PEA Soup is pleased to reboot the Cross-Cultural Philosophy series, thanks to the work of Brad Cokelet.

This thread features Sai Ying Ng‘s forthcoming paper, A Tale of Two Owens: Xiao as Trusting Others to Know Who You Are (from Philosophy East and West), with a critical précis from Iskra Fileva.

Can Parents Tell Us Who We Are and What to Do?

Henry James, in his critical work, discusses the origin of his Victorian story “Owen Wingrave” (which Benjamin Britten later turned into an opera). In James’s retelling of the events, James was sitting on a chair in the Kensington Gardens when a “tall quiet slim studious young man, of admirable type” sat on a chair near James and “settled to a book with immediate gravity.”[1] James had been reading about the Napoleonic wars, and he wondered what would happen if the young man in the park who, as one can tell from James’s description, did not seem the soldier type was told that he had to go to war because of inherited and unchosen family legacy.

Should Owen join the army? Is his family’s legacy a good reason to?

According to a certain liberal view of personal choice, that Owen’s predecessors served in the military and wish that Owen do too is not a good reason for him to enroll. Owen can make his own choices in light of his own values and preferences. In contrast, I take it that according to a broadly Confucian view of the importance of xiao, commonly translated as “filial piety,” Owen, or perhaps, his counterpart Ou Wen, may have a very good reason to enroll in that case, a reason that stems from an understanding of what it is to be a good son.

These two conceptions of life choices seem at odds, but in her thoughtful recent “A Tale of Two Owens: Xiao as Trusting Others to Know Who You Are,” Sai Ying Ng suggests that perhaps, there is much less daylight between what she takes to be a version of the liberal individualist view espoused by Bernard Williams and Ng’s own interpretation of “xiao.” In making her case, Ng draws on Williams’s discussion of James’s story about Owen Wingrave as well as on Williams’s remarks regarding the role of advisors in ethical decision-making.

Ng tells us that while Williams does not think Owen would have a reason to join the army if he has no desire whatsoever to do so, he also, in his discussion of the possibility of ethical knowledge, leaves room for seeking counsel from others regarding what to do. Importantly, Williams’s account allows that advisors be picked for supra-individual reasons, and indeed, reasons related to family legacy. For instance, a Catholic may turn to a Catholic priest and ask for advice regarding whether a certain action is “chaste.” The Catholic is reasonable to do so, according to Williams, because he and the priest share certain presuppositions, but Ng adds that family in particular may be the root of it all as a Catholic may be Catholic due to being born in a Catholic family.

Ng goes on to suggest that Williams’s account of decision-making with the help of advisors can be broadened to include family members and for Confucian reasons:

…Ou Wen turns to his grandfather for advice. In so doing, he comes to be persuaded that he ought to join the military. … In Confucian ethical theorizing …[o]ne naturally turns to various members of one’s family, all of whom have known A since birth and have a sense of who A is. Furthermore, Confucian ethical theorizing incorporates the trust that A naturally has towards his family: not only does A trust his family to know who he is, even when A lacks insight into the grounds of their advice, A should trust his family to know who he is. In turning to his grandfather for advice, A shows himself to be xiao—he shows himself to be receptive to his grandfather’s persuasion.[2]

Ng accords families a special role, arguing that parents and grandparents not simply may but should and indeed, regularly would be chosen as advisors if the starting point of deliberation is shared cultural tradition rather than the unique individual with her priorities and goals. There is an implication, mostly implicit, that this is a good starting point.

Shared traditions shape roles and give rise to role-oughts and common values and ways of life. It stands to reason that our elders may know those traditions and the corollary role-oughts better than we do, so if shared traditions are our point of departure, our trust in elders may be apt: they know well what it means to be a son, a daughter, a father, a grandmother, and so on from a traditional point of view, so if these roles are central to our identity from the get-go, then we can trust our elders to know who we are and from here, what we ought to do. Owen’s counterpart, Ou Wen, need not be someone who sees his family’s desire that he join the military as suffocating and constraining; rather, he wants to honor that desire because he trusts that senior family members know who he is better than he himself does. This is Ng’s interpretation of xiao as trust.

Ng’s is a rich and suggestive paper, and I am not sure I can do full justice to it here, but I will share a few thoughts. I believe that there are two main questions one may be interested in:

(1) Is Ng right to interpret xiao as trusting others to know who you are?

(2) If xiao is interpreted in the way Ng suggests, would that result in a rapprochement between the Confucian and the liberal individualist view?

