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Chinese Ethics: Comparative Analysis of Zhuangzi and Confucius Approaches (Option V), Term Paper Example

Pages: 8

Words: 2225

Term Paper

Chinese ethical school of thought is dominated by topics concerning the kind of life people ought to live. The main questions that Chinese ethics try to answer include: what is the meaning of life? Are human beings inclined to be good or bad? How should a person in authority conduct him/herself? What is one’s duty to the community and oneself? How should someone relate to the non-living world? Is the individual supposed to be involved in the processes that lead to social, political, or cultural transformation? Many canonical pieces of literature have been used by Chinese society over the years. While the pieces of literature offer a rich resource for understanding Chinese traditions, they have also been subjected to comprehensive and systematic analysis by scholars studying various traditions and methods applied throughout Chinese history and to investigate how these traditions or philosophies have influenced the Chinese society[1]. The paper will analyze the ethical position proposed by Zhuangzi on how to make all things equal, showing why the proposal is strong and comparing it with the Confucian idea of goodness (ren) as described in the Analects.

Zhuangzi Interpretation

Zhuangzi presents a stable normative ethical position through narratives. As one of the most significant classics in Chinese tradition, Zhuangzi was a pivotal and subtle philosophical school of thought.  Master Zhuang is accredited with writing the initial seven chapters of the text, a text that went on to influence the formation of Daoism philosophy. Master Zhuang’s style of reasoning mirrored that of the Confucian thinker Mencius, even though there is no textual evidence to indicate that the two met or had any form of philosophical debates. In terms of its literary and philosophical elements, the piece of literature is a masterpiece. It employs an intricate yet mythological, rhythmical, indirect, and comical style. A considerable part of the piece of literature promotes a universal philosophy of life, reinforcing detachment from the affectations related to socialization, and application of the abilities and strengths provided to us by nature to achieve a life that is both simple and natural, yet a complete and prosperous life. The school of thought is critical to our categorizations and assessment as it points to the lack of a free way of evaluating the variety of organisms, cultures, and reasoning that characterize the world. As such, it promotes the adoption of a fluid and flexible school of thought that includes the different categorizations and assessments[2].

Zhuangzi’s Making All Things Equal

The discussion starts with Yen Ch’eng Tzu-yu asking Tzu-Ch’i, “What is this?” Tzu-yu then compares Tzu-Ch’i’s mental state to be like that of dead ashes while comparing his body to a withered tree.  Tzu-Ch’i is taken aback and responds by asking Yen what he thought of humanity. Tzu-Ch’I compares humanity to three sounds found in nature, the wind blowing south, heavenly sounds, and the sound produced by whistles. The things one considered to be what they are could be interpreted 10,000 different times. Humanity and the world are interdependent. Without each one of these two, both would cease to exist. The ethical position is that the discussion is our perception of what is right or wrong in the world. There is no one right way of perceiving the world. As the text argues, things such as modesty, joy, grief, and insolence can spring up from a damp. In essence, we may try to perceive how the world works based on what we think it should be, yet it may not be as we think. As such, the text argues, “Let it be! Let it be!”[3]

The best illustration of this concept is the explanation given by Tzu-Ch’i about Yin and Yang. The two existed in duality, yet they were individual parts that were interdependent. Each had another part within it. Yin had another part; Yang and Yang had another part, Yin. It presents a complex idea of how to distinguish things. People’s perceptions are inherently different, meaning that people will not have a standard way of perceiving the same thing. The inconsistency of perception is responsible for the variety of interpretations of the same thing. While one thing might be ethical in one’s perception, it may be unethical to another or even at the boundary between ethical and unethical conduct. What is considered ethical is unethical in another place. For example, the text uses negativity to show positivity. In the text, it is shown that to show that a horse is not a horse using a horse is not the same as illustrating using something that is not a horse. Still, it raises another dilemma: What happens to a person who cannot distinguish what is a horse or non-horse, especially if the person asking the question and the person being asked to originate from diverse cultures? The more the teacher tries to explain, the more the student is likely to be confused. While it may seem counterintuitive, it is the one way a person with insight can perfect his/her virtues[4].

