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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. 

Comments

  1. This article discusses the reasons why the Left’s efforts at achieving equality of outcome will ultimately fail. Because, whilst one might reasonably accept that individuals are willing to be somewhat selfless in the cause of diversity and inclusion for themselves, they will never be capable of applying the same level of sacrifice to their own children. Far better to adopt a common humanity approach to looking at the adverse systems, both social and structural, that can derail the educational efforts of the poorer in society, and hope for greater parity through humanism.

    My aunt recently told me that she had listened to a radio programme which stated that the average reading was around 9, in the UK. What has happened to British education? We need to abandon this nonsense about child-centred education, letting the child lead the class, or go off and research the Tudors themselves, and move en masse towards the type of education espoused by Katherine Birbalsingh at Michaela Community School. And, of course, for the children of the wealthy, more traditional models of knowledge-rich education are always available for a fee- only increasing social stratification and concentrating opportunities in the hands of the relative few.

    Any teacher who says that they learn more from their kids, than their kids learn from them, simply isn’t teaching.

  2. Extremely superficial.

    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.

    Both Kant and Bentham recognized the difference between virtue and expediency. The difference between self-regarding action, and what is truly virtuous. The way the author goes about this article, we might as well discard philosophy altogether. It is that misleading.

    Egotism is well explored. Egotism, the most narcissistic kind, can only justify the author’s example assuming extreme short-sightedness. As Burke warned us, particulars are extremely important. Especially so in philosophy.

  3. I thought so as well. This part in particular caught my eye:

    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.”

    So for the author, the Mafia is upright?
    If anything, it points the way to the philosophy (using the term loosely) that underpins a good deal of the race theory that sustains so many problems today - that there is a justification for someone who breaks moral standards because they are, in some way, closer to us genetically than some others.

    From a personal point of view, when someone with whom you are close does violate such standards, and if you support those standards, then the best course is to help that person find a positive outcome in such a way that benefits them, in the long run. That doesn’t preclude making them accept responsibility for their acts.

    What apparently goes on in schools these days in some areas is a good example - a child violates the rules, the school wants to penalize them, the child’s parents raise hell and threaten the school with lawsuits or the teacher with penalties. So the rules stopped getting enforced, and the school system ends up failing the children as a whole.

    That reason and instinct will often be in tension is undeniable. But if reason is not allowed to do its job in tempering instinct then we just return to being simple animals. That’s not a world I want.

  4. This essay could have been a thoughtful, provocative, and nuanced look at how personal ties–to family, community, or others–entail moral obligations. It could have raised valuable questions about how the obligations of personal ties might need to balance or qualify the universal obligations found in Christian or Kantian or utilitarian ethics. Some paragraphs contain elements of what could have been a great overall piece.

    Unfortunately the author rather shoots himself in the foot and dramatically undermines his own credibility at the outset by declaring his willingness to commit mass homicide to save his own child. Perhaps this declaration was not meant seriously but has an example of hyperbole to prove a point. I didn’t get that sense, however–he seems to be sincere, saying “given some weird Twilight Zone scenario wherein all their deaths somehow saved my son’s life, I was at least hypothetically committed.” (Moreover, I would add that even if the declaration was not serious, making dramatic assertions you don’t really mean but leaving it vague and uncertain as to whether you are sincere is a poor way of making an argument.)

    To state what I would hope should be obvious: killing other people–who all presumably have families, loved ones, and communities who would be bereft by their loss–to protect your own family or community goes far, far beyond what any reasonable ethical system, whether particularist or not, should allow. Or at the very least, justifying such killing requires a far more careful, qualified treatment than the author provides. (For example, in a wartime situation, where one community was attacking another, then perhaps such killing could be justified as self-defense; no such qualifying conditions are provided in this essay, however.)

    More to the point, no society could survive if it allowed families or similar communities within it to kill or otherwise do whatever they wanted to advance their own preservation or self-interest. A society filled with people who operated according to the caveman ethics described in this essay would be a horrible one to live in. Perhaps that is why we so often demand that people, especially people who govern societies, operate according to a more universal ethical system.

  5. I understand that human beings will naturally care for their family members more than people in society in general, but the fact remains that you do not have the right to kill one person to save another, even if that person being saved in your own child.

  6. I think this article, from Jacobin, does a serviceable, not the best, job of outlining various arguments on the Left re. anti-natalism, including links to articles arguing from the anti-natal perspective that you might find informative. Their own position is of course that the best course towards raising the birth-rate is for governments to throw more money at it, but that’s Jacobin for you. But that argument is predicated on the assumption that taking responsibility for one’s children is oppressive to women, so in a roundabout way is pretty much supportive of @Martin28 POV.

  7. Maybe you live in a big city, Jerjapan, full of millennials of fertile age, but the birth rate of these educated progressive millennials is abysmally low. The birth rate for the US as a whole is 18 percentage points below replacement rate (2018), and dropping significantly in recent years. And there are groups in the US that have much higher birth rates, e.g. the poor, less educated, immigrants, religious groups, Utah, etc. So the educated millennials are not coming close to replacing themselves. I may have overstated things a bit, but not a lot.
    This comes partly from feminist philosophers like Dworkin that argued that heterosexual sex is rape, or something along those lines, and has come to a head with #metoo, where Franken was accused of an “attempted forcible kiss,” equating an attempted kiss with attempted rape, and our intellectual class took that seriously.
    Most women generally consider life before 1960 as terrible and oppressive for women (little mention of how terrible it was for men), largely because women had the job of having babies and caring for infants and therefore didn’t have fulfilling careers in human resources and marketing.
    All of this and more adds up to a general societal attitude that does not support families and raising children now.

