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date: 13 June 2021

Confucian Political Philosophy

Abstract and Keywords

Confucianism is an ethics tied intimately with political philosophy. According to the text that is the most reliable guide to the teachings of Confucius, the Analects (Lunyu), he took the Mandate of Heaven (tianming) as a guide. The Mandate was formulated during the early period of the Zhou dynasty to justify the overthrow of the Shang dynasty and to legitimate the rule of the Zhou kings. The Confucian diagnosis of China's troubles suggests that the way out of the turmoil required a moral transformation led by the top ranks of Chinese society, a return to the virtue of the early Zhou kings. This article discusses Confucianism and its relation to political philosophy, the role of ritual in the cultivation of goodness, the concepts of ren and junzi, filial piety, the debate between Mozi and Mencius over filial loyalty versus impartial concern, family as the paradigm in a relational and communal conception of political society, the goodness or badness of human nature and its relation to morality, perfectionism and harmony, democracy, rights, and gender equality.

Keywords: Confucianism, political philosophy, Confucius, Analects, virtue, ritual, filial piety, morality, democracy, family

Confucianism is above all an ethics, and as an ethics it is tied intimately with political philosophy. A. C. Graham (1989) describes the crucial period in the classical age as one of fundamental change and uncertainty, one in which the established social and political order was breaking down. Each philosophy responded by offering a diagnosis and a cure—a dao (way or path) out of the turmoil. Confucius (551–479 bce), as Kongzi or Master Kong came to be known later in the West, diagnosed the problem as breakdown in the moral authority of rulers. According to the text that is the most reliable guide to the teachings of Confucius, the Analects (Lunyu), Confucius took the Mandate of Heaven (tianming) as a guide (Analects 2.4, 3.13, 16.8). The Mandate was formulated during the early period of the Zhou dynasty (the “Western” Zhou period, 1122–771 bce) to justify the overthrow of the Shang dynasty and to legitimate the rule of the Zhou kings. The doctrine holds that the last Shang kings lost their authority to rule because of their corruption and wickedness, while the early Zhou kings gained authority through their virtue. The later Eastern Zhou period (770–221 bce) saw rule by Zhou kings in name only and increasing conflict and intrigue within and between Chinese states. The Confucian diagnosis of China's troubles suggests that the way out of the turmoil required a moral transformation led by the top ranks of Chinese society, a return to the virtue of the early Zhou kings.

Ruling through Virtue

In Analects 2.3 Confucius says that leading people through coercive regulations and punishment will only make them evasive, while leading them with virtue and keeping them in line with ritual will enable them to have a sense of shame, and they will rectify (p. 772) themselves (for translations, see Ames and Rosemont 1998: 76; Slingerland 2003: 8). The word translated here as “virtue”—de—has the connotations of “power” and “excellence.” An informative gloss on the Chinese term is “moral charisma.” De as moral excellence has the power to draw people toward it and to influence them in morally appropriate ways (Analects 2.1, 2.21, 12.17, 13.6, 13.13, 15.5). Moral charisma is associated with the ideal of the junzi, most frequently translated as “gentleman” (e.g. Lau 1979; Waley 1989; Slingerland 2003), but “exemplary person” (Ames and Rosemont 1998) may be less misleading, given contemporary sensibilities. Among the virtues connected to this ideal are filial piety, a respect for and dedication to the performance of traditional ritual forms of conduct, and the ability to judge the right thing to do in the given situation.

The junzi is equated with the person who is ren. The concept of ren originally referred to the strong and handsome appearance of an aristocrat. But in the Analects the concept is of a moral excellence, and it may have been Confucius' central creative achievement to make the central focus of an ethics a kind of moral nobility that is achievable by anyone regardless of bloodline. Ren often appears to have the meaning of complete or comprehensive moral excellence, lacking no particular virtue but having them all. I will here use “goodness” to refer to the comprehensive Confucian virtue. Ren in some places in the Analects is treated as one virtue among others such as wisdom or courage. In the narrower sense of being one virtue among others, it is explained in 12.22 in terms of caring for others, and accordingly I will here use “caring” to refer to ren as one virtue among others.

The Role of Ritual in the Cultivation of Goodness

One of the most distinctive marks of Confucian ethics is the centrality it accords to ritual performance in the ethical cultivation of virtuous character and especially of ren as goodness. In the Analects, li includes ceremonies of ancestor worship, the burial of parents, and the rules governing respectful and appropriate behavior between parents and children. Later the word came to cover a broad range of customs and practices that spelled out courteous and respectful behavior of many different kinds. On a Confucian view, any complete description of self-cultivation toward the ideal of the exemplary person must include the assiduous performance of ritual. By providing conventionally established, symbolic ways to express respect for others, ritual forms give participants ways to act on and therefore to strengthen their dispositions to have respect for others.