For present purposes, I will leave the first question to students of Confucian ethics and focus on the second.

The first point I wish to note is that I am not sure Williams’s own discussion of Owen Wingrave is relevant to the debate between a Confucian and a liberal individualist. Williams references the Wingrave story in “Internal and External Reasons.” His point in that paper is that if Owen Wingrave has no desire to join the military, if, perhaps, every fiber in his being revolts against the idea, then Owen has no internal reason for joining, that is, no reason that can motivate him to so act.

If Owen did have the requisite motivation – or was swayed by his family’s rhetoric – then he may have or acquire (internal) reasons. Williams insists simply that belief alone will not generate motivation. He writes:

Owen might be so persuaded by his father’s rhetoric that he acquired both the motivation and the belief. But this excludes an element which the external reasons theorist essentially wants, that the agent should acquire the motivation because he comes to believe the reasons statement.[3]

This is important, because Williams is not here asking whether Owen should join the military, whether it would be (objectively speaking) a good and praiseworthy thing if he did, or whether his family can permissibly pressure him to do so. Indeed, for Williams, the “ought” question is a different one from the question about reasons. He writes:

…it remains an obscure issue what the relation is between ‘there is a reason for A to…’ and ‘A ought to…’ Some philosophers take them to be equivalent, and under that view the question of external reasons of course comes much closer to the question of a categorical imperative. However, I shall not make any assumption about such an equivalence and shall not further discuss ‘ought’[4]

But what about Williams’s discussion of advice and the way in which that can be expanded to include the Confucian style parental advice?

I believe that’s of limited relevance to the questions a liberal individualist may wish to ask as well. In making her case for a connection between the two, Ng draws on Williams’s “Who Needs Ethical Knowledge?”[5] There, Williams develops a “local advisory” model according to which it is reasonable for a person to turn to an advisor who shares her own relevant presuppositions. We can easily imagine that a person brought up in the Confucian tradition may believe a parent is the person to turn to here for precisely the reasons Ng gives: Children brought up in such a way may be inclined to trust parents to know better than they themselves do who the children are and what they must do. That inclination may give reasons for action.

The liberal individualist, on the other hand, would likely see several problems here. First, the supposition that parents may know their grown children better than the children know themselves needs empirical support. Our evidence of the internal mental life of others, including our children, is limited. Second, parents may not be concerned with what the child really wants or who she really is at all and may, instead, be too prone to insist that the children pursue the parents’ goals. Thirdly, even if the parents did genuinely want to help the child find the most authentic path, and even if they were in a good position to do so, there is also something to be said for choosing for oneself and making one’s own errors.

All this suggests that parents who put pressure on children to see things the parents’ way may be acting inappropriately from a liberal individualist point of view. The point is persuasively articulated by George Eliot in the novel Daniel Deronda. There, a character named Catherine Arrowpoint falls in love with her music teacher, Herr Klesmer, and tells her parents that she wishes to marry Mr. Klesmer. The parents resist this, especially the mother, arguing that as the daughter of nobility, Catherine cannot marry a man such as Klesmer. The following dialogue ensues:

“I am sorry to hurt you, mamma. But I will not give up the happiness of my life to ideas that I don’t believe in and customs I have no respect for.”

“You have lost all sense of duty, then? You have forgotten that you are our only child – that it lies with you to place a great property in the right hands?”

“What are the right hands? My grandfather gained the property in trade.”

“Mr. Arrowpoint, will you sit by and hear this without speaking?”

“I am a gentleman, Cath. We expect you to marry a gentleman,” said the father, exerting himself.

“And a man connected with the institutions of this country,” said the mother. “A woman in your position has serious duties. Where duty and inclination clash, she must follow duty.”

“I don’t deny that,” said Catherine, getting colder in proportion to her mother’s heat. “But one may say very true things and apply them falsely. People can easily take the sacred word duty as a name for what they desire any one else to do.”

“Your parent’s desire makes no duty for you, then?”

“Yes, within reason. But before I give up the happiness of my life –”

“Catherine, Catherine, it will not be your happiness,” said Mrs. Arrowpoint, in her most raven-like tones.

