Oneness and Self-Centeredness in the Moral Psychology of Wang Yangming

David W. Tien

Pre-publication draft dated December 2010 of article published in the Journal of Religious Ethics (JRE) 40.1 (2012): 52-71)

The moral psychology of the Chinese scholar-official Wang Yangming (1472-1529) presents a compelling and nuanced vision of how people are at “one” with others and other parts of the world, and even with the universe at large. Wang focuses on the ethical implications that come from recognizing and living in light of such a conception of the self, especially in relation to how such a view entails or implies various types and levels of care for other people, creatures, and things. This essay describes Wang’s conception of the self and explains its ethical implications, demonstrating how Wang’s views can make significant contributions to contemporary debates about the ways we are and can see ourselves related to other people and the world.

The teachings of Wang Yangming form the basis of what became known as “The Learning of the Mind” (xin xue 心學), one of the two leading schools of thought in the history of Neo-Confucianism, which dominated Chinese philosophy for over a thousand years. Wang’s philosophy also greatly influenced the development of Confucian thought in Japan and Korea.

Almost all accounts of Wang Yangming’s philosophy interpret his central concept of siyu 私欲 as “selfishness,” which usually means to be almost exclusively or excessively concerned with one’s own desires in contrast to others. A different interpretation of siyu is in terms of “self-centeredness,” which means to view the world excessively and exclusively from one’s own point of view and to view oneself as distinctly separate from other persons and things. This paper argues that while Wang employed both senses of “siyu” and at times conflated them and while there is some overlap between the two senses, a more accurate and revealing interpretation of Wang’s use of “siyu” is “self‐centeredness.” One of the main goals in Wang’s model of moral cultivation was to attain a state devoid of self‐centered desires. Wang relied a great deal on the exercise and cultivation of an emotional identification and feeling of oneness with others. This was taken to such an extreme degree as to include experiencing an interpersonal unity with the entirety of Heaven and Earth. This is a state of oneness in which the conception of self and other are merged to a significant degree. These experiential states of oneness are causally responsible for motivating moral behavior. In relating Wang’s insights on oneness to modern debates in moral psychology, this paper draws on the empirical research of Robert Cialdini, C. Daniel Batson, and Arthur and Elaine Aron, among others.

In this paper, I first provide a brief summary of the role of Wang’s concept of “siyu” in his moral psychology. I then examine key passages in Wang’s writings that reveal his nuanced understanding of “siyu” and, along the way, I draw on empirical research in psychology to help illuminate the significance of Wang’s view of “siyu” to his overall model of moral cultivation.

“Siyu” in the Moral Psychology of Wang Yangming

Much of Wang Yangming’s moral psychology hinges on his teaching regarding the liangzhi (“pure knowing”), which for him is the innate fully formed cognitive-affective-volitional faculty that enables one to know the li 理 (commonly translated as “principle”) of the mind and universe.[1] Li 理 refer to the way a thing or state of affairs ought to be. When things or states of affairs are not in accord with li, they are deemed deviant. Every thing possesses all the li of the universe within it. In human beings, the li exist complete in the mind (xin 心). For Wang, though, the mind not only contains li, the mind is itself li and operates as the knowing, conscious mode of li.[2]

At birth, we are endowed with this complete and perfect mind. Wang refers to this as the “mind in its original state” (xinzhibenti 心之本體) or the “original mind” (benxin 本心). The liangzhi operates as a cognitive-affective-volitional faculty that discerns flawlessly, naturally, and spontaneously between right and wrong, generating inerrant cognitive, affective, and volitional responses.

If our liangzhi is an infallible moral guide, how does Wang account for the bad moral choices we often seem to make? In line with the rest of the Neo-Confucian tradition, Wang explains moral wrong by invoking the concept of qi 氣 (variously translated as “material force,” “vital energy,” or “lively matter”).[3] Qi is the psychophysical stuff of which the universe is made. It exists in various grades of purity. For Wang and most Neo-Confucians, everything that exists is constituted by a combination of li and qi. Although all things possess all the li of the universe complete within them, because of the impurity of the qi of which they are composed, some li are obstructed, thereby accounting for the differences between things.[4] According to many Neo-Confucians, the high degree of clarity of the qi of human beings enables us to purify our qi endowments, which would eventually allow all the li within us, or more accurately, within our minds to shine forth. In turn, our pure and clear minds would be able to apprehend immediately and effortlessly the li in the external world.

Wang believes that the impure grades of qi in human beings are manifested primarily as “self-centered desires” (si yu 私欲), which he also refers to as the “self-centered mind” (si xin), “self-centered ideas” (si yi), and “self-centered thoughts” (si nian). He believes that our self-centered desires obscure our grasp of our original minds and prevent us from utilizing our liangzhi faculties. For our liangzhi to operate at optimum effectiveness, first we would need to eliminate our self-centered desires. Wang employs Buddhist-inspired similes to illustrate the relation between the liangzhi and self-centered desires. Just as the sun shining behind clouds or a clear mirror hidden beneath dust, the liangzhi must be unobstructed by the “clouds” and “dust” of self-centered desires for it to apprehend li and lead us to correct moral decisions and affections.[5]

Self-Centered or Selfish?

How then does one discover and master one’s grasp of this liangzhi faculty? The first necessary step is to pare away the siyu and thus attain a state of oneness, a state devoid of self-centeredness.[6] I use “self-centered” to contrast with what we usually mean by “selfish,” which is to be almost completely concerned with one’s own good or pleasure above others’.[7] “Self-centeredness” here means to view the world exclusively and excessively from one’s own point of view. The perfect moral agent for Wang and other Neo-Confucians operates in a state of “oneness,” a felt state of metaphysical unity in which one’s sense of self is not so much lost than expanded. When acting in this state of onenesss, one is not thinking about oneself at all. While this experiential state of oneness admits of degrees, in an ideal state of oneness, one would be completely unselfconscious and wholly unaware of any sense of personal agency. Wang’s notion of self-centeredness arises from his belief in the underlying metaphysical unity of the universe, a notion he shares with almost all Neo-Confucians (Ivanhoe 2002, 28-30). For Wang, the liangzhi cannot operate freely and properly when it is impeded by these self-centered desires, so the first step is to eliminate them.[8]

What is the relationship between “selfishness” and “self-centeredness”? I first came upon this distinction in the religious writings of Clive Staples Lewis, late professor of literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and prolific novelist. Lewis is often misleadingly characterized as a “popular” religious thinker. When this is meant in a derogatory sense, it usually betrays the peculiar academic prejudice against anyone who writes clearly and is widely read by others. With Lewis, however, one often encounters a strong dose of serious reflection, often in a charming literary style (Meilaender 1998).

In his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, Lewis characterized his ideal daily routine as “almost entirely selfish” but certainly not “self-centered.” This ideal day was modeled on a “normal day” during his pre-university schooling. He paints a remarkably lucid and compelling picture of how a selfish but not self-centered man might go about his day. Lewis’s ideal life would be spent from nine in the morning to seven in the evening mainly engaged in reading or writing about whatever interested him, with breaks for lunch and tea taken in solitude.[9] While Lewis considered this his ideal day, he also demeaned it as selfish: “It is no doubt for my own good that I have been so generally prevented from leading it for it is a life almost entirely selfish. Selfish, but not self-centered,” because, according to Lewis, “in such a life my mind would be directed toward a thousand things, not one of which is myself” (Lewis 1955, 137). Lewis gives himself as an example of someone who was once selfish but not self-centered.

Readily conceding that even if this “ideal” lifestyle were not self-centered, it would still be selfish, Lewis nonetheless understands its attraction. And he recommends it over a life that is self-centered but not selfish:

One of the happiest men and most pleasing companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. Either condition will destroy the soul in the end. But till the end give me the man who takes the best of everything (even at my expense) and then talks of other things, rather than the man who serves me and talks of himself, and whose very kindnesses are a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude, and admiration. (Lewis 1955, 137)

In an epitaph he once composed, Lewis makes a similar point in a more playful style:

Erected by her sorrowing brothers

In memory of Martha Clay.

Here lies one who lived for others;

Now she has peace. And so have they. (Lewis 2002, 134)

Here Lewis succinctly depicts a person who, under the guise of living for others, actually becomes their burden. Rather than being self-centered but not selfish, it would have been better for dear Martha to have been selfish in the manner described by Lewis, blithely following her own pleasures and desires without considering the viewpoints of others, but not self-centered, focusing instead on things and events outside herself. If interpreted in light of his other writings on self-centeredness, one can imagine Martha Clay as one who lived for others but talked of herself, whose very kindnesses were “a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude, and admiration” (Lewis 1955, 137). And thus, according to Lewis, being self-centered is a greater sin than being merely selfish.

Like Lewis, I see a significant distinction between these two terms. To be “selfish” means to be almost exclusively or excessively concerned with one’s own desires, though not necessarily with one’s individual self. To be “self-centered” is to be almost exclusively or excessively concerned with one’s individual self, though not necessarily with one’s own desires.

They are not mutually exclusive but do come apart in key cases. Indeed, much overlap exists between these two categories. In many cases, people who are “self-centered” in this sense—that is, their thinking is engrossed almost entirely in themselves—are often at the same time “selfish,” almost wholly concerned with their own wishes. But the concepts are nevertheless distinct.

For instance, consider the case of the smug philanthropist, who finds it easy and enjoyable to do kind and generous acts for other people.[10] Unfortunately, he also takes great pride in his own attitude and actions, seeing them as expressions of his own moral greatness. Setting up his philanthropic foundation and generating much press coverage and promises of generous donations, this budding philanthropist arranges his first major fundraiser. When the donors finally meet him in person, though, they are so offended by his smugness that they choose to send their donations elsewhere. Here in the case of the smug philanthropist is an example of the converse of Lewis’s idyllic “selfish but not self-centered” lifestyle. The smug philanthropist is unselfish—putting the desires and needs of others above his own—but intensely self-centered—thinking mainly about his own moral merit and magnanimity toward others. Neither of these states is ideal according to Wang and the Neo-Confucians. It would be best to be neither selfish nor self-centered.

But now we return to our earlier question. Was the “siyu” in Wang’s “siyu” closer in meaning to “selfish” or “self-centered”? Some of the passages in which “siyu” occurs are ambiguous on this issue. Very likely, Wang himself was not clear on this distinction and occasionally conflated the two meanings. However, keeping the two separate is crucial to understanding why Wang gave “siyu” such a pivotal role in his philosophy of moral cultivation. While some key passages make more explicit Wang’s interpretation of “siyu” as “self-centered,” an equally cogent case for this view can be built upon the foundations of Wang’s overall philosophy.

Along with most Neo-Confucians, and indeed most scholars during his time, Wang believed deeply in the underlying unity of the universe. But this central idea was not confined to his metaphysics; it had far-reaching ramifications for his ethics and moral psychology. Our oneness with all things in the universe held normative implications, as the early Neo-Confucian Zhang Zai (1020-77) proclaimed in his famous Western Inscription, which begins thusly:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Thus, what fills the universe I regard as my body and what directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.[11]

Zhang Zai and other Neo-Confucians did not employ this language of unity and oneness lightly. It was not meant to refer merely to the interconnectedness of human social networks, though that was of course included. The oneness of the universe was predicated on a common qi, the stuff of which all things are composed, and a common li, the “heavenly pattern” (tianli 天理) that underlies all things in the universe.

In his celebrated essay, “Inquiry on the Great Learning,” Wang invokes the theme of oneness in language similar to Zhang Zai’s: “The great man regards Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between the self and others, they are small men…” (Wang 1963, 272). The egregious error highlighted here is not a mere privileging of one’s desires at the expense of others, but instead an excessive focus on one’s individual self.

Wang saw this metaphysical unity as extending not only to people and animals, but also to plants and inanimate objects. He continues:

[W]hen he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet, even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones. This means that even the mind of the small man must have the humanity that forms one body with all. Such a mind is rooted in his Heaven-endowed nature and is naturally intelligent, clear, and not beclouded. (Wang 1963, 272-273, translation modified).

Because even the uncultivated share their qi and universal li in common with the rest of the universe, they too would feel pity and regret at the damage to plants, tiles, and stones, though they feel it to a much lesser degree than those who are morally cultivated. It is not that they feel hurt to see them damaged; they feel the hurt as their own, as a personal injury to an extension of their own bodies (Ivanhoe 2002, 29).

Elsewhere Wang expounds in detail on this theme:

At bottom, Heaven and Earth and all things are my body. Is there any suffering or bitterness of the great masses that is not disease or pain in my own body? Those who are not aware of the disease and pain in their own body are people without the sense of right and wrong… If gentlemen of the world merely devote their effort to extending their liangzhi, they will naturally share with all a universal sense of right and wrong, share their likes and dislikes, regard other people as their own persons, regard the people of other countries as their own family, and look upon Heaven, Earth, and all things as one body. When this is done, even if we wanted the world to be without order, it would not be possible. When the ancients felt that the good seemed to come from themselves whenever they saw others do good, when they felt that they had fallen into evil whenever they saw others do evil, when they regarded other people’s hunger and drowning as their own, … they did not purposely do so to seek people’s faith in them… Oh, how simple and easy was the way of sages to govern the empire![12]

The pain of others is the sage’s pain. The guilt of others is the sage’s guilt. The delight of others is the sage’s delight. Wang’s program of moral cultivation aimed to help us realize the sagehood within us all. And in reaching this goal, we too would feel this oneness with all things.

A well-known story of a founding father of Neo-Confucianism, Zhou Dunyi (1017-73), reported that he refused to cut the grass in front of his house because he felt intimately connected with it.[13] In connection with this story, Wang averred, “The spirit of life of Heaven and Earth is the same in flowers and weeds” (Wang 1963, S. 101).

Even more explicit in this regard is this passage from Cheng Hao’s (1032-85) commentary on Analects 6:30:

In medical books, a paralyzed arm or leg is said to be “unfeeling” or “not benevolent” (buren 不仁). This expression is perfect for describing the situation. The benevolent person, or “one with feeling” (ren), regards all things in the universe as one body. There is nothing that is not [a part of] him. If he regards all things as [parts of] himself, to where will [his feelings] not extend? However, if he does not see them [as parts of] himself, why would he feel any concern for them? It is like the case of a paralyzed arm or leg. The qi does not circulate through them, so they are not regarded as parts of oneself… Kongzi sought to lead us to see benevolence in this manner so that we could attain benevolence itself.[14]

This interpretation of “benevolence,” as a sort of sensitivity towards all parts of the one, universal body, is as Ivanhoe describes, “the ethical expression of Wang’s metaphysical beliefs” (Ivanhoe 2002, 28). Forming one body with the universe consists in first cognitively comprehending the underlying unity and then experiencing the concomitant feeling of a pervasive unity with the cosmos and all its constituent parts.

Clearly, then, overcoming one’s self-centeredness—one’s focus on one’s personal self to the exclusion of all others—is a necessary step in one’s journey to sagehood. In his “Inquiry on the Great Learning,” Wang elaborated on this link:

Hence, if it is not obscured by self-centered desires, even the mind of the small man has the humanity that forms one body with all as does the mind of the great man. As soon as it is obscured by self-centered desires, though, even the mind of the great man will be divided and narrow like that of the small man. Thus, the learning of the great man consists entirely in getting rid of the obscuration of self-centered desires in order by his own efforts to make manifest his clear character, so as to restore the condition of forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things. (Wang 1963, 273, translation modified)

Thus, for Wang, the goal was to eliminate one’s self-centeredness and expand one’s sense of self to embrace all of reality. This entailed a loss of one’s “self” apart from other people and things. Self-centeredness, then, was a pernicious and persistent impediment to the moral life. That is why destroying “self-centered desires,” which draw a false distinction between one’s individual self and the rest of the universe, is the way to preserve Heavenly li and finally form one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things.

One might object that Wang at times does recommend focusing on one’s own life and world. After all, Wang teaches that in the process of self-cultivation, we are to work on precisely those tasks that confront us in our daily lives (Ivanhoe 2002, 100-102). But in this case, Wang does not mean focusing on the self in contrast to focusing on other persons. Rather, the contrast is between directing one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions toward some abstract ideal versus directing them toward being moral in the concrete circumstances in which one already finds oneself. He admonishes us to focus first on being good moral persons in our everyday situations rather than leaving behind our duties and responsibilities to seek some great heroic task far off.[15] Here he displays his Chan Buddhist proclivities in his emphasis on concrete practice in everyday life. And Wang’s emphasis on being good and doing right in the conditions that confront us in daily life resonates with Mother Teresa’s sentiment, “It is easy to love people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start” (Scott 2001, 62; attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta).

Moreover, while being un-self-centered may be the aim of self-cultivation, there is an intermediate stage entailing that one’s self be at the center of one’s moral world. Along these lines, Wang urges his students to monitor their own thoughts and feelings, “like a cat catching mice,” always trying to identify and eliminate any self-centered or selfish thoughts that arise (Tien 2010a).  This requires a high level of self-scrutiny and necessarily involves extended and intensive periods of focus on oneself. But this is only necessary when one’s liangzhi faculty of pure knowing is not yet properly functioning (Tien 2004, 46-49). Once one’s liangzhi is unimpeded by siyu and is functioning properly, one would naturally think, feel, and do the right things, effortlessly and naturally. Admittedly, the attainment of this advanced stage of moral development is rare, hence, Wang’s emphasis on self-monitoring.

Although “self-centeredness” more accurately captures the sense and significance of siyu for Wang instead of “selfishness,” Wang himself may have been unaware of this distinction in the two meanings of “si.” I readily admit that sometimes Wang uses the term in the sense of a straightforward ‘selfishness.’ Perhaps the clearest instance of this is a passage in which Wang inveighs against the loss of liangzhi in his generation. He laments how “people have used their selfishness (si) and cunning to compete and clash with one another… Outwardly, people make pretenses in the name of humanity and rightness. At heart, their real aim is to act for their own benefit” (Wang 1963, S. 180, translation modified). In this case, “siyu” must mean placing one’s own desires first at the expense of others’ and hence “selfish” is a correct translation.

But perhaps Wang saw selfishness as one expression of self-centeredness, for later in the same passage, in excoriating these hypocrites, Wang attributes their moral failings to a lack of understanding and affective appreciation for their oneness with the universe:

They indulge in passions and give free rein to self-centered desires, and yet regard themselves as sharing the same likes and dislikes with the rest of mankind… Even among blood relatives, they cannot get rid of the feeling of mutual separation and obstruction. How much more will this be true in regard to the great multitude and the myriad things? How can they regard them as one body? No wonder the world is confused, and calamity and disorder endlessly succeed each other. (Wang 1963, S. 180)

Thus, for Wang, not only was experiential knowledge of one’s unity with all things characteristic of the ideal state, it was also a prime motivator in generating moral action. Here one sees the connection between “siyu” and the doctrine of the “unity of knowledge and action” (zhixing heyi). Wang blames self-centered desires for the unfortunate separation of knowledge and action: “The knowledge and action you refer to are already separated by self-centered desires and are no longer knowledge and action in their original substance.”[16] But why would self-centered desires be the main obstacle separating knowledge from action?

Oneness and Moral Motivation

In recent decades, psychologists, not content to leave the study of altruism and moral motivation to the philosophers, have examined the question of whether we are ever genuinely selfless. In response to the leading hypothesis on this subject at the time, Robert Cialdini and his research associates proposed and tested a theory that attributes helping behavior to self-other merging. While it is outside the bounds of this paper to take sides on this debate, it is instructive to highlight resonances between the self-other merging theory and Wang Yangming’s theory of self-centeredness and moral motivation.[17]

In recent decades, the most intense discussions in this area of psychology have repeatedly invoked the concept of empathy. One of the most prominent and research productive of the empathy-based formulations of altruism has been that of C. Daniel Batson and associates.[18] According to Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis, purely altruistic acts can occur consistently if they are preceded by the specific psychological state of empathic concern for the other. They define “empathic concern” as an emotional reaction characterized by feelings described as compassion, tenderness, softheartedness, and sympathy. In an extensive program of research involving scores of experiments over multiple decades, they and other researchers working independently[19] have demonstrated that generally, under conditions of empathic concern for the other, individuals help more frequently in what appear to be altruistically motivated attempts to improve the other’s well-being rather than an egoistically motivated attempt to improve their own. Their empathy-altruism hypothesis has been repeatedly confirmed in the face of challenges from various egoistically based alternative accounts, such as those attributing helping behavior to reward seeking, punishment avoidance, aversive arousal reduction, as well as an egoistic desire to escape social disapproval, guilt, shame, sadness, or to increase vicarious joy.[20] Even major advocates of egoistic accounts of helping have conceded that there is credible experimental evidence for the existence of genuine altruism (Archer 1984; Piliavin and Chang 1990; Cialdini et. al., 1997).

However, Cialdini and associates presented evidence challenging the empathy-altruism model, proposing instead a theory based on the merging of self and other identity. [21] Their conclusion denied the existence of pure altruism because altruism depends critically on the separateness of the self and the other. Without a distinct self and other and without distinct motivations to aid the self or the other, it would be impossible to detach altruism from egoism, a line of reasoning that Batson and associates acknowledged. Self-other merging may never actually be complete and total, so that there is always room for the possibility (even if very minor) of altruism. However, as the self and other increasingly merge, helping the other increasingly helps the self. When the distinction between self and other is undermined, the old dichotomy between selfishness and selflessness no longer applies. Earlier research also suggested that the merging of self and other identity can explain helping behavior and that such merging can occur and most likely under the same conditions linked by the empathy-altruism model to feelings of attachment and altruistic motivation.

Building on earlier research by Arthur and Elaine Aron, Mark H. Davis, and others, Cialdini and associates tested their self-other merging hypothesis in three studies closely resembling the conditions under which Batson and associates tested their empathy-altruism model, using perspective taking instructions and the variable of relationship closeness (Aron and Aron 1986; Aron, Aron, and Smollan 1992; Aron, Aron, Tudor, and Nelson 1991; Davis et. al., 1996). On four categories of closeness—from near stranger to acquaintance to good friend to close family member—as subjects took the perspective of those closer to them, the degree to which they were willing to offer help increased dramatically compared to the degree of empathic concern they felt. That is, “controlling for oneness eliminated the influence of empathic concern, whereas controlling for empathic concern left oneness a powerful predictor of willingness to help.”[22] Their path analysis revealed further that empathy increased willingness to help only through its relation to perceived oneness, suggesting that empathy affects helping primarily as an emotional signal of oneness, thereby undermining the altruism-empathy model.

The research cited by Cialdini and associates characterized “oneness” in terms such as identity and psychological indistinguishability (Lerner 1982), expansion of the self to include the other, confusion between self and other, union, merging (Aron, Aron, and Smollan 1992), and the preferred description of Cialdini and associates, as seeing part of oneself in another.[23] According to Cialdini and associates, oneness and empathy are bidirectional. The perception of oneness can generate the experience of empathy, and the experience of empathy can generate the perception of oneness. But it is oneness and not empathy that motivates helping. Empathic concern is thus merely a concomitant of oneness.