The conventional ritual forms are regarded as a necessary language for expressing respect. While there are non-conventional dimensions of what it is to show respect such as providing one's parents with food (Analects 2.7), the particular way one provides food to parents will be deeply influenced by customs that specify what is a respectful way of (p. 773) serving food. On the Confucian view, doing so in a graceful and whole-hearted fashion as spelled out by the customs of one's community is part of what it is to fulfill one's humanity. In the everyday processes of moral socialization, children learn what their behavior means to others, and what it should mean, by learning how to greet others, to make and answer requests, and to serve others, all in a respectful manner.

These reasons lying behind the emphasis on ritual in Confucianism—the importance of certain kinds of custom in cultivating moral attitudes and in providing a language for their expression, and the aesthetic value of graceful and emotionally resonant human interaction according to custom—help to explain why Confucianism is regarded by not a few to offer a significant alternative to Anglo-American moral and political philosophy as it is usually practiced these days (e.g. Fingarette 1972; Hall and Ames 1987; Rosemont 1991; Cua 2002). Confucian ethics provides an alternative to understanding the nature of the moral life that is different from an understanding that is based primarily on abstract principles, even abstract principles that require respect for each person. This is why there is significant resonance between Confucianism and communitarian philosophies such as those defended by Alasdair MacIntyre (1984, 1989) and Michael Walzer (1983). One of the distinctive marks of communitarianism is the theme that much of the substance of a morality is given, not in abstract principles of the sort typically defended in modern Western philosophy but in a society's specific customs and practices.

Some have objected to the importance Confucianism places on tradition, pointing out the problems of justifying any particular tradition in light of internal change within a tradition or given alternative traditions. Hansen (1992) has pointed out the pivotal role of Mozi and his followers in pressing this kind of criticism against Confucianism. Mozi (probably fifth century bce) argued that tradition does not hold normative authority simply because it is tradition, since there was a time when it was not tradition but new (Mozi, ch. 39; see Watson 1967 for a translation). As an alternative to reliance on tradition, Mohism emphasizes the criterion of promoting benefit and avoiding harm as the standard for judging which traditions to keep and which to discard. For example, Mohists argued against elaborate and expensive burial rituals on the grounds that they amounted to burying resources that could be used to feed and clothe people (Mozi, chs 25, 32).

It is eminently arguable that the Confucianism represented by the Analects is fundamentally conservative in spirit. The Confucius of this text presents his ethical insights as derived from the early Zhou culture, and part of what makes it great, in his view, is that it built on the past traditions, taking what was best from the past (2.23, 3.9). However, this last point illustrates how a conservative orientation is compatible with a critical perspective toward one's tradition. One does not simply absorb one's tradition wholesale (see A. Chan 2000). Sometimes fundamental change is accomplished by reinterpretation of values such as the change in the meanings of junzi and ren that is reflected in the Analects. It is consistent with the conservative orientation of the Analects to apply Neurath's point about scientific language to the project of revising tradition: that we are like sailors who have to reconstruct their ship on the open sea but (p. 774) are never able to start afresh from the very beginning (Neurath 1959: 201). With all that said, however, critics of Confucian conservatism could still complain that reform in a conservative framework will not work if the ship is structurally unsound. The Mohists pressed this kind of criticism with respect to the arena of conflicts between loyalty to those with whom one has a special relationship and allegiance to impartial public justice and concern for all.

Mozi and Mencius in the Debate over Filial Loyalty versus Impartial Concern

Along with the emphasis on li, the centrality of filial piety is one of the most distinctive characteristics of Confucian ethics. Filial piety requires that one serve and protect parents' interests. Upon being told of a son turning in his father to the authorities for stealing a sheep, Confucius responds that uprightness is found in sons and fathers covering up for each other (Analects 13.18). In this case, at least, loyalty to parents or to children takes precedence over loyalty to ruler or to public justice. This precedence is one implication of the Confucian doctrine of care with distinctions (“love with distinctions” is one translation, but perhaps “care with distinctions” is less misleading because it covers both the emotionally freighted attitude toward kin and a more distanced attitude toward strangers). Though all people are owed moral concern, some are owed more than others, according to the agent's relationship to them.

