Jeffrey Wattles – “Comparing in Confucianism and Comparative Experiences with the Golden Rule”

For six years of available academic time, Jeffrey Wattles nourished his soul in the study of Chinese philosophy, specializing in Confucianism. He interacted with leading specialists in North America and also at the University of Beijing, where he lectured on the Confucian golden rule and the philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness. Chinese tradition remains deeply embedded in his thought. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In one form or another, the golden rule—“Do to others what you want others to do to you”—enters into both comparative philosophy and comparative religion. The life in the rule may be observed in its different levels of meaning. In Confucianism, the first level is conscientious conformity to social rules; the highest level is spontaneously following what Confucius called “the Decree of Heaven” (Analects 2:4).1

Confucianism often speaks of comparing self and other to express what it means to relate in the spirit of the golden rule.2

1. In this heritage, the core meaning is stated by Chu Hsi (1130-1200 C.E.). “By ‘comparison’ I mean to compare the mind of another with my own, and so put myself in their place.”3

2. We have an imperfect, but nevertheless intuitive, empathic understanding of one another. In The Great Learning we read: “The ‘Announcement of K’ang’ says, ‘Act as if you were watching over an infant.’ If a mother sincerely and earnestly looks for what the infant wants, she may not hit the mark but she will not be far from it. A young woman has never had to learn about nursing a baby before she marries.”4 Comparing involves heart-and-mind (one word in Chinese).

For Olivier du Roy, in several ways the greatest historian of the golden rule, the first level of the rule is empathy, which engages the depth of human feeling.5

3. We attribute aspects of our own humanity to the other, and act in the light of what we have reason to think are shared desiderata.

A man of co-humanity [benevolence, love], wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to judge others by what is near to ourselves may be called the method of [attaining] co-humanity. (Analects 6.28, Chan 31)6

Du Roy repeatedly cautions against projecting our likes and dislikes onto others.

4. The agent discerns patterns of relationships, for example, the asymmetrical pattern of parent- and-child and the symmetrical pattern of friend-and-friend. In a given situation, recognizing the norms implicit in the type of relationship at hand enables golden rule conduct to be guided by ethical concerns.

Du Roy’s second level of the golden rule involves a universal principle, valid for all in the same situation, as in Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative and better expressed by 4th century preacher John Chrysostom (du Roy, volume 1, 236).

5. Great persons acquire respectful and loving attitudes to those close to them, and then extend these attitudes to remote others (Mencius 1A7).

Du Roy says that we learn the practice of the golden rule with those close to us (literally “neighbors”) but the real challenge comes with those whom we cannot spontaneously love, perhaps because they are remote, encountered in the context of an institution, or enemies. He emphasizes that the golden rule in Luke 6:27-36 comes in the middle of a lesson on the love of enemies. The natural human tendency—to expect or hope for reciprocal beneficial treatment from others—falls short of the true criterion.

7. As we grow, we see others as siblings. For Confucius’ sage, “All within the Four Seas are his brothers” (Analects 12.5, Lau). Chang Tsai (1020 1077): “Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother . . . . All people are my brothers and sisters . . . .” (Chan, 103, sec 20). For Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529), “The sage . . . regards all the people of the world as his brothers and children . . . .”7

8. Mencius. The highest level of the golden rule is spiritual, spontaneously transcending rule-following.

A noble man steeps himself in the Way (tao) because he wishes to find it in himself. When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it; when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it; when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns. (Mencius, 4B14, D.C. Lau, tr.)

Mencius’ expression of his spiritual path invites those who would understand him to do the same.

At Kent State University, in my world religions classes, and philosophy classes, most of which included comparative philosophy segments, I centered learning on experiential projects (I would do one with them). I would select what I thought was a widely appealing and worthy teaching in what we were studying. Then I would invite the students to transplant it into the garden of what they believed and how they thought and expressed themselves—and apply it in their lives, ideally to their “front-burner issue” (if it was psychologically reasonable for them to do so and something that they felt comfortable sharing at least with me). They wrote experience reports, a majority of which narrated difficult challenges and profound transformations. Finally, they created a commentary on these reports from the perspective of the text or tradition we were studying. Thus the act of transplanting into one’s own garden stays in dialogue with the otherness of the text.

Finally, here’s my most recent experience report of a new frontier for growth as a follower of Jesus, also inspired by Mencius and taught by du Roy. I call it “living in the plural.” This means (1) living with the indwelling spirit of God (transplanting Mencius) and (2) living with the universal family of God, including each person I relate with and each group I may be present with, e.g., other drivers on the road, or those anywhere who are in the same situation that I’m in.


1. Confucius, The Analects, tr. D.C. Lau (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1979), 63.

2. This discussion is based on Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule (Oxford University Press, 1996), 19-23.

3. Chu Hsi, The Philosophy of Human Nature, tr. J. Percy Bruce (New York, AMS Press, 1973), 435.

4. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 91.

5. Olivier du Roy, La règle d’or: Histoire d’une maxime morale universelle (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 2012).

6. 6:30 in Lau. David Nivison renders the last sentence thus: “The ability to make a comparison (namely, with the other person) from what is near at hand (namely, from your own case) can be called the method of (attaining) benevolence.”

7. Wang Yang-ming, Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings, translated by Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), Part I, section 142, page 118.