“Well, what seems to me my happiness – before I give it up, I must see some better reason than the wish that I should marry a nobleman, or a man who votes with a party that he may be turned into a nobleman. I feel at liberty to marry the man I love and think worthy, unless some higher duty forbids.”[6]

It follows from Williams’s account of reasons that if Catherine or someone else in her position had no desire to comply with her parents’ wishes even after the parents tried to instill one or guilt-trip the child, that person would have no reason to act as the parents desire. Ng, like Williams and perhaps unlike strict traditionalists, cedes that. She makes a parallel point about Wingrave: “I do not deny Williams’s conclusion on behalf of Owen Wingrave: if Owen Wingrave simply finds himself with different value priorities his family must accept that Owen has no reason to join the military.”[7] But, importantly, this is not the end of the matter. We must ask whether it is a good idea for children to trust their parents to choose for them and whether parents may appropriately insist that their wishes or social identity give rise to duties that may override a grown child’s own deeper desires. The liberal individualist’s answers are “no” and “no.” I suspect Ng’s answers would be different, so on this score, her agreements with Williams don’t show us how to dispel or adjudicate the conflict between the two views. All can endorse willingness on a child’s part – voiced by Catherine Arrowpoint – to desire to please one’s parents “within reason.” We see the gap between the two conceptions most clearly when we focus on the question of what “within reason” means. Does it include choosing a profession against your natural inclinations? Foregoing the chance to marry the person you love?

In order to appreciate the precise points of tension between the two conceptions under discussion, consider what follows from a liberal view about parental and filial roles and role-oughts. The proponent of the liberal conception does not reject such oughts but rather, insists that a good parent would not try to sway a grown child from making morally permissible choices in the pursuit of her own happiness or else attempt to instill in the child guilt for going against the parent’s wishes (which, again, may well give the child a reason in Williams’s sense). This is because doing so would be hurtful and not what a good parent does.

I wish to mention also that arguably, our loved ones’ moral commitments may give us a much stronger reason to act than their mere wishes and desires. Thus, if Owen wants to enroll in the army but his father is a committed pacifist who would feel his core moral identity betrayed if his son were to kill people, then I think a liberal individualist would agree that Owen has a good reason not to enlist. One may even argue that the reason Owen has is stronger than the father’s reason would be if Owen were the pacificist and the father wanted to join the army since it is plausible that a parent may feel morally responsible for the actions of a child, even a grown child, in a way a child may not feel responsible for the parent’s actions. This issue is important, but I cannot discuss it further here.

There are two final points I would like to mention. They have to do with objective morality. First, there are moral constraints on choices. No one should be joining the Mafia or marrying a charming serial killer and becoming an accomplice. George Eliot accepts this too. Catherine Arrowpoint, as we saw, says that she would sacrifice her own desires if a higher duty demanded it, she just does not think that her parents’ wishes give rise to such a duty. It stands to reason that if one’s child is considering these things, the parents ought to try to intervene and stop the child though what would make the intervention not only permissible but required are moral demands rather than parental desires. But what if the parents themselves are from the Mafia and want the child to be a member too? What would either Williams or Ng say about this?

It follows from Williams’s account of reasons for action that if the child wanted to join the Mafia and had no desire to abstain, or if the parents wanted the child to join and had no desire to stop him, then both would have reasons to ensure the child joins the Mafia and no reason to act otherwise. What would Ng say about a case in which a child born in a Mafia family trusts her parents to tell her who she is, and they say she really is a Mafia member?

Second, I suggested that Williams’s account is not a good stand-in for a liberal individualist view and that even if that account can be brought closer to a Confucian view, the gap between the Confucian and the liberal individualist view remains. However, in closing, I note that Williams’s account can be deployed at this stage to argue that there is no firm ground we can stand on in order to judge one of these conceptions – the Confucian or the liberal individualist – to be better. In the paper on ethical knowledge, Williams asks the question of whether we can extend his local advisory model so that it becomes an account of objective moral knowledge. He says:

Might we extend the practical explication of ethical knowledge so as to get beyond the local advisory model? The only way that I can see of doing so would lie in the Millian idea that the variety of human cultures, with their various thick concepts and ethical practices, should itself be understood in terms of an epistemic division of labour, as a kind of spontaneous and poorly co-ordinated research programme into the best way for human beings to live.[8]

If people try a way of life and they come to abandon it on account of being displeased with the results, then perhaps, that’s evidence it was not a good idea. Williams suggests, plausibly, that this is what happened with communism as a way of life. But if, contrariwise, people try a way of life and stick with it for centuries, that’s a different story. That is the case with Confucianism. I suggested above that the Mafia family case may present a problem for Confucianism, but I am happy to assume that the problem can be handled. My point presently is that Confucian ideas have been around for centuries, much longer than liberal individualism, in fact. If more than one set of cultural norms persists, Williams would say that we have no good objective standpoint from which to judge the relative merits of one over the other. If this conclusion were accepted, then it does not, strictly speaking, matter whether the two views can be brought closer together or not. Traditions and ways of life can be very different from each other without its being the case that one is, objectively speaking, better.

