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cross-posted from LessWrong

Book review of “Mengzi: With Selections From Traditional Commentaries”, trans. Bryan W. Van Norden

This is a review of a classical Chinese philosophical text with a heavy focus on virtue ethics and politics. I don’t have any knowledge of Classical Chinese, I’m not a philosopher, and I’m not very virtuous. You may instead want to read the SEP entry on Mengzi, or just buy the book and read it – 2300 years of Confucian scholars can’t be wrong!


The Confucian or Ruist[1] tradition within Chinese philosophy seems underrated in the West. Everybody likes Buddhism and Daoism. People particularly love pretty-sounding mistranslations of the Daodejing by authors who don’t know any Chinese. People love Zen (or Chan, in the Chinese reading of the character). People have even heard of Zhuangzi and/or a butterfly. 

But almost nothing from Confucianism has percolated into the popular culture. Everyone knows there was a guy named Confucius who went around saying wise stuff, but nobody even knows any of the aphorisms (even though they're often great), let alone actually reading any of the Confucian canon.

I think the explanation for this is pretty obvious. Eastern philosophy really started taking off in the West during the 60s. But at that time, there was just no market for a philosophy saying you should obey your parents and elder siblings, be loyal to the state, patiently study old books, and cultivate temperance and good manners.

That's still going to be unappealing to a lot of people today. But I think Confucian philosophy does offer an interesting perspective that is of increasing value. After all, it was developed by and for highly educated scholars who also wanted to have a real-world impact.

These were people who were carefully trained from a young age to excel at high-stakes standardized tests that determined their entire future. They studied hard to become intellectuals, yet at the same time wanted to do good in the real world. It even turns out many of them (increasingly so in the Song-Ming period) were interested in mindfulness meditation, with a focus on personal effectiveness rather than the Buddhist focus on enlightenment. After their years of study, they ended up in practical careers, and had to stand in front of powerful officials and try to persuade them to do good, against the forces of corruption and political expedience.

I think there may be something of interest to learn from this tradition. And van Norden says: "When people ask me which Confucian classic to read first, I answer without hesitation: the Mengzi."

Review of the Book Itself As a Text

The book itself consists of a translation of the text of the Mengzi, followed by translations of selected traditional commentaries on the Mengzi. Those commentaries are essential, as Van Norden points out. First, people for many centuries learned the Mengzi alongside its commentaries; and second, many common interpretations of Mengzi in fact come from the commentaries but are often mistakenly read into the text itself. It helps to have them there.

A particularly important commentary is that of Zhu Xi, who lived in the 12th century AD, and usually gets compared to a Chinese version of Thomas Aquinas. The Mengzi along with his commentary became one of the four books that formed the basis of the Chinese civil service exam for many centuries to come.

Van Norden also throws in his own commentaries from time to time, which has to be fun for a scholar of Confucianism – he gets to participate in this ancient textual tradition.

The translation is extremely clear and readable. I am not qualified to judge its accuracy, but I am at least quite sure it’s not a bullshit pseudo-translation. Van Norden is a serious and respected scholar. However, if there is any prosody in the original Chinese text, then it has been lost in this translation. If so, that seems like the right compromise to make, for a text that has a lot of dialogues and lengthy arguments.

Virtues and Virtue Ethics

Van Norden sees Mengzi as a virtue ethicist, which seems pretty convincing to me. Mengzi identifies four principal virtues: benevolence (a sense of compassion towards others), righteousness (a distaste or refusal to do what is wrong or demeaning), wisdom (good practical judgment), and propriety (which refers literally to Confucian rites and rituals, but also extends to etiquette and behaving in a socially appropriate way).

Mengzi has a lot to say about their specifics in different situations, but I won’t go into that. I do think this is actually quite an appealing scheme for thinking about virtue ethics, though.

The Sprouts

Mengzi has a particular view on the virtues that Van Norden focuses on – he thinks there are “sprouts” of these virtues in everyone as a basic part of human nature. Cultivating the virtues just means creating the natural conditions for these sprouts to grow.

Mengzi had a famous thought experiment about a child about to drown[2]. He argues that anyone, on seeing the child in danger, would involuntarily feel at least a moment of concern for the child. I think that this thought experiment is more-or-less correct, and I think it holds up as an argument that everyone does have some innate capacity for moral virtue.

