Early Confucian Philosophy and the Development of Compassion

Abstract

Metaphors of adorning, crafting, water flowing downward, and growing sprouts appear in the Analects (Lunyu 論語), the Mencius (Mengzi 孟子), and the Xunzi 荀子. They express and guide thinking about what there is in human nature to cultivate and how it is to be cultivated. The craft metaphor seems to imply that our nature is of the sort that must be disciplined and reshaped to achieve goodness, while the adorning, water, and sprout metaphors imply that human nature has an inbuilt directionality toward the ethical that should be protected or nurtured. I argue that all the metaphors capture different aspects of human nature and how one must work with these aspects. There is much in contemporary psychology and neuroscience to suggest that the early Confucians were on the right track. It is also argued that they point to a fruitful conception of ethical development that is relational and holistic.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Ames, Roger T. 1991. “The Mencian Conception of Ren Xing: Does It Mean Human Nature?” In Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to Angus C. Graham, edited by Henry Rosemont, Jr. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

  2. ______. 2002. “Mencius and a Process Notion of Human Nature.” In Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations, edited by Alan Kam-leung Chan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont, Jr. 1998. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Analects. 2006–2015. Chinese Text Project. http://ctext.org/analects

  5. Bargh, John A., and Tanya L. Chartrand. 1999. “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being.” American Psychologist 54: 462–479.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bartz, Jennifer A., Jamil Zaki, Niall Bolger, and Kevin N. Ochsner. 2011. “Social Effects of Oxytocin in Humans: Context and Person Matter.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15.7: 301–309.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Baumeister, Roy, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice. 1998. “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74.5: 1252–1265.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bloom, Irene. Trans. 2009. Mencius, edited and with an introduction by Philip J. Ivanhoe. New York: Columbia University Press.

  9. Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson. 2005. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Caspi, Avshalom, and Brett W. Roberts. 1999. “Personality Continuity and Change across the Life Course.” In Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, 2nd ed., edited by Lawrence A. Pervin and Oliver P. John. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Choi, Incheol, Richard E. Nisbett, and Ara Norenzayan. 1999. “Causal Attribution across Cultures: Variation and Universality.” Psychological Bulletin 125.1: 47–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Creswell, J. David, Baldwin M. Way, Naomi I. Eisenberger, and Matthew D. Lieberman. 2007. “Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness During Affect Labeling.” Psychosomatic Medicine 69: 560–565.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Cua, Antonio S. 2005. “Philosophy of Human Nature.” In Human Nature, Ritual, and History. Washington, DC: Catholic University of American Press.

  14. Damasio, Antonio. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Darley, John M., and C. Daniel Batson. 1973. “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27: 100–108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Dupoux, Emmanuel, and Pierre Jacob. 2007. “Universal Moral Grammar: A Critical Appraisal.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11.9: 373–378.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Frank, Robert H. 2001. “Cooperation through Emotional Commitment.” In Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, edited by Randolph M. Nesse. New York: Russell Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Fraser, Chris. 2007. “On Wu-Wei as a Unifying Metaphor.” Philosophy East & West 57.1: 97.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Goldin, Paul. 1999. Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Gottlieb, Gilbert. 1991. “Social Induction of Malleability in Ducklings.” Animal Behaviour 41.6: 953–962.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Graham, Angus C. 2001. Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Griffiths, Paul E. 2002. “What is Innateness?” The Monist 85.1: 70–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Haan, Norma, Roger Millsap, and Elizabeth Hartka. 1986. “As Time Goes By: Change and Stability in Personality over Fifty Years.” Personality and Aging 1: 220–232.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Hagen, Kurtis. 2011. “Xunzi and the Prudence of Dao: Desire as the Motive to Become Good.” Dao 10.1: 53–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108: 814–834.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. ______. 2002. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

  27. Haidt, Jonathan, and Jesse Graham. 2007. “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize.” Social Justice Research 20.1: 98–116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Hauser, Marc D., Liane Young, and Fiery Cushman. 2008. “Reviving Rawls’s Linguistic Analogy: Operative Principles and the Causal Structure of Moral Action.” In Moral Psychology, vol. 2: The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuition and Diversity, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  29. Helson, Ravenna, Constance Jones, and Virginia S. Y. Kwan. 2002. “Personality Change over 40 Years of Adulthood: Hierarchical Linear Modeling Analyses of Two Longitudinal Samples.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83.3: 752–766.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Henrichs, Markus, Bernadette von Dawans, and Gregor Domes. 2009. “Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Human Social Behavior.” Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 30: 548–557.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Hoffman, Martin L. 2000. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  32. Hutton, Eric. 2006. “Character, Situationism, and Early Confucian Thought.” Philosophical Studies 127: 37–58.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Im, Manyul. 1999. “Emotional Control and Virtue in the Mencius.” Philosophy East & West 49.1: 1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Jobs, Veronika, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton. 2010. “Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories about Willpower Affect Self-Regulation.” Psychological Science 20.10: 1–8.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Kline III, T. C. 2000. “Moral Agency and Motivation in the Xunzi.” In Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi, edited by T. C. Kline III and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