[1] See the preface to “The Altar of the Dead” in The Novels and Tales of Henry James New York Edition, 1922, p. xxii.

[2] Ng, 16.

[3] Williams, “Internal and External Reasons” in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 108.

[4] Ibid., p. 106.

[5] Bernard Williams, “Who Needs Ethical Knowledge?” in Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University    Press, 1995), pp. 203 – 212.

[6] George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 207.

[7] Ng. 24.

[8] Bernard Williams, “Who Needs Ethical Knowledge?”, p. 209.

9 Replies to “Cross-Cultural Philosophy – A Tale of Two Owens: Xiao 孝 as Trusting Others to Know Who You Are. Précis from Iskra Fileva

  1. Thank you so much, Iskra, for the rich discussion of my work! You’ve raised many thought-provoking questions for me – while I’m not sure I can address them all, I’m definitely more than happy to keep thinking these issues through.

    Admittedly, the ambition of my paper did not extend to asserting a rapprochement between the Confucian and the liberal individualist view. The more modest goal I had in mind was to assert a compatibility between xiao 孝 as familial trust and an intuitive notion of the ‘I’ of practical deliberation, the protest of which is the starting point of Ames’s work. I do so by focusing on social roles as thick ethical concepts. In fact, I am not committed to any substantial metaphysical thesis of the ‘I’ of practical deliberation, whether this thesis is Ames’s relationally constituted self or the thesis of liberal individualism assumed by Williams (but are these the only two options?).

    In any case, I wholeheartedly agree that several problems remain with my discussion of a paradigm case of xiao 孝, the most pressing being that parents themselves are also flawed moral agents. Admittedly, there are some extreme discussions of the demands of xiao 孝 in the Confucian tradition, such as stories of Shun. Perhaps the sort of trust I see as xiao 孝 can only be maintained in ideal situations in which parents, too, are committed to applying their social roles of ‘father’ or ‘mother’ in making sense of their experiences, and in doing so, committing to being ethical advisors to their children in the way Williams describes. The Mohists are quick to point this out against the Confucians (my own thoughts on the Mohists have been much informed by the discussion of ren 仁 in Jiang 2018)!

    But I want to make a brief rejoinder regarding the importance of ritual, or li 礼, in the Confucian picture, which goes a long way in setting the boundaries of xiao 孝 (Analects 2.5). As is often noted (see especially van Norden 2007, p. 102 – 112, Hagen 2010, Sarkissian 2014), li 礼 has a broad semantic range, and can be translated as social etiquette (e.g., a handshake) or as formal ceremonial rites (e.g., saying ‘I do’ at weddings or funerals rites). I concede that there is most room for debate between the Confucian and the liberal individualist at the micro-ethical end of the spectrum. Indeed, a lot of scholars working on Confucian philosophy aim to better characterize the boundaries of li 礼 where one might expect divergence within an ethical community, particularly between generations (see especially the literature on virtue ethics and Confucian philosophy, discussions of Confucius’ traditionalism, and flexibility with respect to li 礼; additionally, Ames’s own account of the Confucian tradition features a hefty discussion on the importance of shu 恕, a methodology of imagination, which I do not discuss but would love to!).

    More to the point under discussion, however, consider Iskra’s pointed remarks about the perspective of a liberal individualist:

    >>>We must ask whether it is a good idea for children to trust their parents to choose for them and whether parents may appropriately insist that their wishes or social identity give rise to duties that may override a grown child’s own deeper desires.

    And again:

    >>>All can endorse willingness on a child’s part – voiced by Catherine Arrowpoint – to desire to please one’s parents “within reason.” We see the gap between the two conceptions most clearly when we focus on the question of what “within reason” means. Does it include choosing a profession against your natural inclinations?