  8. “I would strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son’s life.”

    Why do present day ethical dilemmas always begin with absurd hypotheticals? For whom is this a dilemma or option? How about ethical considerations that have real world applications?

    “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.”

    According to the Left what isn’t superior to the West? If by “believing we can be saints, but all the while acting like mere mortals” the author means to infer Christianity, then he must mischaracterize Christianity to make his point. Christianity, contrary to popular belief, does not believe if one fails to behave as a saint he is cast into the depths of hell. Christianity believes mankind is incapable of behaving like saints and thus in need of a savior. Furthermore Christianity does not preach that one should forsake one’s family. According to Christian teachings marriage is a sacrament and children are blessings. Meaning how one treats his/her spouse and children is indicative of how one treats a gift from God. Psalm 127:3

    Behold, children are a gift of the LORD, The fruit of the womb is a reward.

    If the point of the article is when faced with the dilemma of having to strangle 12 strangers to save one’s own child then Confucianism is a better guide that misstatements of Christianity, then I guess it’s premise is a success.

  9. Question to George Will: *if a drunk driver killed your wife, what should be the penalty?
    His reply: I would kill him without trial…and I would be wrong to do so.

    Personal biases don’t make good laws for society.

  10. An interesting read, but I do need to point out some apparent ignorance.

    “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.”

    Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. I don’t know of a single popular or intellectual strand of Christianity that engages in “the pretense of believing we can be saints.” Perfect fairness is an unobtainable ideal, of which all fall short precisely because we’re all “mere mortals.”

    Western morality, which is largely Christian morality, recognizes favoritism as natural (to not display familial affection and loyalty would be unnatural) but not laudable. We don’t praise someone for loving their family over a stranger; it’s expected. And this is as it should be; societies that recognize favoritism as a social virtue are more clannish, more violent in their inter-group relations, more corrupt. Societies that prize fairness and condemn favoritism are among the freest, most egalitarian, and least corrupt societies in the world. Perfect? Hardly. Hypocritical? Maybe. Preferable places to live? Absolutely.

  11. @Halifax

    Thanks for the reply.

    Luke14:26 must be read in context. 14:25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 14:26 If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 14:27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

    At this point large crowds are following Jesus and why not? He is feeding and healing people What does one have to lose by following Jesus? So Jesus wants the crowd to know following him is not easy or cost free. Following Jesus will cost some family, friends, wealth, freedom and even their lives. This is the same message in Mark 13:12.

    Another passage that is frequently misunderstood as Jesus being against wealth is Matthew 19:24.

    “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

    Once again the context matters. A rich man wishes to follow Jesus. However Jesus sees through the man. The man wishes to be seen with Jesus to be a part of this new hip cool movement. He is a hanger on who will eventually drift to the next cool thing. So Jesus challenges him and tells him to go sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man skulks away instead. The point is what or who do you really worship. When being a disciple of Jesus one is either all in or all out.

  12. Tho I myself tend to be one of the anti-woke alarmists, as always your quiet reasonableness takes the edge off the panic. There are plenty of entirely sane progressives out there. I wish there were more of them here, but they tend to get chased away.

  13. @Martin28 @jerjapan, I don’t know any leftists who aren’t having kids because “motherhood is oppressive,” but a few of my colleagues aren’t because they believe we’re in the End Times because of climate change and they don’t want to subject their children to that or contribute to the catastrophe.

    With regards to the article, I found the claim that it is ethical to kill a dozen people if it saves your child questionable. In the absence of war, that seems unjustifiable. My 3 month old baby has one functioning kidney, and even that one had a problem a little while ago. If she needed a kidney, could I kill another baby for it? Could I even wish death on another baby? I don’t think so.

    I think putting yourself and your family ahead of others to such an extreme degree is harmful to society. As @marionharmon mentions, that’s how you get corruption. If you’re a Chinese Communist and your baby needs a kidney, you just arrange to have one taken from a Uyghur baby. We see the nightmare these kind of ethos produce in China, so maybe a little gratitude for Christian ethics is in order.

  14. I’ve never quite understood why progressives are so obsessed about inequality on incomes. It is a category error of the most basic kind.

    It is not inequality that is causing young people to worry about their futures, but a lack of earning power. If you think this is a problem, then agitate for people to be paid more or to keep more of what they earn before Government takes a portion of it.

    Blaming your poor fortune on inequality is like blaming your cold on the fact that you neighbour doesn’t have a cold.

  15. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt, On Violence:

    The ceaseless, senseless demand for original scholarship in a number of fields where only erudition is now possible, has led either to sheer irrelevancy, the famous knowing of more and more about less and less, or to the development of a pseudo-scholarship which actually destroys its object.

    To ignore past philosophers is to repeat their mistakes, their work, everything. Discretion in evaluating philosophical works, arguments therein is different from complete ignorance.
    Today’s philosophers increasingly tend to ignore the past. They contribute little, and that precious little is inferior to past philosophy. It is how our education system is really designed.

    Knowledge is incremental, we ought to build upon our inheritances.

    This article fails equally to discuss Confucius, Kant and Bentham. It is a self-regarding piece.

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