Confucianism and Human Rights_

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Confucianism and Human Rights_

    Confucianism and Human Rights:On the Complexities of Univers

     ???íÓÚ: 2005-10-27 04:04


    Presented at International Symposium on ??Morality and Religion in Higher Education??, October 2005, Fudan University

Confucianism and Human Rights:

    On the Complexities of Universal Rights

    Xiangdong Xu

    (Department of Philosophy, Peking University)


    Nowadays it is generally recognized and acknowledged that the conception of human rights sets up a minimal standard for the political legitimacy of a government. Human rights, conceived as universal and critical norms, constrain the allocation and exercise of state power. It is for this reason that some governments object to human rights. In particular, Eastern Asian states are inclined to resist civil and political rights which have received overwhelming emphasis in the Western states, even though they may admit that states have the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights. Human rights, according to the Bangkok Declaration, ??must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm-setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds??.

    How to understand and respond the idea embodied in the Declaration? In the first place, we may take notice of the fact that, even though the concept of rights had emerged long before the modern period, for example, already implied in the theories of natural laws, the idea of human rights is a recent novelty, the explicit recognition of which arose only after the Second World War. Indeed, there are certain discernible continuities in the evolution or development of the notion of rights. For example, the shift from natural rights to human rights manifested the detachment of the idea of moral rights from its historical antecedents in the medieval Christian tradition, thereby underscoring the secularization implicit in the first shift from the language of laws to that of rights. Owing to the result of the continuous

    transformation, the idea of human rights as universal moral rights has been firmly established at least in the Western societies. However, even if this idea is broadly shared in the Western societies, it may be said that it is still a product of the Western cultural traditions. If one is committed to cultural relativism and thus in some way to moral relativism, one may not feel easy in accepting the idea in question unless moral relativism has been somehow shown to be mistaken or misleading.

    This brings us to the second problem on which I want to make some comments: how to explicate and justify the idea of human rights as moral claims of universal validity in the face of the challenge of relativism? To my knowledge, there are two leading ways to answer the question. In the first place, we may seek to identify some features in, so to speak, human nature which are, properly understood, universal, and thus which may be able to provide a basis for explaining and defending the idea above mentioned. For instance, suppose that human rights aim at protecting certain significant human interests which are essential to human agency. Then we may be able to defend some understanding of human rights in terms of some conception of human agency. This is the strategy which most theorists of human rights have been disposed to adopt. In the second place, we may show that the conception of human agency may be found in other, non-Western societies. It is easily seen that these two approaches are not logically separate: both of them are dependent on the recognition that there is something in human agency which is inviolable in the sense that without it an individual human life would become fundamentally impossible. For example, it is widely acknowledged that an individual human being would be unlikely to lead a flourishing human life unless their basic needs have been satisfied. Of course, it may be possible that different cultures or traditions can hold quite different views of what basic needs are. However, if we can arrive at some minimal consensus or some convergence on that question, then we are in a good position to defend a minimalist and yet universalistic conception of human rights on the convention that what we call human rights are concerned with fundamental human interests embodied in the minimal consensus in question.

    What I have said thus far rests on, among other things, the presupposition that it is a minimal requirement for the political legitimacy of a government to provide every citizen with the institutionalized safeguards of the fulfillment of their basic needs. It would make nonsense to require a government to promote human rights if it did not recognize and accept the requirement. In that case it may justifiable to exercise some international interference of

    non-violent form with that government, though not with its people. On the other hand, once this condition is satisfied, it becomes significant and actually advisable to seek and identify the norms of human rights that are cross-culturally shareable when we are attempting to put human rights into practice in a global context. For, in that circumstance, a state/government to which the idea of human rights is supposed to apply would stand least resistance to the practice of human rights. Moreover, for those states which are inclined to insist on the basic rights to subsistence and yet keep some hostility towards civil and political rights, it may be argued that the latter kind of rights are at least instrumental to the former one.


    I take it to be a better strategy to consider the practical application of the idea of human right in a global context in the way I just indicated. In fact, some scholars in non-western states have argued that the idea of human rights or something like this is discoverable in their own societies. What is at issue is to explicate as clearly as possible what specific content human rights have and what relationships they bear to each other. Obviously the problem is concerned with and dependent on the perspective in which the idea of universal human rights is illustrated and justified. According to the strategy I am advocating here, in what follows I will try to show that there is something in the Confucian tradition which may be construed as congenial to the idea of human rights, properly understood. And then I will explain why the notion of human rights or rights in general has not yet emerged from the tradition so as to reveal some complexities implicit in the concept of universal rights. In the end, I will give a brief account of what implications the Confucian ethics may possibly have for our understanding of the practice of human rights in a global context.

