27 October 2016

The limits of Mencian statecraft?

As critical as I have been of Barack Obama, there is one positive aspect to his presidency that has been commented on recently, and that is: Barack Obama is actually a decent, caring family man. He clearly loves his wife and his two daughters, and he hasn’t abused his power in office to go chasing skirts. He’s generally a man who exercises most all of the smallholder competencies to a fairly significant degree. This I generally take at face value and hold to the president’s credit. Now, according to the Mencian theory of government, as a man who takes care of his family and cultivates the virtues, he should in fact be a relatively successful leader, one who is able to convince others by moral suasion rather than by the force of law or fiat. But that being the case, why is President Obama more dependent on his executive powers and military and police force to achieve his goals rather than his own virtuous example? Why have our ‘likeable’, ‘relatable’ presidents – the ones with good manners and good natures – been the ones quickest to quash protests, silence whistleblowers, expand police powers, shoot first and ask questions later? In short, why would our presidents who would most recognisably suit a ‘Confucian’ temperament end up behaving like Legalists? And what would Mencius – or indeed any classical philosopher – say about this apparent contradiction?

It’s fairly predictable what the two American political tribes would say about the situation. For conservatives and libertarians, Obama is simply engaging in the rankest sort of hypocrisy – blaming Bush for his actions and then turning around to do the same thing himself. For liberals (as the New York Times piece opines), the blame lies with Congress for indulging in ‘obstruction’ and forcing any ‘progress’ to be made through the executive branch. Nowadays, some of the apologists for Trump are even saying explicitly that the smallholder competencies are overrated, and sometimes we need a brash, brutal and vulgar Herodian (or a Qin Shihuang, if we’re using classical Chinese examples) to take charge and lead with a wholly different set of excellences exclusive to those fit for ‘greatness’. And I am forced to wonder if these Trump apologists, in fact, have a point. After all, the facts are as stated above: clearly, if we are to go by the example of Obama, one can genuinely be a devoted husband and doting father, and still order deadly drone strikes on civilians outside of war zones from a position of high office.

I suspect – and here I am certainly open to correction – that a consistent follower of Mencius would say of Obama that his personal attention to the domestic virtues and smallholder competencies is laudable, but that his self-cultivation (修养) and investigation into the nature of things (格物) was incomplete. But that sort of logic strikes me as somewhat ad hoc; it’s somewhat difficult to critique a person’s self-cultivation except on the basis of its results, and to do that one has to import a set of a priori values and moral axioms that are not implicit in the self-cultivation aspect of Mencian thinking. A consistent follower of Dong Zhongshu or Xunzi might here have a more robust political critique to make than our hypothetical Mencian would, that Obama, in spite of his interior cultivation, has neglected the ‘outer kingliness’ (外王) and instead embraced a Legalistic method of governance, using rewards and proscriptions to make people comply with his agendas. Going a bit further, perhaps, a more thoroughgoing follower of Dong Zhongshu (like, for example, Jiang Qing) might say that the fault rests as well in our institutions, which in their value-neutrality do not provide the proper moral guidance for the people who inhabit them, and therefore encourage bureaucratic and legalistic solutions to problems that are better solved through suasion – or militaristic solutions to problems better solved through diplomacy and deal-breaking.

The glimmer of hope I can see for the Mencian critique of domestically-virtuous rulers doing evil or insufficiently-good things in their realms is actually in the opening chapters of the Mencius itself. King Hui of Liang keeps his domestic household well-stocked, but is excoriated by Mencius for failing to show the same parental concern toward his people. Later, Mencius tells King Xuan of Qi that he is capable of governing benevolently because he took pity on a sacrificial ox and spared it – but that he wasn’t yet governing benevolently because his will (为) was not equal to his capability (能). Here, perhaps a similar critique of Obama is possible. He clearly has the capability to rule benevolently, exercising fidelity to his wife and compassion toward his children. But he has not yet trained his will, either to discipline himself and take a limited, realistic position in foreign affairs, or to exert himself on behalf of genuine reforms (including politically-plausible ones like a public health insurance option) which would clearly have been beneficial to the poorest of his people, whereas the market-friendly reforms he has championed are leaving people behind. This can also be described as ‘leading on beasts to devour men’.

I am, however, interested in hearing what my other gentle Chinese philosophy buff readers have to say on the subject!


  1. I do dislike the way so many Republicans say such harsh things about Obama. It's fair enough that they disagree with his policies, but I don't understand why they have to portray him as evil.

  2. Mencius approves a ruler being positively strong for his people, strong enough to protect them.

  3. That would be a strong argument, if it could be shown that bombing Yemen or Pakistan was in fact 'protecting' us. Let's just say I'm not holding my breath that any such argument will surface.