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Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations vs.
The West's Supremacy of Love
By Feng Xin-ming, 2009
Table of Contents
(click to go to section):
2. Relationships and Relationship-Defined Obligations
3. The Answer to the Western Supremacists
4. Refuting Two Criticisms of the Supremacy of Relationship-Defined
Obligations and Appraising the West's Love
a. Refuting "People Will Try to Avoid Carrying Out Obligations
And So Force is Needed"
b. Refuting "People Will Care Not for Right and Wrong or Law
But Only For Family, Clan and Circle"
c. Appraising The West's Love, Including the West's Selfless
5. The Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations Provides More Help
To Society and Individuals Than the West's Supremacy of Love
6. Religion and The Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations
The big difference between Chinese civilization and Western civilization is that the West considers love to be supreme but Chinese civilization does not recognize love to be supreme. Instead, what Chinese civilization has always considered supreme has been "relationship-defined obligations" or ren lun (人伦). These are the obligations that the parties in a relationship should carry out towards each other.
Here I must explain why I use the English term "relationship-defined obligations" as the translation for ren lun (人伦). Some people might think that "relationship principles" is a more exact English equivalent. Ren lun, however, has solemn connotations of morality and obligation, and there is no English term that is truly an exact equivalent. The English term "relationship principles" would only be the equivalent of the Chinese term guanxi yuanze (关系原则), a bland term with no solemn connotations of morality or obligation. On the other hand, I think the term "relationship-defined obligations", thanks in great part to the word "obligations", does convey some of that solemn gravity. Since the "relationship principles" in ren lun is made up more or less of the obligations defined by the different relationships, I believe that the term "relationship-defined obligations", along with its connotations of solemn gravity, is the better English translation.
Let us look further into this matter of relationship-defined obligations.
2. Relationships and Relationship-Defined Obligations
There are many kinds of human relationships: that among relatives, that among neighbors, that between teachers and students, and so on. The Chinese Confucian tradition emphatically points out that there are five relationships that are most important, i.e. the "Five Cardinal Relationships" (五伦 or wu lun). They are the relationships
I must add here that, in my opinion, since modern society is no longer an agricultural society of farmers producing for self sufficiency but one where commodities and commerce are universal and of great importance, so the traditional Five Cardinal Relationships should embrace one more to become the Six Cardinal Relationships. The Cardinal Relation to be added is the relationship
By elevating buying and selling to a Cardinal, moral, Relationship, we can demand that buying and selling, which is something we engage in many times daily, be always moral and ethical and shake off the contempt with which traditional pre-industrial societies view buying and selling. This makes it unnecessary for buyer and seller to be friends first before the obligations that buyer and seller should carry out toward each other anyway will be carried out, unnecessary to use methods like drinking and making merry to get buyer and seller to become "friends" first, and only then do they dare to do business. When buying and selling becomes a Cardinal Relationship, both parties in any transaction will be able to implicitly trust each other, as they will consider it the normal, ordinarily expected situation for the other side to adhere to trustworthiness, honesty and integrity, and will consider not doing so to be a deviant, extraordinary occurrence. (See my blog articles "The Cardinal Obligations Continued", "Cardinal Obligation 6: Between Buyer and Seller", and "The Sixth Cardinal Relationship, That Between Buyer and Seller".)
Besides the most important traditional Five, or my Six, Cardinal Relationships, there are many other human relationships, too many to list. As long as there is a contact or a dealing among humans, even a very temporary or very occassional one, there is a human relationship, and all human relationships possess relationship-defined obligations.
Well, what are the obligations defined by human relationships according to the Chinese-Confucian tradition? Let's look at the traditional Five Cardinal Relationships:
As for the Sixth Cardinal Relationship that I advocate, the obligation between buyer and seller is:
Besides the above relationships, all the other innumerable relationships among people possess and are governed by relationship-defined obligations, and these obligations can actually all be summed up as "justice and morality". Therefore, any contact or dealings with other people must abide by relationship-defined obligations, that is, must abide by justice and morality.
Also, in the traditional Chinese supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, there is a most important tenet that has been used as the basis of the social order and ideology: "xiao (孝)". It is, as we have seen in point 2 above, one of the obligations of the offspring to parents. Xiao means to be good to parents and ancestors, but it demands not only that conduct involving interactions with parents or commemorations of ancestors must be good, but also that all of one's conduct, including conduct at work and one's interactions with persons outside the family, must be good. Why must all of one's conduct be good in order for one to be good to one's parents and ancestors? It is because preserving, enhancing or indeed glorifying if possible, the good name and reputation of one's parents and ancestors, is a most important requirement of being good to parents and ancestors, a most important requirement of being xiao. Therefore, this obligation by the offspring to the parents, xiao, is not limited to the narrow confines inside the family, but is actually the pillar supporting the whole moral and social order and the fundamental basis of all traditional Chinese ideology. (See papers on this website: "The Xiao Page", "Xiao Jing (Classic of Xiao)".)
Here I should point out that, actually, the obligations defined in the traditional Chinese supremacy of relationship-defined obligations all consist of mutual help among the different parties in a relationship. The government helps the citizens by keeping order and security in a country, and the citizens in turn help the government by obeying the law, answering drafts, paying taxes and other support, when necessary dissenting and dissuading, and so forth. The parents help the offspring by raising and teaching them, and the offspring in turn help the parents by obeying, respecting, providing support and care during the parents' old age, when necessary dissenting and dissuading, and so forth. All other relations and relationship-defined obligations follow the same logic: they all involve mutual help. Actually, the carrying out of their respective relationship-defined obligations by the parties in a relationship represents the mutually helping of each other by those parties.