    Generally speaking, there are three views about the relationship of Confucianism to the idea of human rights: (1) they are fundamentally incompatible; (2) they are compatible in some sense; and (3) they are different but mutually complementary in certain aspects. Those who hold the first view have usually claimed that Asia, especially Eastern Asia, has its own distinctive understanding of human values which is entirely different from -- and in fact, incommensurable with -- the Western liberal one. It is said, for example, that rampant individualism in the West is ultimately incompatible with the (Eastern) Asian commitment to communitarian values. On the other hand, some commentators think that the ideas of human equality and popular sovereignty which are said to be discoverable in Confucianism are essentially compatible with the

    human values implied in the idea of human rights. Still some other commentators believe that the Confucian conception of human value, with its emphasis on community and harmonious interpersonal relations, can supplement with the rights-based notion of human values.

    I will not consider the first view since my purpose here is to show that there is a universalistic humanism implicit in Confucianism which is, properly understood, congenial to such ideas as human dignity and moral equality which are said to constitute the rationale of the idea of universal rights, for example, according to the Kantian tradition or even the Christian one. I will leave the third view to the next section. The leading argument I am to develop in this paper for the compatibility thesis, as I call it, is derived from the Confucian metaphysics of man. The belief in the consanguinity of Heaven and man is the very basis of the metaphysics in question, and that may explain the rise of both ancestor worship and political patriarchy in the traditional China. How to understand the concept of Heaven is a topic of dispute in the Confucian tradition in its own right. Nonetheless, according to an orthodox interpretation, Heaven provides human beings with principles and with supreme moral sanctions which in turn demand respect and service. Insofar as Heaven is the supreme judge and sanction of human behavior, it is said that Heaven gives the mandate to human beings. Consequently, human beings must faithfully follow the principles of Heaven and fulfill the mandate of Heaven. As the spiritual power and the creator of human beings, Heaven alone can reward the good and punish the bad.

    It is not implausible to speculate that there is something in the Confucian conception of Heaven that is similar to what is already implied in the Western natural law tradition. But here what we need to notice is that a universalistic humanism came to emerge from the Confucian conception of the consanguinity of Heaven and man. What is characteristic of Confucianism is the faith that humanity can achieve perfection and lives up to heavenly principles. However, it is remarkable that human beings, the Confucian insists, have their mission in the world, which human beings can fulfill only by doing their best to fulfill their ethical and moral duties. From this idea emerged a unique understanding of the moral as the transcendental and the secular as the sacred. Confucianism extraordinarily insists on the importance of self-consciousness and self-cultivation as the pathway leading to 'transcendence'. But self-transformation is never meant to be a matter of isolation of the self from others and from the society. For, according to the Confucian, ethical and moral duties at which such

    self-transformation is aimed must be sought and found merely in the actual and secular relationships of man to man and man to the society.

    Self-transformation is intimately related to human and natural order, conscientiously exercised in the form of social and political action, and optimistically aimed at harmonizing the world through changes. For Confucianism, then, life is indeed a process of continuous self-cultivation and self-transformation leading to

    self-transcendence, the realization of one??s ??authentic?? nature in which the all-pervasive principles of Heaven are fully manifested.

    Given this, it is not hard to see why the humanism implicit in Confucianism is universalistic and how it can result in the ideas of moral equality and human dignity. In the first place, the Confucian conception of man is by its very essence morally grounded and oriented. For example, Mencius claims that all human beings have a mind that cannot bear to see the sufferings of others, and goes on to see man as essentially characterized by four sentiments: compassion, shame, modesty, and a sense of right and wrong. Having regarded the four sentiments as present in all human beings, Mencius believes that to be a human is simply to put these moral potentials into full fulfillment. A human person who has succeeded in doing this is a sage. Everyone has the potentials to become a sage since these requisite moral sentiments have been endowed with everyone. Furthermore, the realization of such potentials ascribes a human agent human dignity ?ª the moral nobility, so to speak. Given that to be a human is to follow the mandate of Heaven to fulfill one's moral potentials, it follows that people would be morally equal once they had fulfilled their endowed moral potentials. As a result, everyone owes equal respect merely and purely because of her/his realization of moral potentials, regardless of her/his ??natural?? position in the society.

