Chinese Philosophy: Social and Political Thought

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Chinese philosophy began in the sixth century BCE with social and political philosophy as a response to the collapse of traditional bronze-age feudal society (Shang and Zhou dynasties). As the loyalty of the nobility to the Zhou kings began to give way to the realpolitik of sheer military might, dozens of small kingdoms vied with one another for imperial domination in what became known appropriately as the Warring States period (475221 BCE). This strife ended when the kingdom of Qin finally conquered the last of its competitors to unite, for the first time, the many warring states into a single military, imperial empire.

The problem was how to unify and rule such a heterogeneous collection of different ethnic groups. Into this breach came China's first philosophers. In the feudal period, social custom was maintained by etiquette as practiced and maintained by the aristocrats and by punishments applied to ordinary people. People did the morally right thing not out of an inner sense of obligation but simply because this was the prescribed behavior for anyone born into a particular class. As the feudal order broke up, Confucians attempted to convert the customary etiquette of the hereditary nobility into an internally felt and inwardly directed moral imperative for everyone. The Daoists advocated a back-to-nature simplification in which government does little and simply lets the people pursue their own affairs, as they traditionally did for centuries. The Mohists tried to break down ethnic and tribal boundaries through the practice of impartial universal love. And the legalists tried to extend the role of punishment more broadly to everyone: aristocrats and educated elite, as well as peasants. There were thus four recommended replacements for the dying feudal social order: develop a universal personal morality (Confucians); return to a nearly anarchic state of nature (Daoists); embrace a policy of universal impartial love (Mohists); establish and universally enforce applicable law (legalists).


Confucius (551479 BCE) was the first thinker to offer new methods for the postfeudal period. Philosophers in the early Warring States period tended to be either conservatives who wanted to preserve the old values of the dying feudal system or revolutionaries who wanted to start afresh with new ideas and a new set of values. Confucius was one of the conservatives. He sought to revive on a new foundation the values of the Zhou dynasty, the last of the feudal regimes. Confucius claimed not to be an original thinker; he always said he was just preserving the past. But since the feudal order had virtually disappeared by the time Confucius was born, he realized that these values could only be preserved by restructuring them so as to meet the new conditions. In this effort he was certainly original. In the past, aristocratic feudal values were informally handed down from parents to children in elite noble families. Confucius was the first Chinese thinker to advocate that these values be systematized, logically defended, universalized, and formally taught to everyone. If everyone would learn and practice the ancient virtues of loyalty to elders and rulers (cheng ), moral righteousness (yi ), and compassion for others (ren ), the country would be well run, contented, and prosperous. Indeed, Confucius insisted that if people would simply fulfill the roles assigned to them, all would behave virtuously. For example, if the ruler would act like a ruler (that is, protect and care for his people), the country would be well taken care of. The ruler who takes advantage of his subjects to enrich himself is not a true ruler and should not be called a ruler (wang ). This is what Confucius called the "rectification of names": Things should be called by their right names, and people should live up to the roles assigned them by their designated titles.

Beyond assuming a universal basis for such an extension of the old feudal values, Confucius did not develop a theory of universal human nature. This he left to his followers. When the Daoists and other competing schools of philosophy criticized Confucius for foolishly trying to revive the old values of the nobility of a then defunct feudal era, Confucius's followers responded by arguing that all people have the same basic nature, that to be happy and successful, people must fulfill this nature, and that this required developing and following the traditional Chinese virtues of the ancient feudal nobility.

