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 re-framing, 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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