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Confucius Got It Right: Giving in to ‘Bias’ Is Part of Living an Ethical Life

“I would strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son’s life.” That’s what I blurted into a microphone during a panel discussion on ethics. I was laughing when I said it, but the priest sitting next to me turned sharply in horror and the communist sitting next to him raised her hand to her throat and stared daggers at me.

Why was I on a panel with a priest and a revolutionary communist? Long story—not very interesting: we were debating the future of ethics with special attention to the role of religion. The interesting part, however, is that at some point, after we all shook hands like adults and I was on my way home, I realized that I meant it—I would choke them all. Well, of course, one can’t be entirely sure that one’s actions will follow one’s intentions. The best-laid plans of mice and men, and all that. But, given some weird Twilight Zone scenario wherein all their deaths somehow saved my son’s life, I was at least hypothetically committed. The caveman intentions were definitely there.

The utilitarian demand—that I should always maximize the greatest good for the greatest number—had seemed reasonable to me in my 20s but made me laugh after my son was born. And my draconian bias is not just the testosterone-fueled excesses of the male psyche. Mothers can be aggressive lionesses when it comes to their offspring. While they are frequently held up as icons of selfless nurturing love, that’s mostly because we offspring—the ones holding them up as icons—are the lucky recipients of that biased love. Try getting between a mammal mother and her kid, and you will see natural bias at its brutal finest.

Americans are taught, from an early age, that no one is intrinsically “higher” or “lower” than anyone else, that everyone is equally valuable. The United States “is built on the idea that all citizens as citizens are of equal worth and dignity,” as philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it. So how do we reconcile our evolutionarily programmed favoritism with our conflicting sense of equality for all?

Some theorists explain this inner conflict as a fight between our raw animal emotions and our rational (principled) system of the good (impartial justice). But that makes things easy—too easy. The tension between preference and fairness is not just between the individual heart and the collective head. Rather, it is a tension between two competing notions of the good.

It is recorded that a Chinese politician from an outlying province once attempted to impress Kǒngzǐ (known to us as Confucius) with an anecdote of local virtue. The politician explained that the people of his region were so morally upright that if a father stole a sheep, the son would give evidence against him. While the politician was basking in his righteousness, Kǒngzǐ replied, “Our people’s uprightness is not like that. The father shields his son, the son shields his father. There is uprightness in this.”

No more is said about this exchange in Kǒngzǐ’s famous Analects, and no unified interpretation can be found in two millennia of Confucian philosophy. But, of course, most of us know exactly what Kǒngzǐ meant. We know it in our bones, even if we can’t articulate it in language.

It is difficult to express an idea of moral privilege when almost all of our ethical education has been directed against it. From children’s stories to religious parables to technical philosophies, we are encouraged to eliminate our personal connections from considerations of justice. The idea of fairness that many of us are raised on requires us to assign all parties equal weight. Lady Justice herself is often represented as blindfolded when she balances her scales. She cannot factor in people’s money, status, or power, and she cannot play favorites. Yet I would side with Kǒngzǐ’s explicitly favoritist ethic.

When philosopher Bertrand Russell read this Confucian passage, he took it as both refreshingly honest and indicative of a large-scale difference between Eastern and Western ethics. Russell generally thought that Christian virtue was too extreme—demanding charity for everyone, including one’s enemies. Confucian ethics, on the other hand, is more moderate and therefore more attainable. Instead of loving one’s enemies and treating everyone as equals, the idealized Confucian moralist, according to Russell, was expected “to be respectful to his parents, kind to his children, generous to his poor relations, and courteous to all.”

“These are not very difficult duties,” Russell went on to observe, “but most men actually fulfill them, and the result is perhaps better than that of our higher standard, from which most people fall short.” And so the Confucian ethic, which embraces favoritism, is less susceptible to the familiar Western hypocrisy—the pretense of believing we can be saints, but all the while acting like mere mortals.

Kǒngzǐ (who died in 479 BC) would not have been a fan of Jesus’s exhortations to universal love, by which we are required to turn the other cheek. Kǒngzǐ knew about other universal notions of love, from his Daoist contemporaries, but it seemed incoherent to him. Daoist philosophers of the day regularly promoted the idea that one should return good for evil. But when asked about this pious policy, Kǒngzǐ replied, “What then is to be the return for good?”

For Confucian thinkers, integrity is not synonymous with fairness or equality. Rather, familial love and devotion trump all other duties and obligations. There is a natural hierarchy of values, with one’s kin on top.

By contrast, many of us have been raised to think that favoritism is inconsistent with morality and justice. Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham argued that ethical judgments should be more like mathematical operations—universal maxims and formulae in which human variables (equally valued) are processed and calculated. The utilitarians argued that we should always behave such that we maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. We today are still heavily influenced by this mathematical model of egalitarian ethics—even though no less a philosopher than Aristotle endorsed a more nuanced view of justice, one that could admit favoritism. We don’t have to put our tribal biases in deep storage in order to enter into moral commerce with others.

This approach introduces more ambiguity into our pursuit of justice, because it admits deep asymmetries in our values. The claims of justice are different, Aristotle acknowledged, depending on who is involved in the case: “It is a more terrible thing to defraud a friend than a fellow citizen, more terrible not to help a brother than a stranger, and more terrible to wound a father than anyone else.”

People often associate bias with bigotry and prejudice, but this is only the worst application of a normal instinct. And the political interpretation usually prevents a more reasoned consideration of favoritism. One of the positive aspects of praising favoritism is that it will afford us an opportunity to examine some virtues that have fallen out of favor in the official cultural conversation—such as loyalty, devotion, allegiance and even attachment.

No one wants to be “victim” of someone else’s biases, but almost everyone is comforted by the idea that one’s brother, mother, or uncle is heavily biased in their favor. As Freud reminded us, “my love is valued by all my own people as a sign of my preferring them, and it is an injustice to them if I put a stranger on a par with them.”


Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy and Distinguished Scholar at Columbia College Chicago. This essay is excerpted, with the author’s permission, from Against Fairness, on the occasion of its republication in paperback by The University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2013 by Stephen T. Asma.

Featured image: 17th-century image of children with Kǒngzǐ (in cart), artist unknown.