The psychologists’ findings also support the evolutionary perspective on helping that holds that as indications of genetic commonality between individuals increase, so will willingness to assist, especially in higher need situations where survival is at risk. This also dovetails with recent discussions of biological altruism, which differs in kind from the psychological altruism Cialdini and associates are attacking.[24] This is consistent with Neo-Confucian claims that the qi of blood relatives bear similarities that the qi of non-relatives do not share, and thus only a blood relative can call back the dispersed qi of a deceased ancestor.[25] This is the metaphysical argument underlying the Neo-Confucian support for the traditional Chinese emphasis on and preference for family and filial piety.

Moreover, the psychologists’ conclusions fit well with the psychological literature on concepts of “self” in non-Western societies, in which a more communal rather than individualistic orientation is common (Nisbett 2003; Markus and Kitayama 1991; Triandis 1989; Gilligan 1982; and Geertz 1973). Corroborating their data on oneness and helping, earlier studies on Asian societies found that Asians showed a greater willingness than those in Western societies to help in-group members and a lesser willingness to help out-group members (Leung 1998). Since those from Asian cultures supposedly imbue more of the self-concepts into their groups, in a very real sense, what they do to and for others, they do to and for themselves.

Other studies have shown that a deep experience of oneness can cause people to act as if some or all aspects of the other are partially their own, and this is sometimes accompanied by a sense of a general increase of fusion between the self and the other. For instance, Aron and Aron’s self-expansion model holds that people are motivated to enter and maintain close relationships to expand the self by including the resources, perspectives, and characteristics of the other in the self (Aron and Aron 1986). Similarly, other studies on group oneness have demonstrated the powerful effect of group identification on participants’ willingness to restrict individual gain to preserve collective good. Positive evaluations and liking for others can be induced simply by the knowledge of a shared, common identity. This is a phenomena that researchers have called “depersonalized social attraction,” and it is closely connected to the idea of a “social self” that is a more inclusive self-representation in which relations and similarities to others become central to one’s self concept (Hogg 1992; Brewer and Gardner 1996).

In recent decades, research in neuroscience has unearthed the operation of mirror neurons.[26] Often, empathy-altruism theorists claim that the work of mirror neurons confirms their position. While the process of simulation by which mirror neurons seem to operate may be consistent with simulation theories of empathy, the very fact that we have such strong neural connections with others lends considerable support to the oneness hypothesis. The human brain has multiple systems of mirror neurons, with more being discovered over time, and there seem to be a great number of such neural systems that have not yet been mapped. Our brains have a multitude of mirror neuron systems that automatically and unconsciously cause us to mimic others’ actions, interpret others’ intentions, extract the social implications of events, and read and adopt others’ emotions.[27] The instant triggering of parallel circuitry in two brains enables us to establish a shared experiential world. Daniel Stern, a developmental psychiatrist, has researched extensively the relationships between mothers and infants, as well as those between adults, such as the relationships between lovers and between therapists and clients. Stern points out that our nervous systems “are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their own skin” (Stern 2004, 76).[28] At such times, we automatically, immediately, and unconsciously experience a kind of oneness with others, and they with us. Stern’s conclusion is remarkably reminiscent of Neo-Confucian claims of oneness. We can no longer “see our minds as so independent, separate, and isolated,” but must instead perceive them as “permeable,” constantly interacting with the others around us.[29]

In Neo-Confucian religious ethics, the experience of oneness plays an integral role in motivating moral behavior, for while empathy and oneness are closely linked, Wang and many other Neo-Confucians seem to say that oneness and not empathy leads to moral motivation. Although Neo-Confucians ground this state of oneness in their li-qi metaphysics, contemporary psychologists understand this in a much more mundane sense. Despite the similarities in their descriptions with Neo-Confucianism, the psychological literature refers mainly to the oneness experienced between blood relatives, extended family, close friends, and coherent groups. Wang and other Neo-Confucians would no doubt have wholeheartedly supported the findings of Cialdini et. al., and it would be instructive to elucidate how oneness, and not empathy, could motivate helping behavior in a contemporary case.[30]

Take, for example, the case of a football player on a cohesive team. In the middle of a game, he sees his teammate suddenly attacked flagrantly, unfairly, and excessively by a player on the opposing team. He and most of his teammates react naturally and spontaneously. They are immediately motivated to help their teammate. He is one of them. He is part of the team. The teammates do not proceed by empathic or vicarious role-taking, considering what it would be like to be attacked by an opposing player in just such a manner, how they would feel in his shoes, and then what they would like their teammates to do in response. Rather, they perceive him as one of them. It is the oneness from identifying themselves as part of a unitary team that leads to the motivation and helping behavior.

If, as Wang Yangming maintains, the perception and experience of oneness is the primary factor motivating moral behavior, then it should be clear why self-centeredness is so dangerous.[31] Self-centeredness drives a wedge between the individual self and the rest of the world. So even if people grasp cognitively that they should act filially to their parents, unless they perceive and experience their oneness with their parents, they won’t be induced to act lovingly to them. Put another way, unless they have experiential knowledge of their oneness with their parents, they won’t feel a strong compulsion to act filially toward them.

When one feels a collective unity with another, one naturally takes into account the other’s needs and desires and is as motivated to help the other as one is to help oneself. In teaching about the principle of filial piety, Wang draws this connection: “If the mind is free from self-centered human desires and has become completely identical with the Heavenly Principle, … then in the winter, one will naturally think of how cold one’s parents feel and seek to provide warmth for them, and in the summer, one will naturally think of how hot the parents feel and seek to provide coolness for them” (Wang 1963, S. 3, translation modified).

At an even more basic level, being in an experiential state of oneness just is being in accord with li: “‘What is the difference between being in accord with li and having no self-centered mind?’ The Teacher said, ‘The mind is li. To have no self-centered mind is to be in accord with li, and not to be in accord with li is to have a self-centered mind…” (Wang 1963, S. 94, translation modified). So the goal of Neo-Confucian epistemology and moral cultivation is to attain and sustain the experiential state of oneness. Wang’s theory of knowledge and action posits that moral action naturally ensues from the oneness state. So the crucial step is achieving and living in the experience of oneness. Wang’s ‘si’ cannot merely be “putting one’s desires above those of others.” It is a deeper philosophical concept, integrally related to the underlying unity of the universe, a metaphysical doctrine to which Wang and other Neo-Confucians were deeply committed.[32]

Conclusion

To recapitulate, while Wang’s concept of ‘si’ likely encompassed both interpretations, the more significant role in Wang’s moral psychology was held by “self-centeredness.” The necessary first step in Wang’s model of moral cultivation was to achieve a state of oneness, devoid of self-centered desires. This was predicated on Wang’s basic metaphysics, which held to the underlying unity of the universe. The state of oneness enables one to experience an emotional identification and a feeling of interpersonal unity with the entirety of Heaven and Earth, including other living things and even inanimate objects. In this state of oneness, the conception of self and other are not distinct but are instead merged. The realization and affective appreciation of our oneness with all things holds such significance in Wang’s moral philosophy because this experience of oneness is causally responsible for motivating moral behavior. Wang’s insights on oneness resonate with contemporary research by Cialdini, Aron, and others on the psychology of helping behavior, which argues for the oneness theory over the empathy-altruism hypothesis.

ENDNOTES

[1] For my earlier version of this basic introduction to Wang’s philosophy, see Tien 2004.

[2] Translations of Wang are based on the Sibu Congkan 四部叢刊 edition. The number following the “S.” corresponds to the section number in Chan’s translation, which are given for ease of reference in Western libraries. Wang 1963, S. 118.

[3] On the integral role of qi in the philosophy of Wang, see Tien 2010b.

[4] For Wang’s understanding of the Neo-Confucian slogan, “Li is one but its manifestations are many,” as well as for an explanation of the distinction in Wang between manifested and universal li, see Tien 2010b.

[5] For the sun behind clouds imagery, see Wang 1963 S. 21, 62, 76, 167, 171. For the mirror under dust imagery, see Wang 1963 S. 207, 237, 255, 289, 290.

[6] For my earlier statement of this two-step process, see Tien 2004.

[7] The extent to which Wang’s concept of siyu was related to the general discourse on desires in general and the specific notion of “selfish desires” in Ming-Qing literature and its cult of qing is an interesting question that unfortunately falls too far afield for this article. Thanks are due an anonymous reader for this suggestion. Clearly, siyu carried deep Buddhist connotations that would not have been lost on Wang’s audience.

[8] For a masterly examination of the apparent paradox of how losing oneself can make oneself happy, see Ivanhoe 2011.

[9] Lewis 1955, 134-7: “[I]f I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a good cup of tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better… At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned… The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, … [f]or eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere… At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies… there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven… Such then was my ideal and such then (almost) was the reality, of ‘settled, calm Epicurean life.’”

[10] This example is inspired by one mentioned in personal correspondence with P.J. Ivanhoe.

[11] This translation, with slight modifications, comes from Chan 1963, 497-498. My reading of the Xi Ming is based on the Sibu Beiyao edition.

[12] Wang 1963, S. 179. Cf., Mengzi 7A: 15.

[13] Adduced in Wang 1963, S. 101. Cf., p. 65, footnote 20. The story is recorded in the Cheng brothers’ Henan Chengshi Yishu, 3:2a.

[14] Translation from Ivanhoe 2002, 28 (with slight modifications). Translation based on Sibu Beiyao edition, Henan Chengshi Yishu 2A:2a, b (cf., 2A:15b).

[15] Thanks are due to an anonymous reader for leading me to this point.

[16] Wang 1963, S. 5. See also Wang 1963, S. 8.

[17] For a pioneering study of the philosophical psychology of oneness and self that draws on Neo-Confucianism, see Ivanhoe 2010.

[18] See especially Batson 1991. For his most recent study, see Batson 2009, 3-15. On empathy and moral motivation, see also Hoffman 2000. For an excellent recent analysis of empathy in philosophy, see Slote 2007. For a superb treatment of empathy in Neo-Confucian thought, see Angle 2009.

[19] Cf., Dovidio, Allen, and Schroeder 1990.

[20] For a summary of this research, see Batson 1991, 91-174.

[21] This debate unfolds in Cialdini, et al., 1997; Batson et, al., 1997; Neuberg, et. al., 1997; Batson 1997.

[22] Cialdini et al., 1997, 485. Notice the shift in wording between “oneness” and “relationship closeness,” a point Batson picks up in his critique in 1997, 518-519.

[23] Cialdini and associates later prevaricate on this description of ‘oneness,’ and Batson criticizes them for it. Batson 1997, 517-518.

[24] For a classic treatment of this distinction, see Sober and Wilson 1998.

[25] For example, see Gardner 1995; Tillman 2004.

[26] On the discovery of mirror neurons, see di Pellegrino, et. al., 1992.

[27] For a generally accessible introduction to this research, see Goleman 2006, 38-49.

[28] Also quoted in Goleman 2006, 43.

[29] Stern 2004, 76.

[30] If, however, ‘empathy’ were to be defined so broadly as to encompass ‘oneness’ as Cialdini and associates use it, then the empathy-altruism model would of course still hold. The overly broad semantic range that Hoffman grants to his use of ‘empathy’ reflects this and allows him to brush over the debate between Batson and Cialdini et. al. (Hoffman 2000). See also the brief explanation by Michael Slote for why he chooses to rely on Hoffman’s work over Batson’s, which permits him an excessively wide reach for his category of ‘empathy’ and papering over the problems that the oneness hypothesis presents for the empathy-altruism theory (Slote 2007, 13-15).

[31] While not addressing the difference between empathy-altruism and the oneness hypothesis, Michael Slote nevertheless rightly points out Wang’s prescience here in anticipating Hume’s discussion of sympathy by more than a couple of centuries. Slote 2009.

[32] Wang extended the experiential state of oneness to cover plants and inanimate objects. For an insightful treatment of this aspect of Wang’s theory of oneness, see Ivanhoe 2010, 15-16.

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Philosophy and Psychopathy: Wang Yangming’s Theory of Oneness as Case Study

by

David W. Tien

Pre-publication Draft dated June 2015

(For inclusion in Philip Ivanhoe, Owen Flanagan, and Victoria Harrison, The Oneness Hypothesis: Beyond the Boundary of Self (Columbia University Press). This chapter was pulled from the volume just before it went to the printers because a feminist academic was offended by (her perception of) my past.)

Empirical studies in recent years have demonstrated that philosophers of ethics are no more ethical in their behavior than philosophers in other fields, nor does their classroom instruction result in an improvement in moral attitudes among their students. While many philosophers dismiss these findings as irrelevant, I shall argue that they lead to a dilemma of sorts for modern, professional philosophers.

The dilemma begins with the question, “Does effective moral reasoning require relevant emotional engagement?”

If the answer is, “Yes,” then the empirical evidence appears to demonstrate that professional philosophers are doing a poor job of moral reasoning. If the answer is, “No,” then—based on the latest research findings on psychopathy—psychopaths are at no disadvantage in doing moral philosophy. And if moral philosophy requires “a reflective distance from practice” (Rini 2012), then psychopathy might actually provide an advantage in the practice of moral philosophy. This negative option may not strike philosophers as a problem, so part of the aim of this paper is to explain why moral philosophers should worry about this result.

After reviewing the latest research findings on psychopathy, I turn to the case of Wang Yangming 王陽明 (1472-1529) and present how he attacked non-practical and non-emotional approaches to moral theorizing. Through an analysis of his philosophy of oneness, I shall elucidate why he thought such approaches were not just practically useless but were in fact fatal to society and ethical life.

“Knowledge and Action” in Modern, Professional Philosophy

“Once we start talking about the practical applications of philosophy in real world, day-to-day life… we cease doing philosophy.” As a graduate student, I heard this statement uttered by a prominent philosophy professor of an Ivy League university. And I heard some variant of this several times each year during guest lectures and seminars at my university. While that particular philosopher did not work in ethics, one would think that surely professors of moral philosophy ought to care about whether their work makes any difference in the moral behavior and attitudes of people in the “real world.”[1]

In a recent study on the moral behavior of ethicists, Joshua Rust and Eric Schwitzgebel marshall empirical evidence showing that ethicists, despite expressing more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, do not behave much differently morally from other non-ethics professors (see also Schwitzgebel and Cushman, forthcoming). And on some measures, ethics professors appear to behave worse (Rust and Schwitzgebel 2014). In addition, a recent study has shown that university ethics instruction has almost no influence on student attitudes (Schwitzgebel 2013). What could explain this apparent “motivational inertness” of professional ethics study? In an insightful blog post entitled, “On Whether the Job of an Ethicist Is Only to Theorize about Morality, Not to Be Moral,” Schwitzgebel writes “Ethicists sometimes react to my work by saying, ‘My job is to theorize about ethics, not to live the moral life.’” (Schwitzgebel 2012).

In one of the comments to this post, later cited by Schwitzgebel as exemplary of the attitudes of professional ethicists towards his findings (Schwitzgebel 2013), Regina Rini expresses something like a moral externalist view of the problem, writing:

In fact, the task of moral philosophy is marked by a reflective distance from practice… In order to question and probe the received moral positions of one’s own culture, one needs to be able to detach philosophizing from action. In a sense, one needs to be able to take one’s ethical views “offline” in order to subject them to reflective scrutiny.

If that’s right, then a gap between theory and practice may very well be a psychological prerequisite of doing moral philosophy. The moral philosopher’s behavior goes on auto-pilot, defaulting to conventional standards, and so can be minimally distinguished from the behavior of others, even while the moral philosopher’s theory may widely diverge. (Rini 2012)

Her view—and the view, it seems, of many professional philosophers in modern universities, including both moral internalists and externalists—is that the activity of philosophy properly conducted requires a detachment from practice and action, “defaulting to conventional standards.”

Similarly, Schwitzgebel in a much earlier post muses that there are at least two types of ethical reflection that are often conflated. One is “the kind of ethical reflection that leads to moral improvement.” This kind of reflection is “emotionally engaged with the affected parties—reflection that involves empathy, sympathy, trying to see things from the other’s perspective, keying into one’s feelings of shame, disgust, and visceral approval” (Schwitzgebel 2006; italics in original). The other kind of ethical reflection is “philosophical reflection (as actually practiced by philosophers),” which is typically “cooler,” more detached, abstract, and theoretical. Contra Rini and others, Schwitzgebel wonders whether this philosophical reflection (vs. emotionally engaged reflection) may actually “conceal and rationalize immoral desires that we might discover if we reflected with more (or more explicit) emotional engagement” (Schwitzgebel 2006). So what roles should the emotions and motivations play in the modern practice of moral philosophy?

Psychopathy, Philosophy, and the Moral/Conventional Distinction

Enter the psychopath. In the mind of the average person, the term “psychopath” tends to be associated with serial killers like Ted Bundy or violent villains like Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. But clinical psychopathy is much more inclusive than that. In fact, if professional philosophers are a representative cross-section of the general population (admittedly, they are surely not), based on estimated attendance figures of 2000 registrants, the Eastern APA Convention would be hosting at least 20 philosophers each year who are suffering from clinical levels of psychopathy. And these philosophers might very well be among the top practitioners of the profession. Psychopathy expert and Canadian psychologist Robert Hare estimates that one percent of the general population suffers from psychopathy, and one study in Behavioral Sciences and the Law found that 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for psychopathy (Babiak, Neumann, and Hare 2010).

In this section, I first briefly summarize the state of the research on psychopathic moral reasoning as it relates to the question at hand, address the objection that psychopaths are poor at moral reasoning, and then draw their connection to the practice of professional philosophy.

Psychopathy is a disorder characterized by pathological lying, manipulativeness, Machiavellianism, a grandiose sense of self-worth, superficial charm, callousness and a lack of empathy, a lack of remorse or guilt, failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions, emotional shallowness, proneness to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, poor behavioral controls, early behavioral problems, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility,  many short-term relationships, and promiscuous sexual behavior (Hare 2003; Hare and Neumann 2006). Clinical psychopathy encompasses a variety of negative tendencies besides physical violence and crime.[2]

Early observations in psychopathic moral reasoning contended that at the heart of psychopathy lies a deficit not in their knowledge of right and wrong, but in emotional processing and behavioral control (Cleckley 1941). Subsequent research confirmed the hypothesis that individuals with psychopathy understand right and wrong but that this knowledge does not guide their conduct. Studies among females with psychopathy can accurately identify moral norms but they nonetheless fail to utilize this knowledge when doing so would compete with immediate, personal goals (Simon et al., 1951). Studies among psychopathic males have yielded even more startling results, for example, that psychopathic male participants performed better than controls on Kohlberg’s Moral Judgment scale, which challenges respondents to freely justify their judgments in various moral dilemmas (Link et al., 1977). These studies supported the view that psychopathy is characterized, not by moral knowledge deficits, but perhaps only by emotional or motivational abnormalities (Aharoni et al., 2012).

Until very recently, the prevailing view of psychopathic moral reasoning departed from these early findings and contended that psychopathic individuals cannot properly distinguish between moral wrongs and other types of wrongs (Blair 2007). On this view, psychopaths are able to spot transgressions and to identify acts as impermissible, but they cannot tell which acts are morally wrong as opposed to only wrong conventionally. This view drew from observations of behaviorally disordered children, who have been shown to judge particular moral violations as less wrong than that of healthy controls (Nucci & Herman 1982). In Blair’s view, it is precisely because psychopathic individuals lack a normal emotional appraisal of harmful acts that they fail to distinguish moral wrongs from conventional wrongs (Aharoni et al., 2012). Philosophers went on to interpret Blair’s result as evidence that psychopathic individuals appear to lack distinctively moral knowledge (Nichols 2002; Levy 2007).

The view developed by Blair and picked up by philosophers was built on the basis of a key distinction between moral and conventional wrongs. Prototypical examples of moral wrongs include those killing or injuring other people, stealing their property, or breaking promises. Prototypical examples of conventional wrongs include wearing gender-inappropriate clothing (e.g. men wearing dresses), licking one’s plate at the dinner table, and talking in a classroom when one has not been called on by the teacher. Philosophers approaching this issue have tried to specify the features that a rule must have if it is to count as moral or conventional, though no consensus has emerged (Kelly et al., 2007). Starting in the mid-1970s, a number of psychologists, following the lead of Elliott Turiel, offered characterizations of the distinction between moral and conventional rules and have gone on to argue that the distinction is both psychologically real and psychologically important (Turiel 1979; Turiel 1983; Nucci 2001). Moral and conventional types of acts were distinguished along four dimensions: whether the wrongness of the act is judged as (1) independent of permission by relevant authorities, (2) involving a violation of physical welfare, rights, or standards of fairness, (3) temporally and geographically universal, and (4) serious. Blair built his theory of psychopathic moral reasoning on this moral/conventional distinction.

Challenging this predominant view, Daniel Kelly and Stephen Stich compiled a growing body of evidence indicating that the conclusions the moral/conventional model was designed to explain are themselves problematic and question whether these dimensions are definitional of moral classification (Kelly and Stich 2008). A major part of their critique of the conclusions drawn from moral/conventional task studies is that these studies have focused on an overly narrow range of rules and transgressions. Another major critique is that Turiel and Blair’s moral/conventional distinction is begging the question. But even if the moral/conventional distinction were to hold up to their attacks on the theory, the distinction suffers further from empirical problems.

A relatively recent study by Aharoni, Sinnott-Armstrong, and Kiehl directly challenges the empirical validity of the Blair study. Aharon and colleagues argue that Blair’s studies do not present direct evidence that psychopathic individuals fail to distinguish moral from conventional transgressions and that this premise in the Blair study was only inferred from the psychopathic subjects’ tendencies to categorize all transgressions as morally wrong, including the conventional transgressions (Aharoni et al., 2012). In these earlier studies, psychopathic participants did not rate both sets of acts as highly permissible. Instead, they rated all acts as markedly impermissible, as if both “moral” and “conventional” transgressions were considered morally wrong (Blair, 1995; Blair et al., 1995). Blair and colleagues originally explained this counter-intuitive effect as a product of social desirability factors. Because psychopathic individuals, particularly incarcerated ones, tend to be concerned with impression management, and because they could not distinguish between the moral and conventional acts, these participants must have hedged their bets by over-rating all acts as wrong and authority independent. Others have cast doubts that failures in the classic moral-conventional task necessarily represent failures in moral understanding (Maibom 2008). So Aharoni and colleagues sought to test the hypothesis that psychopathic individuals’ true deficits in moral judgment would be apparent if only the social incentives to over-classify transgressions as moral were removed.