    I think there is most room for compatibility between the Confucian and a Williams-esque liberal individualism when we consider li 礼 as formal ceremonial rites – cultural milestones shaping our lives. Do I want to get married, to have children? How do I deal with the loss of a parent? In these moments, having never gone through these experiences, I confess that I do not know my natural inclinations and my own deeper desires (indeed, there is a big debate in the Confucian tradition, not to mention the contemporary philosophy literature on Confucian philosophy, on whether li礼 brings out what is natural or deepest to oneself). But so long as I concede ambiguity on my part regarding my natural inclinations and my own deeper desires, I think I have offered an explanation for the ethical convergence resulting from li 礼 in the Confucian tradition – an explanation that differs from, but is compatible with, Williams’s own. This explanation is grounded in the sort of trust I point to in my paper: I look to generations before me, who have gone through these experiences, to determine what I ought to do, because I trust that they know what my natural inclinations and my own deeper desires, in short, who I am, given our shared experiences as social-role-bearers. (I hope to continue working on this issue with respect to Mengzi and Xunzi, as well as the Record of Rites on the need for li 礼. I also hope to dive into these issues a little more with respect to Williams’s Truth and Truthfulness, particularly what it means to steady one’s mind – Fricker 2020 talks about this in terms of the second-person, while I prefer to frame things in terms of a first-personal plural given my emphasis on social roles.) Hopefully, my emphasis on li 礼 restricts the discussion to avoid the problem of blindly following your parents into the Mafia.

    Leaving exegetical concerns aside, I emphasize that my account of xiao 孝 is meant to play up the first-personal perspective of what it is actually like to be in a parent-child relationship, in an ethical community in which social roles such as ‘child’ and ‘father’ or ‘mother’ are operative. If so, I think there is space for my account of xiao 孝 to accommodate many of Williams’s own remarks on inter-personal negotiations. Something I’m really excited to think more about is how xiao 孝 as familial trust can wax and wane over time, that is, as the relationship between parents and children change – as children grow up to have a better sense of what resonates with who they are. Perhaps I place my trust in my parent and did join the Mafia, only to find out after the fact that I did resonate with the life of being a member of the Mafia. This is perhaps a happy case of xiao 孝 gone terribly wrong, and if so, I emphasize that xiao 孝 pertains only to the fact that I trusted my parents to know who I am and no more (nothing Mafia-specific!). But equally likely is the case that I do join the Mafia, perhaps because I was young and didn’t know any better, and find out after doing so that the Mafia life does not quite resonate with who I am. (Note: I think this constitutes a sort of discovery on my part, due to the uncertainty that has led to my turning to my parents for advice in the first place—I think the process of figuring out who I am is itself a process rather than a beginning point, one that perhaps requires a great deal of conversation with others.) If so, there can then be regret, resentment, blame, and so on, perhaps eventually resulting in my cutting off all ties with my parents in order to get away from the Mafia. The upshot: perhaps xiao 孝 as familial trust has to be built up over time to continue into adulthood!

    Happy to keep the discussion going, and thank you again, Iskra, for engaging with my work so deeply. Thanks especially to Brad for organizing everything, as well as the admins of this blog!

    Fricker, Miranda. 2020. “Bernard Williams as a Philosopher of Ethical Freedom.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 50 (8): 919–933.
    Hagen, Kurtis. 2010. “The Propriety of Confucius: A Sense-of-Ritual.” Asian Philosophy 20 (1): 1 –25.
    Jiang, Tao. 2018. “Oneness and Its Discontent: Contesting Ren in Classical Chinese Philosophy.” In The Oneness Hypothesis: Beyond the Boundary of Self, edited by P. J. Ivanhoe, Owen Flanagan, Victoria S. Harrison, Hagop Sarkissian, and Eric Schwitzgebel, 53–76. New York: Columbia University Press.
    Sarkissian, Hagop. 2014. “Ritual and Rightness in the Analects.” In Dao Companion to the Analects, edited by A. Olberding, 95–116. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy 4. Dordrecht: Springer.
    van Norden, Bryan. 2007. Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Hi Sai Ying,

    Like Iskra, I enjoyed reading your rich and thoughtful paper.

    I wanted to ask a clarificatory question to figure out how the Confucian and Bernard Williams’s models differ on your view with regard to reason for action.

    One thought I had was that Williams can account for why Ou Wen has a reason, possibly even a very strong reason, to join the army because he has a very strong desire to fulfill the duties attached to his social roles and to honor his family. So even though he initially has no desire to join the army, there is a “sound deliberative route” from Ou Wen’s subjective motivational set to his wanting to enlist in the army. After all, he cares deeply about honoring his role as grandson and upholding xiao. So even on Williams’s picture, Ou Wen can have a very strong reason to enlist in the army given his other desires and goals.