Confucian Ethics: Goodness (Ren)

The conception of ren is a uniting premise in the Analects. Before being incorporated as a Confucius ethical concept, ren denoted the aristocratic lineages of the time, and mostly described things such as the sturdy and fine-looking appearance of these aristocrats. However, it was adopted by the Analects to refer to the moral distinction that each person has an intrinsic capacity to achieve. Subsequent scholars have interpreted ren in various diverse ways. A majority of them interpret it as something that denotes full ethical virtue, implying a far-reaching status of ethical distinction. In the Analects, a person who exhibits the ren has severally been shown as a person who has a total or comprehensive moral distinction, with all virtues present and no specific virtue missing. Still, the ren in some sections of the Analects is treated as a specific virtue that exists and is practiced alongside other virtues such as bravery and acumen.  By narrowing the scope of the ren to refer to it as a single virtue, the focus is the ability of the ren person to care for others. Due to this interpretation, some scholars have presented the ren as a concept that means benevolence[5].

Many scholars, though, try to interpret the concept of ren in an all-inclusive approach that widens the scope of the concept to include what comprises good or goodness. Seemingly, the perception that ren could be a specific virtue of an all-inclusive conception of distinctive morals is a holistic approach to explaining different forms of morality.  For instance, the ren may be used in social ritual or may be applied depending on the particular context, which would then be interpreted as either an individual or all-inclusive conception. Even so, this explanation is speculative, meaning the nature of ren remains indefinable. To master ren is to master culture. Ren comprises of the rituals. At the same time, rituals are not what complete ren. For instance, consider attitudes that are related to ren. Attitudes are not part of social rituals, and hence there are no rituals to define ren. Confucius argued that ren people cared about others and balanced their actions and words. Ren is, therefore, part of complete ethical virtues and is multidimensional. Due to its multifaceted nature, the attainment of ren is both a challenging and lengthy process that requires the individual to have genuine heart desire and determination to achieve it.

Ethical Engagement between Zhuangzi and Confucianism (ren)

There is the frequent interplay between Zhuangzi’s ethical position and his evaluation of the Confucian notion of ren. The position both notions hold is that of virtue ethics. While Confucianism emphasizes the individual and overall goodness in society, Zhuangzi evaluates this position and decides to take a higher focus from the conventional social construction to the cosmos. In essence, Zhuangzi tries to include the Confucian notion of ren in an all-encompassing context where the human world is a minor player and part of many other players that form this system. The notion may seem detached and challenging to decipher its ethical implication, yet that would be the wrong and narrow interpretation of ethical values. In its way, Zhuangzi addresses the issue of how a human should live his/her life as Confucius addressed. The distinction comes from the approach. While Confucius focuses on the individual and relations with the social order, Zhuangzi explores how humans can be the appropriately responsive extensive world that is responsible for determining and shaping the social order the human subscribes to. The Zhuangzi text has a variety of embedded patterns of nature that form the text’s ethical basis. As such, Zhuangzi evaluation that his position could be superior to the one held by Confucius has some concrete foundations[6].

Zhuangzi underscores the multiplicity of natural positions or perspectives that might make a person view his/her traits as “natural.” The path one sees depends on the person’s position and the viewpoints in that context. It is also a way of understanding other’s trajectories. If we understand the trajectory of others, we may decide whether their behaviors constitute ethics or not. We cannot determine all to be right. We can also not determine all to be wrong or even to be equal. Even the choices we adjudge to be right, we sometimes find the choices to be uncalled-for or doctrinaire in certain exceptional circumstances. The natural aspect of the choices does not equate to being right. It is an indication that others are natural creatures acting naturally using their natural ethics. For this reason, one agrees with Zhuangzi that it is difficult to make everything normatively equal. While Confucius tries to see the goodness as a concept innate in each individual, the Zhuangzi school of thought is skeptical due to the complexity and uncertainty of the natural world. Still, it is vital to understand that one’s perception is just a part of many perceptions, including Confucius’s perspective, all of which are part of the natural system[7].

