Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Kings and Thieves

Section 5B/4 of the Mencius is a very interesting text. It’s one of the points at which the Mencius gets defensive about Mencius’s personal virtue. The issue here is Mencius’s willingness to accept gifts from rulers who acquired them by taking from their people. Why accept those gifts, given that you wouldn’t accept gifts from a more everyday sort of bandit?

This passage interests me in part because I’m interested in Mencian defensiveness (on which see also the earlier thread about Shun and his awful family). But that’s not the issue I want to take up here. What I’m wondering about is how (if at all) Mencius’s argument is supposed to work.

Mencius distinguishes between genuine bandits and rulers who steal by saying that bandits are simply to be executed, with no attempt to reform them through instruction, whereas a true king would first instruct wicked rulers before resorting to execution. The passage seems to think this is just common sense, and does not try to justify it or even to explain what it has to do with accepting gifts.

What I wonder is whether we should read an implicit argument into the passage’s evident concern with ritual propriety. The passage begins with Wan Zhang asking what heart (or attitude) is appropriate to the exchange of gifts, and Mencius tells him that it is respect (gong 恭), and it is precisely the heart of respect (gongjing 恭敬) that, according to 6A/6, is the starting point of ritual. (The parallel passage in 2A/6 instead derives ritual from a heart of deference, or cirang 辭讓.) It is disrespectful, Mencius says, to refuse a ruler’s gift when it is offered with appropriate ceremony.

Wan Zhang asks the obvious question: what if a bandit offers you stolen goods, but does so with appropriate ceremony? This is where Mencius’s argument peters out, but I wonder if, implicitly, the appeal is to the ruler’s superior ritual status compared to the bandit. Maybe the bandit just can’t take on the ceremonial role of someone who can properly give away stolen goods—whereas a ruler is.

Some corollary thoughts.

We seem in this passage to have three sorts of normative judgment at issue. There is the judgment directed at those, whether rulers or bandits, who take what is not theirs: they are doing wrong. Then there is the view that associating with those who do wrong can taint you and thus shame you. And there is the judgment that in some cases you should not avoid that taint (see also 2A/9 and 3B/10, for example). How did Mencius and his followers understand the differences between these three sorts of judgment?

The view that you can be tainted or compromised by another’s wrongdoing would clearly be associated with the heart of shame and the virtue of yi, or righteousness, for which it provides the basis. Now, this is a very distinctive conception of yi. Yi here is a matter not of the rightness or wrongness of what you do, but of whether what you or someone else does lowers or demeans or taints you. Of course it is often because of its wrongness that an action demeans you. For example, it would be because it was wrong for the ruler to steal from his people that accepting his gifts would demean Mencius. But being yi here has to do with how we react to the wrongness, it is not the wrongness itself. (And one is not always reacting to an action that is morally wrong—7B/31 gives as one of its examples our reactions to disrespectful forms of address.)

All this suggests that the judgment that the ruler and the bandit have done something wrong, and the judgment that it is permissible to accept the king’s gifts, are not based in yi. The first of these seems to be a judgment of right and wrong, and we should probably relate it to the heart of approval and disapproval, which provides the basis for wisdom. In fact, this solves a problem. The heart of approval and disapproval sounds like it should provide the basis for moral judgment, but if we overlook the distinctive way yi is conceived of in these texts, it’s only natural to think that moral judgment must be a matter of yi (or anyway that’s how I always thought of it). This makes it very hard to understand what the heart of approval and disapproval could do.

Finally, the suggestion I’m making in this post is that the last of these judgments, the judgment that it is permissible to accept the king’s gifts, might derive instead from ritual propriety and the associated attitude of respect. One interesting consequence of that idea, if it’s right, is that ritual must sometimes guide the ways in which we expand our heart of shame—it must constrain our yi. But then yi is here subordinate both to ritual and to wisdom, because it is only through the exercise of wisdom (in moral judgment) that yi comes into play in this case, and it is ritual that tells us whether or not yi requires us to refuse.


March 27, 2011 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Mencius, Virtue


  1. Hey Dan; nice post. I’d like to back up a bit about 5B4. The way I read the argument is that Mencius distinguishes what the rulers do as something other than theft — over-taxation of some sort, maybe? That’s, I think, in the part of the argument that you say “peters out”: 夫謂非其有而取之者盜也,充類至義之盡也 “To call [any] one who takes what he does not have a thief, is to fill out the category [of thief] to an extreme of righteousness.” If that’s the real distinction the argument Mencius is making turns on, then the issue is actually less about ritual and wisdom and more about yi, righteousness, isn’t it?

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 28, 2011 | Reply

  2. I’m reading more into “非其有” than you are—I take it to mean “what is not theirs” rather than “what they do not have.” There’s no attempt to rebut Wan Zhang’s condemnation of the rulers. The argument is instead about how to respond to the rulers’ wickedness—given that they are taking what’s not theirs, do we treat them as thieves (and execute them) or as something else (perhaps by trying to instruct them and by accepting their gifts)? In other words, yi doesn’t relate to to the rightness or wrongness of the rulers’ behaviour, but to the question of whether Mencius is implicated in the misdeeds of the rulers whose gifts he accepts. (I don’t mean to suggest that this is always how yi gets understood in the Mencius.)

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 29, 2011 | Reply

    • But wait, either way that we read “非其有” it sounds to me like that constitutes a rebuttal, or at least an attempt — calling the rulers thieves is extreme, i.e. is to be too self-righteous; so, the condemnation is mistaken. Now, being implicated in something untoward is a breach of righteousness, but if it’s not untoward for a ruler to take things from his subjects, then there’s no implication in something bad for Mencius.

      It seems to me like in addition, it matters for Mencius, in terms of whether he himself is being respectful, whether he presumes to question the genealogy of a gift. (The English locution, “How dare you?” comes to mind.) From this part: 曰其所取之者,義乎,不義乎,而後受之,以是為不恭,故弗卻也.

      The two arguments are consistent and not logically dependent on each other.

      Comment by Manyul Im | March 29, 2011 | Reply

      • To me it’s a lot more clear that he’s making the second of those arguments. For the first, is it really being too righteous to accuse someone of thieving when they haven’t actually done anything wrong? I’m not sure one’s righteousness comes into play unless it’s granted that the other person has done something wrong.

        It’s important to my reading that the main person whose righteousness is at issue is the person who might or might not accept a gift—not the ruler (or bandit) they might accept the gift from. Does that seem at all right to you?

        Comment by Dan Robins | March 31, 2011 | Reply

  3. Offhand, it seems to me there is a less interesting (and perhaps more plausible) reading here–namely, that you accept the gift from the king because he is powerful, and you cut him some slack because he can potentially be a very efficacious ally. Only if 其教之 and the ruler still 不改 would you give up on such an opportunity to instruct and reform a real source of power. On this reading, the need to effect real socio-political change is a value that trumps other considerations temporarily, even while these considerations are elsewhere taken to be weighty.

    Maybe Mencius is bowing to political reality in the hope of attaining certain beneficial consequences?

    Comment by hagop sarkissian | March 29, 2011 | Reply

    • That sounds plausible to me as an account of someone’s actual motivations, but it doesn’t look like the sort of story that 5B/4 wants to tell, at least to me. (I take 5B/4 to be in the business of image-polishing, and it’s consistent with my reading that the passage doesn’t report anyone’s actual motivations.)

      Comment by Dan Robins | March 31, 2011 | Reply

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