Comments on Benedict Chan’s “International Animal Protection and Confucianism”
Dec 29, 2013
APCA Group Session, APA Eastern

Whether there could be a (distinctive and profitable) Confucian approach to animal rights (or animal protection as Benedict prefers to call it) is a topic worth exploring, and I would love to see Benedict’s argument be developed into its fullest form. But since at this stage Benedict’s paper remains a work-in-progress (only a very short, about-1,300-word draft as was sent to me), my comments will not be able to engage any detail of his argument, but will instead focus on the general direction he is heading. In fact, I think Benedict’s draft, while yet to be completed, is a good example for illustrating the main issues with which anyone who is interested in this approach – grounding animal protection on Confucian ideas – would have to deal. These issues, moreover, are roughly of two sorts: that of interpretive difficulty, and that of normative triviality.

1.   Interpretive Difficulty

To begin with, notice that as Benedict acknowledges: “Similar to many ancient thoughts in the world, Confucianism does not directly focus on the ethics of animals.” This leaves few choices for those who intend to find textual support for a Confucian (proto-)idea of animal protection. Indeed, everyone who does this has to cite Mencius 1A:7 (arguably the only passage seemingly relevant to this issue in early Confucian texts), and Benedict is no exception.
According to this famous passage, the King Xuan of Qi once pardoned an ox and used a goat in its stead for ritual sacrifice, because when he had seen the ox he could not bear its frightened look. While other people suspected the king did this out of stinginess (for an ox was much more expensive than a goat), Mengzi assured him that his deed had had a noble motivation:
“Don’t be hurt [by the accusation of stinginess]. [Your conduct] is a tactic of benevolence, for while you had seen the ox, you had not seen the goat. The attitude of a gentleman towards animals is this: once having seen them alive, he cannot bear to see them die, and once having heard their cry, he cannot bear to eat their flesh. That is why the gentleman stays away from the kitchen. (无伤也,是乃仁术也,见牛未见羊也。君子之于禽兽也,见其生不忍见其死,闻其声不忍食其肉,是以君子远庖厨也。)”
Understandably, it is quite tempting to take this passage as evidence that Mengzi argued for the idea of an ethical responsibility towards the animal (be it called animal rights, animal protection, or a humane treatment of animals). But unfortunately this is not the only possible interpretation. Nor prima facie the most plausible interpretation, in my opinion. On the contrary, it is arguable that this passage weighs strongly against the idea of an ethical responsibility towards the animal, rather than for it.
To see why this is the case, notice, first, that Mengzi never said that animals should be treated humanely, or be protected from being slaughtered, eaten, or whatever. Nor is it morally imperative for a gentleman to prevent cruel treatment of animals, or to refrain from enjoying their flesh. While it is (emotionally) unbearable for him to watch them die, or to eat them while their cry erewhile is still haunting in his ears, there is a simple, convenient solution to this trouble: “Stay away from the kitchen!” As long as a gentleman could manage to avoid hearing the cry, and seeing the frightened look, of slaughtered animals, he would not, and should not, be troubled by his conscience when he enjoys meat.
This might sounds like an ostrich policy, or even hypocrisy, to advocates of animal protection. But there is nothing strange or repugnant about this solution, if we follow Mengzi’s moral psychology and moral philosophy. The basic idea would go like this. (1) Compassion is essential to humanity, and is the origin of benevolence (cf. Mencius 2A:6 “无恻隐之心,非人也……恻隐之心,仁之端也”). In order to become benevolent or at least virtuous, one must take efforts to nurse and ward his sense of compassion. (2) A gentleman, who strives to be benevolent, has especially strong and extensive a sense of compassion, such that even the suffering of animals (vis-à-vis that of humans) would arouse his unease. (3) But this must be seen as a (necessary) side-effect on the gentleman’s mind by his pursuit of benevolence, since animals are not, morally speaking, the proper objects of benevolence (cf. Mencius 7A:45 “君子之于物也,爱之而弗仁……仁民而爱物” – notice that “” is a morally neutral term in Mencius), or even of compassion (see below). (4) A gentleman should, notwithstanding his compassion towards animals, manage to (re)orient his ethical attention, focusing first and foremost on the suffering of humans, rather than on that of animals. (5) “Staying away from the kitchen” is thus, for a gentleman, the most appropriate response to the suffering of animals, as it helps him concentrate on the welfare of his people, on the one hand, and at the same time saves him from (unnecessary) emotional distress (and, one might suggest, from possible desensitization, or weakening of compassion towards humans, after repeated exposure to cruelty towards animals), on the other hand. In Mengzi’s own word, this is “a tactic of benevolence (仁术)”.