Michael Barnes Norton – “Comparative Philosophy of Religion and Climate Change”

Michael Barnes Norton is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the School of Human Inquiry at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As others in this series have already pointed out, there are several different ways of understanding what comparative philosophy of religion is and in what ways it may be useful. A comparative approach may shed light on the difference between the philosophical problems that have emerged between different traditions or schools of thought, or on different ways of approaching similar problems. A comparative approach is also particularly useful in addressing the more fundamental question of what, exactly, constitutes a “religion” or a “religious” concept or practice. Given that this term has a specifically European provenance, and that its meaning has historically tended to be overdetermined by Christian theological commitments, it always behooves contemporary philosophers of religion to consider how and to what extent “religion” adequately describes traditions outside the Abrahamic umbrella.1 Assuming for practical purposes that we can meaningfully talk about religion in widely cross-cultural contexts, though, the question remains as to what issues properly belong to the category of comparative philosophy of religion. While questions about the existence and nature of souls, suprahuman beings and forces, or an afterlife are evident choices, I would like to suggest the problem of climate change as an issue that comparative philosophy of religion has unique resources to address.

The present crises associated with anthropogenic climate change, as well as those forecasted in both the near and distant future, may typically be understood as issues more appropriate for environmental, socio-political, and moral philosophy. Besides the general problem of theodicy related to the suffering involved in climate catastrophes, the ways in which such catastrophes are problems for consideration specifically within the context of philosophy of religion is perhaps not immediately apparent. Yet, confronting the advent of the so-called Anthropocene epoch, which brings with it a continually increasing threat to the continued existence of most or all of human life (not to mention the hundreds of other species already going extinct every day), raises questions about a possible end of our world that philosophy of religion ought to be well equipped to address. Climate apocalypse is not an article of faith posited by a particular religious tradition but rather an existential threat predicted on the basis of observations of the earth on which we all live. Because it is an urgent issue affecting practitioners of all religious traditions, I would contend that an approach to climate change from philosophy of religion demands a comparative approach.

Lynn White’s well-known 1967 Science article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” posits that our contemporary climate crises are the result not just of rampant industrialization, overreliance on fossil fuels, deforestation, etc., but more fundamentally of the influence of a particular Christian theological view of the relationship between humans and nature on the West.2 This view holds that humans stand in a privileged position in nature, at the center of a world created by God for our use and placed under our more or less absolute authority. White argues that confronting climate change necessarily involves confronting the problematic legacy of this view and replacing it with a more ecological perspective, such as that offered by Francis of Assisi. In the years since its publication, White’s article has received both positive and negative reactions, with many of the latter claiming (correctly, I believe) that it offers an overly simplistic account of a much more complex issue.

I do think White’s core point is undeniable: there is a religious dimension to the historical and social forces that have led the world into the Anthropocene. White’s call to reevaluate the legacy of Christian anthropocentrism in the West in light of climate change, and to look for alternatives both within and outside of the history of Christian thought, can serve as a call for a comparative philosophy of religion approach to this crucial issue. In both religious studies and theology, comparative treatments of “religion and ecology” as a topic have abounded in the last couple of decades, yet there has been less such work within the boundaries of philosophy of religion.3 I suggest that this is fertile ground from which new comparative philosophy can emerge. For instance: one point for which White’s essay has been criticized is its claims that non-Western traditions are inherently more ecologically-minded than Western Christianity. Soon after the essay’s publication, Yi-Fu Tuan challenged this by pointing to China’s industrialization practices in the mid-twentieth century and comparing it to those of Europe.4 A comparative approach to philosophy of religion and the environment might take the critical position of work like Tuan’s and interweave it with constructive accounts of more ecologically friendly religious resources in both Christianity and Chinese culture.5

As another example, using comparative philosophy of religion to respond to climate crises also creates an opportunity to engage with indigenous thought about both environmental and religious concepts. Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro contrast indigenous American and European views on both the limits of the world (past and future) and the place of humans within nature, showing how eschatological, metaphysical, and ecological concerns are inextricably intertwined within the horizon of the Anthropocene.6 The possible end of human life on earth is clearly a matter at the center of the thought of many religious traditions, and as such philosophical considerations of such a topic qua religious would do well to proceed comparatively just as philosophical approaches that are already comparative would do well do recognize the religious aspects of the matter.

The earth is of course finite, and no point on it is merely local. Climate, by definition, is global, and what occurs in one area will in some way or other affect us all. Climate change thus serves as a context within which the diversity of religious thought and practice around the world becomes a crucial consideration. The practical demands of our present climate crises make comparative work in philosophy of religion all the more important.

1. On this point, see for example Richard King: “Philosophy of Religion as Border Control: Globalization and the Decolonization of the ‘Love of Wisdom’ (philosophia).” In Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion, edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and Andrew B. Irvine (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), 35-53.

2. White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 10, 1967): 1203–7.

3. I recognize this raises the question of the proper distinctions between philosophy of religion, religious philosophy, and theology. The contributions to a volume such as Ecospirit (edited by Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller, New York: Fordham University Press, 2007) – coming from perspectives that are clearly theological, clearly philosophical, and somewhere in between – make this question even more difficult, as perhaps it should be.

4. Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Discrepancies Between Environmental Attitude and Behaviour: Examples from Europe and China.” The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien 12, no. 3 (September 1968): 176–91.

5. An example of the latter is: James Miller. China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

6. Danowski, Déborah, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. The Ends of the World. Malden, MA: Polity, 2017.