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What Causes Moral Actions? -----Moral Feelings and Moral Reasoning in Mencius


The dispute of Mencius’ moral ideas in the English world mainly focuses on three aspects: do moral feelings and cognition come from the root of consanguineous affection or the “heart-mind” /xin/ of universal love? What causes moral motivations: feelings, or reasoning? What actions are moral? This dispute arises due to the analysis of Mencius in a dichotomous frame. This paper reveals that there is no paradox between the root of consanguineous affection and universal love. Because the mind of “four sprouts四端” is unified, moral feelings and cognition interweave with each other to stimulate moral motivations. According to Mencius, there are three processes of moral development: the first is the natural process mainly with moral feelings; the second is the process of probing the root or cultivating, and the third is the process of expanding moral feelings with reasoning. Moral actions occur in the first and third processes.

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  1. All translations of Mencius come from James Legge’s Works of Mencius.

  2. Mencius’ point is that King Xuan does indeed possess the 恩 necessary for benevolent action (which we see from his spontaneous reaction to the ox’s suffering), but that he does not extend that to the unseen sheep (or to his people). So there is an initial spontaneous response, but rational thought is required (aided by Mencius) for the king to see that he needs to do the work of extending that impulse to living things that are not right in front of him. (So, it is a combination of spontaneity and rational analysis that gets the king to where he needs to be, or it is always both, which are in fact a unity.) But without the part where Mencius traps the king in the inconsistency of releasing the ox only to kill the sheep, we can’t see past the first element of Mencius’ argument.

  3. “不忍人之心” is translated by James Legge as “unbearable heart”, but in Chinese, Buren不忍 is a positive word to describe a sympathetic attitude towards others’ suffering. But the English word “unbearable” loses its meaning and indicates something bad happening.

  4. In the case of King Xuan and the ox, the problem isn’t that the king does not want to extend his benevolence, but rather that he does not yet see that he needs to. Once it is pointed out to him, he seems quite willing but abstains from an act.


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I am grateful to Philip A. Kafalas in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures of Georgetown University for his helpful suggestions on drafting of the paper. This paper is financially supported by China’s Ministry of Education of Humanities and Social Science project under Grant Number 20YJAZH047.

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Kuang, J. What Causes Moral Actions? -----Moral Feelings and Moral Reasoning in Mencius. Integr. psych. behav. 57, 776–795 (2023).

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