One of the most interesting and widely discussed stories in The Essential Mengzi is the story of Mengzi’s meeting with king Xuan. It goes more or less as follows.
When Mengzi met king Xuan, he recounted this story of the king to remind him of his compassion. Servants led an ox that was to be slaughtered for ritual as they had to “anoint a bell with its blood. The king stopped them and said, ‘Spare it. I cannot bear its frightened appearance, like an innocent going to the execution ground’” (Mengzi 5). When his servant asked if that meant he should not anoint the bell, the king asked “how can that be dispensed with? Exchange it for a sheep” (Mengzi 5).
There are many interpretations of this story but it seems there is some measure of agreement from scholars (namely Zhu Xi and Bryan W. Van Norden), who believe that Mengzi tells the story for the purpose of encouraging the king to reflect on “himself and seek his fundamental heart” (Mengzi 94). By making the king realise that he cares for animals, Mengzi wants to prove to the king that he should also care for his people. It seems they believe that Mengzi did not really think that the exchange of the sheep for the ox was really a moral thing to do, but it was an indication of potential compassion in the king.
Now, here is my question: was sparing the ox by sending the sheep in its place not consistent with Mengzi’s ethical philosophy? He believes that people have greater moral obligations towards their friends, teachers and family. To me, it seems there are at least two explanations as to why he thinks this. (1.) It may be because people depend upon and have received much aid from their kin and relatives and are therefore obligated to return it. Though, it is safe to say that Mengzi would object quite strongly to this, as this is really an argument about profit. Alternatively, (2.) it might be because people know their family better than anyone else, so they feel the most compassion for them, and it is wrong to act against one’s own compassion. (If there are other explanations in the text, I must admit I am unfamiliar with them.) The second argument is what I will refer to as familiarity. I will state it again to make sure I make myself understood: basically, it is immoral to deny one’s own compassion and we are most compassionate to those who we know well.
Ok, now back to the story. King Xuan has compassion for the ox because, having laid eyes on it, he is familiar with the ox, at least more so than the sheep. His familiarity with the ox says nothing of its virtue, or that of the sheep and it says nothing about the extent to which either of them will suffer due to his orders. Also he cannot know that if he were to become familiar with the sheep that he would not in fact feel the same amount of compassion for it as the ox. It seems to me that we can think of the ox as family and the sheep as strangers.
If this is a fair comparison, I cannot help but wonder if it does not deal a deadly blow to Mengzi’s moral philosophy. If I can justify swapping an ox for a sheep based on my own familiarity with it, why not one ox for 1000 sheep? If my decision to favour the ox/my family is based solely upon my own emotional connection to it, is that not a self-serving philosophy?