Recent discussion of “National Humiliation” motif in Chinese history lessons got me thinking of the wider implications of some noted cultural differences, particularly involving the concept of “shame” in Asian societies.
So the wider philosophical discussion here: First, I must qualify that I believe that the Asian societies are mischaracterized as “shame-based”. I believe it is not all “shame”. Indeed, the larger part of motivation in Asian societies is “virtue-based”.
“Virtue” is the positive flip-side of “shame” in Asian culture. If one feels “shame” for doing wrong, then one is honored as “virtuous” for doing right in Asian societies. And “Virtue”, far more than mere “shame”, is a primarily motivator for people in Asia to better themselves.
Confucius discussed “virtue” extensively.
For example, Confucius said,
“If the people are led by laws and reigned in by punishment, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue and rein in by the rules of morality, they will not only have the sense of shame but also become good.”(Analects 2:3)
Thus, to Confucius, “virtue” defines morality, and shame is a side effect for lack of virtue.
To Confucius, Law by itself is not enough. Morality must have a basis in “virtue”, or morality is meaningless.
What is “virtue”?? Who is “virtuous”?? Virtue is defined by one’s behaviors primarily toward others. Whether one is fair in his treatment of his friends and dealings of business, and whether one treats his family well and honors the memories of his ancestors. EVEN if the favor of “virtue” is not returned. For Confucius, the ideal “virtuous” man is one who emulates the virtuous legendary ancient Chinese rulers like the Yellow Emperor, who put the needs of his people and his family before himself, who conducts himself properly with discipline and humility.
Thus, as many Asian nations follow the philosophies of Confucius, they adopted the notion that “virtue” is based upon one’s conduct in relationship with others, not merely one’s beliefs. And in turn, one’s “virtue” (or lack of) defines one’s position and relationship in society, and one’s identity.
A morality meritocracy formed around this idea. “Virtuous” behaviors entitle one to higher social status and naturally more privileges. Shameful behaviors lessens one’s social status and decreases likely privileges in society. This was not a new invention of Confucius. Afterall, the ancient sage kings of China all only gained their right to rule, because they were considered to be most “virtuous” before they became kings.
Confucius’ notion of “virtue” was practical. He and his students didn’t just sit around and talk about it. Attainment of virtue was to be done in practice.
In a sense, if a man is “virtuous” in his conducts, he has “virtue” in his moral core. And no one cared what else he might believe in.
*In contrast, the Western notion of morality was largely based upon religious text, and the “relationship with God,” in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or rather the “self-identity” formulated from what “God” wants one to be.
Or i.e. WWJD, “what would Jesus do.”
This concept however, assumed that everyone has the same expectation/ understanding of what “God” wants in one’s moral identity.
In the ancient time, this might have been true to a degree, but dissent or deviations were not tolerated.
Violation or disagreements over what “God” wants, caused religious persecutions and revolutions.
In the ensuing religious conflicts, a notion of “Individual Rights” arose mainly as a mechanism to wrestle the right to define one’s own notions of what God wants for oneself.
However, this “Individual Rights” continue to run into conflicts with the traditional and continual expectation that EVERYONE has similar expectations of what God wants.
Thus, while many in the West will affirm openly that they believe each person should be allowed freedom to live as they wish, many also believe that some religious “sins” should be severely punished as they did in the Biblical stories.
In other words, Western notion of “moral identity” is purely based upon one’s beliefs, not based upon conduct in relationship with one another. One is assumed to have some “moral identity” based upon what he/she believes in, even if one act in contrary to one’s beliefs. However, this is also why Western history is filled with instances where some beliefs are considered to be wrong and thus the adherents to be “immoral.” Even in the modern times of tolerance, one often observes many religious sects in the West considering each other to be “immoral” on some religious differences, even when the people largely conduct themselves in similar manners (even similarly in their persecution of one another!)
Thus, in the West, “rights” are considered “inviolable”, because they are defined by “God” /faith traditionally.
But in Asian societies, privileges/rights are granted socially as reward for “virtue” in relationship and conducts.
In a sense, Confucius “virtue” is also the Golden Rule of “do unto others”:
-To serve my father, as I would require my son to serve me: to this I have not attained; to serve my prince as I would require my minister to serve me: to this I have not attained; to serve my elder brother as I would require my younger brother to serve me: to this I have not attained; to set the example in behaving to a friend, as I would require him to behave to me: to this I have not attained.
In this, it is not about shame, but about reciprocity of moral behavior, about mutual social expectations of behavior.
Shame is thus a self-measurement of how much one must improve against the ideals of “virtue”, as Confucius himself repeatedly admitted, “to this I have not attained,” regardless of what Confucius believes.
Confucius warned us, Law by itself is not sufficient. And his words appear to be prescient to the modern conditions, particularly in the Western “rule of law” systems.
If the people are led by laws and reigned in by punishment, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame.