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Han Fei on the Problem of Morality

Part of the Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy book series (DCCP)


In this chapter, I argue that Han Fei provides a strong argument against Confucian virtues, or, indeed, any other moral qualities, playing a role in the political realm. He argues particularly against Confucian political theory on a variety of grounds. Not only does he argue that a Confucian political theory cannot practically be implemented, he gives reasons to doubt the efficacy of such a system even if it were possible. I argue that, for Han Fei, so long as order within the state is the goal, virtue (and morality more generally) can have no important role. If morality is distinct from what gives rise to order within the state, there will be occasions when it conflicts with ordering the state. If not, then it is not morality in a true sense. Thus it can play no positive role in the political sphere. If it has a role, it is an accidental one, one determined by circumstances, rather than the nature of government itself.


  • Political Theory
  • Virtue Ethic
  • Private Interest
  • Political Order
  • Moral Vision

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

I would like to thank Paul R. Goldin, Eric L. Hutton, Philip J. Ivanhoe, Elijah Millgram, Chandran Kukathas, Cynthia Stark, and Bryan W. Van Norden for their comments on various versions of this chapter as well as two anonymous reviewers from Springer.

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  1. 1.

    Indeed, this is a trend that has continued to this day in political thought East and West. Of course, John Rawls’s Political Liberalism, is an important exception. However, even on this account, political organization must at least be consistent with a diverse set of moral views, even though, as he says, “accepting a political conception does not require accepting any particular religious, philosophical or moral doctrine” (Rawls 1988: 252).

  2. 2.

    See, for example, The Republic 419a-421c (Cooper 1997: 1052–1054). Indeed, this seems to be a presupposition of modern social contract theory.

  3. 3.

    Here, I am using the term ‘virtue ethics’ in the broad sense of an ethical theory that provides an account of human flourishing, an account of those things (virtues) that allow us to achieve this flourishing, and an account of how it is that we are able to acquire these virtues. As I read Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi, they find the role of virtue to be essential in both ethics and politics. For work reading the early Confucians as virtue ethicists, see Yu (1998), Gier (2001), Hutton (2001), Slingerland (2001), Sim (2007), and Van Norden (2007); for a dissenting view, see Yuli Liu (2004).

  4. 4.

    Here, Southwood does not offer a positive program, and does not provide us with a political normativity that is not derivable from moral normativity, but simply tries to persuade us that such a normativity must exist.

  5. 5.

    Other scholars who come to similar conclusions include Federico Chabod and the Friedrich Meinecke (Chabod 1965; Meinecke 1957).

  6. 6.

    Indeed, the flooding of the Yellow River in China is a problem that continues to this day. It is said to have flooded continuously for 13 years some 4,300 years ago (Bodde 1961: 398–403). More recently, in 1931, it flooded again, causing what is thought to have been the worst natural disaster ever recorded, killing between one and two million people. This followed a flood in 1887 in which at least 900,000 people are thought to have perished and over two million were left homeless (Gunn 2008: 141, 722). Even with modern knowledge and anti-flood techniques, the Yellow River still floods on a regular basis.

  7. 7.

    If the population is small, and natural resources are abundant, people may very well be able to live together fairly harmoniously. However, as population increases, and competition for scarce natural resources intensifies, new methods of social control must be found. If a few people run through the streets chasing a rabbit, the resultant chaos is not going to be that terrible. However, if a hundred or a thousand are all competing, death and destruction are likely to arise, as thinkers as far back as Shen Dao 慎到 noted. (See Chapter # by Yang in this volume for a further discussion of aspects Shen Dao’s thought.) The detrimental potential of chaos increases exponentially along with population.

  8. 8.

    A similar point may be made in slightly different terms. Given the conditions of the time, the amount and kinds of virtue necessary to achieve this harmoniously society was simply less costly, and as such, these kinds of virtue would have been more reliably present.

  9. 9.

    I draw on Xunzi for several reasons. First of all, unlike the Mencius and the Analects of Confucius, which are both composed primarily of piecemeal sayings, the Xunzi is a collection of well-structured essays that form a remarkably coherent and consistent view of ethics and politics. In short, this text provides an explicit defense of morality in politics of the sort seen nowhere else in early Chinese philosophy. Additionally, while there are differences among the philosophies of Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi, they are, in many ways, in agreement in their political theories. The fact that Xunzi offers much more sustained discussions of the role of the ruler and how exactly moral criteria should fit into the state gives us good reason to draw upon him.

  10. 10.

    And, of course, if the moral vision is to any degree uncodifiable, then adherence to the moral vision does not necessarily mean adherence to the legal code.

  11. 11.

    The term yi in early Chinese philosophy refers to what is appropriate or proper. However, Xunzi has a particular vision of exactly what is proper or appropriate, and for him, it refers to a particular pattern of social organization (Hutton 1996).

  12. 12.

