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« Sadness | Main | Confucian Civil Unions, Perhaps? »

May 15, 2008


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Confucius would say this is fantastic news!! Now maybe the country will begin to understand that marriage is a basic civil right. For the truth about gay marriage check out our trailer. Produced to educate & defuse the controversy it has a way of opening closed minds & provides some sanity on the issue:)

Though I'm horrifically biased, I'm inclined to agree. Family bonds are far-reaching, and not grounded in sexual intercourse. Plus Huang Di rocked it. Hard to argue with a Sage King. I also think the duty to reproduce could at least be circumvented. After all, "You may put aside the one who gave birth to you; the efforts of the one who raises you are greater than Heaven."

There are two problems as I see it:

1) Gender roles. Confucius doesn't strike me as the kinda guy who would be OK with swapping gender roles around. So while he would probably be OK with the idea of gay marriage, or at least not staunchly opposed to it, I don't think he would approve of third-gendered dandyism. Since that is a part of the homosexual sub-culture, at least in the US, I think that could prove problematic.

2) Yin/Yang cosmology. While the Analects are fairly silent on this issue, Confucius's appreciation for the Yijing can be taken as an endorsement of that formulation. While they are both ultimately divisible into further aspects of yin and yang (a possible work around), I'm not sure how he'd view double yin or double yang relationships given the way this system is devised. They would be unbalanced.

I think not, but confess to being "horrifically biased" as well. The Sage famously called himself a "transmitter, not an innovator," and what is "gay marriage" if not an innovation unknown anywhere in the traditional world? Even where homosexuality was practiced and condoned, it was never elevated to anywhere near the status of marriage.

I think that depends. In the ancient world, marriage was essentially a property contract. Since men could own themselves, marriage was unnecessary. Given that the definition of marriage has changed since then, we have to ask how Confucius would view marriage in light of the new definition. When in barbarian lands, follow their rituals and all that.

I think that depends. In the ancient world, marriage was a property contract. Since men could own themselves, such a contract would have been meaningless. I mean, who would pay the dowry? The definition of marriage has changed since then. Confucius made it clear that context is important for ritual behavior (in barbarian lands, follow their rituals) and that rituals can change (hats switching from silk to linen).

So given the modern notion of marriage being based in love and not property, how would he respond?

Good words.

We live in an era of instant access to global networks. The age of individualism will soon give way to a new set of rules derived from the new science of networking. Google distribution graphs are the now fodder for developing out solutions for the physics, market, politics, social/cultural norms and yes even religion.

During this time, some will feel like a terrorist staking out a claim that the world should move backward. Younger minds will see the Ying/Tang symbol for the first time and think - I have 2 spirits battling inside of me at this instant in time vs. the forefathers who must have remarked I'm all Yang you are all Yin ...

Confucius today would either be a disturbed terrorist - or perhaps he would find meaning in the rise of individualism organized into highly complex networks. The code of honor can change when appropriate and our natural ever replenishing ability to empathize could become the primary mechanism used to keep society stable (not shame).

"Marriage is the union (of the representatives) of two different surnames, in friendship and in love, in order to continue the posterity of the former sages, and to furnish those who shall preside at the sacrifices to heaven and earth, at those in the ancestral temple, and at those at the altars to the spirits of the land and grain." Confucius

I was going to quote 昏义 too, but Peat beat me to it.

Another passage is:


As we can see, the distinction between males and females is the foundation of marriage. (In this, Confucianism agrees with conservatives in the English-speaking world. Common law forever!)

I believe that the correct Confucian perspective would be against same-sex marriage, but could be tolerant of discreet homosexual love and sex.

(1) Marriage is out of the question, because the primary purpose of 礼教 is to 别男女.
(2) I don't find passages condemning homosexual love and sex. (If someone finds a passage, please tell me.)

This is how traditional China treated homosexuality in any case. Upon consideration, this approach appears to have stemmed from the Classics.

Hi Justice&Mercy.

1. You say, “Upon consideration, this approach appears to stem from the Classics.” I’m wonderin what is the consideration that appears to show that it wasn’t the opposite way: that the Classics weren’t simply reflecting the culture. Or do you just mean that once the Classics were in place, they added stability?

2. It seems to me that your points 1 and 2 are consistent with the idea that the authors were simply unaware of homosexuality as we understand it: as a natural orientation to the same sex that is similar in nature, stability and intensity to most people’s natural orientation to the other sex (characterizing a significant minority of people). For that reason I’m not convinced that the Classics express a view about gay marriage. That is, it might be that the worldview of the Classics is in error on a factual point in such a way that for them the question does not arise.

3. If according to the Classics “the primary purpose of 礼教 is to 别男女” and there is no specific comment about discreet same-sex sex, then it seems to me reasonable to think that the implicit view of the Classics is that discreet sex swims against a very important normative stream, and so is bad. I’m not sure why that isn’t your reading.

4. This isn’t a question or a challenge - - but it’s fascinating to me that in the Confucian tradition “别男女” can be on its face a matter of fundamental moral importance. Not that such a thing can’t be prima facie very important - - but as a recent Westerner (a person of the recent West) I’m used to the idea that in ethics, the fundamentals are about how people are the same; the fundamentals are universals. Or, universality or equality is the fundamental. Rightness is basically horizontal, not vertical. This is a point mainly about imagery, and I suppose it might be related to the point that (as I gather) Western thinkers have aimed at moral theory in a way that Confucian thinkers have not. ??

