Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Eichmann, Arendt, Milgram and Mencius

A cross-posting of Eric Schwitzgebel’s post on his Splintered Mind blog. Please address all comments directly to Eric; he’ll be checking in here periodically to reply.


Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, Stanley Milgram, and King Xuan of Qi

Perhaps my favorite Mencius passage is 1A7.  At its core is a story of a king’s mercy on an ox.

While the king was sitting up in his hall, an ox was led past below. The king saw it and said, “Where is the ox going?” Hu He replied, “We are about to ritually anoint a bell with its blood.” The king said, “Spare it. I cannot bear its frightened appearance, like an innocent going to the execution ground.” Hu He replied, “So should we dispense with the anointing of the bell?” The king said, “How can that be dispensed with? Exchange it for a sheep.” (Van Norden, trans.)

Mencius asks the king (King Xuan of Qi):

If Your Majesty was pained at its being innocent and going to the execution ground, then was is there to choose between an ox and a sheep?… You saw the ox but had not seen the sheep.  Gentlemen cannot bear to see animals die if they have seen them living. If they hear the cries of their suffering, they cannot bear to eat their flesh. Hence, gentlemen keep their distance from the kitchen.

(Note that Mencius does not conclude that gentlemen should become vegetarians.  Interesting possibilities for reflection arise regarding butchers, executioners, soldiers, etc., but let’s not dally.) To understand the next part of the passage, you need to know what kind of person this king was.  Skip forward to passage 1B11 where Mencius says to King Xuan:

Yan was ferocious to its people. Your Majesty went out and attacked it. The people thought that You were going to deliver them as from flood and fire. They welcomed Your Majesty with baskets and food and pots of soup. But if You kill their fathers and older brothers, put burdens on [enslave? capture? take hostage?] their sons and younger brothers, destroy their shrines and temples, plundering their valuable goods — how could that be acceptable?

The invasion of Yan probably occurred after his sparing of the ox, but it reveals King Xuan’s character: He has mercy on an ox because the ox looks like an innocent person, but at the same time he is perfectly willing to kill innocent people.  Now back to 1A7.  Mencius says to the king:

Suppose there were someone who reported to Your Majesty, ‘My strength is sufficient to life five hundred pounds, but not sufficient to lift one feather. My eyesight is sufficient to examine the tip of an autumn hair, but I cannot see a wagon of firewood…. In the present case your kindness is sufficient to reach animals, but the effects do not reach the commoners…. Measure it, and then you will distinguish the long and the short. Things are all like this, the heart most of all. Let Your Majesty measure it.

I can’t read Hannah Arendt‘s famous portrayal of Adolf Eichmann without thinking of this passage from Mencius.  Eichmann (at least in Arendt’s portrayal) respects and values his Jewish acquaintances, friends, and relatives — even at one point has a Jewish lover.  When he goes east to see the killing operations, he finds it morally horrible and can’t bear to look.  Yet he masterfully shipped hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust.  Near the end, Eichmann even defied Himmler’s order to stop having Jews killed, since he knew Himmler’s order would be contrary to Hitler’s wish.  Like King Xuan of Qi, Eichmann is merciful and soft (perhaps too soft) to those he sees, while indifferent to those outside his field of view, failing to note the similarity between the cases — failing to “measure his heart”.

You have probably heard of the Milgram experiment.  What most people remember about it is that it was amazingly easy for Stanley Milgram to convince research subjects to deliver high-voltage, maybe even fatal, shocks to another research subject.  (All shocks were actually faked.)  What some people forget, but what Milgram himself emphasizes, is that people’s obedience to instructions to deliver high-voltage shocks was very much contingent on the relative distances of the victim and of the authority issuing the instructions.  If the victim was near at hand and the authority far away, almost no one complied.  If the authority was nearby and the victim neither visible nor audible, almost everyone complied.

King Xuan and Eichmann would presumably be the perfect Milgram subjects.

Think and you will get it, Mencius says.  Take the heart that is over here and apply it over there.  Note how you react in the nearby, vivid cases; then note, intellectually, the lack of relevant difference between those cases and more distant, less vivid cases. For Mencius, this attention to the natural impulses of the heart, and the rational extension of those impulses, is the key to moral development.

Worth noting in conclusion: It’s not all about extending impulses of sympathy or pity, as in 1A7 (and in some recent accounts of moral development).  Mencius holds that one can also notice and intellectually extend respect, ritual propriety, and uprightness (3A5, 6A10, 7A15, 7B31).

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April 29, 2012 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Mencius, Psychology


  1. Great books indeed, Eric! I think everyone who teaches Intro Phil ought at least to consider assigning Milgram’s whole book (or at least the article in Harper’s). It’s a compelling read, it’s magnificently clear example of the scientific method at its best, it’s guaranteed to get students thinking hard about human nature, and it can easily be used to remind students that moral thinking has a real point. Back when I taught the book, the photo of the “victim” looked just like Drew Carey, but alas it no longer does.