3. The Answer to the Western Supremacists
(Note: In the Chinese version of this essay the term hua ren 华人 does not merely mean overseas ethnic Chinese with non-Chinese citizenships, a narrow meaning that has come to be popular in the Mainland region of China in recent years, but instead means all ethnic Chinese both inside and outside China, a broader concept which is also the original meaning of the term.)
Very regrettably, from the time of the call to "bring down the Confucian shop" loudly proclaimed during the "May Fourth Movement" in 1919, through the climactic Cultural Revolution in the 1960's and the "Movement to Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius" in the 1970's in the Mainland region of China, and after the westernization wave in Hong Kong and Taiwan of "loyalty, xiao and the traditional etiquette and culture are phony and outdated", Chinese people during the twentieth century have generally come to think that Confucianism has been the cause of China's poverty and backwardness, and have generally rejected Confucianism. (This is one of the greatest wrongs in history: China's poverty and backwardness has been caused not by Confucianism, but by centuries of excessive government rule. In fact, had it not been for Confucianism, Chinese culture would have never lasted several thousand years; it would been extinguished long ago like ancient Egyptian culture.) Thus, even though during the twenty-first century the Mainland region of China has rehabilitated Confucius back to respectability, to this day modern Chinese have still forgotten the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations.
In their conduct, however, most Chinese still haven't learned to behave like Westerners, haven't learned to hold love supreme. Most Chinese merely instinctively imitate their parents' conduct and continue the behavior learned from the parents' example, and so behave more or less according to the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations (although, alas, seemingly less and less so). In their conscious thought, however, most Chinese don't know they are doing this, nor do they know about the teachings of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations.
Precisely because most Chinese no longer know in their conscious minds about the tenets or principles of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, therefore when the Western Supremacists, whether of the white or the Chinese ethnicity, berate Chinese for not acting according to the supremacy of love, for "not showing love", or even for "not having any love", most Chinese have nothing to say and know not what to do. In front of the West's banner emblazoned with the word "love", Chinese people know only to bow down their heads, or even to bend their knees and kneel down - no one dares to even think, let alone say out loud, anything approaching a "no".
Thus Chinese, especially young Chinese, can easily become mental captives of Western Supremacy and spiritual slaves to the West. The Western Supremacists feel very self-righteous and superior when they preach to the "barbaric Chinese" about the supremacy of love and "the need to show more love", while most Chinese have no systematic, self-contained argument with which to defend their tradition or answer the charges of barbarism and "having no love", so that most Chinese can only feel inferior, in the wrong, or even become resentful or hostile to their own culture, their own parents and to other Chinese. Often, because of the lack of cultural immersion in a family where love is supreme while growing up, even when some Chinese want to imitate westerners and treat love as supreme these Chinese can't succeed. When they engage in behavior that is very expressive and seems to be full of love, not only do people around them consider such behavior inappropriate, but also they themselves feel a bit creepy, like it's phony, an act - then they hate being Chinese even more. The fact that Chinese culture still cannot be like the West in completely treating love as supreme makes many modern Chinese feel that being Chinese is barbaric, inferior, and shameful.
Well, feel ashamed no more of not being westerners, all ye Chinese, for there now exists an answer to the Western Supremacists, an answer with a clearly emblazoned banner!
The answer is: what we Chinese consider to be supreme is not love, a fuzzy, not well-defined, easily changeable, subjective feeling based on emotion, a feeling that exists in people's heads, is not readily knowable and cannot be easily verified, a feeling that people can wake up one day and repudiate just by saying, "I don't love you any more", a feeling that can justify all kinds of promiscuity, seduction and adultery. No, what Chinese consider to be supreme consists of clear-cut, objectively existing relations that are independent of people's will, along with the clear-cut, eminently knowable obligations defined by such relationships, the discharge of which obligations is objectively verifiable. What Chinese consider to be supreme is called relationship-defined obligations.
As long as you are one of the parties in a relationship, then whether you love the other party or parties or not, you still must carry out your obligations to the other party or parties. Whether there is love or not between the government and its citizens, the government must protect its citizens' safety and property, and the citizens must pay the government's taxes, obey the government's laws and serve in the government's drafts. Whether there is "love" or not between the parents and their children, the parents must raise and teach the children, and the children must be xiao to their parents and care for them in their old age. The same holds for obligations between husband and wife, among siblings, among friends, and among the parties in all relationships: whether "love" exists between the parties involved or not, they must follow relationship-defined obligations and discharge their obligations towards each other.
Of course, it is not that Chinese don't have love or are opposed to love; love is very important in the traditional Chinese thought framework, but love comes second, after relationship-defined obligations. This is like the situation with the Western thought framework, where obligations are also very important; it's just that obligations are not supreme and come after love.
Actually, the traditional Chinese supremacy of relationship-defined obligations paradoxically gives a more effective guarantee to love than the West's supremacy of love: while life is long and there are ups and downs such that there will always be times when you don't "love" or even when you hate the other party, if you stick to carrying out your obligations and the other party does the same, then love will always return, tempered and therefore stronger than ever.
The Chinese civilization's supremacy of relationship-defined obligations is not only not barbaric, is not only not inferior to the West, but is also more reasonable than Western civilization's supremacy of love, and more conducive to social progress and human happiness. We will explain this further in the following.
