Response to Rodney Taylor, "Of Animals and Man: The Confucian Perspective"

Conference on Religion and Animals
Harvard-Yenching Institute
Cambridge, Mass.

Joseph A. Adler
May 21, 1999

Rodney Taylor has given us a very succinct review of the most salient points in the Confucian tradition that speak to the issues surrounding humans' relationship with animals. What we see in the texts he has selected is a "widening circle of concern" (to use Andrew Rowan's phrase) from a nearly exclusive interest in the human ethico-political sphere to a strong sense of being embedded in a matrix of natural relations with all that exists (not only sentient beings). The Confucian tradition is therefore a good potential source of insight into how we may conceptualize our relations with other animals, although there are, as with all traditions, some ambiguities that cannot be ignored. To begin, I will briefly summarize the key moments in the process by which the Confucian worldview expanded beyond the boundaries of the human, socio-political sphere.

It must first be acknowledged that Confucius, the reluctant founder-figure who was forever after regarded as the Sage among Sages, left us very little that is useful in this regard. For him, animals seemed not even to be on the map; they did not register on his moral compass. "One cannot herd with birds and beasts. If I am not to be a man among other men, then what am I to be?" (Analects 18:6, trans. Arthur Waley). However, his influential follower Mencius said that kindness or love (ai) should be extended to all things (Mencius 7A:45). This was based on his principle that the "inability to bear the suffering of others" (including animals) is in fact the distinguishing characteristic of the human species. It was also consistent with the greater awareness of and appreciation for the natural world that we see in Mencius.

The Neo-Confucians of the Sung dynasty developed Mencius' views in terms of the metaphysics of li (principle or order) and ch'i (the psycho-physical substrate of all existing things), claiming that humans constitute "one body" with all things. Nevertheless, this was rarely expressed as specific recommendations for moral action. Wang Yang-ming, in the Ming dynasty, did take it further in saying that the only true knowledge of our non-dualistic relationship with the natural world would be the active love of all things; true knowledge is action. And the Japanese Confucian scholar Kaibara Ekken, in the Tokugawa period, translated this into explicit recommendations against mistreatment of animals and plants, which he construed as "serving Heaven" (from Mencius 7A:1), thus placing humane treatment of animals in a clearly religious context.

One of the more interesting points of Taylor's paper is his account of Okada Takehiko, the eminent contemporary Japanese Confucian scholar, who readily sees the applicability of the "one body" doctrine to human relationships with animals and the natural world, but is somewhat surprised by the question. This illustrates a feature of the Confucian tradition that we can identify throughout its history: that even though the environmental-friendly principles are clearly present in the texts, they have always been far overshadowed by the traditional focus on the human sphere, even to this day.

Yet, despite this evident and undeniable anthropocentrism, the task of identifying and selecting for special emphasis those ideas and values in the Confucian tradition that can make a positive contribution to environmental ethics and animal rights is not at all difficult. This is because Confucianism is entirely unencumbered by a dualistic metaphysics. On the one hand, ch'i, the substrate of all that exists, comprehends the Western categories of matter, energy, mind and spirit. On the other hand, the natural order (t'ien-li) is also a moral order (tao-li): li in general, or principle/order, is precisely the sum of these two meanings. Thus in Confucian thought there are fewer philosophical problems connected with the first principle of the Earth Charter draft, which acknowledges the inherent value of non-human animals. In the Biblical traditions, while the natural world is valuable because it is God's creation, this very position implies that it lacks inherent value.

The problem that does loom large in the Confucian tradition is its anthropocentrism, the traditional Confucian view of human beings as the "highest" form of life. This is analogous, perhaps, to the Biblical claim that human beings have "dominion" over the rest of nature. But as we heard from Dan Cohn-Sherbock, "dominion" does not necessarily imply a lack of responsibility for the welfare of the natural world. Similarly, the Confucian view of hierarchy involves mutual obligations on the part of both superior and inferior. The Confucian ruler, according to Mencius, is a humane ruler, whose first responsibility is to feed, clothe, and protect his people; only then can he expect them to have the "leisure space" to develop their own moral potentials. In fact, the superior person becomes a superior person by helping others to realize their own potentials (Analects 6:30). The superior person is an agent of moral transformation for others and for him/herself. The morally superior person, or the Sage, is thus the crucial agent by which the moral potential inherent in the natural world comes to be realized or actualized. This is the sense in which human beings are unique among living species and occupy a special place in the natural/moral order - and it is not inconsistent with a fully humane attitude towards other animals. In fact, it is interesting to note that the word "humane," which we commonly use in reference to our treatment of animals, also happens to be the best translation of the cardinal Confucian virtue, jen, which is cognate with the homophonous word for "human being." Both the Mencius and the Doctrine of the Mean say that "To be human is to be humane." That is, to develop or cultivate the inherent sensitivity to the suffering of other living beings is to become fully human and to "serve Heaven."

Now that Confucianism has begun to interact philosophically with Western and other world traditions, we need to ask: To what extent would the Confucian resources that have been identified here (and in Confucianism and Ecology) be recognizable by those within the tradition? Are we engaged in a kind of cultural imperialism by using the tradition in a way that (with a few exceptions) did not arise indigenously?

In my view, the application of Confucian ideas to new problems in new ways is not a misuse of the tradition. Rather it is a creative adaptation to a changing cultural environment, and thereby signals the vitality of the tradition. Just as genetic variability in a gene pool increases a species chances of adapting successfully to a changing natural environment, we are seeing in Confucianism the expression of what we may call "recessive" traits which are only now becoming recognized for their adaptive value. And the fact that much of the impetus for this expression has come from Western scholars and Chinese scholars trained in the West does not compromise the validity or authenticity of this response. To say otherwise would be to essentialize the Confucian tradition. It would also ignore the fact that living traditions remain vital precisely because of their ability to respond creatively to stimuli from other traditions by absorbing or responding to new elements, questions, and agendas.