Soon after Confucius's death there arose many competing schools of philosophy in China and many competing varieties of Confucianism itself, reflecting serious disagreements among the followers of Confucius, especially Mencius and Xunzi. When the small warring states were finally united for the first time under the military dictatorship of Ying Zheng (259210 BCE), China's first imperial emperor, the legalist philosophers (fajia ) convinced the emperor that the only way to truly unite the country was to eliminate all the argumentative and therefore divisive schools of philosophy (except legalism). In 213 BCE all the philosophy books the government could find were burned, and some Confucians and other philosophers who refused to abandon their philosophical practice were buried alive. Shortly afterwards, during the Han dynasty (206 BCE220 CE), the legalist position was reversed, an attempt was made to revive the ancient schools of philosophy, and after a prolonged debate, Confucianism was adopted over Daoism and Mohism as the official philosophy of the state. The only other philosophical school besides Confucianism to survive was Daoism, which then became a private philosophy of the educated elite, whose public lives were primarily Confucian. Confucianism thereby became China's official legitimizing discourse justifying imperial rule, although quietly and behind the scenes legalism continued to provide the practical basis for actual rule.

Confucius did not develop the systematic ethical theory we know today as Confucianism. This was left to his followers: Mencius, Xunzi, and Dong Zhongshu. Confucius himself sought to return to traditional feudal values (such as filial piety) of the Zhou dynasty. Confucius's critics, especially the Daoists, attacked this attempt to rehabilitate the traditional virtues. Just because such virtues may have worked in the past, what reason was there to suppose that these rules were applicable to the new circumstances? A theory of ethics should be based on something more permanent in nature and reality, not the historical conventions of a particular society at a particular time and place. In response to this criticism, the followers of Confucius developed the idea that the traditional Chinese virtues could be defended as based on an unchanging and eternal human nature shared by people of all classes, at all times, and at all places.

But is there a common human nature, and if so, what is that nature? Here the followers of Confucius could not reach agreement. Mencius held that human nature is essentially good, while Xunzi argued that it is essentially evil, to which Dong Zhongshu argued that it is both, that human nature comprised two opposing elements, one good and the other evil.


In many ways Mencius (c. 376c. 292 BCE) followed the example of Confucius. Like Confucius, he divided his time between offering (mostly unwanted) advice to the rulers of his day and teaching students in a private capacity. Also like Confucius, Mencius sought to rectify names. Things should be called by their correct names, and things (people) that did not live up to their names (titles) should not be called by those names. For example, when Mencius was asked whether it was morally permissible to kill a king, Mencius replied in effect that if this so-called king is a true king, then of course it is wrong to kill him, but if this so-called king is not a true king but only a tyrant, then killing him is not killing a king but only a tyrant, and so is morally permissible.

But in other ways Mencius deviated from the path followed by Confucius and most other Confucians before and after him. More than any other Confucian, including Confucius himself, Mencius emphasized the morality of following nature, human nature, as opposed to social convention. In this respect Mencius comes close to the Daoists. In one episode recorded in his book, Mencius tells the story of the man from Song who helped his rice plants grow taller by pulling on them, which of course caused them to wither and die. Mencius's point is that the farmer should have let nature take its course. Of course, the rice has to be planted and then transplanted and weeded and watered and protected from birds and other animals, but beyond that the rice plants should be left to grow and develop all by themselves without further human interference. By analogy, we should not impose alien social practices on children but should help them cultivate their innate human nature.

By the time of Mencius there were many competing schools of philosophy. Mencius often bemoaned the enormous popularity of what he regarded as two extremist schools of thought, the followers of Mozi (c. 468c. 376 BCE) and Yang Zhu (440360 BCE), Mozi arguing that we should love all people equally and Yang Zhu that we should not lift a finger to help anyone but ourselves. Like Confucius, Mencius followed a middle path between these two extremes, emphasizing the traditional Chinese virtue of filial piety, that is, loyalty to members of one's own family and obligation to those immediately above and below in the social hierarchy of one's particular community.

According to Mencius, all people are born with the potential and tendency to be kind-hearted and virtuous, though this potential can either be nourished and developed, so that the individual becomes good, or else neglected, thwarted, and perverted, so that the individual becomes bad. Mencius was not saying that children are moral from birth. He realized that they must be trained and taught, and that they learn by practice and experience. He also realized that neglected or mistreated children will usually become bad. Nonetheless, his theory is that in either case there is an innate tendency or disposition to be good.

