THE COLUMBIA SOCIETY FOR COMPARATIVE PHILOSOPHY
Welcomes: DAVID ELSTEIN (SUNY New Paltz)
With responses from: WARREN FRISINA (Hofstra University)
Please join at Columbia University’s Religion Department on FRIDAY, MARCH 27 5:30PM for his lecture entitled:
“The Possibility of a Confucian Doctrine of Free Expression“
ABSTRACT: Most contemporary New Confucian advocates for democracy take a robust right of free expression for granted as a necessary condition for democratic practice. Yet whether or how Confucianism can justify such a right is often passed over without much analysis. On the face of it, the case does not look good. Classical Confucians of course do not mention any such right, and what they do say is generally neutral or outright hostile to free expression. Various limitations on free expression have also been endorsed by later Confucians, including some contemporary thinkers. The usual liberal justifications of free expression as protecting individual autonomy and preserving access to truth probably will not work for Confucians. For one thing, autonomy is not valued in the same way as in liberalism. Second, Confucians have generally been confident that truth and falsehood can be reliably distinguished by the more enlightened and there is not much to be gained by allowing the persistence of obviously false doctrines. The bigger concern is the harm false doctrines can cause. In this paper I will examine Confucian opposition to free expression, where Confucians will disagree with liberal views, and consider whether Confucianism can justify free expression along with how the Confucian right may differ in application.
FRIDAY, MARCH 27
Rm. 101, 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University
UPCOMING COLUMBIA SOCIETY FOR COMPARATIVE PHILOSOPHY EVENTS:
April 10 – Bronwyn Finnigan (Marquette University), Respondent Nic Bommarito (NYU)
May 8 – Pierre-Julien Harter (University of Chicago Divinity School)
PLEASE VISIT OUR WEBSITE: http://www.cbs.columbia.edu/cscp/
Please do not reply to this email. Inquiries should be directed to one of the following individuals:
Professor Jonathan Gold
Associate Professor, Princeton University, Department of Religion
Professor Hagop Sarkissian
Assistant Professor, The City University of New York, Baruch College, Department of Philosophy
Daniel M. del Nido
Maybe it’s wrong to put one’s two cents in, in response to this kind of announcement. (Is it?)
The Mencian doctrine of natural moral understanding has some plausibility, and looks like it could be used to ground a vision of the importance of autonomy, no? I mean, it’s kind of open-ended on practical matters of degree, but so is Kant.
In the Analects, Confucius speaks of the importance of speaking up. More vividly and more importantly, I think, it shows him valuing challenges from his followers, and needing their correction. Amy Olberding’s work might be helpful here.
Regarding Mill’s argument about the value of allowing the persistence of obviously false doctrines – I wonder whether there is anything in the premises of that argument that a Confucian as such should have any difficulty swallowing? Verbal formulae lose their meaning when they lose their challengers.
One might use the example of footbinding to shore up Mill’s argument.
Hi Bill, in response to your parenthetic question, I think it’s absolutely apt to put your $0.02 in! You never know where a discussion will break out, or what help comments like these might be to David as he prepares for the presentation.
(Above, after my first line, the indented bits are parts of a continuous quotation from the abstract.)
A few years ago on this blog, arguing against a prominent Confucianist proposal that the justification for the basic liberal rights depend on a peculiarly antisocial and therefore anti-Confucian psychology, I offered the following three different kinds of foundation (numbers now inserted):
In replying to this, the Confucianist, who claimed the centrality of respect in Confucianism, mistook my  for an explanation of . But the point of my ill-phrased  was supposed to be that restricting mere expression is on its face disrespectful. Shutting people up is disrespecting them.
Does the Confucian tradition have accounts of respect that are nontrivial in that they don’t simply say to give the roles their due?
About footbinding, I should clarify. My thought is that footbinding may illustrate Mill’s point that orthodox ideas or slogans, e.g. about Christian charity, lose their meaning when orthodoxy goes unchallenged. Footbreaking, footbinding, the relationships they aimed at: with love like that, who needs hate? Rare is the hate that could stomach such things.
What counts as a “Confucian” defense of the right to free expression depends, I suppose, on why such a thing is wanted. The interest may be in arming or answering current Confucianist intellectuals, or in parrying a certain line of Beijing propaganda cum pop nationalism, or in suiting the current deep cultural habits of people across East Asia, or something else.
(Also, what would count as a “Confucian” defense might depend on how distinctively Confucian it has to be. I mean, you might think there are perfectly compelling arguments for free expression based only on fairly uncontroversial basic values and plain facts about how society works, not relying on any distinctive traditions or values. Does one want to appeal to a Confucianism that is just plainly wrong about something relevant?)