The findings by Aharoni and colleagues show at least three reasons to conclude that, contrary to Blair’s findings, psychopathic performance as a whole was in fact on par with average performance of the entire sample. First, all subjects performed at levels significantly greater than chance regardless of psychopathy level and method of measurement. Second, the null effect was independent of statistical method (e.g., linear regression, curvilinear regression, t-test). Third, the institutional sample size used by Aharoni and colleagues—which was substantially larger than the previous studies of this kind, including the ones by Blair and colleagues (Blair, 1995; Blair et al., 1995)—should have been large enough to detect true correlations between psychopathy total score and task accuracy, and yet no such effect was observed (Aharoni et al., 2012).

Thus, Aharoni and colleagues conclude that an inability to distinguish moral from conventional wrongs—a lack of distinctively moral knowledge—is not an adequate explanation for the psychopathic individuals’ lack of concern for others. If transgressive attitudes and behavior by psychopathic individuals do not result from a basic failure to understand moral wrongfulness, then the causes of their transgressions must lie elsewhere (Maibom 2008).

Indeed, when scholars theorize that psychopathic individuals understand moral norms but don’t care about them, this suggests that the explanations for their antisocial behavior might be better sourced in emotional or motivational processes (Aharoni et al., 2012). We can now arrive at the philosophy/psychopathy dilemma for professional moral philosophy.

The Philosophy/Psychopathy Dilemma and Wang Yangming on Applying Oneness

Is it—as Regina Rini and many other philosophers would have it—better while doing philosophy for moral philosophers to detach themselves from emotional commitments, bracket action and practice, and take their personal, ethical views “offline”? Or, to put it more simply:

Does effective moral reasoning require relevant emotional engagement?

If “Yes”

If the answer is “yes,” then one should be considerably dismayed by the Rust and Schwitzgebel findings that ethics professors do not behave much better morally, and in some cases, actually behave worse, than non-ethics professors. The evidence points to the poor performance of professional philosophers in understanding ethics.

A great tradition of thought, dominant in a major part of the world for almost two and a half millennia, would agree with this assessment. To elucidate this, I take as case study the eminent Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming, though similar themes and views are repeated throughout the history of East Asian philosophy.

Wang is one of the most influential thinkers in East Asia in the past millennium. In addition to being a great philosopher and teacher of ethics, Wang was a renowned military general and political leader who survived multiple unjust exiles and corporal punishments. He achieved monumental successes in key military campaigns and directly improved the lives of many thousands through his active leadership in public affairs and civil works.[3]

Not only was Wang exceptionally active in public life, in his philosophical teachings as well, he employed an “expedient means” style of pedagogical method, in which he tailored the content of his lessons to the specific needs of the individual student (CXL, Preface; see Ivanhoe 2000 and 2002, and Tien forthcoming). This has sometimes resulted in extreme prescriptions, injunctions, or declarations for “shock value” to galvanize his target audience into action or to engender a desired emotional response.

To make sense of Wang’s teachings that appear more extreme, a useful heuristic is first to attempt to ascertain the desired action or emotion he is aiming to produce in his audience. Xu Ai 徐愛 (1487-1518), Wang’s student and the main editor of Wang’s most influential work wrote, “Because the original teaching had disappeared, I was shocked and hesitant when I first heard the Master’s instructions and did not know where to start. Later on, as I heard him more, I gradually realized that his teachings are to be applied to one’s life and to be concretely carried out…” (CXL Vol. 1, Sec. 14).

Why this emphasis on application and action? One of the key themes in Wang’s philosophy is the “Unity of Knowledge and Action” (zhixing heyi 知行合一) (Tien 2004). In explaining his doctrine of zhixing heyi, Wang draws on a distinction, illustrated in a captivating way by his predecessor Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107), between “real knowledge” (zhen zhi 真知  and “ordinary knowledge” (changzhi 常知):

Real knowledge is different from ordinary knowledge. I was once with a farmer who had been mauled by a tiger, when someone happened to mention that a tiger was mauling people in the area. [Naturally], everyone was alarmed. But this one farmer had on his face an expression that differed from the rest. Everyone, even a child, knows tigers maul people, but they do not posses real knowledge. It is only real knowledge if it is like that of the farmer. When people continue to do what they know they should not do, this is because they do not really know it is wrong. If they really knew, they would not do it. (Cited in Ivanhoe 2000).

Clearly, Wang is a strong motivation internalist when it comes to moral knowledge. Wang would have argued that psychopaths lack “moral knowledge,” even while they can have perfect “ordinary knowledge” of the moral case. Moreover, he would probably have viewed modern professional philosophers who fail to apply what they write about and teach as also deficient in real knowledge of moral norms.

This wasn’t just a theoretical distinction or preference for Wang. He saw the hypocrisy of the pedantic scholarship of his time as one of the root causes of the immorality and decay of society and the kingdom. He repeatedly called for a wholesale rejection of this attitude toward moral theorizing and education. Echoing the ancient text of Mencius, Wang feared the slippery slope resulting from permitting the wrong kind of moral learning to flourish:

If the doctrine of “pulling up the root and stopping up the source” does not clearly prevail in the world, people who study to become sages will be increasingly numerous and their task increasingly difficult. They will then degenerate into animals and barbarians and still think this degeneration is the way to study to become a sage… (CXL Vol. 2, Sec. 142)[4]

What is the harmful kind of moral learning that Wang is attacking here? The context of late imperial China was that these scholar-officials who comprised the social and political elite of China had to pass difficult written exams, taken under arduous circumstances, and against incredible odds (Elman 2000). While the content of the exam material was primarily the Confucian Classics and the commentaries of another great Neo-Confucian thinker Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200)—full of rich ethical theory and real world application—many students focused on mere memorization and recitation of the texts, trying to perfect the stylized type of prose required in the imperial exams, and concentrating their attention on textual criticism of the Classics and commentaries, rather than on the practical application of the philosophies and lessons contained within. Many of the great Neo-Confucian philosophers believed this focus was the problem.

One of the most salient, recurring themes in the Neo-Confucian tradition is the lament against moral theorizing devoid of appropriate emotional or motivational response, against abstract moral philosophizing without real world application, against knowledge without action. How would this kind of abstract, non-practical moral learning lead to ethical degeneration?

Thus the practice of mere textual criticism developed and those teaching it were made famous. The practice of memorization and recitation developed and those advocating it were regarded as extensively learned. The writing of flowery compositions developed and those indulging in it were regarded as admirable. Thus with great confusion and tremendous cacophony, they set themselves up and competed with one another, and no one knew how many schools there were. Among tens of thousands of approaches and thousands of perspectives, no one knew which to follow. It was as if the students of the world found themselves in a theater where a hundred plays were being presented. Actors cheered, jeered, hopped, and skipped. They emulated one another in novelty and in ingenuity. They forced smiles to please the audience and competed in appearing clever. All this rivalry appeared on all sides. The audience looked to the left and to the right and could not cope with the situation. Their ears and eyes became obscured and dizzy and their spirits dazed and confused. They drifted day and night and remained for a long time in this condition, as if they were insane and had lost their minds, and none had the self-awareness and understanding to return to their heritage of Confucian learning. Rulers of the time were also fooled and confounded by those teachings and devoted their whole lives to empty theorizing without understanding what they meant. Occasionally some rulers realized the emptiness, falsehood, fragmentariness, and unnaturalness of this learning, and heroically roused themselves to great effort, which they wished to demonstrate in concrete action. But the most they could do was no more than to attain money, power, victory, and profit. (CXL Vol. 2, Sec. 143)

Not only did Wang consider mere theorizing without proper emotional engagement or practical action useless, it was downright dangerous.

Could the same argument be turned against Wang Yangming and Neo-Confucian philosophy? Specialists in Neo-Confucian philosophy often regret that Neo-Confucian metaphysical commitments get in the way of more widespread appeal of this tradition of thought (Tien 2010). For example, Wang’s outstanding essay, “Inquiry on The Great Learning,” opens with this famous passage on the concept of oneness:[5]

The great man regards Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the Middle Kingdom as one person… That the great man can regard Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body is not because he deliberately seeks to do so, but because it is natural to the benevolent nature of his mind that he do so. Forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things is not true only of the great man. Even the mind of the minor man is no different. Only he himself makes it minor. Thus when he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help but feel frightened and sympathetic. This shows that his humanity forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species. Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling unable to bear their suffering. This shows that his humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings as he is. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet, even when he tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones. This means that even the mind of the minor man contains the benevolence that forms one body with all. (WWCGQS 26:1b)

What is a modern thinker to make of this? First, let’s examine Wang’s metaphysical claim about the tiles and stones.

In his analysis of this important passage, Bryan Van Norden explains the interpretive challenge of the passage among modern Wang scholars. He sees great difficulty in Wang’s assertion of the natural “concern and regret” we must feel when we “tiles and stones shattered and crushed”:

This claim is important for Wang’s argument, because he takes this reaction to be evidence for the conclusion that our minds are ultimately “one Substance” with everything in the universe, not merely with members of our species, or other sentient creatures, or other living things. We can perhaps motivate Wang’s intuition by considering how we might react if we saw that someone had spray painted graffiti on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The defacement of this scenic beauty would probably provoke sadness in those of us with an eye for natural beauty. However, it is certainly not obvious that everyone manifests even sporadic concern for “tiles and stones,” which is what he needs for his conclusion. (Van Norden 2014)

Granted, Wang and other pre-modern thinkers have wildly different metaphysical views from contemporary philosophers. However, what Wang is advocating in his opening passage is not as far-fetched as some academics make it out to be. It is relatively easy to follow Wang’s reasoning up to the part on feeling regret for broken tiles and stones. Notice that in each step of the sequence, the intensity of emotion is reduced, from “frightened and sympathetic” (怵惕惻隱 chuti cheyin), to “unable to bear their suffering” (不忍 buren), to “pity” (憫恤 minxu), and finally, to “regret” (顧惜 guxi). The feeling of alarm and fright human beings experience upon seeing a child drowning is much stronger and more intense than the feeling they get upon seeing a shattered non-living object.

Staying with this theme of oneness, here’s a second observation about Wang Yangming’s philosophy as expressed in that famous opening passage of the “Inquiry on The Great Learning.” While statements such as, “The great man regards Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the Middle Kingdom as one person,” (WWCGQS 26:1b) may at first appear to be describing his “heroic” metaphysics, in fact, Wang is just as concerned about real world practice in the daily lives of average elites (Ivanhoe 2002). He applies his teaching of the “unity of knowledge and action” to oneness metaphysics. Examining this can illuminate Wang’s theory of oneness and the multi-layered applications he had in mind.

Returning to his essay on “Pulling Up the Root and Stopping Up the Source,” arguing against the slippery slope of impractical learning, Wang begins with the same thesis:

The mind of a sage regards Heaven, Earth, and all things as one body. He looks upon all people of the world, whether inside or outside his family, whether far or near, and if they have blood and breath, he sees them as his brothers and children. He wants to secure, preserve, educate, and nourish all of them, so as to fulfill his desire of forming one body with all things. (CXL Vol 2., Sec. 142)

But then he goes on to describe what the pay off is in terms of real life application and results:

People differed in capacity. Some excelled in ceremonies and music; others in government and education; and still others in public works and agriculture. Thus, in accordance with their moral achievements, they were sent to school further to refine their abilities. When their virtue recommended them to government positions, they were enabled to serve in their positions throughout life without change. Those who employed them desired only to be united with them in one mind and one character to bring peace to the people. They considered whether the individual’s ability was suitable, and did not regard a high or low position as important or unimportant, desired only to be united with their superiors in one mind and one character to bring peace to the people. If their ability matched their position, they served throughout life in busy and heavy work without regarding it as toilsome, and felt at ease with lowly work and odd jobs without regarding them as mean. At that time people were harmonious and contented. They regarded one another as belonging to one family. (CXL Vol 2., Sec. 142)

And then Wang elaborates further how this less metaphysical sense of oneness makes a difference in everyday life and can be applied by the various members of society, not just philosophers, religious teachers, or intellectuals:

Those with inferior ability were contented with their positions as farmers, artisans, or merchants, all diligent in their various occupations, so as mutually to sustain and support the life of one another without any desire for exalted position or strife for external things. Those with special ability… came forward and served with their ability, treating their work as their own family concern, some attending to the provision of clothing and food, some arranging for mutual help, and some providing utensils, planning and working together to fulfill their desires of serving their parents above and supporting their wives and children below. Their only concern was that those responsible for certain work might not be diligent in it and become a heavy burden to them.

Thus Qi worked hard in agriculture and did not feel ashamed that he was not a teacher but regarded Xie’s expert teaching as his own. Kui took charge of music and was not ashamed that he was not brilliant in ceremonies but regarded Boyi’s understanding of ceremonies as his own. For the learning of their mind was pure and clear and had what was requisite to preserve the benevolence that makes them and all things form one body. Consequently their spirit ran through and permeated all and their will prevailed and reached everywhere. There was no distinction between the self and the other, or between the self and things. It is like the body of a person. The eyes see, the ears hear, the hands hold, and the feet walk, all fulfilling the function of the body. The eyes are not ashamed of their not being able to hear. When the ears hear something, the eyes will direct they attention to it. The feet are not ashamed that they will not be able to grasp. When a hand feels for something, the feet will move forward. For the original qi (psycho-physical substance) feels and is present in the entire body. (CXL Vol. 2, Sec. 142)

For Wang, oneness was not just a metaphysical theory. The practical applications of metaphysical oneness were equally, if not more, important. The “real world,” daily life applications of the oneness theme are more practical and relevant than his heroic metaphysics might at first suggest. Wang’s application of his oneness theory of “no distinction between the self and the other, or between the self and things” is that individuals should view themselves as part of a family team, content and proud to fulfill one’s respective role in society and to appreciate and regard as one’s “own” the abilities, accomplishments, and understanding of the other members of the family team.

Thus, for Wang, to arrive at a true understanding of moral principles requires one’s emotional engagement. Not only does it require emotional engagement, if done correctly, it also leads necessarily to practical application in the real world. Wang believed that armchair moral theorizing was not only not useful, it was downright dangerous to the moral fabric of society. This kind of armchair theorizing would take scholar-officials—the leaders of society—down the slippery slope to ruin. It would obfuscate the true heritage of Confucian learning, which was aimed at practical moral cultivation and “concrete action” in the real world. If the scholar-officials become “fooled and confounded” and “devote their whole lives to empty theorizing without understanding,” then they would lead astray the kings and emperors, leading ultimately to “falsehoods, fragmentariness, and unnaturalness.” Wang believed this would then lead to the leadership’s abandonment of moral cultivation and to the single-minded While it may be difficult for many modern of this learning, and heroically minded focus on the “attainment of money, power, victory, and profit” (CXL Vol. 2, Sec. 143). While it may be difficult for modern philosophers to see how an intense focus on theoretical problems far removed from everyday situations—such as the beloved trolley problems—could lead to the moral dissolution of a society, one hopes that the recent research by Schwitzgebel, Cushion, Rust, and others on the moral behavior of ethics professors could help serve as a wake up call to a profession that professes to specialize in teaching and research on ethics.

If “No”

Now let’s revisit the philosophy/psychopathy dilemma.

If we agree with Rini, then the answer to the question should be something like, “No, effective moral reasoning in the professional practice of philosophy is best done while bracketing, detaching, and taking ‘offline’ our emotions. We need to philosophize without emotional engagement.”

But if this were true, then psychopaths would have a natural advantage in doing moral philosophy because psychopaths really do understand that hurting others is morally wrong, despite the absence of motivation to do right. Shaun Nichols adduces research showing that psychopaths are commonly regarded as rational individuals who really make moral judgments but are not motivated by them (Nichols 2002). And if psychopathic individuals can perform just as well, or better, than the controls in moral reasoning, then maybe it is to their advantage to be free of emotional hindrances.

In a relatively recent article, Blair presents evidence that the profound empathic dysfunction reported in the clinical description of psychopathy (Hare 1991) does not involve an impairment in the psychopathic individuals’ abilities to represent the mental states of others, i.e., their thoughts, desires, beliefs, intentions, and knowledge, or what Blair refers to as the “Theory of Mind.” Theory of Mind allows the attribution of mental states to self and others to explain and predict behavior. The evidence shows that individuals with psychopathy are unimpaired on measures of Theory of Mind. Indeed, there are no indications that any populations who show heightened levels of antisocial behavior are associated with Theory of Mind impairment (Blair 2007).

So while psychopathic individuals—especially those prone to boredom, impulsivity, irresponsibility—may not have the patience to discover the intrinsic pleasures of doing philosophy or the persistence required to get tenure as a professional philosopher, the psychopathic individual would theoretically make a lean, mean philosophizing machine with no messy, affective responses getting in the way of “cool,” abstract, emotionless theorizing.

Some philosophers may have no problems with this. Their response might be, “So what?” After all, psychopaths probably don’t care if we label them psychopaths, as long as we stay out of their way. And of course that road is open to them.

Wang’s response would no doubt be that this road is really the slippery slope to degeneration to the level of “animals and barbarians.” For much of imperial Chinese history—the time in which Wang was writing—scholar-officials were not only philosophers but also comprised most of the political leadership. The prerequisite for serving in the upper levels of government was high scholarly achievement and the passing of incredibly difficult imperial examinations (Elman 2000). So for much of the medieval and early modern Chinese periods, the intellectual elite were directly involved in setting the policies, governance, and even—as Neo-Confucians strongly believed—the moral tone of Chinese society. If the intellectuals were to go astray, losing themselves in “empty theorizing,” they would take the imperial court and the governed masses down with them.

Conclusion

In sum, in response to the question, “Does effective moral reasoning require relevant emotional engagement?”, if the answer is, “Yes,” then professional philosophers appear to be doing a poor job of it, and if the answer is, “No,” then psychopathic individuals would be at no disadvantage in conducting moral philosophy, and on the view that moral philosophy requires reflective distance from practice, psychopaths would be at an advantage in doing moral philosophy. This is the philosophy/psychopathy dilemma briefly stated. Some philosophers may not care that this aspect of psychopathy is conducive to practicing moral philosophy. To explain why this response is dangerous, I explored Wang Yangming’s philosophical approach and his theory of oneness.

Outside the scope of this paper include the question of how this relates to the moral internalism/externalism debates. There have also been fascinating findings in the latest neuroimaging research in both institutionalized and community samples implicating amygdala dysfunction in the etiology of psychopathic traits. A recent study by Marsh and Cardinale has found that reduced amygdala responsiveness disrupts processing of fear-relevant stimuli like fearful facial expressions (March and Cardinale 2014). Another tantalizing topic outside the scope of this paper is how these findings could further inform our understanding of psychopathic moral reasoning.      [6]

ENDNOTES

[1] On the importance of emotions in philosophical reasoning, see for instance Hadot 1995 and Solomon 2003.

[2] Even among experts, there is still much confusion about the definition of psychopathy, especially in relation to sociopathy and the DSM-IV’s antisocial personality disorder construct (Hare 1996). I chose to focus on psychopathy rather than sociopathy in this paper because the former has been studied more extensively and more literature exists on psychopathy currently.

[3] A superb introduction to Wang’s philosophy is Ivanhoe 2009 and Ivanhoe 2002.

[4] Wang’s use of baben saiyuan 拔本塞源 draws from the Mengzi 孟子 1:1.

[5] For my earlier, more detailed analysis of Wang’s theory of oneness, see Tien 2012.

[6] For their instructive comments on earlier drafts, I’d like to thank the attendees of the “International Conference on Oneness in Philosophy and Religion,” held at the City University of Hong Kong on April 25-27, 2015. I’d especially like to extend my appreciation and gratitude to the organizers, Philip J. Ivanhoe, Owen Flanagan, and Victoria Harrison, as well as the Eirik Harris for their individual feedback on the paper.

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Wang Yangming’s Moral Psychology and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

by

David W. Tien

For inclusion in

Justin Tiwald, ed. Oxford Handbook of Chinese Philosophy (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)

Pre-publication draft dated May 2014

A dominant trend in moral psychology evinces a renewed appreciation for the powerful role played by unconscious, automatic mental processes in producing ethical judgments. This new perspective marks a sharp break from traditional, “rationalist” approaches, in which moral evaluations derive from conscious reasoning and moral cultivation reflects an improved ability to articulate sound reasons for such evaluations. Seldom noticed is that similar attention to automatic, unconscious processing forms the foundation of cognitive-behavioral therapy, now considered to be one of the most efficacious alternatives to biochemical interventions in treating psychological problems and disorders. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and techniques have been subjected to a substantial degree of empirical testing. More than five hundred outcome studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy for a wide range of psychiatric disorders, psychological problems, and medical problems that have psychological components (see, e.g., Beck 2011; Butler, Chapman, Forman & Beck 2006; Chambless & Ollendick 2001). These include major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, personality disorders, eating disorders, pathological gambling, chronic back pain, and psychosis. Moreover, several researchers have shown there are neurobiological transformations associated with cognitive-behavioral therapy treatment for various disorders (see, e.g., Goldapple et. al., 2004). In addition, hundreds of research studies have validated the cognitive model of depression and of anxiety (see, for example, Clark & Beck 2010; Clark, Beck, and Alford 1999).

The moral psychology of Wang Yangming (1472-1529 CE) also features a focus on automatic, unconscious processes in moral reasoning. Wang’s philosophy presents a compelling view of how our moral judgments result not from a series of conscious calculations but from an innate moral faculty that produces intuitive responses to morally significant situations. His concern was on learning and teaching how to cultivate one’s moral thinking, both conscious and unconscious. Influential studies of the philosophy of Wang Yangming have remarked on much he emphasized a therapeutic approach in his teachings over a purely theoretical one (see, for example, Ivanhoe 2002, 85). This essay is an attempt to take this suggestion seriously and consider some of the implications of this idea.

Wang Yangming’s moral psychology is based on a cognitive model that bears key similarities to the theoretical principles of modern mainstream cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT for short). First, both Wang and CBT hold that our emotional states can be immediately affected by our “automatic thoughts”–which can be so brief, frequent, and habitual that they are not “heard” or “caught.” These automatic thoughts are not always propositional beliefs and may sometimes take the form of images. Second, both Wang and CBT maintain that we can make such automatic thoughts conscious–if they are not conscious already–and that we are able to evaluate, alter, reframe, or replace them. Third, both Wang and CBT assert that our automatic thoughts directly effect behavioral change and that behavioral change can directly effect change of automatic thoughts. While the detailed prescriptions of CBT differ from Wang’s model of self-cultivation, the many similarities can point us to a helpful way of understanding how Wang’s teachings might practically function in everyday life and how they can enable us to train our thoughts and emotions and assist us in becoming better moral persons.[i]

One of the key insights to be drawn from this study is that well before the research of behavioural economists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and other academics on hot vs. cold cognition and dual-system intuitive vs. deliberate mental processing, Wang had already taught a deep respect for the automatic—and often  unconscious—judgements governing behaviour, especially in the ethical realm. Wang and many other Neo-Confucian thinkers have long appreciated the primacy and the power of our intuitive mental processing, which has only recently gained prominence in the research agendas of analytic philosophy.[ii]

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Philosophy

The roots of modern cognitive-behavioral therapy are often traced back to Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s. Fundamental to Beck’s theory of cognitive therapy are distorted “automatic thoughts.” Most successful cognitive therapy to date targets such automatic thoughts, which describe a stream of thoughts almost all of us can notice if we try to pay attention to them.

