Confucius on Loyalty and Betrayal
Would you send your father to prison?
In the West, we’ve always been told that it’s good to obey the same laws that everyone else obeys, that our duty is to treat everyone the same, that we should be loyal only to the state, the government, the laws, the impersonal ethics of our societies. Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher, disagrees.
For Confucius, one’s personal loyalties to family, friends, co-workers and superiors are more important than the rules of some abstract ethical theory. This has been called the “particularism” of Confucian ethics. According to Confucius, we cannot judge an action in isolation, but we have to consider the particular circumstances surrounding it and the relationships between the agent and the other stakeholders.
If your father stole something — what would you do?
Would you cover up for him, help him hide from the police? Or would you feel that it’s your duty to report him, to make him confess his crime and to make him take the responsibility for the consequences of his actions?
Confucius on the upright person
Most of us would probably think of the second as the morally “right” behaviour. Even if, in the end, we did help our father cover up the crime, we would feel bad about it, as if we’d done something wrong. But not everyone would agree. Confucius, the ancient Chinese teacher of ethics, law and life (551–479 BC), once had this conversation:
That’s surprising! Why would it be morally right for the son to cover up the father’s crime? According to Confucius, this action would not only be tolerable. It would, instead, be a reason to call the son an upright person, a virtuous man, and the son should be proud of himself for having behaved in this way. Why would this be?
Are we all egoists?
There seem to be two factors at play here. One is our Western, deeply rooted conviction that we are all individual actors, little units, each acting only in one’s own interest. In this world view, society is necessarily unstable. If everyone is just pursuing their own interest, then the state must enforce its laws, because these are the only way to keep society together. That has always been the basic idea of Western economics, beginning with Hobbes and his “State of Nature,” which essentially describes just this setup. The individuals give up their freedom, says Hobbes (and, essentially, Locke and Rousseau would agree), so that they can live in safety within an organised human society.
The rules of society, at least for Hobbes, trump individual freedom every time.
Even language betrays itself: “individual” comes from in-divisible, a thing that cannot be divided further. Everything else can. Families can be divided, friends can be divided. The only real unit of human behaviour is the individual, the one, isolated person.
A country of families?
This is different in the world according to Confucius. Here the individual is not the single person, but the family unit. It’s the family that acts, the family that decides, the family that shares both the benefits and the harm of the collective decisions its members take. Collective punishment, where the family members are punished for the actions of an individual, seems strange to us. But in a Confucian world, there was nothing strange or immoral about it.
If the state wasn’t there, the idealised Chinese society would not fall apart into a bunch of warring individuals; it would neatly rearrange itself into ever-widening circles of family relations and friendships.
And then, Confucius’ stance seems to be based on a mistrust of state power. Should we give all our power to the government? he seems to ask. Perhaps not. Perhaps we should defend our own little circle of influence, our own family and its grounds, from any outside interference. Perhaps we should trust that we know best what’s right for ourselves and for those we share our lives with.
We live in a world where the authority of governments is falling apart, often being nothing more now than a distant memory, the fairy tale of a legendary time in which citizens trusted their representatives to do what was good for all. Today we see, in East and West, governments that are united only in their inability to inspire trust, to be taken seriously, and to lift themselves out of dishonesty, manipulation of the truth, and corruption. At the same time, governments and corporations alike claim the right to strip citizens of their privacy, to take away their future by selling out the environment for profit, to trample on people’s human rights for their own financial gain.
In a world like that, perhaps Confucius’ idea isn’t so strange any more. Confronted with a father who is forced to steal a sheep to feed his family; with a child that is forced to fight for its freedom against teargas and tanks; with citizens who have to stand up against multinational cartels to save the natural environment from total destruction, it sounds plausible to question our trust in governments and in society’s organised ethics once again.
We might want to rethink where our loyalties and our priorities should lie.
We might then come to the conclusion that it could, after all, be morally right to trust our own instincts, to stay loyal to those we know, to protect and to support those who are close to us and whom we love.
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