Mencius, Hume, & the Virtue of Humanity (Cross-Cultural Ethics)

I am so glad to have been asked to spend time with Carey and Vitz’s paper, “Mencius, Hume, and the Virtue of Humanity: Sources of Benevolent Moral Development.” I am already a sympathetic reader of Vitz’s take on Hume, and it has been a pleasure to see how this connects with the Confucianism of Mencius. I must admit at the outset a sympathy to the Humean psychological framework for thinking about virtue, and this paper brings into relief some of the challenges that anyone so positioned has to consider. In taking these two parallel views as offering a plausible account of how we might actually develop a virtue of humanity, I think one of the most productive lines of thought that Carey and Vitz bring forward is the cognitive means by which we are expected to direct our attention to others. They note on this point that Mencius’s view is more explicit than Hume’s, and in doing so highlight a demand for anyone aiming to promote a Humean view of our sympathy and its role in the cultivation of virtue. As primarily an historical paper, this account expounds on but does not within its bounds attempt to fully articulate what is involved in this process. They give us reason to take seriously the psychological mechanisms — and limitations — that play a role in the development of this virtue, and this paper sets out interesting conditions for anyone taking natural partiality seriously.

As a prefatory note, Carey and Vitz begin from a perspective that takes psychological concerns as central to moral theory (a perspective I share), and this entails that if morality demands more of us than our natural partiality produces, we need an explanation of how we get from this feature of our psychology to a motivationally plausible explanation for meeting these demands. Carey and Vitz intentionally note that they are not offering these readings as a kind of alternative ethical theory to present contenders, but it is worth noting that for a reader who takes a theory of the good to be less dependent on psychological limitations, Carey and Vitz are taking for granted, as Hume and Mencius do, that a virtue of humanity that demands benevolence beyond our kin requires some explanation in terms of our natural partiality.

I will begin with a synopsis of their paper and then proceed to outline three questions about their paper. The first is interpretive, the second comparative, and the third regards the substantive view that results from taking Mencius and Hume seriously.

Synopsis

Carey and Vitz set out to elucidate the moral psychology behind developing the virtue of humanity as they see it explained, largely in parallel, in Mencius and Hume. They argue that the two philosophers share very similar views on both the psychological and social development of this virtue and, to a lesser extent, its cognitive sources. Their goals are to show that these philosophers offer similar accounts, and in doing so to draw attention what they take to be a promisingly plausible and theoretically advancing account of how we could develop a virtue of humanity.

Psychological sources

Carey and Vitz argue that for Mencius, the psychological origin of the virtue of humanity or benevolence (rén) is our natural compassion for others. If we see a child about to fall into a well, Mencius argues, we feel compassion for the child; this compassion leads us to help the child, and the motivation is not reducible either to our own sympathetic pain (which could just as easily lead us to divert our attention) or a desire for esteem. They paraphrase Meyong-seok Kim to show that this compassion is both a feeling with and a feeling for the child (Kim 2010). This natural inclination, with proper cultivation, can be developed into the broader virtue of humanity.

In articulating Hume’s view of the psychological background for this virtue, they make an interpretive distinction between what Hume calls the principle of humanity, which is a natural disposition, and the virtue of humanity, which requires cultivation. They note an ambiguity in Hume as to whether it is the principle of humanity or the principle of sympathy that first motivates us to intervene to prevent another’s suffering; whereas some scholars, as they note, see a distinction between Hume’s Treatise and the Second Enquiry regarding these two concepts, Carey and Vitz suggest that there is continuity to be found in seeing both as playing an important role for developing the virtue of humanity. On their account, the principle of sympathy brings us to feel with a person, and the principle of humanity to feel for them.

Social sources

Carey and Vitz then argue (Section 2) that Mencius’ compassion or Hume’s sympathy can plausibly develop into the virtue of humanity. This section takes on the interpretively significant challenge of explaining why these philosophers embrace aspects of our natural partiality. The view Mencius holds, so they argue, is that true impartiality is psychologically impossible. Just as natural compassion builds to the virtue of humanity psychologically, so natural familiar partiality builds to the virtue socially. A necessary first step in developing the virtue of humanity is developing filial piety. The virtuous person is never impartially benevolent, but instead is able to extend their partial benevolence universally. (More on this later.)

