Steve Watson


      Information: Opinions: My Opinion



Confucians can torture


I asked Sam Crane at Useless Tree:


Are there, in fact, any arguments against torture in Chinese philosophy that aren't basically utilitarian? If there aren't, then could there have been? In Western philosophy our arguments are usually from appeal to various notions of 'human rights', but that wouldn't be possible for the Chinese sages. Other arguments are from the harm done to the character of the torturers: i.e. you don't want to be the sort of person who does that, so it's morally impermissible for you to do so. Is it possible to run such an argument in the Chinese context? Has it ever been done?

His reply was to the effect that a Mencian interpretation would require that "The noble-minded, who conscientiously cultivate their appetite for Duty and Humanity, are obviously most repelled at the thought of the suffering of others.  Thus, the noble-minded would not take up torture..." I found this doubtful and sent the following reply, which I think might be interesting.


I think the arguments that you give are likely to be the sort that a Confucian sage would give on this topic if he wanted to argue against torture, and I think you’re right that he would have a preference for not torturing, but I doubt that that preference could be extended to a blanket prohibition against torture – at least, not on the grounds you give. Your proposed argument appeals to the limits placed on a man’s possible behaviours by his ren, and no-one doubts that there are such limits, but I think that even fully-developed ren cannot play the role that you want it to play of erecting impassable barriers against some forms of behaviour.


It’s reasonable enough to suppose that on the Mencian understanding of human nature, torture would offend against the compassionate element of human nature that allows us to feel empathy (for the child in the well, for example.) Also, it is right and proper to nurture this aspect of our human nature, for it is the seed that grows into ren (“The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence” (2A.6)) and ren is one of the virtues. Now, Mencius wants us to develop this ren as far as we can, to make us noble, from which it follows that the truly noble man is one who is truly compassionate; but your claim would then be that no truly compassionate person could bring themselves to cause pain to another, and that therefore torture would be effectively absolutely prohibited. This, I think, does not follow.


Ren cannot be just free-floating compassion. To be a virtue it has to be expressed according to the li. If there are cases where, according to the li, the appropriate way to show ren involves causing some pain or even killing, then it couldn’t be the Mencian position that causing pain was never the right thing to do; and that opens the door to a possible justification for torture *in some cases*. So the question now is, do the li ever call for such a thing? I think that, given the widespread acceptance of punishment in Chinese society, we’d have to say that the traditions did encompass the inflicting of pain as part of the pattern of behaviours that contributes to a harmonious society. Those traditions are the li.


So I don’t think that “Don’t do what should not be done, and don’t desire what should not be desired” is going to give us the blanket prohibition that you suggest, because it leaves it up to an interpretation of the li what it actually is that should or should not be done, and the li may well allow us (or demand of us) that we inflict pain.


One way (the only way that I can think of offhand) to deny that this mediation of ren through li has the consequence I am suggesting, would be to claim that the only cases in which inflicting pain was according to the li involved it being inflicted by a superior upon an inferior, and that Mencius thought that the noble character aspired to treat all men as social equals. All relations then would be relations like friendship – and in no circumstances is it proper for a friend to cause pain to a friend. But could such a claim be supported? I doubt it; because it would mean that Mencius had taken up the position of the Mohists, and he was pretty clear elsewhere (e.g. 3B.9) that Mohism was wrong on just this point.


There’s one other thing that might be relevant. This conversation started with a consideration of the proper treatment of prisoners of war; but what is their place in the Confucian division of society? Which one of the five fundamental relationships covers the captive enemy soldier and his captor. I would guess that it would be the sovereign-subject relationship, but I don’t know. If the relationship was not covered at all, or not recognised in the li, then the Confucian would have no guidelines at all as to the proper behaviour.