In his most famous example, Mencius asked what is the immediate and spontaneous response of any person upon seeing a child about to fall into a well. Mencius said that everyone naturally and spontaneously wants to rush to help the child. This does not mean that everyone is a morally good person. It only means that everyone is born with the germ of the Confucian virtue of compassion (ren ), along with the germ of the other traditional Chinese virtues of righteousness (yi ), propriety (li ), and wisdom (zhi ).

Mencius valued this distinctively human capacity for virtue above all other parts of a person and urged readers to honor, preserve, and develop that part of themselves above all else. "To know one's nature is to know heaven [tian ]" (The Mencius ). That is, humans alone have the capacity to realize what their nature is and to choose to follow it and in this way to consciously align themselves with heaven. Mencius saw this human capacity as a bodily part (the benevolent mind that cannot bear to see others suffer), though the highest part, coming from heaven, in contrast with the rest of the human body, which people share with the lower animals and which comes from earth.

Although Mencius did not stress rationality as what is distinctively human, as Western philosophers do, he did stress the capacity of the mind (xin ) to think. In Mencius (the book), Mencius argued that some people become better than others (even though they all have the same human nature) because they realize the value of this small but superior part of themselves.

Finally, Mencius is often called the most democratic of Chinese philosophers. Although Mencius, like Confucius before him, defended the ancient feudal traditions, especially of the Zhou dynasty, he radically reinterpreted them to conform to his own political ideas of equality. For example, in feudal times, society was arranged for the benefit of the aristocracy and defended as being mandated by Heaven (tian ming ). Of course, it is hard to tell who has the mandate of heaven, except in a circular way by who actually rules. The ruler in power can claim to enjoy the mandate of heaven, and the only argument against this claim by those who oppose him is their ability to oust him from power and take over themselves. Mencius offers an independent, noncircular criterion for who has and does not have the mandate of heaven: that the ordinary people support and are happy with the government. The only justification for government and economic policy is that it serve the people. To give another example, in feudal times the division of political and economic duties was hereditary, whereas for Mencius this division of labor can only be justified on grounds of merit. Let each person serve according to his innate ability, whether as farmers, teachers, or government officials.


In the third century BCE the most prominent Confucian and one of the most important philosophers in China was Xunzi (340245 BCE). Xunzi argued, against Mencius, that human nature is essentially evil, that is, selfish and aggressively antisocial. It is only through education, training, discipline, and the threat of punishment, Xunzi argued, that people become socially cooperative. Xunzi speculated that originally men were free to follow their own selfish bent without fear of recrimination or punishment. But when they realized that they were as often the victims of aggressive abuse as its perpetrators, that they were getting robbed as often as they were robbing from others, they willingly accepted the authority of a ruler capable of maintaining order and punishing transgressions. Like the social-contract philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Xunzi argued from people's evil nature to the need for a strong central government to control human behavior by education and a system of rewards and punishments. If strong governmental authority were removed, Xunzi speculated, chaos would result as the strong rode rough shod over the weak, with no law enforcement to prevent or punish them.

One major difference between Mencius's and Xunzi's theories of human nature is that Mencius defined human nature as what is uniquely and distinctively human, whereas Xunzi defined human nature as what all people are born with, even if this allotment is also shared with lower animals. Relating his theory to ancient, prephilosophical Chinese traditions, Xunzi said that human nature is the product of two factors. One, the contribution of heaven (tian ), gives human beings the rational and intelligent capacity to be civilized, cultured, and virtuous, and the other, the contribution of earth (di ), is our animal nature, which we are conscious of as feeling and emotion. Whereas Mencius said that we receive from heaven the germ of moral virtue, Xunzi maintained that we receive from heaven only the capacity or potential for virtue and civilized life.

