Confucianism's Piety Problem

Habi Zhang and James Dominic Rooney have given us a fascinating debate about the nature of Confucianism: does it tend inevitably toward the authoritarian political outcomes that characterize China’s political history, or, is it philosophically consonant with Western ideas of natural law and therefore capable of supporting a political order based on natural rights and liberal political institutions?

Citing the Classic of Filial Piety (孝經, 2nd century BC), Zhang argues that “Confucian man does not presume to own his own body. He only assumes his personhood through integrating himself into the family line.” Therefore, Confucianism and Chinese society tend toward the “social facts in China,” which are “obedience and uniformity, not freedom and individuality as in the West.” 

Citing nineteenth-century “Progressive Confucians” and the scholar-diplomat Hu Shih (胡適1891-1962), Rooney argues that Confucianism is a natural law philosophy like that found in Cicero, Aristotle, and Aquinas. He concludes, contrary to Zhang, that Confucianism does “recognize that the open society, supported by liberal institutions and norms, instantiates those true moral norms represented by equality, dignity, and human rights.”

There is some truth in both positions. Confucianism does indeed emphasize the moral purpose and the limitations of government, and asserts a vision of human nature that displays some characteristics akin to ideas of natural law in the West. At the same time, Confucian thought originates in what Confucius (孔子 551-479 BC) saw as his mission, the restoration of China’s ancient and crumbling feudal order. At the heart of the feudal order was a social and political hierarchy that demanded obedience and submission to authority.

Foremost is the crucial issue of authority—what is Confucius’ ultimate source of authority and what does that source tell us about political authority? The answer is Heaven 天. Confucius’ relationship with the divine is twofold. First, understanding Heaven and conforming to its will is the very purpose of the good and flourishing human life, and this became the project of his whole life. Second, Confucius saw himself as Heaven’s agent or prophet. He tells his disciples “Heaven has endowed me with virtue,” and is using him to restore the Way on earth. He claims that since the death of King Wen 文王, six centuries before his own time, Heaven is preserving the culture of the Way in him, in the prophetic figure of Confucius himself, whose mission is the restoration of King Wen’s model.

King Wen represents the last of a series of figures Confucius and Mencius (孟子 372-289 BC) considered to be “sage-kings” from antiquity, who were ideal kings because they modeled Heaven’s political culture in human society. “Heaven is great and King Yao took Heaven as his pattern,” Confucius tells his disciples. Confucius envisions a Heavenly Way that acts in history through an ideal kingship that is explicitly moral. The ancient Kings Shun 舜 and Tang 湯 appointed the best men of their times as ministers and chased the “unbenevolent” 不仁者 away. So, the purpose of political authority, the purpose of the Way, is a benevolent society.

Although the possession of benevolence may be the same for all, it is cultivated not in a state of democratic equality, but rather in a hierarchy of social position and status.

Benevolence is the basis in Confucianism for an idea of a universal human nature. Confucius says that benevolence is not distant; one must merely desire it to have it, suggesting thereby that benevolence is natural to the human constitution. For Mencius, benevolence is intrinsic to the very definition of what it means to be human. “One who lacks a heart that feels pity and distress [at the sufferings of others] is not human… A heart that feels pity and distress [at the sufferings of others] is the origin of benevolence.” For Mencius all are equal in that all human beings possess at least the beginning seeds of benevolence. For Mencius, as for Confucius, the purpose of political authority is a benevolent society ruled by what Mencius calls “benevolent government” 仁政: “In the Way of Yao and Shun, if they had not employed benevolent government, they would not have succeeded in bringing peaceful order to the world.”

This concept of benevolence as inherent in the human constitution, and as the basis of government, comes in some ways quite close, as Rooney argues, to certain ideas of natural law in the Western tradition. The problem, as Zhang implies, is hierarchy. Although the possession of benevolence may be the same for all, it is cultivated not in a state of democratic equality, but rather in a hierarchy of social position and status. Thus, the operational meaning of benevolence is actually not the same for all people. Benevolence, though natural, must be cultivated into full fruition from the seeds of the heart. This is first accomplished in the family and then in public service, leading finally to the political ideal of a benevolent society. As one of Confucius’ disciples puts it:

Cases in which one conducts himself with filial and fraternal piety, and yet is fond of offending his superiors are nearly nonexistent; there has never been a case in which one who dislikes offending his superiors is also fond of fomenting rebellions. The Gentleman devotes himself to the root. Once the root is established the Way grows from it. Filial and fraternal piety – these are the roots of benevolence!

The cultivation of benevolence is a discipline of subordination of the self to one’s superiors in all cases: son to father, younger to older brother, subject to ruler. It is the outcome of the practice of family piety – xiao 孝. Benevolence is defined and practiced differently according to family, social and political position, according to the obligations of xiao.  

Rooney equates Confucian xiao with pietas as conceived in Cicero and Aquinas, and argues that “[n]atural law politics in the West rested on assumptions largely shared by the Confucians.” But there are crucial differences between xiao and pietas. Consider the case of Aquinas. His concept of pietas is similar to xiao in that it recognizes obligations due to family and social position. But pietas does not define the self; xiao does. In Aquinas all people are equal before God as beings created in the image of God. Pietas points to a higher, ultimate, good as the basis of a self that transcends society. 