    In connection with the other texts you mention, the aspect of Milgram that jumps out at me is that he shows that if you want to get the average person to torture an innocent to probable death, the way to get her to do it is to start her on something unproblematic and then extend her willingness by small steps in the direction you want. Milgram shows that with most of us it can be done very easily and very quickly, needing no force, no financial incentive, and almost nothing in the way of articulated reasons. He explains this on the basis of something basic in our psyches: the readiness to enter the “agentic state” – kin to Mengzi’s “heart of deference,” or of respect; the sprout of ritual propriety.

    Another parallel that strikes me is between Mengzi’s gentleman staying out of the kitchen and Eichmann staying away from the death camps. Each presumably has a reason to think that what happens there is legitimate, and each recognizes that what happens there would pain his heart; so each refuses to look.

    Comment by Bill Haines | May 2, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Bill!

      I pretty much agree with what you say above. But one remark I would make is that the “gradual steps” idea is sometimes overplayed. An interesting case is Police Battalion 101, as portrayed by Browning and by Goldhagen — a group of ordinary German men who were suddenly dropped in Poland to kill Jews in 1942. Although given little training and although given options to decline to participate, almost all the men did in fact participate, without intermediate steps. It’s a fascinating and instructive case, if you don’t already know it.

      Comment by Eric Schwitzgebel | May 5, 2012 | Reply

  2. Note how you react in the nearby, vivid cases; then note, intellectually, the lack of relevant difference between those cases and more distant, less vivid cases.

    I like that way of summing up, Eric; I don’t suppose I could improve on it. I’d like to lay out some worries about it though, none of which will be new to you at all, in the hope that you’ll say some things to make the picture as you understand it more intelligible to me.

    I especially like your point that the reactions I am to extend are my reactions to nearby, vivid cases. There’s a case to be made for the idea that these are the cases my heartmind sees most clearly and directly, and that point in turn gives my reactions to these cases a special claim to be representative of my heartmind’s real concerns.

    But I wonder whether “near and vivid” is enough of a selection principle. When I am tempted to do something wrong (whether or not I know it’s wrong), what tempts me is likely to be vivid and nearby. For example, the cries of my ox might tempt me to depart from ritual propriety; or if I stumble into a kitchen I might be moved to interfere with someone’s dinner party; or the man in the white coat may be closer at hand than the person he tells me to shock; or someone may be offering me money, sex, glory, or a brief postponement of disgrace or harm.

    Also I wonder about the process that is supposed to give me a direction for extension. I care about myself, my ox, and my father; what does that tell me about how far I should favor myself and my tribe at the expense of strangers?

    I think I like the idea, which your words suggest to me, that the extending, or choosing a direction for it, is to be a less passionate matter than the original reaction.

    Calling the process an “intellectual” one could suggest that it’s primarily a matter of some kind of articulate reasoning. And it could be a matter of articulate reasoning if one had a reliable antecedent view about what kind of similarity is relevant, as you seem to suggest. But antecedent knowledge that the relevant similarity is similarity in respect of feature F would seem awfully similar to antecedent knowledge that a principle such as “F is right” or “F is wrong” is true; so the antecedent view would seem almost to make the whole process of reacting-and-extending unnecessary.

    Comment by Bill Haines | May 2, 2012 | Reply

    • Yes, Mencius gives us only sketchy clues as to how this is to work, and the questions you raise seem like exactly the right ones.

      I don’t want to land too hard on “intellectual”. I mean to be gesturing toward a kind of thinking that is cooler than the immediate reaction to what’s in front of you, and that involves some sort of proper weighing and balancing of things via comparison between cases. But I don’t think Mencius’s picture needs to be that some explicitly articulated moral principle is involved — maybe almost the other way around, causally, perhaps, with the reflective weighing of cases governing one’s thought about principles (as in the drowning sister-in-law case).

      Nearby, vivid cases of immoral temptation are an interesting contrast. Should you extend your desire to revenge against this jerk here into a broad desire to revenge against all people of his race, for example? Here I would appeal to the idea that for Mencius (as I interpret him) there are really no intrinsically immoral desires. The desire for money and sex are good, on Mencius’s view — just that they can get out of balance when not properly weighed in your heart. So too, I think Mencius would say, for the love of revenge or immediate gain. So you back up and weigh, taking a broader perspective, and that might lead you not to act on that immediate impulse — not because the impulse is intrinsically bad but because it needs to be weighed and considered in relation to a broader perspective. So maybe one way to think of it is a matter of “extending” one’s perspective, treating like as like, rather than amplifying and extending the current spontaneous impulse?

      Comment by Eric Schwitzgebel | May 5, 2012 | Reply

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