Friday, June 04, 2010

The Confucian Way (4): Confucian Libertarianism?

For those of us shaped by Western cultural traditions, it's important to study Eastern traditions, because it forces us to consider whether our way of thinking is peculiar to the West, or whether it can account for Eastern experience as well.

So, for example, while libertarian individualism has deep roots in Western history, some people argue that this tradition of thought is so peculiarly Western that it has no application to the East. We can see this in the popular claim that the "Asian values" of communitarian authority are opposed to the "Western values" of individual liberty, and therefore to invoke Western notions of liberty and rights in judging Eastern moral and political practices is an arbitrary imposition of Western culture on the East. Moreover, it is sometimes suggested, Eastern communitarianism might actually be morally superior to Western individualism.

This can be confusing. On the one hand, the critics of the West sometimes seem to be claiming cultural relativism, by which no cultural tradition can be judged by comparison with another. On the other hand, these critics sometimes seem to be claiming the superiority of Eastern traditions, which assumes there is some universal standard for judging some traditions superior to others.

Most libertarians want to argue that the goodness of individual liberty--in economics, politics, and morality--is universally applicable to all human beings everywhere throughout history, and therefore it should be recognizable in all cultural traditions. For that reason, some libertarians have looked for libertarian thinking in ancient Chinese thought. Murray Rothbard and David Boaz have claimed that the first libertarian was the founder of Taoism--Laozi (Lao-tzu), the author of Daodejing (Tao Te Ching. In fact, one can find in Laozi's writing and in the writing of other Taoists the idea that good human order arises best through spontaneous order, free from the evils of governmental coercion and central planning.

But I am persuaded by the reasoning of Roderick Long, a philosophy professor at Auburn University, who shows how the Confucians are better libertarians than the Taoists. Long agrees with Rothbard and Boaz that the key idea is spontaneous order, and he agrees that the Taoists did have some understanding of spontaneous order. But he shows that the Confucians had a better understanding of how spontaneous order could support the moral, economic, political, and intellectual progress of humanity in moving towards what Friedrich Hayek called "the great society of free men."

Spontaneous order refers to an ordered pattern that emerges without being the product of anyone's deliberate design, but only as an unplanned outcome of the mutual adjustment of its parts. For example, language is a spontaneous order, because a language emerges from an evolutionary history of linguistic practice in which every individual speaker or writer can have some influence, but the order of the language at any one point in time is not the product of anyone's deliberate design. Similarly, all enduring social practices--such as law, economics, morality, and religion--arise as evolutionary spontaneous orders. To try to replace such evolved spontaneous orders with deliberately planned orders under the power of a few human planners is both inefficient (because human knowledge is limited) and tyrannical (because human virtue is limited).

The attraction that Lao-tzu has for libertarians is clear. For instance, the following quotation from Lao-tzu is the epigram for the Epilogue of Rasmussen and Den Uyl's Norms of Liberty (p. 340):

"If I keep from meddling with people, they take care of themselves,
"If I keep from commanding people, they behave themselves,
"If I keep from preaching at people, they improve themselves,
"If I keep from imposing on people, they become themselves."

But as Long indicates, Lao-tzu and the Taoists were primitivists who believed that the only way to avoid commanding people or imposing on them was to return to a primitive life without government, commerce, or any of the moral and intellectual development that comes from civilization. Rothbard acknowledges this point when he speaks of the Taoists as teaching "withdrawal from society and the world." Rothbard suggests, however, that Lao-tzu taught this not as a principle, "but as the only strategy that in his despair seemed open to him," because "it was hopeless to try to disentangle society from the oppressive coils of the State." Against this defense of the Taoists as true libertarians, Long rightly argues that the Confucians were able to see the compatibility of liberty and civilization through combining a free society with limited government.

My contribution to Long's argument is to suggest how Darwinian evolutionary science supports this Confucian libertarianism by explaining social order as the evolutionary joint product of natural desires, cultural traditions, and individual judgments.

In doing this, I correct a big mistake in Hayek's explanation of spontaneous order. As I have indicated in Darwinian Conservatism (20-26), Hayek insists that "what has made men good is neither nature nor reason but tradition." I agree with him in rejecting the simple dichotomy between nature and reason as the only two sources of social and moral order, because this ignores the place of custom or habit as that which comes "between instinct and reason." But he is mistaken in so elevating customary tradition over nature and reason that tradition becomes the only source of morality and social order for human beings.

