Angle Reviews Kwon, Confucian Sentimental Representation: A New Approach to Confucian Democracy

My review of Confucian Sentimental Representation: A New Approach to Confucian Democracy by Kyung Rok Kwon (Routledge, 2022) has been published in The Review of Metaphysics 76:1; see here. The first paragraph of the review follows below.

Two facts have driven much of the recent theorizing about Confucian democracy. First, even in robust democracies like South Korea and Taiwan, East Asian citizens hold distinctive views about the relation between leaders and led. Two-thirds of South Korean respondents and a third of those from Taiwan agreed with the statement “If we have political leaders who are morally upright, we can let them decide everything.” Second, it is uncontroversial to say that traditional Confucianism advocated for rule by the virtuous. Most observers believe these two facts are linked but disagree about their normative upshot. Some regret the lingering authoritarianism polluting East Asian democracies, while others—primarily based in less democratic countries—call for an embrace of “meritocracy” instead of democracy. A third group, to which Kwon Kyung Rok and I both belong, believe that properly understood “rule by virtue” can be better realized in a democracy. This means that modern Confucians should be democrats, and it suggests a distinctive way of conceptualizing democracy that both may be more apt for East Asia and may even offer lessons applicable worldwide. For Kwon, the key to all this is rethinking how we understand political representation.

3 thoughts on “Angle Reviews Kwon, Confucian Sentimental Representation: A New Approach to Confucian Democracy

  1. Hi Steve! I’m curious to know the broad outline of your vision of rule by virtue, but I don’t have access to the RoM. I’m wondering how distinctive is the idea. I’m sure you know the following stuff.

    Two excellent sources for Western Enlightenment political thought are the Federalist and (since it was very popular then) Aristotle’s Politics.

    From Federalist 57:

    “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government. The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various. The most effectual one, is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people.”


    held that political authority should be distributed in proportion to virtue (and sufficient property for leisure to rule by one’s virtue), so far as can be done. In defense of giving the broad public a role in political authority in cities where virtue is not freakishly concentrated in one or a few, he presented this argument:

    The many, who are not as individuals excellent men, nevertheless can, when they have come together, be better than the few best people, not individually but collectively, just as feasts to which many contribute are better than feasts provided at one person’s expense. For being many, each of them can have some part of virtue and practical wisdom, and when they come together, the multitude is just like a single human being, with many feet, hands, and senses, and so too for their character traits and wisdom. That is why the many are better judges of works of music and of the poets. For one of them judges one part, another another, and all of them the whole thing.” (Pol. 1241a41-b9, Reeve trans.)

    “It is neither the individual juror, nor the individual councilor, nor the individual assemblyman who is ruling, but the court, the council, and the people, whereas each of the individuals mentioned is only a part of these. By “part” I mean the councilor, the assemblyman, and the juror. Hence it is just for the multitude to have authority over the more important matters.” (1281b33-37, Reeve trans.)

    He also argued that the virtue needed to be a good officer normally could not be produced except among people with ample experience both of ruling and of being ruled – such as is normal only in the middle class, and in cities where office rotates.

    Aristotle was assuming a culture and institutions of discussion and collective deliberation:

    In speaking of music and poets above he was alluding to the institution of having the city assemble in a public theater – the big one at Athens seated 17,000 – during several weeks of the year, to hear many comedies and tragedies each day and rank the week’s presentations for prizes according to a complicated system in which the jurors were chosen from the public by lot. (Like the first few decades of American television, these dramas focused on family. Regarding Greek drama, Northrop Frye comments: “Comedy is much concerned with integrating the family and adjusting the family to society as a whole; tragedy is much concerned with breaking up the family and opposing it to the rest of society.” Such opposition was felt as tragic, but one should face difficult kinds of truth.)

  2. Some when, in these United States, the wheels came off of the virtuous rulers train. My limited view of this tends towards the effects of the industrial revolution and expansion of a capitalist economy. Recent and current notions about authoritarian populism and semi-Fascism appear to continue the downward cycle. With the rapidity of development of trends, I am a little surprised things did not get worse sooner. Happy, but surprised. As a long view, big picture thinker, I wonder how much longer we have before matters get irrevocably bigger. I don’t willingly equate these factors in thermodynamics terms. But, it is scary.

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