Hume likewise takes familial relationships to be paradigmatic of virtue. “Hume, like Mencius, maintains that human concern ought to be both partial and wide in scope. Hence, although people are naturally partial to their family and friends, the concern of a humane and benevolent person can and ought to extend well beyond that narrow scope” (p.13). We are expected to be fair and kind, they note, to all with whom we interact, while maintaining some natural partiality (the lack of which would be blameworthy). In his argument that justice is an artificial virtue, Hume notably claims that there is no “universal affection to mankind” in human nature (T 3.2.1.12) — no feeling of impartial benevolence — and Carey and Vitz’s account describes a means to broadening the scope of our partial benevolence in spite of this psychological limitation.

Cognitive sources

Up to this point we have seen the psychological and social mechanisms by which our natural feelings toward others can be expanded, but we have not yet seen an account from either Mencius or Hume about how we check our natural and sometimes overly strong partial motives against the demands of the virtue of humanity more broadly. In Section 3, the authors outline the cognitive sources for this virtue. For Mencius, they argue, this source is via the concepts of , “focused attentiveness on a subject,” and shu, “a cognitive capacity to extend one’s innate ability to feel compassion for others and, consequently, to behave towards them humanely, or benevolently” (p.16). By reflecting on moments such as a surprising feeling of sympathy, we can recognize our potential for compassion, and by specifically considering the feelings of others we develop our “sympathetic understanding” (p.17).

Carey and Vitz suggest that their reading of this cognitive resource in Hume requires more speculation: “although it is not explicit in his moral philosophy, one can reasonably infer that Hume is committed to affirming that people need to learn to fix their attention on the details of the suffering of others in order to extend the scope of their concern from more partial interests in, e.g., the members of their family-society to more public interests in the members of society at large” (p.19). Like Mencius, they argue that on Hume’s account viewing the plight of others in lively detail or with focused attention is a means for expanding our partial sentiments to have a universal scope.

Commentary

This paper brings to the fore several noteworthy elements of the shared moral psychology between these two philosophers. They make a strong case that neither thinks virtue is impartial (and this distinguishes Mencius from other Confucians). Furthermore, not only does each think that partiality is psychologically inescapable—that we cannot actually feel impartial benevolence—but that it is also essential for the development of virtue. I confess to a bias in thinking that these claims are especially important in understanding Hume’s theory, and it is interesting to see similar arguments in Mencius. Despite my general sympathy in this reading, I think there are a few argumentative moves that warrant more discussion.

(1) I will begin with a minor question. I do not follow their paraphrasing of Kim in the argument that compassion, for Mencius, entails feeling both with and for. As Carey and Vitz state it, “to say that people’s hearts are ‘not unfeeling’ is to say that people’s hearts are not able to endure the suffering of others” (p.5). I treat this point as minor since I suspect the issue is clearer in the full Kim article and that my unfamiliarity with the Chinese language is affecting my understanding of the nuance. However, it’s not clear to me that the inability to endure the suffering of others will get us farther than the problematic response that we might “turn away in fear or revulsion” that they are trying to avoid (p.4). I would like to hear more from the authors on this key interpretive point.

(2) In their discussion of Hume’s principles of humanity and sympathy, I draw the reader’s attention to a notable difference between Hume and Mencius. Carey and Vitz argue that sympathy is our means for feeling with a stranger and humanity our means of feeling for They argue that whereas in cases of partial affection we can get to the feeling for without a prerequisite of sympathy (one doesn’t need to feel sympathy for one’s children in order to feel for them), that in the cases of broader benevolence or humanity the psychological ability to sympathize is required in order for us to have the feeling for others that develops into a virtue of humanity. (In the full picture, including the cognitive elements, we will need sympathy + humanity + cultivation, the last of which includes social circumstances and proper attention.) On this point, it would also be interesting to examine why Hume thinks there are two different principles operating here where Mencius only identified one. Regarding the aim to make these views plausible from the perspective of human psychology, it seems an important consideration whether there is one affective source or two required for cultivating this virtue.