4. Refuting Two Criticisms of the Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations and Appraising the West's Love
Supporters of the West's supremacy of love have three important arguments against the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, two of which are criticisms of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations and one of which is a defense of the supremacy of love.
"When relationship-defined obligations are supreme," some supporters of the West's supremacy of love make this criticism, "the burden of carrying out obligations is bound to make people resentful and so force will have to be used to make them carry out their obligations."
"Besides," these supporters continue their criticism, "the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations will make people care only about relationships and not about right and wrong, justice, the law, or the public interest; people will care only about the rules and interests of their family, clan and narrow circles. That's why in the Mainland region of China people often have no trustworthiness, honesty or integrity; they enrich themselves by taking public property; they practice corruption and fraud, disregard the law, and care only about guanxi (relationships, often unprincipled). It's all thanks to Confucianism's supremacy of relationship-defined obligations and supremacy of guanxi relationships."
"As for the love the West considers to be supreme," these supporters then offer this defense, "it is not as you have depicted, a fickle and adulterous 'eros (sexual) love'; what we consider to be supreme is 'agape love', an unselfish, selfless love, a love like that of God and Christ for mankind, a sacred love, an altruistic love. How can something this pure, noble and selfless not be supreme?"
Let us answer the two criticisms and then give an appraisal of the West's supremacy of love, including this "agape love".
4a. Refuting "People Will Try to Avoid Carrying Out Obligations and So Force is Needed":
This criticism is just a misunderstanding. No, people don't necessarily feel that carrying out obligations is a despicable burden; on the contrary, people will happily, joyfully discharge their obligations. Why?
For one thing, by carrying out your obligations you can actualize your innate goodness as a human being, and can obtain the self-respect of being a good person. Being a good person and a person of integrity by merely, in your daily life, adhering to some standards of conduct that are clear-cut, widely known, defined clearly in the sages' books, and performing some clearly designated acts, isn't that a great joy?
For another thing, that you are required to discharge obligations means that there is someone who has a relationship with you, and means that someone is also discharging obligations towards you. That is something that deserves celebration. That you need to carry out the obligations of being a husband means that you have a wife who is carrying out the obligations of being a wife towards you, her husband. That you need to carry out the obligations of a big brother means you have a younger brother or younger sister who is carrying out obligations towards you, the big brother. And so on and so forth; isn't this also a great joy?
Also, inside a relationship, the better that you carry out your own obligations, the more you will make the other party enthusiastic and also the more you will make it easier for the other party to even better carry out its obligations to you, thus creating a "virtuous cycle". For example, as discussed earlier in this paper, when children carry out their obligation to respect their parents, it becomes easier for parents to carry out their obligation to teach the children. On the other hand, to not carry out your obligations not only hurts the other side's feelings and lowers its enthusiasm, but also places obstructions to the other side carrying out its obligations to you. For example, when children don't carry out their obligation to respect their parents, that makes it very hard for the parents to carry out their obligation to teach the children, because they don't listen to the parents, and also because the disrespect makes it hard for the parents to concentrate their energies and provide the best possible explanations, examples, and teaching in general to the children.
Therefore, carrying out the obligations as required by relationship-defined obligations does not necessarily lead to resentment and avoidance, and people don't necessarily need to be forced to carry out their obligations. On the contrary, most people will very willingly, gladly in fact, do their utmost to carry out their obligations the best way they can.
4b. Refuting "People Will Care Not for Right and Wrong or Law but Only For Family, Clan and Circle":
This criticism is a distortion of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, and a very serious distortion. What is sad is that, both inside and outside China, this distortion is very widespread, the theory is very popular and many people accept it as fact.
No, the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations should definitely not be misunderstood as putting family, clan and circle above right and wrong or above the law, to be rejecting, "for the sake of family, clan and circle", honesty, integrity and trustworthiness, or to be engaging in corruption and fraud.
All traditional Chinese relationship-defined obligations are consistent with justice, morality, and trustworthiness. Obligations contrary to justice, morality and trustworthiness cannot be traditional Chinese relationship-defined obligations. For example, a relationship-defined obligation is that offspring must be xiao or good to parents, and the first tenet in xiao is to uphold the good name of one's parents and ancestors. If to be xiao or good to parents involves going against justice, morality, or trustworthiness, then won't that besmirch the good name of one's parents and ancestors? Can that then still be called xiao or being good to parents? No, of course not. Also, human relationships don't involve only family, clan and "circle", there is at least also that first of the Five Cardinal Relationships: the relationship between "ruler and subject" or between government and the citizens. The first demand this relationship makes on citizens is that they obey the law, and law is nothing but some rules and regulations set forth by the government based on justice, morality and trustworthiness. Indeed, that relationship-defined obligations are always consistent with justice, morality, and trustworthiness is determined by the very structure of the thought framework of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations.
In fact, if one's parents ask one to do something that goes against justice, morality and trustworthiness, then one's parents are wrong, and making such an unjust request itself is an act against morality. What are the obligations of the offspring here? Is it to obey the parents' unjust request and act against justice, morality and trustworthiness? No, of course not. And to say yes would be to distort the meaning of relationship-defined obligations. When asked whether to be xiao one needed to always obey one's parents Confucius exclaimed, "What kind of talk is that! What kind of talk is that!" （Chapter 15, "Dissuading and Disputing", Xiao Jing (Classic of Xiao).） Yes, according to relationship-defined obligations, the obligations of the offspring in such a case is to dissuade the parents, and to persist until successful. Otherwise, it's known as "sycophantically obeying and thus entrapping one’s parents in moral unrighteousness". In the Confucian classics this is an extremely serious transgression against xiao. (See Annotation by Zhao Qi of the Han Dynasty on Mencius (Meng Zi), Chapter Li Lou, “The Thirteen Classics Annotated”, published by Zhonghua Shudian, Beijing, 1980, Vol. II, p.2,723.)