From a Darwinian point of view, human social order arises from both spontaneous order and deliberate order. It arises from the complex interaction of two kinds of spontaneous order--human nature and human tradition--and the deliberate order of human judgment. Human nature is a spontaneous order, because it has arisen through genetic evolution by natural selection, in which complex order emerges without a designer. Human tradition is a spontaneous order, because the customs of social life develop over history through an evolutionary process of random variation and selective retention to create complex traditions of social practice that have not been intentionally designed. Human judgment can be a source of deliberate order, because the human capacity for deliberating about present actions in the light of past experience and future expectations allows human beings to deliberately choose courses of action designed to satisfy their desires. Social biology broadly conceived encompasses all three sources of social order--human nature, human tradition, and human judgment.

The Confucians see the importance of all three. They agree with Hayek in stressing the importance of tradition--the customary, ritualistic norms of behavior--for the spontaneous order of society. Long rightly emphasizes this agreement in making his argument for the Confucians as Hayekian libertarians. But the Confucians also see that cultural traditions presuppose, and are constrained by, the innate propensities of human nature, and they also see that human beings must exercise prudential judgment in deciding what should be done in particular cases, although this judgment is constrained by both nature and tradition.

Mencius is famous for teaching that human nature is good. What he means by this is not that all human beings are always good, which would be a silly claim, but that the development of the human good is the fulfillment of natural emotional propensities for compassion, indignation, respect, and social approval (3A1, 6A6). So, for example, someone seeing a child about to fall into a well would immediately feel sympathetic concern for the child and would want to protect the child from harm (2A6).

Human nature is not a matter of deterministic necessities that always occur regardless of the circumstances, but of innate propensities that generally occur in suitable circumstances. For Mencius, the "nature" (xing) of something is what it becomes when it matures in a healthy environment (4B26, 6A1-8, 7A21, 7B24). Cultivating moral virtue is like a farmer cultivating the growth of his sprouts. It would be foolish for the farmer to pull on his sprouts to make then grow. But it would be just as foolish for the farmer not to water or weed his sprouts. Nature must be nurtured according to its inborn inclinations (2A2).

I have argued for "Darwinian natural right," based on the claim that the good is the desirable, and that there are at least twenty natural desires rooted in evolved human nature. The Confucians show a similar line of thought when they explain moral norms as providing the orderly satisfaction of natural desires. For example, Xunzi writes:

"From what did ritual arise? I say: Humans are born having desires. When they have desires but do not get the objects of their desires, then they cannot but seek some means of satisfaction. If thee is no measure or limit to their seeking, they they cannot help but struggle with each other. If they struggle with each other, then there will be chaos, and if there is chaos, then they will be impoverished. The former kings hated such chaos, and so they established rituals and the standards of righteousness in order to allot things to people, to nurture their desires, and to satisfy their seeking. They caused desires never to exhaust material goods, and material goods never to be depleted by desires, so that the two support each other and prosper. This is how ritual arose." (chap. 19)

So while "rituals" (li)--formalized behavior of ceremonial performances for funerals, music, dance, and matters of etiquette--are artificial, they arose as a way of expressing and channelling natural desires to show respect for others. The rituals for burying and mourning the dead illustrate this. Mencius observes:

"Now, in past ages, there were those who did not bury their parents. When their parents died, they took them and abandoned them in a gulley. The next day they passed by them, and foxes were eating them, bugs were sucking on them. Sweat broke out on the survivors' foreheads. they turned away and did not look. It was not for the sake of others that they sweated. What was inside their hearts broke through to their countenances. So they went home and, returning with baskets and shovels, covered them. If covering them was really right, then the manner in which filial children and benevolent people cover their parents must also be part of the Way" (3A5.4).

The rituals for children burying their parents are formalized refinements of their natural emotional responses. Similarly, as Confucius argued, the socially prescribed period for mourning the death of parents is a customary expression of natural emotions that arise from the natural bond between parent and child, which is rooted in the biological dependence of children on parental care (Analects, 17.21). As I have indicated in a previous post, this conforms to Darwin's thought that the natural social instincts of human beings are ultimately grounded in parental care and filial affections.

