The Chinese Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations vs. the West’s Supremacy of Love
(Please also see my paper on my website “The Traditional Chinese Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations vs. the West’s Supremacy of Love”)
Traditional Chinese morality calls for obligations and duties to be rendered to persons not because of any feelings of love toward them, though feelings are important, but because of their relation to us, such as parents, spouses, offspring, siblings, relatives, and so forth. This is regardless of how much or how little love we may feel toward them. In the (traditional) Chinese tradition, relationship-defined obligations, like the Cardinal Obligations, are supreme. Not love. This sounds harsh, but it’s not. In fact, this is far better for the growth and development of true love, and we’ll see why.
In the Western tradition, love is supreme. Love is the supreme value that is put above all else. The problem with love being supreme is that love is a subjective feeling, and can change from time to time, especially when the going gets tough. In life, there will always be times when the going gets tough. Outside circumstances can turn adverse, people make mistakes, and life is full of misunderstandings. For long term relationships, such as family or spouse, there will always be a time when all looks black, when there seems to be no hope, or when anger takes precedence over all else. During those times one might not be able to feel a positive feeling, let alone love, towards the other party. Of course, eventually the hard times will be over, so if in the interim the parties have persisted and carried on fulfilling their obligations towards each other, feelings will change again and love will return. In the Western world, however, long before that stage is reached, one will say, “I don’t love this person any more; why am I still with him/her?” And then one picks up and leaves one’s spouse, or, if it’s a parent or sibling, one cuts off all contact.
In the (traditional) Chinese tradition, however, the relationship-defined Cardinal Obligations are supreme. Relationships exist objectively and are not subject to subjective feelings. Whether someone is one’s parent, or sibling, or spouse is objectively determined, and doesn’t change no matter what one’s feelings are towards that person. Therefore, during the hard times, each party in the relationship continues to carry out the obligations toward the other party, regardless of feeling.
The wonderful thing in this is that when the two parties in a relationship carry out their obligations toward each other, positive feelings will appear and grow. It is something that is independent of subjective will. And then after the hard times are over, love returns and this love is stronger and deeper than ever. It now is a love that has been tested and is rooted in overcoming common adversity and misunderstanding. It is a love that has been nurtured by self-sacrifice, magnanimity, faith and humility on the part of both parties. It is a truer, more mature love. Happy indeed are those who can enjoy this far deeper, far truer love! And it will be thanks to the Chinese tradition of putting the relationship-defined obligations, instead of love, above all else.
Paradoxical, but life is like that. If one wants something, by pursuing that something as a supreme priority above all else one may not get that thing, especially if it shouldn’t be a supreme priority in the first place. Instead, by pursuing the proper things in their proper priorities one will not only get that something, but also get it better.