Therefore, relationship-defined obligations can only be obligations that are in accord with justice, morality, and trustworthiness. If not, then such "obligations" are not really relationship-defined, but are the result of misunderstandings or distortions of relationship-defined obligations.
As for obeying the law, as pointed out above, the law is merely some rules and regulations set forth by the government based on justice, morality and trustworthiness, and since relationship-defined obligations always require that one adhere to justice, morality and trustworthiness, then relationship-defined obligations must always require that one abide by the law. Persons glorified in Chinese history such as Bao Gong, Hai Rui, haven't they all strictly abided by and enforced law in the face of the powerful? Also, the first of the Five Cardinal Relationships is that between the "rulers", that is, the government, and the "subjects", that is, the citizens, and the first relationship-defined obligation of "subjects" is to obey the law. There should be no conflict between obeying the law and the interests of family, clan and "circle" (friends). If one uses illegal means to obtain some undeserved benefit for family, clan and "circle" (friends), then one is actually harming them by entrapping them in a collaboration with immorality. This entrapment besmirches their and their family's good names, and causes them to be punished by the law when the illegalities come to light.
Here it must be clarified that in the Chinese tradition, when the ruler, government or government leaders carry out wrong policies and enact wrong law, i.e. policies and law opposed to morality and justice, the subjects' duty is to clearly voice their dissent and to try to dissuade the ruler, government or government leaders, but this does not mean it's alright to disobey the law. Throughout Chinese history there have been many subjects who have been lauded as loyal heroes for voicing dissent and trying to dissuade the rulers, but these heroes obey the government and the law even when engaging in dissent and dissuasion, which are conducted through legal channels. Only when the rulers or government and government leaders become immoral and incompetent beyond all hope, when the country is grossly misgoverned and law and order breaks down, only then is the government considered to have "lost the mandate of heaven" and only then does it become the right of the subjects to disobey the law and rise up in revolution to overthrow the government.
At any rate, only by adhering to justice, morality, trustworthiness and law can one be truly good to family, clan and "circle". Again, according to the Confucian tradition such as expressed in the Xiao Jing (Classic of Xiao), to be considered truly xiao, i.e. to be considered truly good to parents, one's conduct at work and in interactions with people outside the family must all be good, because upholding the good name of the parents and ancestors, or even better, bringing glory to the family name, is a most important requirement in being good to parents and ancestors. Therefore, the interests of the family, clan and "circle" can never oppose adherence to law, morality, and trustworthiness. On the contrary, to be truly good to family, clan and "circle", one must adhere to justice, morality, trustworthiness and law.
Furthermore, in the world of relationship-defined obligations, such obligations are not confined to family, clan and "circle", but apply to all human relationships. All human relationships come within the realm of relationship-defined obligations and come with obligations that must be carried out. That means one must take care of all parties that one comes to have relationships with. As long as one come into contact with or have dealings with someone, then relationship-defined obligations govern that contact and those dealings. Between the employer and employee, one neighbor and another, the salesperson and the customer, the policeman and the citizen, etc., even if they aren't relatives, their contact and dealings are still all governed by relationship-defined obligations; they still can not bully, harm, steal from or defraud each other at will. When relationship-defined obligations are supreme, they operate wherever people have contact with other people. Thus the sphere of justice, morality, trustworthiness and obedience to law does not become narrower, but becomes wider. Therefore, that the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations does not lead to caring only for those who are close and disregarding justice, morality, trustworthiness and obedience to law, is determined by the very nature of relationship-defined obligations.
Therefore, the phenomena in the Mainland region of China of corruption, lack of trustworthiness and lack of adherence to the law are a reflection not of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, but of exactly the opposite: the abandonment of relationship-defined obligations and the tenets of Confucianism. When relationship-defined obligations are supreme, people will certainly practice strict adherence to justice, morality, trustworthiness and law. Traditionally, haven't Chinese merchants always acted strictly in accordance with trustworthiness, keeping promises, and not cheating even the weak and helpless? The criticism that the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations leads to caring only about family, clan and "circle" is unfounded.
Also, that conclusion is derived from a completely wrong method of deduction. This deduction goes as follows: "The supremacy of relationship-defined obligations is based on relationships among people; therefore it is not based on justice, morality, trustworthiness or obedience to law; therefore it must care only about those in the closest relationships and disregard justice, morality, trustworthiness and law." Isn't this an absurd logic? If applied to the West's supremacy of love, then we would get this conclusion: "The supremacy of love is based on loving other people and therefore is not based on justice, morality, trustworthiness or obedience to law; therefore it must care only about those whom one loves and disregard justice, morality, trustworthiness and law"!
Of course, this distortion of the supremacy of love is also wrong, but is more reasonable than the similar distortion of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations. That is because all dealings among people involve relationship-defined obligations, and so when relationship-defined obligations are supreme at no time will unjust and immoral behavior be permitted. The number of people one loves, however, is limited and so most dealings among people do not involve love, and so one can imagine that when love is supreme perhaps sometimes unjust and immoral behavior is permitted. Of course, this is fallacy, because the West's framework of the supremacy of love also has a lot of mechanisms to ensure that people don't disregard what is just and moral.