To elaborate on point 2:

Suppose the Classics said to give our parents a certain kind of mushroom on the solstice, and we find out that kind of mushroom is medically dangerous. The upshot would be that the Classics tell us to do something that they also implicitly tell us not to do. They are in this predicament because they were mistaken about the facts. (A) If the medical danger is very great and the importance of using the particular kind of mushroom is small, then it might be clear what the authors of the Classics would say if they were corrected on the facts, and then it would make sense in a way to say that the Classics’ virtual position is that those particular mushrooms shouldn’t be given. (B) Conversely, if the medical danger is minuscule and the symbolic importance of that species is great, then perhaps the Classics’ virtual position is that one should continue to use that kind of mushroom. (C) In some large middle area we’d have to say the truth is that the Classics have no position.

Similarly, if (given the facts about human homosexuality) basic decency requires that gay marriage be permitted and honored, surely there is something in the Classics about the relevant aspects of basic decency that (given the facts) conflicts with their view of marriage as purely heterosexual. In which case a quote demonstrating the latter view doesn’t settle what is the Classics’ position (if any).

Dear Bill Haines,

It’s good to talk with you again.

(1) If the Classics strongly condemned homosexuality, then the culture after Confucius would have strongly condemned homosexuality, too. (E.g. Like Christianity in Europe.) However, the Classics did not strongly condemn homosexuality. Therefore, while people were generally against it, they did not see this as an urgent issue.

(2) The Classics express a view on marriage, that its foundation is the distinction between man and woman. I don’t see, therefore, how gay marriage could work in terms of the Classics.

(3) Males and females are distinguished in several ways: (a) symbolically, to reinforce their differences, (b) functionally, to create division of labour, (c) spatially, to prevent unwarranted contact. These goals are not necessarily frustrated by the gay sex. At least, it is not apparent to me. We must remember that the assumption here is that there is no gay marriage in the first place. The goals (a), (b), and (c) are meant to protect marriages. Marriages are threatened by adultery with an opposite sex person, but not necessarily by gay sex, if there is no gay marriage in the first place.

(4) Equality is anathema to Confucianism as traditionally understood (e.g. anytime before May Fourth). A serious Confucian does not believe in equality. (Men are equal with respect to their Heaven-bestowed nature. They are unequal with respect to their material force and position in life.)

Dear Bill Haines,

I just wrote another long and, in my mind, beautiful reply to your post. Unfortunately, it was lost when I entered it. (I keep losing posts on this blog for some reason.)

So I will be brief:

You are concerned that "basic decency requires that gay marriage be permitted and honored". I don't see how this is the case. I say this not to demean any gay person. However, homosexual and heterosexual relationships are structurally quite different. Surely it would be better to implement a different institution for homosexual relationships rather than marriage.

I understand that a variety of institutions along this line were implemented in Ancient Greece. In traditional China, other institutions were also available. Emperor Wu of Han, for instance, was particularly noted for his male consorts. The more conservative Confucians frowned upon homosexuality, but no one saw this as an urgent issue. This goes to my point that traditional attitudes were consonant with and derived from the Classics.

The more fundamental question is whether human decency can be known without reference to the Classics. The various prevailing ideologies today, such as Christianity, Marxism, and liberalism differ not only as to facts, also as to ultimate values. They see different goals and values as appropriate for man and society - The interpretation of specific facts is often secondary. (In other words, the differences go to teleology.)

It happens that the Classics also contain a set of personal and social goals and values. Learning Confucianism involves learning what the Sages and Worthies thought of as good, rather than subjecting Confucian rhetoric to other ideologies. (And yes, Classical goals and values are often quite foreign to modern thinking.)

A serious Confucian, in my view, will learn to love feudalism (e.g. Western Zhou). Partial adaptation to the modern emphasis on egalitarianism is acceptable - This is a matter of standard and discretion, but to betray the value of the Classics is not.

One should not imagine that Confucian values are appropriate only for Chinese societies. Rural England before the Industrial Revolution was an idyllic society - in my view, embodying many values dear to Confucians. One may also apply a Confucian analysis to non-Confucian societies. The Ancien Regime in France fell, for instance, because the aristocracy held the wrong values, such as luxury and grandeur, and constantly increased tax to fuel their consumption. In a Confucian society, the aristocracy would be instilled with a sense of noblesse oblige. They would learn to regulate excess desires and manifest virtue.

Hi J&M.

“The more fundamental question is whether human decency can be known without reference to the Classics.”

I don’t understand – are you saying you yourself think it might be true that a person can’t have basic human decency, or have it intentionally, or know what it is, without the Classics? Or are you not saying that this is a serious question for you, but only saying that it is a serious question for Confucians?

Dear Bill Haines,

Well, you would know my position from our previous discussions:

(1) Humans have intuitive ability and knowledge. Therefore, goodness is knowable apart from the Classics.


(2) However, it is easy to delude oneself to believe one is doing good when one is not. In any case, the ultimate standard is the Classics.


Note: The second quote ties into 述而不作.

《集注》 says, "述,傳舊而已。作,則創始也。故作非聖人不能,而述則賢者可及。"

《注疏》 says, "作者之謂聖,述者之謂明。"

As we can see, unless one is already a Sage, one should not invent things.

Mencius also says, "盡其心者,知其性也。知其性,則知天矣。存其心,養其性,所以事天也。殀壽不貳,修身以俟之,所以立命也。"

A corollary is that the common person has not 尽心知性. Therefore, even if he is born with intuitive knowledge and ability, it might not be readily accessible to him.

Two quotes from 《史记》 come to mind:


People are often well-intentioned. Because they refuse to learn from the wisdom of the Sages, however, they run into error.


Relying on personal intelligence is a bad thing. Changing circumstances may require discretion, but one should learn from the ancients.

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