Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Rules of Gold

Analects 15.24 is often cited as the “Reverse Golden Rule” and it’s easy to see why:

Zigong asked: “Is there a single teaching that can be practiced to the end of one’s life?” Confucius replied: “It is reciprocity! What you don’t desire for yourself, do not desire for others.”

The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is found in the Gospels, in Matthew 7:9-12 and Luke 6:27-31. In the latter context, the “rule” follows a discussion of how one ought to treat one’s enemies, while in the former, it is more general.

15.24 is interesting because it raises the question of just what status this “rule”–or better yet, “teaching” (for 言)–has among the many sorts of teachings found in the Analects. In some important ways, it rubs against the idea that for early Confucianism moral virtuosity is somehow incapable of codification, or somewhat stronger, incapable of adequate articulation. Is this a rule? a principle? an articulation of the Confucian dao by the author(s) of this passage? If not any of those, then what? Those who favor a virtue-emphasis reading of the Analects tend to focus on the term for reciprocity, shu 恕, and treat it as a virtue term, though the explanation in terms of the “rule” seems added to present something like a definitional equivalence. (Here, I’m thinking of Van Norden’s discussion in “Unweaving the ‘One Thread’ of Analects 4:15”)

In 5.12, Zigong and Confucius have an exchange that is slightly different, on which Zigong comes off looking a bit too confident in himself:

Zigong said: “What I do not desire people to do to me, I also desire for it not to be done toward people.” Confucius said, “Zigong my dear, it is not you who has gotten that far.”

The phrasing, 一言, in 15.24 seems to indicate that there is something important, something on the order of a single principle, for which Zigong is asking. I wonder if there other, similarly explicit principles to be found in the Analects, if indeed 15.24 provides an explicit principle.


June 17, 2009 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius


  1. Interesting, M. Im.,

    I’ve heard this interpreted as “the silver rule,” in that its main difference is its dealing with not doing something, rather than with doing something.

    The ideas are logically equivalent if we take the Golden Rule as saying, “any x should want (S) to do P to any y if, and only if x wants (W) that any y do p to x.” (I have to change the notation a bit, since it’s hard to do second-order stuff without me totally instructing a new syntax.)

    (∀x)(∀y)(S{x,Pxy} ≡ W{x,Pyx})

    The silver rule is just a result of negating the latter to ‘~W{x,Pyx}.’

    (∀x)(∀y)(~W{x,Pyx} ⊃ ~S{x,Pxy})

    Of course, this same conditional proofing renders the statements logically identical (hypothesizing ‘~S{x,Pxy}’).

    (∀x)(∀y)(~S{x,Pxy} ⊃ ~W{x,Pyx})

    And so…

    (∀x)(∀y)(~S{x,Pxy} ≡ ~W{x,Pyx})

    Zigong’s is actually quite interesting because it undoes the modal import of the statement “should want” that is common to most deontic phrasing, and so doesn’t appear to express a rule directly, just describe his behavior.

    I wonder how you’re taking a “rule” as being somehow distinct from a proposition of fact. Would there be worry about “codification” of Confucianism if we simply regarded it as a body of propositions, condensed the redundant ones, and then took the largest body of coherently connected ones as the “code” of Confucian ethics?

    I’m also curious to hear if you think that there is any sort of basis in the ancient Chinese language that would support the common deontic-to-modal takes (i.e. whether ancient Chinese language also supports an inference to the effect, “I should do x if, and only if, in some moral context, it is necessary that I do x.”)

    Comment by Joshua Harwood | June 19, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hey Joshua,

    Excellent questions! I too noticed that in 13.18, there is deontic phrasing because of the “勿” wu, which is a negation/co-verb expressing imperative mood (“Do not…”), while in 15.24 the phrasing suggests a description of his psychological state (“吾亦欲無加諸人” – “I also desire that it not be done to anyone”). I think you mean to include imperatives within the category “deontic” along with “shoulds” and “oughts,” right? There are some relevant comments about this on a brief post from last August, here: http://manyulim.wordpress.com/2008/08/01/prescriptivity-normativity-oughtiness-etc-in-classical-chinese/.