What are “automatic thoughts”? They have several common characteristics (Westbrook, et. al., 2007, 7-9). These thoughts occur automatically and without effort. They coexist with a more manifest stream of thoughts, arise spontaneously, and are not based on reflection or deliberation. They are specific thoughts about specific events or situations. They can be made to become conscious, if they are not already conscious. They may be so brief, frequent, and habitual that they are not “heard.” They are so much a part of our ordinary mental lives that unless we focus on them, we would probably not notice them, any more than we notice our breathing in daily life. Most of the time we do not question them. They may also take the form of images. And they have immediate effect on emotional states (Beck 2011, 135-140). We have many kinds of unconscious thoughts, and automatic thoughts constitute one category of unconscious thoughts.

Cognitive therapy trains clients to catch their automatic thoughts, write them down, identify the distortions, and find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking. Depressed people are caught in a feedback loop in which inaccurate thoughts cause negative feelings, which then distort thinking even further. Under therapy, over time, the client’s negative feedback loop is broken, and the client’s anxiety or depression is abated. With each reframing, and with each negative thought loop broken, you can change your habits of thought, and in the process, change your moods and emotions (Haidt 2006, 37-39).

Along with Albert Ellis, whose Rational Emotive Therapy greatly informed modern cognitive behavioral therapy, Beck took ideas, techniques, and methods from Stoic and ancient Greek philosophy and removed them from their social, political, metaphysical, and religious contexts to turn them into a therapeutic method used to address depression and other psychological disorders:

Many of the principles incorporated in the theory of rational-emotive psychotherapy are not new; some of them, in fact, were originally stated several thousand years ago, especially by the Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers (such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) and by some of the ancient Taoist and Buddhist thinkers. What probably is new is the application to psychotherapy of viewpoints that were first propounded in radically different contexts (Ellis 1962, 35).

Beck, Ellis, and other CBT pioneers isolated the philosophical principles from their historical background, which “modernized” the ancient philosophical theories, applying the method to 20th-century concerns:

The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers, particularly Zeno of Citium (fourth century BC), Chrysippus, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus wrote in The Enchiridion, “Men are disturbed not by things but by the views which they take of them.” Like Stoicism, Eastern philosophies such as Taoism and Buddhism have emphasized that human emotions are based on ideas. Control of most intense feelings may be achieved by changing one’s ideas (Beck, et. al., 1987, 8).

As such, the theories of cognitive-behavior therapy can serve as an ideal bridge for cross-cultural philosophy, as well as for trans-historical and inter-disciplinary study.

The Power of the Unconscious

To many of us, our actions, thoughts, and beliefs appear to result from deliberate reasoning and explicit intentions, but psychologists have been telling us otherwise for decades. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman in his best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, details how our thinking is governed by two different systems: “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration” (Kahneman 2011, 20-21). The central thesis of his book is that while we often think our System 2 is in control of our decisions, evaluations, and beliefs, most of the time, it is our System 1 that is calling the shots. Kahneman adduces several decades of research in psychology that has been making the same point.

In a classic paper in social psychology, Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson argue that people rarely have access to complex cognitive processes, such as decision-making, through introspection (Nisbett and Wilson 1977). In fact, we are more prone to confound or rationalize the actions that our unconscious automatically leads us to perform. An entire field of study–behavioral economics–has risen to prominence through exploring and developing this fundamental insight (see e.g., Ariely 2008).

In his best-selling book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt makes a similar case to Kahneman in maintaining that “the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Like a rider on the back of the elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does” (Haidt 2006, xi). In the elephant/rider analogy, which Haidt has been developing since the 1990s, the “elephant” represents what he describes as automatic and largely unconscious mental processes (Haidt 2006, 13-17).

Corresponding developments have emerged in the field of moral psychology.  For decades, the dominant view on moral education was a position in developmental psychology championed first by Jean Piaget (1965/1932) and developed by Lawrence Kohlberg (1969; 1971), which held that a child’s moral behavior is best understood in terms of the child’s articulations of moral principles.[iii] In Kohlberg’s theory (Kohlberg 1969; 1971), which builds on Piaget’s foundation, very young children come to think that right and wrong are determined by what is rewarded and punished. As their cognitive abilities mature, usually around the ages of six to eight, they begin to appreciate the value of laws and rules. As their abstract reasoning abilities develop around puberty, they start to be able to think about the reasons for having laws and about how to respond to laws they perceive as unjust. Kohlberg’s approach to moral education appealed to many people in the 1960s and 1970s in that it painted a portrait of an active child, creating morality for himself, not just serving as a passive receptacle for social conditioning as some empiricist, blank slate views would have it.

For Piaget and Kohlberg, reasoning follows the perception of an event. The reasoning then results in a judgment. Emotion may emerge from the judgment but is not causally related to it. On this theory, we reflect on specific principles in evaluating our moral choices and then deduce rationally a specific judgment. This “rationalist” model of moral development draws on data culled from the children’s justifications. Research in recent decades has, however, called the Kohlbergian perspective into question, especially in its emphasis on justification over judgment.

Several challengers, picking up on a Humean sentimentalist theme, have risen to the fore, proposing in opposition a kind of moral sense or intuitionist theory. For instance, one of the strongest options is offered by Jonathan Haidt, who has observed that even fully mature adults are often unable to provide any sufficient justification for strongly felt moral intuitions, a phenomenon he calls “moral dumbfounding” (Haidt 2001). Even more, people regularly engage in outright confabulation; they invent and confidently tell stories to explain their behavior (Haidt 2007). This has led some to propose a different model, in which the perception of an event or action triggers an unconscious, automatic response, which immediately causes a moral judgment. Reasoning and justification come afterwards in the form of post hoc rationalizations of an intuitively generated response (Haidt and Bjorklund 2008).

Others have proposed alternative models. In a view recently championed by Antonio Damasio based on research on neurologically impaired patients (Damasio 1994; Tranel, Bechara, and Damasio 2000) and by Joshua Greene based on neuroimaging research (Greene 2008; Greene, et. al., 2004), our moral judgments are a blend of unconscious emotional responses and some form of principled and deliberate reasoning, which both precede and generate the judgment.

These are but a few of the several, viable options currently under consideration in contemporary moral psychology. The major point of tension between the rationalists and intuitionists is in their differing emphases. Rationalists ascribe the real work to controlled processes, which are slow, conscious, and heavily reliant on verbal thinking, while intuitionists say it’s done by the automatic processes, which are fast and effortless (Bargh and Ferguson 2000; Chaiken and Trope 1999). While this brief summary of the state of the debate cannot do justice to the intricate arguments and detailed data, I trust that the groundwork has been laid for demonstrating that Wang Yangming’s moral theory falls squarely on the side of the intuitionists, and that like the cognitive-behavioral therapy theorists, Wang appreciates the power of unconscious, automatic beliefs in immediately and directly affecting our emotional states and behavior.

Automatic Thoughts and Emotional States

Unlike modern psychology, modern philosophy has been slow in appreciating or even coming to terms with the power of the unconscious. The idea that unconscious thoughts govern a great deal of everyday beliefs and behaviors has also not yet made its full impact on studies of Wang Yangming or of Chinese philosophy. In attempting to understand Wang’s theory of “the unity of knowledge and action” (zhixing heyi 知行合一), modern scholars have approached it within the context of the philosophical problem of “weakness of will,” situations in which we supposedly fail to do what we know we ought to do. Stephen Angle, for example, analyzes “cases of correct feeling without correct action” in the context of weakness of will and Wang’s theory of moral action and knowledge (Angle 2009, 125-131). Much has been made of the centrality of emotions and feelings in Wang’s theory of knowledge and action (Tien 2004). Yet Wang’s underlying cognitive model of behavior and emotion is able to account for his explanations of his doctrine of the unity of knowledge and action. This is most obvious when examined in terms of his metaphysics.[iv]

For Wang, every failure to act correctly is a result of a failure to grasp a “principle” (li ) or “principles” that are already in the mind (xin 心). The practice of self-cultivation in Wang’s philosophy is basically the process of unearthing and uncovering the obscured thoughts already in our minds. An examination of Wang’s metaphysics helps elucidate this process.

In Wang’s metaphysics, ideas (yi 意) are things (wu ) in the mind (xin 心) that we need to rectify (ge 格). In his explanation of the “rectification of thoughts” (gewu 格物), which is commonly translated as “the investigation of things,” Wang explicitly rejects Zhu Xi’s 朱熹 explanation that ge 格 means “to reach” (zhi 致) and wu means the affairs or principles of things in the external world. Rather, Wang maintains that wu refers to the objects or contents of “thought” (yi) and not to external objects or events:

The application of a thought (yi)[v] requires its [corresponding] wu. And the wu is the task (shi 事). If a thought is applied to serving the parents, then serving the parents is the “object of thought” (wu). If a thought is applied to governing the people, then governing the people is the object of thought. If a thought is applied to studying books, then studying books is the object of thought. If a thought is applied to hearing a lawsuit, then hearing a lawsuit is the object of thought. As long as thought is applied, there will be an object of thought. If there is a particular thought, then there will be the corresponding object of thought. If there is not this particular thought, then there will not be that corresponding object of thought. (WYQ 1:47)

Whenever one thinks, there must be something about which one thinks. That about which one is thinking is the wu or “object of thought.” The wu are the things about which one has thoughts (yi).

Wang’s multiple examples of what he considers to be wu clarifies how different his understanding of this concept is from Zhu Xi’s. Wu constitute the locus of one’s attention and that at which one’s mind is directed. So the wu in gewu is best translated not as “things,” but as “thoughts” or, more accurately, the “objects of thought.”

The most immediate, direct, and reliable means of accessing these objects of thought are to monitor and reflect on the operations and responses of one’s own mind. This is why ge in the phrase gewu for Wang means “to rectify”:

The word ge 格 in gewu 格物 is the same as the ge in Mengzi’s expression, “A great man rectified (ge) the ruler’s mind.”[vi] [Gewu] means to eliminate whatever is incorrect in the mind and preserve the correctness of its original substance. Wherever there is a thought, eliminate whatever is incorrect and preserve the mind’s original substance. Then in all places, at all times, the heavenly li will definitely be preserved. (WYQ 1:6)

The more one eliminates these incorrect thoughts, particularly self-centered thoughts (siyu 私慾), the more one’s mind will be able to function freely and to operate properly.

Central to Wang’s philosophy is his concept of “pure knowing” (liangzhi 良知), which is the pure faculty of mind behind the obstructions of self-centredness.[vii] Our liangzhi faculty functions like sense perception, perceiving moral qualities immediately and effortlessly, but those of us not born with the powers of a sage face a long and difficult journey of “self-examination” and “self-mastery” to wield properly our liangzhi faculties (Tien 2004).

In addition to the tasks of “the rectification of thoughts” and “the extension of knowledge,” Wang adds the integral phases of “the authentication of thoughts” (chengyi 誠意) and “the rectification of the mind” (zhengxin 正心).[viii] Taking issue with Zhu Xi’s reading of the Great Learning, Wang lays out the proper interpretation of the order in which these phases are to be accomplished:

Now, concerning the good that is known by one’s liangzhi (良知), if one actually does the good in regard to the objects of thought about which one is thinking to the very utmost of one’s ability and, concerning the bad that is known by one’s liangzhi, if one actually gets rid of the bad in regard to the objects of thought about which one is thinking to the very utmost of one’s ability, then the objects of thought will be completely rectified and what is known by one’s liangzhi will not be diminished or obstructed in any way. [This knowledge] then can reach its ultimate extension. As a result, one’s mind will be pleased with itself, happy and without any lingering regrets; the thoughts that arise in one’s mind at last will be without a trace of self-deception and can be called “authentic” (cheng 誠). This is why it is said that, “When the object of thought has been rectified, knowledge is fully extended. When knowledge is fully extended, thoughts are authentic. When thoughts are authentic, the mind is rectified. When the mind is rectified, the self is cultivated.” (WYQ 2:972 ; Ivanhoe 2009, 171-172)

The specific order is taken from the Great Learning: the rectification of thoughts leads to the extension of knowledge, which in turn leads to the authenticity of thought, which leads to the rectification of the mind, which results in attaining the goal of self-cultivation.[ix]

For Wang, the key to eradicating self-centered desires and mastering the liangzhi faculty is to monitor constantly one’s automatically arising thoughts. In carrying out this task, one is to be “like a cat catching mice – with eyes intently watching and ears intently listening. As soon as a single [self-centered] thought begins to stir, one must conquer it and cast it out . . . Do not indulge or accommodate it in any way. Do not harbor it, and do not allow it to escape” (WYQ 1:16; Chan 1963, 35).[x]

Since few people can eliminate their self-centered desires all at once, the task calls for continual effort. Every time one is successful at eradicating an incorrect thought, one’s liangzhi will be able to operate more freely. The more one’s liangzhi operates freely, the more easily one’s liangzhi can identify the incorrect thoughts and eliminate them. This is what Wang has in mind when he gives the analogy of polishing the mirror, for only when there is no dirt on the mirror’s surface can it function properly and reflect the image before it (WYQ 1:20, 23; Chan 1963, 45, 51-53).

In describing his therapeutic method, Wang is characteristically unclear about how his abstract philosophical ideas are meant to be applied in practical life. For a thinker who rails so much against impractical theoretical speculation, his explanations and examples remain at a high level of abstraction, lacking the specific details that modern therapists would require. Admittedly then, it is somewhat unclear how exactly Wang would or did apply his teachings to the vagaries and vicissitudes of daily life. However, based on exegesis of his collected writings, one can delineate the outlines and begin rational reconstruction of his therapeutic prescriptions. It should be noted that the record of Wang’s teachings depict Wang as almost always teaching by addressing actual problems brought by particular students. He warned not to abstract or generalise his teachings. The written record of his teaching is a collection of these teaching “sessions” and not essays or analyses of his method. Many are in fact letters to specific people that were then circulated.[xi]

For the most part, Wang’s main therapeutic method was first to seek encounters with people and events that cause us to react. Then, as our thoughts arise in response, we are to monitor our mental and emotional processes to uncover our unconscious, spontaneous thoughts and feelings. Some of these thoughts may be self-centered. It is this process of confronting the world so as to stir up in response one’s automatic thoughts and feelings that enables us to “catch” our unconscious self-centered desires so that we can cast them out.

This emphasis in Wang’s teachings on practical application over theoretical speculation sets him apart from the more scholastic Neo-Confucians like Zhu Xi, as can be seen not only in such cardinal doctrines as “the unity of knowledge and action” but even in the title of his most cited work, The Record for Practice (Chuanxi lu 傳習錄), which was intended as a guide for concrete, daily life.[xii] Wang drilled this idea into his students: “Your letter says, ‘[You taught us] to be trained and polished in the actual affairs of life’” (WYQ 1:58).

But the purpose behind Wang’s admonition to practical application and external stimuli was not to seek out the particular li 理 of each individual thing or event encountered so as to accumulate knowledge of each of these external li, as Wang portrays Zhu Xi as advocating. Rather, it was to find the unknown particularized li constituting one’s own mind, a task that cannot be accomplished in a vacuum.[xiii] These li are unknown in the sense that either we are unaware of them, or we are unconscious even of our ignorance of them, or we are ignorant regarding why we are unable to apply our liangzhi in the situation. By focusing on “action” in real life situations, we are forcing ourselves to make mistakes so that we can learn about and identify our moral blind spots, weaknesses, and shortcomings.

The student in the passage quoted above continues, “During the day, whether any situations (shi 事) occur, he should concentrate on cultivating and nourishing his original mind. If situations occur and affect him, or if he himself feels something, how can we say that no situations occurred?” Wang’s reply is highly instructive: “Throughout his life, a man’s effort to learn aims only at this one thing. From youth to old age and from morning to evening, whether any situations occur, he works only at this one objective, which is: ‘Always treat it as a significant situation (shi)’” (WYQ 1:58).[xiv]

That is, whether you or anyone else can identify any morally relevant situations occurring at the time, your task is constantly to monitor and scan your own mind’s responses to the external world. In that sense, there is always something morally or spiritually significant occurring since we are always thinking and feeling something. Mengzi’s phrase, Biyou shiyan 必有事焉, for Wang, can thus be understood as, “See the moral significance in every situation” (WYQ 1:58). It is not the external environment that is the ultimate focus of our moral learning, but our own internal processes.

Wang elaborates: “To say that one would rather leave the work undone but the mind must be cultivated and nourished is to treat them as two separate things. ‘Always treat it as a significant situation, but let there be no artificial effort to help it grow.’[xv] As things come, only extend liangzhi to respond to them. Then one may be said to be practicing conscientiousness and reciprocity and not far from the Way”[xvi] (WYQ 1:59). Separating external situations from one’s internal cultivation and treating them as unrelated matters is to prevent oneself from utilising the most (and perhaps only) effective strategy for self-cultivation—monitoring one’s internal responses to external situations. As situations arise, one is to “see the moral significance” in them and attempt to respond to them with one’s intuitive moral faculty.

Ultimately, Wang’s metaphysics explains why he believes knowledge and action are one. If there is a failure in correct action, it is because there is a failure in knowledge of the situationally relevant li. Thus, “The sages’ doctrine of the unity of knowledge and action means seeking principles (li) in my mind (xin). Why would you doubt it?” (WYQ 1:43).

Let’s take as an example a non-moral situation. If I were obese and judged that it is best for me not to eat the chocolate cake, yet I gobble it up anyway, for Wang, this would not be a case of “weakness of will.” Instead, Wang–like much modern psychology–would conclude that there is some other thought, belief, or image undermining my explicitly held belief that I ought to diet and to refrain from eating the calorie-dense chocolate cake in this situation.

Wang would say that I don’t have “true knowledge” (zhenzhi) of the principles (li) of dieting or of the dietary evils of the chocolate cake or of some other situationally relevant principles, or that I held beliefs distorted by self-centered thoughts, which limit, disempower, or obstruct my liangzhi faculty from following through properly. If I wish to succeed in my diet and resist the bad but tempting foods, I would need to catch and eradicate my misleading thoughts preventing me from carrying out the desired abstention.

For instance, maybe I have the automatic thought, “If I’m not a total success at this diet, then I’m a total failure” (the cognitive error of “all-or-nothing thinking”); the automatic thought, “If I don’t have more sugar, I won’t be able to function at all” (“catastrophizing”); the automatic thought, “Because I broke down and had one piece of chocolate this morning [even though I’ve been good with my diet all week otherwise], it means I’m not cut out for this and will be a fat pig all my life” (“selective abstraction” with “overgeneralization”); or the automatic thought, “It’s terrible that I had that piece of chocolate this morning. I should always be strict with my diet” (“imperatives” or overestimating how bad it is that these precise, fixed expectations are not met); or the automatic thought, “I can never do anything right. I’m a loser in life and never succeed at anything” (“tunnel vision” or only seeing the negative aspects of a situation) (Beck 2011, 181-182).

In Wang’s moral psychology and in cognitive-behavioral therapy, there are no actual instances of weakness of will in the strict sense. Our automatic thoughts have immediate effect on our emotional states, and when those unconscious thoughts conflict with what we consciously or explicitly think we ought to do, they undermine our abilities to carry out correct action.

Changing Our Automatic Thoughts

The main task of the CBT therapist is to elicit and identify the patient’s automatic thoughts and to teach the patient to identify, evaluate, and respond to automatic thoughts.[xvii] The process starts with the recognition of specific automatic thoughts in specific situations. Much like in Wang’s process of self-cultivation, over time, the practitioner becomes more adept at identifying, evaluating, and responding to automatic thoughts in a more adaptive way, which should produce a positive shift in affect.

Seen in this way, Wang’s method of self-cultivation would be a kind of moral therapy. Becoming more skilled at casting out and eradicating erroneous or self-centered thoughts, at employing the liangzhi faculty to perceive the correct li in morally relevant situations (shi), and at rectifying (ge) one’s thoughts (yi) so that they match up accurately with what is morally required in the situation (shi) requires that one constantly monitor one’s unconscious, automatic thoughts like a “cat catching mice.”

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, a key component in helping patients alter, challenge, or replace their automatic thoughts is the identification of “hot cognitions” (Beck 2011, 142-143). Like a “cat catching mice,” the therapist and patient need to be alert to and vigilant in spotting the verbal and nonverbal cues and eliciting these “hot cognitions” because changing the patient’s automatic thoughts are best accomplished when the patient is experiencing them in the moment.

“Hot cognitions” may be about the patient herself (“I’m such a failure”), the therapist (“She doesn’t understand me”), or the discussion subject (“It’s not fair that I have  so much to do”). These can undermine the patient’s motivation or sense of adequacy or worth. Identifying automatic thoughts on the spot gives the patient the opportunity to test and respond to the thoughts immediately, which is a more effective way of facilitating the work of changing automatic thoughts and hence altering affect (Beck 2011, 143).

A wide range of “situations”–both external stimuli and internal experiences–can give rise to an initial “hot cognition” or a series of automatic thoughts, followed then by an initial emotional, behavioral, or physiological reaction, which can lead to additional automatic thoughts and additional reactions (Beck 2011, 153-155). For instance, the situation could be a behavior, such as the patient binge eating, which leads to the automatic thought, “I’m so weak; I just can’t get my eating under control.” Or the situation could be a stream of thoughts such as the patient worrying about an upcoming exam, triggering the automatic thought, “I’ll never learn this stuff.”

It is the job of the CBT therapist to aid the patient in identifying and evaluating such automatic thoughts. This is a skill that can be practiced and improved over time. When the therapist asks the patient to describe a problematic situation that arose, or when the therapist notices a shift to or an intensification of negative affect, the therapist probes the patient’s thinking. A common method is Socratic, in which the therapist uses questions such as, “What was going through your mind just then?” CBT has a large repertoire of techniques for eliciting automatic thoughts from the patient (Beck 2011, 142-143).

Once the automatic thoughts are made conscious and identified, the patient and therapist can begin to evaluate and modify them. CBT clinicians believe that people with psychological disorders make predictable errors in their thinking. Although some automatic thoughts may be true, many are either false or have just a grain of truth (Beck 2011, 181-182). I gave examples in the previous section of some of these typical mistakes in thinking.