Thus, for Xunzi, a person at birth is just like one of the lower animals except for possessing the capacity of becoming civilized and virtuous. If we define human nature as Xunzi did (as what all people are born with), then we will point to the tendencies people actually have to be greedy, selfish, and aggressive, but if we define human nature as Mencius did (as what is unique to people), then we will tend to discount greedy behavior, since it is shared with lower animals, and to emphasize instead the capacity of humans to develop virtuous behavior, to become moral creatures. As Mencius says, "Slight is the difference between man and the brutes. The ordinary person loses this distinguishing feature, while the true human being retains it" (The Mencius ).

In a sense, the difference between Mencius and Xunzi is very small. Both acknowledged that we have natural desires for food and sex, and both acknowledged that we have the capacity to resist such desires when it is dangerous or inappropriate to indulge them. The difference is largely a matter of the relative weight placed on nature and nurture. Xunzi thought that because human beings are intelligent, when they realize the difficulties that uncontrolled indulgence in the desire for food and sex can lead to, they seek to set limits on those desires. Like Mencius, Xunzi acknowledged that the ordinary person can become a sage.

According to Xunzi, human goodness comes from development of human culture. Culture is uniquely human. "Heaven has its seasons, Earth has its resources, man has his culture" (The Xunzi ). Humans should properly take what comes from heaven and earth and create a distinctly human culture. Just as Mencius held there were the four germs of human goodness, so Xunzi held there are the four germs of evil, all of which spring from the innate desire for profit and sensual pleasure. How, then, do humans become good? And what motivates them to become good if they are inherently evil? Xunzi developed two lines of argument.

First, humans need (and know they need) some kind of social organization, cooperation, and mutual support. To secure the required social organization, they need rules of conduct, ceremonial rites (li ). (Ceremonial rites were of greater importance to Xunzi than to Confucius, who stressed compassion for others, ren.) We need rules of conduct to set limits on the satisfaction of desires.

Second, we need morality (li ), culture, civilization to complete our humanity. The rules of conduct cultivate and refine our humanity. Unlike the Daoists, who rejected what comes from humans to return to nature, Xunzi advocated the way of humanity.

Xunzi further developed Confucius's sophisticated view of the utility of elaborate ceremonies, without the need for belief in conscious humanlike deities. For Xunzi, this involved a kind of aesthetic distance. We have both intellect and emotion. We intellectually know that death is the end of everything (and that gods cannot help improve the weather through prayers), but we emotionally need to hold on to some hope of something better to follow death (and the possibility of some help from a benevolent heaven). So we create in our rituals a kind of poetic imagination in which we believe and disbelieve all at the same time. Ordinary people can believe literally, while educated people can appreciate the same ceremonies aesthetically and symbolically. For civility, human emotions must have a physical embodiment, which distances the emotion from its natural expression. Thus, art and music become a way of inculcating proper social attitudes in the educational process and avoiding natural, animalistic expressions of such attitudes as aggression, for example.

Xunzi regarded dispute and argumentation as a sign of political disorder, and so encouraged the idea that a return of political order (at the end of the feudal period) would lead to the end of philosophical disputes and argumentation among the many different contending schools of philosophy. Unfortunately, through Xunzi's influence on the legalists Li Si and Han Fei, this contributed to the famous book burning of 213 BCE.

In some ways Xunzi resembled the Daoists, especially in his rationalist, scientific attitude toward nature or heaven (tian ). In other ways, however, Xunzi followed Confucius in arguing that we ought nonetheless to keep up all the state ceremonies, even sacrifices to ancestors and gods, though they have no real causal effect. Why? Because these practices were socially beneficial; the emperor publicly praying for a good harvest did not make the crops grow any better, but it did help unify the people and organize their efforts toward a common goal.

