Dasan’s Philosophy of Law

Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture 39:129-156 (2023)
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In general, Confucians have taken a dim view of the law. They have felt warranted in this view by a reading of Confucius’ Analects 2.3 in which the Master apparently disparages law-centered governance. Two great Confucian philosophers, however, Zhu Xi and Jeong Yakyong (widely known by his pen name, Dasan), view the role of law in society differently. Like all Confucians, they teach the cultivation of virtue, but alongside building social harmony through ritual and good character, these two philosophers perceive that social order also requires the penal law. In this paper, I argue that Zhu Xi and Dasan, and Dasan in particular, follow the evidentiary lead of the classical Chinese philosopher Mozi to support their legal philosophy. Mozi offered three standards for establishing truth claims: empirical evidence from common life, authoritative evidence, and evidence of outcomes. Mozi’s empirical standard takes evidence of common life from what ordinary people have seen. Zhu Xi and Dasan take the evidence of common life, not from what the people have seen, but from common understandings contained in the written language. They use this approach to arrive at a different understanding of Analects 2.3 than other Confucians, one that relates the content of that passage to Analects 12.17. They interpret the passage on a philological basis that supports the presence of penal law from a perspective of ordinary life. For authoritative evidence, Zhu Xi and Dasan like Mozi appeal to the authority of the ancient sages, who register their support for penal law. Dasan also follows Mozi’s evidentiary lead in the evidence of outcomes by fully developing a consequential picture of how the absence of law detrimentally affects society. On this point, Dasan establishes a new and revolutionary legal outlook that differs from that of Zhu Xi. I show Dasan taking lessons from the classical Legalists to arrive at this position warranted by the evidence of outcomes. Having satisfied the three evidentiary standards, Dasan thus establishes the importance of the penal law from a Confucian perspective.

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Gordon B. Mower
Brigham Young University


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