Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Confucian Constitution for China?

Jiang Qing and Daniel A. Bell have an article in The New York Times arguing for "A Confucian Constitution for China." 

In the summer and fall of 2010, I wrote a long series of posts on Confucianism, Darwinism, and liberalism, which included an assessment of Daniel Bell's argument for a "left Confucianism" that would support a new Confucian constitution for China.  I pointed out some serious contradictions in Bell's proposals.  And I see nothing in this new statement that resolves those contradictions.

On the one hand, Bell argues that Marxist socialism has lost all legitimacy in China.  On the other hand, he defends political Confucianism as the fulfilment of Marxist socialism.

On the one hand, Bell argues that Confucian ethics needs to be enforced by governmental coercion.  On the other hand, he recognizes that the history of Maoist attempts to coercively enforce moral transformation shows that such coercion is destructive.

In the fall of 2010, I lectured at Peking University in Beijing on "The Dao of Confucianism and Darwinism."  I argued that China needs a new Confucianism supported by Darwinian liberalism to replace Marxist socialism.  Some scholars of Confucianism have noted a liberal tradition in Confucianism, a tradition of suspicion of coercive power as corrupting and of reliance on moral persuasion arising through the natural and voluntary associations of society.  I have argued for cultivating this liberal tradition of Confucianism.

By contrast, Bell has rejected liberal Confucianism for two reasons.  First, he claims that liberalism is a Western idea, and therefore it's not suitable for China.  Second, he claims that while Confucianism is a comprehensive way of life, liberalism is "mainly a political philosophy rather than an all-embracing ethical philosophy."

On the first point, rejecting liberalism as a Western idea is strange, because Bell is arguing for a fusion of Confucianism with Marxist socialism, which is a very Western idea.

On the second point, saying that liberalism cannot support "an all-embracing ethical philosophy" is false.  Adam Smith was an important liberal thinker, and his Theory of Moral Sentiments sets forth "an all-embracing ethical philosophy."  But Smith explains how moral order arises through the natural and voluntary associations of social life that shape moral character by cultivating the moral sentiments.  Darwin then explained how this view of morality could be rooted in an evolved moral sense.  Thus, liberals can see the importance of a moral tradition like Confucianism that arises from moral persuasion in civil society rather than legal coercion by government.

Moreover, the natural morality cultivated by liberalism provides a shared moral framework that does not depend upon belief in any transcendent sacred authority that would provoke religious disputes. 

Bell is not clear about this point.  In some of his previous writing, Bell has rejected Jiang's proposal for making Confucianism a state religion with "sacred sources from Heaven."  Bell has argued--rightly, I think--that Confucius was evasive or silent about metaphysical or supernatural conceptions of "Heaven" or the afterlife, because his primary concern was for human life on earth.  This supports my claim that Confucianism shares with Darwinism a "humanistic" conception of moral order as arising not from cosmic sources--God, Nature, or Reason--but from human sources--human nature, human tradition, and human judgments.

But now, in this new article in the Times, Bell endorses Jiang's appeal to the "sacred legitimacy" that would be represented in a "House of Exemplary Persons."  This clearly contradicts Bell's earlier position.

Furthermore, this new article does not show any of Bell's earlier scepticism about Jiang's naive utopianism in assuming that the best government is the rule by the wise intellectuals over the irrational masses.  Previously, Bell has said that Jiang "underestimates the political intelligence of ordinary people and overestimates that of intellectuals."  But now Bell seems to agree with Jiang that we can trust the wise few to rule with knowledge and virtue over the unwise many.  By contrast, liberalism assumes that all political rulers will be imperfect in their knowledge and virtue, and that power tends to corrupt even the wisest rulers.  One would think that this liberal assumption has been confirmed by the pervasive corruption among China's political rulers.  And yet, Jiang and Bell ignore all this in proposing a new Chinese Constitution in which "a House of Exemplary Persons that represents sacred legitimacy" has an exclusive veto over the other two Houses of government.

Jiang and Bell do concede the need for the other two Houses to have some check on the power of the House of Exemplary Persons.  But it's not clear how this would work.  And if the House of Exemplary Persons really would have "sacred legitimacy," why would it need to be checked?

Elaboration of these points can be found in some previous posts, particularly here, here.. here., here, and here.


Larry Arnhart said...

For some strange reason, the comments function has failed to post the following comment from Kent Guida:

"The Jiang-Bell piece is one of the creepiest things I've read in a long time. No doubt it will be a big hit with Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof and others fond of the notion that 'democratically elected governments in America and elsewhere are finding it nearly impossible to implement policies that curb energy usage in the interests of humanity and of future generations' and otherwise ignore the obviously right opinions of the Times.

"No doubt a House of Exemplary Persons headed by a great scholar of Confucianism will prove to be the remedy. It will be 'comprehensive and culturally sensitive.' Who could ask for anything more?

"I look forward to your comments on their book when it comes out."

Larry Arnhart said...

I agree with Kent about the creepiness of proposing the rule of Confucian sages with "sacred legitimacy" as superior to democratically elected governments.

Bell has argued in his previous book that the best illustration of the irrationality of the democratic masses is that they don't see the obvious wisdom in Al Gore's documentary AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. By contrast, Bell argues, the House of Exemplary Persons will show their wisdom by enforcing all of Gore's policies for reducing global warming.

Very strange.

Kent Guida said...

I was half joking about Friedman and Kristof. I had no idea Bell considered Al Gore a man whose wisdom entitled him to rule.

He is beginning to sound like those early admirers of Mussolini who welcomed the efficiency of the regime. M was "culturally sensitive" too, since he claimed legitimacy from Rome's glory days.

My guess is this scheme will not progress much beyond the Times op-ed page. Constitutional government would be a great boon for China and the rest of the world, and I am sure someone can do better than this. The real obstacle, though, will be getting the country's rulers to accept any real constitutional limits. That may depend on whether the Chinese people have the necessary thumos to make it happen.

Larry Arnhart said...

Daniel Bell has sent me an email message with the following comments:

"Just a couple of points. Jiang's A CONFUCIAN CONSTITUTIONAL ORDER book will be published in October, and in the introduction, I make clear that I do not wholly endorse his view about 'sacred sources from Heaven.' My own view is that we should allow for multiple justifications for the House of Exemplary Persons. What matters is that we agree on what it's supposed to do (represent the interests of non-voters who are affected by the policies of the government)."

"Also, in the book Jiang puts forward another institution known as the Academy that is supposed to check the power of the House of Exemplary Persons."

"We couldn't make these points in a short op-ed."

Empedocles said...

Isn't our Supreme Court a kind of unelected House of Exemplary Persons with the ability to veto the other branches of government?