13 July 2014

Confucianism, Legalism and ‘meritocracy’

Confucius, Han Fei and Voltaire

One of the words that gets thrown around a lot in English-language philosophical debate with regard to Confucianism and Confucian political-philosophical ideals is ‘meritocracy’. The reason one sees the term in Western discourse so often with regard to Confucianism is largely hermeneutic. It comes to us from the translations of Confucian texts, their importation into a non-Chinese context, and their interpretation by French Enlightenment philosophes (like Voltaire) who wanted to wield a humanistic interpretation of Confucianism as a blunt instrument against the aristocratic norms of the ancien régime. The problem with such an interpretation, of course, is that it selects certain aspects of the Confucian tradition, plucks them out of their proper contexts and tries to reinterpret them in a way which clouds or destroys outright their original meanings.

In Confucianism proper, the phrase which most strongly suggests meritocracy, and the passage from which the Confucian ideal of ‘meritocratic’ appointment springs, comes from the Book of Documents: 「任官惟賢材,左右惟其人。」 (‘Let the officers whom you employ be men of virtue and ability, and let the ministers about you be the right men.’ This is the source of the modern Chinese idiom renren weixian 任人唯賢, often translated into English as ‘meritocracy’.) Now, what must be considered is that this passage comes out of the chapter 《咸有一德》, which was written by Yi Yin specifically to admonish a new king to cultivate his own virtue: to show compassion toward the people but not to seek their favour, to honour Heaven and his ancestors, to question himself and to renew himself daily. Yi Yin explains quite clearly what he means by ‘virtue and ability’: the ability in a minister to encourage the sovereign to conduct himself well, and the care to seek the good of the people below him: 「臣為上為德,為下為民。」 What we see from this is that classical Confucianism – that is to say, Confucianism as guided by the leading values and ethical priorities of the Five Classics – selects ‘the right men’ based on their virtuous conduct as persons. This is a very important point to remember.

Voltaire argued specifically, using an orientalist idealised ‘read’ of Confucianism as his prop and his poniard, against two ideas: that government is divinely mandated rather than rational; and that that government is best which is administered by hereditary right. The problem with citing the Book of Documents and the other Chinese Classics, like the Spring and Autumn Annals, as a support for the first idea, is that the will of August Heaven looms so large in them – and not, as Voltaire might have liked to imagine, as a detached Deistic watchmaker, but as a will and a force which shapes the fates of sovereigns and kingdoms in accordance with their virtue. The Mandate of Heaven is broadly attested throughout the entire Confucian canon.

And Confucianism as a support for the second idea is arguable but still somewhat problematic given the history. Looking at the Book of Documents in particular, three different chapters pose three different interpretations of how rule is legitimated. A broad range of interpretation is allowed for in the Classic: the Yaodian would seem to reject hereditary rule in favour of selecting a successor based on the will of Heaven alone, based on sage-king Yao’s handing of his kingdom to Shun; the Hongfan cautiously favours hereditary rule but warns the successor to uphold justice in his rule lest he be overthrown; and the announcements of the Duke of Zhou exhort young princes to take up their inheritances with filiality. In general, though, whenever it has gained ascendancy as the palace school, Confucianism has promoted a formal hereditary monarchy tempered by the ethical constraints laid by August Heaven on the person of the monarch.

Thus, it is incredibly unhelpful, inappropriate and even imperialistic to appropriate Confucianism as a philosophical buttress for what we Westerners tend to comprehend – or rather, what we don’t comprehend – in our ideal of meritocracy. Our vision of meritocracy is, in fact, rather more narrow. As Voltaire would certainly have approved, we have banished from our public realm any specific notion of the good, and have a tendency (as noted before) to treat moral excellence as something of a non-sequitur in government.

The modernist vision of meritocracy is a Weberian vision. What the government wants is someone with the right degrees, who has the skills, smarts and technical abilities to perform a specific task or range of tasks, as fits the job description. Teamwork is valued. Multi-tasking is valued. Calm under stress is valued. Fair play is valued – to a point. But compassion, justice, temperance, courage and prudence? The civil attitude appears to be: if you have ‘em, good for you; keep ‘em to yourself and don’t let ‘em get in the way. Excellence is measured on a utilitarian scale, not on a virtue-ethical one. The overriding question is: can you get results? Under such a vision, technical knowledge is ultimately prized and introspection and critical thinking fall to the wayside.

To understate: this is certainly not 任人唯賢 as Confucians down the ages would have understood it. But there is a classical Chinese model of meritocracy which is amenable to modernism, and that is from the Han Feizi, the founding text of the Legalist school. Han Fei, believing that all people are prone to lying, cheating and murder, and further that they will seek their own interests at public expense (an early articulation of rational choice theory?), advised rulers to ignore birthright and family ties, and to hand out rewards for ministers who could get results (功), and to be unsparing in punishing those who promised more than they could deliver:
故明君無偷賞,無赦罰。賞偷則功臣墮其業,赦罰則姦臣易為非。是故誠有功,則雖賤必賞;誠有過, 則雖近愛必誅。〔疏賤必賞〕,近愛必誅,則賤者不怠,而近愛者不驕也。

Thus the intelligent ruler neglects no reward and remits no punishment. For, if reward is neglected, ministers of merit will relax their duties; if punishment is remitted, villainous ministers will become liable to misconduct. Therefore, men of real merit, however distant and humble, must be rewarded; those of real demerit, however near and dear, must be censured. If both the reward of the distant and humble and the censure of the near and dear are infallible, the distant and humble will not go idle while the near and dear will not turn arrogant.
Modern meritocratic norms thus share far more in common with Han Fei’s vision than they do with Confucius’s. Meritocrats have tended to adopt wholesale the Legalist idea that ‘private’ virtues are at best unrelated, and at worst inimical, to good government. Likewise, the modern meritocrat has in mind the ideal of the ‘practical man’: by which they mean a man schooled in business, economics, mathematics or the hard sciences. Just as Han Fei distrusted and scoffed at those who read old books, and just as Qin Shihuang sentenced lettered scholars to be buried alive, so too in our days the humanities are devalued.

Even more troublingly, modern Western meritocrats have at the centre of their worldview a massive lacuna, which prohibits them from sympathising with those who get left behind in the scrum for degrees and qualifications. The Confucian ideal is very clear about how it is incumbent on government to ensure that even the very poorest people should be adequately fed and clothed as suits their needs, and that a society could not be considered just whose people were unable to care for their aged parents and their young children. But modern meritocracy in its callous denuding of all moral right from the ‘unmeriting’ poor, draws alarmingly close to the Legalist attitude, that the misery of the people is deserved, and only troubling if it leads to an increased likelihood of revolt against the ruler.

Voltaire, though he claimed to be enamoured of Confucius and Confucian ideals, nevertheless in his one-sided, orientalist ‘read’ of Confucius (a read from which most modern Western scholars of Confucius seem to have yet to escape) set our modern society on a course parallel in many ways to that of Confucius’s most ruthless intellectual and political enemies. Confucian ‘meritocracy’ in actuality is more in line with what the classical Greek philosophers (such as Plato) meant by ‘aristocracy’, which in the original Greek form ἀριστοκρατία means ‘rule by (those possessing) excellence’, and ‘excellence’ in Confucian terms was taken to mean those who could demonstrate the five virtues, the most important of which is care (ren 仁) for one’s kin and for the society’s most vulnerable (children and the elderly). How far we are from such a goal!

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