socialize with anyone outside of it, you can start to really believe some pretty strange things.


There's another side to this. People aren't simple. They can hold several opinions at the same time---sometimes ones which directly contradict each other. This is what we mean when we say someone is "conflicted" or "on the horns of a dilemma". A person can be like Harry Lime and honestly think that "everyone does it" and at the same time have a nagging feeling that he is still doing something wrong. Indeed, why does Lime think that he has to justify himself to his friend at all? Why not just shoot him and throw the body out the car of the Ferris wheel?

In cases like these, the arguments that they put forward can be attempts to talk themselves into believing what they say that they believe. Years ago I watched a totally ridiculous movie called "Frankenhooker". It was about a modern-day Victor Frankenstein who's girlfriend was killed and her body destroyed from the neck down. This modern-day Prometheus decided to bring her back to life by killing prostitutes and building her the "perfect body" by stitching together their best parts. In one of many over-the-top scenes the protagonist started having moral qualms so he performed an self-inflicted lobotomy on himself with a electric drill to ream the conscience out of his brain. Do people create crazy arguments in a similar attempt to get those pesky second-thoughts out of the equation so you can continue to make tax-free money off poisoning children? Is Harry Lime using ideas like an electric drill to remove a residual conscience? 

Indeed, could it be that in some minimal way a part of Harry is hoping that his friend will talk him out of his amoral point of view? Confucians put a lot of emphasis on the importance of remonstration in the face of evil. Indeed, a previous post I did on Mencius (Mencius: Filial Piety and the Rise of Neo-Fascism) mentioned the responsibility of scholars to disagree with people---family members or government leaders---who have talked themselves into taking immoral actions. How much of a moral responsibility lies on Harry's friend to try and talk Harry into ending his criminal activities?


Bev Oda, spendthrift Tory
Public domain image c/o Wiki Commons
I'm making a big deal about this issue because I often come across people who justify immoral behaviour in politics on the basis of "everyone does it". In fact, I think that this idea gets a lot of people into real trouble. For example, it seems to be something of a "thing" for politicians to go absolutely wild with their expense accounts. For example, consider Bev Oda---a Conservative Cabinet minister in the Stephen Harper government. She got into hot water after people found out she spent thousands and thousands on limo rides, fancy hotels, and---most famously---$16 for a single glass of orange juice. (I could cite several more recent examples from the Trump government in the US.)

I suspect that these people come into office under the assumption that government is a total cesspool and that "everyone" spends money like water. (That seems to motivate a great many conservative politicians.) With this assumption in mind, it's easy to move towards the idea that "everyone does it---so why not me?" Another possible explanation could be that some of these people start to mix with the very wealthy as part of their time in office and begin to lose track of the fact that the vast majority of people have to watch their money and spending $16 for one glass of OJ is just not acceptable.


Having trouble with an expense account is one thing. But this attitude can also encompass far worse things. If you believe that the opposition are a bunch of amoral traitors, then that would encourage someone to believe that "the ends justify the means". This is part of the reason why Donald Trump has been so damaging to American political culture. He encourages people to believe all sort of outrageous things, such as:
  • Barack Obama wasn't born in the USA and was therefore unqualified to be President
  • Hillary Clinton is guilty of criminal behaviour and should be put in prison
  • prestigious news organizations like the New York Times and Washington Post routinely print "fake news"
  • that immigrants are mostly thieves and rapists who come from "shit hole countries" to take advantage of "entitlement" programs 
This sort of political discourse is dangerous in the extreme because it encourages a fraction of the population to believe that they live in extremely dangerous times where a true patriot should seriously consider taking extreme measures to ensure the survival of his society. Just to consider how much American political culture has changed in the last ten years, consider this clip by the Republican candidate for president in 2008. 

You can see that the poisonous partisanship that was overtaking American society had already affected people that were attending McCain's rally. (Don't pay too much attention to the idiotic questions---listen to the crowd's reaction when the Senator answered them.) I think that what you heard was McCain's honest, personal feelings when confronted by the awful ideas that ordinary voters who supported the Republicans were believing. (McCain deserves some blame for the current mess too. He is a coward who routinely "caved" in order to get along with his idiotic supporters. Don't forget that he inflicted Sarah Palin on the body politic.) 


The big thing that I want readers to get from this post is process related. I'm trying to show you the sort of discursive analysis that Confucians use to make sense of the world around them. Mencius draws from the history of China to compare the way Yu the Great thought of his fellow citizens and how ordinary folks did in his time. In the same way, I've been drawing from today's news as well as films to illustrate important issues. It isn't a logical argument in the sense of using set theory or truth functional calculus. Instead, it is an attempt to develop more and more articulate understandings of our own personal emotions and what we think is right and wrong about the world around us. It isn't a form of meditation as we commonly understand the term, but it does have the effect of calming the mind and developing a deeper understanding. I think of it as "Confucian contemplation". 

Among other things, our culture is suffering from a "crisis of clarity". Hordes of highly-paid "spin-masters" are paid huge sums of money to confuse the general public into supporting very dubious policies. We have fake news, foreign propaganda influencing elections, media that play people's emotions like organists, and, politicians building successful careers on not much more than bullshit and outrage. In a situation like this it is vitally important for citizens to learn how to dispassionately contemplate the world we inhabit and carefully parse out what they do and do not agree with. Moreover, we also need these people to go forth into the public sphere and remonstrate with both the people they meet and the community's leadership in order to push back against the avalanche of fear and anger that they have unleashed.  


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