#58 Event Report – A Confucian World Order?
Roger AMES, academic director of Berggruen Institute’s Philosophy and Culture Centre, Humanities Chair Professor at Peking University
ZHAO Tingyang 赵汀阳, philosopher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
We live in the best of times and in the worst of times. Echoing Dickens’ famed line from “A Tale of Two Cities”, Professor Roger Ames provoked the crowd that flocked to the already famous The Bridge Café, in Wudaokou, to start the new season of ThinkIN China with our monthly event. Indeed, we have seen many profound advances in technology aimed at solving issues such as world hunger. That being said, humanity hasn’t effectively address the issue, mainly due to a lack of will, be it political, moral, or ethical. These issues culminate in what Professor Ames calls “the perfect storm”, a series of issues that, if not entirely human-made, are still exacerbated by humanity. Their outcome is zero-sum: either we work to win together or we lose together. This would be how an infinite game works, without a beginning or an end, as is life. This is also how relations function within a family, which is strengthened in communion through the process of solving problems together.
It’s clear that we are living in a changing world, and we – as humanity, operating within both international and national institutions – have extensively debated the economic order we live under. However, we rarely debate the changes in our cultural order. There is a great asymmetry between Chinese and Western culture; this is easily seen in the discrepancy between available Chinese philosophical classics as opposed to western ones. While there is an extensive number of works published in Chinese by Aristotle and Plato (a testament to the Chinese readership demanding this knowledge), the same cannot be said for Chinese classics. As Ames suggested, “the best minds of China are not available in English translation,” and, most unfortunately, there is no existing readership driving up the demand.
We must consider the reasons behind this lack of demand or interest. For Ames, the likeliest explanation comes from the historical roots of philosophical exchange. Chinese thought was introduced into the Western academy through missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Confucianism was deemed second-rate to Christianity. In addition, this period of great transition witnessed the arrival of modernity to Asia (in the western sense of the term). The Industrial Revolution began and development became imminent. Modernity had become a popular set of ideas, institutions, and ambitions that, vis-a-vis Japan, was introducing a new vernacular to Asian languages. With this context in mind, it is clear why Confucianism (or ruxue) was left out of the debate.
Nonetheless, Confucianism can still teach us about the world order. We can start by analyzing ruxue itself, which contains multiple meanings. We can find the Confucian value of aspiring to be exemplary not by looking for new paths, but through learning from various experiences and narratives. To live by Confucian ideas, professor Ames reminds us, is to consider “what to do?” in different situations, such as by considering how another is experiencing a situation; that is, “putting oneself in another’s shoes”. Understanding someone is only possible when we consider his or her narrative, where he or she has been, and where he or she is going. Doing so reminds us of the dao. Usually translated as “the way”, this character in ancient bamboo strips and bronze can also be read as “our narrative”.
So, what can a critical, progressive, evolutionary, and prospective Confucianism contribute to the changing world cultural order? Confucianism offers a human-centric religiousness, not a God-centric one. To draw meaning from this, professor Ames argues we must refuse the idea that modernity equals Westernization. The moment when China met western nations was not the inflection point toward modernity.
Confucianism can provide an ethical perspective. For Professor Ames, it poses a telling critique of both individualism and the idea of “winners and losers” that is prevalent in Western discourse. Admittedly, individualism was liberating and benign for a period of time; now it has become an argument for being individualistic, thus abandoning communal life. As we are one people, we can only flourish as a human being through maintaining and improving our relationships. Everything we do is through association. The Confucian tradition highlights the role of ethics as well as the importance of fulfilling our respective social roles; that is, who we are as a mother, teacher, daughter, and so forth.
The narratives of our lives are consisted of the paths we’ve followed, the roles we had and have, and where we want to go. Professor Zhao Tingyang reminded us that Chinese doctrine does not identify something or someone as bad or good, wrong or right in itself or himself. Moreover, attitudes are not ascribed a positive or negative valence, but are considered within the context of a specific role or relationship. This reflects a fundamental difference between Confucian and western values.