Mozi, as far we know, never commented on the sheep-stealing story, but he might well have taken it as an example of what was wrong with Chinese society. Mozi rejects partiality toward one's own (oneself, one's family, one's state) as the root of all destructive conflict (Mozi, ch. 16). To counter partiality, he advocates the doctrine of jianai—care for all. “Care for all” apparently means equal care, but practical discussions of how people are to behave in the Mozi seem to fall far short of requiring equal treatment of everyone, but rather to require that one interact with others in mutually beneficial ways and to be ready to contribute something to the basic material needs of those with whom one comes into contact, especially those with no family to care for them. One possible way to resolve this tension within the Mohist position is to require equal care as an ethical attitude but to recognize that equal treatment of everyone by each individual agent is practically impossible. On this construal, the normative bite of requiring equal care is not as a principle guiding the action of individual agents but as a principle requiring that social and political practices and institutions be structured so as to result in something like equal benefit for all. The ruler in particular may be charged with promoting this aim.

The substantial following that Mohism gained during the classical period forced a response from Confucians. They had to respond to two questions. First, what is required by way of concern for all people and how is such concern to be reconciled (p. 775) with the greater concern for one's own that the doctrine of care with distinctions requires? Second, what kinds of concern are motivationally possible for human beings? Mengzi, or, as he is known in the West under his Latinized name, Mencius (fourth century bce), took up the defense of Confucianism against Mohism. In the text purporting to be a record of his teachings (see Lau 1970 for a translation), he explicitly sets himself to the task of defending Confucianism not only against Mohism but against the teachings of Yang Zhu (fifth to fourth centuries bce). Mencius portrays Yang's teachings as sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum from Mohism (there is no surviving text purporting to articulate and defend Yangism). According to Mencius' characterization, Yang Zhu criticized both Mohism and Confucianism for asking people to sacrifice themselves for others. Yang Zhu on this view was an ethical egoist—that is, one who holds that it is always right to promote one's own welfare. Mencius positioned Confucianism as occupying the correct mean between the extremes of having concern only for oneself, on the one hand, and having an equal degree of concern for everyone.

Part of the Mencian argument rests on the idea that the sort of natural compassion that is the root of caring for strangers develops first and in its most compelling form in relation to family members. “Compelling” here means not only “psychologically compelling” but also involving the recognition that one has the most reason to care for one's family. Children owe their lives and nurture to parents, and parents are specially responsible for those they bring into the world. However, probably in response to Mohist criticism, the Mencius text does frequently recognize that we have and ought to feel compassion for people outside the family. Mencius famously declares that we all respond to a child about to fall into the well with alarm and distress, and it does not matter whose child it is (Mencius 1A6).

According to the Mencian theory of the original goodness of human nature, we are all born with the beginnings or sprouts (duan) of goodness, feelings and intuitive perceptions of actions as appropriately deferential or respectful, right, or shameful. We have a natural compassion that comes out in spontaneous responses such as the adults' alarm at the child about to fall into a well. The Mencian response to (what is characterized) as the Yangist position that it is against nature to extend ourselves on behalf of others is that it is in our nature to feel for and to judge the rightness of extending ourselves. The Mencian response to the Mohists (as their position is characterized by Mencius) is that, while care is owed to all, one does not owe equal care to everyone in all situations. In dialogue with a Mohist (3A5), Mencius asserts that the case of the child about to fall into the well has a special feature that makes it relevant to treat it as one would any child. That special feature seems to be innocence. The Mencian position is premised on the principle that it is right to treat all people alike only when the ways they are alike are the most ethically relevant features of the situation. Mencius believes that, in many instances, the presence or absence of a family relationship to a person is the most relevant feature (in deciding which children to give gifts, the fact that one child is one's elder brother's son and the other child is one's neighbor's child may be the most relevant feature).

(p. 776) Two issues arise from this response to Mohism. One issue is whether Mencius has sufficient warrant to trust the kinds of intuitive judgments he attributes to human nature. Mencius holds that Heaven implants in human beings the beginnings of morality, but, in the absence of such a metaphysical warrant, can these intuitive judgments be accepted, particularly the ones that underwrite care with distinctions? Doubt about the metaphysical warrant may not doom Mencius' response to Mohism, however, if one holds that all normative theories ultimately depend on intuitive judgments (even theories based on the idea of promoting benefits and avoiding harms) and if one has no good reason to be skeptical about these judgments. Thus one might hold that, whether or not there is a metaphysical warrant, there is a great deal of plausibility to the intuitive judgment about owing parents more concern because they are the source of one's life (in the case of biological parents) and nurturance. Of course, one might also hold, as Mencius appears to hold, that people are owed concern in virtue of their being human, and the possibility for conflict of duties arises from these different sources of concern.

