24 July 2011

Confucius: he was who he was

One of my pet hates is the way in which some Western thinkers, such as Alan Watts and Friedrich Hayek, have attempted to pigeonhole traditional Chinese thought (such as the Daoist thinkers) into culturally-irrelevant categories (libertarianism / anarchism). Now it appears that one of Hayek’s disciples attempts to do the same to Confucius and his followers. I am not going to go into an exhaustive point-by-point rebuttal of Long here (his article being 70 pages in length!), only show where his methods are faulty and where he overlooks or misinterprets significant aspects of Confucian thinking.

I cannot fault Long’s choice of source material – he uses all of the Confucian Books, in addition to Xunzi, the Shiji and the Yantielun (the only one at which I had to raise an eyebrow; why this specific instance and not some other early example of Confucian-Legalist debate?). It would be wise, though, to accord to the Lunyu and then to the other three Books (Daxue, Zhongyong and Mengzi) preferential treatment, as they are the primary foundation for all subsequent practical Confucian thought, particularly after Zhu Xi. However, I do take issue both with Long’s imperial hermeneutic of Chinese philosophy, setting libertarian (specifically Hayekian) thinking as the standard against which they ought to be judged, and with the way in which he selectively quotes them in translation in such a way as to make it sound as though they support libertarian concepts and modes of thinking. To do Long justice, I think he does have a few good points about where libertarian and early Confucian social philosophy tend to overlap. They are as follows:

  1. Confucian attitudes toward the military and toward imperial expansion. Long does a fairly good job of detailing Mengzi’s dim view of territorial expansion; later Confucian scholars like Ban Gu would expand on these early anti-militarist sentiments in their social thought. By the time of the Song Dynasty, you even had the Confucian- and possibly Buddhist-inspired aphorism ‘好铁不打丁,好汉不当兵’ (‘Good iron isn’t needed for nails, nor good men for soldiers’).

  2. Confucian attitudes toward punishment. Confucius himself in one of the most famous passages of the Lunyu describes the behaviour of people who are led by harsh punishments rather than by example: ‘子曰:道之以政,齐之以刑,民免而无耻。道之以德,齐之以礼,有耻且格。’ (‘The Master said, if the people be led by laws and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame and moreover will become good.’ Lunyu 2.3 – sorry about the Legge translation…)

    However, I think it is more appropriate to say that the Confucian attitude toward punishment has more in common with the rehabilitative tradition in Christian leftist thinking than with libertarianism. There is an emphasis on the correcting and transforming potential of virtue, particularly that of what the Catholics call caritas and what the Confucians call 仁, which is notable for its absence from almost all of libertarian thought.

  3. Individual accountability for actions. Once again, Long details some of the ways in which Confucians attempted to insist on holding individuals rather than entire families responsible under the law, as opposed to the Legalist punishment of 族. One sees examples of this individual accountability also in the Lunyu (6.4), where Confucius defends Zhonggong from charges that his father was a man of bad character by saying, ‘犁牛之子锌且角,虽欲勿用,山川其舍诸?’ (‘If the calf of a plough-ox is red and horned, even though men will not want to use it, will even the mountains and the rivers put it aside?’)

However (and this is relevant given the above quote), I think Long descends into some fairly tendentious hermeneutical misuses of Confucian writing when he tries to use quotes to establish an affinity with libertarianism on the subject of ‘spontaneous order’. It would be ridiculous, firstly, from an historical-critical point of view for Confucius to defend such a concept – he was living, after all, in an age of near-anarchy! Reading the texts themselves on their own terms, for Confucius and his followers, order is not something that springs forth out of nowhere. Order is not something that springs forth out of social conditions oriented to the individual pursuit of profit (what is referred to as 利 in Confucian literature), which is what libertarians mean by the concept of ‘spontaneous order’, but in Confucianism order is always, always something which springs forth out of social conditions oriented to the cultivation of virtue (德) whose end is justice (义).

Given the above, there are several other points at which Confucianism stands in direct opposition to libertarian (and more specifically Hayekian) concepts, conceits and policy prescriptions.

  1. Confucian attitudes toward government in general. The Confucians actually tended to be fairly paternalistic in their conception of government, viewing it as an analogous extension of the family unit (see the main text of the Daxue below). Though it could be argued that they wanted devolution of power ultimately to family units (which would overlap with some strands of libertarian thinking), it is more appropriate to characterise the Confucian view of power as evolutionary. As the Daxue makes plain, one must attend to the root to ensure the branches are healthy – this does not mean, however, that the branches are not needed in caring for the whole plant.

