What Confucius Teaches Us About Modern American Justice

Massachusetts prosecutors will try Philip Chism, a 14-year-old accused of murder, as an adult. Ancient Chinese philosophy explains why this is a bad idea.

Confucius would not approve of trying minors as adults for crimes like murder. (Wikimedia Commons)

It was, by all accounts, a horrible crime. On October 22nd, Philip Chism, a 14-year-old high school student in Danvers, Massachusetts, slashed his math teacher, Colleen Ritzer, to death with a box cutter. Only 24 and new at the job, Ritzer had asked Chism to stay after school for extra help. No motive for the murder has been established.

Massachusetts prosecutors immediately charged Chism as an adult, in accordance with state law that stipulates that any person accused of murder who is 14 or older must be tried as a mature individual. The juvenile justice system is not an option in such cases for persons typically considered children.

In all other ways, Chism is viewed as a child under Massachusetts law. He cannot drive, buy cigarettes or alcohol, or vote, because the government defines him as too immature to engage in such activities responsibly. It is only for an especially heinous crime that the legal system reverses itself and makes a 14-year-old equivalent to a 40-year-old. The inconsistency is stark: In a wide range of lesser infractions, he is not responsible for his actions, but in perhaps the most serious of crimes he is transformed into an accountable adult. He is a child in his general morality, but an adult in his exceptional immorality.

Even though state law embraces this discrepancy, juvenile justice advocates in Massachusetts and across the United States reject the practice of trying children as adults, even when they commit horrendous crimes. The key argument is straightforward: Children are, by definition, morally immature, and that quality does not vary with the severity of crimes committed.

In making this case, reformers have two unexpected allies: Confucius and Mencius.

Most people would not think ancient Chinese thought is relevant for contemporary America, but Confucius and Mencius and other classical Chinese philosophers have answers for many of our modern questions. And as for the matter of whether children who commit heinous crimes should be tried as an adult, Confucians would strongly argue “no.”

In his famous work The Analects, Confucius describes a life-long process of moral improvement: “At 15 I turned my mind to learning; by 30 I had found my footing; at 40 I was free of perplexities; by 50 I understood the will of Heaven; by 60 I learned to give ear to others; by 70 I could follow my heart’s desires without overstepping the line.”

It is only as a child of 15 that Confucius himself begins to take moral education seriously. By 30, he has worked out how to do good in the world, but has yet to perfect his ethical behavior. Somewhere between 15 and 30, he moves from being morally uninformed, and thus not wholly responsible for his actions, to being a mature and accountable adult. Although establishing a specific age of adulthood is problematic for Confucians, since moral development is a personal process, at the very least it should be clear that a 14-year-old should not be treated as an adult.

And so while it is imperfect, the American standard of recognizing 18-year-olds as legally responsible is, from a Confucian perspective, more defensible than treating children as adults.

Mencius, a fellow philosopher, adds further weight to the argument. Renowned for his faith in the basic benevolence of human nature, Mencius writes that all humans have hearts that “cannot bear to see others suffer,” and even though people can be led astray, we can be taught to make the best use of our inner goodness. Indeed, the purpose of childhood is to be nurtured in developing our inherent humaneness. He uses the image of water to make his point:

“Now, by striking water and splashing it, you can make it go over your head, and by damning and channeling it, you can force it to go uphill. But is this the nature of water? It is force that makes this happen. While people can be made to do what is not good, what happens to their nature is like this.”

People can be made to do bad. But bad human acts, even murder, are not essential aspects of an individual’s character. We can do good again, we can be brought back to moral life—especially if we are still young and immature.

Several thousand years—and seven thousand miles—separate Confucius and Mencius from Philip Chism. But the moral justification of trying the 14-year-old as an adult is no more valid now than it was then.