Benedict would surely object to my claims (3) and (4) above. On the contrary, he speculates in his draft: “Mencius believes that all humans should extend their compassion to the principle of benevolence, and then extend it to caring and loving other people, animals, and everything in the world. This idea from Mencius is also a core idea in Confucianism. In general, Confucianism is a school of thought that tries to educate and cultivate people from realizing their compassion and benevolence to caring everything in the world, including a humane treatment to animals” (emphasis added). And he cites Mencius 2A:6 in support of this speculation.
However, Benedict’s speculation turns out to rest on a misinterpretation of Mencius 2A:6, probably resulted from reading D. C. Lau’s translation without consulting the original text. While in Lau’s version the passage is translated as “No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others” (emphasis added), given our context of discussion one should keep in mind that it actually goes as “No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of other people (人皆有不忍之心).” To reiterate: here Mengzi is talking about “不忍人之心”, not “不忍之心”.  That is, he only takes the inability to bear the suffering of other people as essential to humanity, but not the inability to bear the suffering of others, if by “others” one means to include nonhuman objects such as animals, as Benedict mistakenly does.
Moreover, this is far from an isolated text. Instead, whenever Mengzi talked about the inability to bear suffering he made it crystal clear that it was to be understood in the context of human affairs. For example, immediately following the above quoted sentence in 2A:6 he said: “先王有不忍人之心,斯有不忍人之政矣。以不忍人之心,行不忍人之政,治天下可运之掌上。所以谓人皆有不忍人之心者,今人乍见孺子将入于井,皆有怵惕恻隐之心。” And in 4A:1: “既竭心思焉,继之以不忍人之政,而仁覆天下矣。” And in 7B:77: “人皆有所不忍,达之於其所忍,仁也……人能充无欲害人之心,而仁不可胜用也” (all emphases added). In other words, while it might be natural that a man of compassion cannot bear the suffering not only of humans, but of animals as well, morally speaking only humans are the proper objects of compassion. The suffering of animals, on the other hand, has no moral or ethical relevance, but only psychological relevance at best (i.e. arousing emotional distress for anyone who is compassionate yet happens to watch them suffer, which can be easily solved, without introducing any ethical hazard, by turning his eyes away).
This is all the more evident once we pay attention to the argumentative structure of 1A:7, and situate the telling of the goat-for-ox story in its context, i.e., the rather long conversation between Mengzi and the king, of which this story is only a small part. Recall that it is Mengzi who brought up this story, as a response to the king’s question: “Can a ruler such as I protect the people? … How do you know I can? (若寡人者,可以保乎哉?……何由知吾可也?)” Symmetrically after the story, having assured the king that his substitution of the goat for the ox was a proof not of stinginess but of his innate humaneness, Mengzi criticized the king for failing to afford his humaneness first and foremost, not to animals, but to humans under his rule: “Now your kindness is sufficient to reach birds and beasts, but its benefits are not extended to the people. How is it different [from the other ridiculous examples we just mentioned]? (今恩足以及禽兽,而功不至于百姓者,独何与?)” Mengzi’s praise of the king’s humane treatment of the ox, put in the context, turned out to be only a rhetorical tactic purported to advise the king to treat his people humanely, rather than something to be generalized into a principle of ethical responsibility towards the animal.
Indeed, given the potential competition for a gentleman’s compassionate attention between  the suffering of his people (or any other human being, for that matter) on the one hand, and the suffering of animals on the other, it would arguably be in accordance with Mengzi’s argument to think it wiser to leave the humane treatment of animals as the gentleman’s spontaneous action, than to impose the principle of animal protection (or even animal rights) as a moral imperative for him to observe.