Automatic thoughts can also be replaced. Often, before trying to modify a patient’s problematic belief, the therapist first confirms that it is a central, strongly held belief, and then formulates a more functional, less rigid belief that is thematically related to the dysfunctional one but which is more realistic and adaptive for the patient (Beck 2011, 213).     Sometimes the disempowering automatic thought turns out to be true, in which case the therapist can help the patient focus on problem solving, investigate whether the patient has drawn an invalid inference or conclusion, or work on acceptance. Some problems may never be solved and patients might need help in accepting that outcome. A number of strategies designed to facilitate acceptance, such as Vipassana meditation and Buddhist or Buddhist-influenced mindfulness training, have been successfully integrated into cognitive-behavioral therapy (Hayes, Follette, and Linehan 2004).

For Wang, too, our unconscious, situationally relevant, moral thoughts can be made conscious, evaluated, altered, or replaced. When we vigilantly observe our thoughts as they arise in response to situations, we are engaging in the task of “constantly bringing our thoughts to the fore” (changti niantou 常提念頭):

Your letter says, “The Buddhists also have the saying, ‘Constantly bring your thoughts to the fore’ (changti niantou).[xviii] Is this the same as Mengzi’s saying, ‘Always treat it as a significant situation,’ and what you called the extension of the liangzhi (良知) to the utmost? Is it the same as constantly being alert, constantly remembering, constantly being aware, and constantly preserving the original mind? If one’s thoughts are brought to the fore, when situations and affairs arise, one can handle them in the right way. What I am afraid of is that more often than not one’s thoughts are abandoned rather than brought to the fore and one’s task will be interrupted. Moreover, thoughts are abandoned and lost chiefly because of self-centered desires and the stirring of emotions caused by external stimuli. After one is suddenly startled and awakened, then one can bring them to the fore. Between the time when thoughts are abandoned and the time when they are brought to the fore, one’s mind is confused and disorderly, in most cases without one’s realizing it…

Wang approves of his student’s explanation:

Self-discipline, vigilance, and self-mastery describe the task of “constantly bring them forward without abandoning them.” This is the same as “always treat it as a significant situation.” How can they be unrelated? The answer to the first part of your question has already been clearly explained by you. (WYQ 1:67-68; Chan 1963, 143-144)

In “constantly bringing thoughts to the fore,” we are continually scanning our natural responses and attempting to uncover the automatic thoughts that are usually hidden below our conscious awareness. We are attempting to take our underlying unconscious thoughts and subject them to conscious scrutiny.[xix] This is a central component in Wang’s therapeutic method.

Moreover, once we discover, identify, or tune into our mind’s responses to “morally significant situations” (shi 事), we are to attempt immediately to engage in moral cultivation right then and there. This means to amplify or apply the “hot cognition” if it is good or to rectify it if it is bad. Thus, the task of moral cultivation cannot be done solely in the armchair. One does not collect data on one’s own mental and emotional responses and then analyse them later in the comfort of one’s study. Rather, the work of moral cultivation is to be done in the midst of experiencing one’s own mental and emotional reactions to external situations:

Now that we want to rectify the mind, where in the original substance [of the mind] must we direct our effort? We must direct it where the mind operates, and then the effort will be earnest and strong. In the mind’s operation, it is impossible for it to be entirely free from evil. Thus, it must be here that we make earnest and strong effort. This means to make the thoughts authentic (chengyi 誠意). For example, when a thought (nian 念) to love the good arises, right then and there, love the good. When a thought to hate evil arises, right then and there, hate the evil. If every time thoughts arise and are authentic, then how can the original substance of the mind help being correct? Thus, if one wishes to rectify the mind, he must first make his thoughts authentic. Only when the work (gongfu 工夫) reaches this point of the authenticity of thought can it be resolved. (WYQ 1:119; Chan 1963, 248)

One’s thoughts (yi 意) become “authentic” when one’s actions, emotions, and other thoughts are all in accord. This is to be mentally, emotionally, and physically congruent with the original goodness of one’s nature and mind. One is acting, thinking, or feeling in complete congruence with the intuitive responses of one’s original nature and mind. There is to be no self-deception here.

This assumes that one’s thoughts (yi) are also congruent with the deliverances of the liangzhi faculty. The above passage assumes that the thoughts are correct. That is, the thoughts of loving X or hating Y are correct.

Of course, however, we also have incorrect yi, and the work of self-cultivation is to unearth our unconscious incorrect thoughts by forcing them to our awareness so that we can then rectify them:

The extension of knowledge is the foundation of the authenticity of thought. But this extension of knowledge is not something to be done in a vacuum. It is to rectify [what is incorrect in the mind] in whatever actual activities one is doing. For instance, if one has the thought to do good, then one should do it right in the activities one happens to be doing. If one has the thought to eliminate evil, one should eliminate evil right in the activities one happens to be doing. Eliminating evil, of course, is to rectify what is incorrect in the mind so as to return to original correctness. When good is done, evil is corrected, which is also to rectify what is incorrect in the mind so as to return to original correctness. In this way, the liangzhi of our minds will not be obscured by self-centered desires and can then be extended fully. (WYQ 1:119-120; Chan 1963, 248-249)

By constantly monitoring and correcting one’s self-centered thoughts as they arise, one frees the liangzhi to operate properly and effectively.

Wang is explicit about the difference between mere thoughts (yi) and the deliverances of the liangzhi: “Thoughts should clearly be distinguished from liangzhi. Whenever an idea arises in response to any wu (物), this is called a ‘thought.’ Thoughts can be either correct or incorrect. That which is able to know which thoughts are correct and which incorrect is called liangzhi” (translation modified from Ivanhoe 2009, 127; WYQ 1: 217). The deliverances of our innate, intuitive moral faculty are the gauge by which we can calibrate and correct the thoughts in our spontaneous responses.

The liangzhi naturally judges thoughts as they arise in response to situations. But one still needs to heed and be congruent with the evaluation of one’s liangzhi to make one’s thinking authentic and avoid self-deception:

Whenever a thought or idea arises, my liangzhi knows on its own. Whether it is good or bad, my mind’s liangzhi itself knows it. It never has to rely on other people’s opinions. This is why even those petty people who have done bad things and would stop at nothing, still, “Whenever they see a gentleman, will dislike these [aspects of themselves] and try to conceal their wickedness and display their good points.”[xx] This shows the degree to which their liangzhi will not permit any self-deception. (Translation modified from Ivanhoe 2009, 170; WYQ 2: 971-972.)

In this sense, the liangzhi operates like a universal moral conscience, condemning our bad thoughts and actions. Since the liangzhi faculty is part of our originally good human natures, it is present in all of us. When we do not listen to it, obey it, or act in accordance with it, we are being “inauthentic.” We deny our original natures and are thinking, feeling, and acting contrary to our true selves. When we go against the deliverances of the liangzhi, we are deceiving ourselves in a fundamental and deep way. And the more we ignore the liangzhi, the more estranged from our original natures we become.

Whenever we are faced with a situation (shi), we naturally respond with thoughts (yi), some of which are correct and some of which are incorrect. Our task, while interacting with society and the external world, is to reflect on our automatic thoughts in order to identify and distinguish between the incorrect, self-centered ones and the correct, liangzhi-generated ones. We are to discard the self-centered thoughts and preserve the liangzhi-produced thoughts.

Thus, we see that Wang’s therapeutic method is premised on our already knowing what we need to know. It is just that mixed up with our liangzhi-conceived knowledge is a myriad of bad, self-centered thoughts, which need to be dug up and cleared off. Notice that since we do not know of what we are ignorant, we do not really come to learn anything new morally.[xxi] Our liangzhi is always active in us, so in a deep sense, we always already know what is the right action, decision, or thought. When asked whether one’s liangzhi is unconscious when one is asleep, Wang replied, “If it is unconscious, how is it that as soon as he is called, he answers?” (WYQ 1:105-106; Chan 1963, 218-219). Nivison rightly interprets Wang as saying that “for me to respond to a call with an awareness that I ought to be awake, we must suppose that in some deeper sense I was awake already” (Nivison 1996, 236-237). This self-denial is why being “authentic” (cheng), true to oneself, and listening and following one’s conscience were so central to Wang’s project. It was not so much overcoming one’s moral ignorance as it was facing up to what one already knew but was suppressing or repressing.

Through uncovering and scrutinizing one’s automatic thoughts, one becomes increasingly self-aware. Then as one abandons the bad, self-centered thoughts, one becomes increasingly self-congruent. The more one is self-aware and self-congruent, the better one becomes at the task of extending the liangzhi, which should get easier and easier: “In our thousands of thoughts and tens of thousands of deliberations, we must only extend liangzhi. The more liangzhi reflects, the more refined and clear it becomes” (WYQ 1:110).

Automatic Thoughts and Behavioral Change

An important but often neglected aspect of cognitive-behavioral therapy is the integration of techniques borrowed from behaviorism. This is a key similarity between Wang’s teachings and CBT, but it is also a major area of difference, as Wang’s doctrine of “the unity of knowledge and action” (zhixing heyi 知行合一) is more developed and plays a much more prominent role in his overall philosophy than behavioral activation does in CBT.

Modern cognitive-behavioral therapy holds that altering our dysfunctional automatic thoughts can create behavioral change. In addition, CBT maintains that behavioral activation is an essential part of treatment, not only to improve the patients’ moods, but also to strengthen the patients’ sense of self-efficacy by demonstrating to themselves that they can take more control of their mood than they had previously believed (Beck 2011, 80-99).

Patients differ in their need for behavioral activation, but it is essential for most patients. Some need only to be given a rationale, guidance in selecting and scheduling activities. Therapists can also give skeptical or resistant patients behavioral experiments first to let them check the accuracy of their automatic thoughts by comparing their predictions with what actually occurs (Beck 2011, 99). The “behavioral” component in cognitive-behavioral therapy plays a strong supporting role, but most of the theory and training in CBT is limited to cognitive methods and talk therapy.

In his philosophy, Wang Yangming places much weight on practical action and experiential knowledge. In teaching his central doctrine of “the unity of knowledge and action” (zhixing heyi), he explains that moral knowledge necessarily entails moral action:

[Someone asked], “Now there are people who, despite knowing they should be filial to their parents and respectful to their elder brother, cannot be filial or respectful. From this it is clear that knowledge and action are two separate things.”

[Wang replied, “In this case, knowledge and action] have already been separated by self-centered desires; this is not the original state of knowledge and action. There have never been people who know but do not act. Those who know but do not act, simply do not yet know… Suppose we say that so-and-so knows filial piety and brotherly respect. That person must already be practicing filial piety and brotherly respect in order for him to be considered as knowing filial piety and brotherly respect. It will not do to say that he knows filial piety and brotherly respect simply because he is able to say words that might be considered filial or respectful… In teaching people, the Sages insisted that only this can be called knowledge.” (WYQ 1:3-4; Ivanhoe 2000, 63)

This “action” (xing ) also extends to the affections (Tien 2004). One does not fully understand courage until one has attempted to act courageously, and one does not fully understand compassion until one has attempted to act compassionately (Ivanhoe 2000, 64).[xxii]

Wang would probably say that CBT patients who claim that they know that everything will be all right yet still feel a great deal of anxiety about the future simply do not truly know that everything will be all right. Wang makes the distinction between “real knowledge” (zhenzhi 真知), which is like an experiential knowledge, and “ordinary knowledge” (changzhi 常知), which is a merely theoretical knowledge.

It is the job of cognitive-behavioral therapy to move patients from such “ordinary knowledge” to “real knowledge.” Wang understood the purpose of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation along the same lines:

[The student said,]” In saying that knowledge and action are two different things, the ancients intended to have people distinguish and understand them, so that on the one hand, they take on the task of knowing, and on the other hand, they take on the task of action, and only then can their tasks begin to reach completion.”

The Master said, “This is to lose sight of the basic purpose of the ancients. I have said that knowledge gives purpose to action and action is the task of knowledge, and that knowledge is the beginning of action, and action is the completion of knowledge. If this is understood, then when only knowledge is mentioned, action is already entailed, and when only action is mentioned, knowledge is already entailed. The reason why the ancients talked about knowledge and action separately is that there are some people who are confused and act impulsively without any sense of deliberation or self-examination, and who thus only behave blindly and erroneously. They are not at all willing to make the effort of concrete practice. They only pursue shadows and echoes, as it were. It is thus necessary to talk about action to them before their knowledge becomes ‘real’ (zhen). The ancient teachers could not help talking this way to restore balance and avoid any defect. If we understand this motive, then a single word [of either knowledge or action] will do.

“But people today will discuss and learn the business of knowledge first, they say, and wait until they really know before they put their knowledge into practice. Consequently, to the last days of their lives, they will never act and thus will never know.”  (WYQ 1:4-5; Chan 1963, 10-11)

Wang revealed that his insistence on the unity of knowledge and action was an expedient. Theoretical knowledge often comes first. But the important thing is to apply the knowledge, to make the theoretical knowledge “real” by putting the knowledge into action.

In CBT, a depressed patient often needs behavioral activation to change how they feel emotionally. Thus helping them become more active and giving themselves more credit for their efforts are essential parts of treatment. In carrying out the actions successfully, the patient will also begin to modify or replace dysfunctional automatic thoughts with empowering automatic thoughts (“I’ll never get back into shape” becomes replaced by, “This is hard, but I can do this and am already making progress”). Behavioral activation fortifies the cognitive work that occurs in talk therapy.

In Wang’s model of moral self-cultivation, behavioral activation would be required to live a moral life. Merely having theoretical knowledge that, “One ought to help the indigent” is useless if one doesn’t try to apply this knowledge by, for example, volunteering time or donating money to help the indigent. And then once one begins to apply this “ordinary knowledge,” it starts to become “real knowledge.”

A major reason “action” is more prominent in Wang’s philosophy is because he never saw his work as limited to the confines of a therapy room or psychological clinic. CBT is usually conducted in closed, isolated settings, most often in the privacy of a comfortable clinic or office. Wang, however, was adamant that by far the more effective setting for moral and spiritual cultivation was not a private study room or meditation hall, but the outside world, interacting with other people and the natural environment. For Wang, no matter how effective the therapeutic discussions and exercises would be in the clinical setting, until we venture out and test our theoretical knowledge in the real world, with all its nitty-gritty complexities and messy moral situations, we cannot develop in any meaningful way morally or spiritually.

Conclusion

In sum, the principles and practices of cognitive-behavioral therapy bear important similarities to Wang Yangming’s moral psychology and model of moral self-cultivation. They both uphold the power of unconscious, automatic thoughts to affect our emotional states. They both advocate a process of catching and identifying our dysfunctional unconscious thoughts and then evaluating, altering, or replacing them with better thoughts that are more effective for achieving the desired emotions and behaviors. Most importantly for Wang, they both share the conviction that behavioral change directly leads to mental and emotional change, and vice versa.

A major point of dissimilarity is the environment and context for which these methods were devised–the modern period vs. Ming China, psychological problems such as depression vs. moral development, the psychology clinic vs. the world of everyday life–leading to a difference in emphasis on the factor of behavioral change. Wang goes further than CBT in maintaining that moral therapy requires behavioral activation, and that moral therapy is unsuccessful unless it leads to a corresponding improvement or transformation in behavior.

Comparing cognitive-behavioral therapy with Wang’s moral psychology brings to light the importance of unconscious thoughts in Neo-Confucian moral self-cultivation. Wang and other historical Chinese philosophers held a deep appreciation for the dominating effect of our unconscious thoughts on our behavior–both moral and otherwise–a point that has been repeatedly verified in empirical studies over the last several decades (for example, see Kahneman 2011 and Cialdini 1993) and has deeply influenced contemporary theories of moral psychology.[xxiii]

ENDNOTES

[i] I am also here bracketing Wang’s metaphysical views for the purpose of getting this comparative project off the ground. My focus in this paper is on Wang’s therapeutic approach to moral philosophy. For a detailed description and analysis of Wang’s metaphysics, see Tien 2010.

[ii] See Sinnott-Armstrong (2008) for an excellent example of recent philosophy work in this area.

[iii] The narrative of this summary is informed by Hauser, Young, and Cushman (2008); and Haidt and Bjorklund (2008).

[iv] For an extended explanation of Wang’s metaphysics, see Tien 2010.

[v]  Contrast this with Chan’s unfortunate translation of yi as “will.” Wang 1963, 104

[vi] Mengzi 孟子 4A:2

[vii] Beyond the scope of this paper is a full defence of the view that liangzhi is better understood as a faculty rather than a body of knowledge. For a start, see Tien 2004 and Ivanhoe 2002.

[viii] On Wang’s use of yi, see Ivanhoe, Readings in the Lu-Wang School of Neo-Confucianism, p. 127: “Thoughts (yi) should clearly be distinguished from liangzhi. Whenever an idea arises in response to a wu, this is called a ‘thought.’” See also 钱明, 《儒学”意”范畴与阳明学的”主意”话语》, 中国哲学史 2 (2005).

[ix] The Great Learning 《大學》section 4. In Chan 1963, 106-107, Wang applies this ordering to the specific case of serving and caring for one’s parents.

[x] Translation modified from Ivanhoe 2002, 102. The phrase “like a cat catching mice” alludes to a Chan Buddhist story.

[xi] Many thanks are owed to Philip J. Ivanhoe, who in private correspondence reminded me of the importance of this point.

[xii] See Ivanhoe’s essay on the meaning of this title. Ivanhoe 2002, 154-161.

[xiii] For the distinction between particularized or manifested li and universal li, see Tien 2010.

[xiv] Mengzi 2A:2. See also Ivanhoe 2002, 107-108.

[xv] Mengzi 2A:2

[xvi] Zhong Yong, chapter. 13.

[xvii] In CBT, considerable attention is also given to identifying and modifying Core Beliefs and Intermediate Beliefs. But for the purposes of this essay, I focus on the more basic Automatic Thoughts (Beck 2011).

[xviii] This phrase is of unknown origin.

[xix] A fruitful description of this might also be made using the concept of dispositional and occurrent beliefs in which the task is to make our incorrect dispositional beliefs first occurrent and then correct.

[xx] Paraphrase of Daxue, section 5.

[xxi] For a version of this problem, see Nivison 1996.

[xxii] For an interesting article on “understanding” as an epistemic concept, see Zagzebski 2001.

[xxiii] I extend my sincere gratitude to Philip J. Ivanhoe, Justin Tiwald, and an anonymous reviewer for valuable suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper. Any remaining flaws are entirely the fault of the author.

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Oneness, The Brain, and Unconscious Judgments in Moral Psychology and the Philosophy of Wang Yangming (1427-1529)

by

David W. Tien

Draft dated June 2016

(For inclusion in Philip Ivanhoe, Owen Flanagan, and Victoria Harrison, The Oneness Hypothesis: Beyond the Boundary of Self (Columbia University Press). This chapter was pulled from the volume just before it went to the printers because a feminist academic was offended by (her perception of) my past.)

In this essay, I shall draw on some empirical research to support four observations.

The first is that (1) the perception of oneness (or “self-other merging”) — rather than the experience of empathy — is the primary and more direct motivator of helping behavior.[1]

The next three observations are that (2) this perception of oneness (and hence, moral motivation) is co-dependent on some natural facts about the subject’s brain. (3) The judgments that lead to moral behavior are mostly unconscious and are not often emotions. And, (4) it is possible to train one’s unconscious intuitions through arduous practice.

Moreover, I shall demonstrate that all four points are anticipated by Neo-Confucianism and in the philosophy of Wang Yangming (1472-1529) in particular.[2]

I. Oneness vs. Empathy[3]

Empirical research on the sense of oneness has shown that it, rather than empathy, is most directly responsible for motivating helping behavior. One of the most prominent theories in psychology that attempts to explain altruistic behavior has been that of C. Daniel Batson and associates.[4] According to Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis, purely altruistic acts can occur consistently if they are preceded by the specific psychological state of empathic concern for the other. They define “empathic concern” as an emotional reaction characterized by feelings described as compassion, tenderness, softheartedness, and sympathy. They and other researchers working independently[5] have demonstrated that generally, under conditions of empathic concern for the other, individuals help more frequently in what appear to be altruistically motivated attempts to improve the other’s well-being rather than an egoistically motivated attempt to improve their own.

In response to this prevailing view, Robert Cialdini and his research associates proposed and tested a theory that attributes helping behavior to the merging of self and other.[6] Building on earlier research by Arthur and Elaine Aron, Mark H. Davis, and others, Cialdini and his research team tested their self-other merging hypothesis in three studies closely resembling the conditions under which Batson and associates tested their empathy-altruism model, using perspective-taking instructions and the variable of relationship closeness (Aron and Aron 1986; Aron, Aron, and Smollan 1992; Aron, et al., 1991; Davis et al., 1996). On four categories of closeness—from near stranger to acquaintance to good friend to close family member—as subjects took the perspective of those closer to them, the degree to which they were willing to offer help increased dramatically compared to the degree of empathic concern they felt.

That is, “controlling for oneness eliminated the influence of empathic concern, whereas controlling for empathic concern left oneness a powerful predictor of willingness to help.”[7] Their path analysis revealed further that empathy increased willingness to help only through its relation to perceived oneness, suggesting that empathy affects helping primarily as an emotional signal of oneness, thereby undermining the altruism-empathy model.

Other studies have shown that a deep experience of oneness can cause people to act as if some or all aspects of the other are partially their own, accompanied by a sense of fusion between the self and the other. For instance, in the earlier Aron and Aron study, their self-expansion model holds that people are motivated to enter and maintain close relationships to expand the self by incorporating resources, perspectives, and characteristics of the other in the self (Aron and Aron 1986).

Similarly, other studies on group oneness have demonstrated the powerful effect of group identification on participants’ willingness to restrict individual gain to preserve collective good. Positive evaluations and liking for others can be induced simply by the knowledge of a shared, common identity. This is a phenomena that researchers have called “depersonalized social attraction,” and it is closely connected to the idea of a “social self” that is a more inclusive self-representation in which relations and similarities to others become central to one’s self concept (Hogg 1992; Brewer and Gardner 1996). While a full assessment of this debate is beyond the scope of this paper, this brief summary should suffice to elucidate the significance of oneness to moral motivation.

In Neo-Confucian moral psychology, the experience of oneness plays an integral role in motivating moral behavior, for while empathy and oneness are closely linked, Wang Yangming and many other Neo-Confucians seem to hold that oneness and not empathy leads to moral motivation.

In his celebrated essay, “Inquiry on the Great Learning,” Wang invokes the power of oneness: “The great man regards Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between the self and others, they are small men…” (Wang 1963, 272). For Wang, this metaphysical unity extended not only to people and animals but also to plants and inanimate objects:

[W]hen [the great man] sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet, even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones. This means that even the mind of the small man must have the humanity that forms one body with all. Such a mind is rooted in his Heaven-endowed nature and is naturally intelligent, clear, and not beclouded. (Wang 1963, 272-273, translation modified).