Dong Zhongshu

Is there a human nature shared by all people, and if so what is it like? As discussed above, the followers of Confucius could not agree. Mencius held that it was essentially good, while Xunzi argued that it was essentially evil, to which Dong Zhongshu (179104 BCE) argued that it was both, that human nature was composed of two opposing elements, one good and the other evil. Dong, in other words, found a middle ground between the views of Mencius and Xunzi (though probably closer to Xunzi). He agreed with Mencius that in a sense human nature contains the germ of goodness, but he disagreed with Mencius that this is enough to say that humans are by nature good. The germ of goodness is not actually good any more than a tomato seed is a tomato or an egg is a chicken. To become good, that germ must be nurtured and cultivated. He thus agreed more with Xunzi's emphasis on the need for government to educate and train people to become good citizens. Whereas Mencius said that goodness is a natural "tendency" of people, Dong claimed it is a mere "potential."

Dong also developed the theory that human nature must compete with people's innate tendencies toward greed and selfishness. In Dong's human psychology, the opposing forces of yin (emotion and feeling) and yang (our distinctively human nature) are in constant conflict with one another. If both these tendencies are innate, one may ask, are they both not parts of human nature? The answer here can be related to the idea that human nature is a normative concept. Like Mencius, Dong would like to say that human nature is the higher, better part of humans, the morally good part (derived from the positive yang aspect of heaven), which humans alone are capable of. The instinctive, emotional part (derived from the negative yin aspect of heaven), which all humans possess but also share with lower animals, is just as innate, but lacks the normative quality of the morally good potential of human nature.

The main difference between Mencius and Dong lies in their views of the role of government in fostering moral goodness. Mencius would have government take a far less intrusive role, merely encouraging and cultivating the germ of moral goodness already there. In contrast, Dong, like Xunzi, thinking of the enormous challenge of the Qin and Han dynasties in unifying the many previously warring states, held that government must mold and shape humans, who have the capacity for goodness but cannot become good without the intervention of the state. Lurking in the background of this Confucian debate lay the worry that moral cultivation, however noble an ideal, would not politically unify the vast military empire without strong state coercion.


Mozi, or Mo Di as he is also known (c. 468c. 376 BCE), was China's second philosopher, after Confucius. In his own lifetime and for two hundred years following his death, Mohism was at least as influential as Confucianism or any other early Chinese school of philosophy. But by the time of the Han dynasty (206 BCE220 CE), Confucianism and Daoism had absorbed all the other schools of philosophy, and from then on, Mozi exercised little influence.

Philosophy arose in China at the end of the feudal period, and many scholars believe that the Confucians emerged from the ritual advisors (the ru ) to the early feudal lords, while the Mohists emerged from the feudal warrior class. Certainly, Mozi's philosophy is much more down to earth, practical, and less elitist than Confucianism. Mozi opposed Confucius on several grounds, but four stand out as most important: that right action is determined by its practical results and consequences and not, as Confucius had urged, because duty required it, regardless of the consequences; that one should not privilege members of one's own family, especially one's parents, siblings, and children, but should love everyone equally; that morality should be based not on an unchanging human nature, which may or may not exist, but on our ability to transform people into morally better individuals through education and law; and that we should honor and obey a personal God, who rules heaven and earth, rewarding the faithful and punishing all others.

Mozi argued that the cause of the world's ills was the fact that people loved each other partially, that you love your mother and your clansmen more than you love my mother and my clansmen, for example, and that the cure for the world's ills is therefore to embrace universal, impartial love, in which everyone loves everyone else equally. Where there is competition, partial love leads "us" to hate and want to destroy "them." And so we have discrimination, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and warfare. How does one overcome these tendencies? According to Mozi, "Partial love should be replaced by universal, impartial love" (The Mozi.

