I am so glad to have been asked to spend time with Carey and Vitz’s paper, “Mencius, Hume, and the Virtue of Humanity: Sources of Benevolent Moral Development.” I am already a sympathetic reader of Vitz’s take on Hume, and it has been a pleasure to see how this connects with the Confucianism of Mencius. I must admit at the outset a sympathy to the Humean psychological framework for thinking about virtue, and this paper brings into relief some of the challenges that anyone so positioned has to consider. In taking these two parallel views as offering a plausible account of how we might actually develop a virtue of humanity, I think one of the most productive lines of thought that Carey and Vitz bring forward is the cognitive means by which we are expected to direct our attention to others. They note on this point that Mencius’s view is more explicit than Hume’s, and in doing so highlight a demand for anyone aiming to promote a Humean view of our sympathy and its role in the cultivation of virtue. As primarily an historical paper, this account expounds on but does not within its bounds attempt to fully articulate what is involved in this process. They give us reason to take seriously the psychological mechanisms — and limitations — that play a role in the development of this virtue, and this paper sets out interesting conditions for anyone taking natural partiality seriously.
As a prefatory note, Carey and Vitz begin from a perspective that takes psychological concerns as central to moral theory (a perspective I share), and this entails that if morality demands more of us than our natural partiality produces, we need an explanation of how we get from this feature of our psychology to a motivationally plausible explanation for meeting these demands. Carey and Vitz intentionally note that they are not offering these readings as a kind of alternative ethical theory to present contenders, but it is worth noting that for a reader who takes a theory of the good to be less dependent on psychological limitations, Carey and Vitz are taking for granted, as Hume and Mencius do, that a virtue of humanity that demands benevolence beyond our kin requires some explanation in terms of our natural partiality.
I will begin with a synopsis of their paper and then proceed to outline three questions about their paper. The first is interpretive, the second comparative, and the third regards the substantive view that results from taking Mencius and Hume seriously.
Carey and Vitz set out to elucidate the moral psychology behind developing the virtue of humanity as they see it explained, largely in parallel, in Mencius and Hume. They argue that the two philosophers share very similar views on both the psychological and social development of this virtue and, to a lesser extent, its cognitive sources. Their goals are to show that these philosophers offer similar accounts, and in doing so to draw attention what they take to be a promisingly plausible and theoretically advancing account of how we could develop a virtue of humanity.
Carey and Vitz argue that for Mencius, the psychological origin of the virtue of humanity or benevolence (rén) is our natural compassion for others. If we see a child about to fall into a well, Mencius argues, we feel compassion for the child; this compassion leads us to help the child, and the motivation is not reducible either to our own sympathetic pain (which could just as easily lead us to divert our attention) or a desire for esteem. They paraphrase Meyong-seok Kim to show that this compassion is both a feeling with and a feeling for the child (Kim 2010). This natural inclination, with proper cultivation, can be developed into the broader virtue of humanity.
In articulating Hume’s view of the psychological background for this virtue, they make an interpretive distinction between what Hume calls the principle of humanity, which is a natural disposition, and the virtue of humanity, which requires cultivation. They note an ambiguity in Hume as to whether it is the principle of humanity or the principle of sympathy that first motivates us to intervene to prevent another’s suffering; whereas some scholars, as they note, see a distinction between Hume’s Treatise and the Second Enquiry regarding these two concepts, Carey and Vitz suggest that there is continuity to be found in seeing both as playing an important role for developing the virtue of humanity. On their account, the principle of sympathy brings us to feel with a person, and the principle of humanity to feel for them.
Carey and Vitz then argue (Section 2) that Mencius’ compassion or Hume’s sympathy can plausibly develop into the virtue of humanity. This section takes on the interpretively significant challenge of explaining why these philosophers embrace aspects of our natural partiality. The view Mencius holds, so they argue, is that true impartiality is psychologically impossible. Just as natural compassion builds to the virtue of humanity psychologically, so natural familiar partiality builds to the virtue socially. A necessary first step in developing the virtue of humanity is developing filial piety. The virtuous person is never impartially benevolent, but instead is able to extend their partial benevolence universally. (More on this later.)
Hume likewise takes familial relationships to be paradigmatic of virtue. “Hume, like Mencius, maintains that human concern ought to be both partial and wide in scope. Hence, although people are naturally partial to their family and friends, the concern of a humane and benevolent person can and ought to extend well beyond that narrow scope” (p.13). We are expected to be fair and kind, they note, to all with whom we interact, while maintaining some natural partiality (the lack of which would be blameworthy). In his argument that justice is an artificial virtue, Hume notably claims that there is no “universal affection to mankind” in human nature (T 220.127.116.11) — no feeling of impartial benevolence — and Carey and Vitz’s account describes a means to broadening the scope of our partial benevolence in spite of this psychological limitation.