    Google Scholar 

  36. ______. 2006. “The Therapy of Desire in Early Confucianism: Xunzi.” Dao 5.2: 235–246.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Knobe, Joshua, and Richard Samuels. 2013. “Thinking Like a Scientist: Innateness as a Case Study.” Cognition 126: 72–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Knoblock, John. 1988–1994. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Work, 3 vols. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  39. LeDoux, Joseph E. 1993. “Emotional Networks in the Brain.” In Handbook of Emotions, edited by M. Lewis and J. M. Haviland. New York: Guildford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  40. ______. 2002. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Viking.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Levy, Neil. 2007. Neuroethics: Challenges for the 21st Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  42. Lewontin, Richard C. 1974. “The Analysis of Variance and the Analysis of Causes.” American Journal of Human Genetics 26: 400–411.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Lieberman, Matthew D., Tristen K. Inagaki, Golnaz Tabibnia, and Molly J. Crockett. 2011. “Subjective Responses to Emotional Stimuli During Labeling, Reappraisal, and Distraction.” Emotion 11.3: 468–480.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. LoBue, Vanessa, and Judy S. DeLoache. 2008. “Detecting the Snake in the Grass: Attention to Fear-Relevant Stimuli by Adults and Young Children.” Psychological Science 19.3: 284–289.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Lutz, Antoine, Julie Brefcynski-Lewis, Tom Johnstone, and Richard J. Davidson. 2008. “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise.” Plos One 3.3, http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0001897

  46. Macdonald, Kai, and Tina Marie Macdonald. 2010. “The Peptide that Binds: A Systematic Review of Oxytocin and Its Prosocial Effects in Humans.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry 18: 1–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Mauss, Iris B., Silvia A. Bunge, and James J. Gross. 2008. “Culture and Automatic Emotion Regulation.” In Regulating Emotions: Culture, Social Necessity, and Biological Inheritance (New Perspectives in Cognitive Psychology), edited by Marie Vandekerkhove, Christian von Scheve, Sven Ismer, Susanne Jung, and Stefanie Kronast. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Mauss, Iris B., Crystal L. Cook, and James J. Gross. 2007. “Automatic Emotion Regulation during Anger Provocation.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43: 698–711.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. McCrae, Robert R., and Paul T. Costa, Jr. 1996. “Toward a New Generation of Personality Theories: Theoretical Contexts for the Five-Factor Model.” In The Five-Factor Model of Personality: Theoretical Perspectives, edited by Jerry S. Wiggins. New York: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Mencius. 2006–2015. Chinese Text Project. http://ctext.org/mengzi

  51. Mikhail, John. 2007. “Universal Moral Grammar: Theory, Evidence and the Future.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11.4: 143–152.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. ______. 2011. Elements of Moral Cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  53. Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: HarperCollins.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Mineka, Susan, Mark Davidson, Michael Cook, and Richard Keir. 1984. “Observational Conditioning of Snake Fear in Rhesus Monkeys.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 93.4: 355–372.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Mischel, Walter, Yuichi Shoda, and Monica L. Rodriguez. 1989. “Delay of Gratification in Children.” Science 244.4907: 933–938.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Moll, Jorge, Frank Drueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Grafman. 2006. “Human Front-Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions about Charitable Donation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103: 15623–15628.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Moore, David S. 2003. The Dependent Gene: The Fallacy of Nature versus Nurture. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Morhenn, Vera B., Jang Woo Park, Elisabeth Piper, and Paul J. Zak. 2008. “Monetary Sacrifice among Strangers Is Mediated by Endogenous Oxytocin Release after Physical Contact.” Evolution and Human Behavior 29: 375–383.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Nisbett, Richard E. 2004. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why. New York: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Nivison, David S. 1996a. “The Paradox of Virtue.” In The Ways of Confucianism, edited by Bryan W. Van Norden. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

    Google Scholar 

  61. ______. 1996b. “Critique of David B. Wong ‘Xunzi on Moral Motivation’.” In Chinese Language, Thought, and Culture: Nivison and His Critics, edited by Philip J. Ivanhoe. Chicago: Open Court.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Olberding, Amy. 2008. “Dreaming of the Duke of Zhou: Exemplarism and the Analects.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 35.4: 625–639.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Overton, Willis F. 1973. “On the Assumptive Base of the Nature-Nurture Controversy: Additive versus Interactive Conceptions.” Human Development 16: 74–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Quinn, Naomi. 2005. “Universals of Child Rearing.” Anthropological Theory 5: 477–516.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Richerson, Peter J., Robert T. Boyd, and Joseph Henrich. 2003. “Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation.” In Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation: A Dahlem Conference Workshop, edited by Peter Hammerstein. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Rozin, Paul, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff. 1986. “Operation of the Laws of Systematic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50.4: 703–712.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Sarkissian, Hagop. 2010a. “Confucius and the Effortless of Virtue.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 27.1: 1–16.