For Wang and most Neo-Confucians, everything there is constituted by some combination of li 理 (principle) and qi 氣 (matter-energy). Qi is the stuff of which the universe is made. It exists in various grades of purity. Although all things possess all the li of the universe within them, because of the impurity of the qi of which they are composed, some li are obstructed and are not easily perceived by the xin 心 (mind). Li refers to the way a thing or state of affairs ought to be. When things or states of affairs are not in accord with li, they are deemed deviant. Differences in the combinations of li and qi are what account for the differences between things. For Wang, every failure to act correctly is a result of a failure to grasp the li (“principle” or “principles”) that are already in the mind. The practice of self-cultivation in Wang’s philosophy is basically the process of unearthing and uncovering the obscured thoughts already in our minds (xin). Because even uncultivated people share their qi and universal li in common with the rest of the universe, they too would feel pity and regret at the damage to plants, tiles, and stones, though they feel it much less than those who are morally cultivated. It is not that they feel hurt to see them damaged; they feel the hurt as their own, as a personal injury to an extension of their own bodies (Ivanhoe 2002, 29).

Elsewhere Wang expounds in detail on this theme:

At bottom, Heaven and Earth and all things are my body. Is there any suffering or bitterness of the great masses that is not disease or pain in my own body? Those who are not aware of the disease and pain in their own body are people without the sense of right and wrong… If gentlemen of the world merely devote their effort to extending their liangzhi 良知 (intuitive moral faculty), they will naturally share with all a universal sense of right and wrong, share their likes and dislikes, regard other people as their own persons, regard the people of other countries as their own family, and look upon Heaven, Earth, and all things as one body. When this is done, even if we wanted the world to be without order, it would not be possible. When the ancients felt that the good seemed to come from themselves whenever they saw others do good, when they felt that they had fallen into evil whenever they saw others do evil, when they regarded other people’s hunger and drowning as their own, … they did not purposely do so to seek people’s faith in them… Oh, how simple and easy was the way of sages to govern the empire![8]

Forming one body with the universe consists in cognitively comprehending the underlying unity and experiencing the concomitant feeling of a pervasive oneness with the cosmos and all its constituent parts.

If, as Wang maintains, the perception and experience of oneness is the driving factor motivating moral behavior, then it should be clear why self-centeredness (siyu 私慾) is so dangerous.[9] Self-centeredness drives a wedge between the individual self and the rest of the world. So even if someone understand theoretically that she should act filially to her parents, unless she perceives her oneness with her parents, she won’t be induced to act lovingly to them. In teaching about the principle of filial piety, Wang draws this connection: “If the mind is free from self-centered human desires and has become completely identical with the Heavenly Principle, … then in the winter, one will naturally think of how cold one’s parents feel and seek to provide warmth for them, and in the summer, one will naturally think of how hot the parents feel and seek to provide coolness for them” (Wang 1963, S. 3, translation modified).

At an even more basic level, being in an experiential state of oneness just is being in accord with li: “‘What is the difference between being in accord with li and having no self-centered mind?’ The Teacher said, ‘The mind is li. To have no self-centered mind is to be in accord with li, and not to be in accord with li is to have a self-centered mind…” (Wang 1963, S. 94, translation modified).

One of the main goals of Neo-Confucian epistemology and moral cultivation is to attain, sustain, and grow the experiential state of oneness. Wang’s theory of knowledge and action (zhixingheyi 知行合一) posits that moral action naturally ensues from the oneness state. So the crucial step is achieving and living in the experience of oneness. Wang’s “self-centeredness” (si 私) cannot merely be “putting one’s desires above those of others.”[10] It is a deeper philosophical concept, integrally related to the underlying metaphysical unity of the universe, which the sage — as our normative ideal — experiences as a oneness with all things.

II. Oneness and the Brain

Not only has empirical research shown that a sense of oneness motivates moral behavior, multiple studies have evinced a link between the neuropsychological state of oneness and a specific cerebral structure, the right parietal lobe. This relationship has been confirmed with both clinical and neuroscientific samples, including persons with traumatic brain injury (Johnstone et al. 2012; Johnstone and Glass 2008), individuals having surgery for parietal lobe brain tumors (Urgesi et al. 2010), and Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns engaged in meditative practices (Brefczynski-Lewis et al. 2007; Newberg et al., 2003; Newberg et. al., 2001).

The right parietal lobe is associated with defining or perceiving the self (Decety and Sommerville 2003; Uddin et al., 2005), self-related cognition (Platek et al., 2004), own-body perception (Blanke and Arzy, 2005), and autobiographical memory (Lou et al., 2004). Research has further shown that the right inferior parietal cortex “may be critical in distinguishing the self from the other” (Decety and Moriguchi 2007: 9) and that repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to the right inferior parietal lobe (but not the left inferior parietal lobe) “selectively disrupts performs on a self-other discrimination task” (Uddin et al., 2006: 65).

Further support for these experimental research findings are clinical studies suggesting that injury to the right parietal lobe is associated with “disorders of the self” (Feinberg and Keenan 2005), impairments in self-awareness (e.g., anosognosia; McGlynn and Schacter 1989), difficulties identifying the “self” in space (i.e., left-sided spatial neglect; Mesulam 2000), and impairments in understanding how the “self” is perceived by others (Brozgold et al., 1998).

Since increased activity in the right inferior parietal lobe has been associated with the proclivity to focus on the self, a reasonable hypothesis would be that decreased functioning of the right inferior parietal lobe would lead to a decreased proclivity to focus on the self, a diminished capability to distinguish self from others, or an increased selflessness or sense of oneness — which is suggested by both experimental and clinical research findings.

In one of the first studies of the neuropsychology of selflessness, Johnstone and Glass proposed such a hypothesis and used neuropsychological tests to evaluate the functional integrity of different cerebral structures (Johnstone and Glass 2008), which indicated that decreased function in the right parietal lobe (measured by the Judgment of Line Orientation Test: Benton, et al., 1983) was significantly correlated with an increased sense of selflessness (using the Index of Core Spiritual Experiences: Kass et al., 1991), although measures of frontal and temporal lobe functioning were not. Johnstone, et. al., (2012) later replicated, confirmed, and extended their earlier findings that relatively weaker right parietal lobe functioning was significantly correlated with a greater sense of selflessness. Other studies of people with brain tumors supported these findings that “selected damage to the left and right inferior posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase of self-transcendence” (Urgesi et al., 2010: 39).

Neuropsychological studies of Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns suggest that decreased activation of the right parietal lobe is related to the decreased sense of the self reportedly experienced during deep states of meditation or prayer. Newberg et. al., (2001) used single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging to study meditating Buddhist monks and recorded significant increase in blood flow (indicating brain activity) in the prefrontal cortex and posterior superior parietal lobe but significant decreases in the blood flow to the right inferior parietal lobe. Newborn et. al., (2003) later performed a similar SPECT study on Franciscan nuns engaged in verbal meditation and found a strong inverse relation between increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and decreased blood flow to the right inferior parietal lobe. The participants of both studies reported an increased sense of universal connectedness, a greater sense of unity over diversity, and a decreased awareness of the self. Brefczynski-Lewis, et. al., (2007) used function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study Tibetan Buddhist monks engaged in meditation and reported that deactivation of the right inferior parietal lobe occurs during a specific type of meditation — metta bhavana (“loving-kindness-compassion”) meditation — practiced by these Tibetan monks.

These experimental and clinical research findings support the broader conclusion that the experience of oneness is correlated to decreased blood flow in a specific part of the physical brain, the right inferior parietal lobe. It would be reasonable to hypothesize that decreased brain activity in this part of the brain would lead to an increased sense of oneness in the subject.[11] Put differently, moral behavior can be motivated by decreasing the flow of blood to a specific section of the physical brain.[12]

That the experience of oneness can be so dependent on the physical brain is also consistent with mainstream Neo-Confucian philosophy and with the moral metaphysics of Wang Yangming. For Wang and most Neo-Confucians, everything there is constituted by some combination of li and qi. Li 理 refers to the way a thing or state of affairs ought to be. When things or states of affairs are not in accord with li, they are deemed deviant.

As with most Neo-Confucians, Wang believed that the mind (xin 心) was made of the same qi (“matter-energy”) as all physical things, including gas, liquid, and solid matter (Tien 2010). In traditional Chinese metaphysics, the spirit, mind, and physical objects existed along a continuum of rarefied to dense qi. Wang held that all things, including animals, plants, heaven, earth, spiritual beings, and himself are composed of the same matter-energy. Because they have their existence in a common substance, they affect and influence one another on a metaphysical and physical level (Tien 2012; Wang 3:157/337).

Moreover, Wang believed that every instantiation of li (which, among its many definitions, meant the “normative ideal”) had to be accompanied by qi because li was always embedded in qi (Tien 2010). This is the standard model in Neo-Confucianism. In 2:106/153, Wang reiterates this common view: “Li is the order by which qi operates. Qi is that whereby li functions. Without order, it cannot function. Without functioning, there can be nothing to reveal what is ordered.”

The process of self-cultivation for Wang was a matter of removing the blind spots of “self-centered thoughts” (siyu) so that one could clearly extend the moral mind, that is, so that one is able to perceive and feel the appropriate response to the morally significant situations one encounters in life (Tien forthcoming; Tien 2004). These “self-centered thoughts” were also made up qi. Wang employed Buddhist-inspired similes to illustrate the relation between the mind and these “self-centered thoughts.” Just as the sun shining behind clouds or a clear mirror hidden beneath dust, the mind must be unobstructed by the “clouds” and “dust” of self-centeredness for it to apprehend li and lead us to the right moral judgments.[13] That the sense of oneness would be located in a specific region of one’s qi is exactly what would be expected on Wang’s metaphysics of mind, as Wang held that the qi of the mind was constituted by the most rarefied qi of the body (Tien 2010).

III. Unconscious Beliefs, Emotions, and Moral Behavior

An important implication of the fact that the sense of oneness is correlated with the right parietal lobe is that this is a part of the brain not associated with conscious reasoning. And if it is not a conscious process, then it is an unconscious one. Modern philosophy has largely neglected the significance of the unconscious. In recent decades, however, a large body of empirical research has emerged in diverse disciplines  and fields, demonstrating a fundamental tenet of cognitive-behavioral therapy and of much of clinical psychology, more broadly — that much of mental life is unconscious, including cognitive, affective, and motivational processes. This empirical research suggests significant revisions in the philosophical understanding of moral psychology.              One of the most important areas for re-examination is the relationship between moral motivation and moral behavior. Recent experimental research indicates that unconscious processes determine many of our moral judgments and drive much of our moral behavior. Thus, to bring about moral behavior, such as altruism or helping behavior, it would be wise to create an effect at the level of the unconscious.

Unconscious thoughts and feelings are those that occur outside the scope of cognitive awareness. Empirical evidence suggests that unconscious phenomena include automatic skills, automatic reactions, perceptions, thoughts, habits, hidden desires, and phobias. Although such thoughts and feelings are not in our conscious awareness, they nonetheless influence other of our cognitive processes, as well as our behavior. I am not here referring to any specialized usages of the term “unconscious,” such as in the Freudian or Jungian senses.

In recent decades, a considerable body of empirical research in psychology, economics, neuroscience, and the intersections between these disciplines, as well as in other academic and practical fields, have led to the conclusion that many of our day-to-day judgments and behaviors — including many of our moral ones — are driven by unconscious, automatic, implicit processes rather than by conscious, controlled, explicit processes. This is also known as the “dual process theory.”[14]

This new perspective marks a sharp break from traditional, “rationalist” approaches, in which moral evaluations derive from conscious reasoning, and moral cultivation reflects an improved ability to articulate sound reasons for such conclusions. While the contrast between unconscious judgments and conscious reasoning is supposedly stark, the differences between the rationalist and dual process theories are in actuality not as clear-cut. The various dual process models involve reasoning at some point, and rationalist approaches often assume some innate moral knowledge.

The major point of tension is in the differing emphases. Rationalists ascribe the real work to controlled processes, which are conscious, heavily reliant on verbal thinking, and ordinarily slow, while dual process proponents say it’s done by unconscious, automatic processes, which are fast and effortless. The power of these unconscious processes in driving decisions and behavior have been well documented in Nisbett and Wilson 1977, Cialdini 2016, Cialdini 1984, Haidt 2001, Haidt 2006, Haidt 2012, Thaler 2009, Kahneman 2012, Ariely 2010, Ariely 2012a, Ariely 2012b, among others.

One common misconception is that the dual process theory is based on a dichotomy of cognition versus emotion. Instead, the main dichotomy is between conscious and unconscious processes. Jonathan Haidt, a prominent proponent of the dual systems approach, addresses this by pointing out that emotions depend on an appraisal, judgment, or interpretation of the phenomena or events. In other words, emotions depend on cognition; they are a kind of information processing (Haidt 2012: 51). Hence, the dichotomy breaks down as cognition is always involved in emotion:

Part of the problem was that my thinking was entrenched in a prevalent but useless dichotomy between cognition and emotion… [M]oral judgment is a cognitive process, as are all forms of judgment… Moral emotions are one type of moral intuition, but most moral intuitions are more subtle; they don’t rise to the level of emotions… Intuition is the best word to describe the dozens or hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgments and decisions that we all make every day. Only a few of these intuitions come to us embedded in full-blown emotions… [O]nce I stopped thinking about emotion versus cognition and started thinking about intuition versus reasoning, everything fell into place… In hindsight I wish I’d called the dog “intuitive” because psychologists who are still entrenched in the emotion-versus-cognition dichotomy often assume from the title that I’m saying that morality is always driven by emotion. Then they prove that cognition matters, and think they have found evidence against intuitionism. But intuitions (including emotional responses) are a kind of cognition. (Haidt 2012: 51-56; italics in original)

Indeed, Haidt employs the term “affect” (instead of “emotion”) to refer to the feelings involved in moral judgment:

Affect refers to small flashes of positive or negative feeling that prepare us to approach or avoid something. Every emotion (such as happiness or disgust) includes an affective reaction, but most of our affective reactions are too fleeting to be called emotions (for example, the subtle feelings you get just from reading the words happiness and disgust)…

[A]ffective reactions are so tightly integrated with perception that we find ourselves liking or disliking something the instant we notice it, sometimes even before we know what it is. These flashes occur so rapidly that they precede all other thoughts about the thing we’re looking at (Haidt 2012: 65).

On Haidt’s model, feelings are involved but they are mere flashes, not emotions, which would require cognition. The important distinction then is not between emotion and cognition but between the unconscious and conscious processes.

Until recently, the dominant view on moral development did not place much importance on unconscious processing. This view was championed first by Jean Piaget (1965/1932) and developed by Lawrence Kohlberg (1969; 1971), which held that a child’s moral behavior is best understood in terms of the child’s articulations of moral principles.[15] For Piaget and Kohlberg, reasoning follows the perception of an event. The reasoning then results in a judgment. Emotion may emerge from the judgment but is not causally related to it. On this theory, we reflect on specific principles in evaluating our moral choices and then deduce rationally a specific judgment. This “rationalist” model of moral development draws on data culled from the children’s justifications. Research in recent decades has, however, called the Kohlbergian perspective into question, especially in its emphasis on justification over judgment.

Several challengers, picking up on a Humean sentimentalist theme, have risen to the fore, proposing in opposition a kind of moral sense or intuitionist theory. For instance, Haidt has observed that even fully mature adults are often unable to provide any sufficient justification for strongly felt moral intuitions, a phenomenon he calls “moral dumbfounding” (Haidt 2001). Even more, people regularly engage in outright confabulation; they invent and confidently tell stories to explain their behavior (Haidt 2007). Moral dumbfounding and confabulation, however, are easily explained by a dual process theory, in which the perception of an event or action triggers an unconscious, automatic response, which immediately causes a moral judgment. On Haidt’s social intuitionist model, reasoning and justification come afterwards in the form of post hoc rationalizations of an intuitively generated response (Haidt and Bjorklund 2008).

Others have proposed alternative models. In a view recently championed by Antonio Damasio based on research on neurologically impaired patients (Damasio 1994; Tranel, Bechara, and Damasio 2000) and by Joshua Greene based on neuroimaging research (Greene 2008; Greene, et. al., 2004), our moral judgments are a blend of unconscious emotional responses and some form of principled and deliberate reasoning, which both precede and generate the judgment. Shaun Nichols has proposed a naturalized sentimentalism in which emotions do make vital contributions to moral judgment (Nichols 2004). These are but a few of the several, viable options currently under consideration in contemporary moral psychology.

Well before the research of behavioral economists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and other academics on hot vs. cold cognition and dual-system intuitive vs. deliberate mental processing, Wang Yangming had already advocated a deep respect for the automatic, unconscious judgments governing moral behavior (Tien forthcoming). Wang and many other Neo-Confucian thinkers have long appreciated the primacy and the power of our intuitive mental processing, which has only recently gained prominence in the research agendas of analytic philosophy.[16] Wang understood that unconscious, automatic beliefs immediately and directly affect our emotional states and behavior.

However, Wang’s views also provide an instructive counterpoint to Haidt’s position, which seems to undervalue conscious reasoning and overvalue the role of automatic processes. Wang advocates conscious, deliberate practice for shaping, cultivating, and training our unconscious intuitions and automatic thoughts.[17] Wang was much more optimistic than Haidt seems in regards to the effectiveness of conscious cultivation of one’s unconscious intuitions and automatic thoughts. Not just Wang’s philosophy but the whole enterprise of Neo-Confucian self-cultivation is based on the belief that — adapting Haidt’s analogy — the elephant trainer/rider is capable of taming the wild elephant through conscious, deliberate practice. While Wang and the Neo-Confucians believe it possible to train the unconscious, none held that it is an easy task. It requires arduous application over the long-term.

In many ways, Wang’s views bear even more significant commonalities with modern cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is also based on the existence, prevalence, and power of automatic thoughts (Tien forthcoming). In Wang’s moral psychology, our unconscious automatic thoughts have immediate effect on our emotional states, and when those unconscious thoughts conflict with what we consciously or explicitly think we ought to do, they undermine our abilities to carry out correct action.

Wang Yangming views our emotional states as being immediately affected by our “automatic thoughts”–which can be so brief, frequent, and habitual that they often are not “heard” or “caught.” Wang also maintains that we can make such automatic thoughts conscious–if they are not conscious already–and that we are able to evaluate, alter, reframe, or replace them. Furthermore, Wang holds that our automatic thoughts directly effect behavioral change and that behavioral change can also directly effect change of automatic thoughts. Wang teachings aimed to enable his students to train their thoughts and emotions and guide them in becoming better moral persons (Tien forthcoming).

Seen in this way, Wang’s method of self-cultivation is a kind of moral therapy. Becoming more skilled at casting out and eradicating erroneous, unconscious, self-centered thoughts (私慾 siyu); at using the intuitive mind to perceive the correct li in morally relevant situations (事 shi); and at rectifying (格 ge) one’s thoughts (意 yi) so that they match up accurately with what is morally required in the situation (shi) requires that one constantly monitor one’s unconscious, automatic thoughts like a “cat catching mice” (Tien forthcoming).

Both the philosophy of Wang Yangming and cognitive-behavioral therapy uphold the power of unconscious, automatic thoughts to affect our emotional states. They both advocate a process of catching and identifying our dysfunctional unconscious thoughts and then evaluating, altering, or replacing them with better thoughts that are more effective for achieving the desired emotions and behaviors. Most importantly for Wang, they both share the conviction that behavioral change directly leads to mental and emotional change, and vice versa. Comparing cognitive-behavioral therapy with Wang’s moral psychology brings to light the importance of unconscious thoughts in Neo-Confucian moral self-cultivation. Wang and other historical Chinese philosophers held a deep appreciation for the dominating effect of our unconscious thoughts on our feelings and behavior (Tien forthcoming). Thus, in clinical psychology and in the philosophy of Wang Yangming, unconscious automatic thoughts and feelings are the primary basis of moral judgment and behavior.

IV. Training Unconscious Intuitions

Some philosophers may despair upon learning about the dual process theory of human judgment. If our decisions and behavior are actually driven by unconscious, automatic, intuitive responses instead of by conscious, rational deliberation or calculation, then what role is there for the activity of philosophizing? Indeed, in many places, Haidt has highlighted the “rationalist’s delusion” that reason plays much of a role in guiding morality or solving moral issues: “From Plato through Kant and Kohlberg, many rationalists have asserted that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. They believe that reasoning is the royal road to moral truth, and they believe that people who reason well are more likely to act morally” (Haidt 2012: 103). The view he rejects is that reason normally plays the role of offering good justifying reasons and that moral self-control, self-cultivation, and socio-moral policy is exercised on the basis of such reasons (Flanagan 2014: 90).

In his Righteous Mind, Haidt cites research on Affective Priming, the Mere Exposure Effect, the Implicit Association Test, Todorov’s work on our snap judgments of likability and attractiveness, priming disgust and purity, the Confirmation Bias, Schwitzgebel’s research on the moral behavior of ethics professors, and even hypnosis (Haidt 2012: 62-103). But that is just a small sample of the work on cognitive bias.

Other cognitive biases or non-rational psychological processes for which extensive evidence exists include the Association or Halo Effect, the Priming Effect, the Pygmalion Effect, Excitation Transfer, Hot-Cold Empathy Gap, Recency Effects, Peak Effects, Anchoring Errors, Choice Overload, the Ambiguity Effect, Confirmation Bias, the Impact or Durability Bias, Framing, Loss Aversion, Zero Price Effect, Hyperbolic Discounting, Scarcity Effects, Cost-Worth Signaling, Formal Authority, Reciprocity, Implementation Intentions, Social Proof, Positive Self-Identification, Self-Serving Bias, Over-Optimism Bias, Defensive Attribution, False Consensus Effect, Fundamental Attribution Error, and Status Quo Bias.[18] All of these examples highlight both the power and ubiquity of unconscious belief and the relative impotence of conscious, rational reasoning in affecting behavior.

Can reason, then, sometimes play the role that millennia of Western philosophy say it does — of guiding and controlling moral behavior of oneself and others?

The philosophy of Wang Yangming, and much of Chinese philosophy, provides an excellent counterpoint to dominant Western approaches in the past and present. Wang’s moral psychology focuses on the automatic, unconscious, intuitive processes in moral reasoning. His view offers a compelling account of how our moral judgments result not from a series of conscious calculations but from an innate moral faculty that produces intuitive responses to morally significant situations. While reason and conscious practice come into play in training our automatic thoughts, he focused on the honing of one’s unconscious moral intuitions. Wang’s theoretical and practical concerns are on learning and teaching how to cultivate one’s moral thought processes so as to affect moral behavior effectively. Wang emphasized how pernicious our cognitive blind spots are in obscuring clear moral judgment and action. He enjoins his students to be as vigilant in rooting out and eradicating cognitive errors, including emotions (because he did not suffer from the fallacious reason-emotion dichotomy), as a “cat catching mice — with eyes intently watching and ears intently listening” (Tien forthcoming).