When it comes to Western thought, which is more appropriate for such an attack, no one has raised such a distortion, yet, when it comes to traditional Chinese thought, which is less appropriate for this kind of attack, this distortion has become very popular and has wide currency both inside and outside China. Alas, does this not show that, when it comes to such things, a lot of people nowadays are a bit biased?
Actually, being infected with this kind of incorrect bias is understandable. First, the present-day Mainland region of China is on the whole still relatively poor and backward, and so people look down upon Chinese and the Chinese heritage. Also, the ideology in the Mainland region of China had once fiercely denounced the "man-eating feudal old society", and to this day opposes "old feudal ways of thinking". Therefore, attacks on Chinese traditional thought are relatively easy to accept and believe. Furthermore, in the present-day Mainland region of China, not caring about right and wrong, not being trustworthy, disregard for the law, corruption, embezzlement, and so forth, are indeed relatively common. Although all this is not because of Confucianism but on the contrary, is to a great extent precisely because of the lack of Confucianism, most people nowadays not only don't know the Chinese classics, but also, because of inability to understanding the ancient prose style, aren't even capable of reading them. So they follow what others say and mistake the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations for disregard of justice and morality. In my opinion, however, the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations is such an excellent thought framework that it cannot be suppressed much longer and will soon once again ascend mankind's stage and play a main role.
4c. Appraising The West's Love, Including the West's Selfless "Agape Love":
Now let us examine the West's selfless, "agape love", and at the same time make an appraisal of the West's love in general.
First we must point out that in the history of Western civilization, even though mainstream Christian thought has always emphasized selfless agape love, for a fairly significant period of time, at least since the 1700's, sexual seduction, nearly or actually adulterous behavior, and abandonment of spouses and unilateral termination of marriages, have been thought in the West to be based on love and therefore justifiable and even laudable. For example, holding a dance "ball" where unmarried young women wear fairly sexually seductive "formal clothes" that expose the shoulders and chest, and embrace unmarried young men in dance, since the 1700's have been considered in the West to be respectable and even noble behavior, because this arouses love for the young women in the young men. The adultery in which King Arthur's best Roundtable knight, Sir Lancelot, and King Arthur's wife, Queen Grinevere, engage, as described in the 1400's work "La Morte D'Artur (The Death of Arthur)", has been lauded as chivalric love at the latest during the 1800's. Also during the 1800's, literary works such as "Madam Bovary" and "Anna Karenina" reflect the public defense and endorsement of adultery on the basis of love. Again during the 1800's, works such as Ibsen's "A Doll's House" (original version) promote the idea that if one party in a marriage "receives no love", then that party may abandon his or her spouse and unilaterally terminate the marriage. As for novels, songs and plays that represent the culture of the West since the 1900's, they even more so support and laud such behavior. Therefore, when we make an appraisal of the West's supremacy of love, we cannot exclude the tradition in Western thought of endorsement and praise, on the basis of love, of sexual seduction, adultery, abandonment of spouse and unilateral termination of marriage.
As for the selfless, agape love, this love is based on principle, and speaks of obligations and duty, and so really is a powerful force for good. Selfless agape love is a deep attachment to the other party and a profound willingness to do things for the other party, up to and including sacrificing one's own life. As described in the famous passage from the Bible's "First Corinthians", Chapter Thirteen, Verses 4 - 8, correct Christian selfless agape love "always perseveres" and is not fickle. Agape love is not only compatible with the Chinese tradition of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, but can also enrich the thinking about emotional life in the Chinese thought framework.
Agape love, however, has a deficiency, that of not designating what actions must be carried out among the different parties in the various relationships. For example, what actions must be carried out between parents and offspring? Between the government and the citizens? And so on. As I have said before, “Of course, Confucius spends a lot more time and present in much greater detail the mutual obligations for the different parties than the Christian Bible does. For example, the Christian Bible doesn’t have a formal analysis on the Five Cardinal Relations of government-subject, parents-offspring, husband-wife, among siblings, and between friends. A short paragraph in First Corinthians is nothing compared to the volumes about obligations in the ancient Confucian texts.” (See my blog entry "Confucianism & Religions".
To possess a deep attachment to someone and a profound willingness to do things for someone is not enough. If it is not pointed out what actions must be carried out by which parties in which relationships, then when it comes to specific situations agape love can permit all kinds of wrong actions. For example, indulging and spoiling one's children, favoring persons one loves more but owes less to, such as a girlfriend, at the expense of hurting someone one loves less but owes much more to, such as a parent; engaging in adultery with love as justification, for some reason "no longer loving" one's spouse and thereupon divorcing him or her - and often what is no longer felt is agape love and not just sexual love; "no longer loving" one's parents and thereupon cutting off all contact with them, and so forth and so on. With the Confucian supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, there is no such problem: in the thought framework and world outlook of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, all such acts are clearly wrong; whether there is love or not, relationship-defined obligations cannot be abandoned.
Yes, agape love is a pure, noble and selfless sentiment, but sentiment is not enough; for something to be supreme and above all else it needs to also possess great wisdom and great ability to discern right and wrong.
Therefore, the kind of love in the West that is used to affirm and glorify sexual seduction, adultery, abandonment of spouse and unilateral termination of marriage is without merit. Also, even though the agape love of the West is a correct and excellent doctrine, it can only be used to supplement the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations and not to replace it. Even when love may be of the selfless, agape type, relationship-defined obligations must be supreme, not love.