For Confucius and Mencius, xiao points to the greater good of a harmonious society, not to Heaven itself. The individual does not possess equality as a being created in Heaven’s image, but rather as a person endowed equally with the capacity for benevolence, not a universal benevolence but an operational benevolence defined in the context of a divine ritual 禮 order ordained by Heaven and embedded in social-political hierarchy. Benevolence is achieved by conquering the self and submitting to the imperatives of ritually determined social and political roles that begin for the individual in the practice of xiao. Each person subordinates the self to his superior in a form of communal yielding and deference, the social subjection of the self as an integral part of a divinely mandated moral order. One’s privileges and obligations are determined by one’s place in the ritual order.

Rooney correctly argues that Christianity in its earliest expressions accepted social hierarchies. Paul in his Letter to Philemon “did not dream of an end to slavery.” But in Galatians those inequalities of social position in the fallen world are rendered meaningless: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This equality under God makes natural law and natural rights possible. For the Confucians, Heaven’s order is to be realized on earth, in history, by the restoration of an ancient ritual order that conceives inequality as the foundation of social and political harmony. Heaven’s order does not annihilate distinctions; it mandates them.

Rooney’s natural law argument leads to his political argument: the development in the West of the natural law tradition gave rise to the idea of natural rights “that undergirds democratic and liberal forms of government,” and furthermore, that these “natural law commitments mirror, in all relevant respects, the Confucian tradition. Ergo, Confucians could follow the same path that natural law thinkers have already trodden.” 

This point has two aspects, natural rights and liberal forms of government. 

On the point of natural rights, as we have seen, the Confucian mirror reflects a distorted image of Western natural law, at best, and therefore could not lead to the same or similar outcomes as in the West. The natural rights tradition, as developed by Rousseau, Locke, and Jefferson, posits a primal state of nature in which each individual possesses complete self-sovereignty and equal rights with all other individuals. As civilization forms, some rights are given up to social and political authorities for the sake of civic life and peace. Other rights are unalienable as endowed by Nature and Nature’s God, as Jefferson famously phrased it in the Declaration of Independence. Government is established but the people remain sovereign.

Something akin to this idea, without the social contract theory, is to be found in Chinese philosophy, but not in Confucianism. The Taoist 道家 philosopher Zhuangzi 莊子 (c. 286 BC) envisions an ancient golden age before the development of civilization, a state of nature, in which the individual was autonomous and self-sovereign, and in which there were no social or political distinctions. These came with the introduction of what the Confucians call the “human relations” 人倫, father and son, ruler and subject, husband and wife, the old and the young, and friendship. All of these, with the possible exception of friendship, are hierarchical and unequal. Thus, for Zhuangzi they represent a corruption of original human nature and a form of bondage. For Mencius these relations and their proper inculcation in the education of the population are essential to the realization of the good and flourishing society under Heaven. In Confucianism, one’s endowments from nature are determined by the relationships of ritual hierarchy, not by natural autonomy or right.

This dependence on the vagaries of personal ethics was a key weakness ruthlessly exploited by the Legalist 法家 critics of the Confucian school, who argued for an institutional system of despotic, nearly totalitarian, laws.

Consequently, liberal government is antithetical to the Confucian ideal of benevolent government. In Mencius, the happiness of the people is the measure of good government. But the people are not sovereign. Only a king is sovereign and conformity with Heaven’s ritual order is the responsibility of an educated political and economic elite, which is charged with the duty of acting as parents to the people, who in turn are obliged to submit.

How to maintain the ethical quality of the elite is one of the central problems addressed in Confucian thought, a large part of which was devoted to the establishment of a moral culture that would ensure the longevity of the Way in history, and thus the continuing benevolence and, ultimately, the stability of the state. But both Confucius and Mencius were keenly aware of the nearly Quixotic nature of the enterprise. Confucius himself complained that, while all people had the capacity to practice benevolence, few in his experience chose to do so. Thus, the Way would be active in certain times and places and inactive in others, as he teaches his disciples:

Do not enter a dangerous state and do not live in a state suffering rebellion. When the Way prevails in the world you must make yourselves visible and when the Way does not prevail, you must go into hiding. 

The Confucian is useful in government only when the Way is present. And this depends on the ethical tenor of the times. For both philosophers, the ethical condition of the world had already been in decline for centuries. As Confucius says in the quote above, the Way had been absent since the death of King Wen; that is, for nearly 600 years. Confucius asserts that the political authorities of his own day failed to rise even to the lowest standards of ethical conduct. 

This dependence on the vagaries of personal ethics was a key weakness ruthlessly exploited by the Legalist 法家 critics of the Confucian school, who argued for an institutional system of despotic, nearly totalitarian, laws designed to enforce moral norms and political obedience by means of rewards and punishments. It was a synthesis begun early in the Han dynasty (漢 206 BC-220 AD) by thinkers such as Jia Yi 賈誼 (200 BC – 169 BC) that combined Confucian moral philosophy with Legalist government and legal institutions that gave rise to the autocratic Confucianism that reigned in China for two thousand years. For Zhang, this was inevitable. Rooney asserts that the Legalist institutional foundations of a modern state Confucianism could be replaced with a system that, though not classically liberal, would not be authoritarian. 

Given the Confucian idea of hierarchy, such a system would apply to the ruling elite alone in its capacity as the parents of the people. It is the elite that would be required to solve the problem posed by Madison in Federalist 51: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

As The Federalist argues, the crucial factor for a liberal outcome is coequal branches of government that can check and balance each other, run by citizens possessing equality under the law. But in the Confucian conception, the elite itself is also stratified, not comprising a cohort of equal citizens, but rather a feudal body politic that relies on deference of inferior to superior. This guarantees at least an illiberal outcome, if not outright despotism within the elite itself. Has there ever existed a political system run by a despotic elite that was not equally despotic toward the people it governed?