The philosopher Confucius advised rulers in ancient China, emphasizing the role of virtue in a flourishing society. The Analects record an exchange in which the Duke of She describes to Confucius a man of outstanding virtue, saying, “Among my people there is one we call ‘Upright Gong.’ When his father stole a sheep, he reported him to the authorities.”1
The response from Confucius must have been as surprising to the Duke of She as it was to me. Instead of complimenting the integrity of Upright Gong, Confucius replies, “Among my people, those we consider ‘upright’ are different from this: fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. ‘Uprightness’ is to be found in this.”
Political debate often involves moral claims, and political causes are increasingly characterized as demands for justice of one kind or another. Confucius promoted an approach to governance based on moral evaluation, and we see an illustration of Confucian moral reasoning in the story of Upright Gong. Although some aspects of the story reflect specifically Confucian values, the story also illustrates a style of moral reasoning useful for evaluating modern demands for justice of various kinds.
We find a different style of moral reasoning emphasized in Christian scripture, where the primary framework for moral evaluation is a contrast between good and evil. For example, in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, we read, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” (Rom. 12:9, NIV). The stark contrast between good and evil corresponds to simple rules prohibiting evil, such as the Ten Commandments, where we find prohibitions like “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13 NIV) and “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15 NIV).
However, the characterization of choices as good or evil is not always straightforward, because it depends crucially on motives. The juxtaposition of the exhortation to sincere love and the command to hate evil is not coincidental. As Jesus explains in the Gospel of Matthew, all of the Law and the Prophets, including the Ten Commandments, hang on two commands concerning motives, to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37 – 40 NIV).
Because the characterization of choices as good or evil depends on motives, the same behavior may be evil for one person but not for another. We see an example when Paul discusses eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul writes in a letter to the church in Corinth that meat is not defiled by such sacrifice and Christians need not investigate the source of what they eat (1 Cor. 8:4 – 8; 10:25 – 27). However, he also writes that if Christians believe such meat to be defiled, then they stumble by eating it (1 Cor. 8:9 – 13; 10:28 – 33).
The crucial role of motives in classifying choices as good or evil makes this framework difficult to apply to the choices of others, since we do not see their motives. For this reason, Paul warns against judging others, writing,
I care very little if I am judged by you.… It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. (1 Cor. 4:3 – 5 NIV)
Characterization of the choices of others as good or evil is particularly difficult for controversial political issues. Such issues are generally controversial because they are complex. Causal relationships may be poorly understood, and even when the consequences of choices are clear, different options may present competing advantages. Each side of an issue may be held for good reasons.
In contrast with the Christian emphasis on distinguishing between good and evil, Confucian texts focus on situations in which different kinds of good compete. Those situations often involve conflicting obligations to others. In the Analects, Confucius teaches that our obligations to others vary according to our relationships with them, so the correct choice depends not only on the consequences of that choice for others but also on our relationships to those bearing the consequences.
A passage in the collected teachings of Mencius, an early and influential Confucian, shows how variations in our obligations to others complicate moral evaluation. The passage addresses the decision to flee a place facing attack. Those who flee protect themselves and their households, but when many flee the defense of that place is compromised.
Zengzi was a student of Confucius who became a teacher himself. Facing attack when living in Wucheng, he fled. Zisi was a student of Zengzi who became a government minister. Facing attack when living in Wei, he stayed.
Zengzi was criticized for fleeing. However, Mencius explains that the behavior of Zengzi and Zisi differed because their obligations differed. Zisi served his ruler by staying, while Zengzi protected his students by fleeing. “If Zengzi and Zisi had exchanged places, each would have done as the other.”2
When moral evaluation is complex, as when our obligations to others depend on our relationships with them, following simple rules may lead to error. If reporting a theft is always virtuous, then reporting a theft when doing so is particularly difficult, as when Upright Gong reported his father, would seem particularly virtuous. However, the difficulty of reporting a parent stems partly from the violation of an obligation to that parent. In the Analects, Confucius teaches that an obligation to a parent takes precedent, so, despite his selflessness, Upright Gong erred by reporting his father.
Not all choices are so complex, and the difference in moral reasoning in Confucian and Christian texts reflects a difference in the kinds of choices emphasized. While Upright Gong was forced to choose between different kinds of good, the choice by his father to steal a sheep presents no such conflict. In parallel with the prohibition of such behavior by the Ten Commandments, Mencius teaches that if any enlightened man “could obtain the world by performing one unrighteous deed, or killing one innocent person, he would not do it.”3
The moral framework we invoke when analyzing complex political issues shapes our attitudes toward others. When both sides of a political issue can be held for good reasons and political causes are characterized as fights against evil, each side may consider itself to be opposing evil even as they oppose one another. In one survey, over 40 percent of respondents from each of the two major political parties in the United States described members of the opposing party as “downright evil.”4
Our attitudes toward others shape our behavior. The admonition by Paul to hate evil becomes dangerous when separated from his warning against judging others. In the same survey where 40 percent of respondents described their political opponents as evil, nearly 10 percent said that violence was justified to achieve their political goals. In recent years we have experienced repeated outbreaks of political violence, with over a dozen people killed, over a billion dollars in damage, and the United States Capitol overrun.5
Political claims about different kinds of justice are claims about different obligations on society. For society as whole, as for Upright Gong, our obligations may compete with one another. Choosing well requires us to assign an appropriate weight to each obligation.
The weights we assign will vary according to our values. We may not share with Confucius the belief that the obligation of a child to a parent is so weighty that Upright Gong should have covered up the theft by his father. However, Upright Gong could not assign appropriate weights, whatever those may be, without first recognizing that he faced competing obligations. We cannot assign appropriate weights to the competing obligations of society if we frame political conflict as conflict between good and evil rather than as conflict between different kinds of good.
To characterize a political cause as a demand for justice is to invite moral evaluation, and the conclusions we reach will depend on the moral framework we invoke. Confucianism, with its emphasis on correctly weighing competing obligations, provides a suitable model for evaluating many modern political claims. When dealing with controversial political issues, a fight for justice of one kind may be a fight against justice of another kind.
- Confucius, Analects, trans. Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), 147.
- Mencius, Mengzi, trans. Bryan W. Van Norden (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008), 114.
- Mencius, 42 – 43.
- Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, “Lethal Mass Partisanship: Prevalence, Correlates, & Electoral Contingencies.”
- For further discussion of the dangers of attributing the behavior of others to evil motives, see my essay on Hanlon’s Razor.