'Family Values' -- Confucian Style

11/29/2011 10:27 am ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

In a nation where the term "family values" has virtually become a bell weather gage for one's political affinities, the value of such values seems incapable of support without the implication of conservative or right wing political leanings.

But do family values have to have a political position? Can't they be just family values, something that we all treasure as a mark of our fundamental humanity and humaneness?

What would Confucius say?

At the very center of Confucian teachings is the concept of jen, goodness or humaneness, a term that is defined by way of a fundamental moral relation of one person to another. And, one of the key concepts utilized by Confucius and later Confucians to interpret and elaborate upon the basic sense of goodness or humaneness is a term that is at the very heart of family values. That term is hsiao, what we translate as filial piety.

Filial piety, hsiao, is the quintessential family value.

What does the word mean? Lets go to the character hsiao itself. The character for filial piety depicts one person in relation to another, but not just any two people. It is the depiction of what is called in ethics a special moral relation. It is composed of the character for child and a contracted form of the character for old man, here defined in terms of the adult closest to the child, the parent. The character literally means then the relation of children and parents.

This relationship, when put in the context of the teaching of jen, goodness or humaneness, depicts a fundamental moral relation. Hsiao is thus the moral relation of child and parent.

But what does filial piety mean in terms of its political and social applications across the past two and a half millennia of East Asian cultures and societies? It suggests the centrality and importance of family values. And these values speak to a moral bond that holds the family together. In its most essential form, it has nothing to do with politics of left or right, liberal or conservative.

Some would argue of course that in the pre-modern history of East Asia filial piety has been the bane of the growth of individuality and the tool to control freedom of expression and action of the young by their elders. The argument suggests that modernization by contrast has fundamentally represented the emancipation of the young from the shackles of tradition and conservative values.

So is filial piety weighted toward the parents, advocating slavish behavior for the young mandated by and for their elders? Is it fundamentally or even exclusively an obligation, responsibility and duty of the child toward the parent?

What does Confucius say?

There is a lengthy passage in the Analects in which Confucius discusses filial piety in a context different from the often-stereotyped sense of "conservative" values of obligation, responsibility and duty on the part of the young toward their elders.

In this passage we find Confucius discussing with his disciples the mourning rituals for parents by their children following the death of the parents. Common practice suggested there be a three-year mourning period which children, male children in particular, observe.

The question addressed in the passage surrounds the three-year mourning period. Basically, why three years?

Some of the disciples want to shorten the time for mourning, claiming it to be excessive, but Confucius upholds the three-year period. His answer addresses the nature of filial piety, but in a way different from the way filial piety is so often depicted. Confucius points to the period of time in which the child as an infant is nurtured by his parents.

After some discussion amongst the disciples, Confucius says, "It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. And the three years' mourning is universally observed throughout the empire" (Analects XVII:21).

The passage defines the most fundamental basis of filial piety. Filial piety begins with the care of the child by the parent, that is, it is the relation of the parents toward the child! Caring for the parent by the child is an outgrowth of the beginning relation of parent to child and the love and care provided by the parent for the child.

Filial piety is fundamentally then a reciprocal relationship between parents and children The respect for the parent in the mourning rites is merely a representation of the fulfillment of the fundamental act of filial piety by the parent toward the child which began the child's life.

The relation of the filial piety of the parent toward the child has been seen historically in three important ways. First, there is the biological need of the infant that must be addressed by the parent. Without such needs being met, the infant will not survive. Second, there is the education of the child. It is the parents that must supply the initial teaching of the child as part of his or her maturation. Third, the home must act as a moral rudder to guide the child in his or her development as a person of goodness.

Family values? Nothing is more central to East Asian cultures. It is not a matter of left or right, liberal or conservative. It is seen as simply the natural relation of parents and children, foundationally a reciprocal relation. And, as the natural and reciprocal relation of parents and children, it is not just obligation, responsibility or duty, but love and joy in the celebration of the relation.

Can the term "family values" in the America of the 21st century be recaptured to express natural love and joy between parent and child and not just a personnel political perspective?