(3) A third question is a broader interpretive question about the view Carey and Vitz suggest is shared here. Taking these two accounts of how we develop a virtue of humanity as similar and psychologically interesting, which Carey and Vitz invite us to do, there is still a question of what it means to possess this virtue. Mencius says we “extend these [partial benevolent affections] to the world,” hence the conclusion that our benevolence be universal. But though it is universal in scope, our benevolence is never impartial. I understand this to mean that we have the capacity—and, it seems, an obligation—to extend our benevolence to anyone whose plight is made known to us, as well as some obligation to sensitize ourselves such that we become more knowledgeable about the plights of others, but we don’t as a matter of fact have equal feelings of benevolence toward every human being. It also seems to follow that we will not necessarily feel benevolence toward everyone as strongly as we feel it toward our kin, even though we recognize at times that we have to correct for these biases. It is also supposed to be vicious to disregard the natural partial affections we ought to have. In what ways, then, are we treating people universally? The actual demands of the virtue of humanity seem unclear to me; it seems that we are expected to be kind, caring, and fair to all whom we encounter while maintaining some degree of partiality, but by itself this picture leaves a lot of detail to be filled in. In particular, in cases of conflict between partial affections and benevolence toward others, if impartiality is both impossible and discouraged, what are the appropriate and inappropriate moral weights we give to our kin? To put it more starkly, how does natural partiality plus sympathy with others get us beyond very basic kindness, when it doesn’t conflict with our partial interests too strongly? The sense of the “universality” that the virtue of humanity demands may lack some force without a demand for impartiality. This is a consequence embraced by those who take partialism seriously (as I do), but I find the claim that our benevolence becomes universal to be rather hollow. I hope Carey and Vitz will have more to say in conversation about this problem, but I see the challenge as one that goes beyond the scope of their paper and one worth taking up in its own right.

— Erin Frykholm (University of Kansas)

  • Hume, David. 2000. A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Kim, Myeong-seok. 2010. “What Cèyǐn zhī xīn (Compassion/Familial Affection) Really Is.” Dao 9: 407-425.

 

 

6 Replies to “Mencius, Hume, & the Virtue of Humanity (Cross-Cultural Ethics)

  1. Hi all,
    I really enjoyed both Carey and Vitz’s original paper and Frykholm’s discussion of it. Recently, I’ve been working on a comparison of Hume and Adam Smith’s characterizations of the virtue of humanity, and attending to Mengzi’s account opens up new possibilities for some interesting philosophical triangulation.

    I must admit (and here I think may just be echoing something in Frykholm’s remarks) that one thing Mengzi and Hume’s accounts seem have in common is a kind of fuzziness or waffling about the role that sympathy (by which I will here mean feeling with) is supposed to play in generating the virtue of humanity. Take Mengzi first. Cary and Vitz, approvingly citing Kim, offer the following picture of how humanity gets going: “On Kim’s account, Mencius conceives of ‘compassion’ (cèyǐn, 惻隱) not simply as a kind of affective contagion, by which the spectator at the well feels with the child in danger, but as what Roberts refers to as a concern-based construal, such that the spectator feels for the child… Mencius is using the phrase bùrěnrén zhī xīn (不忍人之心) interchangeably with cèyǐn zhī xīn (惻隱之心) such that to say that people’s hearts are “not unfeeling” is to say that people’s hearts are not able to endure the suffering of others. In other words, it is the conjunction of these two aspects of compassion, both feeling with and feeling for others, that motivates the spectator to act benevolently on the child’s behalf… this occurrent compound feeling of compassion constitutes a motive to act benevolently on the child’s behalf.”

