What is goodness (仁)? This is a question that confounded the followers of Confucius just as much as it has generation after generation of scholars hoping to capture the sage’s secret ingredient and wrap it up in a pretty package with a bow on top.
In the first chapter of Analects Book 14, Confucius’s follower Yuan Xian shows that he considers goodness to be the ethical gold standard when he asks the sage if you can be said to have achieved it if you overcome “aggressiveness, arrogance, bitterness, and greed.”
While Confucius allows that “you can be said to have achieved something difficult,” he declares that he does not know, or so he says, “whether it is true goodness.” Except of course by not directly responding to his follower’s question, the sage is subtly suggesting to Yuan that his zealous pursuit of hair-shirted moral absolutism is far too narrow and extreme to constitute goodness and he should direct his talents in a more positive direction.
To no avail, as it turned out, for Yuan Xian chose to go his own way and ended his days as a poverty-stricken hermit. While Confucius can point out the path to goodness to others, he cannot and will not force them to follow it. Although he never says this in so many words, goodness is about a lot more than simply meeting a limited set of ethical standards. It also requires cultivating the wisdom and foresight to look beyond narrow short-term self-interest so that you can deliver a much greater impact on the world with your actions. In the case of Yuan Xian, this ends up amounting to virtually nothing because his teachings were far too extreme to gain a following.
Confucius applies the same idea in a slightly different way when Zilu and Zigong ask for his opinion on the great statesman Guan Zhong. How can Guan Zhong possibly possess even a single shred of goodness, they argue in 14.16 and 14.17, when he refused to follow the dictates of ritual convention following the unjust execution of Prince Jiu of Qi, the master he had sworn to serve and the legitimate ruler of his home state? Shouldn’t he have taken his own life out of loyalty to the prince just as his colleague Shao Hu so famously did?
No doubt to the duo’s great surprise, Confucius blows up this assumption. As he sees it, the greatness of Guan Zhong’s subsequent achievements in bringing prosperity to the state of Qi, restoring order to the Zhou kingdom, and fighting off the threat of foreign invaders far outweigh the significance of a violation of a ritual convention as a young man in a desperate situation.
Despite his imperfections, Confucius argues with great vehemence that Guan Zhong has earned the right to be considered to have achieved a certain level of goodness because he saved Zhou civilization from destruction and “brought order to the world”. As a result, “the people still reap the benefits of his actions until this day.”
While goodness clearly has a moral dimension, other factors such as the ability to achieve a beneficial impact on the wider world are just as important – if not more so. The pursuit of goodness entails achieving the right balance in dealing with a highly complex world rather than just aiming to hit an ethical gold standard.