The second issue is how the Mencian text deals with conflicts of the sort exemplified by the sheep-stealing case in the Analects. The text contains themes embodying the theme of filial loyalty, and, as in the Analects, such loyalty takes precedence over public justice.  Mencius 7A35 tells a story about the sage-king Shun that illustrates this theme. Because Shun was renowned for his filial piety, Mencius is asked what Shun would have done if his father had killed a man. Mencius replies that Shun could not stop the judge from apprehending his father, because the judge had the legal authority to act. But then, Mencius says, Shun would have abdicated and fled with his father to the edge of the sea. Mencius 5A2 and 5A3 describe the way that Shun dealt with his half-brother Xiang's conspiring with his father and stepmother to kill him. He enfeoffed Xiang, because all he could do as a brother is to love him. At the same time, the fiefdom he awarded his brother was far away from the seat of the throne, and Shun appointed officials to administer the fief and to collect taxes and tributes, to protect the people of Youbi from Xiang's potentially abusive ruling. That is why some called Shun's act a banishment of Xiang. The Shun stories in the Mencius exhibit a complexity that differentiates them from the story of the sheep-stealing cover-up in the Analects. Though filial loyalty is clearly given a priority in each story, there is in Shun's actions an acknowledgment of the other value that comes into conflict with filial loyalty. Though Shun ultimately gives priority to filial loyalty in the case of his father, his first action acknowledges the value of public justice by declining to interfere with the judge while he is king. While Shun declines to punish his half-brother, he protects both himself and the people of Xiang's new fiefdom.

These Shun stories illustrate that an agent's response to a situation in which important values come into conflict need not be a strict choice between honoring one value and wholly denying the other. While some sort of priority might have to be set in the end, there are also ways to acknowledge the value that is subordinated, but how exactly that is to be done seems very much a matter of judgment in the particular (p. 777) situation at hand. The Shun stories are an expression of the Confucian theme that rightness cannot be judged on the basis of exceptionless general principles but is a matter of judgment in the particular situation.

Family as the paradigm in a Relational and Communal Conception of Political Society

In responding to Mozi's criticism that those who are partial to their own will take care only of their own, the Mencian text exemplifies an enduring theme in the Confucian tradition: the modeling of political society after the family. The ideal Confucian ruler will take care of the people because he is the “father and mother to the people” (Mencius 1A7). As parent to the people, he will ensure that they have means sufficient to support their own parents, wives, and children, that they will always have sufficient food in good years and in bad years enough to escape starvation. If they do not have such means, all their energy will be focused on survival, and they will have no time to spare for learning about ritual and what is morally appropriate. To fail to provide sufficient means but to punish the people when they run afoul of the law is to set a trap for them (1A7). The modeling of political society after the family defines the way that Confucian political philosophy is relational and communal in character. Members of that society are not conceived as having a moral status independent of their relationship to each other. They are not conceived as having a default status as independent, unencumbered agents whose political obligations must then be justified. Members of political society are conceived as belonging together as members of a family belong together: it is a matter of the natural and healthy course of human development. The idea that one belongs to oneself alone does not have a home in the Confucian tradition. One's body is a gift from one's parents, to be cared for as a debt of gratitude to them.

It is often said that the Confucian tradition subordinates the individual to the group and that it fails to recognize the value of individual autonomy, but this characterization overlooks important distinctions. The value of individual autonomy usually includes several different dimensions that do not necessarily accompany one another: (1) prioritizing individual interests over group or collective interests when these conflict; (2) giving moral permission to the individual to choose from a significantly wide range (within certain moral boundaries) of ways to live; and (3) emphasizing the importance of living according to one's own understanding of what is right and good even if others do not see it the same way.

Confucian ethics in significant part, though not in all parts, accepts autonomy in the sense of (3) (see Shun 2004). Confucius is often depicted in the Analects as emphasizing (p. 778) the importance of cultivating one's own character, even when others do not recognize or appreciate one's efforts (e.g. Analects 4.14) and of acting independently of what is conventionally approved or disapproved (e.g. 5.1). Mencius and Xunzi (fourth and third centuries bce), the most pivotal thinkers in the classical Confucian tradition after Confucius, both articulate the necessity to speak up when one believes the ruler one is serving is on a wrong course of action (e.g. Mencius 1A3; Xunzi 29.2; see Knoblock 1988–94 for a translation of the Xunzi). On the other hand, none of these classical thinkers argues for the necessity of protecting a frank subordinate from a ruler who is made angry by criticism, and it could be argued that Confucianism does not fully endorse autonomy in sense (3) because it fails to endorse such protection for those who wish to engage in moral criticism of the powerful.