    Now, it would be one thing to say that compassion (or at least the part of compassion that matters for benevolent motivation) just is feeling for, rather than feeling with—that’s where I initially thought Kim was going, at least. But Cary and Vitz seem to want to maintain that compassion is a compound, and that both elements of the compound matter for benevolent orientation. The mystery, for me, is precisely what work the former element of this compound is supposed to be doing for us. I would like a clearer explanation of how we get from the thought that feeling with and feeling for are as a matter of fact often (or always!) bundled together (as in the child-in-the-well case) to the thought that feeling with, as distinct from feeling for, itself makes an important contribution to our benevolent motivation. Why is it not just the feeling for that matters? Is the thought perhaps that feeling with plays a role in making feeling for possible? If so, how so?

    Hume seems (at least if we read the T and the SE together, as proffering a single picture) to think that sympathy and the principle of humanity jointly contribute to the production of the virtue of humanity. But here too we have a mystery. C and V summarize Hume’s view: “First, every human being has a principle of sympathy by which they feel with others and, thus, is capable of giving rise to pro-social sentiments. Second, every human being has a principle of humanity that is naturally disposed to feel compassion for people in need. Third, these principles are ordered such that upon the presentation of a person who is in distress, like Hume’s man asleep in the field or Mencius’s child at the well, every human being would have an occurrent feeling both with and for the person. Fourth, this occurrent compound sentiment – that is, of feeling both with and for a person in need – constitutes a motive for people to act benevolently on behalf of others.” Again we have the compound, and again I wonder: what work does the feeling with do, exactly? We could say that the feeling with just performs a critical epistemic function: by informing us of the other’s situation, it supplies the principle of humanity with the minor premise it needs in order to generate a particular benevolent intention. I wonder if C and V would accept this suggestion.

    I also wonder if this would be the right way of understanding the function of Mengzi’s shu, “the ability to … imaginatively [put] oneself in the place of another.” Is it best understood as simply providing us with information about the other’s experience, information which is in itself morally neutral, but which helps to inform (and thereby extend) our pre-existing compassion? I suspect that this is not right. But then, what alternative realistic understanding of shu’s function is available to us?

  2. Thanks for the wonderful paper! I have a quick textual question that is related to Frykholm’s point (1): Why translating 不忍人之心 as the heart of unfeeling? (We do see this translation everywhere.) What is the commentary support for this translation? It seems that according to 趙岐 (one of the earliest commentators on Mencius) the phrase 不忍人之心 means 不忍加惡于人之心也 which means straightforwardly one cannot bear to hurt others. 赵岐 carries this commentary of 不忍人 through the whole passage and mentioned the policies of the sage kings are policies that would not bear harming the people, so this couldn’t be a casual comment on the text. If 不忍人之心 is indeed “the heart that cannot bear hurting other people” it seems to suggest that Mencius is not using 不忍人之心 and 恻隐之心 interchangeably as Kim argues, In fact, he didn’t mention “feeling with” anywhere in the passage. He is talking about (1) in the case of 不忍人之心, the heart that cannot bear hurting other people, and (2) in the case of 恻隐之心 the heart of feeling for somebody.

  3. Let me begin by doing two things.

    First, I’d like to express my gratitude to Jeremiah for being willing to co-author the paper, to Brad for organizing this discussion, and to Erin for starting us off with an excellent set of comments. Thank you, All. And thank you, Olivia and Wenqing, for being the first to weigh in. This promises to be very helpful not only for my thinking through the issues in our BJHP article on Hume and Mencius, but also for my current sabbatical research on similar issues in Hume and classical Confucianism more broadly!

    Second, I’d like to offer a methodological clarification that might help to keep the conversation focused. In replying, I will try to distinguish between interpretive issues and evaluative issues. The former focus on the extent to which Jeremiah and I have accurately represented the views that Mencius and Hume present in their respective texts. The latter focus on the extent to which the views of Mencius, of Hume, or of both accurately describe human psychology, identify moral obligations, and so forth.

    With that in mind, let’s get started!

