Comments on Bell, “Confucianism & Nationalism”

Back in April 2011, Joseph Chan, of HKU’s Department of Politics and Public Administration, organized a mini-workshop on Confucian Political Philosophy here at HKU. I commented on a paper by Daniel A. Bell, of Tsinghua University, entitled “Confucianism and nationalism: A reconciliation.” Since Daniel has recently published several articles in popular media whose content overlaps this paper, I think it worthwhile to post the full text of my April 2011 remarks here.

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Comments on Daniel A. Bell’s “Confucianism and Naturalism: A Reconciliation”

Chris Fraser
University of Hong Kong
April 29, 2011

This is an interesting and provocative paper. Daniel defends two main theses:

(1) Confucianism is compatible with at least some forms of nationalism.
(2) Confucian nationalism is desirable, for various reasons.

These are presented as parts of a positive evaluation of a one-party Chinese state committed to Confucianism, rather than Marxism, as its core ideology. Rather than a dictatorship of the proletariat, we would have a dictatorship of the erudite.

My first question about the paper concerns its precise purpose. I’m not sure whether the aim is the ambitious one of justifying a Confucian nationalist state or only the modest one of arguing that were such a state to come into being, it would not be repugnant, or at least it’d be better than the present communist state or a quasi-fascist one. The modest aim is easy to agree with. Confucianism has a lot of good qualities, among them a commitment to rén zhèng 仁政, or benevolent government. The more ambitious aim is less compelling. Despite its good qualities, I doubt Confucianism can be justified as the core ideology of a contemporary state.

I’ll comment on Daniel’s two theses in turn.

The first thesis is that Confucianism is compatible with nationalism, in the sense of endorsing a unified state with territorial boundaries and some degree of special commitment to the people who live in it. A Confucian nationalism would be committed to the existence of a nation-state that embodies Confucian values.

An important observation is that the form of nationalism implicated here is relatively weak—considerably weaker than some positions that get labeled “nationalism.” As Daniel explains, the nationalism at issue does not tie the nation to a distinctive ethnic, religious, or cultural identity (beyond that of Confucianism itself). For example, it does not claim that the nation’s interests trump all others, that the nation’s claim to its members’ allegiance trumps all other claims on them, that the members should be devoted to the interests of the nation as an entity distinct from its members, or that one should advance the nation’s interests at the cost of outsiders’ interests. Confucianism is probably not compatible with these other, more aggressive forms of nationalism.

Why is there any question as to whether Confucianism can be reconciled with the weaker nationalism Daniel identifies? The reason, he points out, is that within Confucian ethics there are several competing emphases. One emphasis is our role in and special treatment of our family or clan. This agent-relative dimension of Confucianism might seem to preclude a commitment to the interests of the broader community constituted by the nation-state. Another, contrasting emphasis is a commitment to the welfare of everyone—tiān xià 天下, or “all-under-heaven.” This agent-neutral, universalistic dimension of Confucianism might seem to preclude a special commitment to the interests of the narrower community of the nation-state.

I think one can only agree with Daniel’s view that there is no fundamental or wholesale incompatibility between Confucianism and weak nationalism. Of course, in special circumstances, piecemeal conflicts may arise between the various emphases in Confucian ethics, as in the well-known Analects passage about the son covering up for the father or the Mencius passage about Shun helping his father flee the reach of the law. A characteristic feature of Confucian ethics, on some interpretations at least, is that in the case of such conflicts, the interests of more immediate relations take priority over those of more distant ones, including the larger community. However, in a thoroughly Confucian society, such conflicts would be the exception, not the rule. So they don’t constitute a fundamental incompatibility between Confucianism and nationalism. It seems to me that Daniel makes the right points in this part of the paper, namely that a commitment to family versus nation is not an either/or choice in Confucian ethics, and that a commitment to peaceful, orderly relations with “all under heaven” is not incompatible with a special commitment to the welfare of one’s own nation.