5. The Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations Provides More Help To Society and Individuals Than the West's Supremacy of Love
From the point of view of the entire society, the most important thing is that all relationship-defined obligations objectively are, as pointed out in Section 2 above, mutual help by the various parties in human relationships. The government helps the citizens by keeping order in a country, and the citizens in turn help the government. The parents help the offspring by raising and teaching them, and the offspring in turn help the parents. All other relations and relationship-defined obligations follow the same logic: they all involve mutual help. When the parties in a relationship carry out their respective relationship-defined obligations, that actually represents the parties mutually helping each other. Now mutual help is the fundamental basis of civilization; all human civilization is built on this principle. Only by people concentrating on different kinds of work and then exchanging the resulting mutually beneficial acts and objects, can civilization be built and maintained, and mutual help is the central principle of this division of labor and exchange. Since the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations requires that people mutually help each according to the obligations defined by the relationships they have with each other, it guarantees mutual help. Thus the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations provides the most advantageous social order and the most fertile ideological soil for the development of civilization and the progress of human society. Was it mere coincidence that when ancient China adhered to the ideology of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, China was so advanced compared to the rest of the then world?
In comparison, the help that people must render to others as demanded by the supremacy of love does not have this mutual quality. The agape love described by the supremacy of love is very selfless and noble, but it is one-sided and unilateral. Thus it is suited in daily living to charitable donation but not to multiple, repeated, sustained, long term mutual help or mutual benefit. The one-sided quality of love is a serious flaw in the framework of the supremacy of love. In today's world, many people take advantage of this flaw to make unfair demands on "society", which in fact is just other people, thinking that "society" and other people owe them one-sided obligations and have to unconditionally take care of them, while they don't have to in turn take care of "society" and other people. Used to the one-sided quality of love, even when making unreasonable demands on others these people act in a very self-righteous manner.
Also from the point of view of the entire society, everyone's ability is finite and cannot look after the whole sociey. When, however, a member of the society consistently and in a sustained manner carries out his or her relationship-defined obligations, then the parties with whom that member have relationships will be consistently and in a sustained manner looked after, emotionally and materially. There is, if one uses one's imagination, a circle of emotional and material well-being radiating out from such a member of society, covering the people with whom he or she has relationships with. In turn, he or she is also taken care of by the parties with whom he or she has relationships, such that he or she is also covered by many such circles of emotional and material well-being radiating out from others. When all members of society consistently and in a sustained manner practice the discharge of obligations, then everyone in that society will be consistently and in a sustained manner looked after, emotionally and materially. All those circles of emotional and material well-being radiating out from each member of society will overlap and meld together to cover everyone. By everyone tending to his or her relationship-defined obligations the entire society is cared for as a whole. It then approaches Confucius' ideal as expressed in his "The Great Together (li yun da tong)": "...the aged have the appropriate last years, those in their prime have the appropriate employment, the young have the appropriate growth and development, and elderly men with no spouses or children, widows, orphans, elderly people without children or grandchildren, the handicapped, the ill – all are provided for..." The society will then achieve the highest degree of sustained emotional and material well-being possible for the stage of understanding and technology that the society possesses. The supremacy of relationship-defined obligations maximizes a society's happiness.
As for the individual, the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations is very liberating and empowering, and gives one a great sense of security and mutual trust. That is because whether one is fulfilling one's relationship-defined Obligations is an objective fact and fully verifiable, and there's no need to worry about what's happening in the other party's head: "does he/she still love me? Is what I am doing sufficient to retain his/her love? If I give a different opinion, will he/she love me less?" All one has to do is to fulfill one's well-known-to-all, prescribed, objectively verifiable obligations, which, by the way, include providing different opinions and even dissuasion when appropriate, and one can rest assured that the other party owes one the fulfilling of its obligations. If they aren't carried out, one has the full right to demand that they be carried out. (See my blog entries of Traditional Chinese Culture is Liberating and Empowering - 1, Traditional Chinese Culture is Liberating and Empowering - 2, Traditional Chinese Culture is Liberating and Empowering - 3)
Once the relationship exists, whether it is voluntary (marriage, friendship) or comes with birth (parents-offspring, siblings), one can enjoy a high sense of security. Once the relationship exists, one can trust the other party and the other party can in turn trust one, neither party need to worry about whether love or liking still exist inside the other party's head. Both parties will definitely carry out their obligations, and both parties can completely trust each other to do so.
There is also no need to use, as in the West, very demonstrative means to express love, such as passionate kissing or embracing in public, to obtain and keep the love and favor of the other party. The supremacy of relationship-defined obligations lets people relax and not have to worry that one day, if the other party in the relationship no longer feels appreciation, admiration or love, the relationship will suddenly come crashing to an end. All that's necessary is for one to persevere in carrying out one's obligations as defined by the relationship, and the relationship will continue.
Therefore, love is expressed by fulfilling one's relationship-defined obligations with all one's heart and soul. In traditional Chinese culture, i.e. Chinese culture before the twentieth century, what is lauded in novels, plays and songs is exactly this behavior of fulfilling one's obligations with all of one's heart and soul no matter what the difficulties or how great the sacrifice. The subjective feeling of love then is included in and expressed by this objective behavior. The Chinese tradition of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations puts the objective behavior first and the subjective feeling of love second. (See my paper "Chinese People and the Expression of Love".) As in the Chinese tradition, when relationship-defined obligations are supreme, to complete one's daily obligations with a reverent and joyful attitude, to the best of one's ability, is enough of an expression of love.