Modern studies of the philosophy of Wang Yangming have pointed out how much Wang emphasized a therapeutic approach in his teachings over a purely theoretical one (Ivanhoe 2002: 85), and how structurally similar Wang’s approach is to cognitive-behavioral therapy (Tien forthcoming). If contemporary philosophers were to embrace a more therapeutic approach like Wang’s, there would be a clear place for reason in the conscious cultivation and training of the unconscious, or to use Haidt’s analogy, for the rider to train the elephant, albeit in calm and controlled conditions.[19]

If moral philosophers are concerned not only that their work make a difference in the real world, but also that their work track truth, that all the hard reasoning they do leads to the truth, then they should reconsider the rationalist method. If the dual process theory is correct, even if philosophers are more skilled and experienced than most people at reasoning, calm reflection by professional philosophers should bring to mind multiple cases in which another philosopher was clearly motivated to reach a predetermined conclusion and was clever in rationalizing reasons to support the conclusion. Further reflection would reveal the hypocrisy in assuming that only other philosophers do this, not oneself (Haidt and Bjorklund 2008). The practice of moral philosophy — and indeed of all theoretical work in the academy — would benefit from a deeper respect for the biases involved in moral reasoning and judgment.

If the scope of “philosophy” could be widened, however, to encompass the thousands of years of Asian philosophical tradition, there could be hope for the rider on top of that unruly elephant. In his Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt is quite clear in stating that there are empirically verified methods that the conscious mind is able to use to “train” one’s unconscious, automatic responses. He focused on three proven methods for training the mind in particular (in this case, for happiness) —  meditation, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and raising serotonin levels through SSRI’s (Haidt 2006). The first two methods have already been examined in this essay and the third in a footnote. I have also examined evidence for the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy and its relationship to Wang’s thought, and to philosophy in general, in Tien (forthcoming). As I show, Wang strongly believes that his version of Neo-Confucian “cognitive-behavioral therapy” would have an average positive effect on the moral behavior and character of those who are exposed to his system of moral cultivation.[20]

But, some might argue, meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy (and experimenting with drugs) are not within the normal purview of philosophy. Well, they may not be so in modern Western academic philosophy, but the millennia of Chinese philosophers did not so severely restrict the scope of their work in this way. And if modern philosophy became a little more flexible, it would not only become more interesting, it’d also become more relevant and more influential to more people.

One further role for reason not yet considered in this paper is reason’s role in the shared traditions in which social norms are embedded. P.J. Ivanhoe rightly points out that traditional practices shape and inform our thinking and represent the results of a long history of careful reasoning. He argues that social norms in general embody traditions of reasoning about how to behave, and that many thinkers have internalized these in the course of growing up (Ivanhoe 2015). On his view, the reason vs. emotion dichotomy is too simplistic because it neglects the historical context and situatedness of our thinking. Being creators and champions of scholarly tradition, Confucian and Neo-Confucian scholars would undoubtedly concur, though Wang was often perceived as an iconoclastic thinker who believed more strongly than most that the mind ought to operate independently of tradition.

However, even in Wang’s philosophy, Ivanhoe maintains that the central role of tradition comes into play. He contends that while some aspects of liangzhi can be found in innate dispositions, the kind of guidance and control Wang attributes to the liangzhi cannot be based exclusively or even primarily on these innate reactive attitudes. Ivanhoe astutely draws attention to the social context of his main audience: well-educated young men who already are concerned about their moral lives. From this, he infers that they have learned most of what they need to know about what to do and what not to do.[21] Clearly, Ivanhoe is right that the background assumption in Neo-Confucian teachings is of a shared body of knowledge and expertise in the traditional Chinese classics, the canons of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and the poetry and literature of their time. Wang assumed that his audience and students would be well versed in the Chinese classics and literature of his time.

But what about this idea applied to the modern context? What if we don’t have the deep background knowledge or shared assumptions that Wang and his students would have had? Perhaps an equivalent in the modern world might be something like the Great Books survey courses at universities or a common core curriculum. Maybe more widely spread might be the moral values of earlier generations passed down through daily recitation in schools of the Pledge of Allegiance or such general “feel good” adages like the Golden Rule, “Treat others how you’d like to be treated.” To the average young Westerner — who would not be college educated and probably has not worked his way through the canon of Shakespeare or even the Christian Bible — his set of social norms are more likely to come from Oprah, Jay-Z, the Kardashians, Taylor Swift, Jack Ma, or whoever is dominant on the latest social media platforms. I think it safe to say that the moral norms of modern people have become far less informed by the reasoning of historical traditions than were Wang Yangming’s literati students.

No matter what one’s generation, though, one will most certainly come to adopt and contribute to the shared background assumptions of one’s peers, parents, siblings, and teachers — those people with whom one spends the most time. And this observation leads to another cognitive effect that is surprisingly pervasive, as it too works on an unconscious level — The Peer Group Effect, or as Nicholas Christakis refers to it, the “Network Effect” (Christakis and Fowler 2011).[22] We tend to think and behave like our peers. Extensive evidence has documented this in the widower effect, which is an old observation in the social sciences going back a century and a half. When one’s spouse suddenly dies, one’s chances of dying in the following year double. But even more surprising, this effect can be traced to at least a few more degrees of separation, such that if your friend’s spouse dies suddenly, your daughter’s friend may also become affected and her chances of becoming clinically depressed increase. The effect is also evident in obesity. If one’s friend is obese, one’s chances of being obese increase by fifty-seven percent. This effect too is visible as far downstream as three degrees of separation: if your friend’s friend’s friend is obese, your chances of being obese are ten percent higher. Evidence also exists for the Peer Group Effect in one’s tastes, health, wealth, and happiness. And one of the key mechanisms for this influence is the spread from person to person of norms that become shared mostly as background assumptions.[23] It’s not that people go about their lives debating, reasoning, or arguing logically with their peers about their views on widowhood, obesity, divorce, gay marriage, or happiness. That’s what college life is for, and most people in the world are not college-educated, and even among those who are, it is an open question how many of them engage in critical reasoning with their peers once they graduate. Rather, the Peer Group Effect is largely, but not exclusively, unconscious.

Beliefs, norms, and standards spread and become shared by our network of peers, family, and those with whom we spend a lot of time. These ideas get passed down to us not through logical reasoning or explicit teaching but as background beliefs, norms, and standards. And we pass them on as shared background assumptions. They form, shape, guide, and constrain our thinking and reasoning. But they operate mainly as assumptions, and as such, they largely go unnoticed and hence unquestioned. If pressed, we may assent to them consciously, but these norms function mostly as unconscious assumptions.

When these shared background assumptions — whether they originated from peers or were passed down in historical traditions — become themselves the subject of debate, often the result is first knee-jerk resistance, then a great deal of struggle as new paradigms question the old assumptions, attempt to move beyond the traditional paradigms and change the rules of the game and the “map” directing new lines of thought. This happens when the mostly unconscious norms, standards, and background assumptions of tradition are highlighted and challenged.[24]

V. Conclusions

To recapitulate, in this essay, I made four points. First, I summarized the argument that the experience of oneness, and not empathy, can be the primary motivator of helping behavior, and that this direct process from oneness to helping behavior undercuts the empathy-altruism pathway. Second, I examined research showing that the sense of oneness is directly correlated with decreased blood flow in the right parietal lobe and explored some implications of this relationship between the physical brain and moral motivation on philosophy. Third, I highlighted how much of our moral behavior is based on unconscious judgments, uncovered some facets of the false dichotomy between cognition and emotion, and explained how cognitive-behavioral therapy and Wang Yangminig’s moral psychology are focused on analyzing one’s unconscious automatic thoughts. Finally, I surveyed the options for salvaging a role for reason and assessed whether and how it is possible to train our unconscious, automatic responses. Along the way at each point, I called attention to how Wang Yangming addressed similar questions in his views on oneness, self-centeredness, moral metaphysics, automatic thoughts, and the implications of prioritizing the therapeutic over the purely theoretical for the practice of philosophy.

ENDNOTES

[1] While I argue more fully for this point elsewhere (Tien 2012), the space is insufficient to do so in this essay.

[2] For a more detailed treatment of each of these points in the philosophy of Wang Yangming, see Tien forthcoming, Tien 2012, Tien 2010, and Tien 2004.

[3] This section draws extensively on Tien 2012.

[4] See especially Batson 1991. For his most recent study, see Batson 2009, 3-15. On empathy and moral motivation, see also Hoffman 2000. For a superb treatment of empathy in Neo-Confucian thought, see Angle 2009.

[5] Cf., Dovidio, Allen, and Schroeder 1990.

[6] This debate unfolds in Cialdini, et al., 1997; Batson et, al., 1997; Neuberg, et. al., 1997; Batson 1997. Cialdini continues in Cialdini 2016.

[7] Cialdini et al., 1997, 485. Notice the shift in wording between “oneness” and “relationship closeness,” a point Batson picks up in his critique in 1997, 518-519.

[8] Wang 1963, S. 179. Cf., Mengzi 7A: 15.

[9] For an extensive treatment of the difference between siyu as “self-centeredness” vs. “selfishness,” see Tien 2012.

[10] For a more detailed argument for taking si to mean “self-centeredness” rather than “selfishness,” see Tien 2012.

[11] Also see Pfaff 2007 for a view in which the feeling of oneness with others is the result of turning off certain resources in the brain that are needed to maintain a strong sense of oneself as an individual. Maintaining a strong sense of the self psychologically requires more energy than the sense of oneness with others. Credit is due P.J. Ivanhoe for this initial reference.

[12] As another example of how changes in neural activity can directly affect moral behavior, experimental research by Crockett et al. (2008) has shown that lowering serotonin levels increased retaliation to perceived unfairness without affecting mood, fairness judgments, basic reward processing or response inhibition.

[13] For the sun behind clouds imagery, see Wang 1963 S. 21, 62, 76, 167, 171. For the mirror under dust imagery, see Wang 1963 S. 207, 237, 255, 289, 290.

[14] An important account of the dual process theory can be found in Kahneman 2012. Many prominent variations of this theory differ in important ways. A full listing of the various views is well beyond the scope of this paper.

[15] The narrative of this summary is informed by Hauser, Young, and Cushman (2008); and Haidt and Bjorklund (2008).

[16] See Sinnott-Armstrong (2008) for an excellent example of contemporary philosophical work in this area.

[17] Thanks are due Hagop Sarkissian for this observation.

[18] Rather than list the extensive research on each one, I refer the reader to a textbook surveying all listed plus more: Hewstone, Stroebe, and Jonas 2012.

[19] Some notable works that have already made headway along such lines include Hadot 1995; Solomon 1999.

[20] Thanks to Eric Schwitzgebel for pushing me to be clearer on this point.

[21] Drawn from private correspondence with P.J. Ivanhoe in comments to an earlier draft of this essay.

[22] This usage is not to be confused with the “network effects” in the tech world.

[23] This research is summarized in Christakis and Fowler 2011.

[24] Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a classic statement of this view of intellectual progress. Kuhn (2012/1962).

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Oneness and Self-Centeredness in the Moral Psychology of Wang Yangming

David W. Tien

(Pre-publication draft dated December 2010 of article published in the Journal of Religious Ethics (JRE) 40.1 (2012): 52-71)

The moral psychology of the Chinese scholar-official Wang Yangming (1472-1529) presents a compelling and nuanced vision of how people are at “one” with others and other parts of the world, and even with the universe at large. Wang focuses on the ethical implications that come from recognizing and living in light of such a conception of the self, especially in relation to how such a view entails or implies various types and levels of care for other people, creatures, and things. This essay describes Wang’s conception of the self and explains its ethical implications, demonstrating how Wang’s views can make significant contributions to contemporary debates about the ways we are and can see ourselves related to other people and the world.

The teachings of Wang Yangming form the basis of what became known as “The Learning of the Mind” (xin xue 心學), one of the two leading schools of thought in the history of Neo-Confucianism, which dominated Chinese philosophy for over a thousand years. Wang’s philosophy also greatly influenced the development of Confucian thought in Japan and Korea.

Almost all accounts of Wang Yangming’s philosophy interpret his central concept of siyu 私欲 as “selfishness,” which usually means to be almost exclusively or excessively concerned with one’s own desires in contrast to others. A different interpretation of siyu is in terms of “self-centeredness,” which means to view the world excessively and exclusively from one’s own point of view and to view oneself as distinctly separate from other persons and things. This paper argues that while Wang employed both senses of “siyu” and at times conflated them and while there is some overlap between the two senses, a more accurate and revealing interpretation of Wang’s use of “siyu is “selfcenteredness.” One of the main goals in Wang’s model of moral cultivation was to attain a state devoid of selfcentered desires. Wang relied a great deal on the exercise and cultivation of an emotional identification and feeling of oneness with others. This was taken to such an extreme degree as to include experiencing an interpersonal unity with the entirety of Heaven and Earth. This is a state of oneness in which the conception of self and other are merged to a significant degree. These experiential states of oneness are causally responsible for motivating moral behavior. In relating Wang’s insights on oneness to modern debates in moral psychology, this paper draws on the empirical research of Robert Cialdini, C. Daniel Batson, and Arthur and Elaine Aron, among others.

In this paper, I first provide a brief summary of the role of Wang’s concept of “siyu” in his moral psychology. I then examine key passages in Wang’s writings that reveal his nuanced understanding of “siyu” and, along the way, I draw on empirical research in psychology to help illuminate the significance of Wang’s view of “siyu” to his overall model of moral cultivation.

“Siyu” in the Moral Psychology of Wang Yangming

Much of Wang Yangming’s moral psychology hinges on his teaching regarding the liangzhi (“pure knowing”), which for him is the innate fully formed cognitive-affective-volitional faculty that enables one to know the li (commonly translated as “principle”) of the mind and universe.[1] Li refer to the way a thing or state of affairs ought to be. When things or states of affairs are not in accord with li, they are deemed deviant. Every thing possesses all the li of the universe within it. In human beings, the li exist complete in the mind (xin ). For Wang, though, the mind not only contains li, the mind is itself li and operates as the knowing, conscious mode of li. [2]

At birth, we are endowed with this complete and perfect mind. Wang refers to this as the “mind in its original state” (xinzhibenti 心之本體) or the “original mind” (benxin 本心). The liangzhi operates as a cognitive-affective-volitional faculty that discerns flawlessly, naturally, and spontaneously between right and wrong, generating inerrant cognitive, affective, and volitional responses.

If our liangzhi is an infallible moral guide, how does Wang account for the bad moral choices we often seem to make? In line with the rest of the Neo-Confucian tradition, Wang explains moral wrong by invoking the concept of qi (variously translated as “material force,” “vital energy,” or “lively matter”).[3] Qi is the psychophysical stuff of which the universe is made. It exists in various grades of purity. For Wang and most Neo-Confucians, everything that exists is constituted by a combination of li and qi. Although all things possess all the li of the universe complete within them, because of the impurity of the qi of which they are composed, some li are obstructed, thereby accounting for the differences between things.[4] According to many Neo-Confucians, the high degree of clarity of the qi of human beings enables us to purify our qi endowments, which would eventually allow all the li within us, or more accurately, within our minds to shine forth. In turn, our pure and clear minds would be able to apprehend immediately and effortlessly the li in the external world.

Wang believes that the impure grades of qi in human beings are manifested primarily as “self-centered desires” (si yu 私欲), which he also refers to as the “self-centered mind” (si xin), “self-centered ideas” (si yi), and “self-centered thoughts” (si nian). He believes that our self-centered desires obscure our grasp of our original minds and prevent us from utilizing our liangzhi faculties. For our liangzhi to operate at optimum effectiveness, first we would need to eliminate our self-centered desires. Wang employs Buddhist-inspired similes to illustrate the relation between the liangzhi and self-centered desires. Just as the sun shining behind clouds or a clear mirror hidden beneath dust, the liangzhi must be unobstructed by the “clouds” and “dust” of self-centered desires for it to apprehend li and lead us to correct moral decisions and affections.[5]

Self-Centered or Selfish?

How then does one discover and master one’s grasp of this liangzhi faculty? The first necessary step is to pare away the siyu and thus attain a state of oneness, a state devoid of self-centeredness.[6] I use “self-centered” to contrast with what we usually mean by “selfish,” which is to be almost completely concerned with one’s own good or pleasure above others’.[7] “Self-centeredness” here means to view the world exclusively and excessively from one’s own point of view. The perfect moral agent for Wang and other Neo-Confucians operates in a state of “oneness,” a felt state of metaphysical unity in which one’s sense of self is not so much lost than expanded. When acting in this state of onenesss, one is not thinking about oneself at all. While this experiential state of oneness admits of degrees, in an ideal state of oneness, one would be completely unselfconscious and wholly unaware of any sense of personal agency. Wang’s notion of self-centeredness arises from his belief in the underlying metaphysical unity of the universe, a notion he shares with almost all Neo-Confucians (Ivanhoe 2002, 28-30). For Wang, the liangzhi cannot operate freely and properly when it is impeded by these self-centered desires, so the first step is to eliminate them.[8]

What is the relationship between “selfishness” and “self-centeredness”? I first came upon this distinction in the religious writings of Clive Staples Lewis, late professor of literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and prolific novelist. Lewis is often misleadingly characterized as a “popular” religious thinker. When this is meant in a derogatory sense, it usually betrays the peculiar academic prejudice against anyone who writes clearly and is widely read by others. With Lewis, however, one often encounters a strong dose of serious reflection, often in a charming literary style (Meilaender 1998).

In his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, Lewis characterized his ideal daily routine as “almost entirely selfish” but certainly not “self-centered.” This ideal day was modeled on a “normal day” during his pre-university schooling. He paints a remarkably lucid and compelling picture of how a selfish but not self-centered man might go about his day. Lewis’s ideal life would be spent from nine in the morning to seven in the evening mainly engaged in reading or writing about whatever interested him, with breaks for lunch and tea taken in solitude.[9] While Lewis considered this his ideal day, he also demeaned it as selfish: “It is no doubt for my own good that I have been so generally prevented from leading it for it is a life almost entirely selfish. Selfish, but not self-centered,” because, according to Lewis, “in such a life my mind would be directed toward a thousand things, not one of which is myself” (Lewis 1955, 137). Lewis gives himself as an example of someone who was once selfish but not self-centered.

Readily conceding that even if this “ideal” lifestyle were not self-centered, it would still be selfish, Lewis nonetheless understands its attraction. And he recommends it over a life that is self-centered but not selfish:

“One of the happiest men and most pleasing companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. Either condition will destroy the soul in the end. But till the end give me the man who takes the best of everything (even at my expense) and then talks of other things, rather than the man who serves me and talks of himself, and whose very kindnesses are a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude, and admiration.” (Lewis 1955, 137)

In an epitaph he once composed, Lewis makes a similar point in a more playful style:

Erected by her sorrowing brothers

In memory of Martha Clay.

Here lies one who lived for others;

Now she has peace. And so have they. (Lewis 2002, 134)

Here Lewis succinctly depicts a person who, under the guise of living for others, actually becomes their burden. Rather than being self-centered but not selfish, it would have been better for dear Martha to have been selfish in the manner described by Lewis, blithely following her own pleasures and desires without considering the viewpoints of others, but not self-centered, focusing instead on things and events outside herself. If interpreted in light of his other writings on self-centeredness, one can imagine Martha Clay as one who lived for others but talked of herself, whose very kindnesses were “a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude, and admiration” (Lewis 1955, 137). And thus, according to Lewis, being self-centered is a greater sin than being merely selfish.

Like Lewis, I see a significant distinction between these two terms. To be “selfish” means to be almost exclusively or excessively concerned with one’s own desires, though not necessarily with one’s individual self. To be “self-centered” is to be almost exclusively or excessively concerned with one’s individual self, though not necessarily with one’s own desires.

They are not mutually exclusive but do come apart in key cases. Indeed, much overlap exists between these two categories. In many cases, people who are “self-centered” in this sense—that is, their thinking is engrossed almost entirely in themselves—are often at the same time “selfish,” almost wholly concerned with their own wishes. But the concepts are nevertheless distinct.

For instance, consider the case of the smug philanthropist, who finds it easy and enjoyable to do kind and generous acts for other people.[10] Unfortunately, he also takes great pride in his own attitude and actions, seeing them as expressions of his own moral greatness. Setting up his philanthropic foundation and generating much press coverage and promises of generous donations, this budding philanthropist arranges his first major fundraiser. When the donors finally meet him in person, though, they are so offended by his smugness that they choose to send their donations elsewhere. Here in the case of the smug philanthropist is an example of the converse of Lewis’s idyllic “selfish but not self-centered” lifestyle. The smug philanthropist is unselfish—putting the desires and needs of others above his own—but intensely self-centered—thinking mainly about his own moral merit and magnanimity toward others. Neither of these states is ideal according to Wang and the Neo-Confucians. It would be best to be neither selfish nor self-centered.

But now we return to our earlier question. Was the “siyu” in Wang’s “siyu” closer in meaning to “selfish” or “self-centered”? Some of the passages in which “siyu” occurs are ambiguous on this issue. Very likely, Wang himself was not clear on this distinction and occasionally conflated the two meanings. However, keeping the two separate is crucial to understanding why Wang gave “siyu” such a pivotal role in his philosophy of moral cultivation. While some key passages make more explicit Wang’s interpretation of “siyu” as “self-centered,” an equally cogent case for this view can be built upon the foundations of Wang’s overall philosophy.

Along with most Neo-Confucians, and indeed most scholars during his time, Wang believed deeply in the underlying unity of the universe. But this central idea was not confined to his metaphysics; it had far-reaching ramifications for his ethics and moral psychology. Our oneness with all things in the universe held normative implications, as the early Neo-Confucian Zhang Zai (1020-77) proclaimed in his famous Western Inscription, which begins thusly:

“Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Thus, what fills the universe I regard as my body and what directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.”[11]

Zhang Zai and other Neo-Confucians did not employ this language of unity and oneness lightly. It was not meant to refer merely to the interconnectedness of human social networks, though that was of course included. The oneness of the universe was predicated on a common qi, the stuff of which all things are composed, and a common li, the “heavenly pattern” (tianli 天理) that underlies all things in the universe.

In his celebrated essay, “Inquiry on the Great Learning,” Wang invokes the theme of oneness in language similar to Zhang Zai’s: “The great man regards Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between the self and others, they are small men…” (Wang 1963, 272). The egregious error highlighted here is not a mere privileging of one’s desires at the expense of others, but instead an excessive focus on one’s individual self.

Wang saw this metaphysical unity as extending not only to people and animals, but also to plants and inanimate objects. He continues:

“[W]hen he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet, even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones. This means that even the mind of the small man must have the humanity that forms one body with all. Such a mind is rooted in his Heaven-endowed nature and is naturally intelligent, clear, and not beclouded. (Wang 1963, 272-273, translation modified).