    In some sense and to some extent, the idea of a popular sovereignty is also implicit in the Confucian classical texts. The traditional Chinese believes that it is because the ruler has been endowed with the mandate of Heaven that he is qualified to hold power and authority. The Way of Heaven, it is said, is to bless the good and punish the bad, and thus how to govern becomes a kind of competition in terms of moral virtues. Those who have demonstrated good virtues would be trusted with the ruling power, while those have violated the principle of Heaven would consequently lose this right. Mencius observes that it is for this reason the approval of the ruling power by the people is necessary. It follows that the relationship between the ruler and his subjects is not a simple one of dominance and submission. Rather it is reciprocal and conditional in the following sense. The ruler is authorized to govern only through the Mandate of Heaven. Heaven is believed to act according to ethical principles, which are in turn enforced upon living rulers

    who, as intermediaries between the supreme ruler above and humans below, are to model their conducts on those of Heaven in the activities of a rational, moral, harmonious and unified government. According to the Confucian tradition, then, rule by moral virtues is a governing mechanism that maximizes the effects of a moral exemplar. Legal Punishment is deemed as inferior way of government, and maintaining social order by killing those who do not follow the Way is seen as a failure of the ruler himself. In a word, the best government is the one with the ruler himself as a moral sage. However, it may be excessively optimistic to believe that the state can be well governed only by means of the exercise of moral virtues by individual rulers since everyone is unavoidably to be seduced by the evil and the bad.


    Now comes the puzzle: if there is really something in the Confucian tradition that is congenial to the human values which the modern conception of human rights is supposed to express and promote, how could it happen that the tradition did not generate a political culture by its own power that can effectively sustain those values? This is a quite complicated question, and any possible answer will, in my view, depend on at least two things. First, it depends on exploring the relationships of a particular socio-political culture to its existing political practice. Second, it rests on an understanding of why an awareness of (personal) rights is lacking in the Confucian tradition. The first issue is highly complicated, and thus, in the present context, I can only make some very brief remarks on the second issue.

    I start with the question: why is the Western conception of individual rights lacking in the Confucian tradition? In my view, we may be able to find some clues to answering the question from the Confucian metaphysics of the self. Even if the Confucian has come to regard moral potentials as the essential mark of human beings, the self is always conceived or individuated in a relational manner. One??s consciousness of oneself is expressed and embodied in one??s awareness of one??s relations to others and the society at large. In particular, to be a human being is to develop and exercise one??s humaneness (jen), which is, according to the Confucian view, embodied in five basic human relations. Insofar as those relations are based on the principle of reciprocity, man cannot become truly human unless he/she feels the need to reciprocate the affections of others. Therefore, when Confucianism sets humaneness as the final goal of man??s self-realization, one can fully realize oneself only by immersing and manifesting oneself in the context of human relationships. The Confucian world of rites is then

    based on a discovery of human relationships and thus of a capacity for such relationships, reflecting the awareness of feeling-directed sociality on the one hand and abilities-based humanity on the other. Moreover, both sociality and humanity are experiences of a holistic human existence in the complex of time and space, which entails the notion of the self as creative self-transformation. It is not that no ideas of personal autonomy had already existed in Confucianism. Instead it is that the only conception of autonomy Confucianism can hold is that of moral autonomy rather than the idea of a rights-bounded individual.

    Given the Confucian metaphysics of the self, it is not difficult to understand why and how the claim that a person has rights to something independently of any human relationships and apart from any social context is quite odds to the Chinese. While the language of contracts, promises and commitments prevailed everywhere in the ancient Chinese, why did the language of rights not manifest itself in the tradition? The answer may be that for the Chinese, whenever a person claims a certain ??right??, his claim can be effective only if others concerned are willing to honor it. Given the Confucian insistence on reciprocity in human relationships, the Confucians would not deny that a person could claim something as his due. But the entitlement is not a freestanding right. For, in the Confucian ethical framework, a person is entitled to X only if the society assigns X to him as a result of his participation in some form of social activity. Confucians like Mencius had indeed recognized that certain basic human goods are essential to leading a flourishing human life. But they did not tend to say that a person has claims to those goods simply because he/she is a human being as such. Instead, they considered those who might be affected by such claims, arguing that because they and the claimant share a common human nature, they should appreciate his basic needs and honor any reasonable claim he might have made. The ??legitimacy?? of the claims one may make to others with regard to one's basic needs, then, still remains to rest on some understanding of human nature and the principle of reciprocity.