Of course, we don't rule out the use of very demonstrative means of expressing love; it's just that it is not required to obtain and maintain the other party's love and favor. If an individual or a people whose custom and preference is to use very demonstrative methods of expressing love chooses to embrace the worldview and framework of the supremacy of love, then of course it is fine to continue this custom and preference.
As for the charge that "there is no love to begin with" when the relationship-defined obligations are supreme, that's absolutely false. The above paragraphs fully demonstrate this point. Among people love will of course exist and should exist. The basic textbook of Confucianism "Di Zi Gui (弟子规)" quotes Confucius to say, "All who are human, one must love"; how much more so when it is among people in the closest relationships? When relationship-defined obligations are supreme, love is still very important; it's just that love is not supreme, and also, as mentioned above, it is not necessary to use very demonstrative methods to express love.
Quite intriguingly, not putting love as supreme but putting relationship-defined obligations as supreme can, contrary to what one might expect, give rise to even better and stronger love. The reason is that the love that grows out of mutually fulfilling obligations, especially over a long period of time, is a lot stronger and a lot more mature than love based on admiration of image or on sexual attraction. (See my blog "The Chinese Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations vs. the West’s Supremacy of Love".)
6. Religion and The Supremacy of Relationship-Defined Obligations
Some people ask, "Without a God, what justification is there for relationship-defined obligations to be supreme? Confucianism doesn't deal much with God and the supernatural. Is a religion not necessary to provide reasons to justify the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations? At least in Christianity, the supremacy of love is justified by God: one loves God and therefore one loves all humans at all times because that pleases God, who is omniscient and sees and knows everything."
First of all, let me make clear that I think that for one to love all humans because one loves and wants to please an omniscient God is a powerful commandment and a firm basis for guaranteeing moral conduct and civil society. In fact, historically not merely the Christian world but all civilizations except the Chinese one have granted political position and state power to activities and personnel engaged in the worship of God or Gods, and used the worship and love of God or Gods as the main ideological tool to ensure that people are good. The advantage of using God or Gods is that gods are all-seeing and reward and punishment might even be greater in the next life, so the incentive to do good, even in the face of expected adverse consequences during this life, is very powerful indeed.
Now the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, while it does not require belief in God or the afterlife, also does not exclude this very powerful force for good. The Confucian tradition is compatible with any religion. Since the Confucian tradition has never pretended to address the hereafter, societies that have practiced the Confucian tradition have long supplemented Confucianism with religions like Buddhism. Historically, Chinese Muslims, Chinese Christians and Chinese Jews have adopted the stressing of the relationship-defined obligations and xiao (being good to parents and ancestors) as being complementary to their religious doctrines. Indeed, viewed from the Confucian paradigm a religious person merely adds the relationship between God and self as another "Cardinal Relationship" onto the "Five (or my Six) Cardinal Relationships" that we have discussed in section 2. Buddhism, which comes from India, also comes to stress relationship-defined obligations and xiao upon becoming rooted in China. Truly, there is no conflict, and historically there has all along been mutual supplementation.
On the other hand, for those who cannot reconcile themselves to the necessity of worshipping deities or even the existence of a supernatural world, the Chinese Confucian tradition of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations is also compatible with the lack of religion or even atheism and can also provide a moral compass and behavior imperative here. Even if one does not believe in an afterlife and even though there is no omniscient God to see that one is doing right or wrong, one will do good and not evil even in the face of adverse consequences because to fulfill one's relationship-defined obligations to one's parents and ancestors, i.e. to carry out xiao, one must contribute to keeping the family name good and not besmirch it. And that family name goes on, even after one's life is over. For people who grow up in a society where xiao and family name are all-important, their power to determine conduct is very great. In Chinese history, there have been innumerable examples where the self-sacrificing heroes may not have believed in God(s) or the afterlife, yet they have still performed their heroic deeds of self sacrifice. For example, Wen Tian-xiang in his "Song of the Spirit of Righteousness" and other works, when describing why one should stay loyal and true no matter what, only mentions putting one's name down for posterity, and never mentions the afterlife or God(s). Thus, with the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, people with no religion or even atheists will also be good people, will also make sacrifices for what is moral and just.
Thus the Chinese Confucian tradition only takes what is in the natural world, takes the people we see and interact with daily, and creates a moral order of relationship-defined obligations out of just those very natural things. There is no need to construct any specific supernatural world along with all the attendant doctrines to arrive at the Confucian moral code. The genius of Confucius is to take natural things, natural relations, and create powerful teachings out of them. While the relation between parents and offspring is a most natural and ubiquitous one, Confucius creates out of it a compelling force to be good, the imperative of xiao or being good to parents and ancestors: to be xiao to one's parents, one must be kind and loving towards everyone. (Please see the Xiao Page on this website for more discussion of xiao.)
And so the natural world based Confucian thought is structurally much simpler than and not tied to, any supernatural world based religious tradition, and therefore is compatible with most any religion as well as with a lack of religion, even atheism. Another way of describing this situation is that the Confucian thought framework operates at the most elemental level, and if desired one may erect, on top of the Confucian thought framework, any "superstructure" of religious thought according to the particular religion being followed. If the practice of religion is not desired or if atheism is what is preferred, then it is not necessary to erect any "superstructure" of religion; the Confucian thought framework can also operate completely independently. Thus the Confucian framework is much more inclusive, tolerant, adaptable to any religion or culture, and suitable for diversity in society and in the world.
