Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Rethinking Confucian Sovereignty


Starting next week, I’m going to be giving a series of lectures, collectively titled “Contemporary Confucian Virtue Politics,” at the University of Michigan. In case any reader might be in Ann Arbor, you’re more than welcome to come; information is here. I thought I would sketch out one of the ideas here and see what y’all think.

One of the thoughts motivating the third lecture (with the same title as this post) is that there is a tension within one prominent way in which sovereignty is articulated in classical Confucianism. My eventual claim is that resolving this tension requires making some significant changes to Confucianism, but that these changes have the effect of allowing the revised system to better realize its core commitments than did the original configuration. In other words, the argument that I end up making for what we can loosely call Confucian democracy is not a claim that democracy is compatible with Confucianism, but rather than it is required by Confucian commitments themselves. In making this argument, I take myself to be building on ideas of Mou Zongsan, and at certain points draw explicitly on some of his arguments.

For now, I wanted to see what folks thought about the “tension” claim. I am focused on Mencius. Roughly, the idea is this:

  • The people (min 民) play a critical role in manifesting Tian’s acceptance of a proposed ruler. It is not the case that one can know independently of the people’s actions — say, via divination — what Tian decrees. (This is a change from Shang and early Zhou.) Treating the people well is not just a responsibility of the ruler, but a necessary condition for earning sovereignty in the first place. Still, the people are not the source of sovereignty, but only its sign. Mencius is not offering a theory of popular sovereignty. The people are reliable indicators of good or bad rule, but they are not themselves in a position to exercise choice or agency, much less are they the source of sovereignty. The people are like thermometers, measuring the quality of rule and thereby indicating the presence or absence of legitimate authority. (I can elaborate on evidence for these views in the text if anyone questions them.)
  • However, Mencius famously argues that “all people (ren ren 人人)” have the rudimentary, spontaneous moral reactions that justify his claim that people’s natures are good. He also says in one place that the great sages Yao and Shun “were the same as other people (與人同耳),” and that affirms that “everyone can become a Yao or a Shun.” In addition, as Irene Bloom in particular has argued, we can find passages in the text that articulate something like a common human dignity. It is put in terms like the “nobility of Heaven,” as opposed to the more prosaic nobility of man; and the “honorable” quality that all people have within themselves, which is different from “the honor that derives from men.”

One way of trying to resolve this tension comes from Hall and Ames, who nicely articulate some of the semantic differences between min (which they render as “masses”) and ren (which they render as “person(s)”). Even if this distinction helps us to understand how Mencius could say all the things he does, though, it does not dissolve the tension. Few mechanisms seem to be considered for systematically moving people from the category of min to ren. Furthermore, we might well find the characterization of the “ignorant masses” as hopelessly condescending and deeply out of touch with these people’s lives. One does not have to be a radical individualist to think that there is something missing in Mencius’s ability to conceptualize life from the perspective of a given peasant farmer. (I say this even though Mencius certainly demonstrates empathy for the plight of the poor and the powerless: he is sometimes quite graphic in his descriptions of their suffering as he tries to draw the attention of rulers to issues of their collective well-being.) His universalist talk about ren calls for such an “extension” of perspectives and of caring, but his political ideals seem far too restricted to allow for taking the people’s distinct perspectives seriously. He sometimes analogizes the ruler to a parent, but should not a parent treat children as distinct — as making unique demands on the parent-child relationship — rather than as a mass with set needs?

That’s the tension I’m concerned with. I look forward to hearing what you think!


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