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Refilling the Liberal vacuum

In a previous post I talked about the Liberal tradition (that is, the explicit and formal human rights framework, not to be confused with how people often use the term to refer to a political or economic “left” or being “progressive”) as being a byproduct of religious, political and other kinds of oppression in the west. I also talked about the importance of instituting rule of law and rights protection for China in the coming years in the comments section.

However, I always have had serious reservations about the Liberal model on philosophical grounds.

Focusing on rights may actually hamper ethical or moral development in society because it focuses on bare minimum ethical standards of conduct and behavior. It detracts attention and energy from more positive accounts of ethics such as those from virtue cultivation and community-building. There’s some debate whether a Liberal framework can handle more nuanced and more positive accounts of ethics. I happen to doubt that it can. Confucius mention 2500 years ago that even in societies with well established laws, people can still find ways to treat each other like shit and make life hell for each other. That is because even in such a society, people may still not be virtuous and find ways around the law to behave despicably.

I think that the serious development of the rights framework ought only be a temporary in China so that bare minimum standards are set in place for now and into the near future so that basic rights are protected and society will have something to fall back on for protecting people’s rights. But I also think that as China gets richer, as people get more educated, China ought to progress into a more Confucian model which focuses not on what we owe each other in the form of bare minimum duty and other rights but on our virtue and on the quality of our relationships. This is a much more nuanced and robust form of ethical development but it has the drawbacks that it is more difficult to develop requiring extensive education and good, solid, development of welfare for the whole population. As Confucius mentioned, societies become immoral when two major events occur: when either the education system collapse or when the country does not have enough to feed, clothe, or build infrastructure for the whole population.

Now, I believe also that we may never get totally away from having some legal protection for individuals in society from abuses of their rights no matter how we cultivate virtue in the population because there will always be some bad apples making the whole society worse off and law may be the only way to protect people from abuses from these intractable individuals.

But it seems to be a good goal to try and build something more ethically solid. How would we build such a society that moves away from focusing on rights and starts focusing on individual virtue cultivation?

I would start with a secular moral education. I believe that students should start learning philosophy such as ethics and critical thinking as early as possible (maybe as soon as they are in the 4th or 6th grade). I think Confucius would agree to this.

Second, Confucius said that ritual is another important aspect of moral cultivation of virtue and community ties. But what rituals ought we employ to further this end in a secular 21st century China? (Note: Confucius said that rituals can be wholly secular). I think this is a crucial question that Chinese people should look to themselves and their own history for answers.

  1. LOLZ
    February 11th, 2012 at 04:18 | #1

    I don’t see the issue as black and white. Western liberalism has some good concepts and not all Confucianism beliefs are good for modern societies (women’s role for example). Afterall, Confucianism was developed thousands of years ago when societies were vastly different than today’s.

    That said, there is one element of Western liberalism which I am strongly against and that is interventionalism.

  2. melektaus
    February 11th, 2012 at 13:03 | #2


    As I made clear in the post, I don’t see it as black and white either. Like I said, I don’t ever see a rights framework completely abolished in society and it ought never to be completely eliminated because there will always be some need for that kind of bare minimum protection. I also think that for the present time, it will be good for China to institute the Liberal system extensively. The Confucian model is something well into the distant future and is to be slowly developed as China grows economically and culturally.

    Also, Confucianism is not anymore inherently sexist with regard to women’s roles than any other kind of philosophical system.

    And Liberalism is not inherently interventionist either. There are isolationist Liberal countries with regard to military or economic sanctioning interventions. Take some of the Scandinavian countries.

  3. February 17th, 2012 at 01:10 | #3

    I never understood why rituals are important for cultivation of virtues and ethics…

  4. February 17th, 2012 at 13:54 | #4


    That’s a really good question and I’m not sure if it indeed is. But rituals are very much apart of moral cultivation in all cultures including western cultures (though whether or not it necessarily is is another question).

    Consider our rituals of saying “I’m sorry” or of shaking hands to make a deal or to simply make friends etc. Also consider saying “please”. These all have ritualistic elements and are for moral purposes.

    There’s some empirical evidence suggesting that simple ethical study and reflection will not likely improve moral behavior in much of day to day life and that space may be fulfilled through some other means such as practice. Rituals may provide that practice. Confucius knew this 2,500 years ago. He had a holistic view of improving society and cultivating virtue which involved study, reflection and practice. His view of ritual may also be deeply connected with the practice part.

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