Most interpretations present Confucian ethics as rejecting (2). There is a way for human beings to live, a comprehensive human good to be realized, and there can be no choosing between significantly different ways of life that are equally acceptable from a moral perspective (for an important exception to this kind of interpretation, see Hall and Ames 1987, who construe Confucius' dao as a human invention, collective and individual). On the other hand, Confucian ethics de-emphasizes legal coercion as a method for guiding people along the way and instead emphasizes moral exhortation and inspiration by way of virtuous example. While Confucians might believe in a single correct way for human beings, they might endorse a significant degree of latitude for people to learn from their own mistakes and by way of example from others (see J. Chan 1999, 2000).

Confucian ethics does not accept (1), but not because it holds in the subordination of individual interests to group or collective interests (for criticism of the rather common view that Confucianism subordinates the individual to the group, see Hall and Ames 1998). Rather, there is a different conception of the relationship between individual and group interests. The best illustration of this different conception is a story to be found in the Mencius that concerns sage-king Shun. When Shun wanted to marry, he knew that his father, influenced by his stepmother, would not allow him to marry. In this difficult situation, Shun decided to marry without telling his father, even though he was renowned for his filial piety. Mencius in fact defends the filiality of Shun's act in Mencius 5A2. He observes that Shun knew that he would not have been allowed to marry if he told his father. This would have resulted in bitterness toward his parents, and that is why he did not tell them. The implication of this version of Shun's reason is that filiality means preserving an emotionally viable relationship with one's parents, and in the case at hand Shun judged that it would have been worse for the relationship to have asked permission to marry. The conception of the relation between individual and group interests embodied in this story is not one of subordination of one to the other but is rather about the mutual dependence between the individual and the group. Shun's welfare depends on his family and therefore he must make his family's interests part of his own (he resolves to do what is necessary to preserve his relationship to his (p. 779) parents), but his family's welfare depends on Shun, and therefore his interests do constitute part of its welfare (the family should recognize that it is damaging itself in requiring Shun to deny himself the most part important of human relationships).

Debate over the Goodness or Badness of Human Nature and its Relation to Morality

Xunzi explicitly opposes Mencius' position on the goodness of human nature. Rather than being originally good, human beings start out with a love of profit, and with feelings of envy and hatred. Recognizing the destructive conflict caused by the unrestrained pursuit of natural desires, the sage-kings invented ritual principles and precepts of moral duty to reform human nature and guide it in the proper channels so as to be consistent with the dao. Reshaping our nature through morality makes possible the kind of cooperation that produces an abundance of resources in favorable times for the satisfaction of reasonable desires and minimizes suffering and frustration in unfavorable times. Xunzi's theory of the relation between human nature and morality suggests a different response to the Mohist critique of Confucian traditionalism: rather than appealing to Mencian sprouts of morality imparted by Heaven and construing morality as part of Heaven's order, Xunzi asserts that the content of morality is constructed by especially wise human beings in response to the problems created by our own natures. Xunzi presents a functional conception of morality (not unlike the one Hobbes was to formulate considerably later), according to which it is invented to harmonize the interests of individuals and to constrain and transform the heedless pursuit of short-term gratification for the sake of promoting the long-term interests of the individual and the group. Ritual principles and moral precepts are invented to accomplish such a function, and human nature constrains which of the possible principles and precepts are better or worse for accomplishing that function.

Xunzi's functional theory of morality bears added interest for those exploring the possibilities of a naturalistic approach to morality. Xunzi rejects a conception of morality as part of the natural grain of things imparted by tian. His conception of tian is in some respects closer to nature—an order-giving force in the cosmos that seems neutral to whatever human beings have come to regard as right and good. Xunzi stresses that tian operates according to patterns that remain constant, no matter what human beings do or whether they appeal to it for good fortune (Xunzi, ch. 17). It is the proper task of human beings to understand what these patterns are in order to take advantage of them (for example, so that they may know to plow in the spring, weed in the summer, harvest in the fall, and store in the winter).

(p. 780) Confucianism Perfectionism and Two Meanings of Harmony as a Confucian Value

Because Confucian political philosophy is centered on a deeply relational conception of how to live, it qualifies as a perfectionist political philosophy: the life of fulfilling relationship is to be promoted for members of political society. On the face of it, the relational conception leaves little room for a Rawlsian “reasonable pluralism” in conceptions of the good life (Rawls 1971, 1996). However, the Confucian doctrine that coercive regulations and punishment will only make the people evasive and not confer on them a sense of shame prevents any automatic inference from Confucian perfectionism to coercive interventions into the lives of individuals and their families. It may be more consistent for Confucians to promote their conception of the good life through education and positive incentives designed to enable people to live according to that conception (J. Chan 1999, 2000).

