In my Confucian Ethics course, we recently spent some time thinking about Mencius’ possible stance on having “reasons for action.” In the eyes of someone like Wong, Mencius thinks that emotions (like compassion) not only work to narrow down sensory information to yield what is salient (to that emotion), he also thinks that what is narrowed serves as a reason for action. So, if my innate compassion directs my attention to the suffering being endured by someone in pain, that same emotion will take that suffering itself as a reason for acting (to stop the pain). Some see Wong’s model as wrong, suggesting instead that it is the desire itself that is taken as a reason for action, not the target of the desire. So it’s not the suffering itselfthat is taken as the reason to act, but rather the desire to reduce suffering that is the reason to act.
I’m not convinced one way or the other with respect to Mencius’ case, but reading Xunzi, I came across a passage that made me wonder what his position on this might be (if he had one). The passage is in the “Rectifying Names” chapter, where he says:
When one has a desire, he does not wait to make certain whether he can satisfy it, but immediately sets about trying to do so as best he can. The desire itself, which arises before one knows whether or not it can be satisfied, comes from the nature received at birth, which the search to satisfy it as best one can is directed by the mind. and again later, …when the (emotions) have decided that their desires can be satisfied, it must then be the function of the intellect to guide the search for their satisfaction.
Taken at face value, this sounds like Xunzi would not fall under Wong’s theory. Here it sounds like the mind, in this case, takes the satisfaction of the desire itself as its object, where “desire satisfaction” is the end, and the mind becomes the means to figuring out how to accomplish this aim. Of course, with these texts, it is very difficult to tell what is going on, because we can tend to try to impose technical distinctions on these authors that they might not have had in mind (like the distinction in mind here between satisfying a “desire for X” as opposed to “X”). Still, it’s an interesting question.