The Unrighteous Daughter (III/IV)

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is 539 years before the common era, and Mr. Kong is visiting with his friend Yen. He is only 12 years old so he is not a great sage yet.

Mr. Kong sees his friend’s sister-in-law, Xue, collecting the leavings of Yen and Mr. Kong’s meal. Then he frowns.

“Ah,” he says.

Xue stops in her work. She looks at Mr. Kong. There is a horrible shame on her face, but she speaks with respect: “Yes, Mr. Kong?”

“You are collecting food for your mother-in-law,” says Mr. Kong. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes,” says Xue.

“Your finger is cut,” says Mr. Kong. “You are bleeding in the rice. I would chide you for your carelessness but I think you cut your finger with intention.”

“Please understand,” says Xue. “It is the request of my mother-in-law, Weng, who is very ill.”

Mr. Kong stands up.

“Forgive me,” he says, “But you must have misunderstood. It is good to show loyalty to your parents, but bad to feed them your blood.”

Xue works her mouth for a moment, considering and discarding several things to say. “I understand, Mr. Kong. I will take this to her without further bleeding and ask how I should proceed.”

But Mr. Kong’s curiosity is peaked. He says, “I will accompany you.”

And so he does.

“Forgive me this intrusion, dear Weng,” he says.

Weng coughs weakly. She shakes her head.

“Ah,” sighs Xue. “I have foolishly put blood in your rice, dear mother. I had thought you wanted it but Mr. Kong has corrected me. Now I do not know how to proceed.”

She passes the bowl of rice to Weng.

Weng glares at her.

“Stupid girl,” says Weng. She looks at Mr. Kong. She coughs. Then she says, “The chit is a miracle girl, Mr. Kong. Her blood heals all ailments. But now she has become stupid and cannot put the right amount of blood in my food. That is why I am so sick.”

Xue looks at Mr. Kong for help.

Mr. Kong frowns. Then he bows.

“I have misjudged this situation,” he says. “Though it is not my place, perhaps I could help her?”

Weng laughs a little. “You’re respectful,” she says. “You’ll make it all right by helping her.”

So Mr. Kong and Xue take their leave of Weng.

Mr. Kong draws Xue aside.

“You must respect your mother-in-law,” he says. “This is filial piety. To feed her the wrong amount of blood is not correct.”

Xue’s face is frozen. She shakes her head a little.

“Have you lost a necessary measuring cup?” suggests Mr. Kong, kindly.

“It does not work any more,” says Xue.

Mr. Kong hesitates.

Mr. Kong’s brow furrows.

“A righteous daughter heals her mother-in-law when she’s sick,” Mr. Kong points out.

Xue’s teeth are grit tightly together. Her hands clench and unclench fists at her sides. She looks down.

“I do not know how to do that,” Xue says.

Then Mr. Kong hears it.

It is not a sound, precisely, nor is it a feeling. It is an absence. It is an absence that hisses softly through the world.

It is because he is Mr. Kong and not someone else that he hears it.

It is because he is Mr. Kong and not someone else that he sets aside his chastisement of Xue when he hears that sound.

“If you do as your parents think best,” is all he says, “then who can criticize you?”

The sound is a mourning sound, thinks Mr. Kong.

It is the Fourth Kingdom of the world. The Third Tyranny has broken, and the gods are cast away.

Mr. Kong is one of the first men in that Kingdom to ask himself: Are we responsible for the miracles we cannot work?

18 thoughts on “The Unrighteous Daughter (III/IV)

  1. Surely a little extra iron in her diet won’t make her any less healthy – how shameful for someone to butt in on a meal preparation like that!

  2. Mr. Kong is one of the first men in that Kingdom to ask himself: Are we responsible for the miracles we cannot work?

    Given what we know about promises in Hitherby, the unfortunate answer to that seems to be yes, for now.

  3. An interesting dilemma. I also find it interesting that this entry (and the last one) really does have the feel of a Confucian fable, yet remains unmistakably Borgstromian. That’s the sign of a good writer, IMO.

    I wonder if this series has a bigger overall point besides showing how the events of 539 BC affected people living at the time, and being scenes from the childhood of Confucius.

  4. Yes. Oh yes. We’re also responsible for the harm we do not do, the pain we do not inflict, and the suffering we do not endure. If it works one way, it works another — why shouldn’t we be responsible for everything?

    I suppose because that way lies madness….(read: none-functionality).

    For everything we do, there is something else that we did not do instead.

    Mack

  5. Mack, I think there’s a difference between the miracles we do not work and the miracles we cannot work.

    For example, an omnipotent god is automatically responsible for all the suffering in the universe, because he could prevent it.

    Conversely, I don’t consider myself a better person because I don’t blow up the world with my mind, because I couldn’t even if I wanted to.

    And certainly, by your logic and that of many others, I could be held responsible for the starvation of as many children as my income could otherwise feed.

    But am I responsible for the fact that my fiance is dying, because my blood is not miracle blood and cannot heal him?

    I think the strangeness this story touches on is that I feel more guilt and responsibility over the latter than the former.

  6. For example, an omnipotent god is automatically responsible for all the suffering in the universe, because he could prevent it.

