The Surprising Similarities Between Classic Chinese and Western Moral Philosophy

The Art of Chinese Philosophy Book Cover

Chinese philosophy is often distinguished from its Western counterpart by its reliance on non-deductive reasoning and its emphasis on collectivism over individualism. This is probably a fair characterization, however it’s not entirely accurate, as a reading of Paul R. Goldin’s latest book, The Art of Chinese Philosophy: Eight Classical Texts and How to Read Them, demonstrates. 

What I was surprised to learn—something not necessarily endorsed by Goldin—is that classical Chinese philosophy has more in common with Western thought than many people probably realize. For example, in The Analects of Confucius you will find an analogue to Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, or the idea that wisdom lies in navigating the path of moderation between two extremes. You’ll also find one of the first expressions of the Golden Rule—the cornerstone of virtually all Western ethical systems. Here’s an excerpt from the Analects:

“Zigong asked: ‘Is there not one word that one can practice throughout one’s life?’ 

The Master said: ‘Is it not shu (reciprocity)? What you yourself do not desire, do not do to others.’

In Mozi you will find an early analogue to both Christianity and utilitarianism. Mozi taught that the greatest harms in the world are produced from impartiality and favoritism, and preached the importance of universal love for all humanity—four centuries before the birth of Jesus. He viewed morality as any action that benefited the common good, and, as Goldin shows, his writings have much in common with those of Jeremy Bentham—the founder of Western utilitarianism.

In Mencius you get an early version of Peter Singer’s concept of the expanding circle. Mencius believed that all humans are born with an innate capacity for goodness that can be cultivated and extended to those outside of one’s immediate circle of family and friends. As Mencius said:

“The reason why I say that all humans have hearts that are not unfeeling toward others is this. Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: anyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion—not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among one’s neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries. From this we can see that if one is without the feeling of compassion, one is not human.”

The task of morality is simply the cultivation and extension of this innate capacity.

In Zhuang Zhou we find early ideas about cognitive biases, social construction, the dangers of specialization, and contrarianism, and in Sun Tzu we find early examples of game theory and strategic thinking. In Zhuang Zhou we also find a quote on death that is practically indistinguishable from Epicurus. Both thinkers tell us not to fear death because it is a natural process and that death is equivalent to the period of time before we were born, or to a deep, restful sleep. There are also hints of Stoic acceptance of natural events. 

This is not to say that there are not distinctively Chinese elements in the texts or that the overall approach between Chinese and Western philosophy is the same. Chinese philosophy does rely more heavily on aphorisms and examples than on deductive argument. But oftentimes the approach, while different, is employed for the purpose of expressing similar ideas. 

Perhaps the differences will be of more interest to some readers, but I found myself drawn to the similarities. It demonstrated the universal moral considerations and insights that two different cultures developed independently of one another, and thus, in my mind, strengthened the legitimacy of those insights. The ideas of universal love, utilitarianism, the Golden Rule, spiritual growth, skepticism, and self-actualization are not exclusive to the West, as is often claimed. 

Overall, Goldin provides scholarly yet highly readable accounts of these eight classical texts with plenty of quotes and analysis on each. If, like me, you have a passion for philosophy but limited experience with anything outside of Western philosophy, you’ll want to check out this book. 

Leave a Reply