El Amine Reviews Kim, Confucian Democracy in East Asia

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2015.02.31 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

Sungmoon Kim, Confucian Democracy in East Asia: Theory and Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 321pp., $29.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781107641211.

Reviewed by Loubna El Amine, Georgetown University

Sungmoon Kim’s book offers an important and passionate defense of democracy, especially as it applies to East Asian countries. It moves the current debate on the topic from the question of whether democracy is relevant to, and compatible with, the East Asian context, to the question of “the particular mode of Confucian democracy” that is suitable for East Asia (247). In other words, the starting premise of Kim’s inquiry is the simple fact that democracy does already exist in that part of the world, including in South Korea, Taiwan, and (“arguably,” according to Kim), in Hong Kong (247). The question then is, what form of democracy does, will, and should work in East Asia?

Kim’s central argument is that

in East Asian societies democracy would be most political effective and culturally relevant if it were rooted in and operates on the ‘Confucian habits and mores’ with which East Asians are still deeply saturated, sometimes without their awareness — in other words, if democracy were a Confucian democracy. (4, emphasis original)

According to Kim, liberalism, or at least “liberal discourse and liberal-democratic institutions” (10), should not be applied as is to East Asia, but rather democracy should be fitted to the social and political culture of the region. Elaborating on this thesis, he answers three sets of questions, which more or less correspond to the book’s three parts: What democracy? Which Confucianism? What does Confucian democracy look like in practice?

In response to the first question, Kim thoroughly engages with democratic theory, disentangling different strands that, in the debate on Confucianism and democracy, tend to get lumped together into a stereotypical “Western democracy” that is then rejected. He favors the deliberative model of democracy (132), one that emphasizes “civil society,” not merely the institutional makeup of government (17). What the focus on civil society sheds light on is “the fact of pluralism” (50), a concept coined by John Rawls and one that is rightly central to Kim’s inquiry.

For once pluralism is taken seriously, then, on Kim’s account, two alternative proposals for Confucian democracy are shown to be problematic. The first contender to Kim’s vision is what he describes as “meritocratic elitism,” a proposal that is understood differently by different scholars, but where the focus is on tempering participation from below with a meritocratic leadership (put simply, government should not be wholly based on popular choice). Kim’s objection to this proposal is two-fold: first, he argues that it is based on too cynical a conception of human nature and thus of citizens’ ability to choose their leaders wisely (85), and second, to return to the fact of pluralism, Kim argues that the problem in pluralist societies is not only how to establish moral leadership, but how to accommodate “multiple moral goods” (126).

Kim extends the argument against meritocratic elitism to the issue of socioeconomic inequality. He argues that it is only “if the voices of the victims of socioeconomic injustices are heard in the government” (93) that real democracy can be achieved. Such a participatory democracy will, in turn, satisfy the welfare concern: “Democratic civil society provides a public arena where socioeconomic victims can organize their voices, make them heard by public officials and political leaders, and demand heavy moral and political responsibility of the government for socioeconomic injustice” (96).

While Kim’s argument against meritocratic elitism’s inability to respond adequately to the problem of pluralism is a convincing one, the argument on welfare grounds is not entirely so. Justice should not depend on victims’ ability to organize and speak up, since this ability would be lacking, even in the most participatory of democracies, precisely because of the marginalizing effect of bad socioeconomic conditions. The worry is not allayed by Kim’s emphasis on civil associations, such as families, schools, and local governments (80-81), and his idea that Confucian citizens will help others further away from them because they see them as akin to family members (177). The delivery of justice should not be dependent on the voluntaristic efforts of civil society members; this is where more of a discussion of the institutional workings of Kim’s proposed government would have been helpful.

Kim also rejects, though only partially, another proposal advanced by Confucian scholars, which he describes as “thick communitarianism.” While Kim shares the communitarians’ concern about “possessive individualism” (113), he finds them to err too much on the side of community, at the risk of undermining autonomy (40). The communitarians are also guilty of seeing all liberal political thought as based on a “Cartesian onto-epistemology” (104), when many liberals, precisely in response to the fact of pluralism, have intentionally unmoored their political theory from such a foundation.

According to Kim, the problem with the communitarian thesis is partly that it does not apply to modern East Asian societies that do not espouse “thick or organic Confucian communitarianism” (15). Based on Rawls’ distinction between comprehensive doctrines and political conceptions, Kim proposes that Confucianism be similarly distinguished in its role as a comprehensive doctrine and in its role as a “public culture” grounding “Confucian public reasons.” Since, according to Kim, neither is it true that everyone in East Asia is Confucian in the first sense, nor is it normatively attractive to build a democracy on such a contestable foundation, his conception of Confucianism amounts to a set of Confucian public reasons. These are “filiality (xiaoti 孝悌), trustworthiness (xin 信), social harmony (he 和), respect of the elderly (jinglao 敬老), and respectful deference (cirang 辭讓)” (90). He also adds “moral criticism and rectification of government” (284). The contrast here is with Confucian “moral virtues” associated with Confucianism as a comprehensive doctrine, and which include “Dao道, Heaven (tian 天), human nature (xing 性), and sagehood (sheng 聖)” (121).

