The Meng family appointed Yang Fu as a magistrate, and he asked Zengzi for advice.
Zengzi said, “Those who rule have departed from the Way and left the common people adrift without moral guidance for a long time now. If you solve a case, be compassionate, not triumphant.”
In many parts of the United States, a magistrate is a judge who presides over relatively minor matters, such as traffic violations or misdemeanors. In ancient China, however, the office that we translate as “magistrate” was much more substantial. A magistrate was responsible for maintaining law and order for his assigned district. In carrying out this role, he would take on the tasks that we associate with a detective, a prosecutor, a jury, and a judge.
If a murder took place in his district, for example, the magistrate would be responsible for leading the investigation, having the suspect arrested, questioning the suspect in court, determining the suspect’s guilt or innocence, and prescribing a punishment.
Zengzi seems to be advising Yang Fu to take into account the moral condition of perpetrators while carrying out this important role. From a Ruist standpoint, it is the responsibility of rulers to provide the common people with moral guidance. Their failure to do so, according to Zengzi, should be considered what we’d call a “mitigating factor” when dealing with criminals.
This seems like fairly uncontroversial advice at first, but consider the implications for Yang Fu. In exercising compassion in his magisterial duties, he is implicitly condemning the Meng family–his employer and benefactor–for their moral failures.
Anyone familiar with this era of Chinese history can tell you that ruling families typically did not take this kind of thing with good grace. An official who displeased his employer could easily find himself demoted, banished, or executed.
Kongzi said, “To see what’s right and not do it is to lack courage.” This is easy to agree with in the abstract, but Yang Fu’s predicament drives home its full implications. To do what’s right requires intellectual courage, moral courage, and, in some cases, physical courage as well.