Furthermore, while it is in the spirit of Confucianism to regarded disagreement over conceptions of the good life as undesirable and to be avoided if possible, realism about the inevitability of disagreement may prompt Confucians to urge reconciliation between disagreeing parties rather than eliminating disagreement altogether. Antonio Cua, in presenting his interpretation of the Confucian virtue of ren, suggests that the virtue involves an orientation toward human conflicts aimed at the reconciliation of the contending parties by repairing the rupture of human relationship rather than by deciding who is right and who is wrong, and accordingly attempts to shape the expectations of the contending parties along the line of mutual concern, to get them to appreciate one another as interacting members in a community (Cua 1989).

This leads to the important value of he or harmony. Harmony is the value that promotes reconciliation and congruence between the individual's interests, the interests of others, and the group's common projects (ends that members are striving to achieve qua members of that group). Consider Analects 13.23: “The exemplary person seeks harmony rather than agreement; the small person does the opposite.” What does harmony mean if not agreement? In the Zuo Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals, harmony is compared to making porridge. The cook blends the various ingredients harmoniously to achieve the appropriate flavor. When it is too bland, the cook adds flavoring. When it is too concentrated, he dilutes it with water. In the relationship between ruler and minister, harmony requires analogous adjustments. When the ruler considers something right and yet there is something wrong about it, the minister should point out what is wrong as a way of achieving what is right. For a minister to say that whatever the ruler says is right is like seasoning water with water. This, it is said, is the inadequacy of “agreement” (Ames and Rosemont 1998: 254–5).

(p. 781) One implication of these passages is the necessity for an airing of divergent views so as to maximize chances for identifying the best, most well-founded view. The reference to the blending of ingredients and things accommodating each other on equal terms suggests something in addition to the need for debate and a diversity of views. Harmony requires the mutual willingness of the parties concerned to adjust their interests to those of the others. The story of sage-king Shun's marriage, told earlier, suggests not only that the interests of individuals and of their groups are interdependent, but also that the process of adjusting these interests to one another is a dynamic process accomplished in different ways. One may negotiate compromises between conflicting interests. One may need to assert one's interests and ask that others adjust, as Shun did in marrying without telling his parents, but at other times yield to others. Further, the history of who has asserted and who has yielded is relevant to the present decision.

Xia Yong (1992) expresses a related theme in differentiating between harmony and unity. Harmony, he says, is a proper balance between separation and connection. He believes that the West has overdeveloped separation in the form of competition and conflict, whereas China has erred in the direction of too much connection. To illustrate the kind of harmony that is compatible with the recognition and acceptance of a degree of separation, Stephen Angle (2002: 231–2) asks us to imagine a married couple, each partner with a career. What they need to do for success in their respective careers puts a strain on their family life. The ideal of unity might require something like the entire family placing a priority on either the husband's or the wife's career. When the husband gets a good job offer in another city, for example, there is no question as to what ought to be done. However, the ideal of harmony would rely less on the idea of there being a fixed priority upon which everyone agrees in advance, but rather on balancing, negotiation, tweaking, and cajoling. Suppose the wife gets an especially compelling offer, but, rather than simply deciding to move the family solely on the grounds of her career, the couple may work very hard at finding him a good opportunity in the new city, and decide to move only after they have found such an opportunity. Or another way of negotiating may be “taking turns.”

This interpretation of the ideal of harmony fits with the Confucian theme that human beings are profoundly social beings. It means that our identities, our senses of who we are, are bound up with our social roles and our relationships with particular people, and it also means that our sense of what our legitimate interests are is bound up with our judgments about what is needed to sustain our most important relationships. The husband and wife in Angle's example have interests in their own respective careers, but they also have interests in the flourishing of each other's careers, and they have interests in their relationship and their family life that influence their senses of how far their career interests can go and still be legitimate. The “harmonization” of each partner's interest in a career would involve weaving it into the nexus of all the other interests that matter to the family members.

Alongside the interpretation of harmony that aims for the mutual accommodation of potentially conflicting interests possessed by different members of the community, (p. 782) there is another interpretation that stresses and aims at agreement on the right way to combine interests. In Xia Yong's terms, the tilt in this conception of harmony is toward unity. This emphasis on harmony as unity is often tied to the need for a government with absolute or near absolute power. For example, while Xunzi emphasized the need for moral autonomy on the part of ministers in their speaking truth to power, he did not endorse institutionalized protection for ministers who displeased their rulers by speaking truth. Neo-Confucians such as Zhu Xi (1130–1200 ce) sought to utilize private academies as an institutional mechanism outside state officialdom to promote social and political reform. But their strategy was to influence rulers and not to constitute the academies as a separate realm of action distinct from state action. It was morally imperative to work within the parameters of officially sanctioned ideology until this ideology clearly failed (Lee 1994). The worry is that, when it fails, that is the time when it is most likely that dissent and honest speech will get crushed.

