In his chapter on Kings, Xunzi give us what A. C. Graham calls a ‘chain of being’. In the Burton Watson translation passage goes like this:
Fire and water possess energy [qi] but are without life. Grass and trees have life but no intelligence [zhi]. Beasts have intelligence but no sense of duty [yi]. Man possesses energy, life, intelligence, and, in addition, a sense of duty. Therefore he is the noblest being on earth. He is not as strong as the ox, nor as swift as the horse, and yet he makes the ox and the horse work him. Why? Because he is able to organize himself in society and they are not. Why is he able to organize himself in society? Because he sets up hierarchical divisions. And how is he able to set up hierarchical divisions? Because he has a sense of duty. If he employs this sense of duty then there will be harmony; where there is harmony there will be unity; where there is unity there will be strength; where there is strength, there will be the power to conquer all things. (48-49)
(Yi is rendered as “morality” by Graham; “righteousness” is more typical, with “appropriateness” also being fairly common. Graham uses “association” rather than “society”. Another translation I’ve seen has “community.” Instead of “hierarchical divisions” Graham has “apportioning”, while the third the more egalitarian sounding “social divisions.” This last translation also uses “awareness” instead of “knowledge” as a translation of zhi as applied to animals.)
II take the upshot to be that a (the?) distinguishing mark of humans is our ability to organize our lives and coordinate our actions to standards rooted in a distinctly human sense of propriety. Putting it the broader Confucian context, this would be rooted in patterns of deference in the context of specific and often familial roles.
There are a few intriguing things about this passage. Consider Xunzi’s contrast between beasts and humans. Putting it into more contemporary language, I take it that Xunzi is willing to cede a certain degree of cognitive continuity between humans and (at least some) animals. The distinguishing characteristic of humans, then, that feature of their cognitive endowments that allow them to act of out of moral propriety. What would this be exactly?
Here’s a thought, half baked even by my standards: let’s take this back to Mencius and his four sprouts (si duan), the preservation and proper development of which is the basis on which Mencius would distinguish humans from beasts. The four sprouts are feelings–lit. xin, or heart-mind, or in this context “a heart that feels/thinks….”. Each of these is tied by Mencius to a specific virtue. The feelings are compassion, shame, modesty or deference, and approval/disapproval, which are tied respectively to ren, yi, li and zhi. Now, my thought for the moment is that despite their supposed disagreement about human nature (ren xing), Mencius and Xunzi can be used to supplement one another here. So, Menicus’ four sprouts may be an answer to the question of what gets us from (mere) animal intelligence to yi.
But I think Xunzi can help Mencius too. A question I’ve had about Mencius is what exactly happens to compassion to turn it into ren, or more generally what is the nature of the gap between the sprouts and the full grown virtues? I’ve often assumed the answer has something to do with cognitive growth–roughly, ren is compassion that is more informed by some kind of intelligence that enables it to be expressed in more effective and appropriate ways. It seems this answer may get some support if we embed Mencius’ picture in Xunzi’s chain of being. A second way in which Mencius may get some help from Xunzi here in his more overtly social and communicative moral psychology. Though corrected if we take things in context, Mencius’ moral psychology is strikingly individualistic in its immediate concerns. Graham glosses this in terms of Confucianism’s discovery of “subjectivity” in the Mencius, but this reading may be tempered if we follow Xunzi in understanding yi (and by extension of rest of Mencius’ ‘cardinal virtues’) as essentially directed toward socially mediated cooperative behavior.