    Google Scholar 

  68. ______. 2010b. “Minor Tweaks, Major Payoffs: The Problems and Promise of Situationism in Moral Philosophy.” Philosophers’ Imprint 10.9: 1–15.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Schmeichel, Brandon J., and Kathleen Vohs. 2009. “Self-Affirmation and Self-Control: Affirming Core Values Counteracts Ego Depletion.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96.4: 770–782.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Shun, Kwong-loi. 1997. Mencius and Early Chinese Thought. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  71. ______. 2004. “Conception of the Person in Early Confucian Thought.” In Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study in Self, Autonomy, and Community, edited by Shun Kwong-loi and David B. Wong. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Shweder, Richard A., and Edmund J. Bourne. 1982. “Does the Concept of the Person Vary?” In Cultural Conceptions of Mental Health and Therapy, edited by Anthony J. Marsella and Geoffrey M. White. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

    Google Scholar 

  73. Slingerland, Edward. 2003. Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  74. ______. 2009. “Toward an Empirically-Responsible Ethics: Cognitive Science, Virtue Ethics, and Effortless Attention in Early Chinese Thought.” In Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action, edited by Brian Bruya. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books (Kindle Edition).

  75. ______. 2011. “The Situationist Critique and Early Confucian Virtue Ethics.” Ethics 121: 390–419.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. Sober, Elliot. 1998. “Innate Knowledge.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward Craig, vol. 4. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  77. Srivastava, Sanjay, Oliver P. John, Samuel D. Gosling, and Jeff Potter. 2003. “Development of Personality in Early and Middle Adulthood: Set Like Plaster or Persistent Change?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84.5: 1041–1053.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Stich, Stephen P. 1975. “Introduction: The Idea of Innateness.” In Innate Ideas, edited by Stephen P. Stich. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  79. Tan, Sor Hoon. 2005. “Imagining Confucius: Paradigmatic Characters and Virtue Ethics.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 32.3: 409–426.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Tiwald, Justin. 2010. “Dai Zhen on Human Nature and Moral Cultivation.” In The Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy, edited by John Makeham. New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  81. Van Norden, Bryan W. 1992. “Mengzi and Xunzi: Two Views of Human Agency.” International Philosophical Quarterly 32.2: 161–184.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. Vogeley, Kai, and Andreas Roepstorff. 2009. “Contextualising Culture and Social Cognition.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13.12: 511–516.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. Vohs, Kathleen D., Roy F. Baumeister, and Brandon J. Schmeichel. 2012. “Motivation, Personal Beliefs, and Limited Resources All Contribute to Self-Control.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48.4: 943–947.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  84. Wong, David B. 1991. “Is There a Distinction between Reason and Emotion in Mencius?” Philosophy East & West 41: 31–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  85. ______. 2000. “Xunzi on Moral Motivation.” In Virtue, Nature and Moral Agency in the Xunzi, edited by T. C. Kline III and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  86. ______. 2002. “Reasons and Analogical Reasoning in Mengzi.” In Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi, edited by Liu Xiusheng and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  87. ______. 2014. “Cultivating the Self in Concrete with Others.” In Dao Companion to the Analects, edited by Amy Olberding. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  88. ______. 2015. “Growing Virtue: The Theory and Science of Developing Compassion from a Mencian Perspective.” In The Philosophical Challenge from China, edited by Brian Bruya. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (An expanded version of “Mencius on Human Nature and the Development of Ethical Virtue,” presented at the conference “The Good Life and Conceptions of Life in Ancient Greece and China,” June 2010, Glasgow).

  89. ______. Forthcoming. “Xunzi’s Metaethics.” In Dao Companion to Xunzi, edited by Eric Hutton. Dordrecht: Springer.

  90. Zak, Paul J. 2005. “Trust: A Temporary Human Attachment Facilitated by Oxytocin.” Behavioral Brain Sciences 28: 368–369.

    Google Scholar 

  91. ______. 2008. “The Neuroeconomics of Trust.” In Renaissance in Behavioral Economics, edited by R. Frantz. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  92. Zak, Paul J., Robert Kurzban, and William T. Matzner. 2005. “Oxytocin is Associated with Human Trustworthiness.” Hormonal Behavior 48: 522–527.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David B. Wong.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Wong, D.B. Early Confucian Philosophy and the Development of Compassion. Dao 14, 157–194 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11712-015-9438-x

Download citation

Keywords

  • Moral cultivation
  • Human nature
  • Compassion
  • Confucianism