    “Shoulds” and “oughts”–i.e. prescriptive statements–might be expressible in classical Chinese, but not in so many words, and usually through some form of suggestion, as in “Perhaps you could…” The modifier gai 蓋 has just such meaning, often translated “Why not…” or “Perhaps you may…”(e.g. “Why not return to the roots?”/”Perhaps you may return to the roots.” for 蓋亦反其本矣 in Mencius 1A7). Or, using a “thick” term that has normative implications, e.g. 義 yi, one could imply that one ought not to Q by saying that Q-ing is not 義.

    The relationship between that sort of normativity and necessity is more difficult to pin down, I think. Necessity can be expressed with 固 gu, among other things, which is a modifier that means “certainly” or “assuredly.”

    I don’t know that the inference “I should do x if, and only if, in some moral context, it is necessary that I do x” is supportable in one sense, but that’s not because the language lacks the ability to express it–a looser sense of “supportable.” It may be more reasonably due to the lack of a (Kantian) sense of moral necessity, or morality more generally. That Q-ing is not 義 may only imply that one does not live up to the ideal of a junzi if one does Q; but that doesn’t seem to imply that it is morally necessary not to Q. There are imperatives, prescriptions, and statements of practical necessity; do they all go together? I’m not firmly convinced that they do necessarily. Does that generate paradoxical results? I haven’t wondered about this question in such a context before, so it might be worth talking through it.

    (I have things to say about your question of “codification” but I’ll have to return to it later.)

    Comment by Manyul Im | June 20, 2009 | Reply

  3. I guess we’re not worried about stepping on Fingarette’s fingers.

    I once argued in some essay that the moral sentiments of Kongzi were better understood under a sort of speech act theory (a la Austin) (something Fingarette mentions, but to which his detail is scant), and that plenty of Chinese ethics fit well with ordinary language philosophies of a common breed. Of course, I also believe that most speech acts can be interpreted in terms of facts, alone, so that’s why my second question is of interest to me. (I’ve explored modern Chinese somewhat on this, but I’ve yet to get a clear collection of all of the really morally loaded modal verbs of ancient Chinese.)

    The “thick” terms you describe seem to just be nominal transformations on modal operations, and in a way that makes statements like, “It is always right that I do x when I should always do x,” vacuous, rather than descriptive. I got so sick of certain fights over these that I ended up introducing a new operator, WFF’s, and inference rules into my own formal language ‘:=’ to cover for them and “collapse” higher-order languages to one (e.g. ‘tn := WFFn’ is a WFF).

    Under the above formalization, I reduce prescriptive and imperative statements to “deontic” statements. As a Yangist, I reduce those deontic statements to informally posed arguments built on hedonics, which are themselves predictions that use a handful of hedonistically relevant facts as premises for the predictions. The validity of the argument determines its necessity, however, not the other way around.

    In other words, my (and I also believe Yang Zhu’s) deontic logical interpretation of an ought would look like this:

    Assertion: “You ought to pursue a good reputation for its own sake.”
    Modal Interpretation: “It is necessary to pursue a good reputation for its own sake.”
    Yangist Interpretation from the Modal: “If the only worthwhile life is one of greater ease and pleasure, then one will pursue a reputation for its own sake, and the only worthwhile life is of greater ease and pleasure.”

    It would be no surprise that Yang Zhu would deny this claim, since he asserts that pursuing a reputation for its own sake implies a life of difficulty and suffering. However, if the argument could not possibly have a false premise, then it would be necessary, and then our assertion of the deontic statement’s truth or falsehood could be made clear.

    However, considered by this approach, we would note Confucians fundamentally disagreeing with the structure of the Yangist interpretation as a basis for prediction.

    To your argument, it appears that a Confucian interpretation on the same proposition would look something like this:

    “If the ideal life is that of a junzi, then one will pursue a reputation for its own sake. The ideal life is one of a junzi.”

    My only qualm would be with the word ‘ideal,’ since that itself carries deontic weight, which then would have a modal interpretation, which would then needs its own Confucian interpretation. The statement, “We ought to do x because it is the best or ideal thing to do,” is really a non-argument, a sort of vacuous truism, in my view.

    Comment by Joshua Harwood | June 23, 2009 | Reply

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