But the "sprout" analogy implies that developing the virtues is a natural process not totally in our control. He tells the story of a farmer from Song who went to his fields and “helped the sprouts to grow” by pulling them upwards. His son, on hearing this, runs outside, but it’s too late -- the sprouts have withered. I found this parable striking because it’s framed like a joke (apparently, the Song region was one of those standard regions for jokes, like Chelm or something). And it is funny, but by the end of it you can feel the son’s stomach drop out as he realizes the disaster they face. The point, of course, is that trying to force yourself to develop virtues beyond your natural capacities can go really badly.

Against Yang Zhu and the Mohists

Mengzi saw himself as striking a middle ground between two other doctrines. On the one hand, there was the teaching of Yang Zhu, that people are naturally selfish and everyone ought to seek out their own benefit. On the other hand, the doctrine of Mozi and the Mohist school, who taught “impartial caring” for all of humanity, with the goal of maximizing the benefits to all – which I believe is the earliest form of utilitarianism. 

Mengzi, by contrast, has the Confucian view that one ought not to be selfish, but that one does have special ethical obligations to one’s own family members first, and then to one’s own community and state. He argues throughout the Mengzi that human nature is good – it inherently has these sprouts of virtue, and that we particularly enable sprouts to grow in our family relationships. For example, people may naturally love their parents, and this teaches a particular feeling, the start of a process of expanding one’s circle of moral concern beyond the family.

Yang Zhu

I have a limited understanding of what Yang Zhu thought. Van Norden describes him as an egoist. But that's not to say he argues for total psychopathic selfishness. He seems to be the type of person who believes that if everyone acts in their own rational interest, while mostly leaving others alone, things will work out well.

Mengzi's objection to Yang Zhu is fairly simple – it’s mainly just the child-in-the-well thought experiment above. To me, this seems obviously correct. People obviously do have altruistic feelings towards others – the extremely pure, selfish egoism of Yang Zhu is just false.

On the other hand, Yang Zhu's doctrine and Mengzi's doctrine may be somewhat close:

"Mengzi said, "Those who defect from the Mohists always turn toward Yang Zhu. Those who defect from Yang Zhu always turn toward Confucianism. When they turn toward us, we should simply accept them." (Book 7B, 26.1)

Perhaps their main disagreement is just based on their theories of human nature -- Yang Zhu sees us as purely selfish, Mengzi sees us as having benevolent concern for everyone, although centered particularly on our own families. The Mohists, by contrast, seemed not to care about human nature.

The Mohists

I think a modern utilitarian view might go something like this: one does first learn compassion and the desire to do good by starting with the feeling of love for friends and family – and this is an acceptable natural process of ethical growth. But as our circles of moral concern expand, we ought to leave behind our special consideration for those closer to us.

This is precisely the view espoused by a Mohist named Yi Zhi, and (as pointed out by van Norden in the introduction) Mengzi argues strongly against it – perhaps not completely successfully. 

Mengzi first notes that Yi Zhi himself spent a lot of money on his parents’ funerals, even though this was denounced by Mozi as a waste of resources. Yi Zhi acknowledges this tension, but says “love is without differentiation, but it is bestowed beginning with one’s parents.” (book 3A 5.3a) 

Mengzi’s response is to tell a kind of parable about how the custom of burying the dead came about. He claims that people once left their dead parents in ditches, but watching the corpses rot naturally disturbed them, simply because they loved their parents, so they began the custom of burial (it’s implied that both Mohists and Confucians acknowledge burying the dead is good). But the Confucians engage in their lavish funeral rites out of the exact same emotional motivation, so how could the funeral rites be bad?

I don’t really buy it (and van Norden points out it doesn’t quite make sense). The Mohists could just argue that it is possible to show respect without wasting resources, and anyway there are obvious hygienic reasons for burial even for a completely unsentimental person.

However, this does get at something real in human nature. A lot of committed utilitarians face this tension – should one spend money to care for family members even though it is a globally suboptimal use of resources? My sense is that most people do make that compromise, in the end – I think Mengzi is probably right about human nature, although his argument from human nature to what is morally right doesn’t necessarily stand up.

This tension comes up again and again. Before reading the Mengzi I had no idea there were utilitarians running around millennia ago. 


