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Confucius on the Meat-Packing Industry

In a fit of bitterness over my botched Chinese-classics education, being that my teacher of Confucianism and Modern Society chose to play movies all semester rather than teach, I decided that I would not write my final paper on anything political or sensitive or interesting in the human realm. I thus wrote about how Confucius would view the modern meat-packing industry.

Professor Sam Crane wrote a piece about the humane treatment of animals in Taoist and Confucian tradition. In sum, animals make scant appearances in Dialects and other scripts, and when they do appear, they are making a point about how humans should honor ritual and value human life.[1] One can thus only surmise about how he would view animal rights in the modernist sense.

Stepping away from Confucius as the pontificator of truths, let’s look at the idea of ritual (礼, li) and benevolence (仁, ren) and how it applies to animals. According to the principal “父父子子君君臣臣,” everyone should behave as their roles determine. A father must act like a father, a son like a son, and so forth. This is one of the quintessential tenets of Confucianism – respect of one’s own role. In this sense, an animal could also fulfill its role by obeying its master. Some may argue that it has no choice in the matter, but then again neither did women have a choice in who they married (in a sense, who their masters were for life). And don’t women also have a duty to be good wives and mothers? Perhaps 兽兽 should be added to the liturgy, thus acknowledging animals’ role in a home and society.

Confucius probably could not conceive of the complex world we now live in, and this is the biggest problem with surmising about how his philosophy applies to modern society. I thus can only offer the following possible conclusions:

  1. Confucius believes that animals are first and foremost property, and the rules of human behavior (ritual, benevolence, morals, etc) do not apply. Therefore, humans can treat them however humans please.
  2. Although animals are property, it is wrong to mistreat them. To be a good person, one should not be overly violent; do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you, lest this reflect poorly on your moral substance.
  3. Animals have no way of understanding li (ritual) or ren (benevolence), and therefore have no status in society.
  4. Animals obey ritual by obeying their status as the laborers of their masters, and by obeying their masters, they are ensuring their position in society. As effective members of the society, therefore, while not necessarily equal to humans, they should still be treated with some amount of humanity.

As a modernist humanitarian thinker and ex-vegetarian, I like to think the fourth option is most viable. To act in a Confucian manner in modern society, one can perhaps refrain from harming animals personally.

This of course says nothing in particular about the meat-packing industry. Given Confucius’ disinterest in the animal realm, disinterest in the meat industry is seemingly the most viable answer. What really needs to be investigated here is the discrepancy between the system and the individual – something about which I am sure Confucius had a few thoughts, but where my own knowledge reaches the limit.


[1]厩焚。子退朝,曰:“伤人乎?”不问马。(Dialects 10.11: One day thet stables burned down. When he returned from court, the Master asked: “Was anyone hurt?” He didn’t ask about the horses.) 子贡欲去告朔之饩羊。子曰:“赐也,尔爱其羊,我爱其礼。” (3.17: As the ceremony had fallen into neglect, Adept Kung wanted to do away with sacrificing sheep to announce a new moon to the ancestors. The Master said: “You love sheep, Kung, but I love Ritual.”)

This entry was published on January 11, 2012 at 11:02 pm. It’s filed under 中国特色 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “Confucius on the Meat-Packing Industry

  1. Let me add this to the mix:
    “The Master fished with hooks, not nets, and he never shot roosting birds.” 7.27
    子釣而不綱,弋不射宿。
    The sense here is a ethic of conservation: take what you need from animals, in terms of meat, but do so in a manner that minimally disrupts their natural patterns.

  2. Great stuff as always.

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