    The idea that rights and duties are essentially correlated to each other is of course very important for the fulfillment of human rights, since human rights would become empty without some institutionalized means to discharge the correlated duties. But now we must return to our original question: how could it happen that a tradition which seemed to inspire equal respect and human dignity had not generated the idea of human rights? To answer this question, it is important to notice, in the first place, that the Confucian conception of man and its related moral ideals are quite at odds with an individualistic conception of

    rights since the Confucian self is thought to be constituted in a complex network of social relationships. Even though the Confucian puts a great emphasis on the moral transcendence of the self, the moral ideals which the self is supposed to struggle for are largely communitarian, nested in the system of rites. In addition, Confucianism holds that the best government is government by virtue. The only way in which the ruler can win the hearts of the people is by first establishing himself as a moral exemplar for the people, and then treating his people and governing his state in accordance with certain ethical norms. In ancient and imperial China, social and political order is sustained mainly by means of the observance of rites which are supposed to embody sentiments and human concern and respect for others. Rites give shape to the normative space in which people live by defining the rules and guidelines for interpersonal relationships, and providing the ethical foundations for social institutions. Since rites are defined relationally and contextually as norms appropriate in given circumstances, they are apt to produce hierarchical and inegalitarian social and political structure, thus giving rise to a paradoxical outcome?ªparadoxical because it seems that the resulted social and political structure is hardly consistent with the Confucian original insistence on moral equality and moral autonomy. The intrinsic contradiction arises mainly because one's moral status itself is, by and large, defined relationally and contextually.

    In the second place, the excessive moralization of the self turns out to be a serious obstacle to awareness of rights. Even though it is presumed that significant ethical elements and ethical relations are contained in rites, Confucians may be unduly optimistic in assuming that a morally justified social order can be acquired by performing a self-conscious moral transformation of the self. Even if the self is supposed to be constituted relationally, that is, the self??s commitment to certain communitarian values is seen as central to its identity, it turns out that different selves may have competing or conflicting interests in their commitments. Furthermore, if there are certain universal moral standards in the society so that moral self-cultivation may enable an individual to see what are his/her legitimate interests, that is, interests whose possession is morally justifiable, then it seems clear that some basic interests cannot be sacrificed in favor of some collective good without destroying one??s own agency. In that case, such sacrifice is, for its moral legitimacy, dependent on the agent??s own decision or consent, and thus cannot be reasonably required merely on behalf of some collective good since the latter may not be morally justifiable. However, if there cannot be some supreme value that serves to unify or accommodate all competing goods,

    in focusing on the ideal of a social order instead of the reality of conflict, Confucianism fails to provide some basic protection for individuals with regard to their legitimate interests.

    What Confucianism calls ??the rites?? largely belong to the domain of the ethical, and they are primarily designed or evolved to restore the sense of community and to provide for social solidarity. Even if we assume that the system of rites, on account of its essential insistence on reciprocity, could somehow generate the idea of reasonable claims or entitlements correlated to or conditional on duties, it is difficult to see how this system could serve to protect individuals fully. For the rites at its best pay insufficient attention to the very possibility of conflict by elevating shared meaning and value into the dominating normative position. This situation becomes worse when human dignity is seen as mainly or essentially characterized by moral self-perfection. For it is evident that human dignity should not be characterized merely and exclusively by the moral dimension of human agents. Instead certain conditions under which human agency can be properly exercised are minimally necessary for the very possibility of human dignity. In addition to secure access to certain basic material goods, free choice, for example, constitutes a necessary condition for human dignity. Moral self-cultivation Confucianism so overwhelmingly stresses is not even possible when such conditions are lacking.


    In the above I have tried to show that the Confucian metaphysics of the self, with its insistence on the moral transformation of the self for the need of order and harmony, constitutes a primary obstacle to the formation of a civil society in China. Yet such a society is required to secure human dignity on which the Confucian ethics had seemed to insist so much. Therefore, there is an intrinsic tension or even self-contradiction in Confucianism. Here I am not claiming that the Confucian is mistaken in insisting on the order and harmony of a society. What I want to say is that Confucianism may have fallen short of recognizing moral constraints on a reasonable acceptable social order. To make this more precisely, it may be said that in its historical transformation, Confucianism has somehow departed from its original commitment to the equal dignity of human individuals by unduly moralizing the self and further conceiving the ethical bounds of the self in terms of the system of rites which is obviously short of morally sufficient justifiability. Of course, this is not to deny that the Confucian emphasis on the correlation thesis of rights and duties as well as on social harmony will make a significant contribution to a

    right understanding of the practice of human rights. I believe that, once Confucianism overcomes the limits of its undue moralization, it may be able provide a better grounding for human rights in virtue of its universalistic humanism, in particular, its insistence on a sense of self-fulfillment in society, on the family ideal, on the social conscience, and finally on the harmony of man with nature and the world.

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