In a particularly famous incident, King Xuan of Qi was sitting in his hall when an ox went by to be ritually slaughtered. The king was suddenly moved with feeling toward the ox and ordered that it be spared. Mengzi applauded this, because he thought it showed a capacity for compassion – which both proved the king was capable of showing the same compassion towards his people, and might be a starting point for learning how to do so. 

It doesn’t seem that Mengzi particularly cared about the welfare of animals, though – he thought it was good to show compassion towards the ox as a “technique” for building compassion, but also that “gentlemen keep their distance from the kitchen” (book 1A 7.8) to avoid being disturbed and coarsened by the sight of death. 

Judgment, Discretion and Practicality

Mengzi has a view about good judgment – it’s maybe something similar to Aristotle’s phronesis. For example, in describing his own attempts to plot a middle ground between Yang Zhu and Mozi, he says:

“Holding to the middle is close to it. But if one holds to the middle without discretion, that is the same as holding to one extreme. What I dislike about those who hold to one extreme is that they distract from the Way. They elevate one thing and leave aside a hundred others” (book 7A 26.1)

Mengzi is pretty ruthless about effectiveness, too. He says, “Being effective is like digging a well. Even if you dig down ninety feet, if you stop without reaching the spring, you have given up on the well.” (book 7A 29.1)

Over the course of the text, I get the sense that Mengzi sees developing the virtues as inseparable from acting in the world, and doing so effectively.

Mengzi and Politics

There’s a certain type of person who thinks that if we all focused on our personal moral development, we’d transcend to the next stage of consciousness, and then a lot of political problems and conflicts would just take care of themselves. There's another kind of person who basically just sees morality as an arena for personal triumph.

Mengzi certainly has some of these attitudes, but it’s not what he’s all about. He cares deeply about the welfare and prosperity of the people in a very practical sense, and dedicated his life to improving it – spending decades wandering from state to state trying to get rulers to put better government into practice.

Thus, a large portion of this text is spent expounding quite specific ideas for government policies that he thinks will have better results. Reading all these ideas, I tentatively think that Mengzi might show the personality traits, ideas, and foibles of a modern neoliberal wonk. He has big ideas about zoning reform. He wants to simplify the tax code. He has thoughts about how to hire government officials and what their pay scales should be. He’s pro-market. And he goes around with these ideas, and gets audiences with the powerful, but in the end they basically ignore him.

Tax Policy

In an amusing story, Dai Yingzhi, an official of the state of Song, contemplates replacing a system of tariffs and market taxes with a 10 percent flat tax, presumably suggested by Mengzi. The official wants to wait a year, but Mengzi says:

“Suppose there is a person who every day appropriates one of his neighbor’s chickens. Someone tells him, ‘This is not the way of a gentleman.’ He says, ‘May I reduce it to appropriating one chicken every month and wait until next year to stop? If one knows that it is not righteous, then one should quickly stop. Why wait until next year?’” (Book 3B, 8.2)

There is a larger moral point here – van Norden comments on the contrast between this advice to do the right thing immediately, and Mengzi’s advice elsewhere not to aim for moral achievements that we aren’t yet ready for. But I also can’t help but notice how much the proposed policy sounds like modern wonkish advice on taxes.

Zoning Reform

Mengzi proposed that the fields be divided up according to the historical “well-field” system, named after the character for “well” (井)– there were 9 plots of land, with the center plot cultivated in common and given to the state. In other words, he believed that newer land use policies had gone astray, and that states would prosper if they returned to older, more traditional land use policies. Definitely a familiar type of guy in certain social milieus today.

Humanitarian Interventions

Like any good neoliberal wonk, Mengzi was willing to get behind a humanitarian intervention. The state of Yan was facing a succession crisis and the king of the neighboring state of Qi (I am pretty sure this is the same guy up above with the ox) decided to invade. Mengzi apparently supported this intervention, as he felt it would be good to restore order to the state of Yan, and that the people would welcome the Qi armies as liberators. 

Initially, they did, but the situation quickly descended into further chaos, and the Qi armies committed many crimes and depredations – eventually the people of Yan drove them out with the help of neighboring states. Mengzi’s advice to treat the people well was ignored. At this point, Mengzi tries to hedge and distance himself, claiming that he never said the king of Qi should invade, merely that if one were "the agent of heaven" then it would be permissible to invade. 