Up to this point we have seen the psychological and social mechanisms by which our natural feelings toward others can be expanded, but we have not yet seen an account from either Mencius or Hume about how we check our natural and sometimes overly strong partial motives against the demands of the virtue of humanity more broadly. In Section 3, the authors outline the cognitive sources for this virtue. For Mencius, they argue, this source is via the concepts of sī, “focused attentiveness on a subject,” and shu, “a cognitive capacity to extend one’s innate ability to feel compassion for others and, consequently, to behave towards them humanely, or benevolently” (p.16). By reflecting on moments such as a surprising feeling of sympathy, we can recognize our potential for compassion, and by specifically considering the feelings of others we develop our “sympathetic understanding” (p.17).
Carey and Vitz suggest that their reading of this cognitive resource in Hume requires more speculation: “although it is not explicit in his moral philosophy, one can reasonably infer that Hume is committed to affirming that people need to learn to fix their attention on the details of the suffering of others in order to extend the scope of their concern from more partial interests in, e.g., the members of their family-society to more public interests in the members of society at large” (p.19). Like Mencius, they argue that on Hume’s account viewing the plight of others in lively detail or with focused attention is a means for expanding our partial sentiments to have a universal scope.
This paper brings to the fore several noteworthy elements of the shared moral psychology between these two philosophers. They make a strong case that neither thinks virtue is impartial (and this distinguishes Mencius from other Confucians). Furthermore, not only does each think that partiality is psychologically inescapable—that we cannot actually feel impartial benevolence—but that it is also essential for the development of virtue. I confess to a bias in thinking that these claims are especially important in understanding Hume’s theory, and it is interesting to see similar arguments in Mencius. Despite my general sympathy in this reading, I think there are a few argumentative moves that warrant more discussion.
(1) I will begin with a minor question. I do not follow their paraphrasing of Kim in the argument that compassion, for Mencius, entails feeling both with and for. As Carey and Vitz state it, “to say that people’s hearts are ‘not unfeeling’ is to say that people’s hearts are not able to endure the suffering of others” (p.5). I treat this point as minor since I suspect the issue is clearer in the full Kim article and that my unfamiliarity with the Chinese language is affecting my understanding of the nuance. However, it’s not clear to me that the inability to endure the suffering of others will get us farther than the problematic response that we might “turn away in fear or revulsion” that they are trying to avoid (p.4). I would like to hear more from the authors on this key interpretive point.
(2) In their discussion of Hume’s principles of humanity and sympathy, I draw the reader’s attention to a notable difference between Hume and Mencius. Carey and Vitz argue that sympathy is our means for feeling with a stranger and humanity our means of feeling for They argue that whereas in cases of partial affection we can get to the feeling for without a prerequisite of sympathy (one doesn’t need to feel sympathy for one’s children in order to feel for them), that in the cases of broader benevolence or humanity the psychological ability to sympathize is required in order for us to have the feeling for others that develops into a virtue of humanity. (In the full picture, including the cognitive elements, we will need sympathy + humanity + cultivation, the last of which includes social circumstances and proper attention.) On this point, it would also be interesting to examine why Hume thinks there are two different principles operating here where Mencius only identified one. Regarding the aim to make these views plausible from the perspective of human psychology, it seems an important consideration whether there is one affective source or two required for cultivating this virtue.
(3) A third question is a broader interpretive question about the view Carey and Vitz suggest is shared here. Taking these two accounts of how we develop a virtue of humanity as similar and psychologically interesting, which Carey and Vitz invite us to do, there is still a question of what it means to possess this virtue. Mencius says we “extend these [partial benevolent affections] to the world,” hence the conclusion that our benevolence be universal. But though it is universal in scope, our benevolence is never impartial. I understand this to mean that we have the capacity—and, it seems, an obligation—to extend our benevolence to anyone whose plight is made known to us, as well as some obligation to sensitize ourselves such that we become more knowledgeable about the plights of others, but we don’t as a matter of fact have equal feelings of benevolence toward every human being. It also seems to follow that we will not necessarily feel benevolence toward everyone as strongly as we feel it toward our kin, even though we recognize at times that we have to correct for these biases. It is also supposed to be vicious to disregard the natural partial affections we ought to have. In what ways, then, are we treating people universally? The actual demands of the virtue of humanity seem unclear to me; it seems that we are expected to be kind, caring, and fair to all whom we encounter while maintaining some degree of partiality, but by itself this picture leaves a lot of detail to be filled in. In particular, in cases of conflict between partial affections and benevolence toward others, if impartiality is both impossible and discouraged, what are the appropriate and inappropriate moral weights we give to our kin? To put it more starkly, how does natural partiality plus sympathy with others get us beyond very basic kindness, when it doesn’t conflict with our partial interests too strongly? The sense of the “universality” that the virtue of humanity demands may lack some force without a demand for impartiality. This is a consequence embraced by those who take partialism seriously (as I do), but I find the claim that our benevolence becomes universal to be rather hollow. I hope Carey and Vitz will have more to say in conversation about this problem, but I see the challenge as one that goes beyond the scope of their paper and one worth taking up in its own right.
— Erin Frykholm (University of Kansas)
- Hume, David. 2000. A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Kim, Myeong-seok. 2010. “What Cèyǐn zhī xīn (Compassion/Familial Affection) Really Is.” Dao 9: 407-425.