Thus anyone who looks for textual support in early Confucian canons for animal protection faces a rather difficult task in interpretation. The only early Confucian sage who talked relevantly about this topic seemed, at least prima facie, to go against this idea. The interpretations that suggest otherwise, as I have shown, either neglect the conversational context, rhetorical device and argumentative upshot of their favored passage (i.e. Mencius 1A:7), or are based on detrimental misunderstanding of related passages (as in the case of Benedict on 2A:6).
Of course, even if one accepts the anticlimactic interpretation I have sketched as an accurate one, he may still take a The-Six-Classics-Annotate-Me approach and argue that the relevant texts in Mencius could be “twisted” in a way that would ground a plausible Confucian theory of animal protection, even though doing so would go against some of Mengzi’s own (core) ideas underlying these passages. There is nothing inherently illegitimate of this approach: after all, many outdated ideas held by ancient authors ought to be abandoned by us modern minds! But then it should be acknowledged in the first place that an interpretation of Mencius cannot be both accurate and pro-animal protection.

2. Normative triviality

I certainly do not expect my own interpretation above, of the relevant passages in Mencius, to be uncontroversial. One might, for example, insist that my claim (3), that animals are not morally speaking the proper objects of compassion, is too bold an extrapolation of Mengzi’s thought to be firmly established by all the textual evidence I have provided (e.g. 2A:6, 4A:1, 7A:45, 7B:77, etc.), and that whereas there is no reason to reject my extrapolation outright, there is nonetheless no conclusive reason either to believe that Mengzi did not regard animals as, morally speaking, the proper objects of compassion. One might further argue that the fact that a gentleman necessarily cannot bear the suffering of animals is itself a (pro tanto, if not conclusive) reason for him (or even for us all human agents) to minimize their suffering as a matter of ethical responsibility. Or one might take the idea of desensitization in claim (5) seriously, holding that repeated exposure to the inhumane treatment of animals does weaken, however mildly, one’s compassion towards his fellow people, and that given a virtue-ethical interpretation of Mengzi’s moral philosophy the weakening of compassion, however mild, is as such a moral vice and should be avoided in a principled and most effective way, namely, by eliminating the inhumane treatment of animals (and therefore humans’ possibility of exposure to it) all together.
Granted, these are themselves nice ideas (and one who takes the The-Six-Classics-Annotate-Me approach may come up with some other nice ideas, upon which Mengzi would have frowned). But in order to develop and defend these ideas one must make a compelling case as to why we should opt for the pro-animal protection interpretation rather than the opposite, given the conceded lack of conclusive evidence on both sides.
And to do so means to address challenging questions such as: Should we, after all, regard animals as, morally speaking, the proper objects of compassion? How can we infer, from the fact that some of us find the suffering of animals unbearable, that we should all be compassionate towards the latter, without committing the naturalistic fallacy? Is such kind of facts reason-giving at all? Is the claim that repeated exposure to inhumane treatment of animals weakens one’s compassion towards fellow humans empirically valid, and how salient, if at all, is this effect? Even if such effect of desensitization really exists, what normative weight should we accord it in our moral deliberation on the issue of animal ethics? and so on and so forth.
Among these questions, some are substantive normative, some meta-ethical, and others empirical, but they are all recurring questions in the contemporary debate on animal protection. Moreover, due both to the acknowledged rarity of relevant Confucian texts, and (more fundamentally) to the nature of these questions (i.e., substantive, meta-ethical and/or empirical, rather than merely hermeneutical), none of the latter can be meaningfully answered by appealing to what Mengzi or any other Confucian figure have said, or have not said.
Indeed, it seems, ironically, that any attempt to justify all those nice ideas about a possible Confucian grounding for animal protection has to consist preponderantly, if not exclusively, of all-too-familiar conceptions, assumptions and arguments in contemporary moral philosophy, whereas the contribution of Confucian texts, or thoughts, to the justification of those ideas (and hence to the general debate) would be almost, if not at all, indiscernible.