Darwin thought that the extension of social concern beyond one's immediate family came through sympathy--the capacity and inclination to share the feelings of others. Adam Smith saw sympathy as the natural ground of moral sentiments. Darwin adopted this idea and sought to explain its evolutionary roots. He saw the extension of sympathy and moral concern to ever wider circles of human beings as the natural ground for the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you--which he regarded as "the foundation of morality." Recent research in Darwinian moral psychology and neuroscience shows the moral importance of sympathy or empathy and how this seems to be rooted in "mirror neurons" and other neural mechanisms for sharing the experiences of others.

The same kind of thought was expressed by Confucius when he was asked whether there was one word that could be the guide for one's entire life. "Is it not 'understanding' (shu)? Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire" (Analects, 15.24). The Chinese term shu refers to a character with components meaning "comparing" (ru) and "heart or mind" (xin). So it can be variously translated as "likening to oneself," "putting oneself in another's place," "sympathetic understanding," or "reciprocity." As Confucius indicates, this naturally supports the principle of the Golden Rule.

Although the Golden Rule was first formulated by the ancient Chinese philosophers, they disagreed about what it required. Some of them understood the Golden Rule as requiring universal love that would be utterly impartial. So Laozi taught:

"I am good to those who are good;
"I also am good to those who are not good;
"This is to be good out of Virtue.
"I trust the trustworthy;
"I also trust the untrustworthy.
"This is to trust out of virtue or kindness (de)" (chap. 49).

"No matter how great or small, many or few,
"Repay injury with virtue or kindness" (chap. 63).

Confucius disagreed. When he was asked what he thought of the saying, "Repay injury with kindness," Confucius answered: "With what, then, would one repay kindness? Repay injury with uprightness, and kindness with kindness" (Analects, 14.34). The Confucian version of the Golden Rule teaches a discriminate reciprocity that rewards kindness and punishes injury. An indiscriminate love that would reward harmful behavior would promote social disorder. It would seem, then, that Confucius would reject the teaching of Jesus about loving one's enemies as contrary to the natural conditions for social order.

Similarly, Confucius and Mencius reject the idea that human beings should love all human beings equally, because they see this as contrary to human nature in denying the natural human disposition to love one's family and those close to one more strongly than strangers.

This natural disposition to discriminate reciprocity--returning good for good and injury for injury--is also expressed in the natural inclination of people to rebel against unjust rulers by refusing to fight for them, by fighting against them, by assassinating them, or by running away to another state. Human beings are naturally inclined to resist exploitation by tyrannical rulers (Analects, 13.15; Mencius, 1B8, 4A2, 5A5, 5B9). As Long indicates, this supports the libertarian principle that governments must compete for popular support by satisfying the natural human desires.

Within the broad constraints set by human nature, different societies generate different cultural traditions. The capacity for moral experience is innate in human nature, but this natural moral propensity must be cultivated by moral traditions transmitted through family life and social life generally. The Confucian philosophers stressed the importance of observing the ancient traditional practices inherited from one's ancestors as essential for preserving the moral order of society. Darwin made the same point in arguing that moral progress came mostly from cultural evolution working through habituation, imitation, and the sensitivity of individuals to social approbation and disapprobation.

Some of the defenders of "Asian values" against Western individualism argue that the great fault of individualism is in failing to appreciate the communitarian authority of social traditions. But as Long rightly indicates, this is a false conception of individualism. After all, Hayek defends the "true individualism" that recognizes that a free society is impossible without family life and social groups organized by common conventions and traditions. Without such inherited traditions of moral life to provide rules for social life, we would have to rely on governmental coercion. In a free society that minimizes coercion, most of the social coordination of human activity arises from the spontaneous order of traditional social norms (Hayek, "Individualism: True and False").

Hayek identifies this insight with "the British evolutionary tradition."

