Sunday, August 15, 2004

The source of moral truth

There is something deep within the human heart that yearns for kindness and justice to prevail over cruelty and callousness. Why is this?

To answer, it must first be understood that this is not something that can be approached from an objective or abstract intellectual perspective. This can only be understood through one's own feelings. The nature of human experience is necessarily subjective, it is not possible for it to be otherwise. This does not mean, however, that people are so different from one another that there is no basis for common understanding. The feelings and emotions of joy, grief, delight, anger, sadness, pride, etc., are universal among humankind regardless of time or place. If they were not then we should have no frame of reference to communicate among ourselves let alone appreciate the works of art, literature, or music passed down through the ages around the globe.

At the same time, there are of course differences which must be recognized for no two people will have exactly the same experiences in life, not even identical twins raised together. These experiences necessarily shape our views and perspectives. But let's not confuse the particulars with the general. This is where the post-modern notion of absolute relativism becomes confused.

Post-modern relativism takes the particulars of experience--whether individual or cultural--that lead to differing perspectives, attitudes, and practices, and makes that the basis of its argument. Then assert a generalization and asks for others to agree with it. How can anyone agree if all views and experiences are absolutely relative? What could possibly form the basis of agreement if there are no common frames of reference for it?

The problem is that absolute relativism fails to recognize that cultural differences require commonality within the culture for it to exist at all. Then it ignores any similarities between individuals in their feelings and emotions such as love, grief, sadness, anger, happiness, fear, laughter, etc. It is the universality of human feelings and emotions brought forth by life experiences that form the basis of common understanding and allows for communication.

To illustrate, in Li Fu Chen's The Confucian Way (1986) Mencius says,

"There now is barely--Let it be sown and covered up; the ground being the same, and the time of sowing likewise the same, it grows rapidly up, and when the full time is come it is all found to be ripe. Although there may be inequalities of produce, that is owing to the difference of the soil, as rich or poor, to the unequal nourishment afforded by the rains and dews and to the different ways in which man has performed his labor.

Thus all things which are the same in kind are like to one another. Why should we doubt solely in regard to man? The sage and we are the same in kind.

So, the scholar Lung said, 'Even if a man makes hempen sandals without knowing the size of people's feet, yet I know that he will not make them like baskets.' Sandals are all alike one to another, because men's feet are like one another.

Therefore I say, men's mouths agree in having the same relishes; their ears agree in enjoying the same sounds; their eyes agree in recognizing the same beauty: shall their minds alone have nothing in common? What is it that they have in common?

It is, I say, reason and righteousness. The sage only apprehended before me that which my mind has in common with other men. Therefore reason and righteousness are agreeable to my mind, just as the meat of grass- and grain-fed animals is agreeable to my mouth" (77-8).

So while there are differences among people owing to their individual circumstances and experiences, still, humans are enough alike to one another to be considered the same in kind. Our biology, physiology, and psychology are alike enough for humans to make basic generalizations such that a person making hempen sandals will not make them like baskets and that reason and righteousness are indeed a common property of our minds. This is what forms the basis of a common understanding between human beings across time and across cultures.


The foundation of all Confucian thought is based on the premise that humans are irreducibly communal. In the Chinese written language, the ideographic character for humanity is the same as for benevolence. The ideograph itself is the conjoining of the pictographs of a person and the number two meaning that humanity is found in the relationship between two people. The degree of empathy is what governs the nature of the relationship. As Mencius says:

"When I say that all men have the mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: Now, when men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they all have a feeling of alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child's parents, nor to seek the praise of neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation [of lack of humanity if they did not rescue the child]" (sic) (Chan, 64).

The above example of the child about to fall into the well and the attendant feeling of alarm and distress establish the mark of humanity. Again quoting Mencius,

"Benevolence is the tranquil habitation of man, and righteousness is his straight path.
The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of benevolence.
The feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness.
The feeling of reverence and respect is the beginning of propriety.
The feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom" (Chen, 73).

To which Chen states,
"Benevolence, righteousness, propriety and knowledge are not infused into us from without. We are inherently furnished with them, but only we do not think about them. Hence it is said, 'Seek and you will find them. Neglect and you will lose them'" (76).

To understand how these are considered inherent, Chen states,

"Why are benevolence and righteousness a part of man's instinct? A man cannot be isolated from his fellow beings. In his first years of life, he lives with parents and relies upon them. As he matures, again he is constantly with people, in fact, it is essential that he associate with others for he is in need of mutual love and aid. Therefore, benevolence--love which comes from the heart--and righteousness--love which is expressed in action--should be an essential part of man's instinct" (72).

Mencius also says,

"Children carried in the arms all know to love their parents, and when they are grown a little, they all know to respect their elder brothers [siblings].

Filial affection for parents is the working of benevolence. Respect for elders is the working of righteousness. There is no other reason for those feelings:--they extend to all under Heaven" (72).

The social nature of humans and the need to be with others is so strong that babies die without it as in the case of Russian orphans dying from being left alone too much. And the most extreme punishments humans have short of the death penalty are out-casting, banishment, or solitary confinement. To be cast out of group life and left to fend for oneself by oneself is tantamount to a death penalty in some societies. For others, it is to be cut off from one's family, one's friends, one's heritage, one's history, and one's place in the world. It is no wonder then, that in today's America with so many feeling so lonely and so cut off from others that social and psychological pathology should be so rampant. It is for this reason that the Great Learning teaches that the affairs of state and the condition of society rest on healthy families which in turn rests on the cultivation of a benevolent heart.

The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of benevolence because commiseration is the capacity to empathize with and feel sympathy for another. Without this capacity to commiserate, there can be no basis for understanding each other and no basis for knowing what is right and wrong or how one should behave toward others. The principle of benevolence is to understand and act kindly toward others, in short, to be humane. Therefore, benevolence is the hallmark of humanity. As the Golden Rule of the Bible states, "do unto others as you would have others do unto to you." The perspective is necessarily subjective, but because humans are alike one to another, the universality of feelings takes on the force of an objective or abstract truth. Thus, the yearning for kindness and justice to prevail over cruelty and callousness resides deep within each human heart and is the final arbiter of moral truth.