    For example, Xunzi says:

    The gentleman orders what is orderly. He does not order what is chaotic. What does this mean? I say: Ritual and yi are called orderly. Whatever is not ritual and yi is called chaotic. Thus, the gentleman is one who orders [the practice] of ritual and yi. He does not order what is not ritual and yi. That being so, if the state is chaotic, will [the gentleman] not order it? I say: Bringing order to a chaotic state does not mean employing the chaos to order it. One eliminates the chaos and replaces it with order. Bringing cultivation to a corrupt person does not mean employing his corruption in order to cultivate him. One eliminates the corruption and replaces it with cultivation. Therefore, the gentleman eliminates the chaos; he does not order the chaos. He eliminates corruption; he does not cultivate corruption. The proper employment of the term “to order” is as when one says that the gentleman “does what is orderly and does not do what is chaotic, does what is cultivated and does not do what is corrupt.” (Wang Xianqian 1988: 2.3.44–45)

  13. 13.

    Note, that for Confucians, the tools or methods to be used in achieving order cannot simply be viewed instrumentally, insofar as they are virtue theorists.

  14. 14.

    Indeed, this is a common interpretation of Han Fei and Legalism in general (e.g., Fu 1996).

  15. 15.

    This term is used to denote the emotional closeness between fathers and sons in the Analects and the Mencius as well as the Xunzi.

  16. 16.

    For example, Xunzi says:

    When a benevolent [ren 仁] individual serves as superior, then the people will honor him as they would Di 帝; they will be close [qin] to him as they are to their own parents, and they will be delighted to march out and die for him. There is no other reason for this other than that what they take to be good in him is honestly fine, what they obtain from him is honestly great, and the ways in which they benefit from him are honestly multitudinous. (Wang Xianqian 1988: 6.10.181)

    See also Wang Xianqian (1988: 6.10.189–190, 7.11.220–21, and 7.11.224–25).

  17. 17.

    Indeed, where Han Fei uses qin in a positive light, he seems to have changed its meaning from the emotional ties that surround it in Confucianism, appropriating the term, as he often does, by changing its implications.

  18. 18.

    In addition, the Confucian relationship between fathers and sons is a much more hierarchical relationship than the one described here.

  19. 19.

    Within the Han Feizi we find five chapters of what one might call “Compendiums of Explanations,” including “Outer Compendium of Explanations, Lower Right.” Comprising approximately 25 % of the total text, these chapters are all similar in that they consist of numerous “canons” (jing 經), or lessons and advice that Han Fei wishes to impart, followed by extremely terse references to historical events or sayings that serve as illustrations of these lessons and advice. Each of these “canons” is then associated with an “explanation” (shuo 說), where the terse references from the canons are explained and expanded upon. Often, several versions of a historical event are given in the “Explanation” sections.

  20. 20.

    Indeed, the conception of the state and its members as a machine, though not voiced explicitly in the Han Feizi, makes one think of Hobbes’s “leviathan.”

  21. 21.

    Fundamental Sayings (Benyan 本言) is presumably a text extant in Han Fei’s time. However, we have no further knowledge of this text.

  22. 22.

    Private kindness” may be slightly strange here, but I retain “private” as a translation of si 私 for consistency. The point is that kindness is practiced not for the sake of kindness, or for the sake of others, but merely because it benefits the ruler.

  23. 23.

    For another account of the meaning of si in the Han Feizi, see Goldin (2005: 59) as well as Goldin’s introduction to this volume.

  24. 24.

    Note too that Mencius is quite explicit in 4A17 that the ritual code is merely a guide, that one must also exercise one’s own power of discrimination to weigh circumstances and act accordingly, even if doing so goes against established ritual prescriptions (Jiao Xun 1998: 15.520–521).

  25. 25.

    Of course, it is always possible that evidence will demonstrate that, for example, a portion of the text is corrupt, or an accretion from another text, or that it is from the hand of another author. The point is merely not to make such assumptions unless there is substantial reason for them. A further impetus for claiming wanting an interpretation of the Han Feizi that is not full of contradictions is that Han Fei himself explicitly derides people who contradict themselves. Indeed, the modern Chinese term for “contradiction” (maodun 矛盾, literally “spear and shield”) comes from the Han Feizi (Chen Qiyou 2000: 15.36.847 and 17.40.945).

  26. 26.

    This sense of yi also seems to be quite close to an ostensibly related term, yi 宜, or “what is proper or appropriate.” However, the following analysis would not change if we were to think of the term in this way.

  27. 27.

    We can, of course, see stark differences in the actual content of this concept. Nowhere do we see Han Fei advocating “the laws of equality and justice.” However, Hart wishes to argue that because there are certain conditional facts about human beings and their surroundings, there needs to be a certain minimum content to laws if they are to succeed in their task of organizing society (Hart 1994: 191–200). Han Fei too believes that there are certain facts about human beings and the external world that need to be taken into account when developing laws.

  28. 28.

    Or, at the very least, Han Fei would deny that any notion of desert prior to the state is a basis for organizing behavior within the state.

  29. 29.

    We might say that this only makes sense normatively once the individual has been interpellated into this way of seeing the world.

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Harris, E.L. (2013). Han Fei on the Problem of Morality. In: Goldin, P. (eds) Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy. Springer, Dordrecht.

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