Although there is no consensus as to whether Zhong Yong was written solely by Zisi or was edited by multiple figures as time passed, it is widely agreed that the book presents the ethical core of Confucian teachings (Sim 2007).
This paper adopts the English translation by James Legge, The Four Books: Confucian Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Works of Mencius. Any words in brackets were added by the author of this article for clarification purposes.
This article hyphenates the words zhong-yong in lower case in order to distinguish it from the title of the book Zhong Yong.
Philosophers in the 18th century endeavoured to establish a fundamental axiom, on the basis of which both politics and law could be reconstructed, appealing to the people as opposed to the monarchs. It is notable that A Fragment of Government (Bentham, 1776) and The Wealth of Nations (Smith 1776) were published in the same year when the United States of America was declared independent. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Bentham 1789) was published in the year when the French Revolution broke out. Bentham (1776: 3) wrote: ‘The age we live in is a busy age, in which knowledge is rapidly advancing towards perfection. In the natural world, in particular, everything teems with discovery and with improvement … Correspondent to discovery and improvement in the natural world is reformation in the moral'.
It is remarkable, whether coincidental or not, the opening paragraph of both Zhong Yong and Bentham (1789) starts with mentioning ‘nature’ and ‘human nature’.
The utility theory has evolved for more than two centuries into various forms including rule utilitarianism, act utilitarianism, liberal utilitarianism and egalitarian utilitarianism.
Aristotle (Politics, Book I) discussed how to govern within individual households (oikoi) through appropriate norms (nomoi). Aristotle's focus was on economic ethics at the household level (Dierksmeier – Pirson 2009), rather than the social relationship between a husband and a wife. Nevertheless, it can be said that Aristotle deemed households as a basic unit of society (Vivenza 2007).
The origin of the phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ can be traced to Francis Hutcheson's (1694–1746) book Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue first published in 1725. For the historical review of the phrase, the readers are referred to Shackleton (1972) and Burns (2005).
Utilitarianism as an ethical theory was introduced to China by Yen Fu in the late 19th century (Li 1996). Yen Fu was instrumental in introducing utilitarianism into Chinese thought was a Confucian philosopher. It is notable that ‘utility’ is often translated into 功利[gōnglì] in Chinese, which has a connotation of ‘individualistic self-interest’, but sometimes translated into 公利[gōnglì] as well, which accentuates ‘the benefits for the general public’. The inconsistent and confusing Chinese translation (功利主義 or 公利主義) of ‘utilitarianism’ reflects the problem of combining psychological hedonism (the maximisation of individual happiness) and ethical hedonism (the maximisation of social happiness).
Edgeworth (1881) brought attention to the conflict between egoism and altruism in the determination of individual behaviour. As to whether human behaviour is influenced by the former or the latter, Sen (1987) and Tu (1999) argued that the latter is more influential whereas Stigler (1981) argued that the former is more influential.
Aristotle (Politics, Book II, Chapter 3, 1261b, 30) stated that everyone thinks chiefly of their own interest, hardly at all of the common interest, and therefore what is in the best interest of the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. This phenomenon has translated into prisoners' dilemmas in the social science literature (Luce – Raiffa 1957; Ostrom 1990).
One of the problems associated with utilitarianism is its inability to measure utility objectively (Schubert 2012). As a matter of fact, humans can and often do make errors in making choices partly because it is too difficult for them to calculate all the benefits and costs precisely or because their information is incomplete. Nevertheless, this does not change the fundamental utilitarian proposition fact that humans seek greater happiness wherever they are (Stigler 1981).
This is the reason why there is no dividing boundary between religion and ethics in Confucianism. Zhong Yong denies a dualism of matter versus spirit and humans versus non-humans (Tu 2001).
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