Emotional Attachment and Its Limits: Mengzi, Gaozi and the Guodian Discussions

Frontiers of Philosophy in China 14 (1):132-151 (2019)
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Abstract

Mengzi maintained that both benevolence (ren 仁) and rightness (yi 義) are naturally-given in human nature. This view has occupied a dominant place in Confucian intellectual history. In Mencius 6A, Mengzi's interlocutor, Gaozi, contests this view, arguing that rightness is determined by (doing what is fitting, in line with) external circumstances. I discuss here some passages from the excavated Guodian texts, which lend weight to Gaozi's view. The texts reveal nuanced considerations of relational proximity and its limits, setting up requirements for moral action in scenarios where relational ties do not play a motivational role. I set out yi's complexity in these discussions, highlighting its implications for (i) the nei-wai debate; (ii) the notion of yi as "rightness," or doing the right thing; and (iii) how we can understand the connection between virtue and right action in these early Confucian debates. This material from the excavated texts not only provides new perspectives on a longstanding investigation of human nature and morality, it also challenges prevailing views on Warring States Confucian intellectual history. In the well-known debate between Mengzi and Gaozi in Mencius 6A, Mengzi maintained that both ren and yi are naturally-given 1 in human nature. The figure 1 To say that ren and yi are naturally-given is not to say that they are fully-developed from the start. I use the phrase "naturally-given" throughout the paper to indicate where a particular capacity or resource (ren or yi) may be found, rather than its final polished state.

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Karyn L. Lai
University of New South Wales