    THE CHILD AT THE WELL / THE MAN ASLEEP IN THE FIELD: In response to our exposition of Mencius’s famous example of the child at the well (Mengzi 2A6), Erin suggests that it is unclear why our alleged inability to endure the suffering of others would actually lead to a benevolent, or humane, response as opposed, for example, to a person turning away in fear or revulsion. (To avoid confusion, readers of Hume, note that we are using the term “benevolence,” which is used to translate “ren,” to refer to what Hume would call “humanity” – hence the phrasing in the last sentence.)

    Regarding the interpretative aspect of this issue, I take it that Mencius is using this example in the same way that Hume uses the case of the man who is asleep in a field and in danger of being trod under foot by horses. In each case, the point is to highlight the fact that human beings have a “principle,” or faculty, by which they can “enter into” the present or future sufferings of another and that they are capable of doing so, as Hume says, “with so vivid a conception as to make it our own concern” (T 2.2.9.13). Thus, as I read them, Mencius and Hume are merely trying to show that human beings are naturally capable of benevolent, or humane, motives and actions. That might be sufficient if Erin’s concern were principally interpretive, but as I understand her comments, that is not the principal concern. Rather, it is with an evaluative aspect of this issue: namely, it is reasonable to think that many people would not respond even to these allegedly paradigmatic cases in the way that Mencius and Hume suggest. And given how significant these cases are supposed to be, it looks like Mencius and Hume are, at the very least, building on a bad foundation.

    Assuming I’ve represented Erin’s concern accurately (and, Erin, please let me know if I haven’t), I think there is a reasonable line of reply available to Mencius and Hume. Neither philosopher needs a particular paradigmatic case that is free from plausible counterexamples. Rather, what each needs is to show that there is a kind of case that, other things being equal, would motivate a person to act benevolently, or humanely, towards a stranger. I’m inclined to think that each succeeds in that regard. That said, it’s important to note that each undervalues differences in human cognitive-affective development, which suggest that we need a richer, more nuanced, and more pluralistic account of moral psychology. So, in my estimation, their work is helpful and suggestive but incomplete.

    SYMPATHY/COMPASSION, HUMANITY/BENEVOLENCE, AND SHU: In response to our presentation of sympathy and humanity, Erin and Olivia raise a number of important concerns.

    Olivia suggests that Jeremiah and I seem to want to maintain that Mencian compassion, or Humean sympathy (“extensive sympathy” given the case in question), is a complex affective-motivational state consisting both of feeling with and feeling for another person. She also suggests that Hume “seems … to think that sympathy and the principle of humanity jointly contribute to the production of the virtue of humanity.” Provided that “sympathy” in the latter point refers to the principle of sympathy, I am in agreement.

    Following each of these interpretive points, Olivia raises an important evaluative puzzle. Regarding her first point, she asks, “Why is it not just the feeling for that matters? Is the thought perhaps that feeling with plays a role in making feeling for possible? If so, how so?” These are great questions, which I appreciate very much since I feel as if I am still working them out!

    To answer, it might be helpful to address the related issue that Olivia raises in her third point regarding the nature of shu. Mencius recognizes that there can be multiple motives for performing benevolent, or humane, actions. One is compassion – a more affective, less cognitive-reflective motive consisting of two co-occurrent passions, feeling with and feeling for some other person. Another is shu – a less affective, more cognitive-reflective motive that involves two temporally separable passions, feeling with and feeling for some other person. For those more familiar with Hume, think of the distinction between “more affective” and “less affective” as similar to Hume’s distinction between passions that are “violent” and those that are “calm.” One might wonder why we would characterize shu as affective rather than merely cognitive – i.e., simply as a kind of rational perspective taking. The reason is that on the classical Chinese conception, compassion and shu are ultimately both operations of the heart-mind (xin), which is inherently both cognitive and affective. (There appears to be a similarity between Mencius and Hume on his point as well, but it is not one we develop in the paper.)