My main constructive criticism is that these points could be framed more directly. One of Daniel’s premises, and one source for the prima facie tension he identifies between Confucianism and nationalism, is that, as he puts it, Confucianism “defends the value of partiality.” He contrasts this stance with that of Mòzǐ, who supposedly advocated loving “my father’s neighbor as I love my own father.” Let me suggest a different way of framing things, as I don’t think these are adequate descriptions of either Confucianism or Mohism. Mohist impartiality amounts to an abstract, general concern for everyone’s interests, such that we treat others in ways that are appropriate and mutually beneficial given our respective social roles and relations. The idea is that a form of impartial ethical consideration justifies differential attitudes and treatment toward kin, political superiors, other members of the same community or state, and other states and their members. For instance, we are to be filial, or xiào 孝, to kin; loyal, or zhōng 忠, to political superiors; and cooperative and charitable toward fellow community members. As to outsiders, most of the time we merely need to refrain from harming them. Despite other important differences, Mohist and Confucian ethics share a basic structure in which norms of conduct are tied to a paradigmatic set of social roles and relations, most prominently ruler/subject and father/son. Both schools hold that the impartially justified dào is for us to balance several parallel sets of norms governing our conduct toward kin, our sovereign, and “all under heaven.” If we see Confucian ethics as having this kind of role-relational structure, in which we are subject to multiple norms simultaneously, according to the different roles and relations in which we stand, then I don’t think there is even a prima facie conflict between Confucianism and nationalism. Our relation to our sovereign, nation, or community is one of multiple special relations in which we stand, which like the others subjects us to certain norms of conduct.

Section 2 presents three lines of argument for the desirability of Confucian nationalism. I don’t think non-Confucians will find any of them convincing.

The first line of argument is that Confucian nationalism would not be as awful as some other, odious forms of nationalism, such as ethnic or racialist nationalism or what Daniel calls “Legalist” nationalism. (A better label for the latter would be “jingoism” or “bellicose nationalism.” It lacks the core features of Chinese Legalism, such as an emphasis on acting in conformity with explicit standards, enforced by rewards and punishments.) The problem with this argument is that the absence of certain reasons to reject Confucian nationalism doesn’t provide positive reasons to accept it.

The second line of argument is that Confucianism and liberalism have some similar implications, and so a Confucian nation-state would resemble the “open society” that liberals advocate. There are two problems here. The first is that this claim cannot justify Confucian nationalism. To justify a Confucian state this way, we would need to show that it has better implications than viable alternatives, such as liberalism. (We’d also need an account of why these implications are relevant to justifying a political system.) Since this second line of argument takes liberalism as a benchmark, it implicitly acknowledges that Confucian nationalism can’t be better justified than liberalism.

A further problem is that a Confucian nationalist state probably would not have the liberal-like implications Daniel suggests. Obviously, much hangs here on just how we characterize Confucianism. In the paper, Daniel offers only a very thin characterization: Confucianism prizes social life in the physical world (rather than the afterlife or a spiritual realm), concerns how we relate to other people, and holds that the norms for how we treat others are more or less demanding in proportion to their relation to us. I think that to entitle ourselves to the label “Confucian,” we’ve got to provide a considerably richer characterization than this.

Whatever Confucianism is, I suggest that it must be firmly rooted in the classical texts associated with the Rú 儒 tradition. Those texts have a distinctive, perfectionist social and political philosophy. They advocate authoritarian rule by a hierarchy of a self-described moral and cultural elite—the “gentlemen” (jūnzǐ 君子), whom they distinguish from “the people” (mín 民). They downplay rule of law in favor of rule by moral charisma and through moral education aimed at developing personal and social virtues. This education is grounded in a canonical syllabus comprising ritual, history, poetry, music, dance, and perhaps shooting and riding.

This is an authoritarian, hierarchical system committed to promoting a comprehensive conception of the good. By design, such a system will have implications that diverge radically from those of a liberal state. The education system will be different. The mechanisms for policy-making will be different. The role of the people will be different. Consider political speech. It’s true, as Daniel says, that Confucianism calls for officials in certain positions to remonstrate with superiors to prevent policy mistakes. But this is not Millian free speech. The speech in question is highly circumscribed. Only those in certain official posts are expected to speak, and only in certain circumstances. Their speech is not directed to the public, but to their superiors in the hierarchy. The common people are not entitled to speak at all. Their role is more like that of a thermometer, giving general positive or negative indications of how well the elite are running things. And Daniel overlooks the most prominent Confucian doctrine concerning language: the rectification of names (zhèng míng 正名), which calls for government control of the use of words.

