Live Like a Confucian
Suppose someone treats one in an outrageous manner. Faced with this, a superior person will look within [literally, return to oneself], saying “I must be lacking in benevolence and propriety, or else how could such a thing happen to me?” When, looking within oneself, one finds they have been benevolent and proper, and yet this outrageous treatment continues, then the superior person will look within, saying, “I must have failed to do my best for them.” When, on looking within oneself, one finds they have done their best and yet this outrageous treatment continues, then the superior person will say, “This person does not know what they are doing. Such a person is no different from an animal. One cannot expect an animal to know better.”
– Mengzi 4B28
Mengzi’s idea that we should learn not to immediately blame others, but instead to “look within” first makes great sense in light of modern psychological findings that individuals are generally much quicker to blame others than themselves when things go wrong. One aspect of this is now called the “fundamental attribution error,” according to which we tend to under-emphasize situational factors and over-emphasize personal character when explaining others’ behavior, and do the opposite when explaining our own. Wikipedia provides a nice example:
As a simple example of the behavior which attribution error theory seeks to explain, consider the situation where Alice, a driver, is cut off in traffic by Bob. Alice attributes Bob’s behavior to his fundamental personality, e.g., he thinks only of himself, he is selfish, he is a jerk, he is an unskilled driver; she does not think it is situational, e.g., he is going to miss his flight, his wife is giving birth at the hospital, his daughter is convulsing at school. Alice might well make the opposite mistake and excuse herself by saying she was influenced by situational causes, e.g., I am late for my job interview, I must pick up my son for his dental appointment, rather than thinking she has a character flaw, e.g., I am such a jerk, I treat others in contempt, I am bad at driving.
As for the “looking within” itself, this is again a process of inner inspection of one’s motives and the way they may have been manifested in action. Here, it is important to keep in mind that our inner feelings can reveal themselves even if we do not take overt actions. Mengzi says:
Superior people regard the benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom that are based in their hearts as their nature. These are clearly manifest in their lives and their demeanor. They fill their torsos and extend to their four limbs. Though they say nothing, their four limbs express them.
– Mengzi 7A21
Even when saying nothing, one’s “four limbs”—that is, one’s posture, facial expressions, and so on—can express one’s attitude.
In short, experiencing some sort of discomfort or lack of attention can lead to, if not an inappropriate action, then perhaps a facial expression or other “microaggression” that helped to generate another person’s problematic response. Confucians well understand the ways in which our dress and body language can encourage others—often subconsciously—to respond in positive or less positive ways, which is one of the reasons for their emphasis on ritual. Such a reaction then forms part of the “situation” to which the other is reacting, and so (partially) explains their reaction, rather than it simply being a result of under-developed character. It is crucial to note that the way in which one is contributing to the situation (via “microaggression”) is usually not intended or even conscious. Mengzi is suggesting that if we look carefully at our own motives, we may discover underlying factors that are affecting the outcome.
Throughout the day today, choose three instances in which you interact with someone else. This could be in-person or virtually, with someone you know or with a stranger. Think about how the interactions go and reflect on how you were presenting yourself to the others and what your attitudes or expectations toward the others were. Insofar as the interactions go less than perfectly, ask yourself: (1) “have I failed to feel appropriate care/concern for this other person?” and (2) “have I done something (or failed to do something) to partially cause this person’s problematic response?” If things go really badly, could it be that the other person is focused on other issues and “doesn’t know what they are doing,” or are you really faced with someone whose moral character is poorly developed? (The fact that we too-often attribute others’ failures to their character doesn’t mean that others’ character never explains things.)