To this day, this still seems to be a pattern with a certain kind of intellectual.


Book 3A, chapter 4 presents a lengthy dialogue between Mengzi and Chen Liang, who promotes the teachings of Xu Xing, who was some kind of proto-socialist – he taught that there should be no material inequality, and that nobody should benefit from others’ labor. They go back and forth for a while, with Mengzi consistently arguing like an economist for the counterintuitive position – that managerial work is also productively valuable (4.6), that it’s natural and desirable to have division of labor and trade due to comparative advantage (4.4), and that varying market prices are useful in signaling the right kind of production:

“Things are inherently unequal. One thing is twice or five times more than another, another ten or a hundred times more, another a thousand or ten thousand times more. If you line them up and treat them as identical, this will bring chaos to the world. If a fine shoe and a shoddy shoe are the same price, will anyone make the former? If we follow the Way of Xu Xing, we will lead each other into artifice. How can this bring order to the state?” (Book 3A, 4.18)

(Of course, we also must remember that Mengzi here is passionately defending a brutal system of monarchy and feudal servitude against an egalitarian revolutionary…)

A Smattering of Morally Improving Quotes

Finally, here are a few more quotes by Mengzi that sound great and are included without context, just as an example of all the great stuff in this book. There's lots more like them.

On benevolence and disgrace:

"If one is benevolent, one will have glory. If one is not benevolent, one will have disgrace. Now, to dislike disgrace yet to dwell in what is not benevolent, this is like disliking wetness and dwelling in the damp." (Book 2A, 4.1)

On the roots of the virtues:

"The feeling of compassion is the sprout of benevolence. The feeling of disdain is the sprout of righteousness. The feeling of deference is the sprout of propriety. The feeling of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom. People having these four sprouts is like their having four limbs. To have this four sprouts, yet to claim that one is incapable (of virtue) is to steal from oneself. To say that one's ruler is incapable is to steal from one's ruler." (Book 2A, 6.5-6.6)

On sacrificing life for principles:

"Fish is something I desire; bear's paw is also something I desire. If I cannot have both, I will forsake fish and select bear's paw. Life is something I desire; righteousness is also something I desire. If I cannot have both, I will forsake life and select righteousness." (Book 6A, 10.1)

In The End

I have not done the Mengzi justice. It really is one of humanity’s great philosophical texts. There’s too much stuff I haven’t included. Mengzi's personality comes through as a caring and likable human, perhaps ornery, perhaps a little arrogant (or maybe he just accurately knows his own worth) -- certainly someone who dedicated his whole life to making the world better. This feeling of speaking with someone through the centuries is one of the great pleasures of reading philosophy. 

I’ve overemphasized similarities to present-day ideas because I find them interesting and amusing, but there are plenty of reminders that ancient China was a very different place. For example, Mengzi cares a lot about qi (I don't understand how he uses the concept), and there's a big emphasis on funerary rites, sacrifices, and rituals in all areas of life. Nevertheless, I do think it still speaks to modern-day issues, with the unusual and perhaps helpful perspective of a virtue ethicist who was actively involved in public policy.

The treatment of Mengzi as a virtue ethicist and the Mohists as consequentialists might be an imposition of modern and Western categories that distort what the philosophers were actually saying. However, Van Norden has another book, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, which lays out a scholarly argument that these categories are reasonable (I am going to read it next).

I'm certainly not claiming to be original in noticing these connections -- they've been thoroughly explored by a ton of actual scholars, far better and more clearly than I have done. You can see some discussion of this in the SEP entry on Mengzi, along with further works to read. It's also possible that I've missed or misunderstood some important scholarly details.

Ultimately, I hope you will buy and read the book. Of course, many people don’t see much point in reading 2000-year-old philosophy that could never possibly be of direct use. But if you are willing to read any ancient philosophical text, you should put the Mengzi on the top of your list. It’s really good.

  1. ^

    Some argue that Confucianism is a bad name for the tradition -- in Chinese, it is called 儒家, rújiā, a name that doesn't have anything to do with Confucius and would be better translated as "Ruism". I can't evaluate these arguments so stick to the usage in the book.

  2. ^

    In a well, rather than a pond.





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