Since I’m ignorant of the Confucian tradition beyond a few early texts (and also of virtually all scholarly discussion of our question), but want to have something to say anyway, I hope that for some of the above purposes the core ideas of the Confucius of the Analects might trump other things in argument, in case of conflict – things such as fringe ideas of the Analects, or what “Confucians have generally been confident” of.
(As I’ve been re-reading the Analects I’ve had the recent problems on Amy’s campus especially in mind.
Arguably protecting this kind of speech against coercive restraint is a precious function of the general right, not just a regrettable side effect of the need for a clear rule.
In the Analects, the broad core ideas that leap out at me as relevant to coercive limits on expression are these:
Successful leaders lead not by stooping to coercion, but by (a) the example of their personal decency, (b) the ceremonious respectfulness of their behavior toward the people, and (c) placing only very limited direct demands on the people’s time and money. If things are going badly wrong, the problem is probably in area (a) or (b). In general, good people look mainly to improving themselves, not criticizing or correcting others.
Perhaps historically, as David says, “Confucians have generally been confident that truth and falsehood can be reliably distinguished by the more enlightened and [that] there is not much to be gained by allowing the persistence of obviously false doctrines.”
But, first, in Confucius’ view, highly enlightened people may well be ignorant of a very wide range of important contested truths, e.g. about farming, fighting, and the supernatural. One should recognize and admit the areas of one’s ignorance. Premises canvassed above suggest that when a moral view is abroad that seems to the leaders to pose a serious danger, that’s a sign of the moral inadequacy of the leaders, hence a sign that they should not trust their own judgment.
Second, while it may be analytically true that at some level of enlightenment one understands certain basic truths, it is not a given that there are any extant people at the highest levels. Confucius occasionally said that he hadn’t met any (and denied being one himself).
Third and most importantly, that kind of confidence in one’s own judgment (and character) seems very much out of line with the general attitude Confucius exemplified and recommended. The junzi makes enough mistakes that there is a gentlemanly virtue pertaining to one’s mistakes as such – one’s moral mistakes, I think (e.g. 1.8). One should always be striving to learn (even from one’s inferiors), as though in danger of losing ground. This is the main point of moral character on which Confucius claims to excel others. Asking about everything is the ritual. Anyway, moral basics are not easily encapsulated in clear formulae suited for all circumstances.
Fourth – and there is room to debate whether this is a general matter of philosophical substance or a local matter of pedagogical rhetoric and negotiation – Confucius often speaks as though he is reporting what he himself prefers, rather than insisting on rules. He offers his Way as an option. When Zai Yu objects, Confucius says, “Do as you like.”
Let’s skip to the objections.
First a pair of small special objections. On music:
16.2 “… When the world follows the Way, rites, music, and military expeditions all proceed from the Son of Heaven. …”
In reply, one might argue that nothing is said here about coercion, and that perhaps “music” (樂) refers mainly to official ceremonies.
13.3 “Zi Lu said, ‘Suppose the ruler of Wei asks for you to administer the government. What would you do first?’ The Master replied, ‘What is necessary is to rectify names.’ … ”
In reply, one could try to appeal to a dubious distinction between terminology and content. Or one might argue that the passage is inauthentic, though for current purposes that may not be relevant. A reply that is both plausible and relevant is that the remark may only be about official documents.
A deeper and far more interesting objection is that there is a general distrust of public debate about public issues, running throughout the Analects. Not just a distrust of clever talking.
6.21 “… You cannot expound superior things to inferior people.”
8.9 “… You can make the people follow it; you can’t make them understand it.”
8.14 “… Do not discuss the policies of an office that is not yours.”
15.40 “… Those whose Ways are different should not counsel one another.”
Insofar as an argument for free expression depends on high hopes for the power of discussion, the argument might not be one Confucius would be inclined to accept.
Bill, addressing everything you have brought up would basically involve copying my paper here. I would be happy to send it to you when it’s somewhat more polished if you are interested.
Briefly speaking, I argue that classical Confucians (notably Mengzi and Xunzi) seem to support political restrictions on expression for the reasons I mentioned above. Many later Confucians did as well. However, they should not, and I believe can in fact accept a modified version of Mill’s argument. Access to other opinions is helpful in developing the right kind of reflective commitment to Confucianism that they value. But I don’t see a lot of reason for Confucians to support expression that does not articulate some position on ethical and political vlues.
Thanks David! I appreciate the response, and would love to see your paper some day.
I would think the question of “freedom of expression” is not so much about whether to support expression, but about whether coercive silencing is advisable or permissible. But that’s probably what you meant.
Yes indeed, I meant that as short for “support allowing such expression” rather support the expression itself or its content.