    So what exactly is the difference between Williams’s picture and the Confucian picture? One thought I had was that even IF Ou Wen didn’t care about being a good grandson or even about xiao—perhaps he’s been corrupted by modern individual liberalism!—the Confucians would want to still assert that Ou Wen has a reason to enlist in the army because roles and tradition generate reasons for action independent of an agent’s desires or values. They generate, in other words, external reasons—perhaps because they are thought to be requirements of morality on their view.

    So I was wondering whether or not the deeper difference between Williams (who rejects external reasons) and the Confucian view was whether or not the roles or tradition themselves are independently reason-generating. If the Confucian perspective doesn’t allow for external reasons of this sort, then it seems like there may be very little or no disagreement here with Williams since everything will come down to the agent’s own subjective motivational set. But it did seem like in your conclusion that Williams and Confucians agree in what reasons for action consist in:
    “Like Amex, I do not deny Williams’s conclusion on behalf of Owen Wingrave: if Owen Wingrave simply find himself with different value priorities, his family must accept that Owen has no reason to join the military.”

    I myself think that the Confucians would have held that there are external, objective reasons that can apply to people independent of their desires. Traditions and roles can generate responsibilities which in turn can generate reasons even apart from the individual’s desires or aims.

    Thanks again for the stimulating paper!

  3. Hi Richard (if I may), thanks for your question!

    I think that, as you say, the deeper difference between Williams (who rejects external reasons) and the Confucian view, concerns whether roles or traditions are independently reason-generating, and I agree with you that there is little to say in the case of divergence—if Ou Wen simply finds himself with different value priorities (Analects 17.21 has been a hotbed of contention on this issue though). But I think Williams and those in the Confucian tradition would disagree on the explanation for why roles or traditions generate reasons for action when convergence does happen.

    That is, I agree with you that Ou Wen can certainly be explained within Williams’s framework, but, drawing from his discussion of anti-individualism in ‘Formal and Substantial Individualism’, 1995/1998, I think what Williams would say is that there can nevertheless be further questions asked about whether Ou Wen is unfree or under some kind of illusion. And the relevant answer here concerns how well Ou Wen’s own understanding of his intentional states fits the social explanations of Ou Wen’s intentional states—whether Ou Wen can acknowledge these explanations if he knew how they came about. I quote Williams:

    >>> If an agent’s intentions can be socially explained; if the explanation shows that his intentions are contrary to his real interests, and if the intentions cannot accommodate his understanding those facts (his intentional state is such that he cannot merely recognize coercion or limitation in this respect), he is under a social illusion somewhat analogous to that suffered by the neurotic. (1984–85, 127)

    So, say both Williams and Confucius agree that Ou Wen explains his behavior by citing reasons to do with family honor. But what are Ou Wen’s real interests here? I suspect Williams would say something like Ou Wen’s own explanation of family honor does not match his real interests, which is perhaps to live a peaceful life. And I think that thinkers in the Confucian tradition would disagree.

    Unfortunately, I can’t quite formulate an answer on behalf of thinkers in the Confucian tradition just yet, given that I am just starting out! I agree with you that there’s a lot to be said about li 礼 as a set of external, objective reasons in the Confucian tradition, particularly if we take a more religious approach to li 礼. But at the same time, undeniably, thinkers in the Confucian tradition emphasized that the practice of li 礼 has to be internally motivating. Perhaps in their ethical theorizing, the ‘real interests’ of Ou Wen would be explained in terms of some kind of cultivation, refinement, or flourishing (for the Confucian virtue ethicists), consummate conduct in one’s relationships (for Ames), but also other puzzle pieces such as harmony (he 和 ,both human and cosmological), or the organization of a dysfunctional world (achieving li 理 being something that is presumably in Ou Wen’s real interests). So, I don’t know!

    Williams, Bernard. 1984—85. “Formal and Substantial Individualism.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society New Series (85): 119-132.

  4. Thanks for that response!

    I wonder why you think that in the case of divergence there isn’t any real difference between Williams and the Confucians since given your discussion above it looks like there is something like a real interest (whatever that is) that Confucians could appeal to that isn’t just reducible to desire. So a reason for Ou Wen to join the army, even if he has no desire for the army or even to respect his grandparents is because by joining the army he fulfills his responsibility as a grandson which is in his real interest. If reason here is construed as “something that counts in favor of doing” then Ou Wen has a reason to join the army anchored in his real interest and not his desire at least on the Confucian view. Sure he may not be motivated because he has no desire but considerations of real interest generate reasons, at least on this possible Confucian account. Or perhaps another way to put this would be: while he doesn’t have a motivating reason he has a normative reason for joining the army.