The epistemic diffidence inherent in Zhuangzi’s explanation is aimed mostly at the patriarchal, superior outlook of the ethics epitomized by the Confucian moralistic stance. For example, two people may have a consensus or have a common stance after an argument. While both this may seem like progress, it does not indicate that the two individuals have gained a higher insight on the issue when their new insights are measured on an absolute scale. A person can endorse his/her normative perspective on another individual. However, it is up to the other person to appreciate and utilize it contingent on the individual’s abilities, choices, and situation. It does not imply that we ought not to recommend our perspectives to others. Instead, it means that such processes are part of the natural process of guidance. For this reason, the Zhuangzi proposes that unlike Confucianism ethical position of trying to shape the virtues of others, we should act as natural contributors to the processes that contribute to the person attaining his/her virtues. Zhuangzi is an alternative to the dogmatic and impressionable Confucian humanism. Zhuangzi’s central interpretation does not emphasize the moralistic nature of being human as compared to the Confucian ethical stance but on a naturalist approach.

Conclusion

The paper has analyzed the ethical position proposed by Zhuangzi on how to make all things equal and showed why the proposal is strong by comparing it with the Confucian idea of goodness (ren) as described in the Analects. While Zhuangzi uses a naturalistic approach, Confucianism ren (goodness) is indefinable and comprises of the humanistic and relativistic stance on ethics. Zhuangzi encourages a holistic and flexible approach to viewing ethics; of the reason, his argument is met with skepticism as to whether it represents an ethical position. The two schools o thought to explore virtue ethics, yet it is the approach that differs. The Confucian school of thought advocates for one social order, while the Zhuangzi school of thought encourages a naturalistic approach where people are facilitators of the natural processes. When we see things from the many perspectives, one thing can be seen from; we see how we could have been wrong in many ways. Our perspective is broadened, and we are compelled not to discard epistemic modesty to advance.  All in all, both schools of thought offer diverse perspectives, but Zhuangzi offers a compelling argument with evidence to support his ethical position in making all things equal.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Havens, Timothy. Confucianism as Humanism, CLA Journal 1 (2013) pp. 33-41,

https://uca.edu/liberalarts/files/2018/07/Confucianism-as-Humanism.pdf

Huang, Yong. Respecting Different Ways of Life: A Daoist Ethics of Virtue in the “Zhuangzi”

The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 69, No. 4 (Novemner 2010), pp. 1049-1069

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu, 369—298 B.C.E.), Accessed

from https://www.iep.utm.edu/zhuangzi/

Oxnam, Robert, and Bloom, Irene. Three Confucian Values, Accessed from:

https://cesa.rc.iseg.ulisboa.pt/Three%20Confucian%20Values.pdf

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). Chinese Ethic, Accessed from

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-chinese/#VirEthDaoJunRen,  2018

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). Zhuangzi, Accessed from

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/zhuangzi/, 2014

Watson, Burton. Chuang Tzu Discussion on Making All Things Equal, Accessed from

https://selfdefinition.org/tao/making-all-things-equal.htm

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). Chinese Ethic, Accessed from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-chinese/#VirEthDaoJunRen,  2018

[2] Huang, Yong Respecting Different Ways of Life: A Daoist Ethics of Virtue in the “Zhuangzi.” The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 69, No. 4 (NOVEMBER 2010), pp. 1049-1069

[3] Watson, Burton. Chuang Tzu Discussion on Making All Things Equal, Accessed from https://selfdefinition.org/tao/making-all-things-equal.htm

[4] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu, 369—298 B.C.E.), Accessed from https://www.iep.utm.edu/zhuangzi/

[5], Oxnam, Robert, and Bloom, Irene. Three Confucian Values, Accessed from https://cesa.rc.iseg.ulisboa.pt/Three%20Confucian%20Values.pdf

[6] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) Zhuangzi, Accessed from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/zhuangzi/, 2014

[7] Havens, Timothy. Confucianism as Humanism, CLA Journal 1 (2013) pp. 33-41, https://uca.edu/liberalarts/files/2018/07/Confucianism-as-Humanism.pdf

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