Mozi realized (with the help of his Confucian critics) that impartial love is contrary to our ordinary feelings; you will tend to favor your relatives over mine. The Confucians were naturally appalled at Mozi's rejection of the traditional Chinese virtue of filial piety, that one's primary responsibility in life is to one's own parents and children. The Confucians therefore vigorously argued against Mozi's views on impartial love, arguing that since this is contrary to nature, no one could or would follow Mozi's advice (even if he were right). Nonetheless, Mozi argued that a system of rewards and punishments can induce and socially condition people to practice universal love (if not actually to feel love equally toward everyone).

Specifically, he argued that if the ruler urges people to love one another impartially, they would strive to do so; that since God created humans and loves them all impartially, God wants us to love each other impartially and rewards us when we do and punishes us when we do not; and that this too encourages people to embrace impartial love. Mozi did not think or argue that we are born with a sense of universal love of humanity in our hearts, only that we can be trained to adopt such an attitude. In this regard, Mozi argued that humans are infinitely pliable and can be molded into any form desired by the government (either to love partially or to love impartially).

Contrary to Confucius, Mozi argued that we should do the right thing to receive the rewards (li ) we will receive by doing the right thing and to avoid the punishment we will suffer in this life and the next if we do the wrong thing. Sometimes Mozi argued that we should do what will produce the best results for everyone, not just for ourselves, and here he sounds like the nineteenth-century British utilitarians (Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill), who argued that we should always do what will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Like Confucius, Mozi took his political theories to government leaders, offering his advice on how to improve government performance and social conditions, and like Confucius, his advice was largely ignored. Mozi was utilitarian in the sense that his standard for judging a philosophical position was whether it will benefit the people. Like John Stuart Mill, Mozi produced a theory that is more social and political than moral. That is, he was less interested in describing why individuals should love their neighbors as much as themselves than in telling government leaders how ordinary people can be motivated to practice universal, impartial love and how this will benefit the country as a whole.

Mozi explicitly criticized Confucius and the Confucians for preaching atheism (since this makes the gods angry, and the gods will then take it out on the people, making their lives miserable). He also criticized the Confucians for extravagance in spending on lavish state ceremonies (including musical ceremonies) and funerals (including three years of mourning), for proposing a complex educational system (it is simply too much to master all the old Zhou-dynasty ritual and history classics), and finally for relying too much on fate (ming ). Like Xunzi, Mozi argued that without government there would be chaos and hardship, with constant disagreements over what should be done, and that the people thus decided that it is better to have an absolute dictator to decide disputes for all.


Like Confucians and Mohists, Daoists also tried to influence government, and very nearly succeeded in convincing the Han emperor Wu Di (r. 14187 BCE) to choose Daoism over Confucianism as the official philosophy of the state. Only the extraordinary influence of Dong Zhongshu led the emperor to give the nod in the end to Confucianism.

The Daoists favored the natural over the artificial and mercilessly criticized the Confucians for their emphasis on the humanly created civilized culture of art and literature, ritual and custom, which children must learn through an elaborate process of socialization and acculturation. The Daoists were especially critical of the Confucians' attempts actively to foster and promote morality. Sometimes the Daoists expressed themselves by saying that one should practice "nonaction" (wu wei ), which, the context makes clear, does not mean doing nothing, which is impossible, but rather not acting too deliberately, purposefully, or self-consciously, that is, not trying so hard, just letting events take their natural course.

Trying too hard to do anything, the Daoists thought, only proves how lacking one is in that regard. Also, generally speaking, the harder we try, the less we succeed, the Daoists argued. Morality, like humor and lightheartedness, cannot be learned by rote, by mechanically following some set of rules, the Daoists insisted, but must spring from the heart spontaneously. Since morality is generally pitted against natural impulses, the Daoists were firmly opposed to morality as it is generally understood, that is, as a set of socially approved guidelines or rules to which all are expected to conform.