"To the empiricist evolutionary tradition, . . . the value of freedom consists mainly in the opportunity it provides for the growth of the undesigned, and the beneficial functioning of a free society rests largely on the existence of such freely grown institutions. There probably never has existed a genuine belief in freedom, and there has certainly been no successful attempt to operate a free society, without a genuine reverence for grown institutions, for customs and habits and 'all those securities of liberty which arise from regulation of long prescription and ancient ways.' Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society" (The Constitution of Liberty, 61).

Although Hayek identified himself as a classical liberal rather than a conservative, and although Long contrasts Hayek's libertarianism to conservatism, one can see here that Hayek's libertarian liberalism was compatible with traditionalist conservatism, because he saw that Burkean evolutionary traditionalism was essential for a free society. (This corresponds to the Aristotelian liberalism of Rasmussen and Den Uyl and the conservative fusionism of Frank Meyer.) Moreover, this Hayekian insight that a "free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society" supports the idea of a Confucian libertarianism.

Hayek and other libertarians believe that part of the evolving traditional order of a free society is the spontaneous economic order of free markets. But one might object here that surely Confucian thought cannot be understood as compatible with libertarian economics, because the Confucians were often scornful of commercial life. But as Long shows, some of the Confucians saw the value of commerce and free markets as necessary for the kind of civilized life that would satisfy human natural desires, and they often argued for low tax rates (around 10%) to foster productive economic activity.

Confucius criticized one of his students, Zigong, for going into business speculation (Analects 11.19). But later, Sima Qian, in his history of the Han dynasty, disagreed with Confucius. Sima wrote a chapter on "The Biographies of the Money-Makers" that defended Zigong and those like him. He pointed out that Zigong's well-earned wealth allowed him to spread Confucius' teaching. And he praised the laissez-faire policies of the Han dynasty as promoting commercial activity in ways that satisfied the human needs of a civilized society. He wrote:

"The region west of the mountains is rich in timber, bamboo, paper mulberry, hemp, oxtails for banner tassels, jade and other precious stones. That east of the mountains abounds in fish, salt, lacquer, silk, singers, and beautiful women. The area south of the Yangtze produces camphor wood, catalpa, ginger, cinnamon, gold, tin, lead ore, cinnabar, rhinoceros horns,tortoise shell, pearls of various shapes, and elephant tusks and hides, while that north of Longmen and Jieshi is rich in horses, cattle, sheep, felt, furs, tendons, and horns. Mountains from which copper and iron can be extracted are found scattered here and there over thousands of miles of the empire, like chessmen on a board. In general, these are the products of the empire. All of them are commodities coveted by the people of China, who according to their various customs use them for their bedding, clothing, food, and drink, fashioning from them the goods needed to supply the living and bury the dead."

"Society obviously must have farmers before it can eat; foresters, fishermen, miners, etc., before it can make use of natural resources; craftsmen before it can have manufactured goods; and merchants before they can be distributed. But once these exist, what need is there for government directives, mobilization of labor, or periodic assemblies? Each man has only to be left to utilize his own abilities and exert his strength to obtain what he wishes. Thus, when a commodity is very cheap, it invites a rise in price, when it is very expensive, it invites a reduction. When each person works only away at his own occupation and delights in his own business, then, like water flowing downward, goods will naturally flow forth ceaselessly day and night without having been summoned, and the people will produce commodities without having been asked. Does this not tally with reason? Is it not a natural result?" (Shi ji, 129).

Thus, the traditional order of a free society allows for a spontaneous order of economic activity emerging through free exchange, prices, and a division of labor.

Within the constraints of human nature and human tradition, human beings must exercise judgment whenever they decide to reform an existing tradition of rules, or whenever they must decide what to do in particular cases where the existing rules don't properly cover the cases. While the Confucians condemn innovations in customary practices that attempt to reconstruct social practices from the ground up, they recognize the wisdom in exercising prudential judgment that reforms a tradition from within the tradition itself. Moreover, judging what should be done in exceptional circumstances where general rules are inadequate requires "discretion" (quan) (Analects, 9.3; Mencius, 4A17, 6B1, 7A26).