This problem of normative triviality is evident throughout Benedict’s draft. For example, Benedict prefers to talk about “animal protection” rather than “animal rights,” and his reason for doing so is that “Confucianism seems quite far away from supporting animal rights.” But if we are to embrace the idea of animal protection at the expense of that of animal rights, isn’t the real issue why the former is normatively more justifiable than the latter, rather than whether the former is more compatible with a particular approach than the latter? And if we are to argue for the normative superiority of the former to the latter, Confucianism would be of no use at all. For otherwise it would be begging the question.
But the problem of normative triviality looms the largest when Benedict comes to the comparison of the Confucian approach to animal protection with “other approaches in the Western world,” such as utilitarianism, Kantianism and/or contractarianism, and the capability approach. Other than simply claiming that the Confucian approach is different from all the others, Benedict offers no argument to substantiate the claim that this really is the case, or that these differences, if any, are of normative significance. For example, whereas Benedict claims that Confucianism and Kantian contractarianism “have different reasons to support their own approaches to animal protection, and hence we should not consider them the same,” he does not, and probably cannot, spell out the exact “different reasons” the two approaches have that are normatively nontrivial.
Contrary to Benedict’s suggestion, however, it seems to me an undeniable fact that all those nice ideas sketched above that could have helped Confucians to develop their own approach to animal protection (e.g. desensitization resulted from repeated exposed to cruelty towards animals, indirect duty towards animals based on the corresponding direct duty towards human beings, instrumentally valuable versus pointless cruelty towards animals, the distinction between moral agents and moral patients, and so on) have already been developed by Kant and his followers. As a result, any remaining difference, if any, between the two approaches to animal protection would become merely residual and indeed rather trivial.
(cf. Kant, Lectures on Ethics 1997: 240: “If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.” – I highly doubt a “Confucian” advocate of animal protection, inspired by Mencius, could say anything beyond this.)
Given the fact that a Confucian approach to animal protection could contribute virtually nothing new to the contemporary theoretical debate on this issue, one who is sympathetic to this approach might aspire to argue for its normative significance on practical grounds. This is indeed what Benedict does by the end of his draft, where he suggests two practical advantages of the Confucian approach over its “Western” competitors.
The first advantage Benedict claims is that the Confucian approach is compatible with certain policy recommendations made by Horta, White, and Harriop (respective authors of three articles in Global Policy, Vol. 4, Issue 4, Nov. 2013). This is quite a bizarre claim, I have to say. For Benedict gives no reason at all as to why compatibility with what these particular authors have said matters. Nor does he even make an argument that other approaches are not compatible with these authors’ views, or that Confucianism is more compatible with their views than other approaches.
More interesting is the second practical advantage Benedict suggests. Confucianism, he thinks, “is a main school of thought in East Asia, and hence it easily solves the cultural challenge… or the debate between moral universalism and moral relativism,” which may hinder the advocacy and implementation of international animal protection.
The concern over potential cultural resistance to (allegedly “Western-imported”) “universal values” on normative issues is understandable, and my impression is that it in fact is the typical motivation among those who have tried to develop distinctively Confucian approaches to contemporary moral and political issues.
Be that as it may, the claim that cultural factors grant the Confucian approach a practical advantage over its Western counterparts is, in my opinion, illusory. For it arguably rests on an oversimplified imagery of the rather diverse and complex moral contours of contemporary East Asian societies (factors to be considered include century-long Westernization, Communist takeover and Reform-and-Opening, competing local traditions such as Shinto, Buddhism, and fast-spreading Christianity, the division between “great and little traditions” within an allegedly Confucian society, and so on), as well as an oversimplified understanding of how moral persuasion and internalization works within and across societies (for example, is it really plausible to believe that the attitude of ordinary people on a certain moral and political issue is likely to be swayed by what a new scholarly interpretation takes some ancient texts as having said on that issue?).
At the end of the day, therefore, in order for the Confucian approach to be deemed normatively significant, it cannot appeal to the dubious claim of practical utility, but should endeavor to make meaningful contributions to our theoretical understanding on the issue of animal ethics. This endeavor, as I have suggested, seems to only have a dim prospect for success, however. (But of course I may be too pessimistic about this.)