“Because even the uncultivated share their qi and universal li in common with the rest of the universe, they too would feel pity and regret at the damage to plants, tiles, and stones, though they feel it to a much lesser degree than those who are morally cultivated. It is not that they feel hurt to see them damaged; they feel the hurt as their own, as a personal injury to an extension of their own bodies” (Ivanhoe 2002, 29).

Elsewhere Wang expounds in detail on this theme:

“At bottom, Heaven and Earth and all things are my body. Is there any suffering or bitterness of the great masses that is not disease or pain in my own body? Those who are not aware of the disease and pain in their own body are people without the sense of right and wrong… If gentlemen of the world merely devote their effort to extending their liangzhi, they will naturally share with all a universal sense of right and wrong, share their likes and dislikes, regard other people as their own persons, regard the people of other countries as their own family, and look upon Heaven, Earth, and all things as one body. When this is done, even if we wanted the world to be without order, it would not be possible. When the ancients felt that the good seemed to come from themselves whenever they saw others do good, when they felt that they had fallen into evil whenever they saw others do evil, when they regarded other people’s hunger and drowning as their own, … they did not purposely do so to seek people’s faith in them… Oh, how simple and easy was the way of sages to govern the empire!”[12]

The pain of others is the sage’s pain. The guilt of others is the sage’s guilt. The delight of others is the sage’s delight. Wang’s program of moral cultivation aimed to help us realize the sagehood within us all. And in reaching this goal, we too would feel this oneness with all things.

A well-known story of a founding father of Neo-Confucianism, Zhou Dunyi (1017-73), reported that he refused to cut the grass in front of his house because he felt intimately connected with it.[13] In connection with this story, Wang averred, “The spirit of life of Heaven and Earth is the same in flowers and weeds” (Wang 1963, S. 101).

Even more explicit in this regard is this passage from Cheng Hao’s (1032-85) commentary on Analects 6:30:

“In medical books, a paralyzed arm or leg is said to be “unfeeling” or “not benevolent” (buren 不仁). This expression is perfect for describing the situation. The benevolent person, or “one with feeling” (ren), regards all things in the universe as one body. There is nothing that is not [a part of] him. If he regards all things as [parts of] himself, to where will [his feelings] not extend? However, if he does not see them [as parts of] himself, why would he feel any concern for them? It is like the case of a paralyzed arm or leg. The qi does not circulate through them, so they are not regarded as parts of oneself… Kongzi sought to lead us to see benevolence in this manner so that we could attain benevolence itself.”[14]

This interpretation of “benevolence,” as a sort of sensitivity towards all parts of the one, universal body, is as Ivanhoe describes, “the ethical expression of Wang’s metaphysical beliefs” (Ivanhoe 2002, 28). Forming one body with the universe consists in first cognitively comprehending the underlying unity and then experiencing the concomitant feeling of a pervasive unity with the cosmos and all its constituent parts.

Clearly, then, overcoming one’s self-centeredness—one’s focus on one’s personal self to the exclusion of all others—is a necessary step in one’s journey to sagehood. In his “Inquiry on the Great Learning,” Wang elaborated on this link:

“Hence, if it is not obscured by self-centered desires, even the mind of the small man has the humanity that forms one body with all as does the mind of the great man. As soon as it is obscured by self-centered desires, though, even the mind of the great man will be divided and narrow like that of the small man. Thus, the learning of the great man consists entirely in getting rid of the obscuration of self-centered desires in order by his own efforts to make manifest his clear character, so as to restore the condition of forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things.” (Wang 1963, 273, translation modified)

Thus, for Wang, the goal was to eliminate one’s self-centeredness and expand one’s sense of self to embrace all of reality. This entailed a loss of one’s “self” apart from other people and things. Self-centeredness, then, was a pernicious and persistent impediment to the moral life. That is why destroying “self-centered desires,” which draw a false distinction between one’s individual self and the rest of the universe, is the way to preserve Heavenly li and finally form one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things.

One might object that Wang at times does recommend focusing on one’s own life and world. After all, Wang teaches that in the process of self-cultivation, we are to work on precisely those tasks that confront us in our daily lives (Ivanhoe 2002, 100-102). But in this case, Wang does not mean focusing on the self in contrast to focusing on other persons. Rather, the contrast is between directing one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions toward some abstract ideal versus directing them toward being moral in the concrete circumstances in which one already finds oneself. He admonishes us to focus first on being good moral persons in our everyday situations rather than leaving behind our duties and responsibilities to seek some great heroic task far off.[15] Here he displays his Chan Buddhist proclivities in his emphasis on concrete practice in everyday life. And Wang’s emphasis on being good and doing right in the conditions that confront us in daily life resonates with Mother Teresa’s sentiment, “It is easy to love people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start” (Scott 2001, 62; attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta).

Moreover, while being un-self-centered may be the aim of self-cultivation, there is an intermediate stage entailing that one’s self be at the center of one’s moral world. Along these lines, Wang urges his students to monitor their own thoughts and feelings, “like a cat catching mice,” always trying to identify and eliminate any self-centered or selfish thoughts that arise (Tien 2010a).  This requires a high level of self-scrutiny and necessarily involves extended and intensive periods of focus on oneself. But this is only necessary when one’s liangzhi faculty of pure knowing is not yet properly functioning (Tien 2004, 46-49). Once one’s liangzhi is unimpeded by siyu and is functioning properly, one would naturally think, feel, and do the right things, effortlessly and naturally. Admittedly, the attainment of this advanced stage of moral development is rare, hence, Wang’s emphasis on self-monitoring.

Although “self-centeredness” more accurately captures the sense and significance of siyu for Wang instead of “selfishness,” Wang himself may have been unaware of this distinction in the two meanings of “si. I readily admit that sometimes Wang uses the term in the sense of a straightforward ‘selfishness.’ Perhaps the clearest instance of this is a passage in which Wang inveighs against the loss of liangzhi in his generation. He laments how “people have used their selfishness (si) and cunning to compete and clash with one another… Outwardly, people make pretenses in the name of humanity and rightness. At heart, their real aim is to act for their own benefit” (Wang 1963, S. 180, translation modified). In this case, “siyu” must mean placing one’s own desires first at the expense of others’ and hence “selfish” is a correct translation.

But perhaps Wang saw selfishness as one expression of self-centeredness, for later in the same passage, in excoriating these hypocrites, Wang attributes their moral failings to a lack of understanding and affective appreciation for their oneness with the universe:

“They indulge in passions and give free rein to self-centered desires, and yet regard themselves as sharing the same likes and dislikes with the rest of mankind… Even among blood relatives, they cannot get rid of the feeling of mutual separation and obstruction. How much more will this be true in regard to the great multitude and the myriad things? How can they regard them as one body? No wonder the world is confused, and calamity and disorder endlessly succeed each other.” (Wang 1963, S. 180)

Thus, for Wang, not only was experiential knowledge of one’s unity with all things characteristic of the ideal state, it was also a prime motivator in generating moral action. Here one sees the connection between “siyu” and the doctrine of the “unity of knowledge and action” (zhixing heyi). Wang blames self-centered desires for the unfortunate separation of knowledge and action: “The knowledge and action you refer to are already separated by self-centered desires and are no longer knowledge and action in their original substance.”[16] But why would self-centered desires be the main obstacle separating knowledge from action?

Oneness and Moral Motivation

In recent decades, psychologists, not content to leave the study of altruism and moral motivation to the philosophers, have examined the question of whether we are ever genuinely selfless. In response to the leading hypothesis on this subject at the time, Robert Cialdini and his research associates proposed and tested a theory that attributes helping behavior to self-other merging. While it is outside the bounds of this paper to take sides on this debate, it is instructive to highlight resonances between the self-other merging theory and Wang Yangming’s theory of self-centeredness and moral motivation.[17]

In recent decades, the most intense discussions in this area of psychology have repeatedly invoked the concept of empathy. One of the most prominent and research productive of the empathy-based formulations of altruism has been that of C. Daniel Batson and associates.[18] According to Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis, purely altruistic acts can occur consistently if they are preceded by the specific psychological state of empathic concern for the other. They define “empathic concern” as an emotional reaction characterized by feelings described as compassion, tenderness, softheartedness, and sympathy. In an extensive program of research involving scores of experiments over multiple decades, they and other researchers working independently have demonstrated that generally, under conditions of empathic concern for the other, individuals help more frequently in what appear to be altruistically motivated attempts to improve the other’s well-being rather than an egoistically motivated attempt to improve their own.[19] Their empathy-altruism hypothesis has been repeatedly confirmed in the face of challenges from various egoistically based alternative accounts, such as those attributing helping behavior to reward seeking, punishment avoidance, aversive arousal reduction, as well as an egoistic desire to escape social disapproval, guilt, shame, sadness, or to increase vicarious joy.[20] Even major advocates of egoistic accounts of helping have conceded that there is credible experimental evidence for the existence of genuine altruism (Archer 1984; Piliavin and Chang 1990; Cialdini et. al., 1997).

However, Cialdini and associates presented evidence challenging the empathy-altruism model, proposing instead a theory based on the merging of self and other identity.[21] Their conclusion denied the existence of pure altruism because altruism depends critically on the separateness of the self and the other. Without a distinct self and other and without distinct motivations to aid the self or the other, it would be impossible to detach altruism from egoism, a line of reasoning that Batson and associates acknowledged. Self-other merging may never actually be complete and total, so that there is always room for the possibility (even if very minor) of altruism. However, as the self and other increasingly merge, helping the other increasingly helps the self. When the distinction between self and other is undermined, the old dichotomy between selfishness and selflessness no longer applies. Earlier research also suggested that the merging of self and other identity can explain helping behavior and that such merging can occur and most likely under the same conditions linked by the empathy-altruism model to feelings of attachment and altruistic motivation.

Building on earlier research by Arthur and Elaine Aron, Mark H. Davis, and others, Cialdini and associates tested their self-other merging hypothesis in three studies closely resembling the conditions under which Batson and associates tested their empathy-altruism model, using perspective taking instructions and the variable of relationship closeness (Aron and Aron 1986; Aron, Aron, and Smollan 1992; Aron, Aron, Tudor, and Nelson 1991; Davis et. al., 1996). On four categories of closeness—from near stranger to acquaintance to good friend to close family member—as subjects took the perspective of those closer to them, the degree to which they were willing to offer help increased dramatically compared to the degree of empathic concern they felt. That is, “controlling for oneness eliminated the influence of empathic concern, whereas controlling for empathic concern left oneness a powerful predictor of willingness to help.”[22] Their path analysis revealed further that empathy increased willingness to help only through its relation to perceived oneness, suggesting that empathy affects helping primarily as an emotional signal of oneness, thereby undermining the altruism-empathy model.

The research cited by Cialdini and associates characterized “oneness” in terms such as identity and psychological indistinguishability (Lerner 1982), expansion of the self to include the other, confusion between self and other, union, merging (Aron, Aron, and Smollan 1992), and the preferred description of Cialdini and associates, as seeing part of oneself in another.[23] According to Cialdini and associates, oneness and empathy are bidirectional. The perception of oneness can generate the experience of empathy, and the experience of empathy can generate the perception of oneness. But it is oneness and not empathy that motivates helping. Empathic concern is thus merely a concomitant of oneness.

The psychologists’ findings also support the evolutionary perspective on helping that holds that as indications of genetic commonality between individuals increase, so will willingness to assist, especially in higher need situations where survival is at risk. This also dovetails with recent discussions of biological altruism, which differs in kind from the psychological altruism Cialdini and associates are attacking.[24] This is consistent with Neo-Confucian claims that the qi of blood relatives bear similarities that the qi of non-relatives do not share, and thus only a blood relative can call back the dispersed qi of a deceased ancestor.[25] This is the metaphysical argument underlying the Neo-Confucian support for the traditional Chinese emphasis on and preference for family and filial piety.

Moreover, the psychologists’ conclusions fit well with the psychological literature on concepts of “self” in non-Western societies, in which a more communal rather than individualistic orientation is common (Nisbett 2003; Markus and Kitayama 1991; Triandis 1989; Gilligan 1982; and Geertz 1973). Corroborating their data on oneness and helping, earlier studies on Asian societies found that Asians showed a greater willingness than those in Western societies to help in-group members and a lesser willingness to help out-group members (Leung 1998). Since those from Asian cultures supposedly imbue more of the self-concepts into their groups, in a very real sense, what they do to and for others, they do to and for themselves.

Other studies have shown that a deep experience of oneness can cause people to act as if some or all aspects of the other are partially their own, and this is sometimes accompanied by a sense of a general increase of fusion between the self and the other. For instance, Aron and Aron’s self-expansion model holds that people are motivated to enter and maintain close relationships to expand the self by including the resources, perspectives, and characteristics of the other in the self (Aron and Aron 1986). Similarly, other studies on group oneness have demonstrated the powerful effect of group identification on participants’ willingness to restrict individual gain to preserve collective good. Positive evaluations and liking for others can be induced simply by the knowledge of a shared, common identity. This is a phenomena that researchers have called “depersonalized social attraction,” and it is closely connected to the idea of a “social self” that is a more inclusive self-representation in which relations and similarities to others become central to one’s self concept (Hogg 1992; Brewer and Gardner 1996).

In recent decades, research in neuroscience has unearthed the operation of mirror neurons.[26] Often, empathy-altruism theorists claim that the work of mirror neurons confirms their position. While the process of simulation by which mirror neurons seem to operate may be consistent with simulation theories of empathy, the very fact that we have such strong neural connections with others lends considerable support to the oneness hypothesis. The human brain has multiple systems of mirror neurons, with more being discovered over time, and there seem to be a great number of such neural systems that have not yet been mapped. Our brains have a multitude of mirror neuron systems that automatically and unconsciously cause us to mimic others’ actions, interpret others’ intentions, extract the social implications of events, and read and adopt others’ emotions.[27] The instant triggering of parallel circuitry in two brains enables us to establish a shared experiential world. Daniel Stern, a developmental psychiatrist, has researched extensively the relationships between mothers and infants, as well as those between adults, such as the relationships between lovers and between therapists and clients. Stern points out that our nervous systems “are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their own skin” (Stern 2004, 76).[28] At such times, we automatically, immediately, and unconsciously experience a kind of oneness with others, and they with us. Stern’s conclusion is remarkably reminiscent of Neo-Confucian claims of oneness. We can no longer “see our minds as so independent, separate, and isolated,” but must instead perceive them as “permeable,” constantly interacting with the others around us.[29]

In Neo-Confucian religious ethics, the experience of oneness plays an integral role in motivating moral behavior, for while empathy and oneness are closely linked, Wang and many other Neo-Confucians seem to say that oneness and not empathy leads to moral motivation. Although Neo-Confucians ground this state of oneness in their li-qi metaphysics, contemporary psychologists understand this in a much more mundane sense. Despite the similarities in their descriptions with Neo-Confucianism, the psychological literature refers mainly to the oneness experienced between blood relatives, extended family, close friends, and coherent groups. Wang and other Neo-Confucians would no doubt have wholeheartedly supported the findings of Cialdini et. al., and it would be instructive to elucidate how oneness, and not empathy, could motivate helping behavior in a contemporary case.[30]

Take, for example, the case of a football player on a cohesive team. In the middle of a game, he sees his teammate suddenly attacked flagrantly, unfairly, and excessively by a player on the opposing team. He and most of his teammates react naturally and spontaneously. They are immediately motivated to help their teammate. He is one of them. He is part of the team. The teammates do not proceed by empathic or vicarious role-taking, considering what it would be like to be attacked by an opposing player in just such a manner, how they would feel in his shoes, and then what they would like their teammates to do in response. Rather, they perceive him as one of them. It is the oneness from identifying themselves as part of a unitary team that leads to the motivation and helping behavior.

If, as Wang Yangming maintains, the perception and experience of oneness is the primary factor motivating moral behavior, then it should be clear why self-centeredness is so dangerous. Self-centeredness drives a wedge between the individual self and the rest of the world.[31] So even if people grasp cognitively that they should act filially to their parents, unless they perceive and experience their oneness with their parents, they won’t be induced to act lovingly to them. Put another way, unless they have experiential knowledge of their oneness with their parents, they won’t feel a strong compulsion to act filially toward them.

When one feels a collective unity with another, one naturally takes into account the other’s needs and desires and is as motivated to help the other as one is to help oneself. In teaching about the principle of filial piety, Wang draws this connection: “If the mind is free from self-centered human desires and has become completely identical with the Heavenly Principle, … then in the winter, one will naturally think of how cold one’s parents feel and seek to provide warmth for them, and in the summer, one will naturally think of how hot the parents feel and seek to provide coolness for them” (Wang 1963, S. 3, translation modified).

At an even more basic level, being in an experiential state of oneness just is being in accord with li: “‘What is the difference between being in accord with li and having no self-centered mind?’ The Teacher said, ‘The mind is li. To have no self-centered mind is to be in accord with li, and not to be in accord with li is to have a self-centered mind…” (Wang 1963, S. 94, translation modified). So the goal of Neo-Confucian epistemology and moral cultivation is to attain and sustain the experiential state of oneness. Wang’s theory of knowledge and action posits that moral action naturally ensues from the oneness state. So the crucial step is achieving and living in the experience of oneness. Wang’s ‘si’ cannot merely be “putting one’s desires above those of others.” It is a deeper philosophical concept, integrally related to the underlying unity of the universe, a metaphysical doctrine to which Wang and other Neo-Confucians were deeply committed.[32]

Conclusion

To recapitulate, while Wang’s concept of ‘si’ likely encompassed both interpretations, the more significant role in Wang’s moral psychology was held by “self-centeredness.” The necessary first step in Wang’s model of moral cultivation was to achieve a state of oneness, devoid of self-centered desires. This was predicated on Wang’s basic metaphysics, which held to the underlying unity of the universe. The state of oneness enables one to experience an emotional identification and a feeling of interpersonal unity with the entirety of Heaven and Earth, including other living things and even inanimate objects. In this state of oneness, the conception of self and other are not distinct but are instead merged. The realization and affective appreciation of our oneness with all things holds such significance in Wang’s moral philosophy because this experience of oneness is causally responsible for motivating moral behavior. Wang’s insights on oneness resonate with contemporary research by Cialdini, Aron, and others on the psychology of helping behavior, which argues for the oneness theory over the empathy-altruism hypothesis.

ENDNOTES

1. For my earlier version of this basic introduction to Wang’s philosophy, see Tien 2004

2. Translations of Wang are based on the Sibu Congkan 四部叢刊 edition. The number following the “S.” corresponds to the section number in Chan’s translation, which are given for ease of reference in Western libraries. Wang 1963, S. 118.

3. On the integral role of qi in the philosophy of Wang, see Tien 2010b.

4. For Wang’s understanding of the Neo-Confucian slogan, “Li is one but its manifestations are many,” as well as for an explanation of the distinction in Wang between manifested and universal li, see Tien 2010b.

5. For the sun behind clouds imagery, see Wang 1963 S. 21, 62, 76, 167, 171. For the mirror under dust imagery, see Wang 1963 S. 207, 237, 255, 289, 290.

6. For my earlier statement of this two-step process, see Tien 2004.

7. The extent to which Wang’s concept of siyu was related to the general discourse on desires in general and the specific notion of “selfish desires” in Ming-Qing literature and its cult of qing is an interesting question that unfortunately falls too far afield for this article. Thanks are due an anonymous reader for this suggestion. Clearly, siyu carried deep Buddhist connotations that would not have been lost on Wang’s audience.

8. For a masterly examination of the apparent paradox of how losing oneself can make oneself happy, see Ivanhoe 2011.

9. Lewis 1955, 134-7: “[I]f I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a good cup of tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better… At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned… The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, … [f]or eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere… At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies… there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven… Such then was my ideal and such then (almost) was the reality, of ‘settled, calm Epicurean life.’”

10. This example is inspired by one mentioned in personal correspondence with P.J. Ivanhoe.

11. This translation, with slight modifications, comes from Chan 1963, 497-498. My reading of the Xi Ming is based on the Sibu Beiyao edition.

12. Wang 1963, S. 179. Cf., Mengzi 7A: 15.

13. Adduced in Wang 1963, S. 101. Cf., p. 65, footnote 20. The story is recorded in the Cheng brothers’ Henan Chengshi Yishu, 3:2a.

14. Translation from Ivanhoe 2002, 28 (with slight modifications). Translation based on Sibu Beiyao edition, Henan Chengshi Yishu 2A:2a, b (cf., 2A:15b).

15. Thanks are due to an anonymous reader for leading me to this point.

16. Wang 1963, S. 5. See also Wang 1963, S. 8.

17. For a pioneering study of the philosophical psychology of oneness and self that draws on Neo-Confucianism, see Ivanhoe 2010.

18. See especially Batson 1991. For his most recent study, see Batson 2009, 3-15. On empathy and moral motivation, see also Hoffman 2000. For an excellent recent analysis of empathy in philosophy, see Slote 2007. For a superb treatment of empathy in Neo-Confucian thought, see Angle 2009.

19. Cf., Dovidio, Allen, and Schroeder 1990.

20. For a summary of this research, see Batson 1991, 91-174.

21. This debate unfolds in Cialdini, et al., 1997; Batson et, al., 1997; Neuberg, et. al., 1997; Batson 1997. 

22. Cialdini et al., 1997, 485. Notice the shift in wording between “oneness” and “relationship closeness,” a point Batson picks up in his critique in 1997, 518-519.

23. Cialdini and associates later prevaricate on this description of ‘oneness,’ and Batson criticizes them for it. Batson 1997, 517-518.

24. For a classic treatment of this distinction, see Sober and Wilson 1998.

25. For example, see Gardner 1995; Tillman 2004.

26. On the discovery of mirror neurons, see di Pellegrino, et. al., 1992.

27. For a generally accessible introduction to this research, see Goleman 2006, 38-49.

28. Also quoted in Goleman 2006, 43.

29. Stern 2004, 76.

30. If, however, ‘empathy’ were to be defined so broadly as to encompass ‘oneness’ as Cialdini and associates use it, then the empathy-altruism model would of course still hold. The overly broad semantic range that Hoffman grants to his use of ‘empathy’ reflects this and allows him to brush over the debate between Batson and Cialdini et. al. (Hoffman 2000). See also the brief explanation by Michael Slote for why he chooses to rely on Hoffman’s work over Batson’s, which permits him an excessively wide reach for his category of ‘empathy’ and papering over the problems that the oneness hypothesis presents for the empathy-altruism theory (Slote 2007, 13-15).

31. While not addressing the difference between empathy-altruism and the oneness hypothesis, Michael Slote nevertheless rightly points out Wang’s prescience here in anticipating Hume’s discussion of sympathy by more than a couple of centuries. Slote 2009.

32. Wang extended the experiential state of oneness to cover plants and inanimate objects. For an insightful treatment of this aspect of Wang’s theory of oneness, see Ivanhoe 2010, 15-16.

 

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