  5. Thanks for pressing me further!

    I struggle with the question of divergence, and I can see why you’re pressing me on the existence of non-motivating normative reasons on the Confucian picture. I only hesitate to draw the conclusion of external, objective reasons because the Confucian tradition places such a lot of emphasis on the importance of internal motivations in the discussion of these normative reasons, so much such that I’m partial to a local account of these normative reasons — like Williams’s “ethical knowledge, but only in a sense.” But I don’t think I can settle this on behalf of the Confucian tradition, and it’ll take years of historical work before I can begin to have an answer!

    Speaking just for my project on Williams, I’m working on a follow-up paper on Analects 17.21, in which I press on the fact that Confucius only remarks about Zai Wo’s lack of ren after Zai Wo leaves, choosing only to ask Zai Wo whether he feels at ease deviating from the three-year mourning period (instead of being more heavy-handed about the need to adhere to the ritual). This looks like a case where normative and motivating reasons diverge, but I want to say something about the importance of confidence as a collective practice for establishing ethical knowledge — regardless of what Zai Wo desires. If so, maybe there’s space for an account of these normative reasons localized for those who are thusly motivated. But these are just nascent thoughts!

  6. Very complicated indeed! Thanks for those points. I will let others make comments now. I look forward to your paper on Zai Wo!


  7. Hi Sai Ying, Thank you very much for your paper. I understand that you only mean to outline a broadly Confucian view of xiao. I have three questions.

    (1) Your main example involves a grandchild and a grandfather and sometimes you refer broadly to “family.” For example, you said, “In turning to his grandfather for advice, A shows himself to be xiao—he shows himself to be receptive to his grandfather’s persuasion.” I thought xiao is restricted to children-parent relationships? I take it that your examples are only meant to be taken loosely and perhaps modelling a parental figure to onself. However, since xiao is such a special concept in the Confucian tradition, Is it conceptually confused to say that A can be xiao to one’s grandfather or family in general?

    (2) In the early Confucian texts, for example, even if we assume that xiao involves listening to parents and following their advice, it is not clear that xiao involves seeing parents as advisors, and it is not clear that xiao involves one’s seeing parents as advisors who know who one is. In fact, if we look at the historical stories about xiao, often these are stories about parents who did not seem to understand their children and somehow they reconciled or compromised later. And the texts talked about how the children should behave when they disagree with parents, or in situations where a child needs to tell their parents off in an appropriate manner. It seems that the children follow the parents because they emotionally invested/love/care about them not because they see them as advisors who know who they are. So I was thinking if you need to say that it is xiao. Can’t we say the same about friends? About mininster-ruler relationship? Do you think you can say what you want to say without saying that it is the Confucian concept of xiao? It seems to me that your argument won’t be affected much if you don’t invoke xiao.

    (3) Internally to your argument, you think that “both Ou Wen and his grandfather are enacting a cultural script of how grandfathers and grandsons ought to interact with each other.” If so, then wouldn’t there be a worry that the grandfather is giving advice to what he is supposed to do/be as his grandson or a grandson (de dicto), not Ou Wen (de re)?

  8. Interesting paper, Sai Ying. I like the first-personal framing. These are complicated issues, indeed, and I think that first-personal framing helps to bring out the complexities! For example, I think Winnie is right that xiao is, narrowly, service to one’s parents. But first-personally the scope of that duty ‘spreading’ to one’s grandparents seems quite natural.

    Hi, Winnie! Re: your 2)–I think I see your point here, and it’s an important one. We shouldn’t assume, uncritically, that having the virtue of xiao necessarily entails that one view one’s parents as advisors. Several stories emphasize that one needs to *serve* one’s parents (what I take to be the core of xiao) *regardless* of whether they are founts of good advice or even minimally decent people (Sai Ying mentions the Shun stories, for example). But I take it that this does not preclude that one can and should take them as advisors when appropriate, and I think, looking at it from the parental point of view, it’s consistent with Confucian ethics to think that one *should* be a good advisor to those who relate to one in hierarchical dyads. One might think further that, with regard to matters of import to the family at large (such as a decision on whether to join the military, or choose a marriage partner, or accept some post far away), consulting with one’s parents is to be expected in the Confucian tradition (in both senses of that term). But you’re right that parents may not always know one in just the right way to be helpful for the specific problem one is facing, even if they plausibly do (for a range of problems).

