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  • Can Shu Be the One Word that Serves as the Guiding Principle of Caring Actions?
  • Sin Yee Chan

In this essay, I aim to explicate the meaning of the Confucian concept of shu (reciprocity) and to show how it can be applied in the ethics of care, as described by some feminist theorists.1Shu is explained as "what one does not want, one does not do to others" (Analects 15:23).2 Confucius refers to it as the one word that can serve as the guiding principle of conduct throughout life (Analects 15:23). And Confucius' disciple Tseng Tzu describes shu, together with the virtue of loyalty (chung), as the one thread that runs through Confucius' doctrine (Analects 4:15).3

I believe that shu also sheds interesting light on one significant issue in the ethics of care: when caring for another person, should we go by her perspective or ours in deciding what to do on her behalf?4 The question poses a dilemma. On the one hand, if we go by our own perspective, we may be acting paternalistically without giving due regard to the autonomy of the cared-for. On the other hand, if we blindly follow the perspective of the cared-for, we may not really be benefiting the cared-for. Furthermore, it could be argued, we would sacrifice our autonomy and be reduced to mere tools, as we would no longer be guided by our best judgment of what should be done.

Shu can help us on this question. For shu, as I shall show, implies the affirmation of both the perspective of the caring agent and that of the cared-for, but assigns a priority to the former.

This essay has two goals. The first and main goal is to provide a philosophical analysis of the meaning of shu. Specifically, I aim to defend and further develop Herbert Fingarette's insightful interpretation of shu as identifying with another person while remaining her critic.5 I shall base my analysis on the text of the Analects. The second goal is to show how shu can offer a viable solution to the question posed above. However, my work in this regard is programmatic and meant primarily to point to a promising direction for further exploration.

The Meaning of Shu

Shu: Positive and Negative Analogical Thinking

The concept of shu in the Analects refers to a method of moral thinking. More specifically, shu is a kind of analogical thinking: taking oneself as a measure when one decides how one should treat others. However, it is not very clear whether shu refers only to negative analogical thinking, that is, thinking about what one should not do to others when one takes oneself as a measure for them, or whether it also includes [End Page 507] positive analogical thinking, that is, thinking about what one should do to others when one takes oneself as a measure for them.6 What is obvious, nevertheless, is that Confucius assigns equivalent roles to negative and positive analogical thinking. Both are used to explicate the Confucian ideal virtue of jen (benevolence):

[No. 1.] Confucius said, ". . . A man of jen (benevolence), wishing to establish himself, also establishes others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to draw upon what is close as an analogy is called the method of jen (benevolence)."

(Analects 6:28)

[No. 2.] Chung-kung asked about jen (benevolence). Confucius said, "When you go abroad, behave to everyone as if you were receiving a big guest. . . . What you do not want, do not do to others."

(Analects 12:2)

Since the discussions I offer in this essay hinge only on Confucian analogical thinking, but not on whether it is positively or negatively formulated, and given that positive and negative analogical thinking, philosophically speaking, express the same basic ideas, for the sake of simplicity I will use the term shu to cover both types of analogical thinking.

Shu: Reversibility or Projection of One's Preference onto Others?

Shu is also concerned with reversibility: one will do to others only what one would be willing to accept oneself if the positions were reversed. The...


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