Hayek recognizes the need for discretionary or prudential judgment when he speaks of how we can rightly criticize customary rules. "All valid criticism or improvement of rules of conduct must proceed within a given system of such rules." This is what he calls "immanent criticism." He observes: "It may at first seem puzzling that something that is the product of tradition should be capable of both being the object and the standard of criticism. But we do not maintain that all tradition as such is sacred and exempt from criticism, but merly that the basis of criticism of any one product of tradition must always be other products of tradition which we either cannot or do not want to question; in other words, that particular aspects of a culture can be critically examined only within the context of that culture. . . . we can always only tinker with parts of a given whole but never entirely redesign it" (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 2, pp. 24-25).

Hayek's idea of the "immanent criticism" of a tradition is obviously very close to C. S. Lewis's idea about how any criticism of the Tao must be from within the Tao itself. While I accept this idea, I would add that our criticism of a tradition can appeal to human nature, so that we can judge a tradition by whether it satisfies or frustrates a natural human desire. So, for example, as the Confucians suggest, we can judge the traditional practices of burial and mourning the dead as to how well they express and channel our natural emotions of bereavement. This appeal to human nature is sometimes ignored in Hayek's writing when he appears to fall into a simple cultural relativism free from any natural standards.

Hayek can't be a simple cultural relativist in so far as he believes that classical liberalism, with its devotion to a free society, is best adapted to human flourishing. Hayek's whole life as a scholar arguing for classical liberalism manifested his conviction that "it is ideas and therefore the men who give currency to new ideas that govern evolution" (The Constitution of Liberty, 112).

Great thinkers exercise their judgment in formulating and promoting ideas that can gradually spread through society in a way that influences the cultural evolution of social tradition. Confucius and his students did this in initiating a Confucian tradition of thought in Asia. Hayek and other classical liberal scholars have done this in advancing a liberal tradition of thought that has influenced cultural evolution around the world.

During most of the twentieth century, it seemed that the ideas of classical liberalism were being defeated by the ideas of socialism and statist liberalism. By the end of the century, it seemed that those classical liberal ideas were gaining influence throughout the world. Now, it seems that the cultural evolution of ideas is moving back again in favor of central planning and statist coercion. But if the classical liberal ideas of the free society really do conform to our natural human desires for liberty and virtue, then those ideas will never lose their appeal to the human mind and heart.


Troy Camplin said...

Amen on that last statement. You might be interested in some of my thoughts on Hayek's idea of the spontaneous order in my article The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts. I modified some of Hayek's ideas in a similar fashion there and in my article Bridging Hayek to Hayek, on pg. 3 of the link.

Larry Arnhart said...

There are some comments on Roderick Long's blog

Mopenhauer said...

It seems that Confucian conservative communitarianism is an almost perfect match for J. Philippe Rushton K life-history selection strategy. High altruism, social organization, law abiding, and strong kinship bonds. The Confucian focus on self-cultivation parallels the heavy K investment of Asian families. SO I think looking at the values produced along the r-K selection spectrum would be helpful in analyzing Confucian conservatism.

The biological root of Confucianism seems to be the "sniper shot" as opposed to "machine gun" strategy of sexual selection and child-rearing. The strong kinship ties both natural and artificial might also contribute to greater societal altruism.

Kent Guida said...

Very stimulating. I had never thought of Confucius in that way. I'll have to check out Long's work.

I hope some Hayekian will respond to your critique. Has that happened yet>

A great piece, one of the best yet.

Elliot Norenstein said...

Hey Dr.Arnhart,

I was just wondering how was your Darwinian conservatism received in China?

There was an interesting debate that took place during the early Dengist era about whether or not sociobiology was genuine science and that fight was won by the 1980s. Ironically both the PRC and USSR accepted sociobiology almost immediately, while in the West the fight still goes on.

I know that Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism played a major influence on 1900s China.

"Why beautiful people have daughters" is going to be published in Beijing soon.

With Neo-Confucianism now serving as the official ideology, I would think the Chinese would be very interested in the scientific basis for it.

So anyway I'd be very interested in hearing how Chinese scholars reacted to your ideas.

Larry Arnhart said...

I will have more to report after I go to China in October.

So far, the reaction among those Chinese scholars that I have met has been mixed. Those who have studied philosophy in the West are suspicious of what looks to them to be a crude "selfish gene" view of life. This doesn't come from reading my work, but from their fear of social Darwinism.

I might have more to say in a future post about the reception of Darwinism in China at the end of the 19th century.