The Daoists also found themselves at the opposite extreme from the Confucian moral theory of government. The Daoists advocated just letting events take their natural course, leaving well enough alone. According to the Daoists, events happen naturally, spontaneously (ziran ), of their own accord. The principle that directs the growth and development of creatures and other things in the world is not some cause from outside, but a guiding force stemming from within those creatures. This is the natural and therefore preferred order of things. The worst thing one can do, especially rulers, is to try to improve on this natural order by enacting and enforcing laws.

It seems perfectly natural for rulers to feel that affairs are not going as well as they might and therefore to try to figure out what would make them better and to enact laws to bring about those changes. But for the Daoists, it is better for governments to let the people alone. Ordinary people have been managing their affairs from time immemorial, not by following formally enacted laws, but simply by following time-honored traditions and customs, which generally work just fine. By trying to improve the situation, the ruler may upset these established customs, confuse people, and make the situation worse.

Before governments found it necessary to introduce harsh laws to regulate behavior and punishments to enforce those laws, people lived simply without the need for laws. The ruler should keep government at this simple, primitive level. It is better not to give the ordinary people fancy ideas or encourage them to improve their lot. Keep them ignorant and simple. The Confucians were wrong to encourage knowledge and virtue. By insisting on learning and moral training, they made people feel ignorant and immoral, sense a need to study and learn what they did not know, and want to reform their ordinary ways of behaving.

Thus, even moral education is bad, according to the Daoists, because it tries to force on people overly sophisticated and difficult culture that goes against their nature. In direct opposition to the Confucians, the Daoists therefore rejected indoctrination in the traditional virtues: compassion, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. If you have to teach morality, that is a sure sign that the situation has been allowed seriously to deteriorate. When affairs are running smoothly, the people naturally and spontaneously know what to do and how to behavewithout thinking about it and without the need of books and formal instruction. Just like children, people are happier this way, not feeling inadequate and unhappy because they are constantly told how ignorant or sinful or uneducated or uncultivated they are.

It is also a mistake, the Daoists argued, to encourage the acquisition of expensive goods and higher standards of living. This just makes people envious of their richer neighbors and leads them to lie and steal and even kill to enrich themselves. The wise ruler will keep the people ignorant of fancy, expensive goods. If they never see such goods, they will never want them and never be tempted to stray from their simple everyday lives to get goods they cannot afford. Once the ruler allows inflated desires and competition among the people, the ruler must promulgate and enforce laws to prevent people from stealing and taking advantage of one another. But the more laws are passed and enforced, the more people see the laws and the government as their enemy, and therefore the more they will try to break the laws and overthrow the government. And this requires still more laws and severer punishments, in a vicious upward spiral.


The legalist theory was best expressed by Han Fei, also known as Han Feizi (c. 280233 BCE), at the end of the Warring States period. The legalists thought that it was not enough just to leave the people to their traditional customs, as the Daoists recommended, but that it was too much to transform everyone into a moral agent, as the Confucians and Mohists proposed. Neither sort of advice really takes into account what rulers themselves want. Rulers are generally not interested in being morally good, nor are they satisfied in just keeping the people quiet and docile. They usually have their own agendas: to gain fame by conquering neighboring kingdoms, to enrich themselves and their families, or perhaps both. Since most of the early Chinese philosophers were trying to persuade rulers of the time how best to govern, the legalists thought it better to advise rulers on how to achieve what rulers themselves wanted than to try to get them to accept the moralistic goals of the philosophers (who had no experience in ruling). The problem that Confucius faced in training kings to be philosophers was that the kings did not want to be philosophersthey wanted lives of action, wealth, and power. The legalists (ever political realists) accordingly dropped the more ambitious normative project of formulating the ends that governments should strive for and opted instead for a more instrumental approach to how to achieve the goals rulers already had.

