Can a good Confucian be selfish?

Casi asked:

Could one be selfish and a good Confucian at the same time?

Answer by Tony Boese

I would say that one definitely cannot be selfish and a ‘good Confucian’ at the same time.

There are four prime ethical precepts in Confucianism: Ren, Yi, Li, and Zhi. Of these, Ren and Yi are the cardinal moral values. Indeed, though it is relatively hard to run afoul of Confucianism, violating Ren and/ or Yi would be the most direct route towards doing so. These four become Wuchang, or the Five Constants, with the addition of Xin.

A somewhat simplified explanation of these is as follows: Ren is the obligation to be altruistic and humane towards other individuals. Yi is the obligation to remain righteous in action, and to maintain a disposition of moral goodness. Li is they system of norms and propriety for everyday action. Zhi is the ability to accurately discern what is right and good, and what is the inverse, in the actions of others. Xin is the standard of integrity in thought and action.

None of these are particularly pro-selfishness; however, Ren and Yi are quite clearly diametrically opposed to selfishness. That selfishness is misaligned to altruism should be relatively self-evident provided one knows the meanings of the words in play. Righteousness, in a vacuum, might not be clearly opposed to selfishness. One could somewhat easily frame a selfish act or disposition as still honorable or in keeping with some take on a moral code – especially by an consequentialist. However, this is largely a cheat. In a Confucian context, righteous action does not include selfish action.

A perusal of different parts and parcels of Confucianism furthers the case that selfishness and proper Confucianism are inconsistent. Consider the classical Sizi, which are four virtues of high esteem in Confucianism. They are: Zhong (or Loyalty), Xiao (or Filial Piety), Jie (or Continency), and Yi (Righteousness). Loyalty is simply and obviously not a selfish thing. Neither is Filial Piety. Here we see righteousness again, and the same analysis will apply. Indeed, the only aspect of Confucianism that would get even somewhat close to a selfish thing is the sexual bits of Continence in a ‘keeping yourself from the world’ sort of way. This, however, is an undesirably narcissistic and generally weak attempt to shoehorn a pro-selfishness reading of Confucian morality.

Not to over-hone the point, but even in those more contorted and bastardized applications of (allegedly) Confucian precepts don’t get as far as selfishness. I refer to the political uses of Confucianism, principally an emphasis on Nationalism and Anti-capitalism as seen in Maoism. Though not as commonly known as the general tenets of Confucianism in a religious and philosophical context, it is no secret that Confucianism is also a political school of thought. It, mixed with the Legalism, which it at first replaced, is what ultimately lead to the development and flourishing of Maoism.

At first blush, Nationalism might seem to lean fairly heavily into the selfishness camp. In Nationalism, there is most assuredly a preference to and glorification of ‘us’ and ‘ours,’ and as such one might think of the whole population as a selfish thing; however, this hardly gets one though to interpersonal selfishness. Indeed, Nationalism asks each citizen to put the ‘us’ over the self, which is a very non-selfish position. Anti-capitalism is pretty much anti-selfishness. I grant that equating capitalism and selfish practice might not be perfectly noncontroversial, but I think the similarities are enough to maintain the link for our purposes here.

Honestly, even if one could make a cogent argument that implicated some aspect of Confucianism in supporting selfishness, the argument would not be sincere nor would it be a context-sensitive understanding of the matters at hand. For instance, an argument that says there is no selfishness, and that altruism is done for the warm-and-fuzzies and this is actually selfish at heart might appeal to intuition and experience. However, this is looking too much at the trees and thus missing the point that his would not be true of a good Confucian, and is probably not an argument that would even occur to a good Confucian, because a good Confucian would be altruistic with or without warm-and-fuzzies.


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