Picking up on something that Boram Lee very eloquently wrote in the Confucianism and Sexism string:
“… my impression is that at its heart Confucianism is neither autocratic nor authoritarian, as some modern Asian regimes like to claim.
It seems to me that one of the main defining features of Confucianism, at least on its political and economic dimensions, is its commitment to decentralization. Its ideal society is one consisting of small communities, each small community composed of persons governing themselves with ritual. The ideal government is not a centralized bureacracy, but self-government by each over themselves, where no coercion is involved, only voluntary control and participation in social activities, and leadership based on rational and emotional persuasion, not the use of laws and punishments. A centralized bureacracy following paternalistic policies towards uneducated peasants is only a second-best option.”
I think I understand most of the arguments for thinking of Confucianism as compatible with democratic ideals. They are some version of Boram’s point: the Confucian ideal of political community is of each person exercising moral self-scrutiny and self-cultivation; education of others and continuing self-education is an important ideal; persuasion and non-violent moral example are preferred to use of force and harsh legalism; hence, democracy is not far away as an ideal–what else would even seem appropriate for a community of junzi-like citizens but a democracy?
I think that would be great if it were true. And maybe there is some pragmatic value in making democracy seem continuous with a powerful self-conception (i.e. of being “Confucian” in some broad sense) that has traditionally been expressed only in non-democratic ways. But why does this kind of argument seem so strange to me? One thing that comes to mind very quickly is that it makes Confucianism’s ideals sound like those of Kant, or any of the other Enlightenment “autonomists.” The community of junzis sounds something like the “kingdom of ends,” a self-governing lot of moral agents who regard each other with respect for their personhoods.
Could I really complain about that? I’m not sure; but I feel like I should complain–Doesn’t it distort Confucianism? Isn’t it mistaken to think that the junzi ideal really lends itself to self-governance? What’s the connection exactly between self-cultivation and self-governance–doesn’t this rest on some conflation? And why has Confucianism only been used in the service of autocracy so far?
I’m not trying to make trouble here, just trying to scratch this itch.