Due to the nature in which Confucius’ work is discovered it can sometimes be hard to interpret what he means, given lack of context. However, comparing similar concepts throughout his teachings gives the best understanding of what Confucius means. The following is a passage in the Analytics “Zigong said: “I do not want others to impose on me, nor do I want to impose on others.” Confucius replied, “Zigong, this is quite beyond your reach” (Confucius 5:12). Without the context of other Confucius passages this may be interpreted to mean that imposing on others is strictly bad, and that Zigong is incapable of becoming a junzi, because of this inability.
Where a junzi is an exemplary person, who has been made such by following the way of tradition, and is an example towards others. However, using different teachings of Confucius on the same topic provides further insight that better explains the true meaning of the text.
In another section of the of the Analytics it states, “Zigong asked, “Is there one expression that can be acted upon until the end of one’s days?’ The Master replied, ‘There is shu: do not impose on others what you yourself do not want” (Confucius 15:24).
This passage has become known in Western culture as the silver rule, due to its resemblance to the golden rule. This teaching is very important, because it transcends all relationships one may have in their life. Zigong is intent on learning a principle that may be applied to relationship he may have.
To Confucius the separation, and respect between different relationships is crucial. One is to always respect those in places above them, and one must always look after the interests of those in places below them. This is the way in which a person achieves ren. Ren is authoritative conduct that is demonstrated by a ruler properly administering his domain by respecting those in which he rules. This is achieved by being one who leads by example.
Furthermore, it can then be seen from 15:24 that it is not simply that one should never impose on another, but should merely not impose on another, what they themselves do not desire. In the same translation it describes shu in another way saying, “The way of the master is doing one’s utmost and (zhong) and putting oneself in the other’s place (shu)” (Confucius 4:15). This further proves that that the real principle Confucius means to teach Zigong in 5:12 is not to never impose, but to be virtuous in what he imposes on people. It is the leader’s job to impose on his people taxes and other necessary means of management, but he should do so only if he himself is willing to undergo the imposition. Confucius is right in his analysis of how one should behave in all aspects of their life.
This lesson is one that is not tied to a single philosophy, which is why common theme is is one which has been seen in the Western world through the similar golden rule. While the golden rule is about all actions, and not just impositions, the implications are very similar. Most of Confucius’ teachings can be applied to everyone’s current beliefs in order to maintain order in a proper state. The silver rule that Zigong is taught would make everyone be treated with respect, and this idea is one that is found in all forms of Western philosophy as well. The equal consideration of interests is an idea founded in the Justice Orientation of Kantian and utilitarian thought, and the idea about honoring personal relationships is found in a Care Ethicist approach. Moreover, this is a view that I myself, leaning more towards utilitarian thought, can agree stability within society.
Thereby, this is where I find myself disagreeing with Confucius. While Confucius would say that following this principle would lead one to having good ren and becoming a junzi, I would disagree that this makes a person moral. Certainly these people are good, and a benefit to society, but without a firm rational basis, other than following the way, in what they are doing there is no understanding of why these things are beneficial. While Confucius himself may have a good understanding of certain rational principles, it does not seem completely necessary for everyone to have an understanding, but only follow the principles.