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Interpersonal resentment and recognition in the Analects

The remaining sections of this chapter embody an endeavor to interpret the role of negative emotions in early ruist ethics through the example of the complex feeling of resentment and related affects as articulated in the Analects, attributed to Confucius, and related classical Chinese sources. It is argued that the early Confucian model of ethical cultivation (xiu ^ or xiushen Ш%) is unfolded in the context of (1) unraveling reactive and negative feelings against others as they operate in oneself and in others and (2) promoting concrete relationships of reciprocal and mutual yet graded and asymmetrical recognition between oneself and others. Early Confucian ethics can be portrayed for these reasons as a form of the ethics of asymmetry and alterity, albeit with striking differences from contemporary Western understandings of difference and identity.

In contrast to modern Western discourses of recognition and resentment, both the pervasiveness of negative affects such as resentment under certain social-political conditions and the ethical demand to counteract and transform reactive feelings within the self as well as in others are emphasized. Examples of negative emotions include various forms of envy, hatred, jealousy, vengefulness, and in particular resentment. Negative feelings about being inadequately recognized and acknowledged often appear justifiable, on generalized grounds of fairness, but are in reality psychologically and socially corrosive.

Disentangling reactive feelings like resentment in oneself and in others is accordingly identified in a number of key passages in the Analects as a primary element of becoming a genuinely noble or ethically exemplary person (junzi Ш A). To comport oneself with humility without obsequiousness and generosity without grandiosity toward others is to seek to be worthy of ethical recognition even when recognition, acknowledgment, and commendation are not and might never be forthcoming. The petty or ignoble person (xiaoren AA) in contrast is depicted as fixated on his or her own limited and self-interested concerns to the detriment of others’ well-being and as governed by reactive feelings against others such as the resentment of feeling unrecognized and slighted.

Standard forms of modern Western ethical theory typically presuppose that equal and symmetrical relations are the foremost means of unraveling reactive emotions, insofar as they include reflection on the moral psychology of negative emotions at all. In addition to examining various forms of resentment, vengefulness, ill-will, hatred, envy, contempt, bitterness, and anger at work within oneself, Confucian ethics entails considering the negative emotions that one’s own behavior can cause in others. It is claimed that this thesis is due to the asymmetrical acknowledgment of the other person as non-identical with oneself. The recognition of the other is in this case not of an absolute individual or essential self who stands independently outside of and above its relations. Recognition is constitutively relational and social while not being necessarily symmetrical. Such recognition of the other is a necessary condition for disentangling the emotional nexus of resentment that is realized through relational role ethical appropriateness and self-investigation and cultivation.

The other person has virtues, qualities, positions, possessions, abilities that I might never have and will not have to the same degree. The contextual relationality operative between self and other does not signify the identity between self and other. The asymmetrical reciprocity thesis defended at this juncture entails that one ethically recognizes and is responsive to others regardless of how one is recognized or unrecognized by others. This asymmetrical demand that one places on oneself with respect to others extends from close familial to general social relationships.25

Early Confucian ethics as a result integrates a nuanced and realistic moral psychology ofnegative socially shaped emotions such as resentment and antagonism with a normatively orienting model of self-cultivation that is indispensable for countering negative emotions and practicing humane benevolence (ren) toward others. Instead of articulating an altruistic or egoistic vision of the ethical, the meditation of the priority of others and self-interest in ethically cultivating oneself is stressed. The ethically and ritually cultivated condition of the junzi suggested in the Analects is oriented toward others to the point of asymmetrically prioritizing the other, and the other’s well-being, over oneself while at the same time being practicable in the resolute examination of and care for the self.

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