The third argument is that Confucianism diverges from liberalism in desirable ways. Daniel’s key examples are that, because a Confucian nationalist state values the welfare of “all under heaven,” its government would more effectively consider the interests of those outside the political community and of future generations. But I don’t see why a Confucian state, with a meritocratic legislature and unequal citizenship, should be expected to be more effective in this regard, nor why a liberal democratic state can’t be expected to consider outsiders’ interests. After all, there are numerous historical examples of liberal democratic states doing just this, the finest being perhaps the Marshall Plan after World War II. Daniel’s argument against a democratic state here is that its leaders are elected to serve the interests of the nation’s current citizens. But this isn’t quite true. The leaders are not elected purely to serve citizens’ interests. They are elected to lead, in whatever way seems appropriate and consistent with liberal democratic values and citizens’ aspirations. And often the interests and aspirations of the nation’s citizens extend to the welfare of outsiders and future generations. For example, many citizens of the United States care deeply about outsiders, even if this care often leads to misguided policies.

The discussion in this part of the paper might rest partly on a category mistake about the grounds for liberal democracy and consequently a false analogy between liberal democracy and Confucian nationalism. The argument is that Confucianism promotes certain values better than liberal democracy does, and therefore a Confucian nation-state would be desirable. The underlying analogy is that, just as the raison d’être of Confucian nationalism is to establish a nation that promotes Confucian values, that of a liberal-democratic nationalism is to promote…something, be it citizens’ interests, liberal values, or the welfare of “all under heaven.” But liberal democracy doesn’t exist to promote anything. Its purpose is to embody—admittedly, not perfectly—certain normative doctrines about the justification of political authority, about who should wield power in political society, and about the extent of that power.

What corresponding doctrines could justify the political authority of a Confucian nation-state? This is a crucial question that the paper leaves largely unaddressed. The Introduction implies that Chinese civil society today faces a crisis of values, which supporters of Confucianism propose to solve by instituting Confucian nationalism as a state ideology. But to justify Confucian nationalism, we would need convincing arguments to show that such a problem indeed exists and is so serious that solving it warrants sweeping constitutional changes; that Confucianism provides the most effective way to solve it; and that the most effective way to implement a Confucian solution is not simply by having Confucians contribute to civic discourse, offering their teachings for others to consider, nor by adopting particular policies to resolve specific problems, perhaps by promulgating shared values, but by institutionalizing Confucianism as the foundation of the nation-state. This is an extremely heavy argumentative burden, one that I doubt advocates of Confucian nationalism can sustain.

Another approach to justifying Confucian nationalism hinted at in Daniel’s paper might be to argue that the Chinese populace is committed to certain traditional values—such as xiào 孝 (filiality) or zhì 治 (social order)—and thus they would support a Confucian state. But this argument is fallacious. Affirming some of the same values that Confucianism affirms is not the same thing as endorsing Confucianism as an ethical and political system. In Chinese culture, such values are shared by many people who identify with different schools of thought, such as Mohism or Daoism, or with no specific school at all. They may provide some of the shared premises for policy deliberation in Chinese politics. But they are not grounds for building Confucianism into the constitutional structure of the state.

Confucianism is an ancient system of thought that developed in social, political, economic, and cultural conditions very different from today’s. The political experiences, expectations, and aspirations of people in China today have been shaped by many factors unique in the country’s history, including the failed experiment with communism; decades of bullying by the Communist Party, with its heavy-handed rhetoric and intrusive control of peoples’ lives; resentment of elite privilege and corruption; awareness and appreciation of other states’ political systems and their citizens’ expectations, including successful states with a similar cultural heritage, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan; technologies of mass communication, including Internet news sites, blogs, Weibo, email, and phone texting; and the increasingly cosmopolitan, self-assertive, and critical attitudes of educated young people. For many people today whose political instincts have been molded by such factors, an institutionalized Confucian nationalism simply isn’t a live option.