Confucius and the Teaching of Goodness

06/17/2011 02:24 am ET | Updated Aug 16, 2011

A number of years ago I was working with a very prominent Japanese Confucian scholar, Okada Takehiko. He was both a scholar of Confucianism and a Confucian himself. I was translating one of his works from Japanese but also conducting interviews with him to better understand what a contemporary Confucian might make of the world we have both inherited and created. The interviews touched upon a variety of issues, essentially ethical dilemmas of modern society. Stretching from technological society and the role of science to animal rights, biomedical ethics, abortion, we also circled around the question of the future of Confucianism and world religions in general.

Through all these topics, there was a consistent response, not unlike Confucius himself, when he was asked if there was not an essential nature of his teaching, the "single thread" found in all his teachings. We might recall that Confucius' response to that question was to say there was a single teaching: the teaching of shu, reciprocity. And when asked to explain this teaching, he responded by saying, "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you" (Analects: 15:23).

The response from Professor Okada was also a single teaching, a teaching that is as basic as the concept of reciprocity and one that occurs even more frequently both in the writings of Confucius himself as well as throughout the tradition. That teaching is jen (Japanese pronunciation jin), goodness, a term translated in a variety of ways including benevolence, compassion, kindness, altruism humaneness, love (agape) and goodness.

The character itself is a very simple one, composed of two parts -- one part meaning "person" and the second part the number "two." So literally the word means something like "person-two-ed" or "person-doubled" and from this basic meaning is the extension to "person-to-person." In this rendering, we begin to see the possibility of ethics. That is, "person-to-person" raises the question of the proper relation of one person to another. And from the proper relation of one person to another we have the sense that the term implies how we should treat others ethically. At this point, Confucius rests on his most basic teaching of shu, reciprocity, a teaching that remains foundational to the tradition even up to contemporary usage.

Thus jen, goodness, is basically reciprocity and can be understood with this ethical foundation through the various translations with which the term has been rendered. Most commonly, it is the term "goodness."

For Okada then, in response to the various ethical dilemmas that our modern world has produced, there must be a constant attention to ethics in our decision-making. We must give consideration to the ethical consequences of our actions. And if those consequences suggest negative impact, then such actions must be reconsidered. And what is the underlying ethical assumption? It returns always in Confucianism to Confucius own foundational ethical stance, "Do not do to others what you world not have them do to you."

So across the ethical dilemmas of our high tech society, from the frontiers of science to the technological applications we consider so fundamental to our daily lives, the Confucian poses the question of whether such development can be cast as a fulfillment of "goodness" toward others.

Living as we do in a society largely defined by secularism and post-modern relativism, any attempt to raise an "ethical standard" is viewed with great suspicion as an attempt to force a value system upon the freedom of the individual. True though this charge might be, if we are to understand the inner workings of Confucian teaching and their possible role in a contemporary world, then its foundational claim to an ethical orientation must be seen as salient to its essential mission.

In this orientation toward an ethical stance, is Confucianism really very much different from other major religious traditions? While one might take exception to "the Confucian perspective," is it that different from religious perspectives in general?

Religions operate with a dichotomy between what is the case and what ought to be the case. The "is" is the world we have created and thus the world we inhabit. The "ought" is what can be understood as something better. Religious founders of all traditions talk about the limitations of the "is" and the necessity of seeking the "ought," a condition defined normally in religious context as originating in and through some form of religious authority, God for example. The Buddhist sees the "is" as a world of suffering from ignorance and the "ought" as freedom in enlightenment. Judeo-Christian tradition defines the relationship in terms of the condition of sin, an alienation of humankind from God, and the "ought" as salvation offered through redemption, Christian redemption.

The Confucian operates with this same basic religious dichotomy: The "is" is the world of selfishness, profit, aggression and heinous crimes committed in their propagation; the "ought" is the world taught through the sages of antiquity -- the harmony of T'ien, Heaven, manifested in T'ien Tao, the Way of Heaven.

The embodiment of the Way of Heaven for Confucius and the entire Confucian tradition is through the manifestation of the teaching of goodness, treating the other person in ways in which the person should be treated, respecting life and the relationship of one life to another. For Okada Takehiko then, the most basic teaching, and the only teaching that might guarantee a future of survival of our species or even the earth itself, is attention to goodness. He went so far as to say to me that it did not even matter whether the name "Confucianism" continued into the future! The only important issue was the teaching of goodness. I am not sure most religious traditions would adopt a position of a translatable universal teaching detachable and removable from a specific context. A fascinating idea.