A Project for a New Confucian Century
Lead Them with Virtue shows the contemporary political applicability of early Confucian philosophy. Articulating Confucian perspectives on human rights, warfare, world order, and education, it puts forward an interpretation of Confucianism that could be widely and productively adopted. (1) It argues that Confucian-influenced East Asian leaders, in their resistance to Western conceptions of human rights, have provided a compelling moral framework for developing flexible protections for human dignity that respects differences in culture and circumstance. (2) It argues that the early Confucian version of “just war theory” is so strict as that, for all practical purposes, it is akin to pacifism—and that this is a reasonable position. (3) It compares two forms of Confucian world order, a Xunzian globalism and a Mencian international harmony, and argues that the latter is both superior to the former and also provides a compelling vision of world order worthy of serious consideration. (4) It argues that genuine Confucian education involves cultivating personal distinction, not blindly following one’s teacher or uncritically accepting received wisdom as settled truth. (5) It argues for the importance of mechanisms to address the innate selfishness that characterizes the human condition (a fact that Xunzi insists that we recognize). These mechanisms include norms that encourage moral growth, which enable genuinely moral leadership. But, at the same time, properly educated/cultivated individuals have a responsibility to check the all-too-real tendency of leaders to stray from the path.
Chapter-by-Chapter Overview (excerpted from the Introduction)
Chapter 1, “A Brief Overview of Confucianism”
The opening chapter introduces the three principle early Confucian philosophers, Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi, and also seven important Confucian concepts (junzi, de, ren, li, yi, tian, and dao).
Chapter 2, “A Confucian Vision of Human Rights”
This chapter argues that Confucian-influenced East Asian leaders who have resisted the imposition of Western conceptions of human rights have been winning the philosophical debate on the nature of human rights, and have contributed to a more nuanced, flexible, and practical understanding of human rights.
Chapter 3, “The Warrior Mentality and the Classical Chinese Alternative”
This chapter describes two pervasive Western attitudes regarding war. One is a romanticization of violent conflict, involving the idea of war as a duel on a grand scale. The other is a justification of violence in the name of some transcendent principle: war is Good against Evil. The “traditional Chinese attitude toward warfare” is then contrasted with these Western attitudes. Unlike the rest of the book, which is focused specifically on Confucianism, this chapter draws on Daoist sources and the classic Chinese texts on military strategy as well as Confucian texts.
Chapter 4, “Norms and Consequences in Confucian Ethics”
This is a short chapter that serves as a bridge between chapters 3 and 5, both of which deal with the issue of warfare. This chapter discusses the potential tension between the Confucian imperative to act altruistically so as to achieve desirable harmonious consequences and the imperative to act within certain bounds of propriety in doing so. The question is, “Would Confucians condone violence in service of a noble end?” This chapter explains why the answer is “no,” and it thereby sets the stage for consideration of the Confucian perspective on humanitarian military interventions.
Chapter 5, “Would Early Confucians Really Support Humanitarian Intervention?”
This chapter drills down into the Confucian texts Mencius and Xunzi and, in response to recent “just war” interpretations of Confucianism, argues that early Confucians would not support war, in genuinely plausible circumstances, even for cases of (purportedly) humanitarian intervention. If articulated in a “just war theory” framework, the Confucian version of the theory would be so strict that war would be excluded in all realistic scenarios.
Chapter 6, “Competing Visions of Confucian World Order”
This chapter considers two competing interpretations of Confucian world order labeled “Xunzian globalism” and “Mencian international harmony,” arguing for the wisdom of the latter. I juxtapose these two Confucian systems of world order with the Project for a New American Century, which was a neo-Conservative effort to dominate the world by leveraging military strength, and thus achieve American hegemony. A genuinely Confucian project for world order, in contrast, would be an attempt to achieve a harmonious world by means of non-coercive ethical strategies.
Chapter 7, “Confucian Education: Learning to Conform or Cultivating Personal Distinction?”
Education in East Asian is often regarded as emphasizing conformity and memorization, and this has been attributed in some measure to Confucian influence. Though there may be some truth in the stereotype of East Asian education, its link to the educational philosophy of the great early Confucian philosophers is dubious. By contrasting and evaluating two lines of interpretation of early Confucianism, I reveal that much is at stake in subtle differences of interpretation, and suggest that contemporary Confucians ought to follow the more seemingly-enlightened interpretation, which is textually defensible even if the evidence on the whole is less than conclusive.
Chapter 8, “From Human Nature to the Clash of Civilizations”
The jumping off point of this chapter is Xunzi’s theory of human nature—that natural human dispositions are “detestable,” by which he really means “selfish.” This implies the need for systems, or institutions, of some kind to help either develop virtues or at least prevent the pursuit of harmful selfish desires. This is particularly important as it applies to political leaders. Four examples that involve propaganda and deception in order to justify violence are then briefly outlined, followed by a passage from the Analects in which Confucius is confronted with an analogous situation. From this, I draw three lessons for keeping our leaders on the proper path. Finally, I argue that rather than view international tensions as signs of a clash of civilization, we do better to turn again to the “Confucian solution” of seeking to improve ourselves, rather than correct the “other,” and to hold our own leaders in check when sabers begin rattling.
Appendix: “A Confucian Reading of the Parable of the Sower”
As the title suggests, this is a reading of the biblical “Parable of the Sower” from a Confucian perspective, juxtaposing it with Confucian passages of which it is reminiscent. The ultimate message is this: we are not victims of fate, like randomly scattered seeds. Rather, we have the power to influence the environment that in turn influences us. In other words, we are responsible for the fertility of the ground in which we find ourselves. Upon hearing of the way, and taking it to heart, we can take steps that will broaden the way for ourselves and for others alike.
Other books on Confucian Political Philosophy:
China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom
by Tongdong Bai. See my review of this book here.
Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power
by Yan Xuetong
Confucian Political Ethics
edited by Daniel A. Bell