I was working ahead this morning, drawing up some notes for my Values Analysis (introduction to ethics) course. Reading through the very short Mengzi 1B5, I found that I had a few questions about what Mengzi was saying about human desire that hadn’t occurred to me before. I’ll outline shortly what I’m thinking of below.
In Mengzi 1B5, Mencius is talking to King Xuan, who is notorious in the first book for being not the most ethical guy, and also a bit of a dunce. In quite a few of the first passages in the book, you find Mengzi trying to explain to the King the source of his problem – both in terms of ethics and in terms of his desire to be a ‘true king’.
As anyone who has read this passage knows, King Xuan starts off by pointing out that Mengzi’s teachings are excellent, a recognition that earns a rebuke from Mengzi, who asks “then why don’t you follow them?” The rest of 1B5 consists in the King giving his excuses for why he doesn’t practice what he thinks it is right to preach. Essentially, Xuan says that he has weakness of will. He knows that the doctrines of Mengzi are right, but he’s just too weak and can’t stop his desires for wealthy, women, and food from overwhelming his knowledge and leading him to act selfishly.
Mengzi’s replies to each of these excuses is to point out that the common people love all of this stuff too, and so basically if the King simply recognized that loving food (say) was not inconsistent with facilitating the pursuit of food by the people, he would be a true King. Instead, the King seems to wrongly think that these desires are zero-sum, so that facilitating the pursuit of these desires for others would mean that he couldn’t pursue them fully for himself. My typical way of reading 1B5 stops there – Mengzi is trying to get the King to see that these really are excuses, and not very good ones, for failing to be benevolent. As soon as he can “clear away” these wrong desires from his practical reasoning, his true heart will shine through.
That might be right, but reading the passage this time made me think that Mengzi might have a different (or additional) point. Each time Mengzi replies to the King, he uses a passage from the Odes to show that in the past, exemplary Kings shared their love (say) of food or wealth with their people by assisting the people in acquiring those things.
By pointing to an exemplary King from the past each time, I wonder whether what Mengzi is saying is that true love or fondness for X has, as a constituent part, a love or fondness for the fondness for X. So it’s not just that the King fails to see that his fondness for wealth (say) is consistent with facilitating the fondness of others for wealth, it’s that the King isn’t really participating in a human desire in the first place because in his situation all he is oriented towards is X itself as opposed to X and the fondness for X. It could be that the references to the past are meant to point this out: that true fondness is a love for the fondness itself. And there’s no way to be fond of being fond for X if you fail to facilitate that pursuit of X for others when it is within your power.
This reading is perfectly consistent with my other one, but it adds a very different point to it, essentially suggesting that having a human desire is by nature having a desire that has the aims of other people as a part of its targeting. Human desires are, by nature, communal desires.