To accomplish these political goals, the legalists advised the rulers to adopt a law-and-order administration supported by a strict system of rewards and punishments. Like their Western counterparts, the legalists were realists, arguing that it is not necessary for the king to be morally virtuous or for the bulk of the population to practice moral behavior. All the king needs to do, the legalists maintained, is to decide what he wants and then to insure compliance by formulating clear laws with absolutely certain rewards (for obeying these laws) and punishments (for disobeying them), and the people will do whatever the king wants. After all, he is the king. He does not have to follow the moral principles of someone elsecertainly not those of a philosopher! The king can propose whatever he wants and call this "justice" and make others call it "justice" as well, however inherently unjust his proposals may in fact be. And since he has the army to back him up, he cannot be seriously challenged.

Most Chinese philosophers were conservatives, revering and urging a return to a halcyon past, as Confucius thought the Zhou dynasty had been. Han Fei, on the other hand, as a legal and historical realist, argued that different historical eras face different problems requiring different solutions, and that the solutions of the past are not necessarily appropriate for the present. The story he offered is of a farmer who, seeing a hare kill itself by running into a tree stump, abandons farming to sit and wait by the tree stump for another hare. In the new expansionist military dictatorships following the end of the feudal period, a strict system of rewards and punishments for clearly formulated and promulgated laws is a much surer way of ensuring compliance than moral education, the legalists felt. Even if the ruler enacts a system of universal moral education, how many people are actually going to become moral agents, always doing the right thing simply because it is the morally right thing to do?

The ruler also needs statecraft (shu ). He need not do the work himself; he need simply hold people to their job descriptions (the rectification of names). As a pragmatist, the ruler is concerned not with the methods needed to achieve results but only with the results. If the minister lives up to his job description, he is rewarded; otherwise, punished. After a while, incompetents do not apply.

In a sense, the legalist ruler follows the Daoist injunction of nonaction: "doing nothing, yet there is nothing that is not done" (Daodejing ). And all this rests securely on the simple but basic foundation of human self-interest. Like his teacher Xunzi, Han Fei thought that human nature was evil, but unlike Xunzi, he sought not change human nature through education and training but only to establish a workable system of government built on this self-interested human nature. The legalists were strangely like the Daoists: Do not fight human nature; work with it. Even the Daoist Zhuangzi (c. 369c. 286 BCE), seems to agree with the legalist principles of management: "The superior must have no activity, so as thus to have control of events; but the subordinates must have activity, so as thus to be controlled by events. This is the invariable way" (The Zhuangzi ). The tax collector, for example, knows that he must collect taxes. If at the end of the year he has collected his allotted quota, the ruler rewards him; if not, the ruler punishes (and replaces) him. He may fail because of drought and famine, in which case, but, whether fair or unfair, he will lose his jobif not his head. In this way, the job gets done. The subordinates are controlled by events, and yet the ruler has done nothing except employ the right statecraft.

In another way, however, the legalists advocatedthe complete opposite of what the Daoists advocated. The Daoists held that human beings were completelyinnocent; the legalists that they were completely self-interested. The Daoists upheld individual freedom; the legalists, absolute social control. The Daoists regarded the legalists as shallow pragmatiststhey knew that certain methods worked, but they had no idea why they worked.


In a way, the Daoists agreed with Confucius and Mencius that the ruler needs to have fundamental knowledge of human nature. Like the Confucians but unlike the Daoists, the legalists developed a social and moral philosophy in tune with the breakdown of feudal class distinctions. The Confucians and Mohists were revolutionary and idealisticthey sought to transform human nature (or, in the case of the Mohists, at least human behavior) by developing an inner sense of right and wrong through education. In contrast, the more realistic and pragmatic legalists developed methods for controlling people with their self-interested natures.

For two millennia China's political philosophy has been a combination of openly espousing legitimizing Confucian discourse while silently employing the more pragmatic legalist methods to achieve the ruler's objectives, along with Daoist principles of not interfering in the day-to-day affairs of the vast majority of the peasant population where their affairs did not conflict with the ruler's personal objectives.

See also Chinese Philosophy: Ethics.


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H. Gene Blocker (2005)

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