  2. Confucian attitudes toward civil service specifically. This one actually ought to be a no-brainer, and indeed Long’s attempt to establish a Confucian affinity with libertarianism in its disdain for civil service turns out to be pretty flimsy. Of course Sima Qian is going to be critical of civil servants who abuse their offices and behave dishonestly, but that does not translate into being critical of civil servants in general! In the Lunyu (6.6) Confucius commends three of his disciples (Zhongyou, Ci and Qiu) to civil service on account of Zhongyou’s judgement, Ci’s intelligence and Qiu’s ability, and Confucius frequently advises his students on practical matters concerning government; it would be a dire mistake therefore to assume Confucius shared the libertarian scorn for government officials!

  3. Confucian attitudes toward the merchant class. Long is correct that there was a definite divide among Confucian thinkers as to how much respect merchants ought to be accorded, but he only outlines (very briefly) the attitudes of Sima Qian and Xunyu, completely ignoring other influential Confucian thinkers like Ban Gu, who defended his construction of the Four Occupations (仕农工商) by asserting that the scholars and civil servants (仕) were those who studied and transmitted literature and culture (文) and thus had the highest rank, while the farmers (农) produced food and thus deserved the second highest rank, and the artisans (工) merely added value to raw materials and thus deserved the third highest rank. However the merchants (商) only traded goods and did not add value, thus they deserved the lowest rank. It is possible, however, that Long excluded Ban from his analysis because he did not consider his Confucianism ‘pure’ enough, as he came well after Sima Qian.

    Such considerations aside, however, Confucius himself (as well as Mencius) held a very dim view of the profit motive, considering it one of the marks of the 小人 (petty human being, lacking in virtue).

  4. Confucian attitudes toward distribution of wealth. Now here, there is much that Long leaves out from his analysis, which is mainly limited to a rather one-sided discourse on Mencius’ well-field system. Firstly, he completely ignores the concept of sufficiency, which is central to Confucian political thought. Confucius was no radical egalitarian, of course, but he nonetheless recognised the need for distributive structures which would aid the poor (which libertarians reject in an almost knee-jerk reaction). These were to establish a level of sufficiency of food and arms among the people (足食足兵), which Confucius saw as two of the requisites of government (Lunyu 12.7; the third and most vital being trust in civil authority). When Confucius heard that Qiu was using his post to bleed the poor of his county in order to benefit an extravagantly wealthy family, he denounced Qiu and instructed his other disciples to ‘beat the drum and assail him’ (11.16). The commentary by Zengzi on Confucius’ Daxue (10.9) makes it clear that ‘the accumulation of wealth is the way to scatter the people; and letting wealth be scattered among them is the way to collect the people’. There are, in addition, numerous references to the 君子’s duty to uplift and nourish the poor, often in the context of good governance (Lunyu 5.15 and 6.2, for example).

    Likewise, Mencius had zero use for governments which cared more for the personal property of the wealthy than for the welfare of people on the bottom rungs of the social ladder, calling such governance 兽而食人 (leading on beasts to eat men, Liang Hui Wang Shang, 1.2).

  5. Confucian respect for empirical observation and scientific inquiry. Here Long basically hangs on a very thin thread stemming from a rather contorted reading of Xunzi to establish an affinity with the Hayekian so-called ‘praxeology’ (by which the Hayekian system rejects empirical observation in favour of subjective axioms). However, the Confucians actually placed a very high value on the empirical examination of things (格物) as evidenced in the primary text of the Daxue: ‘古之欲明明德於天下者,先治其国;欲治其国者,先齐其家;欲齐其家者,先修其身;欲修其身者,先正其心;欲正其心者,先诚其意;欲诚其意者,先致其知;致知在格物。’ (‘The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue in the world first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lies in the investigation of things.’)

    It would be a mistake to claim that Xunzi would discount empirical observation even though he claims that a sage would measure others by his own measure – it would require, in fact, an imperial Western hermeneutic which determines the affairs of nature to be qualitatively separate from the affairs of men. In Confucian thought (even Xunzi), as in Daoist thought, all are interdependent, even man and nature – there is no support for the dualistic, even solipsistic ‘praxeology’ of Austrian School economics to be found here.

It is always best, I believe, to discuss a work of philosophy on its own terms, rather than attempting to shoehorn it, like one of Aschenputtel’s elder sisters, into one’s preconceived pet theories. That’s what I’ve always found, anyway. On their own terms, Confucians did have a high respect for government (though, like most contemporary supporters of government, a superlative distaste for its misuse) and its potential for cultivation of virtue. They were not fond of punitive laws or taxes, but they also felt that the wealth gap was indication of moral failure, and were not averse to redistribution of property.

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