    This ties into your other point–namely, whether Sai Ying’s model can be extended to other relations. I think that’s right, but I think that each relation would come with own domain of advisory (as it were)–both in the sense that, e.g., my friends might only really know me in a certain limited way, and that they might have advice that is limited in scope. Importantly–they may not know, for example, what it is like to be a member of *my* family.

    You raise another good question: Do one’s parents have special insight or knowledge as to who one is? I think, speaking as a parent, that’s a tough question to answer (leaving for now the Confucian context and speaking more broadly). I think the answer must be ‘yes’, at least until a certain point in a child’s development. It’s plausible that as one develops there will be aspects of oneself that escape the notice of one’s parents. But that’s consistent with thinking they still have some insight into who one is, at least until a certain point in one’s development, and at least when it comes to some aspects of one’s selfhood.

  9. Hi Winnie, thanks for your questions! I do only mean to outline a broadly Confucian view of xiao 孝, but I really appreciate being pressed further on how broadly Confucian the view ends up being. I was under the impression that xiao 孝 relates not only to parents but also other elders in one’s family, e.g., the Li Ji 禮記 mentions 孝孫孝子—filial grandsons and sons (郊特牲 43). Happy to be corrected if not, and I’d learn more about the different ways xiao 孝 has been expressed through Chinese history, up to modern day!

    But more to your question, a large part of my understanding of xiao 孝 is based on Ames’s discussion of xiao in his recent book, which emphasizes the centrality of xiao 孝 as the root of ren (Analects 1.2). For Ames, while xiao 孝 is a virtue that is paradigmatically—and, perhaps, as you say, primarily—expressed in a parent-child relationship, xiao 孝 is also central because it is the means by which cultural norms are passed down through generations. For example, performing the right funeral rites for one’s parents demonstrates xiao 孝 as a virtue. Taking care of one’s parents in old age is perhaps an easier example of demonstrating xiao 孝 in the primary sense you describe. But more than that, xiao 孝 has a second role for Ames, which is to guide children into accepting that one ought to perform the right funeral rites. While the content of the first or primary use of xiao 孝 is restricted to the parent-child relationship, I think Ames would say that listening to your parents and accepting that one ought to perform rituals in general is also xiao 孝.

    My paper focuses on the second role of xiao 孝, which I think goes beyond a parent-child relationship. In Ames’s words: “The immediate family is only the beginning of such deference. Xiao 孝 must become a pattern of conduct that with unrelenting attention is extended out from family to include all members of the community, the polity, and ultimately even nature itself.” (2021, 83) This is also related to your second question: if Ames is right that there is this second role of xiao 孝 in accepting cultural norms passed down from generation to generation, I think this is compatible with children choosing to follow parents because they are emotionally invested/love/care about them. Anyone from any culture can feed and shelter their parents because they care for their parents, but why should they participate specifically in Confucian funeral rites? Why not the funeral rites of any other culture? Suppose my parents performed the funeral rites for their parents, my grandparents, and want the same for themselves when they pass, but I don’t quite understand why. In this case, I think preserving and maintaining traditions is a form of care for my parents, and this care involves seeing one’s parents in their social roles of parents, and seeing oneself in one’s social role of child. My discussion of ‘care’ is informed by Li 2023, which discusses care as involving acknowledging, accepting, and participating in my parents’ realization of their selves. But what does it mean for my parents to realize themselves?

    This brings me to your third question: I’m not too worried about the difference between Ou Wen as a grandson (de dicto) and Ou Wen (de re). In line with Ames’s push for relationally constituted selves, I think we make sense of who we are through the social roles available to us, and what these social roles mean is culturally informed.
    Thank you so much! I really enjoyed thinking through these questions, and it seems to me that I have a lot more to think about and learn. While I don’t mean to outline a definitive view of xiao 孝 for the Confucian tradition—that’s too big a task for someone just starting out—I do find xiao 孝 an interesting aspect of the Confucian tradition, and I don’t think I could have formed these thoughts without reading the Confucian classics. I’ll love to think about friendships and the minister-ruler relationship in the future, and especially the role of advisors in the context of advising one’s rulers.

    Ames, Roger T. 2021. Human Becomings: Theorizing Persons for Confucian Role Ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press.
    Li, Chenyang. 2024. Reshaping Confucianism: A Progressive Inquiry. New York: Oxford University Press.

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