A Confucian harmony that is kept separate from unity depends on fostering a sense of willingness to interpret and adjust one's interests in light of one's interests in relationships with others in political society. Ritual plays a key role in such fostering. In Analects 1:12, Master You said that, when practicing the ritual, what matters most is harmony. Yet harmony cannot be sought for its own sake, but must always be subordinated to the ritual. One reason why harmony cannot be sought for its own sake is that aiming directly at harmony lacks the power of summoning forth attitudes that may be shaped into mutual respect between the participants. At the same time that sacrifice to ancestors and the burial of parents train and focus attitudes of reverence, gratitude, and grief, they also foster a common bond between the living participants, a sense of community that is rooted in the past and stretches onward into the future (see Bell 2008 for an argument that rituals in East Asian societies continue to fulfill this function and may even help to reduce inequality in income and wealth by satisfying the need to differentiate oneself from others through the social status marked by hierarchical rituals rather than having more material possessions and wealth).

Another reason in support of harmony for its own sake is that ritual has a power to foster a sense of shared purpose and common fate that does not depend on agreement on a relatively specific set of values and normative doctrines. Ritual consists in not just spoken word but also stylized, emotionally resonant actions that represent some aspects of the participants' life together. The performance creates a common experience and a sense of what binds them together that are not reducible to any discursive explanation. The common experience is sufficiently open textured and ambiguous, so that participants can disagree about the specific content of their responsibilities to each other while affirming a shared understanding (see Madsen 1984 for a description of this function of ritual in a twentieth-century Chinese village). Participation in ritual understood in this way contributes to willingness to interpret and adjust one's individual interests in light of one's interests in relationship with others in political society. Modern Western political philosophy, preoccupied with theoretical issues of justification, has not much appreciated the crucial function of ritual in binding together those who will (p. 783) inevitably disagree. Democratic theorists might fruitfully consider the attractions of rituals adapted to a democratic society (Wong 2006: 266–72).

Democracy, Rights, Gender Equality, and Confucianism

The interpretation of harmony as requiring diversity of views and the mutual accommodation of potentially conflicting interests bears on the question of whether Confucianism can be hospitable to individual rights to dissent and criticism. It will not be hospitable if the only basis for the recognition of rights is a conception of what each individual, qua individual, is entitled to claim from other members. Underlying such a conception is the assumption that the individual has a substantial domain of morally legitimate personal interests that may conflict with the goal of promoting public or collective goods. Rights constitute constraintsor limits on the extent that individual personal interests may be sacrificed for the sake of public or collective goods. Let me call this kind of ground for the recognition of rights “the autonomy ground.”

However, another possible ground for the recognition of rights is their necessity for promoting the common good (Wong 2004). The airing of divergent views helps to inform leadership of its errors and limitations in its information as to how its policies are affecting all segments of political society. It helps the process of the mutual adjustment of potentially conflicting interests, because the interests of some are liable to be ignored or automatically subordinated to those of the powerful. A good case can be made that it is necessary to recognize a duty for all, especially on the part of those in power, to honor a protected space for speech and dissent. As argued earlier, relying on the moral courage of subordinates to speak truth to power is insufficient protection for the kind of sustained discussion that might advance the common good. In the twentieth century, Chinese thinking about democracy entertained such a justification for civil rights. The influential political thinker, Liang Qichao saw rights as consisting of that which it is appropriate for the citizen to do (see Angle and Svensson 2001; Angle 2002). His thought was that political participation would unleash energies that would contribute to collective welfare. Some thinkers following Liang's lead argued that China's problem in modernizing stemmed from the systematic overconcentration of power, yet they did not put forward the autonomy ground for rights.

Rights grounded in community will not be precisely the same as rights grounded in autonomy. If one were to justify individual rights only by reference to the moral requirement of autonomy, one might justify a rather broad and virtually unrestricted right to freedom of expression. If, however, one allows the value of community independent weight as a factor in determining the scope of the right of freedom of expression, one might find that only a more restricted right of freedom of expression (p. 784) can be justified (Buchanan 1989). However, even if rights with a purely communal ground do not have the same scope as rights with a strong autonomy ground, the area of overlap will not be insignificant.