Confucianism perceives a more hybrid and inclusive model of cultural change (“Genghis Khan was the other and then he became one of us”, suggested Professor Ames). This coincides with the concept of Tianxia, as presented by Professor Zhao. The popular translation of the word is “all under heaven”, but one of the beauties of translation is the complexity of the meaning of words. Tianxia is a concept based on three foundations: a trinity made of the physical world, the people’s heart, and the political constitution. A world more than the world. Not all scholars agree on the equal significance of these three foundations. However, the general concept is that the political should be justified by the ethical and the ethical should be justified by the political; this creates a mutually supporting and reinforcing circle.
Professor Zhao argues the “all under heaven” theory implies the internalization of the world, thus making it all-inclusive. The best way of creating an all-inclusive system is to reduce the externalities in order to make the world as one. The second idea embedded in the concept is that we need a relational rationality, an alternative concept to individual rationality as claimed in the rational choice theory. The individual rational choices limit a collective rational choice, and thus curb the creation of a collective rationality. Relational rationality in terms of the minimization of mutual hurt is argued to have the priority over the individual rationality in pursuit of the maximization of self-interest, so it diminishes the importance of self-help and individual rational choice.
Professor Zhao’s final provocation considers the problems proposed by Roger Ames as solvable by technology in the future. Humanity’s greatest challenge in the future is the control of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) system over humanity, where our need for a collective mind, rather than an atomized and individual one is even more important. AI offers the possibility of change. In the Chinese tradition, changes are supposed to be good things, so long as people are flexible. The impacts of AI on the family will be great, as the family structure will probably disappear. In general, what will disappear and what will remain is a question open to debate. New, disruptive and transformative technologies, such as Professor Ames reminds us with fire (it can make tools, but also bombs) are not only a one-way street.
Our famous Q&A brought several questions from the audience, where micro and macro issues were debated. If we consider Confucianism, where family is of greater importance, as inspiring the Chinese leadership, then does it follow that China will be a threat to those that are not family? Professor Ames refutes this notion, because the Chinese tradition is not one of forcing projection toward the outside, but only to its border. Overall, the governing metaphor in the Confucian thinking are our relationships, and the extent to which we flourish reflects how much we work on them. Our lives are fundamentally hierarchical, as is a family, but hierarchy is not a problem – coercion is. Professor Zhao added that Confucianism encourages the responsibility we have of being respectful to those below us.
The paradox here is that if everything is included in our understanding of family, then how do we define and treat a stranger? “We need a ruxue that is progressive”, says Professor Ames. Confucianism cannot address all the problems of the world, but it should be included in discussions on solving global problems. Confucianism offers important lessons on community and interdependence, a contentious issue we face today, particularly as social and individual rights are pitted against one another. A recent study made by a Western institute affirms Chinese citizens are not willing to be very generous to other people, thus questioning the applicability of these principles in everyday life. Isn’t this a sign that the Chinese themselves have abandoned Confucian values? “The future of China has to be rooted in the Chinese past,” suggests Professor Ames, a sentence that brings to the fore the role of ancient values in guiding a changing society. SIgnificantly, the history of China is one of hybridity, where many times generosity has simply been the absence of violence. Perhaps our framework for analyzing China has been wrong because we have applied a non-Confucian mindset to reach particular conclusions.
Finally, what is the balance we, as individuals, can find in a Confucian world order? For Professor Ames, there are a lot of things from individualism that are useful, such as privacy. However, life is made of trade-offs and compromise. When we highlight the importance of our relationships, it does not follow that we abandon our individuality. Rather, it means that we hold in high regard our social roles and relationships. This notion can be expanded and applied beyond interpersonal relations. The best kind of governance is not through collecting a lot of individuals, but rather considering the individuality of each person and guaranteeing they receive what they need. In so doing, we can ask them to give back to the group.
Written by Julia Rosa