In about 12 hours I will have Xunzi: The Complete Text delivered to my Kindle. I’m very excited, because Xunzi is an individual who I very much admire for his insights, and, whose thought was extremely influential in Chinese history. Yet from just noting that unlike Confucius and Mencius he does not have a Latinized name, you can infer that his status and prominence is not as great as these two figures. One reason given is that his reputation declined in early China because of his influence upon the Legalist school. These were the ideological brains behind the first Chinese truly unitary imperial state, which collapsed due to its insufferable totalitarianism. But the case can be made that Xunzi’s thought lived on in the substance of what became “State Confucianism”, and would echo down to the early 20th century (in fact the modern Chinese Communist party seems to be resurrecting State Confucianism). Therefore, to understand Xunzi is to some extent to understand a system of social-political governance which maintained itself robustly over ~2,000 years. The continuity of the Han dynasty, 2,000 years ago, down to the Qing dynasty (the Manchus), which fell in the early decades of the 20th century, is such that a mandarin of the earlier period could at least comprehend the basic underlying foundations of the state the society in 1900. Imagine transposing a Roman senator to Italy in 1900.
The great antagonists of the early Confucians, and perhaps the polar opposite of Xunzi’s pessimistic and realist world-view, were the Mohists.
Because we know of the Mohists mostly through the commentaries and recollections of their Confucian enemies we must be careful about assuming we know in exact details of what they truly espoused, but one of the clear issues where they seemed to differ from Confucians is that they held to a very flat and universal sense of human affection, affinity, and empathy. In contrast, the Confucians acknowledged that by their nature humans exhibited concentric circles of affinity, from the family outward. The details here may vary from society to society, but it strikes me that we must acknowledge that the Confucians were making peace with a fundamental reality of our evolutionary history as social apes whose lives revolved around different degrees of relations. The Mohist ideal of universal love has an abstract simplicity and Utopian attraction, but it can never serve as the basis of a well ordered society, as opposed to the guiding principle of very particular individuals who are distinctive from the rest of society (religions like Christian and Buddhism seem to make a nod to this when they allow for the creation of religious societies who notionally discard ties with their families and natal communities).
At the heart of Mohism was a great impulse. If compassion toward others is good, why not maximize compassion to all human beings? Why not? The abstraction is elegant in its plain and forceful logic. Ethical ratiocination of this sort is at the heart of works such as John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice or Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. But just as the simple elegant maxims of ancient Mohism were marginalized by the messier and less coherent, but more pragmatic, teachings of Confucius and his heirs, modern political philosophy tends to intersect only marginally with modern political policy and economy (actually, State Confucianism fused classical Confucianism with the practical statecraft of Legalism, while later Neo-Confucianism added a metaphysical element, stimulated and borrowed from Buddhism). The Utopian radicalism of Mohism though turns out not be an ancient Chinese novelty. Rather, it issues forth repeatedly in the human experience whenever millenarian Utopianism seems the only solution to the tragedies of the age. Christian radicals in 3rd century Anatolia, Protestant separatists, and the Lingayat movement all touched the same human impulse which resulted in the elaboration of Mohism as an answer to the anarchy of the age. And yet all these movements were tamed and made peace with the world as it is, engaging in evolution rather than revolution, incrementalism instead of overturning the order (social and religious movements which don’t make peace with reality are not long for this world).
Why is any of this relevant today? Because today we are arguing about the same things that the ancients did, and that our descendants will (assuming limitations on post-human transformations). It comes to mind when you read op-eds such as Markus Bergström’s in The Washington Post, Losing the birth lottery. Though a relatively mild and pragmatic case for open borders, it ends with this sentence: “While many opportunities in life are unequally distributed, our legal rights must always be universal.” This sort of universalism is deeply appealing to many. It leads to the emergence of trans-national ideologies, from Marxism to anarcho-capitalism in politics, and of course the world religions. These are systems of government and life which are true, and right, in all times and all places. They presume a sort of leveling of human existence, one way of flourishing above all. Though not as nakedly idealistic, the same mentality has been co-opted by the trans-national capitalist elites. The Wall Street Journal has been proposing open borders for decades, and the global elite sees no downsides in free flow of goods, people, and capital, all of which they can leverage and benefit off of. Prosaically these elegant models seem to overlook the reality of organically developed institutions in which markets and societies operate. To give an extreme example, adding 150 million Cantonese Chinese to Japan would change Japan in many ways which would have economic and social consequences. But rather than rehashing the scholarship on the benefits of social cohesion, it is important perhaps to suggest here that this universalist world-view forgets that humans differ, and that one system may not be beneficial in the same way to all.
