Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Problem of Conscience II

Scott Bradley

Confucianism, especially in its development by Mencius, sees the conscience as humanity's most defining attribute. It is through conscience that we come to understand what is right and what is wrong. "Heaven" being moral, our harmony with Reality is dependent on our likewise being moral. And conscience is the organ by which we become so. For this reason, the Confucian way is one of cultivating the conscience in such a way that it remains always foremost in the mind, always there to guide our conduct.

This philosophy most certainly has the potential to create 'moral' men. Indeed, the Confucian sage is a praise-worthy, albeit hypothetical, person. But it does have its short-comings. One of these is that in its pronouncement of what is right and what is wrong it adheres to definitive cultural norms and thereby opens itself to a merely 'formal', ritualized morality on the one hand, and an inflexible one, on the other. It becomes of supreme importance, therefore, how many inches of wood should enclose the dead and how long and in what manner one should mourn them. It is not entirely unjustified, therefore, for a political philosopher to point out that Maoism is a form of Confucianism.

In fairness, however, it needs to be pointed out that Confucians realized the problem of formality and sought to restore morality of spirit to the morality of behavior. Confucius and Mencius both stressed the necessity of sincerity in the performance of duty; one sacrifices to the dead with a heart of devotion and respect, otherwise the sacrifice means little. Understanding this possible disconnect between duty and sincerity, it was even seen that though there may in fact be no spirits to whom to sacrifice, it was important to sacrifice to them nonetheless, for the sacrifice provides the occasion for the sincerity. Yet this merely reveals a continued addiction to formalized morality.

Later Confucianism, much under the influence of Daoism no doubt, began to move away from the model of formalized duty toward one more spontaneous and flexible. "Principal" (li) leads the way. Yet still, it is the cultivation and application of conscience which creates the sage. Always and ever, in all that one does, the point is to understand the right or the wrong response in every situation. Ostensibly, the fully realized sage need not engage in such as a deliberation, since she is the embodiment of the Heavenly morality. Yet the path by which she arrives at this state has been a methodically deliberative one.

Enter Daoism. In the context of Confucianism, Daoism is a revolution. It has an entirely different vision of the natural of Reality (amoral) and an entirely different approach to our alignment with it.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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