    So, summing up this brief, and admittedly speculative, response to Olivia’s first and third points: In the case of Mencian compassion (as in the case of the “extensive sympathy” of Book II of Hume’s Treatise), feeling with and feeling for are conceptually distinct aspects of a single complex affective-motivational state. And in the case of shu, feeling with and feeling for are temporally separable and qualitatively different aspects, possibly even different events, in a complex affective-motivational process. Of these two, compassion has an explanatory as well as a pedagogical primacy.

    This reply to Olivia’s first and third points should also help to provide at least an initial reply to her second point, regarding whether feeling with performs an epistemic function. Given the way that both Mencius and Hume understand the nature of the human cognitive-affective instrument, feeling with would do more than merely provide the principle of humanity with a minor premise to generate a benevolent intention.

    I have already gone much longer than I’d hoped. So, let me close by offering a brief comment on Erin’s second point, regarding the principles of sympathy and humanity. Erin suggests that “it would also be interesting to examine why Hume thinks there are two different principles operating here where Mencius only identified one.” This is an interesting question. As an interpretive issue, I’m not sure whether we should characterize it quite this way given Hume’s rather inconsistent use of the terms “sympathy” and “humanity” both in the Treatise and in the second Enquiry. But as an evaluative issue, which I take it is Erin’s principal concern, I think she is quite right.

    That seems like more than enough for now. Time permitting, I will coordinate with Jeremiah in the hope of clarifying what I’ve said so far (as needed), offering replies to Erin’s third point, and responding to Wenqing’s question within the next 24 hours or so.

    This is both fun and extremely helpful. Thank you!

  4. Hi All,

    Thanks for the interesting paper and great precis! As someone who is interested in these historical figures but no expert, I have a general question about how we should understand and explain the development of virtuous sympathy and benevolence *within* partialitist contexts (friendships, parent-child relationships, etc). This is not the paper’s focus but I think it might be related and would love to benefit from people’s input.

    To see the kinds of issues that I have in mind, consider the following passage from the core Confucian text called “The Great Learning” (Daxue):

    “Men are partial where they feel affection and love; partial where they despise and dislike; partial where they stand in awe and reverence; partial where they feel sorrow and compassion; partial where they are arrogant and rude. Thus it is that there are few men in the world, who love and at the same time know the bad qualities of the object of their love or who hate and yet know the excellences of the object of their hatred.” (using Legge trans. because its easy to copy and paste on-line)

    As this text suggests, I believe (a) that our natural sympathy or benevolence for our near and dear (and those we admire) can blind us to their bad qualities and (b) that (for this reason and others) virtue requires us to in some way combat, regulate, or transform our natural sympathy and benevolence in order to be good parents, friends, and citizens. And this brings me to three questions.

    (1) Are there places where Hume and Mencius discuss these issues?
    (2) What methods or resources do (or could) Mencius and Hume posit to combat, regulate, or transform our natural sympathy in order for us to inhabit our “partialist” roles and relationships well? Does the general point of view play a role for Hume? How about the artificial virtue of justice or something else? Might Mencius appeal to the natural or developed sprouts of wisdom and shame? Does ritual, shu (roughly calm, empathic perspective taking), or something else, have a role to play here?
    (3) Given that both Hume and Mencius hold that the virtue of humanity grows out of the benevolence we find in good families and between good friends, can we learn anything about how to develop the virtue of humanity in general (i.e. for strangers) from the story of how natural sympathy must be combated, regulated, or transformed in order to instantiate virtue in partialist contexts? One thought here is that if we aim to extend our sympathy and benevolence from partial contexts out to the rest of the world, it better be the corrected kind; we do not want, for example, to start developing blindness to “the bad qualities” of the objects of our generalized sympathy and benevolence. But perhaps there are other effects too.