While this is a useful distinction, it also opens up the space for the defenders of the meritocratic and communitarian visions of Confucian democracy to protest that the public reasons that Kim identifies are not distinctively Confucian. Take, for example, Kim’s defense of what he calls “Confucian incivility.” Given that a core idea of Confucianism is reverence, as Kim himself emphasizes, is the idea of “Confucian incivility” plausible? Kim draws a distinction between “uncivility” and “incivility” (63). He also mentions a few passages from the Xiaojing, the Mencius, and the Xunzi to support the claim that filial piety is not tantamount to absolute obedience (as suggested in the Analects) (64-67), and a few passages from the Analects, the Mencius and the Xunzi underscoring the importance of remonstration against a bad ruler (67-70). Building on the idea of remonstration, Kim then argues that it should be extended to the whole of the citizenry in a modern-day Confucian democracy, which would entail, among others, citizens’ exoneration from defamation charges against leaders (though not against fellow citizens) (200). But where is the Confucianism, even of the political variety, on this picture? Where are the “filiality, trustworthiness, social harmony, respect of the elderly, and respectful deference”? These Confucian “public reasons” have arguably been overshadowed in this example by democratic contestation. This is not to say that the two are incompatible, but to ask how much work Confucianism is doing here.

The question of whether the proposal is distinctively Confucian is not unfair partly because Kim himself resorts to it, or at least points to it, several times when considering alternative ideas (16, 158, 162, 192-93). More substantially, however, this question is not unfair because Kim rejects the other two proposals mostly on the grounds of their democratic credentials; their proponents can then respond by emphasizing that their aim is to remain as faithful as possible to Confucianism. To the extent that Confucianism matters at all for everyone involved in the debate, then it is fair to ask how Confucian each of the proposals is.

But perhaps this line of questioning misunderstands Kim’s project, for he is clear on two, related points as mentioned above: Kim is clear that Confucianism, in its form as public political culture, is shared, as a matter of fact, in East Asia, and that his normative argument is conditional on this fact. In other words, he is not recommending Confucianism as a normative system (outside of East Asia) (120), but rather answering the question of what democracy is compatible with it, given that it already exists, and given that it exists in the mild, political form he describes (and not in the “thick” form). The normative weight of Confucianism, on Kim’s picture, thus follows closely upon its factual weight. As he writes, the “foundational sociological observation” upon which the book is based is that “citizens in East Asian, historically Confucian, countries are still deeply soaked in Confucian habits and mores” (4, fn 9).

While this claim is key to the argument, it is also true that the book, which aims at a “normative political theory of Confucian democracy” (4, fn 9), cannot plausibly be expected to provide empirical proof for it. Let us grant then that the claim is true. The question remains whether it is true in the relevant sense, i.e., whether these “habits and mores” constitute “a public culture” that informs, and is informed by, democracy (10).

This raises the question, which is of course not a question for Kim alone, about how to identify a “public culture” and the “public reasons” that can be culled from it. The common way that this is done is to identify “constitutional essentials,” as can be elicited from judicial cases, for example. Kim does not reject this strategy, but he finds it “too narrow” (122) and not wholly adequate in the East Asian context. He actually favors a conception of public reasons as what “ordinary citizens appeal to” in public deliberations, and these are “constituted by moral sentiments and social affects,” at the core of which lie “familial affectionate sentiments” (132).

Expanding public reason to encompass sentiments is insightful, but it also brings to the fore the problem with sentiments: they are nebulous. How do we know what sentiments ordinary citizens appeal to and to what effect? This is an especially nagging question for Kim because he writes that East Asians are Confucians “sometimes without their awareness” (see above), or even “often without self-awareness” (10).

Here it is helpful to finally bring in the last part of the book, devoted to the case of South Korea. The example of South Korea is illustrative of the theory, and shows us an instance of the successful combination between Confucianism and democracy. Another way to put this, following upon Kim’s own useful suggestion (19, fn 50), is to take the third part of the book as the starting point of the inquiry, and the theoretical proposal on Confucian democracy as an “articulation” of the case at hand, an exercise in analyzing the nature of South Korea’s success (and failures) as a democracy. According to Kim, “the extraordinary viability of Korean democratic civil society can be explained in terms of the social practice of chŏng, the Koreans’ familial affectionate sentiments and the peculiar civic virtue — what I call ‘uri (we)-responsibility’ — that it generates” (207). The discussion on chŏnguri, and contemporary politics in South Korea that follows is rich and varied, and cannot be done justice here, but what is noteworthy about these concepts is that they are part of Koreans’ “social psychology” (233), and thus require a proper understanding of the “Korean self” (216). In other words, they are not public.

Kim is aware of this worry, and argues that there is a “political dynamic of uri-formation” that “cannot plainly be reduced to social psychology alone” (219). He helpfully provides us with actual political cases to think through what this dynamic looks like in practice. The two political cases (a citizen alliance to campaign against unqualified candidates for elections, and a case of civil discontent against a law on dual citizenship and military service) are meant to illustrate the uri (we) consciousness (210, 212). Briefly, the question that arises in response to them is why this “we” is not reminiscent of Korean nationalism, rather than Confucianism? In the judicial case, discussed in the chapter that follows, in which the Korean Supreme Court upholds the right of a student to religious freedom, Kim cites the Court’s appeal to a notion of “social common sense and legal sentiment” as evidence, albeit conjectural, that the Court appeals to chŏng (242). Given however that the court decision is not surprising, upholding as it did a right to religious freedom in a deeply democratic country that has been so at least since 1987 (227), one wonders whether the “common sense and legal sentiment” referred to here are not simply liberal democratic (rather than Confucian).

In short, questions can be raised about the causal story that Kim provides about South Korea’s success as a democracy, and the role that Confucianism plays in it. But that Kim decides to discuss South Korea at all, inquiring into political practices in a way that political theorists rarely do, gives the book its ambitious and lively character. While this comes with the risk of conjuring up both theoretical and empirical challenges, it is a virtue of the book that it refuses to be constrained by disciplinary boundaries, and is willing to operate, as the subtitle suggests, between “theory and practice.” By doing so, it moves the study of both Confucian political thought and Comparative Political Theory towards a greater sensibility to, and engagement with, the actual contemporary political reality of the Asian, and more generally, the non-Western, world.

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