Some Confucians might hesitate at the thought of according rights a prominent role in a genuinely Confucian ethics, worrying that doing so might promote the sort of contentious attitude and assumptions that the interests of individuals inevitably conflict, and that all these are incompatible with the sort of mutual caring and trust they believe must underlie social harmony. Even with such concerns, Confucians might recognize a role for rights “backup” protections to be invoked when relationships break down and cannot be repaired through the restoration of mutual caring. In such cases, individuals' interests need protection (see J. Chan 1999).

For Confucianism, political authority and legitimacy do not, in the last analysis, rest on the consent of the people or on democratic institutions that make possible widespread participation in the election of leaders or in the formulation of policies and laws. Rather, they rest on the moral values of social harmony, ren, and more particular ideals of social relationship such as filial piety. Those who are the most qualified and can effectively promote these values have the authority to rule. However, for the reasons cited earlier, democratic institutions and the rights they embody might have instrumental value for the promotion of these values (J. Chan 2007). Contemporary thinkers who are deeply sympathetic to Confucian values, therefore, might hold that Confucian meritocracy could appropriately be combined with democratic institutions.

One possibility for such a combination is to have a two-house legislature, the members of one house selected on the basis of their qualifications for office (and assessing them might involve competitive examinations of the sort used in China for some two millennia and that served as the inspiration for the British and American civil service systems), and the members of the other house democratically elected in free and fair elections (Bell 2006). The idea is for the “meritocratic” house to contribute the kind of good judgment that is often compromised when one needs to think about getting elected or re-elected, and for the “democratic” house to deliver the kind of accountability that is the hoped-for effect of being elected to office. It is not really surprising that theorists should think of such combinations. Viable democracies in complex societies need some element of meritocracy (the judicial branch, as well as the civil service, of the US government may fulfill such a role). And, on the other side, truly meritocratic elites will often see the need to set up channels of communication with and some degree of accountability to those whose welfare they are charged with protecting and promoting.

There may be deeper reasons to be serious about such a combination, on both the democracy and Confucian sides. On the democracy side, there is a good case to be made that a society, even one that tends toward strongly liberal values of personal choice among a range of conceptions of the good life, must foster certain values that favor some conceptions and not others. It should foster a degree of mutual respect and concern among its citizens, if for no other reason than that it promotes a widespread (p. 785) concern for the rights of personal choice of all citizens, and not just oneself or one's own. With respect to the right to speech, this means that even liberal democracies might have to acknowledge some constraints on the right to speak for the sake of protecting bonds of mutual respect and concern. For example, liberal democracies fall on a spectrum with the United States at one end placing very few constraints for that reason and countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany placing more stringent restrictions on hate speech and expressions of racism.

Furthermore, if it is right to be concerned about the ability of all to exercise such rights effectively, there will be concern for equality of opportunity and a minimum level of material security. Arguably, a willingness to take less and give more to a societal effort to protect and ensure the “worth” of individual rights for all will require a sense of community and shared fate that is one of the strengths of Confucianism. Feminists have argued forcefully for the need to consider the ways in which traditional family structures contribute to the diminution of women's autonomy and to their material disadvantage (especially when there is divorce and women face diminished job and salary prospects because of the time they have taken off from education and work to raise children). The stronger such arguments are, the more reason there is for reform and regulation of gender roles and power relations within the family. And this places more constraint on autonomy of choice between competing conceptions of the good life insofar as they contain ideals of gender ideals and family structure. The family is a sphere where the personal is becoming increasingly political, and Confucianism is a political philosophy that has very much recognized that from the beginning.

On the Confucian side, increasing pluralism in conceptions of the good life may be occurring as societies with a Confucian heritage enter the first world and experience the effects of globalizing culture. The reduction in the number of children that usually occurs with higher living standards and the entry of more women into the professions, occupations, and public offices that have previously been dominated by men will introduce changes into the family structure. The Confucian valuing of family will have to confront new forms of family. Within the Confucian tradition, it can be argued that the subordination of women unnecessarily restricts the ways in which women can make a contribution to the common moral ends of the community and deprives them of the dignity that would come from making such a contribution. Furthermore, it has been argued persuasively that foundational Confucian texts, the Analects of Confucius and the Mencius) provide no basis for the exclusion of women from aspiration to become exemplary persons (S. Y. Chan 2000) who could take their places in the leadership of their societies. Enduring moral traditions have the sort of internal complexity that allows for significant change that is at the same time in accordance with at least some of their core values. Chinese and Western traditions have this sort of complexity that allows for mutually beneficial interaction (see Tan 2004, for a discussion of correspondences between Confucianism and a Deweyan conception of democracy).


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