  5. Hi All,
    I’m going to weigh in quickly here to clarify my original point. The discussion here has helped clarify my thinking on this issue (my point (1)). I take the concern that Mencius is interested in to be to show that we do, in fact, feel for and not merely with others; though feeling with might make us uncomfortable and could lead us merely to turn away, that in fact we also feel for them and act to alleviate their pain. My question was how we got from the claim that we cannot endure the suffering of others to the claim that we feel for them—not being able to endure their suffering is compatible with my intentionally ignoring their suffering, turning away and distancing myself. Wenqing’s suggestion goes beyond my knowledge of the text but if he’s right then I think that translation establishes what I was asking to have established—Mencius is not merely claiming that we cannot bear observing the pain of others, instead he is claiming that we cannot bear to play a role (even passive, I take it) in allowing their suffering (by, for example, turning away).
    Olivia’s comments press on this from the other side in a way I think is interesting—why think the sympathy is essential at all? Why not merely establish that we feel for others and act to help them? I think the answer to this will reinforce the psychological significance of our natural partiality.

  6. Alright, let’s get back to work.

    UNIVERSALITY: Towards the end of her comments, Erin says, “The sense of the ‘universality’ that the virtue of humanity demands may lack some force without a demand for impartiality. This is a consequence embraced by those who take partialism seriously (as I do), but I find the claim that our benevolence becomes universal to be rather hollow.” This strikes me as a reasonable concern. Offering a plausible interpretation of the positions of Mencius and Hume on the virtue of humanity is an accomplishment. But we may rightly ask next, “What, if anything, can we learn from these views about how we ought to live?”

    So, as I understand it, the principal question before us now is how to fill in the details regarding the obligations of humanity. In particular, the question concerns how to balance our narrow and inherently partial obligations with our broad and, in principle, universal obligations.

    Erin suggests that it seems the virtue of humanity might entail an obligation (1) “to extend our benevolence to anyone whose plight is made known to us” and (2) “some obligation to sensitize ourselves such that we become more knowledgeable about the plights of others.”

    My initial reaction is to think that Mencius and Hume would be *moderately skeptical* to both suggestions. Why? The obligations of humanity are principally obligations to care for others, and Mencius and Hume seem to view caring for others as a collective enterprise in which people have different roles relative, e.g., to the five great human relationships, to the “narrow circle” in which a person moves, etc. So, it wouldn’t *necessarily* be the case that being aware of the plight of one person would entail an obligation for another, especially if tending to the plight of the suffering person was a role obligation imposed on some third party by the position that person held with respect to the person who was suffering. For instance, if Erin learns that my son has the flu, that wouldn’t *necessarily* entail any obligations for Erin since I have special role obligations to tend to the needs of my own children. And, for similar reasons, it wouldn’t necessarily be the case that humanity required people to sensitize themselves such that they became more knowledgeable about the plights of others. For instance, it doesn’t seem that humanity would *necessarily* require me to pursue knowledge of the health of my neighbors’ children. Thus, in essence, Mencius and Hume seem to be offering an ethics of “common life” that wouldn’t *necessarily* require addressing the concerns that Erin raises, at least as such.

    At this point, there’s likely a risk of the conversation going awry, so let me clarify exactly what it is that I am denying. I am not denying that Mencius and Hume claim, rightly, that we have obligations to extend our benevolence. Nor am I denying that Mencius and Hume claim, rightly, that these obligations may require us to become more knowledge of the plights of others. Mencius, in particular, makes this very point in his discussion with King Xuan of Qi (Mengzi 1A7). Rather, what I am denying is that we should try to consider how to do these things without recognizing that caring is a collective enterprise and, consequently, without taking into account role-obligations within this collective enterprise. So, what I am trying to do (in a related spirit of seeing epistemology as a collective enterprise) is to suggest that we need to find a more nuanced way to formulate the important and insightful questions that Erin is raising — for which I am sincerely grateful.

    At this moment, I don’t have a specific idea of how we might do this well. But I certainly feel the need, and I will be thinking of how to do so as I continue both this discussion as well as my work on current sabbatical research Hume and classical Confucianism. So, I’d welcome thoughts others have on how we might formulate these questions in a more nuanced manner.

    Now, I’m off to tend to some role obligations of my own regarding two of the five great human relationships: husband and wife, and parent and child. I’ll try to return to the conversation over the weekend, as time allows, to reply to Wenqing and then to Brad.

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