Non-Western Ethical Systems
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
The classical period in China falls between 550 and 200 BC, which is equivalent to the High Middle Ages in the West. While Western metaphysics speaks about reason and belief or about passion and desire, during that same period China was eminently social and its ethics translates into ‘dao’ (path in Chinese) – paths and virtues in the sense of guidelines for public conduct, goals and concrete achievements in the family, in customs and in social groups.
Confucius (551 – 479 BC) was the first and most famous Chinese thinker of the classical period and he narrowed down his activity to disseminating patterns of behavior in his Book of Li, which was a ritual dealing with conventional norms and ‘i’ morality. Although Confucius used to say that he only made comments and revelations about what the “wise kings” had written, with this book he was the first person in China to produce a manual of what the West calls urbanity standards, such as ways to dress and sit at mealtime, how to behave when attending an event, in the home and family life, etc.
Classical Chinese ethics is reduced to the conventional morality of Confucius’s book Li I, the utilitarian morality of Mozi’s Li i and the intuitive, benevolent and humanized morality of Mencius’s book Ren I.
Confucius is therefore the master teacher and he studied the Chinese classics as models of behavior, and humanism as an intuitive ability to interpret Mozi’s Li. The morality of Confucius is based on the social or family roles of people who occupy social positions or perform social duties and play the role of mothers, neighbors, leaders, teachers, etc. These behaviors were the signs of ‘education’ in the West during that same historical period, although Chinese ethics is not utilitarian, since there are no rewards for good deeds or punishment for bad ones, and it is the antithesis of the principle of legality and egalitarianism while promoting social education.
Mozi is the most reflective of Chinese sages and he raises questions about the causes of human actions, questioning the authority of ancestral roles and expressing the view that customs may be right or wrong. He proposes utility as the basis for people’s behavior, stating that whatever is right should benefit them and what is wrong should be harmful to them. He criticized ancestral practices, such as lavish funerals, high-cost concerts or wars of aggression, and he began to identify the distinction between the morality and immorality of human actions.
For his part, Mencius differed from his contemporary Yangzi who used the terms heaven and nature as a guideline for behavior. He said that heaven’s mandate was implicit in our natural abilities because it endowed the human being with a fixed amount of talent, (a view that also existed in the West,) and he declared that to die before the time appointed by heaven was to go against nature.
For Mencius, instincts were also manifestations of heaven that matured with the passage of time. According to him, the difference between the socially correct and incorrect arose from the human tendency to “do unto others”, to feel shame for bad actions, and respect and deference towards those who deserved it. Mencius thought that people who were desperate because of adversity or economic deprivation did not develop a normal moral character. He believed that heaven predetermines the human being but in terms of natural talents and abilities and therefore he maintained that the greatest motivation for ethical behavior came from nature and not from culture.
On the other hand, Laczi was very revolutionary, preferring submission, femininity, passivity, lack, non-benevolence and inactivity over domination, manliness, activity, ownership, benevolence, wisdom and clarity. He also differed from Mencius in saying that nature without culture was only good in agricultural societies.
In China the relationship between thought and language gave rise to three schools of thought that did not issue ethical doctrines. Sometimes they linked linguistics to morality, declaring that reality provides the basis for those actions that are socially correct (Shis) and those that are socially incorrect (Feis), something that had already been done by Laozi.
Then came Zhuangzi who abandoned the assumption that ‘the heavenly’, ‘the natural’ or ‘reality’ provided coherent points of view to construct patterns of behavior. Zhuangzi said that heaven did not distinguish human beings from animals and that what is natural is not always what is right. He was very skeptical about the cognitive abilities of human beings, although he praised flexibility and tolerance, and even defended the contributions of human life to what is now known as ‘technique’.
Finally, there was Xunzi who once again based the difference between good and bad on social conventions and once again viewed the human being as a social being. He went back to the authority of the ‘wise kings’ and to connecting feeling and nature. He defended the idea of guidelines for behavior, maintaining that people have different desires and that if everyone wanted the same thing it would be the height of competitiveness, disagreement, chaos and disaster. The best disciples of Xunzi became leaders of a legalistic school of thought who had no liking for traditional norms and abandoned the authority of the so-called ‘wise kings’.
Chinese emperors adopted Confucianism as their official political practice and Buddhism imported from India introduced more Westernized mental schemes that dominated the High Middle Ages and to some degree persist into the present.