Of course, some adherents of certain religious groups will say that only their particular construct of the supernatural world is right and that all non-adherents to this construct will be condemned by God. Even that, however, is OK with Confucianism, because Confucianism operates at a different level, at the level of the natural, not the supernatural world. Such adherents can still use Confucianism's construct of the natural world to complement their particular construct of the supernatural world, to provide a compass for their relationships with other people during this life. Now those adherents will be saved if they turn out right that their construct of the supernatural world is indeed the only right one. If not, then in the meantime all non-adherents to that religion will also be well served by adopting Confucianism's construct of the natural world.
Therefore, not only Chinese people, but people of the whole world, including Westerners and Christians, should study the teachings of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations.
Since the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations can provide moral compasses and conduct standards for all people of the world so well, and can enable society to reach maximum happiness, then even if there's no God and we don't use religious beliefs to provide justification, we should still follow the teachings of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations. At the same time, should God or Gods exist, then He/They would surely approve of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations.
The supremacy of relationship-defined obligations provides people and society with more help than the supremacy of love. Using the framework of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations, people are able to know clearly how to judge all behavior, and right and wrong are clearly distinguishable. This framework gives people a great sense of liberation and empowerment, security and mutual trust. Using this framework, as compared to the framework of the supremacy of love, can often give rise to better and stronger love. Yes, perhaps the traditional framework of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations needs the modification, as I have proposed at the beginning of this paper, of changing the "Five Cardinal Relationships" to the "Six Cardinal Relationships" to be up-to-date, but in the main, the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations is the best choice, the one that can fit any religion or lack of religion including even atheism, that can fit any culture, beliefs and customs, and that can fit a diverse society and a diverse world.
Chinese people should proudly re-identify with our own excellent cultural heritage and re-embrace the thought framework of the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations. Also, not only Chinese, but also people of the whole world without regard to religion, belief or custom, should investigate and study this thought framework. I believe that in the future, the mainstream thought framework of the world will most certainly be the supremacy of relationship-defined obligations.
首先要说明一下为什么在本文的英语版里我把“人伦”一词翻译为英语的“relationship-defined obligations (关系定义的义务和责任)”。或许有人会说“relationship principles (关系原则)”的意义更为接近人伦。但是，人伦具有涉及道德和义务的庄严色彩，在英语中没有相同意义的字词。英语的“relationship principles (关系原则)”只是个平淡的字词，并无涉及道德或义务的庄严色彩。我认为人伦应该译为的“Relationship-defined obligations (关系定义的义务和责任)”，含有“obligations (义务和责任)”一字，所以能够表达一些庄严色彩。而且，人伦的“关系原则”，其实差不多都是关系定义的义务和责任。所以我认为，拥有庄严色彩的“relationship-defined obligations (关系定义的义务和责任)”一词，是比较好一些的英语翻译。
而且，他们也为爱至上作出一个辩护，“西方的爱，并不是你所描绘的，易变和荒淫的‘eros 爱 (性爱)’；我们所奉为至上的，是‘agape 爱’，是无私的、忘我的爱，是好像基督和上帝对人类的爱，是圣爱，是‘利他主义 (altruism)’的爱。这么纯洁、高尚、无私的东西，怎能不作为至上呢？”
4c. 对西方的爱和西方无私的、忘我的“agape 爱”的评价
首先应该指出，虽然西方文明史里，基督教思想主流一向强调无私忘我的爱，但是在相当一段历史时间里，最少是从1700年代开始，性诱惑、近乎是或简直是淫乱的行为、和抛弃婚侣、单方终止婚姻的行为等，在西方被认为是基于爱的，因而被认可，甚至被歌颂。好像举行舞会，让未婚女子穿上相当富于性诱惑的露胸露肩“礼服”，跟未婚男子拥抱跳舞，在西方1700年代以来就被认为是高尚的行为，因为这样会激发男子对女子的爱。1400年代作的《亚瑟王之死》一书里，所描叙的亚瑟王最好的圆桌骑士兰斯洛特跟亚瑟王妻子吉纳维尔王后的通奸，最迟在1800年代就被正式歌颂为豪侠骑士的爱（chivalric love)。1800年代,“包法利夫人 (Madam Bovary)”、“安娜.卡列尼娜 (Anna Karenina)”等文学作品就反映了当时西方社会对以爱为理由的通奸，进行公开的辩护和认可。又在1800年代，易卜生的“玩偶之家”（原版）等文学作品，就宣扬如果婚姻里一方“得不到爱”，该方就可以抛弃婚侣、单方终止婚姻。自1900以来的西方小说、歌曲、戏剧等文化代表品，以爱为理由，对此等行为的支持和歌颂就更不用说了。所以，我们对西方爱至上的评价，不能不包括西方以爱为由，认可及歌颂性诱惑、淫乱、和抛弃婚侣、单方终止婚姻的思维传统。
对个人来说，人伦至上授予人们心灵很大的解放和权利，很大的安全感和互相信任。这是因为有没有履行人伦所规定的义务和责任，是完全能够客观证实的，完全不需要担心对方的脑子在想什么。他（她）还爱我吗？我做的足够使他（她）继续爱我吗？我提出不同意見他（她）会不会愛我少些呢？这些都不用担忧，我只需要履行我众所皆知的、规定的、能够客观证实的义务和责任，而这些义务和责任也包括了适当时提供不同意见或劝谏，我就可以很放心，对方也必然会反过来履行对我的义务和责任。不然的话，我拥有充分权利要求对方这样做。（见我的博客文章 “传统中华文化授予人们解放和权利：1”, “传统中华文化授予人们解放和权利：2”, “传统中华文化授予人们解放和权利：3”。）