Bergström’s logic could just as apply to families, as opposed to nations. Some people are born to families, and endowed with genetics, which give them greater opportunities in this world. Attempts to eliminate this problem, such as in Israeli kibbutzim, have failed. The original collectivist ethos of Black Bear Ranch commune in Northern California began to disappear once individuals began having children, and separating from the whole to create their own nuclear families. One of the ironies of scares over “family values” is that in reality you can push human social arrangements only so far before they veer back toward what is comfortable for us. State Confucianism succeeded, and was a robust ideological glue for the Chinese polity for 2,000 years, because it extended and modulated natural human impulses. It did not attempt to recreate humans de novo based on an abstraction. An elegant but thin fragment of ourselves can not stand against the windows of our deep evolutionary past.
But the tendency to push logic to its limits, beyond the normal range of human behavior and sentiment, is not a limited concern. I think it crops up in this Michael Brendan Dougherty piece, The troubling persistence of eugenicist thought in modern America. In The American Conservative Noah Millman responds:
My own view is that eugenic motivations aren’t suspect as such, but perfectly normal. They just need to be tempered with a whole lot of humility, the recognition that the fantasy of total control is and always will be just that—a fantasy—and the consciousness that if we can’t imagine the joy of the inner life of someone different from us (someone with Down Syndrome, someone deaf, someone gay, someone who sucks at tennis), that’s our problem, not an objective sign of their deficiency. And coercion in a matter as intimate as childbearing should have to clear a very high bar for justification—and I can’t imagine eugenic motivations ever legitimately clearing that bar. Bearing all that in mind, I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting to have the healthiest children we can, and doing what we can to get what we want. Including thinking about their genes.
A GATTACA scenario is not only unrealistic, but probably not a world most of us would want to live in. But there’s a long way between here and there. The Golden Mean is not an exotic or amazing principle, but a way to temper our noble idealism, and yet not be reduced to our most self-interested and basest instincts. The fact that the vast majority of parents would prefer that their children not have Down Syndrome does not mean that democratic majorities would today assent to sending Down Syndrome patients to the gas chambers. Slippery slope arguments are often interesting, but usually they are not relevant, because we as human beings tend to be able to quite easily anchor ourselves somewhere along the slope, balancing our intuitions, reason, and background. Speaking of which, Millman asks straightforwardly whether Dougherty issue isn’t with abortion, and that is a policy and ethical debate which is so polarized that it doesn’t reflect the true common sense perspectives of most humans. No matter what they say most pro-life people don’t think a first trimester abortion is equivalent to premeditated homicide of an individual which has been born and has an independent existence. And no matter what the likes of Amanda Marcotte claim, having an abortion is never going to be like going to the dentist to fill a cavity. No matter what some activists might wish for, but abortion will always have some stigma, just as it will likely remain legal (and is becoming legal in more, not fewer, jurisdictions). Developmental biology does not avail us of clean and simple solutions in this area. The fetus means more to us than a developing collection of cells, but it is not a full person in the sense that your neighbor is a full person.
Where this leaves us is that we need to go case by case, accept that there is some validity in meliorism, but also expect limits to Utopianism because of the modal human hardware/software package. Slavery was the norm among post-hunter gatherer societies for most of the past 10,000 years, but has been abolished over the past 100. Previous ethical-religious philosophies often suggested that it was an institution which did not elevate humanity, or allow society to fully flourish, but they understood that it was an unfortunate basic feature of human existence. But that necessary existence was only conditional on particular social-economic systems of production and organization. Once those systems began to loosen, total abolition could emerge as a viable and realistic option.* But more simple and elementary human realities are not so easily abolished or reformed. The family in some way seems to be a structure and unit which is necessary, and can not be eliminated, even if on the margins it can be modified into distinct and diverse forms. Human prejudices and preferences for particular sorts, whether it be the opposite sex (on the whole), or people of similar kind (whether it be racial, religious, ethnic, or class), are likely going to persist in some form because we are a “groupish” species. Not only have we flourished in groups, our cognitive architecture is geared toward multiple levels of sociality and familiarity. We will never flatten the chain of affinities.
Much of this is banal and obvious to most. But nevertheless it needs to be elaborated, because the commanding heights of our culture are assaulted by the propagandists of logic and reason applied in domains where feelings are preeminent. As David Hume asserted, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”
* Note that some societies, such as Han Imperial China, tended to limit the prevalence of chattel slavery for various reasons, in contrast to others to which they are compared, such as Imperial Rome, where it flourished.