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The Philosophical Concept Of Free Will In Confucianism

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Free will, responsibility, and choice, are noted to be some of the few important concepts that Confucianism seem to lack as Herbett Fingarette claims. Although, Kyung-sig Hwang argues that these same concepts are actually present in Confucianism through soft determinism or compatibilism. It may not necessarily be the exact same general understanding that we have of free will as a whole because it is interpreted differently. Therefore, Hwang argues that free will is present in Confucianism and that there is a certain way of understanding the concept of soft determinism or compatibilism. Fingarette claims that free will is not present in Confucianism, however, Hwang does. In this essay, I will discuss and compare the two opposing arguments as well provide reasons for each viewpoint, as well incorporate my own interpretation if compatibilism or free will is really present in Confucianism.

In Chapter 2 of Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, Fingarette immediately begins by saying that Confucius does not elaborate the language of choice and responsibility as these are intimately intertwined with the idea of the ontologically ultimate power of the individual to select from genuine alternatives to create his own spiritual destiny (18). Although, this does not entirely mean that people do not have a sense of responsibility nor should not be accountable for their actions. It may be that someone could be considered more responsible than another person. The main point being argued for by Figarette and Confucianism collectively is that choice and responsibility is in fact present in their practice-based way of living. Though, Fingarette continues to challenge that claim by saying that Confucius was significantly concerned at one point in time with understanding man and their role or position in society (18). By determining their role in society, he then became intensely fixated on developing rituals (li) that one should follow to become a “gentleman” (junzi). This becomes very contradictory to what Confucianism argues for which is that people do have choice and responsibility because how can one say they have the choice to do something when Confucianism suggests its people to act appropriately at all times by participating in li. Fingeratte also mentions the idea of moral issues which people may face and that it can become a conflict in determining if a person does have free will as a whole. For example, in the Analects, there was a story about a young boy who told the authorities about his father stealing a sheep. This whole situation poses a great moral dilemma because it leaves you to consider making the “right” choice — if there even is one, in this case. In the Analects, Confucius said, “A father covers for his son, and a son covers for his father. And being true lies in this” (13.18). Many people have argued and may say the young boy did the right thing as he was following the Way by obeying persons in authority. However, others have argued that since Confucianism emphasizes the significance of relationships; the young boy should have not told on his father. So, this specific story can be used as an example to determine if free will is really present in Confucianism to further question what choice(s) did the young boy exactly have in this situation. However, since he already made his choice, he got criticized by Confucius himself and with this had a negative connotation meaning Confucius did not agree with the young boy’s decision to tell on his father even if in the young boy’s defense —he was just being upright. In the text, it also notes that the notion in punishment did not exist in ancient China. If punishment did not exist then you may ask how do people realize what they have done wrong? The answer to this is the implementation of deterrent punishment meaning that this way of punishment involves fear which can ensure that future unfortunate events can most likely not occur again. Therefore, people can have the choice to do what they choose to do while understanding that it may come with consequences afterwards.

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Meanwhile, Hwang argues that the same concepts of free will, responsibility, and choice are indeed present in Confucianism through compatibilism. Compatibilism or soft determinism is human behavior and actions that are determined by causal events that happen in one’s life. With that being said, one might argue that free will does exist in Confucianism based on the context and definition of soft determinism which is that an individual does have free will when he/she acts accordingly to their will (without force). Hwang briefly explains that when it comes to analyzing the character of an agent, the character is not solely made up of the agent’s free choices, but it is actually a compound of both internal and external factors that are beyond their control (6). This means that the lack of control a person has over certain situations should not mean that the responsibility should solely land on them because there are simply numerous factors which we do not have control of. Confucianism encourages people to self-cultivate as it is present in the Analects. Self-cultivation is composed primarily of voluntary action (do something to change your current situation) rather than free will but eventually, it comes back to a person’s choice in which they want to do something to change to shape their life the way they want it to be. Therefore, Confucius said, “I do not cultivate those who are unwilling to make an effort themselves” (7). By dismissing those who are lazy, Confucius believes that one can fully utilize their knowledge to their advantage which fulfills self-cultivation. Besides, it is difficult to presume that one is born a genius from birth but one can cultivate themselves and mold themselves similarly to those who happen to possess it from birth. With this, Confucius highlights that the effort and determination one has are very important components of learning and that moral luck plays a huge role in the starting point of an individual’s moral character. In other words, depending on how morally lucky a person is, means that their ability to learn is also determined. Moreover, Confucianism does not follow hard determinism which is the idea that all things are already predetermined which leaves the room for judgements (good or bad) wide open because it is primarily focused on inherited morality. This means that in hard determinism, we cannot hold any person responsible for their actions because they did not to choose to act that way but and instead it was predetermined for that individual to do so. Additionally, it’s way beyond our human capability to make predictions based on the truth of an event and be completely spot on; this can only happen if the event has already happened. Thus, Mencius said, “expend your best effort and await the heavenly fate” which means one can focus and exert all their effect on cultivation while accepting their fate. Though, there’s this one story in which Confucius shares about one student who overcame fate of his social and economic state in poverty. He said,” Although Yen Hui 顔回 exerted all kinds of effort, he could never overcome his poverty. However, Tzu Kung 子貢 did not accept his own fate and went into business. By devoting himself to his business, he steadily amassed money.” This story shows us that one should not look into their life through a fatalist point of view meaning that they truly believe that all events are predetermined therefore making it inevitable which has hard determinism written all over it.

Nonetheless, Hwang recognized that free will is contradictory. It is illogical because judgements cannot be made on moral luck or chance but instead it is on the existence of the individual itself. However, since humans cannot control our existence (i.g. being born into our family), it can most definitely be traced back to an external factor an individual may come across with. Let’s say, we can create ourselves then therefore, we can control our actions. But since that is not the case, and we cannot create ourselves or choose from the start how we want to be the versions of ourselves then we cannot be judged based on moral luck. Hwang also expresses that libertarian free will is impossible because it is self-contradictory meaning that no one can be in complete control and responsible for its self and its actions. He also suggests that hard determinism is not a suitable solution if for instance free will and compatibilism may be inadequate because it denies free will and moral responsibility all together.

Ultimately, both Fingarette and Hwang objectively argued for what they believed in regarding if the concept of free will is present in Confucianism or not. Fingarette argues that free will does not exist in Confucianism because from the very start, Confucius did not develop or have the right language to express directly what free will is concluding that even if some instances may seem like free will is integrated, though, it cannot be deemed as free will because it was not formally introduced by Confucius himself. On the other hand, Hwang suggest that choice, responsibility, and free will are indeed present in Confucianism through what is known as soft determinism or compatibilism. Through compatibilism, there’s a balance between our ability to make decisions for ourselves (free will) and determinism therefore coming along which is compatibilism. To me, based on what I have read through both sides I would say that free will does exist in Confucianism. Although, it may exist through compatibilism as through Hwang claims. There’s more logical sense when you think about it that way because Confucianism is not necessarily like all the other religions out there in the world. It’s different in its own way and I firmly believe that by personally residing by Hwang’s compatibilism viewpoint on Confucianism makes it easier to follow and practice Confucian beliefs collectively. However, I do not disregard Fingarette’s argument nonetheless because if you really think about it deeply; language plays a very crucial role in our day to day lives which can be traced back to our traditions which can be further traced back to our culture in which religion can be seen as one of the present aspects. Trying to understand two opposing viewpoints on the same argument makes me question what other values or beliefs can be tested through argumentation especially with the numerous religions out there existing in the world.

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