    Conversely, I don’t consider myself a better person because I don’t blow up the world with my mind, because I couldn’t even if I wanted to.

    Maybe you should. I mean, an olympic runner who lost his leg *does* consider himself a better person if he pushes himself to the ultimate hardship and competes with a prostthetic and wins the gold, a triumph of the human spirit.

    Is it really commendable to not try, knowing you’d fail? Or is it better to try until it destroys you, even though you never had a chance, swearing with every breath that you would find a way to succeed?

    I think, since the latter is commendable, but the former isn’t, the former is in fact condemnable. You’re willing to accept personal satisfaction knowing that you’re incapable of doing something worthwhile in the face of incredible odds. What human couldn’t see those odds, and not feel compelled to sacrifice his life in the hopes that someday in the future, it would be possible once again?

  7. Here’s what I think of that:

    If what you do accomplishes something, it’s worthwhile depending on the value of what it accomplishes.

    That something it accomplishes could be anything. Say Person A sees that Person B is about to be crushed by a falling anvil. A is much too far away to reach B in time to get B out of the way, and B is deaf so A can’t yell look out. A charges desperately towards B anyway, but doesn’t reach B in time and B dies.

    A charging towards B might have accomplished something anyway. It made B feel better in the last moments of his life that someone tried to save him. Or it might merely have made A feel like a virtuous person. Or taught her something about herself. Or gotten her in practice so that next time her reflexes will be quicker and maybe she really will get there in time. All those are accomplishments.

    If what you do accomplishes nothing, it’s not worthwhile.

    So if this is your proposition:

    I) It is worth while to try to do a worthy thing even if you know you cannot do it.

    I concur, as long as it may accomplish something else of value.

    However, if this is your proposition:

    II) It is worth while to try to do a worthy thing even if you know it will accomplish nothing.

    I disagree.

    So to bring it back to the question: are we responsible for the miracles we cannot work? No. Do we have a responsibility to try to work the miracles we cannot work? Maybe, if the trying accomplishes something besides “not the miracle.”

  8. it’s a subtle distinction, but I suppose I am going with (I).

    (II) implies that virtuous action is not innately good, and that not acting in a virtuous way (or acting without regard for virtue) is not the same as acting in a anti-virtuous way. Which I don’t agree with.

  9. Well, I don’t claim that the condition in II is actually possible given the nature of ethics. I tend towards the Aristotelian, “virtuous person” view of ethics, which means I think that acting virtuously is inherently good in the same way that working out inherently makes someone stronger.

    I think I just wanted to make things clearer in my own mind, because I really disagree with II, but was pretty sure that wasn’t what you were implying. Sorry if I implied I thought you were. :P

  10. How can an action be virtuous, save by its effects? I think the analogy to weight-lifting is flawed; the purpose of lifting weights is to convince the body that it must strengthen itself, and I don’t believe that making ineffectual but nominally “virtuous” actions is going to fool the conscience into spurring you to do good when there actually is some good which can be done.

  11. Ack! It’s a utilitarian! *seizes pitchfork*

    Seriously, I’m not sure I quite understand your line of thought. Do you argue that it’s impossible that a person A could perform an action which she fully believe to be good, and which therefore is a “good action” when performed by her and as far as her conscience and objective moral standing are concerned, which could yet have an unforeseeable bad effect?

    Or do you rather argue that if A knows the attempt to save B will not actually save B, A isn’t actually performing a virtuous act in rushing towards B because she knows perfectly well her action will not save B and therefore all her action really consists of is a sprint, which is not all that virtuous?

    I admit I have some sympathy with the latter view.

  12. The latter. If one actually cannot foresee the ill effects of one’s actions, then one is not responsible for said ill effects. On the other hand, failure to foresee predictable results doesn’t make an act virtuous; if I drop a flowerpot out of my window, just because I didn’t see the baby stroller under it doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for the infanticide.

  13. i’d say it would if you had a sufficently virtuous motivation for dropping the flowerpot to begin with. a bumbling fool may try and fail to be virtuous: but so may a learned scholar fail to find the true path of virtue and be waylaid by a number of myriad events. It isn’t easy to do the right thing, and it isn’t easy to know what that right thing is. Not looking before dropping the flowerpot out the window is not a virtuous action – so I agree with you on the example, but not the reasoning.

  14. (II) implies that virtuous action is not innately good, and that not acting in a virtuous way (or acting without regard for virtue) is not the same as acting in a anti-virtuous way.

    Now that’s just the sort of game of ethical Twister that Hitherby is all about.

  15. i’d say it would if you had a sufficently virtuous motivation for dropping the flowerpot to begin with. a bumbling fool may try and fail to be virtuous: but so may a learned scholar fail to find the true path of virtue and be waylaid by a number of myriad events. It isn’t easy to do the right thing, and it isn’t easy to know what that right thing is. Not looking before dropping the flowerpot out the window is not a virtuous action – so I agree with you on the example, but not the reasoning.

    It is, however, difficult to have a motivation for dropping flowerpots out of windows so virtuous that it overcomes the anti-virtue inherent in killing babies. I think it would have to have been intended to save a life, and with a chain of logic behind it sufficiently valid as to be considered entirely reasonable; I cannot offhand think of any circumstances which would fit that bill.

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